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Driving a Land Rover Discovery support car in Africa

Published: 09 February 2012

I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise to you, but the glorious white Jaguar XJ Supersports in which Andy Green and I did the first high-speed recce run on the Hakskeen Pan wasn’t the only car there that day. You might have read the story in the current, February issue of CAR. This dry lake bed in South Africa’s Northern Cape will be the setting for the world’s fastest man’s attempt to lift his record to 1000mph in his new, rocket-propelled Bloodhound car in 2013. But first, 24 million square metres of it has to be cleared of tiny stones. Enough has now been done for Andy to be able to drive on it at speed for the first time, so CAR helped out by meeting him there with the XJ.

But look at some of Mark Bramley’s stunning tracking shots in the magazine (all the pictures here are my amateur efforts) and it’s clear that they must have been shot from another car. We often use camera or support cars, and they seldom get a mention in the story as we want to keep the focus on the ‘hero’ car. But it’s pretty obvious that they’re there: just as it’s pretty obvious that when Bear Grylls stands on some high rocky promontory staring out into the distance in a wide shot, he isn’t enjoying a moment of quiet, solitary reflection but is being buzzed by a noisy chopper.

In this case, I’d like to acknowledge our support car: a Land Rover Discovery 4. It’s a privilege to drive a car in its natural habitat: a 911 GT3 at the Nurburgring, a Fiat 500 through Rome, or a Land Rover in Africa. I hadn’t driven the Disco since the engine and chassis revisions that came with the ‘4’ tag. My colleagues said its pace and handling were now right on the money: that it could barely be bettered as luxury family transport, and that all that counted against it were its size and weight and the mild social opprobrium that comes with big SUVs.

I agree. But those negatives simply don’t apply in the widescreen, deserted desert landscape of South Africa’s emptiest province. The Land Rover’s on-road dynamics meant Mark was never far behind the XJ on the long drive up to Hakskeen, and its improved economy meant the scarcity of fuel stations didn’t faze us: we brought spare jerry cans of avgas for the chopper we also used for photography, but not diesel for the Disco.

And of course we took it off road. We skived off for a day, parked the XJ at our lodge and took off into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles South Africa, Namibia and Botswana in the Disco. Preparation? Water and biltong, a map, and lower tyre pressures for the sandy tracks we’d be travelling over; that’s all. This is what I love about modern Land Rovers: the contrast between the calm, luxury and technology of the cabin, and the wild surroundings it will take you into, and more importantly, back out of. Apologies if I don’t sound objective, but you feel a little obliged to a car that takes you to within a few feet of lions, or herds of wildebeest, or bat-eared foxes and springbok, and delivers you back to your bed at the end of a long day, unfatigued and having never once making you wonder if it would start or get stuck when you were a very, very long way from anywhere. Maybe the Disco should have been our hero car.

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features

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