Sam rediscovers the value of teamwork and simple ingenuity on his latest African adventure, and offers some low-tech, inexpensive life-hacks
…rediscovers the joy of teamwork, in Africa
Recently, I was in the beautiful forests of central Kenya working with the Born Free Foundation and the Mount Kenya Trust. We were mapping a fence that had been built on the flanks of Mount Kenya, Africa’s secondhighest mountain (after Kilimanjaro).
The fence had been built because elephants had been snacking on farmers’ banana crops and this led to conflict – the farmers often attacked the elephants to preserve their livelihoods. So the two environmental groups, together with Youth for Conservation and the Kenya Wildlife Service, had built a huge elephant-proof fence to protect the farmers and the elephants from each other!
It was an interesting few days spent in a pair of Defender 110s as we followed the course of the fence. At one stage, I had a gang of local village kids riding on the roof rack of my 110 – they had never seen motor vehicles this far up the mountain, and were taking bets on how far we would get.
The fence needed to be plotted on a GPS to create a map, and the Wildlife Rangers with us were unfamiliar with the technology, so I gave a quick lesson in GPS use at a nearby safari camp before we set out. Every 100 metres along the fence we’d pause the two Land Rovers and plot the point. River crossings caused interest. You never know what’s living in Kenyan rivers (crocs, hippos, snakes; all manner of friendly local inhabitants could be along for the ride). So instead of wading in on foot, and testing the depth for the two snorkel-equipped Land Rovers in traditional fashion, I carefully nosed my 110 into the water with one of the rangers sitting on the bonnet with a long branch. He would poke ahead and test the depth. Several times in four-foot-deep water I had to reverse and manoeuvre awkwardly among rocks and underwater plants – but everyone crossed the rivers with the same number of legs they started with, so that was a bonus.
Tyre choice – it does matter My truck was shod with Michelin XZLS – Camel Trophy-issue tyres that are phenomenal in their ability to deal with rough terrain. However, the other Defender was wearing road-spec Michelin LTX boots – fine and quiet for tarmac but far too smooth for anything serious off-road. As a result, when we met steep climbs, the other wagon slithered and slid around alarmingly. It was the dry season, so the earth was hard-packed and solid, making it difficult to grip with smooth tyres. My solution was to deflate the tyres a little and to use a panga – a local machete – to cut steps on the worst of the climbs so that the road tyres could bite.
All went well; and eventually, with the fences mapped, all eight of us made our way back to the ranger base for an overnight camp. The previous night, we’d camped near Sagana village and I’d produced a case of local Tusker beer from the back of the Defender – which had caused great excitement. Hassan, one of the rangers, by birth a Somali, had in turn offered me some qat, a local leaf that, when chewed, acts as a narcotic. I declined politely! As for the village kids, they departed for their village after our trip through the jungle with huge, excited grins – the Land Rovers had got all the way along the fence line and they had some stories to tell their mates (not to mention the enjoyment of several packets of Polo mints that I’d passed them).
I’m no technophobe, but… Ultimately, the terrain and circumstances – poor tyre choices and difficult river crossings – were dealt with, not by fancy traction control, expensive gear or huge amounts of winching and sweat, but by simple improvisation by a few guys and use of the equipment at hand. Part of the joy of using Land Rovers far from the beaten track is meeting and overcoming interesting situations, often with ingenuity and the minimum of kit.
Some useful equipment news, if you’re one of those roof-tent users who gets frustrated when the tent mattress slides on the rooftent floor to one side or the other, or if you find condensation builds up underneath your mattress. You may like to invest a few quid in a sheet of Ikea’s carpet liner called ‘Stopp’. This is designed to stop rugs slipping on smooth tiles but can also provide ventilation under roof-tent mattresses, or help them grip slippery roof tent floors. You just never know what useful stuff you’ll find in Ikea.
I love their magnetic kitchen utensil racks for holding tools or gear around camp, and their kitchen towel rails are handy for use in the back of the Land Rover for all sorts of gear.
Finally, if you’re travelling to the continent at the moment, don’t forget the ACSI Camping Card, which gets you discounted low-season prices at thousands of European campsites from September through to the end of December. You can hunt it down online at vicariouspress.co.uk.
‘One of the rangers offered me some qat, a local leaf that, when chewed, acts as a narcotic. I declined politely!’