Defender Auto Transmission Conversion

Early last week,  I’d tapped Anton as to whether he could give a revised guestimate on completion (essentially for the purposes of our own planning). The gist of the reply was, “The auto box has just been completed… hoorah

It took Martin 15 days… however that said it is very good… rest assured.  At the end of the process we sent Mr Ashcroft [David of Ashcroft Transmissions] a list of things to consider for the future! Paul is working on your Azalai [pod] at the same time.  We have made some cute improvements for which I hope you don’t mind… For example including an outside light for underneath the awning, a new console / electronics system. Redesigned water and waste tanks with all copper hose tails, aluminium finish on the roof etc etc… little details I hope improves the Azalai no end. To be honest it would take a wee while to wander around and show you all the improvements and extras. Admittedly I haven’t decided on the rear tail lift system… Justin compiled a complete list for me and to be honest we haven’t decided…..

Timescales… I shall consult the boys … at the moment I have someone working full time on yours when ever possible….”

So clearly a lot to take in – so last Friday we popped in again unannounced (over lunchtime) to see progress for ourselves and grab a few pictures. Paul was at lunch but still came in to talk us through the work and challenges to date (sorry Paul for disturbing your lunch but thanks for the in-depth breakdown – it was appreciated and insightful).

The Gear Selector Lever evidences the auto gear-box conversion, the cowling is still removed. The ‘mode’ button is a legacy from the Range Rover donor vehicle and is redundant in the Defender.

As Anton had advised the auto-box conversion was now in and ‘plumbed’. But no one expected it to take fifteen days! (Even accounting for the first one having been written off by the courier putting a fork-lift through the pallet.) OEC explained that the kit arrived with no instruction, and that several connections and junctures did not mate with the Puma engined Defender out of the box (nor with some post out of the box mods either!) Notably:

  • the connections to the transmission oil cooler had been completely re-engineered by OEC,
  • Ashcroft subsequently sent a modified connector fork for the Gear Selector lever as that wouldn’t fit (too wide)
  • and some work was needed to re-jig the hi-low selector mechanism to stop that lever being impeded by the dash console.
  • A neat reversing camera has been fitted to the pod
  • The oil cooler connectors sounded the most spectacular, as on ‘take one’, when the engine was fired up, oil was sprayed all over the garage! (The evidence of that could still be seen in the immediate vicinity, despite the clear-up.)

All said and done though, the unit looks the part, and as Paul said, “It’s like it is meant to be there” – which is a tribute to Ashcroft Tramsmission’s work in developing this mod – which of course is essential for me, with regards to adapting the vehicle so I can actually drive it. Now it’s in we can look at sorting the hand-controls’ fitting – we think via GM Coachworks in conjunction and cooperation with OEC.

It seems (with my reading between the lines) that the kit might not have been fitted to many Puma engined Defenders to date, outside of Ashcroft’s own workshops. I think OEC enjoyed the learning, and were certainlty  pleased with the finished job, but they did indeed have some feedback for Ashcroft Transmissions that might yet improve the experience for future fitters! All that’s left (and again testament to the diligence and attention to detail of OEC) is to fit a light to the gear selector array, as this was omitted from the kit.

We also found out that Anton worked, “….In Hluhluwe Umfolozi [park in KwaZuluNatal], Kruger National Park and all over… another tale for another day”. We didn’t get a chance to catch-up on that yet – but we would be interested in hearing of what he was doing whilst at Hluhluwe Umfolozi – it really is a special place and worth spending some time getting to know if you are ever in KZN. We have certainly accrued a fair few weeks there over the years – and we intend it to be the official start-line of the Indlovu Trans-Africa Drive.

Spinal Cord Injury ramblings

A bit of a self-indulgent ramble here (which I suppose is a definition of ‘blog’ so no harm done…..)

Just been up to Salisbury Hospital (Odstock) to the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Injuries Centre for my bi-annual check-up. It’s always a strange experience, I think because of its obvious, direct, personal association with [my] spinal injury – which of course in itself is a strange experience. After 24 years little seems to have changed. The decor may be uplifted, the equipment may be digital and many of the old faces may have left (but by no means all) – but it retains the same abstract character it always has done.

And abstract is another appropriate adjective. Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury, in the acute stages at least is certainly just that. Anyone can be changed in an instant, courtesy of accident, misfortune, act of violence or misadventure. You will lose all of life’s normal reference points the moment you go down and struggle as you might, there is no way to re-establish what you knew. All that awaits you and your random compadres is a bizarre re-birthing as you enter the world of the ‘cripple’ (I recall that was our own self-effacing vernacular of choice, back in the day) .

We were mainly late teens and early twenties, some sporty, some reckless, others feckless. The pastimes of that generation ensured proportional representation. The few girls amongst our number were inevitably those who’d been dumped or squashed by horses. The chaps diving, biking or other sports, but mainly car and motorbike accidents. However fate’s ‘PR’ meant (tragically) that the youngest was seven and the eldest was seventy. The youngster had dived onto a settee (we’ve all done it have we not?) and was impaled on a knitting needle, piercing into his cervical spine and rendering him tetraplegic. Our senior member had retired from a lifelong career in the merchant navy ‘man and boy’. His paraplegia was a result of falling down a stairway on a cross channel ferry whilst returning from holiday. How ironic is that? I’ve talked to people who ‘died’ (drownings mostly after diving into shallow depths of water) and found the experience most serene – I don’t have anything to add to that – but thought it ‘noteworthy’ and possibly of interest.

I myself was flown up there from Torbay Hospital by the Navy in a Sea King. Blinkered by an immobilising frame and skull traction, a load of injected drugs and acute disturbance to the senses – I arrived at Odstock (“and where is that exactly?”) completely disorientated. (It was to be at least four months until I was to get (or be got) out of bed, let alone get my bearings back again) I was wheeled supine from the heli-pad to an isolation ward where newbies were quarantined for MRSA screening for a day or two. The first thing I can recall being asked was “When do you go to the toilet?” I remember thinking “WTF?” as to be honest that really was the least of my worries and concerns at the time. Besides, didn’t everyone just go when they needed to? (Part of the re-birthing is the acquisition of new and adapted skills and ‘routine’ – but bowel care and the like is not something that one has insight into at the acute stages – and why would you?!)

It was also my first introduction to Paula Crawford (SEN) who was to be my ‘primary nurse’ for the duration on ‘Avon Ward’ (mirroring ‘Tamar Ward’). Paula, along with many of the staff was an absolute star. She had been working at the D of C pretty much since since it had opened in ’84. I found out later I was her first ‘primary patient’. I’ve struggled to stay in touch after all these years, mainly because I’m a bit crap at doing stuff like that, but on reflection, partly because success of the Unit (and rehab in general) pushes you away from explicit and implied dependency. Paula stayed at the Unit for many years, she became RGN and then a Ward Sister. Latterly she specialised in plastics and skin/pressure care and I believe she is still with Salisbury Hospital practicing in that specialism. She later married Tim (who was an occasional Nurse auxiliary on the Unit at my time, but he subsequently trained as an Occupational Therapist) – and indeed, today is I believe, the birthday of their eldest child.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense in the context of the blog, but maybe it’s because it actually doesn’t make any sense at all. As I started by saying – the Unit is different but the same – I just want to convey how mad and topsy-turvy acute spinal cord injury can be at all levels. Something like MASH, Porridge and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all rolled into one funny yet macarbre, living parody. I really don’t think that has changed at all since 30/11/86. I suspect the demographics, the randomness and the gamut of shock, realisation and rehab (our euphemistic re-birthing) are all still there – like a living ghost (if that’s not too oxymoronic).

It’s in recognition of this, and the fact that Paula and her colleagues, together with their successors, manage to guide us ‘cripples’ through all of the nonsense to at least the point where opportunity can once again knock – that I’m toying with naming the Landie ‘Paula’. Now I’m not sure that cars should really have names, and I’m even less sure that it’s actually flattering to have one named after you – but I do know that I could not undertake the Indlovu Drive without acknowledging my time at the D of C (a year after all) and any positive effect it has had on my own character and ability to manage my subsequent disability. So ‘Paula’ it is on behalf of all of those working in the fields of acute and longer-term spinal cord injury rehab.

Oh, and if you are interested, after the usual kidney X-rays and ultrasound, I still have a clean bill of health.

Planning update

Not much to report, current completion estimate is 5-6 weeks (August in essence). Work is continuing on the pod (probably an understatement). Martin (OEC) has liaised with Gosling regarding the hand-controls and current thinking is to get them fitted at OEC. The tail-lift/access is still to be cracked – but we are all in the same ball-park regarding the sort of thing we need.

We had a second fund-raising and logistics meet, and a few events are firming-up in concept. Of course we’ll be circulating details of those on the site (and any other means possible!) as they come to fruition.

Both Rachel and I have advised work (Torbay Care Trust) of our plans [to take a career break] and found them to be very supportive. To be fair in the current climate we are probably doing the country a tiny favour as we’ll be saving the public purse the salary outlay for the duration; plus we are spending loads in the private sector in the meantime! (Albeit that a large proportion is borrowed money.) Of course there is a risk, as despite whatever policy is in place, we are, strictly speaking, leaving our jobs.

Build and adaptations

The ‘bathroom’ area – the toilet will be fitted here – the shower will be to the right (from where it can reach outside the entrance), there will be a screen that can be opened to give the throne a modicum of privacy

Well we had another site visit last week, ostensibly to check how hand-controls might fit. Defenders have never had the most room for drivers, especially between the driver and the door. The Puma model is no different in that, plus the dash is slightly closer to the driver too. What was immediately apparent  (at least for someone with long legs) was that there is no room to reach behind the wheel to grasp a hand control. (The space being taken up by steering wheel rim and knee.) The windscreen wiper stalk also invades  space that would need to be utilised by a hand control kit.

We then iphoned the Jeff Gosling website. You recall that we were looking at their hand controls as their site has a picture of a Puma Defender fitted with their kit (as above). It was Paul [OEC] who now spotted that they had fitted a smaller diameter steering wheel. Paul explained that if we were to go down this route then we would need to make sure that we got one that was up to the job. Many it seems, will simply bend if used to e.g. lever one into or out from the cab. OEC recommended QT services (of ‘the Wildcat’ fame). It turned out that his was exactly the same wheel that Jeff Gosling have in their picture!

OEC then called Jeff Gosling Ltd to get some more detail. Anton was surprised when they insisted, in  no uncertain terms, that they would need to oversee such a fitting, as it was ‘special’ in the case of a Land Rover Defender. This was an entirely different message from the week before, when the same company had advised that the hand controls could be ordered and fitted as a kit “no problem”. [Of course the compromise here is to check with GM Coachworks who are agents for Jeff Gosling, and OEC work with them quite often.]

So the job gets a little bigger – as is the way of these things…..  Which caused me to (re)think about the viability of a left foot accelerator as an option. It would certainly save any need to replace the steering wheel and trim the wiper-stalk. Key would be the adjust-ability of the pedals (either of the accelerator unit or the brake).

We decided to get GM to advise with me ‘in-situ’ as it were – at least then we can make the plan and get cracking. OEC are looking to pull out all the stops  to complete by the end of July (which will undoubtedly be tight). Both options will work for me I’m sure – but of course all involved want to be sure of the detail before committing both time and expense!

Regardless we should have more room in the cockpit, once the vinyl seats are replaced with Exmoor Elites on extended runners. We thought a lot about seats but inevitably they are so important that we decided not to compromise (although the rear row will remain in the OEM pragmatic vinyl).

We also agreed the colour of the pod’s upholstery (‘something drab, neutral that won’t show the dirt for us! OEC do advise that anything is possible though.).

The pod is really starting to take shape. Much plumbing and wiring is in, the taps and filters are about to go in, and in general it is now starting to look like a finished Azalai.

Anton also advised that the OEC crew were meeting early this week to agree a strategy for the tail-lift. We confirmed that the design priority is to get me in and out easily and reliably – any load carrying ability would be a bonus.

It was a very worthwhile meeting as the build moves towards the beginning of its end.

Mid-Morning Matters

In part, I’m sure due to work’s Communications Team helping to distribute our Press Release – there has been if not a flurry exactly, a swell of interest from a couple of media organisations. 

BBC Radio Devon

This morning I had the pleasure of meeting BBC Radio Devon’s Sophie Pierce, for what was my first radio interview. We had a brief, preparatory chat about my background and history, and then we were straight in. Luckily for both me and the potential listener it was all recorded rather than live. I did advise Sophie that I can “go on a bit” – and between nerves, inexperience and maybe by even having a story to tell, I did just that! 

The paradox is that I’ll have to listen to whatever she can edit together to remember what it was that I actually said. All I can hope is that there’s enough there to be of interest to anyone who listens to the finished piece. I certainly plugged Motivation. Hopefully some of the stats reflecting the size of the challenge that their work is trying to address will make it into the final edit. 

E.G.  You do the maths on this: The numbers are obscenely staggering and illustrate an under-publicised, modern day, global scandal in my view….. 

“It is estimatedthat only 2% of people with disabilities in low-income countries have access to rehabilitation and appropriate basic services.

Nearly 90% of the global burden of disability occurs in low-income countries, the very countries where so little is spent on rehabilitation. Anyone with a disability is automatically disadvantaged because disability makes poverty worse. It increases isolation and economic strain for the affected family as well as the individual. Statistics show that children with disabilities are more likely to die young, become malnourished or neglected. Disabled people who are denied education are then unable to find employment and the circle becomes more vicious.”

Anyway, as far as my Andy Warhol (15) moment(s), I suppose that I shouldn’t be too perturbed, as the Royal Geographic Society’s guidance on radio production says that in general, 100 minutes of raw material is needed to make just 1 minute of good listening!

Sophie couldn’t be sure when exactly it will go out – but thought it would probably be on the BBC Radio Devon Breakfast Show sometime (0600 – 0900,  103.4 FM | 95.7 FM)

Brixham News (the free paper) have also shown an interest and I have sent them some pictures (heavily photoshopped of course!) and some detail on what we are hoping to achieve.  Karen from BN has said that they hope to get something published in the next couple of weeks.

We can only hope that this is the beginning of a lot of good publicity as that can only help with fundraising. Certainly it was another novel experience enjoyed as a result of undertaking this project.


It’s been a pretty busy couple of weeks as we have been trying to pull a few fundraising and awareness events together. We’ve been interviewed by the local paper (the Herald Express), and hopefully there’ll be a nice, informative piece in next Tuesday’s edition. Certainly (the reporter) Alex’s relaxed approach made for a long and wide ranging interview. It stretched from my accident (let’s get back to the Eighties) to date, with lots of personal detail, thoughts and meditations about what the project currently means to us. I’m not at all sure what will make the final copy, but I’m pretty confident it will be a good enough read (possibly even at my own expense!). In some ways the process was cathartic; as I’ve blogged before much of the plan makes no rational sense, so a chance like this, to reflect on the rhyme and reason, is hopefully as useful to us, as it might be interesting to others. (BTW I haven’t heard anything go out from the Radio Devon interview – this is definitely not a game for those with a fragile ego!)

We’ve also been investigating the best ways to raise additional funds so everything is above board, fair and transparent. The complication is fundraising for the Expedition itself vs the separate but linked activity of raising money for Motivation.

We hope that you’ve seen the new ‘Donate’ buttons on the site [now defunct 2021] – these will direct donations to the Indlovu Drive itself, and will be used to help expedition costs such as:

Spare parts and maintenance

Travelling Expenses (budgeted at £50-80 per day between us)






Air fares




Any surplus raised above the costs incurred by the Expedition as outlined above, will be passed, in their entirety, to the charity Motivation. The Expedition is not for profit.

A discreet bank account in the name of the Expedition is being set-up to manage monies raised by fundraising. (Cheques made payable to ‘The Indlovu Trans-Africa Drive’ if you are of a mind to!)

Alternatively to donate to Motivation directly, then please use our JustGiving page (and don’t forget to GiftAid!) – we welcome all support!

We are doing our first fundraiser at Marldon Apple Pie Fair this coming Saturday. We have a table and Tombola – thanks to everyone who has donated prizes for this. It will be the first public unfurling of our new banner, kindly provided by Torbay Blinds and Riviera Signs. It’s a great back-drop and hopefully will help to draw people in to ask for more detail about the trip and Motivation and their work. Thanks to Peter Gratton-Davey, Charlie Wakeham at Torbay Blinds and Dave Latham and Dean at Riviera Signs)

Marldon Apple Pie Fair – The Indlovu Drive’s Tombola Stand (Saturday 31st July 12:00-17:00)

Come and See

The famous KRANKIES at 2.00 pm

Build slipping…

With regards to the build, we visited OEC last week and whereas there is clear (and quality) progress, I think it would be fair to say that we were disappointed by what seems to be a lot left to do at this time. Now this might well be our desperation to get our hands on the vehicle before the autumn. Bearing in mind that we were expecting the build to start Feb 2010, and even accounting for the auto-box transplant difficulties, the malevolent winter weather, the delayed delivery of the pods from France along with a pinch of salt leeway – it does seem a little bit too far behind to not be, justifiably, a teeny bit ticked-off. We may yet be surprised, as I’m sure the final ‘put-together’ will be relatively quick – but to our untrained eye we are estimating late September (a shame as our last planned summer trip is mid-Sept!)

That said, I think a lot is to do with some welcome, good, old fashioned engineer pride at OEC, in as much as each build stakes their reputation. For example the newly designed main water tank has just been deemed borderline fit for purpose as far as build quality goes; and so OEC have sourced a new supplier to build one that is more robust. There have been countless improvements like this along the way, and it definitely means that by not rushing, we will have a better, even more resilient product in the end. Paul is also going to fabricate the tail-lift himself (in the interests of fairness and given he wasn’t there when we visited – I think Martin will be involved too). He plans to build a wooden prototype once the pod has been finally mounted. This will allow him to check all of the angles before fabricating the actual lift itself. As he described it,  it sounds exactly like we’d envisaged. What I can’t gauge yet is the time that this might add to our already overextended build project. Still, as the saying goes, ‘worry about what you can influence – and leave engineers to do what they do best’

Stuff that’s been done:

Colorifier and Eberspacher mounted with much plumbing for the same

More Electrics gone in

Final cuts and finishing panels done for Azalai (fitting these takes a lot of the remaining time – as Paul says, “well you could rush it, it would just look awful though, so you want to do it properly.” We’d agree.)

Cut-through completed on back of cab

Obvious to-do’s

Fit new, re-spec’d water tank

Fit waste tank

Fit auxiliary fuel tank

Finish suspension mods

Finish plumbing and wiring/electrics

Solar Panel

Fit cubby box when powder coated

Mount Azalai pod

Apply trimmings (roof and windows) and finishing panels

Refit hand-controls

Design, fabricate and fit lift

So are we happy – yes, but we do think it’s only fair to pressure OEC to pull out all he stops that they reasonably can now. We did accede to a request from them to pay a deposit late last year to secure a Feb/March build slot – and a three to four month lead time…..     But equally, I really don’t want them to think we are wanting them to compromise on their inherent high standards. Maybe I need to add patience to the list of personal virtues bestowed by engaging in this project (I’m sure Rachel would be grateful for that too!)

Spinal Injury – The Acutes

I don’t know whether anyone has been following the ‘Spinal Column’ series by Spinal Cord Injured (SCI) journalist Melanie Reid, in The Times on Saturday(s); it really is the most accurate, comprehensive and frank account of what it is like to sustain an acute neck injury. (I’ve transcribed one installment below – you’ll see what I mean – and week in and week out she’s not written anything that I would not wholly endorse.)

The point I’m going to labour here is that little has changed in over 20 years. I supect it will be a similar story for the next 20 too…..

I had cause for a physio/orthotist appointment at the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Unit  today. It was the first time I’d had had to go up to the Gym there in a good (used advisedly) few years. I’ve tried to keep my involvement with the Unit to a minimum – yearly kidney/bladder x-rays and a quick visit to the Spinal Consultant are the prudent limits. However at the last check-up I think the realisation that it has been ten years since the last ‘walking’ review means I’m due a couple more trips than usual this year. (As a complete aside, despite a new A303, it takes just as long to get there and back as it did in the 80′s! Urban congestion at each end being the culprit in my opinion.)

The Gym and Occupational Therapy departments have changed little. A new staff contingent, but essentially the same equipment, benches, and assorted sundries as ‘back in the day’. Supine, on the bench next to the one I am ushered to, is a young chap in a neck collar. An OT is mapping his hands for preserved innervation. He deliberately can’t see her as she randomly probes and pricks with a needle and a soft rubber utensil to (hopefully) elicit a “Yes I can feel that” either “sharp” or “soft”. Inevitably there are some touches that get no response. For now, it’s probably just as well that the youth remains unaware of this deficit. It is one thing to learn for yourself, at one’s own pace, but it can be paradoxically cruel to have it proven by a well meaning but callous procedure. At least that’s what crosses my mind. Just for a minute I’m back in the Eighties. I briefly catch his eye, all I can muster is a mumbled “Alright”, a wink and a half-smile. It’s a fleeting, false, insincere attempt at informed and mutual reassurance.  He is wearing the uniform visage of those that have gone before him – the Spinal Legion. In a glance I recognise the trauma of the newly injured. I see the bewilderment, the resignation, the muted hope and desperation, the sadness and mourning, the loneliness, the lingering shock bourne with such a foisted, random, unwelcome, change of circumstance. “Alright” he says back, and courtesies over we revert to our respective therapies.

I feel for him. In the Legion he is the conscripted, raw recruit. Basic training is tough, once you pass-out you won’t want to return to the Camp. (I didn’t.)  But new opportunities and challenges await – as long as you are equiped to realise them. As an old soldier I want to share that reassurance; but you can’t….

On reflection I have had a pretty good time of it since ’86 and have done many fantastic things. The cliched expression would be  ’and I wouldn’t change any of them’ – but you are always left with a nagging “what if?” And I think that’s it, that’s my Demon. How can you tell someone, with advised conviction, that they should be happy to settle with less than they had? At nineteen I don’t think I’d have got that concept. On leaving the Gym I notice some artwork in the corridor. The DofC SIC’s 25th anniversary has left a celebratory ‘timeline’ along its length. It features volunteered cameos of fellow inmates through the ages. Eagerly I track down 86/87 – so a BIG shout out to Rob Vohra and Mike Martin – both achievers. I am pleased and greatly reassured. It is more than idle, voyeuristic curiosity to know how your compaderies have done. We are Legion. And try as you might – you can never leave the Legion – it will always track you down.

On the drive home I wonder how this young man and his many, many peers around the world will turn-out. I kid myself that they’ll all be fine. I well-up. As I pull myself together, I am not sure if it is for them, or me – the burden of knowing what people have in store is a tricky one to bear.

It’s with a renewed vigour that we plot our fundraising for both the Expedition and Motivation. The challenges are quite tough enough here in the UK. At least the Spinal Units and Community Health and Social Care teams can get people to a place where they can make more with less. I fear that’s not the case in much of the developing world.

You can donate to Motivation via our Just Giving page. For more insight into Spinal Cord Injury you could do much worse than the Times on Saturday – I’m hoping Melanie will put the articles into a book – I hope it has a happy ending.

“Times columnist Melanie Reid broke her neck and back after falling from a horse in April. Writing for the Magazine from hospital, she faces up to her paralysis – but finds the first seeds of hope.

There’s an elephant in the room, of course. It’s that simple but enormous question: will I ever walk again? The same obsession haunts anyone who has suffered a spinal injury during every quiet moment of our days. Sometimes, when I’m not busy, I can sense the elephant’s great grey hide pressing against me; can feel his hot breath on my neck. Will you, won’t you, he asks, not unkindly, but persistently.

Losing the use of one’s legs is profound. It is an event so catastrophic that it puts you though a door into a place which no one who has full function can possibly enter. At times, it’s the scariest, loneliest place in the world. Nothing – nothing at all – can prepare you for the first sight of your paralysed legs, sprawled where you do not feel them to be on the bed, lifeless and somehow deeply misshapen. The first time my bed-head was raised high enough for me to catch sight of my legs, I felt physically sick. They looked like the Guy Fawkes we made as children for Bonfire Night, newspaper stuffed into old socks, ankles bent at unreal angles into discarded, puffy plimsolls. They weren’t my legs at all; they were horrific, alien objects. The only way to describe the impact is to say I felt like I had suffered a compound fracture of the soul.

Now, I’m sure everyone, should they ever be forced to part with them, would be partial to their own legs, but I’ve always been particularly proud of mine; arrogant even. With a 36in inside measurement, my legs are longer than most men’s and put me over 6ft without shoes on. I like – liked – that. To some extent, my legs defined who I was: in their time they pogoed all night and skied down black runs and ran half-marathons and climbed mountains and did crazy charity endurance stunts. I guess they were so strong they made me a little extremist. Amazon woman, able always to skip away from bores and bossiness and bureaucracy. Catch me if you can.

All of which makes paralysis an even more dreadful event to cope with; the sense of bereavement even more profound; the feeling of denial all the greater. I’m sure every sporty person, every individualist and risk-taker who ever damaged their spine feels the same. How do we bridge the imagination gap between what was and what is? Who is this new person who cannot move? I do not know them. Nor do I know what they might become.

In the beginning, post accident, my legs were as dead as could be. It was probably at the end of my second week that I became aware of the vaguest sensation, like pins and needles, when the nurses washed them. I still could not tell which leg they were touching. Around the same time some feeling returned to my bowel – a vital neurological sign for future leg function. It felt like a radio signal from the long-lost Beagle 2 mission to Mars – but it was enough to help in the long dark hours when one seeks, desperately, for hope and comfort.

The changes were too small to log day by day, but over a little while I became aware of more feeling returning to the soles of my feet. My legs began, as it were, to regain some consciousness. I can now – mostly – tell what angle they are lying at. At night I can feel the nerves buzzing and hammering and stuttering inside them. At times it feels like a lawnmower, laid up all winter, trying to start before the first cut of the summer. At others they whirr inside like a computer attempting to reboot itself. Strange analogies come to me: when the nerves thumped particularly hard, I could think only of a minibus I once saw in the Alps, refuelled with petrol instead of diesel, kangarooing a metre at a time up the hill from Bourg St Maurice, belching smoke.

Then, one recent day in gym, when the physio had liberated me from the dreaded elastic stockings, I discovered I could wiggle my toes. It was the faintest of wiggles – weak flickers of life; and one’s toes tire incredibly quickly – but it reduced me to tears of helpless emotion and my family to delight. Surely this could only be a good sign?

It could, of course, but without sounding defeatist it could also be a false dawn. The elephant leans on me gently to remind me of this. Plenty of paralysed people have brief movement and then lose it. My consultant and physio remain studiously noncommittal, preferring the safe ground of the worst case scenario: that I will probably be wheelchair-bound. I don’t blame them at all. They’ve seen my X-rays and MRI scan; I haven’t. How could they possibly offer false hope to us poor cripples? And imagine the fallout if they did?

The day of the toe-wiggle is Ascension Day. I only know this because I hear a church service on Radio 4. Injured on Good Friday, blessed with some movement on Ascension Day. Is this a sign? I’m not religious, but I do know a lot of people have been praying for me. So I accept the coincidence with quiet thanks and good grace. In the land of spinal injury, one takes solace wherever one can find it.

The medical staff inquire, dispassionately, if I have noticed any further movement since my toes. Ankles? Knees? Feet? When something more appears, we will work with it, they tell me. So I lie at night, wiggling the toes, straining to push my heels towards the end of the bed. My hamstrings, permanently constricted in too-short NHS beds – I know this is the West of Scotland, where people grow small, but do all the beds have to be for midgets? – cramp constantly and beg for relief.

So far nothing more has happened. The elephant sighs and settles down for the long haul. And I continue to hope. And hope and hope.”

Azalai chat

We went over to OEC to keep an appointment with Simon Ward-Hastelow, Azalai Owner and Editor of Land Rover World magazine. As explained in earlier posts, Simon was the first to own a UK registered Azalai; although he went to France to get all of the work done to his 300 tdi 130  base vehicle (pre-OEC Azalai conversions). He was getting a bit of maintenance work undertaken, so it was mutually opportune to catch-up and explain a bit more detail about the Indlovu Trans-Africa Drive.

Well we chatted for a good few hours and explained our timings, the route, the ongoing but tempered frustration of build time (more later), the work of the relevance of our adopting it as the Indlovu Drive’s charity of choice. We also explored some of the evolutionary path  that OEC were taking in developing the Azalai product. Simon gave us a couple of top tips that you won’t find in the brochure too – both worth recording here:

When camped for the night, fully inflate the suspension bags (ie beyond the maximum pressure for road use) as this greatly reduces any tendency of the cabin to sway as the occupants move about inside.

Ahead of traversing any rougher terrain – disconnect the SOG unit from the toilet waste tank and bung the connector. Failure to do this can result in Sh1t being sloshed through the fan!

The upshot is that Land rover World magazine (LRW to it’s friends) would like to carry a feature on the planning and build, as well as a series of follow-up articles as the expedition progresses. Good news for us as it will help to raise the profile of the venture at a national level. It will also contribute to our objective of learning new skills as part of the project. Simon was particularly interested in – so hopefully there will be some positive spin-off for their 20th anniversary ‘Wheels Out of Poverty’ campaign too.

Obviously we’ll be posting news of any publication dates here in the blog.

With regards to the build, little has happened to our Azalai over the last week, as OEC advised that they were going to put all of their resources into finishing one destined for Roger Young Land Rover in Saltash (the guys who did us so well on our base vehicle). The thinking being that ours could not be progressed too much further until the tail-lift adaptation was fitted. Clearing the RY Azalai would subsequently free up labour to then subsequently get ours finished quickly [post tail-lift fitting] .

It was clear that the OEC guys had been flat-out on the RY Azalai. It was due to go out that day and everyone was busy polishing and tweaking. However it was a bit disappointing to hear that our tail-lift had not yet gone off for fabricating. Paul (OEC) mitigated this by explaining that he was in consultation with the fabricators (and others) to see which parts could be made in 6mm steel, rather than a ‘default’ 10mm. Obviously this is an important consideration in keeping the additional weight to a minimum (as it will all detract from the payload).

Nonetheless, we have had over another week lapse and the completion date (as estimated by Harris) remains a month hence. I have blogged before that this slippage has a direct and adverse impact for some fundraising opportunities. We have stopped trying to predict a completion date with any certainty now – and OEC seem equally vague – although there is no doubt that it would suit them as much as us to see the build finished soonest!

Of course (and again as previously blogged) much of the additional time can be attributed to the adaptations and the development of improved design, features and component parts. We will be getting a better and more efficient Azalai than the one originally spec’d a year ago (for the same cost). That said, it would have been really useful to have had a realistic build time from the off. This would have helped us to then in turn reflect  more accurate, detailed, proposals to potential backers etc. Even more seriously the extended time is a valid threat to having enough time and opportunity for ‘shake-down’ trips and training.

The Sums don’t have to make sense, but they do need to add up….

Well the next build slot is Feb-April 2010. We’re sweating on holding on the deposit to secure it until we get confirmation of the loan from the bank – a few weeks off yet. OEC report that there is some customer competition too, with someone waiting for a property sale to go through to fund their deposit.  It’s tempting to take the £2k non-refundable gamble as we run the real risk of paying for the loan but not having the vehicle for nearly a year . As the saying goes, ‘you pays yer money and you takes yer chance’ – or not as the case may be.

So this ‘cooling off’ period gives us some time to consider the maths….

We will be paying nearly £8k a year for the next 14 years just to obtain the vehicle. We are budgeting that we’ll need to raise up to £20k for the big trip itself (and we’re ignoring the loss of earnings during the sabbatical!) We are hoping to mitigate some of this financial pressure by overpaying as much as we can early on, and by tapping into any fundraising ventures that we can for the trip itself.

Easily this would be enough money for us both to go to Africa for months each year during the loan period. Sobering.

Cold feet? Not really as the sums add up still – and I still hold firm to the belief that one must underwrite projects such as this before looking to seek funding from other sources. It proves intent and realises the possibility of making the venture happen in the first place.

I’m sure that this will come back to haunt me when the wolf is at the door, and our holiday is a weekend in damp Cornish November. On the plus side a little austerity (we were there before the recession bound politicians) is actually quite a refreshing life change. Less takeaways, less beer equals less waist and a more active lifestyle – an unplanned benefit even at this early stage. It will be interesting to see whether my fortitude holds.

I’m hoping the next entry will be when we secure the slot by deposit.