Are Land Rover clubs the same the world over? We travel to East Africa to find out
Afew weeks ago I was in Tanzania and had the opportunity to spend the day with the recently-formed Arusha Land Rover club. Not wishing to pass the opportunity up, I’m glad I accepted as it turned out to be one of the most extraordinary off-road drives of my life.
Yussuf Khatry founded the club for local Land Rover enthusiasts and tour guides to get together and explore some remote parts of the stunning countryside around Arusha and the foothills of nearby Mount Kilimanjaro. Just over six months later there are 26 members, and I was to meet four of them, including the club’s main man.
Yussuf’s 1998 Defender 110 pick-up was in the workshop being put back together again after barrel-rolling down a hill on the last trip out. Hopefully this time the only dramatic thing is going to be the landscape, I think to myself as I wait for him to pick me up.
An hour later than the proposed start (time means something a bit different to Tanzanians) Yasir pulled up in a friend’s Defender 90 with some interesting home-made improvements such as the air scoop in the bonnet for extra cooling and handcrafted aluminium headlight surrounds. They were done so well you’d have to be really sharp to spot that they’re not original parts. Importing parts to Eastern Africa is prohibitively expensive so most cars are standard and any modifications done are likely to be locally-made.
Ian was in a nice tray-back, also from the same year, with a full complement of underbody guards and another 30 minutes later Abdallah arrived in his 2001 110 Station Wagon. None of these were leisure vehicles, they were all hardworking workhorses that spend practically every day offroad. Yasir runs Flycatcher Safaris, and uses his Defender to drive through the Serengeti, checking the maintenance of his luxury camps. Ian has his own luxury lodge, only accessible by 4x4 and Adballah runs all sorts of bespoke safaris from two week long multinational park game drives to taking BBC film crews deep into the wilderness. Yussuf runs Alpha Burgers, which doesn’t require a Land Rover for business use but he’s often a scout for the East African Safari Rally looking for routes, so his 110 gets a good amount of use, too. When it’s on its wheels!
The first thing we saw as the tarmac ended was a hefty lump of elephant dung in the middle of the road. We weren’t in a national park or a reserve so it was a wild elephant that had left its mark. According to Yussuf, who could tell from how much it had dried, it had passed just a few hours before.
Through the acacia trees, evolved into high, flat canopies to keep their leaves away from giraffes, the road wound up through the hills passing small farming communities. Maasai farmers, tall, elegant shaven-headed people in chequered red shawls called shukas, tend small corn fields and herd goats and donkeys at the side of the road grazing on the verges. They wear red because it’s a colour that supposedly scares off wild animals like lions.
The sweeping, undulating track that we are on was recently a stage of the East African Classic Rally that saw some classic cars attacking it at breakneck speed. From the 1960s to the early 2000s it was also used as part of the original Safari Rally. Taking shots of the three cars ahead knowing such foreign yet familiar rallying history had taken place here was a great feeling.
The rolling hills eventually opened up to reveal a wide, flat and very fertile green valley far below. Not just any valley though. The plan for the day was to explore some dirt tracks in the famous Rift Valley, a giant gash in the surface of the Earth that came into existence millions of years ago when tectonic plates ripped themselves apart. It’s also regarded as the cradle of humanity, the place homo-sapiens first stood upright.
To get down there was a series of tight, rock-strewn hairpins that Yussuf said had seen a lot of rallying action over the years, but today there was just a dozen young Maasai walking down the hill that caught our attention. All dressed in the same sky blue robes and necklaces of glistening beads they were heading down from their village to sing in a choir. After Yussuf greases their palms with a few thousand shillings, the Maasai line up along the Land Rovers
“Picnics are usual on Land Rover weekends, but not often with zebra footprints in the dirt”
for a photo. Instead of just standing and smiling they all started jumping up and down, which is a traditional mating dance. It was a totally surreal and special experience!
Down on the floor of the valley we pulled up under the shade of a huge acacia tree. Picnics are usual on Land Rover weekends, but not often with zebra footprints in the dirt. Yasir’s bonnet was transformed into a picnic table and a veritable feast was laid out. No cheese and pickle sandwiches with Twiglets here though. Early in the morning Yussuf had stopped at a restaurant to pick up a proper Tanzanian meal of barbecued beef, potatoes and lentil stew.
Yussuf wanted to find a route across country but no one had a functioning GPS or even a map. The bush either side of the road was strewn with rocks and covered in prickly bushes that had never seen a 4x4, so after a few kilometres I suggested that we visit one of the mud and straw Maasai villages dotted on the high ground. We pulled up 100 metres away and the whole village came out to stare at us.
The tall, regal-looking chief came out to greet us and gave me a complicated hip-hop style handshake before inviting us to have a wander around the enclosure that was surrounded by a palisade of spiky bushes to protect against wild animals. It felt like taking a step back a few thousand years. Baby goats and chickens milled around the wonkywalled huts and I could see absolutely nothing of the modern world at all. The difference between their lives and ours was even more pronounced inside the mud huts. There are only a couple of fist-sized breather holes in the wall so the interior is pitch black. An open fireplace is in the middle of the floor but there’s no chimney, the smoke just filters up through the grass roof.
A few photos and some bottles of water and biscuits handed over for their time we headed back down to the main track on the valley floor. Maasai obviously have an intimate knowledge of their local environment where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years but they are useless at giving directions to people driving cars and we spent a few hours heading off in what turned out to be completely the wrong direction.
I’d seen plenty of giraffes in Africa but seeing one in the wild is much more special than one in a game reserve. Yussuf missed them but I managed to get a shot out of the window before they decided they didn’t like Land Rovers and wondered off into the bush. When we finally got to the tarmac road a few kilometres away from the border with Kenya we pulled into a fuel station. Yussuf paid for 20 litres and soon we were away again, just half an hour drive to home. Or so we thought.
A few minutes later we pulled over to the side of the road with no power. Yussuf thought it was the pump, I suspected it was dirty diesel in the tank blocking the filter. We were both wrong. When the fuel warning light came on we realised what had happened. The cheeky attendant at the station had taken the money but hadn’t put any fuel in! Yussuf found someone with some spare diesel and as soon as it went in the idling returned to normal.
For Yussuf and the rest of the club it was just a jaunt around their local neighbourhood, but for me it was one of the coolest days I’ve ever had. If you’re ever in Arusha stop by their club HQ at the Alpha Choice restaurant to say hello because one thing that seems to be the same the world over: Land Rover clubs are full of great people!
Above: Maasai all dressed in blue robes heading to a village choir stop for the club to take a photo
Above: The dirt tracks in the Rift Valley, formed when tectonic plates tore themselves apart, are famous for hosting the original Safari Rally