I'm in Zambia, Africa, in South Luangwa National Park. I'm bringing up the rear of a caravan of eight Jeep Wranglers that are being directed, one by one, down a steep river embankment and over the boulders of the riverbed below. The seven Jeeps in front are moving very slowly, if they're moving at all. I can hear the shouts of the spotters, who are leaping among the rocks and mud and pools of fetid water, helping our small group of American journalists guide the all-new, 2007 Wranglers over, around, and between obstacles that would defy anything this side of a Land Rover Defender. This is wicked terrain, and I'm not encouraged by the excited voices echoing off the riverbank. Good grief.
I came here to gaze at giraffes and baobab trees through the Wrangler's open roof, not to prove to the guys from the four-wheeling magazines that I'm anywhere near as proficient at this boulder-dodging business as they are. But the shouts and the sickening scraping sounds rising from the river suggest that differential cases are kissing boulders, mufflers are being crushed like tinfoil, and fender flares are finding new homes on the river bottom. It's going to be a long time before we get to our lunch spot next to the hippo lagoon.
As the hot African sun beams through the Wrangler's open top, I idly wonder if I'll be the one to hurtle a Jeep end-over-end into this river, plunging into my own personal heart of darkness. Forgive the angst. Just yesterday, one hapless member of our contingent jacked a Wrangler sideways while climbing a boulder, and the vehicle flipped side-over-side and tumbled down an embankment, landing on the passenger's door. Both occupants--Chrysler employees--were unhurt, but the incident underscored the fact that Jeep had flown us 9000 miles to test these Wranglers to their limits.
There's no more time to worry about such things, because Duncan Barbour, the amiable Scotsman serving as our chief trail guide, is beckoning me to come on down. I hit the switches to lock the front and rear differentials and disconnect the front antiroll bar, and then I ease the black four-door Wrangler over the embankment's edge until Barbour tells me to hold up. I set the brake, lift myself from the seat, and peer over the edge of the Wrangler's folding windshield. Barbour is standing way, way down there, directly in the Wrangler's path, which is not where I would be if I were him. He waits for the vehicle in front of me to claw itself out of the way, and then he gives me the go. Palming the shifter into first and inching down the rocky riverbank, I realize I'm not headed toward potential doom, because in the process of already having guided seven other vehicles down this particular assemblage of rocks, Barbour has gleaned the perfect path down the thirty-degree slope. Before long, the Wrangler and I are sloshing through the river bottom, and I'm following vehicle development engineer Mark Luscomb's advice to "let the throttle pull you along on its own. Keep your foot out of it." Hey, this is easy, I think.
Nothing is really easy in Zambia, a beautiful country of open skies, vast plains, and exotic wildlife that's straight out of the pages of National Geographic but whose populace shares the ills that afflict so much of Africa, from poverty to HIV and malaria to limited educational opportunities. Yet the locals we encountered displayed only enthusiasm and curiosity for our unlikely caravan of Jeeps as we paraded through the settlement of Mfuwe and paused in small villages full of thatched-roof mud huts. A Westerner's pangs of guilt for driving a vehicle that costs more than most Zambians will earn in a lifetime are somewhat ameliorated by the knowledge that tour companies such as our hosts, Robin Pope Safaris, maintain good relations with residents and are major contributors to local economies. One of our local guides was astonished to learn that our preproduction, prototype test vehicles were destined for the crusher once they were shipped back to the States. "Leave them here," he offered, "and we'll make good use of them."