(Simon John Owen)
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Times
I am pulled over less than 10 minutes into my driving holiday. I’d been cruising along, hands clamped sweatily at ten to two, staring at the road as at a chessboard, in a dictator’s convoy of purring white Land Rovers on the outskirts of Arusha. The Tanzanian highway is not a tranquil place. Crammed and tottering buses, belching lorries, improbably stacked bikes, helmetless motorcyclists, hookers touting on the roadside and no observable speed limit: it’s just like Chelmsford.
A skinny kid in a high-vis vest raps at the window. I feel the Kafkaesque belly-lurch of the African traveller encountering authority, and the non-bribe bribe question briefly leaps to mind: is there a fine I can pay to clear this? The young rozzer doesn’t speak English. He grins and gestures that I’ve done nothing wrong. He just wanted to admire the car.
’ve come to Tanzania on a new trip organised by Land Rover and Abercrombie & Kent, the high-end safari merchants who’ve been hauling champagne bottles and stuccoed Kensington families here for wild ass’s years. The idea: you camp in the bush and do your own driving, guided by radio. And, as you trundle along the Chinese-built roads, or over the flayed, grass-whipped mud of the bush track, everyone, from the hotel porter to the nine-year-old Masai boy herding goats, cranes to have a look. That is unsurprising: the machines are sleek and starkly beautiful, with assertive, gurgling engines, buffalo-repelling front grilles and forbidding strips of LEDs shimmering beneath their headlights, all day long.
The true car of Africa, of course, is the Land Cruiser, that clunky, lolling, indestructible Japanese pick-up with a snorkel poking up the windscreen. It looks like a crap provincial zoo to the Discovery’s Serengeti.
I have — to express it with a prizes-for-all generosity — minimal driving experience. A dozen or so hours of kangaroo-hopping with a distractingly handsome Finnish instructor, 25 minutes of mirror-signal-manoeuvring around Dulwich, a rubber stamp and a card in the post, then three years of atrophying muscle memory and theoretical amnesia. How better, then, to rediscover one’s talents behind the wheel than by off-roading around the Serengeti, dodging bull elephants in musth, irate black mambas, face-shredding baboons and slavering lions?
I’ve been on guided safaris before: back-seat wildlife-watching is memorable but pleasantly passive, like watching a very good, very vivid film. Driving your own car, however, brings a safari an urgent, stark autonomy. It is an illusion of partial control over this vicious and deceptive environment, with its endlessly bloody examples of predators and prey.
I MAKE IT to a water hole in the massive, Martian Ngorongoro crater without killing anyone. The soil is streaked with red. I edge my car up a huge volcanic stone that points above the filthy water like Pride Rock, in The Lion King. Below, halitotic hippos squirt glorious mud over their backs, gaping from orthodontic maws, jostling and barking.
“Try not to accelerate and decelerate so much,” crackles the guide over the radio. “It wears out the engine.” Oh, I tried, I promise. Briefly.
On the third day, during a rain-spattered tour of the Serengeti, I hit a deep rut. The path is steep, there is a modest ravine to the right, and the wheels start to spin. The guide tells me to brake and push a button to my left. I feel the machine raise itself from the sodden soil like a maiden hoisting her petticoats.
“Don’t turn the wheel until I say,” he barks. “Firm but steady.” I vroom from the rut as if it’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s only once we’re back on the road that the guide tells me the car had taken control. When it thinks you’re losing your way, the Discovery manages the steering for you, in the manner of a patient valet.
One-way traffic: the convoy hits the trail (Nick Dimbleby/Land Rover)But it bellows approval when you press the accelerator. After a time, I find myself literally joyriding, clattering across the mud, crossing rattling bridges over crocodile-stalked rivers, only stopping to give a baby gazelle the right of way. Even to an essential nondriver, hurtling down the dirt roads, lurching to a dawdle just to gaze at giraffes, is a fix of speed, of mechanical amphetamine.
After the rush, the relaxation. We’re staying at two campsites: one by the crater, the other deep in the Serengeti National Park, where permanent human settlement is banned and the Masai are not allowed to graze their cattle. But “camp” is a misnomer. This is essentially a vast, airy, transportable hotel — the caravan of a Zulu king. It has a dozen individual guest tents, each covering an area slightly smaller than a tennis court, further tents for the guides and yet more for the numberless support staff. There’s a tent with a dining table and a tent with sofas, books and a bar.
Mine contains a double bed, a carpet, a flushing loo, a warm shower — which a man outside assembles by hoisting a bucket and, disconcertingly, asking repeatedly through the flimsy wall whether you’ve finished — a scented mozzie net, a safe, bedside lights, an “emergency whistle” and a collapsing Ikea-style wardrobe. Wine decisions stretch beyond the binary, and the food is a masterclass in logistical good taste.
On the third morning, we get up at 4.30am — all safari starts are early — and trundle, high-beamed, to watch the sunrise. The head vehicle slows, then stops. To the right stands a lioness. Spectral, blank, she stares for a moment at these bright, silent beasts that have disturbed the night. Then she turns and pads softly into the trees.
In the evenings, the cars are hosed down, vacuumed, filled with petrol, snacks and mineral water, and readied for the next day. After one boozy dinner, I arc a wobbly torch beam over the forest. Pairs of eyes glint back at me like loose change. Zipped in the tent, having checked for snakes, I hear the terrifying gurgle of a big cat and, later, the snicker and yelp of hyenas. Late at night, creatures prowl between the tents, searching for food, smelling the humans, as you lie wondering about the tensile strength of canvas.
The last morning is cold. We have the windows up and our fleeces on when we see an elephant calf, barely three months old, nibbling at a tree. There is nothing in the world so pathetically lonely as a lost baby elephant. A little further on, about 60 vultures flutter and gnaw at something hidden in the grass. With a sick dread, we realise it is the calf’s mother. The guide says it won’t survive another three nights before the hyenas devour it.
It is a chastening reminder that the only thing separating you from being squashed, burnt, stung, starved, bitten or kicked to death in this environment is the car you use to explore it.