My vehicle: Landy Dormobile conversion
HOME FAR FROM HOME: The Wackernagels setting up camp in western Zambia.
Nadine Thomson - DriveOut
Is there another one out there? This unique Land Rover conversion has survived for almost 37 years and has travelled more than 310 000km, criss-crossing Africa many times. And as far as Joachim Wackernagel knows, his is the only one in South Africa.
My love affair with a Dormobile Land Rover began more than 38 years ago … in Morocco.
I could not believe my eyes: In the bustling Arab market in front of the old city gate of Meknes there was a Land Rover with German number plates and an oddly shaped tent instead of the usual aluminium roof. Inside a German couple was busy cooking. “German ingenuity?” I asked, while taking photographs of their colourful surroundings. “Nein, englisches Dormobile!” was the answer.
Later I contacted Dormobile in Folkstone, England, and studied their pamphlets. After a year, when my company offered me a transfer from Vienna to Johannesburg, my wife suggested we do the trek through Africa with … you guessed it, a new Dormobile.
The Series III Land Rover with a six-cylinder petrol engine had just been introduced and I ordered this model, complete with the Dormobile conversion, for the then princely sum of £2560, including many extras such as oil cooler, heavy-duty springs and shocks.
ALL CHANGE: The PVC canopy and bunk bed covers were replaced about five years ago - after 32 years!
The 109 Land Rover was collected in Britain in 1974 and driven to Vienna where I added numerous modifications for the trek through Africa. The indispensable roof rack, for example, had to be much shorter than usual to allow for the conversion roof to open.
With our kids we then drove to Johannesburg, from where we went on numerous safaris to Botswana, the then South West Africa, Ethiopia, East Africa, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and, of course, through South Africa.
The six-cylinder engine wasn’t just very thirsty (up to 40 litres/100 km) in low-range and on difficult sandy Sahara tracks but its exhaust valves also overheated. After 22 years (and with only 90 000 miles on the clock) I was so fed up with its fuel consumption and often-blown exhaust valves that I ordered a new 110 Defender station-wagon with a Tdi 300 diesel engine in 1995. One of the best decisions I've yet made.
The Dormobile conversion had proved itself over the years in dust, rain, snow and one ice to such an extent that I decided to transplant the canopy from the old 109 to the 110. I parked the vehicles next to each other and this was where they remained for six months while I attacked the brand-new 110 Tdi with a hacksaw.
THIS IS: The caption.
After carefully cutting into the roof, the frame of the original hatch was welded and riveted in place.
Cutting out the roof lining, fixing the two collapsible top beds, transplanting the glass-fibre roof, moving the gas stove and bottles and replacing a metal cupboard with an Engel fridge proved to be rather time-consuming.
Much to my regret, the 110’s bucket front seats and bench seats could not be used as the original reclining Dormobile seats (forming the two lower beds) had to be used.
[The Defender 110’s interior after the Dormobile conversion of the Series III was transferred to it in 1995.] [The PVC canopy roof and top beds of the original Dormobile were replaced with new ones in 2005]
The Dormobile conversion has the following advantages over the various South African rooftop-tent versions:
• You can stand upright in your Land Rover.
• To climb into your “upstairs” bunks, you don’t have to leave the car (important during heavy downpours).
• You aren’t separated from the rest of your belongings in the car at night.
• You can draw the curtains and cook in the vehicle, even while it is surrounded by folk from the local village.
• The lower fully-reclining front and rear seats form completely flat beds comparable to any superior beds in Business Class!
However, travelling in this configuration on long trips with four adults in such limited space is rather stressful – two adults with two small children (as we crossed the continent and travelled often in earlier years) being the bearable limit.
Still nicer is travelling as a couple, when one upper bunk bed can be used as storage space at night.
And guess who convinced him
This might sound as if I had a commercial interest in the Dormobile venture right from the beginning. Sadly, Dormobile folded some time after 1976 and the brand was only revived in recent years when another company in Southampton (England) began selling these conversions, based on the original idea and measurements.
This allowed me to replace the PVC canopy and bunk bed covers some five years ago - after 32 years!
Since my “transplant operation” in 1995 I've driven the Dormobile for another 163 000km. Hence the original Dormobile parts (glass-fibre roof top, reclining lower seats and kitchen) have travelled more than 320 000km in 37 years, criss-crossing Africa many times.
With so few Dormobiles around in Africa, I wonder whether there are any here in South Africa?
Whereas we spotted a few in North Africa in the 1970's, it was only in Johannesburg in the 1980's that we ever saw another such conversion, obviously also driven from Europe to South Africa.
One further exception was when we went on an East African safari in 2006 with a friend who shipped his Dormobile to Cape Town.
Guess who had earlier convinced him to convert his Land Rover to a Dormobile with the latest kit from Southampton?