Destination Defender might be the biggest gathering of Land Rover Defender models outside of the company’s plant in Nitra, Slovakia. We spent the weekend tagging along with hundreds of Defender owners and enthusiasts at the Iron Horse Ranch in Sommerville, Texas, trying not to get stuck in the Texas mud with a relaxing massage waiting if we did.
This is the second year for Destination Defender, JLR’s lifestyle experience event. It’s a lot like a Jeep Jamboree, but swanky. From the activities to the food to, probably, the pedigree of the dozens of doggos on site. It’s wellies instead of rubbers and a pint of hand-pumped lager instead of a can of Bud.
The highlights of the weekend event were the off-road driving opportunities and JLR announcing the Defender Service Awards, but there was plenty more on offer, even if you weren’t a driver.
Thanks to the wonder of air travel, I got to the event site at around 9 p.m. instead of the noon-hour arrival I was expecting. Last year’s Destination Defender was in upstate New York, but this year it was held a 2-hour drive right in the middle between Austin and Houston.
The event offered a limited number of hotel-like rooms inside the ranch buildings, and there was a campsite that was filled with Defenders, Discoveries, and even a lifted and snorkel-clad Subaru Legacy wagon all with roof or ground tents spread out. My group was staying in the glamping site, where extra-large tents concealed memory foam mattresses and down-filled duvets.
It was still a long walk through the muddy lawn to the bathroom sites, so I’m going to claim I was roughing it. Hey, stop laughing!
Campfire Coffee & Texas-Size Burritos
The experience day started off with a trail run lead by former NHLer Brooks Laich and multiple CrossFit Games champ Katrín Tanja Davíðsdóttir. I passed on the muddy run (can I still blame an old ankle injury?), but the gang that tagged along and tried to keep up looked like they were having a blast. A filthy blast.
After the run, the pair went off to run more experiences throughout the day. A physical challenge zone where you could try CrossFit challenges and a fitness tips session was set up, and was a popular spot throughout the day.
I stuck to fittin’ a burrito into my face. Food trucks offered up hot coffee in the morning along with some tasty-looking breakfast options. I huddled up next to the early campfire (I didn’t know Texas got cold!) and scarfed down a sweet potato, chorizo, and bacon burrito the size of my head.
That’s my kind of roughing it, but I appreciated that Destination Defender had both options. Activities for the more relaxed outdoors person and those for the truly inspired and hard-core.
First Off: Defender Found in a Junkyard
More my speed was the presentation from the Underpowered Hour podcast with Mike Bishop of Land Rover Classic and Lorin Wolfe, a former off-road engineer at Land Rover UK.
Wolfe has a very special Defender, and she found it in a fascinating way. She found her Landie while scouring for parts through Land Rover’s yard of discarded test vehicles. Part of Wolfe’s job was looking for parts from former test vehicles that could be reused in new tests.
One day, she found a North American-Spec (NAS) Defender in a very strange and unusual shade of green. It turns out that this NAS Defender 90 was built as a prototype for the 50th-anniversary special edition.
That included the 4.0L V8, diamond plate everywhere, a safari cage, and more. It’s not numbered — the rear plate reads “First Off,” and it was built especially for the company’s head at the time, Wolfgang Reitzle. It’s the only 50th wearing that particular paint color.
The Defender was NAS spec but it had never been registered. Wolfe was able to buy the Defender, bring it back to her home in New England, and has been driving it for the last 2 decades.
Shoot Defenders Like a Pro
Immediately after that presentation, photographer Nick Dimbleby gave a talk about his work taking pictures of Land Rovers around the world. The award-winning shooter showed off some of his greatest Land Rover photos and talked about the effort that went into creating the shots you can see in the company’s marketing materials.
Dimbleby also put on a workshop, showing a handful of amateur photographers how to get better shots of their own Defenders. It was a very rare chance to get some tips and tricks that you really can’t buy elsewhere — tricks that even I, with some photo awards of my own, would have loved to see. But I was stuck at the off-road course.
Off Road in Slick Clay
Not stuck on the off-road course, though a day of rain and Texas clay were both doing their best efforts to suck down the Defender 130s being driven around the challenging course. I was stuck at it, because the off-road course was the most popular experience at the event.
Land Rover loves courses like this, I’m told, because it lets owners actually experience just a small part of what their expensive new off-roaders can do. Until you traverse mud up to the wheel hubs, let hill descent control roll ease you down a hill too steep for walking, or navigate a 20-degree side slope, it’s tough to understand just how capable your vehicle is.
With a manufacturer experience drive, professional off-road trainers can help you push your own limits. Even better, they do it in someone else’s car. It takes the stress off of the drivers, something I could see in the differences in the expressions when getting into the Defender at the start and getting out of it at the end.
Learn Off-Road Skills
Other Defender drive experiences taught basic off-road skills for novice adventurers, and how to be a spotter for someone else driving on the trail. Winching and off-road recovery workshops were another well-attended way for anyone at the event to boost their trail-driving skillset. It was good to see some of those factory-accessory winches get put to use.
There were driving experiences for all ages. Well, almost all. The kid-size electric Land Rovers were perfect for the littlest off-roaders — and a few more fun-loving small adults. The electric Rovers even had a bit of a challenge thanks to the ever-present mud and their slick tires.
Tired of Off-Roading?
If you weren’t an off-roader, or if you felt like doing something a bit more peaceful, Destination Defender had you covered. After getting shooting tips from the cameraman, you could go shooting with a shotgun. Outdoor cooking demonstrations and lessons were available, and kayaking and paddleboarding were on offer. However, those last two weren’t exactly popular on a day with temperatures in the 50s and a persistent drizzle.
Mountain bike trails and loaner bikes were available, and fly fishing in the stocked pond was popular. Plus there was a spa where you could book a massage or a number of other services. There’s more than one way to get a mud bath.
Defender Service Awards Winners
The highlight of the weekend, though, was the Defender Service Awards dinner. For the third year, JLR, along with Chase, held a contest where charitable organizations in six categories could win a Defender 130 to support their efforts, along with a cash prize.
Finalists were determined by a team at JLR, but the winners had to get the most votes from their community. Manitoba Underdogs Rescue, Honour House Society, Kairos Adventures, Squamish Search and Rescue Society, Youth Sports Alliance, and the Charleston Animal Society all learned of their wins at the dinner and were presented with those giant checks that these events love so much. They’ll get their custom Defenders in a few months.
Close With a Concert & Drone Show
At the end of the night was a concert featuring Fitz and the Tantrums. It might have been the smallest crowd the pop act has played for in years, but the people there weren’t letting that stop their fun.
After the concert, came the drones. JLR brought in a fleet of drones for a fireworks-replacing light show like no other. Have you ever seen a Defender driving through the sky? If you were at Destination Defender, you could have.
Events like this are more than just a fun weekend out. They’re a good way to find out more about what your vehicle can do and to learn how to help make it do more. Plus, it doesn’t take more than a quick look at the sights, activities, and amenities to see that making it an ad for the brand makes your ticket price a bit of a steal.