A lot of people have questioned my choice of cabin colour for TTT over the last few months, with comments ranging from ‘when are you planning to put the top coat on’ to ‘it looks like a prison van’ – and a couple were less polite than that! However the simple reason I chose, what I agree is a fairly non-descript unobtrusive colour, is precisely BECAUSE it doesn’t stand out. The idea is that it just doesn’t draw attention to the vehicle, it hopefully will blend into a blur of delivery trucks and refrigerated vans on the road and doesn’t scream ‘look at me, I’m an overland truck full of camera gear and laptops”
For the same reason, I have decided not to decorate the cabin exterior with images of globes, African wildlife, compasses etc, as so many overlanders choose to do. For sure I can’t completely hide the fact that it’s a living cabin – any time I’m parked up in a town or outside a roadside café, that fact will be obvious to anyone walking by, but the aim is that when I’m driving down the road, even if TTT isn’t going to completely disappear, at least it won’t seek attention.
But that did leave me with a problem, namely that if TTT is to be my home for many years, I really wanted to personalise it in some way, ideally with some imagery which had meaning to me. I also wanted something which others might find of interest, maybe to strike up a conversation, or to distract an officious customs officer for long enough that he won’t bother inspecting the whole vehicle for an hour. So I hatched a plan to have a painting, inspired by a favourite photo of mine which I took of a male tiger in Ranthamhore India, in 2010, crafted onto the main door of TTT. Whenever I’m parked up at a campsite that door will be open much of the time, so I knew anything painted there would be highly visible.I am very lucky that I know – in fact, am related to – an incredibly talented wildlife artist by the name of Sophie Sorella, who is originally from the UK but now lives in Queensland Australia. Sophie spent two years traveling around Africa herself, and attended a wildlife painting masterclass in Ranthambhore several years ago, so I knew she would be the perfect artist to add a not just a splash of colour but a genuine work of art to my truck. By good fortune Sophie was traveling through Dubai on her way back to the UK recently, so in return for board, lodging, wine and unlimited swimming pool access, she kindly agreed to put her considerable skills to good use on TTT.
The original plan was to paint the door in situ, with the truck parked inside a warehouse (for shade) at my company office in Dubai. Although on Day 1 Sophie drew out the outline sketch there and started to add the first flourishes of colour, it soon became clear that in temperatures of 42C and at 90+% humidity, not only was Sophie suffering, but the acrylic paints she was using were drying almost instantly on the GRP surface, so she was unable blend colours or make the brush work for her the way she wanted.Clearly she couldn’t continue that way, so the following morning I removed the whole door, transported it to my house, and set it up on a temporary easel made from a folding ladder and a couple of bits of timber. Now Sophie could work in air conditioned comfort, and the paints started behaving themselves! After a total of 5 days of work (less a couple of dips in the pool and nights out on the vino), the amazing painting you see here, was complete. I am absolutely delighted with the image – if you think these photos of it look good, please trust me when I tell you that if you see it close up, the detail and intensity of the painting are even more phenomenal. It has already received a number of complements from my friends and I am quite sure will continue to do so as I travel. If you would like to see more of Sophie’s work, please go to her Etsy page here. In amongst the paintings of kookaburras and cockatoos, you’ll see that she also decorates a mean Texas Longhorn skull ! Incidentally, wildlife photographer and owner of the Ranthambhore Bhag hotel Aditya Singh, tells me that the subject of my photo / Sophie’s painting is a tiger formally identified as T-24 but known locally as ‘Ustaad’ which in Hindi means ‘guru’ or ‘teacher’, particularly of music. Ustaad was the first tiger I ever got truly close to, to photograph, and was clearly a beautiful, powerful presence in the Rathmbhore reserve. I was blessed to be able to see him in his natural habitat since five years later, Ustaad sadly killed four villagers, who were (probably) gathering firewood inside the reserve, which they are entitled to do, but clearly is not without its risks. Sadly Ustaad is now kept in an enclosure to prevent a recurrence, so I’ll just have to make sure his image enjoys plenty of freedom on my travels.