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.