Slogans: good, bad, and otherwise.

A good one . . .

A good one . . .

Henry Ford once said, “If you have a really good thing, it will advertise itself.”

Lest you think this is mere hyperbole, note that between 1917 and 1923, when demand for the company’s seminal Model T was at its height, Ford ran no ads. Zero. Not as much competition back then, you might still argue? Actually a U.S. car buyer in 1920 could choose from over 120 brands.

It’s been a while since a manufacturer could dominate a market without any advertising, although sometimes I think Rolex could save a whole bunch of money. But in today’s fast-paced and overwhelmingly input-heavy world, I suppose product makers need to keep frantically stroking toward the surface of an ocean of products to make sure they’re noticed.

The easiest, grabbiest way to do so is with a really good slogan—a line of no more than a few words that encapsulates to maker’s philosophy or passion in a way that excites the consumer’s passion as well. You’d think this would be an easy thing to come up with, and there have been many legendary slogans that have become embedded in our collective consciousness: “Just do it” from Nike, certainly (even though it’s really a rather banal phrase). But it’s astonishing how many duds there are.

I got to thinking about the slogans of various brands with which I’m familiar, or have actually purchased, when I passed a Land Rover LR4 with a conspicuous “One Life, Live It” banner across the back window. I have to admit this slogan has always given me a vague icky feeling. It’s just way too precious, like the people who would be susceptible to it would be into indoor rock climbing and Soulcycle and Bikram yoga but never actually do anything out of doors. I’m positive that’s grossly unfair, but it’s just my gut reaction. And it got me to thinking of other slogans I like, and yet others that make me wonder that someone actually got paid to come up with them.

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Compare Porsche’s incomparable and oh-so-Germanic “There is no substitute” with Snap-on’s lame “There is a difference.” The former sneeringly dismisses the competition; the latter is defensive and whiny about that competition. Porsche is telling you, “You can buy a Corvette for half the money. It might even be faster around a race course. But it’s still just a Chevrolet.” Snap-on is saying, “You can buy Craftsman tools for a fifth the price, but ours are better. Really. We promise.” Lame.

(Honorable close second to Porsche goes to Ferrari and its “We are the competition.” I wonder if they hired a German PR agent for that one?)

The automotive world has seen its share of winner and loser slogans. Perhaps the most bold was Volkswagen’s simple “Think small” campaign, launched in the teeth of America’s craze for ever-larger land yachts in the late 1950s. But it worked, attracting hundreds of thousands of owners who either were unimpressed by or simply couldn’t afford the tail-finned barges of the era. (And of course there was National Lampoon’s own later Volkswagen “ad,” showing a Beetle floating in water—an actual Volkswagen boast at the time—with the line, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be president now.” Ouch.)

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Chevrolet, perhaps surprisingly, has had several slogans perfectly tuned to its market. “See the USA in a Chevrolet” and “The heartbeat of America” conjured both road-trip adventure and patriotism. Contrast with Toyota’s bland “Oh what a feeling!” “Get the feeling,” the inexplicably inexplicable “Moving forward,” or the just plain stupid “Everyday.” Really, Toyota? Mercury’s “Live life in your own lane” sounds like the kind of admonishment so many lane hogs could use these days, whereas Mitsubishi’s “Wake up and drive” seems to be aimed at Tesla owners who play video games on the freeway.

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At the other end of the spectrum are such brilliant slogans as Jaguar’s original “Grace . . Space . . Pace,” Bentley’s “The silent sports car,” and, much later, from Lexus, “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” BMW’s excellent “The ultimate driving machine” was followed by the so-so “Sheer driving pleasure.” Audi’s “Vorsprung durch technik” sounded awesomely über-something-or-other in German, even though its literal translation is simply “Advancement through technology.” Meh.

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Perhaps my favorite automotive slogans of all time were completely fictional. A few years back some clever soul imagined the reintroduction of the infamous Trabant 601, and came up with a campaign of fanciful yet oh-so-perceptive slogans, such as “Just like stainless steel. But made from plastic,” or “Just like a gym. But with a steering wheel.” Truth in advertising, even if it was fake. 

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The latest Defender teaser video . . .

While it’s tempting to try to infer more technical or performance details than we already know for certain, I’m not going to. Why? Because this is a teaser—a promotional video produced by Land Rover. It should be obvious that it’s not going to show us the vehicle in anything but the very best light. So of course the performance in this carefully edited sequence is going to look excellent.

Sure, there are certain things anyone who’s paying attention can see. The new Defender—particularly the two-door 90 version—appears to have class-leading approach and departure angles. Suspension compliance looks to be excellent, as we would expect. The wheel diameter seems to be larger than I would have preferred—certainly larger than the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon’s 17-inch versions—but the glimpses of brake discs indicate there might be room for smaller-diameter wheels to allow more tire sidewall. Impossible to say.

The point that struck me most forcefully was the marketing approach taken by Land Rover. Ads for the original Series vehicles stressed their utility, their strength, their versatility. Not any more. This time it’s all about a pseudo-Paris-Dakar, high-performance, high-environmental-impact attitude. More than half the tracking shots of the vehicle show it at various degrees of side slip, and there’s a whole lot of sand being spewed and snow being flung. That indicates clearly where the company believes its sales lie, even if it actually tells us very little about the vehicle’s everyday utility, strength, or versatility.

The new Defender will be a unibody vehicle with all-independent suspension and a high degree of reliance on electronic traction aids to gain what the company promises will be a new high in all-terrain capability for a Land Rover.

It will be an entirely different vehicle than its predecessors.

I suspect most of its customers will also be entirely different.

Tom Sheppard's Four-by-Four Driving, 5th Edition

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Can you learn to be a better 4x4 driver from a book?

The answer is yes. And no.

Don’t stop reading, because that’s not an evasion. 

The “no” part of the answer is easy to explain. Simply put, nothing can substitute for having an experienced human instructor in the seat next to you, or outside your open window, to give you second-by-second advice on your control inputs and choice of lines. Not long ago I watched Tim Hüber stand next the the driver’s window of a Range Rover while he had the owner repeatedly back up and slowly inch over a soccer-ball-sized boulder. Back and forth, back and forth. The aim was to hone the driver’s ability to gently ease over an obstacle or down a ledge, rather than bouncing and compressing the suspension, which reduces ground clearance and increases the chances of contacting bodywork. The fellow finally nailed it, and negotiated the following driving course with consummate grace. I can think of dozens of other instances I’ve watched (or, indeed, have experienced as a student), with such skilled and patient instructors as Sarah Batten, Graham Jackson, or any of the ex-Camel Trophy team members who’ve taught at the Overland Expo for a decade now. 

Having a live instructor is especially vital when learning to drive in conditions new to you, or more extreme than you’ve experienced before. This applies to such procedures as driving on side slopes, negotiating steep hill descents or difficult climbs, and similar situations where inexperience might either make you overconfident (unlikely), or too timid to fully exploit the capabilities of your vehicle.

However. You can significantly enhance your level of preparedness for that personal instruction by reading the right book. And I know of none better than Tom Sheppard’s Four-by-Four Driving. I’ll offer full disclosure right now: I wrote the chapter on winches and winching, and the section on the Hi-Lift jack, for this and the previous edition. But that’s a fraction of what this book is about.

(And in case you think you’re beyond such a primer, note that Four-by-Four Driving is the mandatory textbook for several trainers I know who contract with two governments to teach Special Forces operators advanced driving and recovery techniques.) 

Why is it so good? I think the answer lies largely in the fact that Sheppard was a test pilot in the RAF before he took to solo exploration of the Sahara. And when you’re flying an experimental jet aircraft, poor preparation and bad driving won’t just get you stuck—it will get you killed. Thus Tom insists that a thorough knowledge of the vehicle itself, and especially its driveline and four-wheel-drive system, is the key to being an effective driver. Think of it in terms of a maxim:

If you don’t know how the vehicle operates, you won’t be able to operate the vehicle. The more you know about how it operates, the more effective an operator you will be.

For this reason, a full 20 percent of Four-by-Four Driving is devoted to an exhaustive look into the drivetrains and systems of vehicles from the Suzuki Jimny up to and including the Bentley Bentayga. While you might be tempted to find your own model in here and only read about that, don’t. Learning about other approaches will help you understand both the strengths and weaknesses of your own ride. Besides, if you ever have the opportunity—or need—to drive something foreign to you, you’ll look like a hero if you hop in and immediately turn that LR4’s Terrain Response dial to the proper setting—or, for that matter, are aware that you’ll need to get out and lock the hubs on that Troopy before pulling back on the transfer-case lever.

Just a partial table of contents

Just a partial table of contents

The driving section then begins with another vital subject: mechanical sympathy; that is, how to drive with awareness of the vehicle and the right touch to avoid stressing or breaking it. Further discussions cover suspension articulation, low range and when to use or not use it, throttle and brake control, followed by extensive sections on types of terrain and the techniques used in each: sand, mud, tracks, deep ruts, rocks, water. What is the correct way to ascend or descend or traverse a steep slope? To cross a deep ditch or sharp ridge? Negotiate snow or ice? It’s all in here.

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The following extensive section is all about recovery, both assisted and solo, and includes an utterly brilliant chapter on winching. :-) A short but fascinating chapter on advanced driving covers such arcane skills as changing from low to high range on the move, or driving a non-synchro transmission—just in case you ever get the chance to take a Bedford RL on safari. There are also useful sections on trailer towing for those of you with adventure-type trailers.

That would be a complete book, but Tom continues with a section on expedition basics—sort of a flash introduction to the last word on the subject, his Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide—as well as sections on loading and lashing, equipment, fuels, oils, tyre repair, and vehicle selection for expeditions.

That front section, however, is why you should buy this book. For the fifth edition Tom immersed himself in the latest models and technology and updated anything that remotely hinted at being past its sell-by date. There’s even a brief flash of a disguised Rolls-Royce Cullinan careening along the face of a sand dune, with a typical Sheppard wise-cracking caption: “No, your Ladyship, the brake is on the LEFT! And Rolls is the marque, not the aim.”

Read this book. Then go get some professional instruction. I’ll bet you at some point your instructor will look over at you and say, “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

Nitecore charger

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One of the few downsides of modern digital cameras is the need for frequent battery charging. My first pro-level camera, a (film, of course) Canon F1 built with the ruggedness of a 747’s Black Box, had a battery to operate the light meter, but would function quite happily without it; you just had to remember the classic “Sunny 16” rule for exposure. 

Not so these days: No battery, no camera. Even the ascetic’s choice, manual-focus rangefinder Leica M10 is digitized and thus dead without power. 

One upside is, modern lithium/ion batteries boast tremendous charge density for their weight. Another—important for travelers—is that virtually all chargers for those batteries are muti-voltage and will operate happily on either 120 or 240 VAC current. Unfortunately, while the countries of the world managed to confine their mains single-phase voltage supply to those two choices, the variety of plugs necessary to access that voltage is bewildering. And if, like me, you are absent-minded enough to leave not one, but two adapters firmly inserted in sockets on a single trip across Africa, you could find yourself critically short on charging capabilities. Trust me that finding a U.S. to Botswana or Namibia adapter in Botswana or Namibia is a near-futile quest.

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Fortunately there is a backup power source right there in the notebook computer you take to download and store those photos: the USB port. Which brings me to the Nitecore charger.

The Nitecore, which is available in numerous configurations to accept most camera batteries, plugs into the USB port of your notebook computer, which means it is way less likely to be left behind. That would be enough for me to click “buy now” right there, but the Nitecore also incorporates a digital readout that tells you the overall health of the battery, its current state of charge, rate of charge, and voltage. Brilliant. 

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I used the Nitecore on a recent trip to Mexico in our Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper, which highlighted another advantage: Since we currently have only a single-outlet 12VDC to 120VAC inverter in the truck, I was able to charge both computer and camera batteries at once. And I found the state-of-charge feature useful: At one point I was unsure of the capacity left in one of my BP-DC12 1200mAh batteries before a long hike. So I plugged it into the Nitecore, which informed me it was at 980 mAh—plenty to go on with just a single spare.

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The Nitecore has a very short cord, which enables it to fold away in the back of the unit. And as you can see from the lead photo, the unit itself is significantly smaller than either my factory Lumix or Leica chargers. Given the extra functions included, that’s remarkable. Bravo Nitecore. 

Highly recommended, even if you’re not absent-minded.

African trail hazards

The offending limb

The offending limb

It was Connie who alerted me, in her inimitable style, as we stopped at the entrance gate to the Moremi Game Reserve to pay the entrance fee.

“Jonathan,” she said, deadpan, “You have a stick up your butt.”

I realized even without checking that she was speaking metaphorically, so I looked at the next obvious spot—the rear of our Troopy. And there it was: a pretty stout limb as a matter of fact, wedged somewhere firmly in the vehicle’s undercarriage and dragging on the ground. Wedged so tightly as to be scoring an impressive furrow behind us. I was pretty sure I’d heard it get there, but the forest track we had followed had been littered with such limbs of various sizes, and I’d gotten used to the odd one smacking the undercarriage when a tire flipped it. The strategy with such limbs lying crosswise is to drive over the middle if possible, as this reduces the chance of flipping, but it wasn’t always possible, and many of the limbs were concealed in undergrowth.

A glance under the truck showed the limb angling up to the rear axle, where it took an abrupt bend in front of the tube and up into the chassis. I got down and slid under the Troopy, gave a yank on the limb, and  . . . nothing. It was well and truly jammed in there. So I slid in all the way, and found that the end had somehow crammed its way past brake, water, and diff-lock lines to lock itself behind a frame crossmember.

And then I noticed the sheen of some sort of liquid. Uh oh.

I could see the water line from our chassis-mounted tank, and it was intact. My next, worried thought was brake line. But the brakes had felt fine as we stopped. By now Graham had crawled under as well, and said, “Gear oil.” We smelled it and sure enough. The stick had ripped off the air line fitting for our ARB diff lock, and severed the line itself. Some differential oil had come out with it.

It took some serious heaving to free the end of the limb and remove it—I’m still mystified as to how it managed to insert itself that firmly in a fraction of a second. There was no way to repair the line—it was now too short and the fitting was mangled. So Roseann found a wood skewer of the approximate inside diameter as the fitting on the diff housing; I cut a short plug from it and used Gorilla Tape to securely fasten it in place. 

We drove the rest of the trip through Botswana and Namibia with the bandage in place. There was no more leakage, so the truck went into its shipping container that way. I’ll fix it properly when it arrives in Arizona. (I’ll check carefully to make sure no oil is being pumped up the air line toward the compressor, which can happen in certain circumstances with ARB lockers.)

I only forgot about the issue once, on the challenging track we took from Twyfelfontein to the Ugab River Canyon. I paused before a short but very steep and loose climb and, without thinking, hit the compressor switch for the locker.

“Uh, watcha doing?” Roseann asked. Oh, right. Of course we made the climb with zero drama and no locker.

In this case I don’t feel that I did anything wrong driving-wise, and I don’t feel that I was remiss in not having spare air line and fittings along. You just can’t predict everything. I did learn, however, to pay attention when Connie Rodman says there’s a stick up your butt.

And the damage

And the damage

High-mileage champions

My first car, at about 110,000 miles.

My first car, at about 110,000 miles.

“As with old Toyotas, nice old Hondas are perpetually rare. People buy the cars and squeeze them of use, then wake one day to find the things spent, not worth enough to rebuild. The curse of ordinary nobility.” Sam Smith, Road and Track

I remember when my first car, a 1971 Toyota Corolla 1600, accumulated 100,000 miles on its odometer. My friends were impressed.

Nearly two decades later, when my FJ40 passed the mark, I started a tradition by pouring a shot of single-malt whiskey into the radiator.

In between those events, much had happened in the automotive world. We’d passed through the dark days of early emissions controls, when Corvettes came with 160 horsepower and everyone thought performance was dead. Then came the magic of electronic fuel injection and ignition, through which a central processing unit (CPU) could precisely control fuel delivery and many other engine parameters—and thus hugely reduce emissions while increasing power. Slowly at first, then rapidly, power began to rise again, and before long we could buy cars that produced more horsepower than we had ever experienced during the so-called glory days of muscle cars. And yet those cars also used far less fuel—it was a win-win-win triumph of technology.

But that wasn’t all. In part due to the cleaner-running internals, and in part due to better machining methods and higher quality control, championed at its best by Japanese makers, engines and transmissions began to last longer and longer as well. Soon, racking up 100,000 miles on a Corolla or Civic was not even worth mentioning, and these days pizza-delivery kids still run clapped-out examples with 200,000 miles and more on engines that have never had the head off. Without doubt, 200,000 is the new 100,000—and yet even now statistics show that only eight tenths of one percent of vehicles reach that mileage.

My FJ40 now has 322,000 miles on it, and a comprehensively rebuilt engine courtesy of my master Toyota mechanic friend Bill Lee. So I wondered how many vehicles reach the 300,000-mile mark—and the answer came through the site iSeeCars.com. Herewith the stars, and the percentage of them that survive to that lofty distance:

Ford Excursion: .2%

Toyota 4Runner: .2%

Toyota Sequoia: .2%

Chevrolet Suburban: .2%

Toyota Tacoma: .2%

Toyota Tundra: .2%

Notice a trend? :-)

Incidentally, the all-model average for reaching that distance is just .1%. Also incidentally, the five longest-lasting sedans/vans (and the percentage of them that attain the 200,000-mile mark) include, in order, the Toyota Avalon (2.5), the Honda Odyssey (2.5), the Honda Accord (1.9), the Toyota Sienna (1.8), and the Toyota Prius (1.7). Note, especially, that last one, all you doubters who claimed the Prius would bankrupt owners with expensive battery replacements at 50,000 miles.

The 10 longest-lasting vehicles by brand look like this:

  1. Toyota

  2. Honda

  3. GMC

  4. Chevrolet

  5. RAM

  6. Ford

  7. Accura

  8. Subaru

  9. Dodge

  10. Cadillac

I was surprised to see Nissan in 14th place, below Volvo, Jeep, and Chrysler. I was also surprised to see that Volvo was the only European manufacturer to appear anywhere in these lists.

Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary . . . 

Driving among elephants

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If you are as lucky as I am, you might someday get to drive your own vehicle in Africa. If you are very lucky, you might get to drive that vehicle close—sometimes very close—to African elephants. How you behave in that situation might determine whether or not your vehicle remains in its preferred position with all four wheels on the ground.

I’ve not only been lucky enough to drive close to elephants, but to have done it dozens of times, to have led others driving their own vehicles close to elephants, and, before that, to have been driven close to them. This, combined with (much more valuable) advice from biologists and guides with decades more experience than I, has imbued me with enough pachyderm politeness that—so far—my presence has been tolerated with no sudden 90-degree shifts of the horizon. But a quick search on YouTube will reveal others either unlucky enough or, more often, stupid enough to piss off the animal—and a full-grown African elephant is quite capable of toppling and/or trashing a heavy expedition vehicle.

The first thing to know is that the elephants you’re likely to see from a vehicle are probably quite used to seeing vehicles, and normally will virtually ignore them as long as those vehicles stick to predictable behavior. It’s when the vehicle does something unexpected—diverging from a known track, moving too quickly, approaching too closely, getting between members of a herd, or appearing unexpectedly—that the elephant’s alarm bells go off. It follows, then, that when piloting a vehicle around elephants you’ll want to stick to known tracks, drive slowly, keep distance between you and the animal, stay out of the middle of herds, and avoid surprising them. You’ll also want to avoid making loud noises—honking your horn to alert your friend in another vehicle that THERE ARE ELEPHANTS RIGHT HERE! is a no-no. And turn off your camera’s flash.

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If you’re on a game drive and spot a group of elephants browsing, and want to get close enough for better viewing or photographs, the best strategy is to let them approach you. Slowly maneuver to get 50-75 meters in front of what appears to be their path, stop, and wait. You can leave the engine idling or turn it off—I’ve never had it affect the elephants’ behavior either way—but leaving it idling gives you a less intrusive option for slowly retreating if it seems necessary. If they come close, great; if not, don’t punch it in an attempt to head them off. Wait and circle around after they have passed.

If you’re on a track and come up behind an elephant or elephants heading the same direction you are, you can slowly close the distance, but watch very carefully indeed for any signs of discomfort or annoyance—elephants don’t like to be tailgated any more than you do. On the other hand, if you come around a bend and find an elephant walking down the road toward you, don’t just stop; pull off to leave it room to take the easy path. 

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One common situation I’ve come across causes trouble surprisingly often. An elephant will be standing next to a road, either simply loitering, or musing on whether to cross and try that tasty acacia he sees yonder. However, even though he’s not moving, I’m absolutely convinced that elephant has already laid claim to the crossing. Numerous times I’ve watched a vehicle stop and wait for a minute, then try to ease past, and more often than not this results in an immediate flaring of ears, shaking of the head, and an annoyed trumpeting if not an actual mock charge. It’s tempting to anthropomorphize and think this baiting game is a popular elephant pastime, but in any case it’s better to just wait until he makes up his mind.

Speaking of charges: I first remember reading about the differences between a mock charge and a real one in an early book by a professional hunter. He described the mock charge as “ears out wide and flapping, trunk straight down, lots of head-shaking and trumpeting and stirring up dust, but brought up short of any real confrontation,” while a real charge was, “ears flat against the head, trunk tucked up underneath, no noise, just a shockingly fast rush at the offending object that would only stop when that object was flattened or gored.” I’ve only seen a single real charge, at a rapidly retreating safari vehicle that had tried the “squeeze past” maneuver (it escaped), but lots and lots of mock charges that fit the old hunter’s description perfectly and ended with nothing but a truck full of wide-eyed tourists and some really good photos. With that said, it would be utterly stupid to treat any charge by an elephant as a harmless show of bravado. I recently watched a video of a “mock charge”—ears out, trumpeting, the works—that ended with the elephant’s head impacting the side of the vehicle hard enough to tilt it significantly and induce screaming in the occupants and a precipitous retreat by the driver.

This elephant objected to us driving slowly past, obviously because of the young one behind her.

This elephant objected to us driving slowly past, obviously because of the young one behind her.

The other thing to remember is that an elephant can be a dangerous animal even when it’s not trying to be. I watched another video, taken from inside an open 12-seat safari vehicle, of a large bull elephant that slowly circled the vehicle three or four times only a few feet away, giving the forest of brandished phones and cameras inside a great show. Eventually he stopped, gently placed his head against the rear corner of the Land Cruiser, and pushed. The vehicle rocked on its springs and the occupants squealed delightedly. Then he pushed harder, and the occupants stopped squealing. Harder yet again, until it looked like the near-side wheels might be coming off the ground. At that point the driver abruptly took off, while the elephant just watched the retreating machine calmly. He clearly had no ill intent; he was just curious and playful—but that would have been irrelevant to the people inside the vehicle if it had turned over.

While I’ve had no such close calls, Roseann and I did have a hilarious episode on our last trip. We were driving along a track in Chobe National Park, heading toward Savuti Camp and pushing it just a bit to make it before sundown, with Graham and Connie a half kilometer or so behind us. It was a single-width track running through dense mopane forest about three or four meters tall—the astute among you will note this is more or less exactly elephant height. There was no sound but the calm rattle of the 1HZ diesel—until there was a deafening scream about two meters from my right ear, and an elephant crashed back into the brush from where it had been standing, completely invisible, almost in the road. I believe Roseann and I both might have made our own elephant noises. Fortunately the elephant left rather than sticking around to take revenge on the next Land Cruiser to come along, as Graham and Connie never saw it.

Most of our encounters on that trip were far less coronary-inducing—such as driving up to an unoccupied elevated hide (blind in U.S.-speak) by a waterhole with no wildlife in sight, having lunch, and being just about ready to move on when two, then six, then twelve, and finally sixty four elephants showed up to drink and bathe in the mud. A transcendent experience. 

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As we all know, elephants are facing an existential threat due to the rampant poaching trade, which does nothing but supply wealthy Asians with status-symbol trinkets and coffee-table sculptures. Income from tourism does at least some good in the fight against this despicable perversion of human greed, and encourages the countries involved to continue fighting. Thus driving among elephants is both a humbling personal experience and a valuable contribution to their future. 

Just keep in mind the rules of the road when you go.

Elephants always have the right of way.

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