This month was one of revisiting old memories with the arrival of the open-top vehicle that we will be using for game drives around the Reserve. This is a Series 110 Land Rover of perhaps 1995 vintage and acquired as part of a large consignment from the Singapore Army. It has been made over fairly comprehensively, and it actually starts and runs very well, but…it is…after all…a land Rover.
I will start this post with a little anecdote from my father’s day. He often remembered driving his Land Rover through rural Kenya one day with a half dozen Maasai seated in the flatbed. Their conversation as they bumped along ran along the lines of exactly what this vehicle was called. Was it a ‘Land Rover’ a ‘Rand Lover’ a ‘Land Lover’ or a ‘Rand Rover’. I only mention this because Land Rover is an iconic name in Africa and broke the back of the continent and a good many of its drivers too. In the United States it is a vehicle with some curiosity value, but over here it is, or at least it has been, the main beast of burden and workhorse of the back-country. It still is the poor man’s utility vehicle, and the best damned thing on the road if you really need to get from A to B in the worst conditions imaginable.
The thing about a Land Rover is that it can be fixed when it breaks down with a Swiss Army Knife and a piece of wire. I often compare it to a Kalashnikov rifle. You can shake both and they rattle. It has such wide tolerances that a cup-full of sand poured into the mechanism has no effect on it whatsoever. They say that 75% of all Land Rovers ever made are still on the road. This is simply because almost all the parts are interchangeable across the models and editions. There are probably thousands of Land Rovers across Africa, and indeed accross the world, that are constructed entirely from salvaged parts. For all these reasons the Land Rover is the perfect vehicle for Africa.
The only problem is that it is so bloody unreliable. There are two distinctly opposing camps in the off-road fraternity in Africa. There are those that favour Land Rovers, because they can be fixed wherever and whenever they break down, and those that advocate the Toyota Landcruiser because, as its owners never fail to remark upon, it almost never breaks down.
Whatever the merits of either argument, for my sins I have found myself back behind the wheel of a Land Rover. I have owned countless Land Rovers over the years, and have become deeply intimate with the fragrance of diesel – because no matter how tight the couplings are always leaks from somewhere – with the rattle of poorly fitting panels, the clunking of a loosely engineered gearbox and the diff-lock lever that is configured accurately to find no point of engagement whatsoever. The vehicle has been under my command for less than a month and already I have spend perhaps ten hours under the hood in the baking sun, with one assistant suggesting a large 4-pound hammer as the tool for the job and another stripping threads while undoing bolts with a pair of electrician’s pliers.
The upside is, however, that I have been able to traverse overland the veritable bog that is the Grumeti Reserve without getting stuck once. The Land Rover has one superb capacity, and that is that it adores low revs. Slip it into first or second gear, ratchet up the revs to a few degrees above stall, and let it crawl like a Tonka Truck over just about anything this lovely flat landscape of the Serengeti can offer. It truly is a beautiful vehicle for the real mud and blood of the bush. If there is a Landcruiser enthusiast out there that disagrees, bring your bitch along and we will see who really is the king of the off-road.
In the meanwhile I have no interest in ever owning one of these vehicles ever again, but I am being reminded of many, many happy days of my youth travelling all over southern Africa in my old Landie. There were days when I loved it when it broke down in the middle of nowhere. Hauling out the toolbox and stripping her down under a dead Mopane in the Zambezi Valley, or in a roasting campsite in Tweewitolifantsfontein, always had an elemental appeal to me. I loved my old Landie, and I love her still, but she has her life now and I have mine, and I hope the twain shall never again be wed.