You know how Land Rover ads are usually set in some locale that looks like an Indiana Jones movie set? In real life, the most perilous place you tend to see one is a “compact car only” parking space. So we had to find out if the new Land Rover Discovery could hang on an epic expedition across Peru.
(Full disclosure: Land Rover put me in a business class seat from Los Angeles to Lima and took care of my significant food, housing and fuel costs for a week. During the trip I was looked after by the company’s professional people handlers who very friendly so long as I adhered to their strictly prescribed schedule. I was in the company of a few other journalists, tour guides, and people who were on the trip as a prize for having won an off-roading contest.)
The short story here is that the redesigned-for-2017 Land Rover Discovery is fine, Peru is one of the prettiest places on the planet to drive and guinea pig is awful to eat. But I learned a lot about overlanding on our week in the sand, mountains and jungle. Mainly that the easiest way to do it is to get somebody to pay somebody else to do all the dirty work, but don’t worry, we still managed to have a good time.
Overlanding is a fun fragment of car culture that’s thriving right now. Perhaps you’ve seen it depicted as pretty people posing next to muddy trucks on Instagram? The nerds would describe it as “extreme vehicle-based adventure travel.” Haters might say “glorified car camping.” But the basic idea is hard to argue against: do a trip, a long trip, somewhere interesting, in a cool vehicle that’s loaded with toys. Or “mission critical accessories.” Whatever.
Of course, regardless of where you’re going, the most critical accessory is the people you have to put up with. Especially when the trip is a solid week of 10-hour driving days.
You couldn’t call the cast of this Land Rover Experience Tour, as it was officially known, “diverse” since we all pretty much looked exactly like the people you’d expect to be on a corporate funded high-speed safari: middle-aged white dudes with money or rich friends. I was just stoked for an excuse to be taken seriously in my epaulette’d khaki shirt.
That burned off as soon as I caught glimpse of myself in the Discovery’s muddy rear-view mirror and realized, it didn’t matter how many buttons I undid... There was no way to wear that thing without looking like a dipshit.
My compatriots either didn’t notice or were too nice to say anything, though. Most of them happily donned the Land Rover-provided attire that was branded to matched the vehicles we were driving. The U.S., England, Peru, Italy, Russia and Germany were all represented. Between guides and guests, we were rolling about 50 folks deep. A handful were exceedingly memorable.
Travis Geske, a young American guy, made a big impression by missing the last train out of Machu Picchu and inexplicably finding his way back to the group on the first day of the trip. He had a weird Hawaiian shirt habit that made him look like an associate of Pablo Escobar’s, though I learned he was actually a drone pilot there to shoot video for Outside Magazine.
I learned a lot more about him over the course of the week, since we spent five consecutive 10-hour driving days in the same Land Rover, but we really bonded over taunting the Germans in charge of the trip.
Fredrick Hammerschmidt, the group’s official doctor, was the most obnoxiously organized, capable and orderly individual I’ve ever met. It didn’t matter if we were slogging through mud or sand or sleet, the guy emerged from his vehicle immaculate and clean cut from dawn ’til dusk. Geske and I railed on him over the VHF radios relentlessly until we became friends.
The last Land Rover Discovery and its three predecessors always rocked a cool combination of rugged and regal design, which is of course exactly the point of this car.
Tragically, the today’s fifth-gen Discovery has been stripped of such distinctiveness. As a result of Land Rover’s quest to appeal to the masses, the current Disco can be mistaken for Any Other SUV. That’s why, if you want people to know you’re on an adventure, you’ve got to strap the thing up with a roof rack and a few pounds of decals.
I’m actually not kidding. Our fleet of almost 20 Discoverys, dressed in the trappings of a spendy adventure, looked cool as hell anywhere we parked them. Especially once there were some brush scars and a few days of road rind over all those war emblems.
We ran 3.0-liter gas-powered Discoverys rated at 340 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque. A two-speed transfer case with low range, height-adjustable air suspension and retractable roof glass were the most interesting options. Besides those features and a console-mounted radio, the cockpit of our vehicle was pretty nondescript.
Running aggressive Goodyear all-terrain tires, the SUVs were nothing but calm and composed and easy to drive. While my old Discovery 1 would huff up hills and list around corners like an old pirate ship, this new one just glides. Today’s Discovery may not be all that full of character, but it most definitely is competent and that counts for a lot when you want to drive off the edge of the map without getting uncomfortable.
In fact, the only thing resembling a breakdown that we had in our whole fleet was caused by a particularly enthusiastic pilot launching their Disco off a cliff of sand... more on that later.
Overlanding is, without a doubt, a realm of the geardo. There are so many gadgets and gimmicks to saddle your adventure machine with that you could probably double its curb weight if you bought everything in the ad pages of Overland Journal.
That’s not to say the toys aren’t fun. I mean, I have a shovel and recovery kit and flag stickers on my International Scout and I can’t afford the gasoline it’d take to drive beyond the Los Angeles county line.
But my experience with the Land Rover folks proved to me that the best way to build your loadout anyway is to go on an all-expenses-paid safari and let somebody else take care of the snacks and racks and tools and technology.
Just kidding, of course. Kind of. If you are in fact setting up to set off on a driving adventure of your own, Overland Journal really does have a comprehensive packing list that will cover all your bases. I’d say the shortest version of a legit overland packing list includes zip-ties, tape, a rechargeable headlamp, Leatherman-type multitool and your favorite can koozie. But there were a few key accouterments our Discos did have that I now no longer want to drive cross country without:
- Dog cage. Sure, it would have been more fun to bring actual dogs along. But the cage partition between the cargo area and the rear seats proved to be a really useful organizational tool. It kept giant, rolling items like tents and bedrolls from creeping into the passenger cabin and made it much easier to keep the inside of the Discovery neat.
- Powered fridge. Ice isn’t always that easy to find, and the last thing you want at the end of a 10 hour drive is a warm beer. If you’re really going to be off the grid for a couple days, an aftermarket fridge makes a world of difference in the quality of food you can carry. Make sure you need it, though- a good one is like $1,000 and eats half your cargo capacity.
- Baby wipes. Not just for babies and tender butts, these also clean the soft-touch panels of a Land Rover’s interior very nicely.
Our fast-moving snake of Land Rovers moved from the vast and deep sands of Peru’s Pisco region to the cold and craggy mountains adjacent to the Andes, then back down into hot, wet jungle. The tracks we followed took us from cities to towns to settlements tucked high into mountain cracks.
In The Sand
Driving through soft stuff usually involves making your tires a little flat, maintaining momentum, reading terrain and for the love of all that’s holy don’t stop halfway up a steep hill.
Ground clearance, four-wheel drive and big power help immensely in such situations. Of which the Land Rover has... some.
The Discovery’s V6 had to be whipped hard to propel the vehicle over the bigger rises in the Paracas Desert, but it got the job done. The advanced traction control system’s “sand mode” allowed for a little wheel slip which kept the power coming, and the adjustable air shocks in the raised position helped us make crests without dragging the Land Rover’s chin in the sand.
That said, when air suspension lifts a vehicle it also uses up a great deal of its shock-absorbing abilities. That means you’re in for a rough ride if you cover corrugations at an aggressive clip. And when you’re in the middle of a wasteland with no street signs or speed limits, it’s hard to resist putting the hammer down.
So hard, in fact, that one of the other drivers we barely knew went sailing off a hill that was apparently bigger than they thought, forcing the Discovery to faceplant itself in the sand. There was minimal body damage and no air bag deployment, but part of the cooling system was left behind. Lucky for us, Land Rover’s team brought a spare and an expert mechanic who dug himself a pit below the injured car and set to work while the rest of us tested the limits of our air conditioning systems.
In The Mountains
I still have a hard time accepting a Land Rover Discovery as a canyon-carver, especially on all-terrain tires, but the new Disco can dance. It’s flat, it’s stable, it can carry speeds way beyond your comfort zone around hairpin cliffside turns.
But even if we’d been driving Bugatti Veyrons, I don’t think vehicle behavior could have been half as interesting as the green expanses we looked out on and valleys we dropped into.
I’m so sorry my pictures can’t do the valleys near Concepción justice—it was like rolling into an infinitely expansive zen garden and our wheels were the rake. The place was almost completely devoid of life besides a few bands of roving llamas, but was still palpably teeming with natural energy.
I could have spent days looking around and taking pictures. Unfortunately we had a schedule to be on and got snapped at for pulling over, in case you’re wondering why most of my images look like they were taken from a moving car.
Nevertheless, scenes like this are the ends to justify spending an immense amount of money on vehicles and fuel. You can appreciate this stuff through the window of a commercial jet or a computer screen, but being in the middle of it is nothing short of stirring stirring.
In The Jungle
Deserts have felt like home to me for as long as I can remember. Which is weird, because I’m a preppy dork boy from the Boston subburbs and didn’t see a desert until I was 14, but there’s something about the dry air and wispy sand that feels relaxing. And clean. It’s why I thrived doing adventure tours in the Aussie Outback.
A jungle is the hot, wet opposite. There is constant noise from weather and animals. Everything is slathered in a layer of sogginess, and as soon as you open the door of your Land Rover you’re caked in mud and staining the armpits of your khaki shirt.
The key to enjoying such conditions is, of course, to embrace them. Your jeans are a write-off. Nobody will notice what you smell like. Undo another shirt button, why not.
Let the sweat and slop roll off you and just look around. Ideally, drive slow so you don’t scare any animals.
As I’ve mentioned, our Land Rover convoy was hauling hard enough to be heard for miles. So by the time we got to the bottom of the forest, even the sloths had time to get well clear of us.
At least the puddles couldn’t escape. And I can promise you- splashing in a real jungle is way more fun than doing it in some gross carnival parking lot like we usually get for off-road photo ops.
What We Learned
If you like natural beauty, Peru needs to be on your bucket list.
We did a whole lot of seat time for a single week, but we also saw an unbelievable diversity of geography and I’ll still go back in a heartbeat if I ever get the chance.
I’m sold on the overland life too, and convinced now more than ever that a road trip is the best way to see a place. That said, to get the most of out of the experience you’ve got to slow down and smell the flowers. Ideally, literally.
Pull over. Talk to people. Try the food.
If you charge through life at highway speed with the windows rolled up, you might as well just look at somebody else’s pictures. And if you do it with a squadron of shiny Land Rovers, you might feel a little like a caricature of imperialism on wheels.
But I have to admit that the stickered-up Discovery looked the part, and played it perfectly too. The vehicle was pretty much unfazed by water crossings and soft sand and slippery climbs. And my butt had no issues spending a full work day in the seat, every day, for five straight days. If you so desire, the Disco really can be the climate controlled cocoon of luxury in the middle of anywhere. Or nowhere.
Whatever, I’ll take the slow lane and leave the windows down anyway.