The bad thing about starting out on your first great South African off-road driving and safari adventure is that you and your camouflage pants, lug-soled hiking boots, and zebra-trimmed bush hat look unbelievably stupid clomping through the gleaming marble lobby of Cape Town's prestigious Table Bay Hotel. Hmm. Those childhood Tarzan movies might not have been the best source of wardrobe tips.
Once outside, we blend in so much better. Lining the hotel's circular drive are a row of rugged Land Rover LR3s, one in Zambezi silver and four in Tangiers orange (painted in the livery of the recent G4 global adventure challenge), each accompanied by official instructor/guides dressed in matching uniforms of blue long-sleeved shirts and gray trousers. Behind them is a coterie of Land Rover North America handlers, complete with camera crew ready to record the five-star safari ahead.
This is why we'd traveled halfway around the world. Automobile Magazine had been invited to join a band of well-heeled American adventurers who'd ponied up $8995 each (not including airfare) for the privilege of being terrified into a state of adventure nirvana for the next six days and nights. They are dressed like me, with the exception of a Bottega Veneto handbag here and a pair of Gucci loafers and Prada sunglasses there. No, you will not meet beer-swilling, skinny-dipping, Jeep Rubicon- type revelers on the Land Rover trail. Our fellow travelers are retired captains of industry and entrepreneurs in aircraft maintenance and real-estate development. But make no mistake: over the course of the next week, in between the gourmet meals and fine wines of the Western Cape, men and women alike will slip from luxurious 1000-thread-count cocoons to muscle their pricey SUVs over perilous mountain passes, to ford rivers presumably teeming with crocodiles, and to part the dense swamp- grass home of black mambas, puff adders, and spitting cobras. Then drink.
There are a few off-road paradises left in the world, and Land Rover knows where to find them, partly because its stalwart products have already blazed those trails and can still be found merrily rolling along where pack mules fear to tread. If you own a Land Rover, you have the keys to it all, and Land Rover culture encourages you to partake. Dealerships (called Land Rover Centres) have little on-site mountain test courses to try before you buy. Afterward, you can attend one of three magnificent off-road driving schools--at the Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, California; at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina; or at Fairmont Le Chteau Montebello in Quebec. The next stop is a full-blown Land Rover Adventure.
South Africa, a country three times the size of Great Britain, is perfect for adventure. It splits the frigid Atlantic from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean at the Cape Point, and depending on which side you're on, offers subtropical vegetation, rugged mountain ranges, semi-desert, rain forest, scrubby bushveld, and perfectly groomed vineyards. Its cities are modern, the political climate is fairly stable given its tumultuous past, its little towns are quaint, and the well-marked road system of the Western Cape is in better shape than Michigan's. All that, and wild elephants in the backyard, too.
What could be more perfect? That would be our guides, the staff of Kwa-Zulu Natal Land Rover Experience, the world's first franchised Land Rover off-road training group, led by the irrepressible Rob Timcke, a chain-smoking, Red Bull-slugging firecracker. Timcke is a born raconteur who nevertheless inspires utter confidence in his ability to bring everyone back alive. Not just a talker, Timcke was raised in a hunting camp in the old Eastern Transvaal on the Mozambique border, where his first language was Zulu. He spent time in the Congo during the really bad years as a South African army intelligence officer and became a professional hunter until 1993, when Communist Party leader Chris Hani was murdered and trophy hunters stayed home. Next, he set up tourist dives to view tiger and great white sharks. Without the cage.
Timcke then jumped into teaching people the fine art of off-road driving. "I was always a bush person," he says, "never a sea person. After nine years of getting really seasick, I found some idiot of a bank manager to buy my operation." His cohorts include his stunning Akrikaaner wife, Carina. ("I slept my way into a job," she cracks. "Unfortunately, my previous job paid much more.") Her brother Pierre Versfeld and top fly-fishing guide Antony Diplock complete the group. Diplock is not a big talker, but then he lives alone on an island near Namibia and, at the age of eighteen, participated in the tribal coming-of-age circumcision ritual with his boyhood Zulu friends. He doesn't need to talk much.
Handshakes and hellos out of the way, we climb behind right-hand-mounted steering wheels and head south in convoy. To acclimate us to driving on the wrong side of the road, Timcke has sent us down the coast road past the rugged Twelve Apostles mountain chain flanking our left and the beach towns of Camps Bay and Llandudno on our right. We climb the Chapman's Peak toll road clinging to seaside cliffs and rumble through the shrubby natural fynbos ("fine bush") habitat of the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve splashed with the bright spikey blooms of protea. South Africans are rightfully proud of this, the densest of the world's six floral kingdoms, counting between 8500 and 9000 species packed in an L-shaped area centered around Cape Town, no more than sixty miles wide. The camera car just misses a turtle in front of us. "Ooh, a fynbos tortoise," chuckles Timcke. "They're quite rare."
The plan for a brief mountainside sojourn in the dirt is scratched due to a hard, fast storm blowing in from the south. This brings fond memories to Timcke: "Carina and I ran a safari in Botswana. We were camping when massive, massive thunderstorms rolled in. You could see lightning for miles. She was setting the table with white linen, and I noticed the ground was alive. Scorpions and spiders. 'You take me home and you take me home now!' she yelled. This other time we were scouting in Zambia, and I sent her out to check the depth of the river crossing. She was chest-deep and turned and yelled, 'What if there are crocs?' I told her, 'Don't splash.' " What a gal.
We carry on to the mountain-ringed Cape Winelands surrounding Paarl, Franschhoek, and Stellenbosch (founded by Dutch and Huguenot settlers in the late 1600s) for a world-class lunch at Bosman's Restaurant at Grande Roche, Africa's only Relais Gourmand. We taste the superb wines of Grand Roche, Boschendal, and Spier. Instructors become chauffeurs. Back in Cape Town, a native choir welcomes us to dinner at the prime minister's historic residence. It seems that there'll be no end to the eating and drinking. And drinking.
Real off-roading comes early the next day, and it is very, very good. Our LR3 has a 300-hp V-8 that shifts through a six-speed manu-matic and a hill-descent control system that won't let the vehicle roll downhill unchecked with your foot off the brake--which is most helpful when it gets dicey. Terrain response allows the perfect tractive selection with the spin of a knob. I select the rock icon to climb into the pines, spotting a mongoose and a few klipspringers, which look like tiny reindeer perched on clothespins. It looks like Colorado, I think. Baboons run out. Colorado, but with baboons. A sentry male barks and moves toward us, menacing, while the rest of the troop flees. "I raised four baboons," says Timcke. "They ran loose at our safari lodge. The males are domineering and see humans as other primates. There will be one alpha male and lots of beta males. My mom, they hung on her leg. My dad was the dominant male. At maturity, they challenge the troop. This one, he'd demonstrate his strength to the weaker part of the troop. That would be my sister. He eventually nipped her, drew blood, and I got out the revolver and shot him." OK, then.
Once through the forest, we dive into a thicket of grass and find that the rain has made a lake of our trail. Knowing that an LR3 can push through water high enough to break over the hood, I press confidently along, completely forgetting I am on highway tires. No problem. We come out in the fynbos, a riotous blast of purple, pink, yellow, and blue spikes, flowers your florist would die for.
Back to Stellenbosch for an open-air Indonesian and Cape Malay buffet with delicacies such as springbok saut and gnu stew. (I made that last one up.) In the city center, there's a great crafts market, but I've decided to not tell you about buying the Congolese mask from the Zairian merchant, whom I somehow bargained up from 280 to 300 rand, about fifty dollars. Rob is suffused with mirth as I climb in with my precious cargo. The guy was sweating. He pleaded. I felt sorry for him. Forget it.
Luggage stowed, we head for an overnight in the coastal town of Knysna. We of course go the longest, most difficult way. There is a dirt trail all the way from Cape Town to Knysna, but we don't patch into it until we turn off just west of Mossel Bay on Route 327, pass ostrich farms that line the road on both sides, and head into the Centre Valley of the Western Cape, the arid red earth and rocklands of the Little Karoo. In the distance, two wild ostriches haul tailfeathers across the bleak plain. "Damn quick little buggers," says Rob. "Sixty kph [37 mph] at full speed." The road turns to lane, the lane to trail, and soon we are climbing past a sign that reads, 'Men remove dentures, ladies fasten your bras.' It's the oxwagon autobahn, the path of Dutch settlers between 1689 and 1869. If they could do it, so can we.
We see wild Boerperds--native horses--and the most colorful birds imaginable. When we can look. Because now we are creeping downhill. The rocks are loose and have sharp edges, it is scary steep, and in some places the holes are so deep that both rear wheels lift off the ground in a pirouette straight from hell, which gives me shallow breathing. As I crawl from that horror, I loosen my sweaty stranglehold on the wheel, letting it spin free in my hands.
"You mustn't do that or the ruts in the road will dictate where your tires will be," Rob corrects me. I forgot he was even there, focusing as I am on the sharp rocks that line the downward slope of this path. I feel six inches too close to everything--the steering wheel, the pedals, the brakes, God. "Take the brake off," says Rob. Huh? I have to unhook all ten toes from their death grip on the pedal. I don't want to. But the LR3 slowly finishes the gradual descent without my feet. We are at Bonniedale, a 1650-hectare guest farm that was named one of the top 4x4 destinations in South Africa for two years. It's open to the public for anything from a day's driving fun to camping and horse trekking. Nico Hesterman, a former conservation officer, and his wife, Danette, have lived in this wilderness for eighteen years and have a traditional outdoor barbeque, or braai, waiting in camp for us. A cold, Namibia-brewed Windhoek lager would have to wait 'til that evening.
We were sorely ready for the rain forest town of Knysna and its ultraluxurious, ultrachic Pezula Resort. Again we arrive with the camouflage pants, lug-soled hiking boots, and zebra-trimmed bush hats, tromping through someone's hushed art gallery of a hotel lobby. But this time, we throw ourselves on the nearest beer bottle, nearly weeping with relief for having made it thus far unscathed. Okay, maybe that really nice lady with the Bottega Veneto bag and Gucci loafers, who rode serenely down that same awful hill, confident in her young son's ability at the wheel, sipped white wine.
After reluctant goodbyes to Timcke and his Kwa-Zulu Natal Experience team (who were off to Botswana on more crazy jungle business), we flew by chartered Hawker jet into the bush for the much-anticipated rendezvous with the Big Five of the Sabi Sabi Reserve--elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo. Big-game hunting can be found in Africa, but not in the vast combined area of the adjoining Kruger National Park and the private Sabi Sabi reserve, roughly eight million acres lying between the Drakensberg and Lebombo mountains, where no animals have been hunted for more than fifty years. Animals roam freely between the park and the private reserve. There is also no fence between those animals and the eco-huts of the futuristic Earth Lodge, our dirt, cement, and grass-formed digs for our final three days in South Africa. You're not supposed to leave your room at night without calling for an escort, lest a leopard mistake you for a light snack in between wildebeests.
You would think this would be the trip's anticlimax after the off-roading. But no. Land Rover Defender 110 Gameviewers pick us up from the plane, dump our bags at the lodge, and aim for the bush. But only after a chalk talk from our Shangon ranger, Joseph Mashaba, a sixteen-year veteran of Sabi Sabi who bears a striking resemblance to actor Forest Whitaker. "Now, if we see any of the Big Five, do not jump up or it breaks the shape of the vehicle to the animal. Don't click your tongue like a kitty cat. They might jump up and grab you. And no yelling, 'LEOPARD!' "
Within five minutes of leaving the security of the lodge, we see three impalas, an elephant, and a bloat of hippos. ("You don't want to get between them and the water. They kill more people than any other animal in Africa.") Also a crocodile, a glassy Cape starling, and a crash of white rhinos. Our tracker, Thomas Mkansi, a Shangon who minded his grandfather's cattle as a child on this very land, spots lion tracks, and after thirty minutes, we find the wildebeest-stuffed pride asleep in a ravine.
Raring to go at five the next morning, we head out for four hours, come in for lunch and a nap, then dash out at dusk for another three hours with a bush break for tea. No one uses the spa, but two unnamed male guests skip one morning to watch the World Series and whine about how quiet it is, suggesting plug-in waterfalls in the rooms would be nice. Meanwhile, we have located an elusive herd of Cape buffalo, a water-hole party of three elephant herds, and more lions fresh from a feast that has left them staggering in the dirt with swollen bellies, drooling and farting. We see a prancing dazzle of zebras, a tower of giraffes, kudus, bushbucks, waterbucks, and duiker. There are dikdiks, exotic birds, vultures, a poisonous green boomslang, a barrel of vervet monkeys, and then my digital camera says "card full" as Thomas's spotlight finds a lurking leopard.
There is another South African adventure scheduled in 2006. If you go, could you shoot that leopard for me?