While traveling in Northern Africa in the late 1950s, Magnum co-founder George Rodger and his wife Jinx had a third wheel – a Land Rover called ‘Mzuri.’ With a name that translates as ‘very good’ in Swahili, the 4×4 would drive the intrepid duo over the Atlas Mountains, past majestic 15th century Berber fortresses and date palmeries in El Golea in search of nomadic Tuareg tribes, and through the intensifying combat of the Algerian war, ferrying them some 4,000 miles over three months.
When the Rodgers eventually returned to England and settled with a crop of small children, Mzuri was sold on. The piece of automotive history was lost forever, but in an unexpected twist-of-fate, the legendary car was recently discovered in the Australian outback – nearly 30 years after it was sold. When Land Rover specialists, David and Janelle D’Arcy, unearthed the rusting 107in Series I station wagon they knew they had stumbled across a very early model, but they weren’t expecting to discover an iconic car. “We couldn’t quite believe it!” Janelle says, speaking from Australia. “The people we bought it from had thought it may have been in an African movie of some kind, so when we got home, we got onto google. We put VAC 433 in, and that’s when all this information flooded the screen. We had an overwhelming feeling of privilege to be custodians of such an amazing car with such a rich history.”
Land Rover, whose 70th anniversary is this April, had just started producing the amped up ‘full-size’ model in 1957. Spotting a vehicle capable of crossing demanding terrains, Rodgers purchased it. “I don’t think many had gone before us, so there was always going to be an element of risk,” Jinx tells Magnum, recalling the early days they spent packing. Although she never worried: “My husband was very clever at organizing and fixing things, he was almost as good a craftsman as he was a photographer,” she says. Over several weeks, the pair fitted Mzuri with oversized tires, extra fuel tanks, a short-wave radio, a tropical roof, air-conditioning, a fold-down bed, a stove and — George being British — a kettle.
The trip was one of many the photographer had taken to Africa. As Henri Cartier-Bresson once accurately surmised, “George Rodger belongs to the great tradition of explorers and adventurers.” His need to travel almost matched that of his desire to photograph. In an excerpt from Africa Photographs, he writes: “This idea was born of a true love of Africa and a desire, as a photographer, to work a while away from the head-office directives in a country which offers unlimited scope for photography.” After the horrors of war, George had a deep-felt desire to photograph wildlife. In the quiet of the African bush, he found peace within the natural world.
The pair would set out from Morocco, zigzagging between the Hoggar and Tanezrouft Pistes, two east-west connecting routes that led south from the Saharan Atlas across the Algerian Desert. “We had done similar trips, but nothing quite as exciting as this one,” Jinx recalls. “The Sahara was still relatively unknown, so there were no roads, and we found our way by compass.” Although the remote roads were often unmarked and unreliable, Jinx’s humor didn’t falter. “I loved driving in the Sahara; I didn’t have to worry about traffic.”
While on the road, the Land Rover became a home away from home, a sense of the familiar while traveling in strange lands. “We both slept in the Land Rover, so we never had to go rushing out looking for an inn,” Jinx says. “If we were crossing the Sahara, we would find somewhere nice and quiet, settle in, and set up home.” Proudly painted with the title ‘Magnum-Photos-Expedition,’ Mzuri appears in almost every image as a watchful tour guide, acting as the steely counterpart to her drivers’ dogged determination.
Over the next few months, the Rodgers would frequently brush up against danger. They encountered violent sandstorms that thrashed like ocean waves in Ouargla and crossed mountainous territory where Fellaga, radical Algerian separatists, lay in wait to ambush the French military. On the return to England, one of the eight-strong armored convoy they were driving with, a necessity for travelers, was blown up by a land-mine on the northern reaches of the Sahara, near Colomb Bechar. Fortunately, the soldiers escaped unharmed. Jinx had also learned to live with one of her greatest fears, “I was really terrified of snakes,” she said. “Thankfully, we didn’t see any. I am sure they saw us, but they stayed out the way…” Ultimately, despite the more grueling moments of the trip, Mzuri would stay true to her name and keep the pair safe.
The trip would prove one of the Rodgers’ last great adventures, as children would soon intervene. Although for Jinx, it was the trip of a lifetime. “It really was such an adventure. I still live with it, with the memories.” While Mzuri is currently parked in Australia, there are loose plans to reunite the aging vehicle with her original owner. “I would love to go back, although I’m well over ninety,” says Jinx. “My son, John, dreams of picking up the Land Rover and making that trip again.” Adding, “Mzuri was like family.”