Forty years ago, in 1983, a couple of young guides set out into the wilds of Botswana with a few tents and an intrepid attitude to form the company that we know today as Wilderness.
Their vehicle of choice? One of only 3,000 Land Rovers built in South Africa for the British military in the 1970s. Sun-damaged and weathered, but never used, the vehicle was sold to our founders at an army auction for a measly ZAR1,200.
Completely gutted and converted with salvaged reclining seats, a cork floor, a seat height such that two cases of beer could be packed underneath, and plenty of additional sealed storage, the vehicle was used for Wilderness’ first-ever mobile camping safaris. “It provided a dust-free ride. Like sitting in your living room,” says co-founder, Chis McIntyre.
Along the way, they even designed, made, and patented a special die to extrude rubber moulding for the windows. Originally the vehicle was painted white but this soon changed to a light Kalahari sand colour to match the environment.
The first year in Botswana went so well that every following year they rebuilt two more vehicles, until the fleet reached 12. Later, as Wilderness grew way beyond what anyone originally dreamed possible, these vehicles were replaced with more modern, efficient technology (with fewer oil leaks) and the old Land Rovers sold off to the general public.
Fast forward many years, and one of the old Wilderness Land Rovers was discovered in a scrapyard, where it had been cut up for scrap metal. This sparked a search for our very first vehicle, which Ryno Verster eventually found living out its golden years in a small yard in Maun.
We swiftly bought it, and transported it back to the office (no mean feat with no engine or gearbox). And so, a new gutting and converting process began. A vehicle that once led our first-ever mobile trip through Zimbabwe from Victoria Falls to Mana Pools, our first ornithological trip attracting many well-known and well-heeled naturalists, and our first full-service safari with chef and hostess, now sits at the Wilderness Maun office – where it all began in 1983 – as their new bar. Thanks to all the designers and innovators involved in making this happen – certainly no mean feat!
In rebuilding the vehicle, we discovered a hidden gem that was mounted to the original plywood bookshelf installed for Chris M’s guide books – a small red (very weathered over the years) cash box. In the dust a small sticker revealed Chris’s father’s address where they first built the vehicle! It was carefully stuck back in the little red box and mounted back into the vehicle on a new bookshelf made to replicate what was there before.
In true Wilderness style, the last coat of varnish went on 30 minutes before the first set of thirsty guests arrived for our Botswana 40-year celebration – a unique cocktail evening laden with gourmet gastronomy and plenty of memories!