1991 Land Rover Defender 110 200 tdi, 2-door
Ghosts Of Heat
Mention Spain to an American, and they probably think "hot and sunny." And that's true in a lot of places, but by no means all of them. Much of the north, the Pyrenees, the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia... they're known far more for their cold and rain than they are for their heat and sun. If parts of the south and center of Spain look and feel like Arizona, parts of the north definitely look and feel more like Scotland. It's to Spain's great credit. It brings something wonderful to life here, namely the ability to change your scenery in just a few short hours driving. Not always just your scenery, either. Your climate, culture, and sometimes even your predominant language. If the blazing heat of summer in the south gets you down, heading a few hours north for some cool-weather walks in the mountains will straighten you out. Winter too cold and rainy up north? No worries. Take a few days in Malaga where the beach weather is guaranteed to be substantially warmer and the sun is guaranteed to be substantially stronger. Sure, you can do the same thing in the USA, but the distances are more vast, and therefore the effect minimized. In Spain everything is more condensed, and you can be in an entirely different area in what feels like no time. It's magical. Almost like being able to teleport.
Unfortunately, I wouldn't be heading north to escape the heat this summer. I'd be heading south, to Andalucia. One of the hottest areas of Spain. In August.
For the journey in question I left the Lancia at home and borrowed my mother-in-law's Lexus instead, ice cold air conditioning and cruise control seeming far more important to me than back road fun, and it wasn't long before I began to feel extraordinarily good about that decision. Leaving Javea at a steamy 32 degrees (90 fahrenheit), I watched the dashboard thermometer climb as I headed south in climate controlled comfort, to 34 by Murcia and 36 as I made my way inland across the vast, Andalucian province. By the time I was nearing Jaen it was reading a resolute 40, a full 104 degrees fahrenheit.
My destination was the small town of Monte Lope-Alvarez, a pueblo of less than 800 inhabitants, west of the city of Jaen. The highway gets you into the area, and the smaller, national roads get you closer, but the final run into the town is nearly 30 kilometers of broken single track through endless expanses of olive trees. There were times, to be sure, I started to question the veracity of my GPS's assurances.
When I finally arrived in Monte Lope-Alvarez, the thermometer in the Lexus was reading 42 degrees, a number echoed by digital thermometer on a sign in front of the only bank in town. That's more than 107 fahrenheit. I eased down the main road through the small town, and saw the normal sights of a remote Spanish pueblo. A few bars, a few stores of various types, even a co-operative when local growers could press and sell their olive oil. As I was a shade early for my appointment, I kept driving around, just checking the place out. Monte Lope-Alvarez is a lovely, charming, and obviously very old town, with everything I would expect to find. Cars parked here and there, houses, apartments, parks, benches... everything except people.
It was five or ten minutes before I realized it. There were no people anywhere. No people sitting in cafes. No people walking the streets. No people looking out of windows. No people at all. It was bizarre. Like a movie. Blazing sun unsullied by clouds, withering heat, a lovely little town, but not a soul to be seen. I called my wife and told her my impressions, and her response was dry and instant:
"I've never heard of an Andalucian dying of heat stroke," she said. "No one knows more about surviving heat than they do. Think about it. It's 42 degrees out. It's 2:00pm - the hottest part of the day. Would you be out walking the streets? There are people there, believe me. They just aren't stupid enough to be outside."
Odd Place For A Surf Wagon...
I met my friend Andres and we headed to the back of town. Down past the school and up a narrow, twisting street to a row of long warehouse garages. The owner, a robust man in his late 30's named Antonio, joined us there, and swung open one of the doors. Inside was the Defender.
The first thing I noticed was a huge decal on the engine cover, circular, with a silhouetted surfer in the center and the words "CALIFORNIA SINCE 1952" around the circumference.
"Are you a surfer?" I asked, smiling. It was a bit of a joke. We were standing in a dusty, Andalucian town mired in the center of tens of millions of square meters of olive trees.
"Yes," he replied, seriously. He turned and pointed to the vehicle he had arrived in, and I saw the the tail of a board sticking out of the rear window. A thruster.
"Really? I asked, incredulously.
"Yes," he said again. He clearly didn't find it unusual.
"Rock on," I muttered under my breath, and started looking over the truck.
Antonio stood by silently, watching me. Arms crossed across his chest. Extremely confident.
I poked around the chassis, and found no rust. No signs of serious leaks. No dents or damage to the chassis that would indicate heavy off road use. The body was battered and the interior worn, but nothing looked abused. The dampers were non-original and of good quality. The tires, larger than stock, were of good quality. I pulled open the air cleaner and found a newish OE Land Rover filter in place. Same for the oil filter. All very good signs. Everything pointed to a truck that had been owned by someone who used it, to be sure, but who understood proper maintenance and who avoided damage. Used, but not abused.
"It looks nice," I told Antonio. "Like it has been maintained."
"There is nothing wrong with it," he said simply. Again, supremely confident. "Take it anywhere, look at anything. It is a very good truck."
I climbed in and fired the engine, which started instantly, and I selected first and trundled out through town towards the olives. Leaving Monte Lope-Alvarez to the west, the roads turned to dirt, and the on a windless, blazingly hot day, the dust hung in the air behind the Land Rover for miles behind me. Like back in the town, no one was working in the fields. No one working the roads. No one hiking. And why would they be? Exercise in the middle of Andalucia on a 107 degree day is asking for trouble.
After several dozen kilometers, the road forked, and although the main route appeared to go left, I bent around to the right, onto a narrow track that looked to wind up into the dusty hills. The Defender was rollicking along nicely, with the torque of the engine and long-travel suspension allowing me to carry easy speed on the rough road. The gauges were all in the normal range, nothing was running hot or feeling strange, so I pressed on, higher and higher, up into the mountains. Through deep washouts which accommodate heavy rains (when they rarely come) the Land Rover dove down and through, the expansive approach and departure angles giving it plenty of capability, and once clear, it powered back out again with ease. Working the gearbox, letting the steering react to stones and ruts in the path, it's all part and parcel of tackling difficult terrain with a vehicle as tough as this one. "This is Land Rover country," I thought to myself. Defender country.
I eventually came to a section where the road seemed to end. Or, not end necessarily, but a section where the road was... interrupted. There was a wall of smallish rocks which pitched up at an incredibly steep angle, but only for a few meters, before it flattened out again and I could see the trail continued on up the mountain. It looked like a smallish wall of rocks that had slid down to form a terribly steep (and rough) ramp. I paused, and got out to walk it and see the obstacle first-hand. The heat was massive, truly withering, and although I didn't particularly like the look of the stones in front, I also didn't fancy the idea of reversing back down the steep trail to find a place where I could turn around. I figured I'd better give it a go.
Climbing back into the driver's seat, I shifted into four-wheel low range and made my first run at the rocks. When the nose pitched up all I could see was white sky, and there was a disconcerting moment where the stones underneath shifted, causing the Defender to slew sideways and pitch over, almost as if it might roll, but I kept my foot in it and the purchase stabilized. I could feel each wheel scrabbling for grip, and each spring reacting to the extreme irregularity of the surface, articulating up and down in a constant attempt to put power to the trail. Then, with a final push through, the nose tipped up and over the crest, and the real wheels followed suit, pitching the nose back down to where I could see where I was going.
I was right on the trail. Sweating profusely, but exactly where I needed to be.
Never doubt a Land Rover. And never shy away from adventure. These trucks can do almost anything, including make you feel alive. That's for sure.
On To Greener Pastures
Back in town, Antonio was waiting patiently. Arms still crossed. "You were gone a long time," he said calmly. "Everything okay?"
"Just fine," I told him. "I had a chance to check everything out." He smiled.
I paid him and we sorted the paperwork. "You will send this to the United States?" he asked.
"Make sure it goes to someone good. A good person. Someone who will take care of it."
"I'll do my best," I told him. "I'll try to find a surfer."
He grinned hugely. "A surfer, yes. Make sure it goes to a surfer."
It would be a good surf wagon, this truck. Tough and capable, good in sand and bad surfaces, but also big enough to carry long boards for as many friends as cared to pile inside. And enough coolers full of refreshment for afterwards. Plus, if the trail to the beach is washed out or blocked by a rock slide, you can just drive over it anyway and make the swell. You can reach the waves that others in lesser vehicles miss because they have to turn back.
Oh, and it already has the decal. Representing sliders from Andalucia. Olive grove surf culture.
Doesn't get much weirder or more wonderful than that.
(CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY)