Hunting in Africa - In pursuit of the Land Cruiser
When you arrive in Africa on your long awaited classic safari hunt, the first thing you'll probably notice is the heat shooting off the black tar and making your already sticky torso drip with sweat. Whenever I return home it is always the smell that gets to me, usually off the early British Airways flight, you can smell the grass and the dew and the faint taste of wood smoke as someone far off prepares their breakfast on an open fire. I know I'm home when I step off that aircraft and feel the warm air, the cool grass smell and the welcoming smiles of the Zambians.
Yet the true test of being home is seeing my hunting vehicle, a diesel pickup Toyota Land cruiser, the same one I'd use to fetch my clients from the airport, be it in Lusaka or out in the bush, sans top and doors on a dusty airstrip. Often I'll spend an hour talking to the cruiser, feeling the gear shift and running my hands over the dent where the buffalo smacked into the car on a hot October day in the Kafue. The engine is usually rough at first and then once it realizes who is at the helm, smoothes out and starts purring like a contented leopard. You check the bearings, the oil and the suspension, all still neatly greased and ready for the oncoming season and you stand there like a proud parent gloating at the fine specimen before you.
PH's have a great affinity and affection for their hunting vehicles, it is the single most important piece of equipment a PH can have in a country like Zambia - you can climb a tree if a buffalo charges you, you don't have to have a rifle - but you're pretty much done for if your vehicle dies out in the bush with an oncoming flood of rain and it's 1000 miles back to civilization. Thus they become a of part of your family and in Zambia your fellow PH's will be able to tell, from a great distance, who is pulling in at Rhapsody's Pub to join them in a BS session and often those that owe you money have the chance of a quick escape.
In Africa, the first 4x4 vehicles to make any impression were the much talked about Land Rover and in its day was the only vehicle worthy in the rough conditions. As a kid I grew up with these, my dad, my uncles, my grandfather all had the older series 1,2 and 3 Land rovers and I still have a soft spot for them. My grandfather left me his, an ancient series 1 short wheel base with the split windshield and 3 forward gears - when you put this into 4 wheel drive it was indeed a true 4x4, no need for diff locks and the limited slip differential was not even invented. Sadly my uncles ranch manager stripped my inherited landy and built up his own with the parts, then he got fired - the shell still stands on the family farm today waiting a better life
The best thing about these early land rovers was the fact that they came in a small short version - the short wheel base or SWB - so always fitted my childhood perception of what I'd look like as a PH, the vehicle was my size. That was about all they were good for, the rear axle shafts always broke under a load, they had a terribly harsh suspension and only seemed comfortable when you had at least 2 buffalo loaded on the back. They were also incredibly slow, so by the time you got out to the hunting area, it was literally a day before you had to go back. If you spent a day on a SWB landy out in the hot sun driving across elephant potholes and through thick grass, then you really knew you were tough - even the hardest of men got off the landy at the end of the day with a sigh of relief.
When the series 3 version of the Landy hit the streets, Africa started seeing the Japanese copy of the US military Willys Jeep - a 4x4 that was to become the standard of any self respecting (and experienced) PH - the Land Cruiser. First off it had spring seats and the doors closed properly so you wouldn't have to shout at each other to have a conversation while driving. It rode far smoother than the British offering and had a great big load bed, 3 buffalo could fit on the back at a push. With a 5 speed transmission and free wheeling hubs this vehicle not only got you to your hunting camp quicker, it also made the journey a pleasure with no whining differentials or crunching gears. The Japanese designer must have got his ideas from a hunting vehicle because you could unclip the cab or roof section, no undoing of any hard to get to bolts and nuts, so you'd be out hunting literally half an hour after you got there! The only drawback was that the vehicle was heavy, if you got stuck in mud or sand, you really got stuck, and if there was no winch in the front then you were in it for at least half a day.
Todays PH's tend to stick with the cruiser, yet there are the Bruce Willises of the industry who insist on the modern version of the Land Rover, now called the defender. Usually in countries where the hunting is softer and you don't have to worry too much about where and when you break down - because that's what the new landy does - it leaks oil most of the time, has a terrible sandbox style transmission and is hopelessly underpowered. The best part is that the Land rover still has true 4 wheel drive - there is no diff lock - once in 4x4 all wheels turn in unison. So it's a pity that this rather robust vehicle which also offers great fuel efficiency and great color options is let down by poor reliability.
The Land cruiser however was from day one a product that would stand the test of time and kept getting better until lately that is. The newest versions, although mechanically brilliant and super advanced have perhaps taken into account the aspirations and modus operandi of the modern PH's - the ones born in the city who are scared to death of a tsetse fly, who insist on driving around with their windows wound up and air conditioning at full blast. You see, the shiny new cruisers don't have a removable cab so you don't get that feeling of being immersed in the wild - rather you end up listening to P-Diddy as you drive along and through the African wilderness. Your tracker on the back uses a pointing stick to show you a suitable route through the bush and when you see an animal you waste at least 5 minutes trying to get your window down and locate where your trackers are pointing - usually too late.
If you're one of the nitro express brigade from across the Atlantic then driving a stick shift is foreign, you can't handle it, so you hide the fact by employing a driver, telling your client that it is far better sitting on the back in a softly padded seat, embalmed in tsetse fly repellent with the darkest sunglasses while you give instructions to your driver with a stick.
You see, having an open vehicle, one where you have no cab or doors means firstly you get an unobstructed view of all around you so you see the game all the time, even if you're not hunting that species. Secondly you can jump off at the drop of a hat, silently, knowing where your target is located and how to plan your stalk. Third, your trackers can speak to you unhindered and usually what transpires is a running commentary from your head tracker, positioned behind you watching the road ahead for tracks. To me this is the only way to make use of a hunting vehicle, you need to have the open feeling to truly experience everything. Being holed up in a cab with air conditioning and music blaring is pure laziness and inexperience.
So as a new Denver resident, and after having a run in with a Ford Focus I set about trying to find a suitable vehicle for myself - not one that is fuel efficient and hybridized and small so it can fit neatly in the tiny parking spaces - no way, I am a PH so I must have my trusted friend with me here - a Toyota Land cruiser - perhaps to make me feel more at home (although probably to make me look more tough in the face of the Ford gang).
After falling off the chair at the local Toyota dealer when he gave me, not the full price for a Land cruiser, only the monthly lease price, I set out to find a proper used one. Of course here in the US emissions are a big issue so the trusty diesel version of the cruiser is a rare and expensive import and it seems that the best body style, the pick-up is also an unwanted relic. However the reputation is as high here, and whoever has one thinks the earth of it, to such an extent that they liken it to gold. Most of the cruisers I looked at were owned by the Moab set who used them as an 'awesome dude' 4x4 to drive on a gravel road with their bikes strapped to the roof through the desert in Utah and pretend they were doing real off road stuff.
They usually look at me with a puzzled expression when I emerge, greasy and dusted from beneath their cruiser and tell them there are a few leaks especially around the transmission and front of the motor and that the rear diff may need tightening and the seals have to be replaced - dude are you a mechanic? Well sometimes I don't tell them what I do, just in case they hike the price but most of the vehicles I have looked at are pretty beat up, rusted, leaking and wobbly. One of them, the radiator was completely dry and was even advertised with an overheating problem - fill up with anti-freeze - no more overheating! What this says for the Toyota Land cruiser is this - it is still one hell of a reliable rig, even here, because these guys don't share the same affinity I do with my cruiser - dude, what do you mean talk to it? - they simply get in, start, drive and act the part.
Being a PH and having a cruiser back home has shown me how fussy I am when it comes to choosing one and it seems that regardless of the condition of the vehicle, there is something else that I'm waiting for, something that greets me with an open smile and smells a bit like grass in the early morning with a tinge of wood smoke thrown in, something that speaks to me, a body with a dent here and there, something I can feel and something that asks to be part of the family. I'm still waiting.
Check out our Buffalo hunts - big Sable guy hasn't come back to me yet - you may be surprised at these prices, they are for one of Zambia's best hunting areas, seriously, there is none better right now and prices are way better than Tanzania - you also get me as the PH - reliable references and an ego to boot! EMAIL FOR A FULL INFORMATION SHEET
Pete Swanepoel jnr
Read more about the junior part here