“I don’t know about you, but going on safari with fake paw prints didn’t seem like a good idea to us”

By Carmen Huter

Five weeks, three developing countries, one broken down ancient Land Rover, and two overly optimistic travellers. A recipe for disaster or a story waiting to be told? Upon return, I can happily confirm both. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It all started one gloomy Auckland day back in June last year. My eyes dotting across a world map, I began to scheme up something I have long wanted to turn into reality. 

A self-drive across East Africa. Why? Well, besides the obvious why not, I also imagined there to be the odd elephant, cultural immersion, and a whole host of experiences likely unique to this corner of the world. First and foremost, however, it opened up a chance for me to learn and create new things (I am a travel photographer by trade) and do so with a loved one by my side (who quite frankly required a break from too many desk hours).  

A couple of months and a few days of Sri Lankan island time to ease the jetlag later, we found ourselves fifty minutes outside of Nairobi inside one big dust cloud. We weren’t alone. Lionel was there, too. Well, he was merely hanging on for dear life at this point, fading in and out of consciousness. Lionel is a beautiful, dark green, wise, Land Rover Defender, who tends to fall into hissy fits in the most catastrophic of ways. We all know someone like that; someone whose emotional (mechanical) intelligence could require some fine tuning, but whose personality and looks are all-encompassing, drawing you in despite the visible warning signs. 

In our case, we could have gone for a Toyota. A reasonable, reliable and respectful Toyota. I might mention at this point, that our wonderfully corrupt rental salesmen assured as many times over there were no insurances available to take any of this trusted Toyotas outside of Kenya. We had two options. Handsome Lionel. Or a bright white fuel-engulfing Jeep with paw print stickers all over the car. I don’t know about you, but going on safari with fake paw prints didn’t seem like a good idea to us.

Back to our first few hours on East-African land. Amongst the dust cloud was the first of many talented mechanics we had the pleasure to meet. Let me explain the differences between the Kiwi and East African mechanical experience. 

When your car breaks down in New Zealand, the first thing you do is weep. You weep as you have just realised that you will have to sell your first-born child to pay for the repair. This first emotional reaction pales in comparison to your response to understanding it won’t be complete for another two weeks. For two weeks, you become a first-world burden on your family and society, to the point where you, god forbid, might have to take the bus! The third emotional reaction occurs when you begin to wade through the sands of bureaucracy that is insurance. What time did it break down? What caused the breakdown? What sort of lettuce were you eating at the time of the breakdown? Did the iceberg lettuce contribute in any way to the breakdown? Do you want to risk your no claims bonus for this claim? Well, if you claim for this, we’ll probably double your monthly contributions. By the time you get your car back in working order, you would have been better off selling all your possessions and taking up drug-induced Kahuna massage therapy at a nudist colony on Great Barrier Island. 

“By the time you get your car back in working order, you would have been better off selling all your possessions and taking up drug-induced Kahuna massage therapy at a nudist colony on Great Barrier Island”

In East Africa, on the other hand, the mechanic finds you at the scene of the breakdown. He then tells you to shut up (you clearly have no mechanical knowledge), looks at the engine, then fixes it. If the issue is casually catastrophic, like all the electronics failing or the engine shattering, he will make do with what’s left of it. He might even hand one of his mates a chunk of the engine, sends him on a 12h overnight bus and has the replaced bit back in less than two days. Innovation is no thing of discovery for a Ugandan mechanic living off what we might call the beaten track. It is a way of life. It helps cope with the battles of corrupt governments, lacking infrastructure or limited schooling. 

And, who knows, if we were driving ourselves across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in a perfectly capable car, would we have gained such insight into the functionings of tribal cultures and the enduring strength of its people? 

Fetching water kilometres down the dirt path and then walking for an hour or two to attend school or work only to then cook, clean, study, herd animals and do it all over the next day is reality to many of the folks we had the pleasure to meet. Thanks to Lionel being so spacious, we could give them a lift to school. One time, even to the hospital. At other times, we would share our food with them or just crack a laugh. 

Of course, there were the elephants, the roaring lions, the friendly giraffes, even gorillas and chimpanzees. There were days spent on mud tracks were all three of us – Lionel including – nervously clenched on to each other hoping we’d make it across the river. And the extremes didn’t stop there. Combusted windscreens (oh, Lionel!), Malaria despite anti-malarial medication (not recommend), fiery sunsets to the sounds of hunting hyenas (highly recommended) and safari drives in the dark alongside lion cubs were all part of it. 

You see, an experience isn’t whole without the unexpected gaps between the expected highlights. It so often is the small gesture or the innocent smile our hearts remember the longest. 

The lesson of the story? Go to East Africa. Hire a Toyota and stop often, even if your engine works just fine.