One of the only groups to cross the Darien Gap was a 1972 group of British military personnel, driving two Range Rover Classics. The Darien crossing was part of a larger Pan-American trip, that had started in the fall of 1971 in the cold wilds of Canada and rapidly worked its way south through North and Central America. The expedition was scheduled to last six months, and half of that time was blocked for the trans-Darien leg.
The expedition was one of the most heroic off-road adventures ever, fighting mechanical issues, an impending rainy season that could leave the Range Rovers as rusting relics in the jungle, and supply shortages. Led by Col. John Blashford-Snell CBE, one of Britain’s most famous modern-day explorers, the Darien crossing combined with the overall Pan-American journey meant that this was the first time anyone crossed the Americas in a single go.
That’s right – this wasn’t the first time anyone had driven the Darien Gap. The list is still extremely short. The first crossing was in the 1930s, by Brazilians Leônidas Borges de Oliveira, Francisco Lopes da Cruz, and Mário Fava, who undertook the expedition in a Ford Model T to prove the feasibility of a road across the Americas. It took them a decade to work their way from Rio de Janeiro to New York.
In 1959-60, an expedition was co-sponsored by the Pan-American Highway Conference and National Geographic. The Range Rovers may not have made the first crossing, but a Land Rover did – a then-brand-new Series II 88” station wagon, which ran the route in concert with a Willys Jeep pickup truck. It took them 101 days, and even the article they wrote in National Geographic in 1961 was skeptical that the Pan-Am Highway was a viable concept.
The last major push before the Range Rover was a 1961 trip, sponsored by Chevrolet and powered by three rear-engined Corvairs. After 109 days, two of the three made it to the Colombian border; the third had been abandoned in the jungle.
And so, until the Range Rovers came along, nobody made any further major attempts to cross the Gap in a four-wheeled vehicle. (There have been other motorcycle attempts – and successes – over the years.)
The Range Rovers, as they set off across North and Central America, were in more or less stock configuration. There were accessories, but nothing unusual. Winches, a brush guard made of two stacked bumpers, big knobby swamp bogging tires, and a raised exhaust. The team was made of British military personnel, with massive support from the British Army – including airlifts as the team progressed across the Darien Gap. In the Gap, there was also substantial support from the Panamanian and Colombian governments. A total of 64 men followed Col. Blashford-Snell into the jungle, mostly drawn from the Royal Engineers (the British equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers).
Heading into the Darien, they had some idea of what they were in for from the prior expeditions, but the thick and gnarly jungle meant that there was not much of a track to go on from the expeditions a decade prior. The dense ground cover meant that someone had to always run ahead of the vehicles, looking for hidden cliffs or holes that could swallow them up.
There was a foot advance team, which did base-level jungle clearing to make a semblance of a path through the brush. A team of 30 horses then carried the supplies for the team, followed by the Range Rovers at the end of the parade. The Rangies were paced by eight Royal Engineers on foot, who were in charge of all of the manual labor of getting the trucks through the jungle.
Army officer Gavin Thompson was in charge of piloting the Rangies. After someone walked in front of one vehicle, he would pilot it along that safe route, then go to the other vehicle and follow another Royal Engineer to bring it to the same place (or a new route, if that one proved flawed).
The trucks had been equipped for the muddy boggy conditions they knew they’d be up for. The swamp tires were designed to churn through the mud, and each truck had bridging ladders strapped to the roof that were the length of the truck. They even had an inflatable Avon rubber raft, which worked with the bridging ladders to ferry the trucks across any water that was truly too much.
These mud tires turned out to be the bane of the expedition’s existence. The chunky tread filled up with mud almost instantly, and since 1970s mud tires didn’t have the clearing technology today’s offerings do, it sat there, the gummy mud adding immense weight to the wheel. As it spun around, trying desperately to get purchase, it broke the differential. Actually, it broke three of them – and you can’t run a two-vehicle off-road expedition with just one differential.
So, Gavin Thompson was flown out of the jungle and across the Atlantic to consult with the engineering team back in England. Fortunately, they had the Jungle Track at Solihull, a man-made test track that replicated some of the hardest global conditions a Land Rover would come across. They found out what anyone who has built a Land Rover on extremely oversized tires has found out eventually: the big swamp tires were too much for the truck. The weight of them, with the packed mud, was going to keep popping diffs.They went back to the jungle, reduced weight, replaced the axles and diffs, and put on more normally-sized cross-country tires. That was the end of the driveline issues for the rest of the expedition, but it had cost them 26 days. Time in the jungle runs on the backs of the rainy season, and almost a month lost meant that the expedition was going to risk running into the beginning of the rainy season, which would likely scrub the entire trip and leave the Range Rovers to rot forever in the jungle, like those Corvairs from a decade ago.
Instead of sitting around in the jungle playing tiddlywinks, the team sourced an old Series II 88” Land Rover from Panama, threw a winch on it, and bashed through the jungle to try and pre-game some routes that could be used with the Range Rovers once they were repaired. The Series, nicknamed “Pathfinder,” saved the expedition with the work it did in the quiet period. Once they were back on the road, the routes that had been scouted were relatively quick and easy miles for the expedition.
Further routing issues cost the expedition more time, but on April 9, they hit the Colombian border, the first major milestone. (The Darien extends either side of the border, so there was still more to go.) It had been almost three months since the expedition set off on January 19, with almost a month lost to the differential issues. Now the only thing that lay ahead was the Great Atrato Swamp, a 60-mile swath of water and marsh that would be crossed mostly with the Avon rafts. But the swamp was not smooth sailing, and it quickly became clear that machetes wouldn’t cut it to clear the brush and make enough space for the draft of the rafts to clear the mucky bottom. It was going to be chainsaws and dynamite or nothing, and so for over a week, the expedition blasted their way across the swamp. (Presumably, this is not a solution that would be acceptable in 2023.) Finally, they made it to the other side, to some semblance of terra firma, and on April 23rd the Darien transit was over. It had been 96 days in the jungle, fighting technology, nature, and the limits of man to wrest the Range Rovers across.
Of course, this wasn’t a record – as mentioned, there had been several groups that had driven across the Darien before. The Range Rovers were going to try to be the first vehicles to drive the entire Americas overland, and so they now had the fullness of South America ahead of them. On May 13, 1972, the expedition started heading south again, and with modern tarmac roads beneath the cross-country tires of the Range Rovers, they made it from Colombia to Tierra del Fuego in just under a month, arriving on June 10th in Ushuaia, Argentina.
The Range Rovers had done something never done before – transited the Americas. In the 1970s, there were still dreams of this being something any of us could do in our Rovers, with a highway sweeping across the harshness of the Darien. Political issues in Colombia and the sheer scale of the project mean that in 2023, that still hasn’t happened, and the list of expeditions that have driven across the Gap is still enough to count on your fingers and toes. Many a Land Rover club event has featured a discussion on “how we’d do it” around the campfire, longingly gazing at a mud-tired Discovery lingering beyond the campfire, imagining it slogging across the Atrato Swamp or being bridged across a ravine. Most of us don’t have access to the full backing of the British military though, and the reality is that for almost all of us Darien will remain in the realm of dreams.
Plenty of people drive across the Americas, all with the asterisk that they shipped their vehicle around the Darien Gap. You can drive clear across Africa, go London to Singapore, and drive on mostly dirt clear across Australia if you want to. Every one of the earth’s land masses can be traversed overland by a normal 4x4…except the Americas.Unless you have three months, dozens of trained experts, airlift capability, and a Range Rover Classic on all-terrain tires.
Today the Range Rovers are both preserved. One is in the British Motor Museum in Gaydon, England; the other is part of the Dunsfold Collection. Pathfinder's whereabouts have been lost to time. The images from the expedition are iconic, and the slog across the Darien was formative in planting the Range Rover as just as capable as the Series that preceded it.
If you want your own Darien Gap memento, check out our new 1:43 Scale Diecast Collectible from Oxford Diecast: