The CONGO, 1957—Dawn on the Kalihari. The sun rises quickly from the flat horizon, painting the sparsely scattered trees in golden-orange light. To an artist’s eye, it is a canvas of unutterable beauty, the kind of thing you could spend a lifetime trying to capture.
The landscape is bursting with colour, with life, with the abundance of nature. A young Robert Bateman takes a sip from his mug, then turns back towards the sturdy Land Rover which has been his home for many months. He picks up his brush, and begins to paint.
Now living on Saltspring Island, Bateman is perhaps Canada’s greatest living natural artist. Literally millions of copies of his work are in circulation around the globe, everything from prints to coffee table books. His ultra-realistic depictions of Kermode bears in the coastal rainforests, Bighorn sheep in the Rockies, and Bison on the prairies showcase Canada to the world.
He is an officer of the Order of Canada, a lifetime member of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, and has his own art museum located in downtown Victoria.
However, sixty years ago, he was a young teacher on the adventure of a lifetime. Bateman’s childhood friend, Bristol Foster, had just finished a Master’s degree in biology at the University of Toronto. Both men were enthusiastically interested in the natural world, and the wilderness beckoned. They hatched plans for a trip around the world. What kind of vehicle to take?
Pitchin’ in on a Pilchers Landie
Obvious, really. For pan-African adventure, particularly in the 1950s, there is really only a single choice. Durable, simple, rugged, and capable of being repaired with a toolkit consisting only of a big rock and some really good swear-words, the original boxy Land Rover is essentially unstoppable.
Having each raised $2,000 towards the cost of their trip, Foster’s well-to-do father made good on his bargain. He had agreed to provide the transportation for the trip, and called up Land Rover themselves with a special order.
Land Rover took the chassis, running gear, and front section from a Series I ‘Rover, then sent it to specialist coachbuilder Pilchers. Specializing in converting Land Rovers for ambulance duty – often in military applications – Pilchers set about making a large, roomy, and above all, square box for the Bateman-Foster adventure-mobile.
While the work was going on, Foster travelled to Land Rover’s headquarters in Solihull, where he learned how to maintain and repair a Land Rover in the field. (One assumes he was provided with a handy phrasebook of inventive English cursing.)
Bateman arrived soon after, and the pair took delivery of their new Landie, which they dubbed the Grizzly Torque. The sand-beige vehicle had everything a pair with wanderlust could hope for, from folding rear bunks to a sliding observation hatch in the roof.
A pair of jerry-cans sat ahead of the front fenders, the spacious hold was crammed full of supplies, and Land Rover’s much vaunted four-wheel-drive meant the expedition was a fully self-contained affair. Africa, and beyond, beckoned.
The Grizzly becomes canvas
Over the course of fourteen months, Bateman and Bristol covered nearly 60,000 kilometres, ranging right through Africa, then to India, then onwards to Australia. Along the way, they collected and catalogued specimens, filmed and photographed wildlife, and explored a world that’s now long gone.
Their adventures are almost too numerous to mention: at one point, they stopped to load all thirty members of a Khalihari Bushmen hunting party into the Grizzly Torque; another time Foster swerved to avoid a cyclist in India and the Land Rover rolled onto its side—but was soon righted again.
With essentially no demands, the pair could stop and go as they pleased, staying in place to tramp around for weeks, or only stopping for an hour or so. As they went, Bateman began painting a picture of the places they visited around the mid-point of the Land Rover, creating a mural that would soon circle the vehicle entirely.
After the trip, the pair returned to Ontario, and brought the Land Rover home with them. Bateman would go on to find fame as a painter of wildlife, Foster would return to Africa to teach at the University of Nairobi, and later became the Director of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. With careers and family in the future, the Grizzly Torque was sold off to a friend of Foster’s, and it disappeared for a while.
An unwanted ambulance, resurrected
Many years later, a Land Rover collector named Stuart Longair made a deal on four early Landies sitting in scrap condition on a ranch in Merritt, BC. Longair didn’t want all four, but the rancher wanted them all gone and wouldn’t split up the set. As a result, he ended up with an odd, boxy, pale-blue old ‘Rover ambulance for which he had little use.
However, one day Longair stumbled by chance on some old pictures of the Grizzly Torque. Could it be? Despite the previous repaint and the wear and tear of decades of hard use, the serial numbers matched. Bristol came up to have a look, and recognized the old Grizzly immediately—he rolled up a window to show the Plexiglas replacement from their rollover accident in India.
A full restoration was mapped out, with parts coming in from all over the world. Almost all the work was completed in Merritt, close to where the Grizzly was rediscovered, with some parts, like the long-lost sun visor, being hand-made.
Soon, the Grizzly Torque was back to her former glory, including the fender-mounted jerry-cans being painted: one Gin, and the other Tonic. Just one final touch was missing.
Once more, Robert Bateman picked up his brush and set to work, reapplying the mural that had charted his formative adventure so long ago. When he was finished, he stepped back to admire his work.
Currently, the Grizzly Torque has made the rounds at several auto shows out West, winning several prizes at the well-attended All-British Field Meet at Van Duesen Gardens in Vancouver. A further cross-country tour is planned, and perhaps a documentary.
These days, the world the Grizzly Torque explored is long-gone and much-changed, but the memory and the machine remains. To see it is to dream of adventure, to think of the wild places of the world, to imagine the sun rising as you break camp in the Kalihari.
(all images courtesy the Bateman Centre)