Feature

Kings of the Jungle

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What happens on a road trip with a pack of Land Rovers? Chiara de Castro tags along, and returns high on adrenaline and testosterone.

Photography by
Artu Nepomuceno
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“Holy shit! I should’ve gone.”


This was the message I received from my executive editor at 7 AM, in response to my status report: “Ten Land Rovers, two trailers. All Defenders, save for one Discovery. In a bulalo stall now, somewhere along Sampaloc Road in Rizal.”

I crossed the road to take a scenic photo and caught a full view of the sinewy bodies gleaming under the sun, as they stood on that dusty road with such casual nonchalance that could only be spelled out as B.A.M.F. On a sticker, slapped on their rear bumpers. How could I not Instagram that shit?

See, I was attempting to grasp all the fuss that was, literally, stopping traffic. I couldn’t comprehend the spectacle of having a stretch of dirt road occupied by not one or two—or even five—but ten of the largest and brawniest, yet utterly elegant, British bad boys you could ever chance upon in these parts. Aside from a couple of Defenders clad in Fuji White and Indus Silver, most of the convoy were Santorini Black or Orkney Grey; their dark, rugged exterior exuding a commanding presence, a quality rooted in the Land Rover’s military ancestry.

There’s something about this car that makes people stop in their tracks to ogle, even if it’s right in the middle of the Marikina-Infanta Highway. Heck, there must be something something about this car that drives people to do things that the average motorist wouldn’t even think of trying. But lest we forget, there is nothing average about the Land Rover. The GRID archives can back me up on this one: there has to be something about this car that makes a magazine write about it twice (see our first and ninth issues). And something tells me this third shot won’t be the last—despite our farewell to the Defender in 2015.

“It’s a Rover thing. You wouldn’t understand.” This smug statement taunted me everywhere; it’s on a t-shirt, for crying out loud. It was like a chant, a mantra, a psalm. For me, it was a challenge. To which I said, bring it on. I would take this great beast of steel by the horns, and ride it… from the passenger’s seat anyway.

THE DIRTY SOUTH CREW

In 2014, a group of Land Rover owners and enthusiasts got together, took a ride down a few beaten paths, had several rounds of beers, and gave a name to their band of auto brothers. The Dirty South Crew was born in, well, the south of Metro Manila (the villages of Parañaque and Alabang) where its members hail from.

In addition to the official Land Rover Club of the Philippines, there are several Land Rover clubs around the country, each belonging to a geographical homebase and subscribing to a particular brand of enthusiasm—a raison d’être, so to speak. For the youngish members of the Dirty South Crew, the reason is unabashedly simple: it’s all about the good times, baby. That and their unified love for the best 4x4xfar.

Over the last few years, the Dirty South boys have grown a tradition of escaping the concrete jungle for a day to conquer some rough trails (the rougher, the better), and capping it off with a camp site and cooler filled with beer.

The sky was still dark when I met Toti and his 2013 Defender Ninety at the Shell station across the Meralco Theater on Ortigas Avenue. As the black utility vehicle approached, I had my first full glimpse of the Defender’s good looks. I was caught off-guard by its unassuming demeanor as it slowed to meet me. There was no booming muffler roar, no amplified bass speaker vibrations, no special effects I’ve come to familiarize myself with on these crazy streets. Neither did it slink its way through the gas station, with the sleek swagger that only hotness of such caliber could pull off with minimal effort. Nope. With its sharp-edged features and broad shoulders pulled back, the Santorini Black Defender merely glanced at me through heavily tinted glass and quietly said, “Get in.” And I did.

Lest we forget, there is nothing average about the Land Rover.

I did not, however, gracefully slide in as I might’ve done in a low sedan: with an average height of 81in, a ground clearance of 12in, and a boot height of 45in, the Defender was not built for my clumsy breed of petite passengers to simply hop into. I clambered my way up, stepping one foot after the other unto the sidestep like a damn horse carriage, and clutched the hand rest like my life depended on it.

Once inside, a quick glance at the interiors confirmed prior descriptions of the Land Rover’s minimalist quality. By “minimalist” I don’t mean the Zen-like aesthetic that we’ve all come to love about Apple, Braun, or Dieter Rams’ furniture designs. This was purely utilitarian. The central console had an open-tray design; there was no glove compartment. As I leaned back against the black leather sheen of my rod-stiff seat, Toti gave me a look that was a cross between pity and apologetic.“Make yourself comfortable. This ride isn’t gonna be smooth.”

And with that, he turned up the volume as LFO’s Summer Girls poured through his speakers. “I went to my high school reunion recently and this was the soundtrack,” he explained. As our playlist threw me all the way back to puberty, we drove off to chase the brewing traffic on C5 to meet the rest of the crew and conquer the next 80 km to Tanay, Rizal where Jungle Base was waiting.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

Two hours after we left Manila, and not long after our bulalo pit stop along the Marikina-Infanta Highway (also known as Marilaque, short for Manila-Rizal-Laguna-Quezon, or R-6), the roads became rougher and narrower as the foliage grew wilder. To call it a bumpy ride is an understatement: the sloping hills increased in steepness; nonetheless, our Defender cruised along like a trooper, completely unfazed by the unfriendly terrain.

Toti explained how the Defender’s built-in anti-stall mechanism made descending downhill trails (as well as ascending uphill) effortless, empowering you to let go of the clutch and remain in first gear. With less power, the vehicle applies the use of traction more efficiently, enabling you to focus on your trail lines. “Just let it crawl,” the boys would often say throughout the trip. This was another of their mantras. (Around this time, a young Usher was crooning “You Make Me Wanna” all over the car.)

I watched how the other Rovers in the convoy were doing; they seemed to be carrying on just as well. Each driver had a walkie talkie for the crew to communicate easily, so it was as though everyone was riding in the same car. But more than the rowdy jokes, the device served as a handy tool for spotters to warn each other of road hazards, soft tires, or blind tail lights. Before long, our procession had finally reached Daraitan River, which would lead to our camping grounds at Jungle Base. As we slowed down, I noticed a large amphibious vehicle sitting in the river, like it was just hanging out there. As I jumped out of the car (as swift as an equestrienne, I must boast), another Defender caught my eye. This one was older, slightly more gaunt, and not part of our carefree caravan.

As I reached the group, a man was explaining why his team was in the area. He was a member of the Land Rover Club’s rescue division and they were searching for some mountaineers that had been missing for a few days. Though he appeared calm and accustomed to the grueling task at hand, there was no mistaking the concern and exhaustion in his eyes. It was gonna be a long day ahead, he said with a rueful smile. After a few words of encouragement, we left him with an invitation to join us for a beer or two at the camp site on his break.


WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE BASE

Glorian Javier is a warrior woman. That’s how the Dirty South boys described her as they introduced me to the Javier family, owners of Jungle Base. She greeted me with a warm smile, as she was lifting some heavy-looking boxes and gear. “She carries rocks and tosses them out of the way for us like they’re nothing,” said Joma, one of Dirty South’s ring leaders, shaking his head. Apart from running the operations of the 4x4 center and firing range, Glorian could command a Land Rover out in the wild—on dry earth or in water, as she would later demonstrate on this trip.

The 8-hectare property was once used as a motorcross race track. Since Glorian’s father Paul converted the land area into a 4x4 center for the public in 2010, their family have made Jungle Base a playground for other Land Rover and 4x4 clubs in the country. Groups and individual off-road enthusiasts (including newbies who are keen on learning) are welcome to take on basic to advanced off-road trail courses that they offer. As we rolled our way towards the camp site, taking on rocks and gravel like cornflakes, the calming sight of a river beckoned for us to hurry. This was the other side of the Daraitan River; had we crossed it earlier we would have ended up on this camp site.

Halfway to the site, Toti suddenly threw his door open—and jumped out. What the duck—I glanced at the empty driver’s seat then behind me only to find Toti waving back at me through the window, howling in laughter. Up ahead the river was approaching closer and closer. Should I jump out? What if Toti couldn’t jump back in time and the Defender went swimming? I sat and waited, like on one of those water theme park rides where you think you’re not gonna get wet but leave the place drenched anyway. Right before the Defender hit the water, Toti jumped back in and grabbed the wheel, laughing at me as he hit the brakes.

Never a shortage of beers with these boys.

As soon as the group reached the flattened ground, everything set in motion like clockwork. One by one, the cars parked themselves in strategic spots as the crew assembled into a camp site, leaving a large open space at the center. After the last car was done setting up its spot, one of the boys pulled a large cooler from his Disco 2. “And now the fun begins,” he said, snapping open a frosty-looking Pale Pilsen. Behind him, Joma’s Defender 130 High Capacity Pick Up was curiously morphing into a kitchen.

For the Dirty South Crew, the reason is unabashedly simple: it’s all about the good times, baby.

The last time I went camping, food was either canned, bottled, pre-cooked, maybe fermented. So when the trailers began to pop out their own built-in mise-en-place fixtures, I questioned everything that I thought I knew about camping: Joma was working the grill and Toti was making munggo from scratch, while a Korean BBQ station served up strips of meat and zucchini. PJ, one of the crew’s newest members, called me to his Defender 110 to ask if I wanted to try the kinilaw and tortang talong that they had just finished cooking.

I stood there, thinking of ways to be useful; social norms had conditioned me to feel responsible when matters concerning cookery arised. But as I looked around our little food truck party, it only showed that these boys had it all covered—they did not need my help. One of the guys handed me a very refreshing looking green slush, which I was about to decline until he assured me that it was all cucumbers. “Virgin. Healthy.”

HEY MISTER DJ

“Don’t worry, there will be music. So you won’t have to hear our jokes all night.” As I kicked back in my foldable lounge chair with an ice cold beer in my hand, it was difficult to resist the wave of pleasure tugging at the corners of my mouth. Looking around our oh-so-fancy-but-oh-so-rugged setup, I could say the crew nailed their mission. The weather was great, the river beckoned for us all to jump in, and the food was better than anything I’ve ever had while camping. There was a designated station for each Landy: the grill was over at the Defender 130, the soup kitchen was at one of the Discoveries, and the bar... was pretty much everywhere. Good food, good times, good vibes. All we needed was music.

As if on cue, Selena Gomez’s voice pierced through the San Miguel-infused airwaves, loud enough to entertain the entire camp and our neighbors across the jungle. I searched wildly for the exact location of our surround sound system, and there it was, housed by a white Defender. Our photographer Artu lowered his camera mid-shoot. “Is that... a DJ set?” What happened to roughing it out with portable speakers and energy-free bamboo amplifiers? As I was about to ask how on earth they managed to power up those larger than life speakers, our resident DJ gestured toward a generator set. “Did we say there will be music? We meant a DJ.”

With a playlist filled with enough EDM, indie pop, and new wave classics to last us until the roosters had a fit, dusk finally began to settle in. A large bonfire as well as LED lamps mounted on some of the cars’ hard top roofs kept the grounds bright and alive. The drinks, the food, and the conversation never ceased to flow. Amid the camaraderie and drunken banter (and the Double Black shots I kept trying to evade), I was reminded that I had to bring back a story from this road trip. As the conversation shifted to their common love for the Land Rover, there was a mixture of responses on the perks and pitfalls of owning one of these bad boys. I prodded, curious as to what would drive a person to go out and spend up to PHP 6 million for a utility vehicle over a more luxurious or comfortable one.

“It’s a Rover thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“With a Land Rover, it’s either you love it or you hate it.” But why would anyone hate it? “My family hates my Defender,” replied one of the many dads in the crew. “There’s nothing cozy about riding a Land Rover… except maybe for the Discovery. Imagine squeezing in the backseat for an out of town trip.” Well, that’s not too hard to imagine.

“Lubak, lahar, putik, baha—kaya ng Rover,” attested another guy. “The Land Rover can take a beating and all it needs is a good wash and it will still look good.” “When I go on a family trip, I take an SUV. When I have a really important business deal, I take my Defender. Deal closed.” “A Land Rover is a sound investment. The appreciation value of the Defender went up after ending production in 2015.” “Well, the Queen of England drives one.

By the time I climbed up the ladder to my rooftop tent (the kind usually meant to provide some distance from prowling wildlife) and called it a night, The Landy had won me over... almost.

While the testimonials laid out by the Dirty South Crew were convincing and substantial, I still had to see this beast of a ride in action. I figured the only way I’d ever know would be to actually get behind the wheel—or own one. But for the rest of the night, I sure as hell had sweet dreams overlanding with my very own Defender 90 TDCi Autobiography edition in Corris Grey. With my own killer playlist.

WET AND WILD

By 5 o’clock the next morning, the crew already got a head start on breakfast and packing up. I slowly descended from my tent, my head feeling like it weighed a ton. As the effects of all the beer I wish I had not drank the night before began to sink in, the comforting whiff of coffee roused me awake and, like a hound in a hunting party, my nose went on a desperate search. The source was a French press filled with a strong Arabica. I had never been more grateful.

Before long, everything was folded, stowed, stashed, and ready. As I did a quick check around the place, it was hard to imagine that we had a full amenity camp site just hours ago. The crew was so well accustomed with Jungle Base’s camping rules of keeping the grounds clean and litter-free that there was practically no trash in sight. We had one last thing on the itinerary before heading back home: the boys wanted to play on some rough trails and cross the Daraitan River at least once.

I got in Joma’s 2014 Defender 130 HCPU, immediately noticing the interior upgrades that he made (in addition to the exterior ones). For sure, his Recaro Sportser leather and suede seats made one hell of a difference when riding through some crazy trails.

By now, I was quite familiar with the Land Rover’s confidence over sloping up and down hills, as well as maneuvering its way through rocks and boulders. “Look—no hands,” he said, his hands hovering over the steering wheel. “With trails like this one, it’s better to use less power. Just let it crawl.” There goes that phrase again.

Joma proceeded to demonstrate the capability of the permanent four-wheel drive’s center differential to distribute its impressive 360Nm of torque evenly between the front and rear axles. Though he kept things in first gear, the dual-range transfer case and 6-speed manual gearbox hinted at how much the Landy was ready to take on.

Our Defender cruised along like a trooper, completely unfazed by the unfriendly terrain.

Ah, but can it swim? After conquering a few more trails and an encounter with a carabao that refused to let us pass (we waited until it finally relented), we were finally ready to get wet. With an average wading depth of 500mm, the Land Rover Defender never balks at the sight of water. One by one, like wild beasts, the Defenders pursued about 20m across the flowing river.

As we crossed, Joma explained again how it was advisable not to attempt to power through the water like one would do with a regular car, and instead focus on the smoothest line for passage like they’d done on the dry trails. This type of driving required a keen awareness of one’s physical environment and an intuitive connection with The Landy. “You shouldn’t try to control this beast.”

Nearly everyone successfully crossed the river, until one of the last guys halted halfway through: a large rock got in his way and in frustration he kept pushing on the gas, hoping to power through the obstacles. Unfortunately, this only dug the rocks deeper and made it difficult for his Defender to use traction to negotiate its way around. Glorian came to the rescue—the warrior lady that she is—wading across the river and over to PJ’s Defender to guide him through the rocky waters.

After a satisfying meal at Café Katerina along Marcos Highway, it was time to make the trip back home and part ways. For this homebound trip, I rode in the backseat of PJ’s river survivor Defender. The backseat wasn’t a cozy place to spend the next two hours in, but at this point, it no longer mattered. After spending over 24 hours riding through rough patches and some treacherous waters, I had gotten to know The Landy well enough to like him. And I liked him a lot.

As for the Dirty South Crew, my glimpse into their collective culture offered a better understanding of something beyond automotive passion. Against the typical stereotype of boys and their toys, this band of brothers introduced me to a particular breed of alpha male: One that doesn’t need speed for an adrenaline rush, who isn’t afraid to rough it out and get dirty—and has absolutely no trouble cleaning up after himself.

I guess it’s a Rover thing.

--

This story was originally published in GRID Issue 15.


This story was originally published in

Issue 15 | Lands of Plenty

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