War horse: the Defender can tackle the toughest terrains
The Defender has acquired a cult following among mud-loving off-road enthusiasts, seen service across the globe in the British Army and has even been driven by the Queen. Jamie Merrill takes it for a farewell drive

The ground is baked hard by the African sun, but it still throws up plumes of thick red dust. The road alternates between rutted track and washboard gravel that send vibrations up my spine. I'm behind the wheel of a Land Rover Defender as it soldiers on through Meru National Park.

I'm in Kenya not only to report on the latest anti-poaching initiative from the charity Born Free, but to experience the Defender – a vehicle that can trace its DNA back to the first Series I Land Rover, launched in 1948 – at work in its natural habitat.

Since 1948, somewhere in the region of two million of the box-like Defenders (a name picked up in the Eighties) have rolled off the production lines in the Midlands, including a pair that Land Rover has just donated to the Born Free Foundation in Meru, sealing a connection that dates back 50 years.

Then, it was George and Joy Adamson who used one to help Elsa the lioness return to freedom in the park, a story that inspired the book Born Free, and the film starring Virginia McKenna and her husband Bill Travers.

In the following decades, the Defender has acquired a cult following among mud-loving off-road enthusiasts, seen service across the globe in the British Army and has even been driven by the Queen. But to the dismay of Defender devotees, this year will mark the last year of its production, as Land Rover bows to the inevitable and withdraws it from sale. For all its strengths and off-road prowess – I've seen Defenders ford raging torrents and traverse ice fields with ease – the old stager has fallen victim to tougher emissions rules at home, and the rise of cheaper, arguably more practical Japanese (and now Chinese) off-roaders and pick-up trucks in the developing world.

At major infrastructure projects in Africa or South East Asia you're far more likely to see a modern-looking Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Chinese knock-off, than a Defender. Likewise in Britain, it's the luxurious Range Rover, loved by celebrities, that is making handsome profits for the Indian-owned firm.

Even in the Meru, the Defender is now a rare sight. Nonetheless, in a park that's twice the size of the Isle of Wight and criss-crossed by rivers that need fording and sandy tracks that no ordinary car could traverse, it's still the perfect form of transport according to Will Travers – Bill's son – who now runs the charity that his parents set up.

He says: "This really is the perfect vehicle for what we do here on these roads. I remember learning to drive here in a Land Rover 40 years ago, and driving across Africa in one with friends, and they are just as capable today as they were then. Testament to that is that I still see 1960s Land Rovers on the roads outside of the park."

Back in Britain, when Land Rover announced the formal end of the Defender last week, it marked the event by getting three Defenders to make a 1km sand-drawing of the old war-horse on the Anglesey beach where, 68 years ago, the car's designer, Maurice Wilks, first sketched out the outline of the now famous off-roader to show the idea to his brother.

Wilkes' dream was to build a rugged utility vehicle that would give the famous Willys Jeep a run for its money. The result, a "civilian, peacetime, go-anywhere vehicle", was so basic that even the canvas roof and doors came as optional extras. Now, to mark the end of the Defender's innings, Land Rover has brought out a clutch of special-edition models, including the top-of-the-range Autobiography.

Priced at more than £60,000, it's a beast of a thing, with full Windsor upholstery and "more performance, luxury and comfort than ever before". Sounds great, but I'm not sure that's what Wilks had in mind. And I'm not sure what you'd do with leather seats or a sub-woofer in the Meru.

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