Over the last 40 years, visitors to Londolozi have been enchanted by this amazing wilderness area and the flora and fauna that call it home. When they look back to their time on safari they might fondly recall getting an intimate glance into the life of a young leopard, or the peaceful scene of giraffes feeding on a tall Knobthorn tree or even the thrill of following a pack of African wild dogs as they hunt. For some guests however, the highlight of their time on safari isn’t one particular sighting or moment but rather the memories of slowly bumbling around in a Land Rover, on the dusty tracks as they explored the length and breadth of Londolozi. No two game drives are the same and that is what makes the safari experience so special.
In fact, the only constant throughout the many game drives that occur day in and day out at Londolozi is that none of them would be possible without the unsung hero that is the Land Rover. Ever since Londolozi conducted its first game drive way back in the early 1970’s, the Land Rover has been part of the journey. The Land Rover is the battle-hardened workhorse that willingly goes where few other vehicles would dare venture. Be it thick mud, impenetrable bush, steep rocky hills or even the intimidating Sand River – the Land Rover has gone through it all (not always successfully).
The first Land Rover was revealed to the world at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948 but it wasn’t until Dave and John Varty purchased a 1959 Series II Land Rover for R 450 – with money they had loaned from their grandmother – that Londolozi’s love affair with the brand began. With the help of a few friends they were able to salvage the old vehicle and get it to Londolozi to be used as a game viewing vehicle as well as an all-purpose machine for moving things around in the camp. Shan Varty recalls how people would wake up at unspeakably early hours in the morning to attempt to get the Land Rover running before morning game drives. Despite being old and abused, that Land Rover would still allow itself to be coaxed into life again each morning. It was moments like this that speak on behalf of all Land Rovers; they seem to possess the enviable, almost human-like quality that enables them to push on even when all hope seems lost. People become attached to their Land Rovers in a way that differs to other car brands and its almost as if these inanimate objects have a soul of their own.
That same bond between man and Land Rover is still shared today at Londolozi.
Due to the fact that the Defender series in particular has earned such a legendary reputation for its off-roading ability, some rangers seem to forget that even this great machine has its limits. There are occasionally obstacles that are simply insurmountable, but the excitement of a great wildlife sighting often leads to this being forgotten. This faith in the Defender has led to almost every ranger getting stuck over the years and in nearly every case the rangers will take the blame rather than accuse their beloved Land Rover of letting them down.
At this point it is important to note that the Defender’s off-roading prowess does come with a well documented trade-off in that they are said to have questionable electronics after a certain age. Although, most Land Rover drivers would agree they would gladly keep the faulty electrical systems in their Defenders as long as the true essence of the vehicle remained unchanged – the stylishly humble good looks and dogged off-road perseverance. I’m sure all the Londolozi rangers, past and present, have their favourite stories about epic adventures aboard their noble vehicle…
Ranger Jess MacLarty had being driving a Land Rover Defender that had been giving her trouble for some time. As she drove along the engine would cut out spontaneously but she would be able to start the car again before the guests took any notice. The problem had been getting progressively worse and on one fateful day the engine chose the wrong time to cut out.
It was a very busy day at the lodge and majority of the rangers were awaiting a huge group arrival at the airstrip. The rangers had all been briefed by the then head ranger – Chris Goodman – that today was certainly not the day to be creating extra problems. Bearing these instructions in mind, Jess set off on an afternoon game drive with the only set of guests that were not involved in the group arrival. She kindly chose to take her game drive in an area of the reserve that would not affect the logistical workings back at camp. As she drove along, the engine would cut out and she would restart it smoothly as this had become second nature to her by now. She had already found a lioness and the drive was going well, so she decided to cross the river and head to the other side to stop for a sun downer drink. After a quick assessment of the river (which was flowing pretty strongly!), tracker Jeff Mhlongo and her agreed that it was safe to cross (Jess assures me that – unlike many of the other rangers at the time – she had nothing to prove in terms of her off-roading credentials – so this was indeed deemed as safe to cross). Jess edged the vehicle into the river and to her delight it crept forward like it had so many times before. About midway through the channel however, the engine cut out and she reached to restart it but this time nothing happened; the engine simply wouldn’t start.
Initially, Jess was not worried about being dead-in-the-water, so to speak. She got on the radio and called for mechanical assistance from camp. Then it suddenly dawned on her: there would be no help for a while as everyone was busy at the airstrip. Still, Jess remained calm until she felt a little bump. The terrified look on her newly pregnant guest’s face cemented that sinking feeling and it was then that Jess realised that things were not looking good. While she and the guests had been stuck, the river had been slowly rising further. The water level was only half way up the wheels at first but by now it was starting to leak into the footwell.
It seemed that rains from further upstream were now sending water down at an alarming rate. Jess called camp again and as politely and professionally as she could over the radio, made it clear that her needs were becoming a little more urgent. A tractor was hastily dispatched from camp and headed out to help save Jess. In the 20 minutes it took for the tractor to reach her, the water had risen higher still and was now approaching the level of the driver’s seat. In a well-meaning attempt to lighten the mood, Jeff made a joke about crocodiles which went down like a stone, only increasing the tension in the atmosphere.
The tractor arrived shortly afterwards and ploughed into the current to rescue the stranded Land Rover. Hope soon turned to despair as the tractor pulled up next to the Land Rover, which had now been pushed a good 50 metres or so downstream. Just as the tractor stopped, both the tractor and the Defender felt a thud as the current pushed both of them a few inches. The water was murky and Jess wasn’t sure if there was a hole that could potentially cause the Land Rover to tip should it creep any further. Hastily, they bundled the guests onto the tractor as the two vehicles continued to be almost swept along. The tractor did manage to get the guests to safety but the same was not to be said for the poor Land Rover. I have no doubt that as Jess watched her vehicle being towed towards the bank that there would have been a great deal of sadness in seeing her old faithful Defender meet its watery demise. The size of the subsequent bill to fix the flooded electrics, we won’t be mentioning here!
When I eventually leave Londolozi I am sure of a few things; I’ll always treasure the memories of being out in the bush with fellow rangers and guests alike enjoying the magic of the African savannah and the Land Rover Defender has played a huge role in that. These amazing vehicles are more than just cars to us, they almost feel like part of the team. With the Defender no longer being manufactured by Land Rover, it’s up to us – the fans of the Defender – to continue its rich legacy by sharing our stories of all those marvellous moments in the bush on the back of the Land Rover.