VISITING THE LION MAN
Finding Lions in the deserts of Namibia
The Prado’s diesel mill was humming contently on the well-worn, but smooth Skeleton Coast salt road that seemingly ran into nothingness up to its hazy vanishing point.
Two power bulges on the bonnet, one directly in my line-of-sight, were persistent reminders that this was the latest facelifted Prado, the one with the big, broad vertical bars and slit-shaped cooling openings finished in chrome.
While the sandy, featureless landscape flashed by, I also remembered that apparently the bonnet was shaped in such a way to improve downward visibility at the centre. It is also sandwiched by the sides of the bumper to help protect the engine bay and yes, the top section of the wings has been raised so that the driver can better pinpoint the vehicle’s extremities. Clever.
With an off-road heritage spanning more than 65 years, earning the Land Cruiser a rock-solid reputation as one of the toughest and most reliable 4x4s in the world, such details are to be expected. And we have already put it to the test, using the most radical settings on the user-friendly Multi-terrain Select (MTS) system to free a beached BMW from the soft sand at Pelican Point…
Interior modifications have also been made, with the top of the centre console tower now set lower by 25 mm, a new fullcolour multimedia screen, flush-fitting air conditioning control panel and a drive train related instrument cluster added.
Our top-spec VX-L model also had the indispensable ‘cooler box’ located in the centre console binnacle, as well as seat ventilation, satellite navigation (that didn’t work as no map for Namibia was loaded) an enhanced surround-view Multi Terrain Monitor camera system, power-folddown third-row seats and a 14-speaker premium audio system with powerful woofer – churning out songs from the rock supergroup The Raconteurs…
At the start of our journey up the Skeleton Coast we also sampled the power controls of the rear seats, deploying them to provide seating for two hitchhikers – young tourists from Germany and France – making their way towards Swakopmund. They worked a charm.
By now we had passed the wreck of the trawler Zeila and Henties Bay and were appreciating the salt pans close to Cape Cross, mesmerised by the numerous unmanned stalls with pink salt “sculptures” for sale. It must be a lucrative business, even though it relies on tourists leaving small change in a tin when they “buy” a sculpture.
DR STANDER, I PRESUME …
So, what was the purpose of our excursion? To find the ‘Lion Man’, Dr Philip Stander, a Cambridge-educated native of Namibia. Our destination? Well, somewhere close to the Ugab Gate; as he said he would meet us somewhere close the gate and the Ugab river mouth.
And that is exactly how it happened. Passing the turnoff to the D2303 close to Mile 108, the flashing headlights of a Namib-brown Cruiser with a tall radio-mast beckoned, and shortly thereafter I could formally introduce myself to Dr Stander.
Craggy-faced, bearded and barefoot ,he looked as rugged and gnarled as the desert landscape that surrounded us – his heimat for the last thirty years. But his eyes were bright and piercing, and his movements sharp as he invited us to inspect his quite battered and beaten trusty Cruiser.
Acquired by way of donations from, amongst others, the Land Cruiser Club of South Africa about four years ago, the Cruiser 79 was specially-built for his research purposes – kitted out with everything he would need to follow the lions and survive in the desert for weeks on end – from fuel and water, to medical supplies.
“The lions roam over a large area, about 50,000 square kilometres, so I need to be able to follow them for long distances,” the unassuming Doctor said. “It’s frustrating to turn back because of a lack of fuel or water