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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Routines . . .

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Routines are important when you are on the road in a strange country. They help maintain a sense of solidity, familiarity, and comfort when much of your day might be spent route-finding and driving in difficult terrain, provisioning in towns where English might be spoken little if at all, or dealing with bureaucracy-choked border crossings. 

The routines don’t have to be the same ones you have at home—which is often impossible anyway—they just have to offer a grounding for the day. And the more of a habit you make of them, the more of a grounding they provide.

Lots of people start out the morning with coffee, of course: the grounding routine of all grounding routines. But how you go about it can be its own routine. My friend Graham Jackson invariably starts the pre-dawn day by collecting twigs and boiling water in one of his growing collection of volcano kettles. In fact one of my own grounding routines is simply seeing that plume of smoke rising into the still air while Graham watches with his hands clasped behind his back. Roseann and I use a volcano kettle as well, but only for our later, mid-morning coffee. At first light we’re too impatient to wait until we’re up and fully clothed to get the water going, so we put a standard kettle on the stove inside the camper while we dress. We might wind up with our coffee in hand a bit sooner than Graham, but I suspect his is more satisfying.

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Graham also starts the day with rusks to be dipped in his coffee—a routine that must be particularly comforting given his upbringing in South Africa. We like them too, when we can find them in a bakery, as we did these superb versions in a coffee shop in Windhoek.

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We generally skip breakfast, but make up for it with another regular treat: bacon and egg sandwiches at a mid-morning halt, either prepared then (while boiling water for coffee in the volcano kettle), or fixed ahead of time, wrapped in aluminum foil, and then re-warmed on the engine block when we stop. On the Troopy we carry the gas (propane) bottle on a swing-away on the Kaymar rear bumper, and we have a burner that screws directly to the bottle, so setting it up to use a frying pan is quick; we leave it right on the mount. A Front Runner drop-down table on the Land Cruiser’s rear door serves perfectly as a prep station. 

The protein-rich sandwich provides plenty of fuel for the mid-day driving and navigating tasks, augmented by a late, light lunch, which carries us through the afternoon to camp, and another shared routine. Roseann immediately breaks out her journal to record our mileage, location, and the day’s events, then does a sketch or quick field painting of some notable event. Graham, meanwhile, fills in his with much the same notes, but goes on to record numerous details about the vehicle to which he can refer in minute detail later. Want to know what kind of fuel economy we each got between Alice Springs and Birdsville when we crossed the Simpson Desert via the Madigan line? Graham can tell you down to the tenth of a liter.

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Meanwhile I will be off snapping photos, which always seems like the lazy approach to recording when contrasted to Roseann and Graham’s diligence. By now, Connie has usually concocted some impossibly ornate tray of canapés with which we can enjoy possibly the best routine of all: sundowners.

I was introduced to the concept of cocktails-at-sundown on my first African safari, when a guide magically concocted iced G&Ts out of a canvas bar in the back of a Land Rover, and we watched a herd of 200 cape buffalo grazing in the last golden light over a plain in Zambia. Since I have tried to watch the sun set every day I can since I was a child, adding alcohol came as a natural why-didn’t-I-think-of-that revelation, and we now adhere to the tradition whenever possible while on the road.

Sundowners would make a good note to end this on, but I have one more routine to which I adhere whenever the sky is clear: Once it is fully dark, I check the sky for celestial sights. I confirm the appearance of favorite constellations depending on season and location: Orion, Scorpius, the Southern Cross and its two pointers. With binoculars I check planets: If Jupiter is  visible I can follow the linear dance of its four Galilean moons from night to night; if Saturn is up and on a closer approach to Earth I can make out the rings giving it an apparent oblong shape. (This was the best view Galileo himself ever got with his primitive telescopes, and he went to his grave thinking Saturn was an oblong planet.)

At the end of a day, what could ground one better than the assurance that the universe is still proceeding comfortingly along its majestic course, no matter what continent one is on?

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Interesting NATO water can

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Previously I related the story of the NATO fuel container that failed due to a pressure point in the carrier on our Troopy. We waited until we were in Durban to buy a replacement, and happily found both a yellow diesel can and this interesting water container, a variant of the standard blue NATO water container which I’d never come across before. It has a distinctly larger opening and cap, which makes it both easier to fill from a bucket and extremely quick to empty.

Interestingly and rather maddeningly, these EU-manufactured cans each cost around $34 U.S. in South Africa. I don’t understand why they are so expensive in the U.S.

While I like the large opening on the water can, I prefer the smaller opening of the fuel can, which allows the cap to put more pressure on the gasket, ensuring the leak-proof seal that makes genuine NATO cans superior to any other fuel container I’ve used, including the plastic U.S. military Scepter can.

I was tempted to see if I could get a wholesale account for these cans and fill a 40-foot container with them.

African safari guides and tire pressure . . .

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I’m not exactly sure why, but a lot of African and Australian 4x4s still run on split-rim (or, more properly, retaining-rim) wheels and massively belted bias-ply tires with tubes. It might be cost, the supposed (but illusory) ease of servicing in the field, or the brute resistance of those ten-ply tires to the abuse dished out by guides and other drivers who aren’t responsible for actually buying the equipment.

A related archaic practice is the resistance of drivers on those wheels and tires to do anything remotely resembling airing down in difficult conditions. Admittedly you cannot air down a tubed tire to the same degree you can a tubeless tire, for fear of tire squirm ripping the tube’s valve off, but you can certainly vary pressure to more or less suit conditions.

Uh uh, not these drivers. 

Graham Jackson and I recently got a hilarious example of this in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. We were parked at a pan watching hippos, crocodiles, and a very nonchalant leopard, when an open Land Cruiser equipped with the standard lodge safari seating module arrived, with two guides and a single guest. The driver came over and asked if I had an air source, as he had a right rear tire that was worryingly low. I pulled our Troopy next to his vehicle and hooked up the ARB Twin compressor, while Graham used our gauge to check the pressure in the suspect tire. He suppressed a smile and showed me the dial, which read a full 45 psi. Dutifully we hooked up the compressor and added ten more pounds. “Okay?” asked Graham, but the guide shook his head and pointed to the barely visible bulge in the tire above the tread. So Graham hooked up the hose again and said, “Say when.” The compressor buzzed, the tire tautened, the guide watched, Graham and I traded glances. Finally the guide nodded and said, “Okay,” apparently satisfied with the appearance of the tire.

Graham quickly checked the pressure again, and handed me the gauge. I snapped a photo before putting it away, with the needle pegged above 75 psi. (At the time we were riding on 24 psi in the rear and 20 in front (in a heavily loaded Troopy), to comfortably negotiate the sandy tracks in Moremi.)

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The amazing thing is that the guides get anywhere at all, although Graham has rescued some and Roseann and I have done likewise in East Africa.

Life . . . and a trouble-free journey . . . is all about the details

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Okay, no snickering about the technicolor assemblage above. The two jerry cans are colored appropriately for their purpose—blue and water, yellow for diesel. The tangerine gas bottle is courtesy Graham Jackson, who bought it and had it filled for us in Durban while we were still en route to Africa. Not sure if that was the only color available or if he was having some fun. And the straps? Green was all they had, okay?

But that’s not the story here. The story is about the level of detail one should aim for when inspecting a vehicle before a major trip, and especially the level of detail one should aim for when inspecting a new piece of equipment or a new accessory.

Consider this double jerry can and gas bottle carrier, custom-made to fit on the Kaymar rear bumper on our Land Cruiser Troopy. It seemed more than adequate when we picked up the vehicle after its installation. The pivot rides on a heavy-duty bearing and was rock-solid. I liked the locking bars to prevent fuel or water theft. I wasn’t pleased with the sharp edges of the tie-down strap keepers, but they seemed adequate until we got the Troopy back to the states where I could modify them. Our supplier had already installed a NATO fuel can and a plastic water can in it, so we simply filled them and left on the trip, which this time was a long, long route with no fuel resupply for at least 700 miles. And we had no trouble with the carrier.

The next trip, our last in Australia, involved another long no-resupply section (have you gathered these are common in Australia?). Although we had more than enough fuel under even the most pessimistic calculations, I nevertheless filled the yellow can on the rack.

A good ways along the Anne Beadell Highway, at the Ilkurlka Roadhouse, I walked around the back of the vehicle and smelled, then saw, diesel fuel pouring in a tiny but steady stream from the bottom of the can. When I pulled out the can and looked at the bottom of its receptacle, I immediately saw why. The base of the receptacle had been assembled in such a way that it left four welds protruding above the rest of the base. One of those welds had simply ground its way through the jerry can.

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It was not an issue for that trip, but it could well have been on another with more critical fuel needs. People have, indeed, died from identical issues. While we were in convoy with friends, and had satellite telephones, it still could have presented a major hassle.

When we picked up the Troopy in Durban this week, I addressed the problem temporarily but effectively with a double layer of the yoga mat material we always carry for lining cabinets and stopping random rattles. With new jerry cans in place we were on our way.

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It was a good lesson.


Secure—really secure—storage. Boss Strongbox

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There are few things I enjoy more at the Expo than discovering high-quality products from makers unknown to me. At the West show, during a break between shepherding people around the General Tire driving track, I noticed some very handsome drawer systems at one booth. Closer inspection revealed them to be several steps above most similar products, with such stout construction and security features that they were more like safes that happened to have a drawer. 

Indeed, talking with Ryan Curtis there, it developed that Boss Strongbox had been making vehicle storage systems for law enforcement departments and the military for a decade—generally to secure weapons—and only recently decided to address the overlanding market. The result is a selection of storage boxes and drawer units that go way beyond the usual “security” systems from most manufacturers. 

My eye fell upon one of their smaller offerings, a versatile-looking pistol or camera-sized safe, mostly square but with a half-hexagonal front shape. Made from 16-gauge cold-rolled steel (like most of Boss’s offerings), it incorporated an overhanging lip on the lid, and an internal lip formed from a second layer of steel, making the lid double-thickness—and double pry-proof.

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The lock was a substantial Medeco rather than a hardware-store bit, and the actual locking tab was a thick rotating steel piece that slid into a snug slot. With this box properly bolted down a thief would have a very difficult time breaking into it even with a good-sized crowbar. There’s simply no purchase or access for prying.

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I have a large custom-made safe under the driver’s seat of the FJ40, but it’s a bit difficult to access quickly. I’ve often wished for a smaller (and stouter) safe for quick storage of the pistol I usually have with me, for when I need to visit a government building or other place where weapons are not permitted. This is it. I’m still pondering where to mount it, as over the years I’ve filled the Land Cruiser with platforms, built-in boxes, and a water tank. Since the Boss Strongbox takes up no more room than it needs for its mission, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

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Boss makes other and larger safes, up to rifle length and with much more volume, along with a growing number of bespoke drawers systems. All are made in the U.S., all are finished in a durable crackle powdercoating, all are expensive, and all are worth every penny if you value what you plan to store in them—or if those items absolutely need to be kept out of the hands of potential criminals. Highly recommended.

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Boss Strongbox is here.

Repairing hubs in the field

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Recently I was going through archived travel images to illustrate an article for Wheels Afield magazine. While doing so, I noticed a consistent thread running through our photos of Africa and Australia: A significant number of them were of me working on the hubs of various vehicles. There were two sequences of me rigging bodge wire fixes to keep grease caps on the rear hubs of Land Rovers, and one of me (repeatedly) tightening the nuts on the full-floating axle of a 45-Series Land Cruiser. All these, incidentally, involved the use of a multi-tool because the vehicle in question hadn’t been equipped by its supplier with adequate tools. 

Then there was our last trip through Australia, during which we found that a mechanic in Adelaide had comprehensively screwed up a simple front hub and bearing service on our Troopy, leaving one loose and one reassembled incorrectly so that it would not engage. (There was also a different color of grease in each hub, leading to guesses that he had actually only “serviced”—i.e. buggered—one.)

It brought home what torture the hubs of an expedition vehicle go through on the rough tracks of the world. The number one cause of backcountry breakdowns is still (according to several sources) tire punctures, the second is battery problems. I’d bet the third is hub and wheel-bearing issues, especially if you include the assembly all the way in to the CV or Birfield. 

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Therefore I’ve decided that from now on, I’ll make sure our spares kit includes a complete hub servicing kit including bearings and seals. It will take up less space than a hard-cover book but could save a lot of time and grief.

I’ll also make sure I have along the correct special tools needed. In Australia when I disassembled the hubs I was faced with the external snap ring Toyota uses on these hubs.

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Graham and I had a decent selection of tools with us, but nothing suited to this fiendish part. Graham finally filed the outside ends of a pair of needle-nose pliers flat, which worked pretty well. How much easier it would have been if I’d had these Knipex pliers made for the job.

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Deciding which and how many spare parts is always a conundrum, and will vary with the length, remoteness, and difficulty of the journey. But a complete hub kit is compact and cheap enough to be a permanent fixture along with fuses and belts.

KC Hilites roll bar clamp—a versatile multi-purpose mount

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Years ago I was at a KC Hilites booth somewhere and the rep gave me one of their universal tube clamps, designed to mount driving lamps or other things to a roll bar or cage. I tossed it in a drawer and forgot about it—until recently, when I bought a rechargeable Streamlight Stinger flashlight to be dedicated to the FJ40. 

Since the tube clamp is plastic it was easy to drill it to mount the flashlight’s charger base to it with stainless 3/16th bolts and nylock nuts. I mounted the assembly to the roll cage above the passenger seat, where it is out of the way but accessible to either passenger or driver. I ran the power cord down the vertical tube of the cage to the 12V socket I installed in the dash there a few years ago (above a DIN socket).

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The KC tube clamps are available in various sizes, to fit tubes from .75 to three inches. The possibilities for uses are endless.

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Find them here.