Having finally got to the bottom of the core problems behind my vehicle’s underlying juddering within the transmission – and solved them – I headed out with two friends, David “Streaky” Chambers and Manuel Schmidt in their Y61 Patrol LWB and Defender SWB respectively, for an eight day tour of Oman during Ramadan. Though the temperatures were already in the mid Forties, our plan was to camp at altitude whenever possible, and when on Masirah Island, stay on what we hoped would be the cooler beach. I of course could enjoy the benefits of the air conditioning I’d had installed in my KrugXP cabin but with Streaky and Manuel sleeping in roof tents, they were determined to find cooler air!
Things didn’t work out quite that way on Masirah though; the winds were howling at 20 to 30kmh – which played havoc with my top speed when driving into wind – so we found a secluded wadi to camp in instead. Where I promptly slipped and stumbled down a 20 foot rock face and very nearly did myself a very nasty injury. But don’t panic – I saved my Canon 5D III camera and 24-70 L lens from certain death by landing on my elbow instead. And people say I don’t know my elbow from my…… This, just two days after setting fire to my brake pads driving down Jebel Shams. And yet, we all got through it unscathed, for which we thank our lucky stars…
Here’s a few more photos for now, look out soon for a couple of videos recalling our adventures.
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.
A few months ago I realised that it would make sense if I was to go out and get my motorcycle license. In Africa, sooner or later I was likely to want to rent or borrow a motorcycle, either to join a group of biking travelers for a day or two, or simply because there might be one I could borrow to nip into the nearest town or city. That’s got to be easier than driving a seven metre long truck into town, when all I want to pick up is some provisions, or a visa for example.
So I booked up for lessons at a school in Dubai near my office. Frankly the eight hours of ‘lectures’ I had to attend were truly awful, with training videos obviously stolen from both UK and Australian training schemes (so the vehicles were on the other side of the road to the way we drive in Dubai – very helpful if you are just learning!) one video taken from a UK comedy show (No, I am not joking) which was full of obscene, profane language from start to finish (it was supposed to highlight the dangers of driving when angry….go figure) , an instructor whose English was so poor I could barely understand him – despite the fact that this was the “lessons in English” class – and instructions for road use which were downright dangerous, stupid and just plain wrong!
Having taken the subsequent ‘Knowledge Test’ I was then entitled to learn to ride, and I’m sorry to say that with only very limited advice (ha!) from my instructors, I was a bit slow on the uptake. Specifically my clutch control just wasn’t very subtle – I guess 35 years of using my left foot to control the clutch had not left me with much finesse when it came to using my left hand instead. Still I eventually got the hang of it and passed the two handling skills test and the road test first time, so was finally able to add Motorcycle to my Light Vehicle and Heavy Truck licenses.
But I know that obtaining a license is NOT the same as learning to ride – it’s just the first step, so the first thing I did once I’d passed my test was to sign up for some off road riding lessons. My work as the official photographer to the Emirates Desert Championship means that I’d plenty of contacts with the MotoX riding community here, so I contacted Sam Smith of Big Red Motorsports and asked him for four hours of one to one instruction. You’ll see from the video just how I coped – the difference between my first few minutes of nervous riding, and my belting through rough tracks and the dunes just 90 minutes later, is clear to see.
My Thanks to Sam Smith, but also to my business partner Ian Barker for the loan of his Go Pro camera, and to Graeme Chart, my drumming tutor, who put together the great music track you’ll here on this, and all future videos I make for this page.