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Great Drives 01 - The Darien Gap

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

Did Trump's much-vaunted wall have the potential to be the greatest barrier on the American landmass? In his unique mind, I'm sure it did. I'm sure it was all set to be the bigliest and most beautiful obstacle ever. However, Trump's mind and reality are two different places, and the reality is that Trump's wall wouldn't have even been on the same page as the Darien Gap, a barely penetrable, 250-mile stretch of rainforest which separates Panama from Colombia, and hence Central America from South America.

The Darien Gap is the only break in the Pan-American highway; a 30,000 mile network of roads which criss-crosses the whole of the Americas, from Alaska's frigid north coast to the windswept vistas of southern Patagonia, and as such, it has long been a magnet for those adventurously minded folk who seek challenges in the less-trodden corners of the globe.

The first vehicle to successfully cross the gap was a Land Rover which answered to the name of 'The Affectionate Cockroach', and made the 250-mile crossing over a period of 136 days during 1959 & 1960. The following year, a team of Chevrolet Convairs made the crossing, but still the irrational lure of this impenetrable region remained, as did the ultimate prize - the first full traverse of the Americas, from Alaska to the tip of South America - by car.

And so our potted history fast forwards to December 3rd 1971, when the British Trans-Americas Expedition hit the road out of Anchorage in a pair of Range Rovers, supplied by Rover and crewed by the British Army's finest.

Photo copyright Wikipedia.

Averaging 500 miles a day through the North American winter and the Central American rainy season, the expedition arrived at the gap on the 19th January 1972, where they promptly attacked the jungle with a military vigour.

A reconnaissance team scoped out a route, followed by a team of Royal Engineers who cleared obstacles, macheteing and chainsawing their way through the dense jungle and leaving a 4x4-sized gap which stretched across the landscape. The Range Rovers then followed, often still needing to be manhandled through the jungle, such was the severity of the terrain. On some days, despite herculean efforts, only a mile was covered. On other days, the Range Rovers were loaded onto inflatable rafts to cross the many rivers which divided the landscape. Bases were set up outside the gap to maintain radio contact with the expedition, and to resupply it. Royal Flying Corps aircraft were used to parachute in supplies to the team at the sharp end, including replacement differentials when those fitted to the Range Rovers broke.

Photo copyright Wikipedia.

With the weight of the British Army pushing them onwards, there was a slow inevitability to the expeditions progress; a plodding, glacier-like momentum which overcame everything the landscape had to offer. But in spite of this, it still took a full 96 days for the two Range Rovers to make it through to rejoin the Pan American highway network in Colombia, where more rapid progress swept them down to journey's end at Ushuaia, Patagonia, on June 10th 1972, with the first vehicle based traverse of the American landmass in the bag.

What an achievement!

Photo copyright Wikipedia.

Today, the Darien Gap retains its impenetrable allure, and attempting a crossing has became even more dangerous due to the number of people who move there to take advantage of its isolation, producing various illegal crops far from prying eyes. On the Pub2Pub Expedition, which saw us driving much of the Pan-American Highway, we did what virtually everyone does when they get to Panama heading south - we loaded our TVR into a container and shipped it around the gap. However that's not to say the 250 miles of rainforest doesn't still hold a powerful draw; the draw of the inaccessible.

Maybe it's one for next year. But then again, maybe not...


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