Working for a living


I’ve always thought my 1973 FJ40 lived a vigorous working life in the three times I’ve turned over its odometer. It’s pulled sailboats, loads of premixed concrete, and, once, a 12,000-pound mobile home absurdly beyond Toyota’s published tow rating. It’s yanked and winched out stuck vehicles heavier than its two tons. It had over 200,000 miles on it when I started a guiding business, leading clients to remote beaches in Mexico for sea kayaking trips, hauling a trailer filled with boats, kit, food, and water for up to six people (not once did it fail). And for much of the time I’ve owned it our “driveways” have been anywhere from seven to ten miles of high-clearance dirt road. 

However, that FJ40 is a pampered garage queen compared to the average Land Cruiser or Land Rover used on field-research projects in the African bush. 

Most safari lodges and tour companies use their vehicles hard, but replace or at least refurbish them fairly regularly. Big NGOs and the UN seem to buy all-new fleets of white Troopies about every three months. 

But then there are the hundreds of underfunded biologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists living in tented camps scattered around the continent, each struggling to stay in operation while doing the kind of field work essential to our understanding of the world. They scramble for grant money and make every penny or shilling count. 

The vehicles on which these researchers depend are usually the cast-offs of tour operators who’ve decided they’re not worth fixing. They’re then expected to go right back to work and operate day in and day out in the worst conditions. Repair shops can be days away, new spares are often unavailable, or unaffordable thanks to usurious import duties. Repairs are made with whatever is at hand—or simply not made at all unless the problem actually stops the vehicle in its tracks. Lastly, while the researchers themselves are sometimes sympathetic to the vehicle and at least try to drive conservatively, this rarely applies to their field assistants and staff, who simply have never been taught proper technique. Oh, and might I add that the tool selection available at most of these camps is, um, minimal? I asked at one and was shown, not making this up, two rounded-off standard screwdrivers of exactly the same size, and a pipe wrench. 

Last week we spent several days in the Laikipia region of Kenya at the camp of a friend, Dr. Shirley Strum, who has been studying baboons for 40 years (see National Geographic magazine, November 1987). Her 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser Troopie is a testament to the fortitude of Toyota’s premier working vehicle.

The non-turbo 2H diesel is as basic and reliable as an engine gets. Its real mileage is unknown and utterly irrelevant, although the odometer is working at the moment. The six-cylinder 2H diesel (a minor update of the early 70s H, itself a minor update of who knows what) starts from cold after three or four cycles of the glow plugs, but pulls bravely through the four-speed transmission with whatever is left of its original 103 horsepower. Tires are a smattering of brands on the split-rim wheels. The horn honks gratuitously when the wheel is turned to a certain angle—which invariably occurs just as one is easing past a nervous herd of elephants or a crowd on a village corner. Brakes? Present, but not paying much attention—a slowly sinking pedal indicates a master cylinder on its last legs, and stopping power in reverse just isn’t there, making failed hill climbs an invigorating experience.

The Land Cruiser's interior hasn't seen a detailer in, well, forever.

But a few mechanical issues are nothing to this Land Cruiser. From the driver’s seat I noticed the inside sheet metal above the doors looked creased and crumpled. It developed that a staff member driving back to camp from Nanyuki took a turn off the tarmac on to dirt a bit too fast, and rolled the vehicle through a full 360 degrees. A Nairobi body shop was enlisted to simply straighten the exterior and give it a fast respray, after which it went right back into service.

Severely rumpled interior sheet metal is a clue to the Troopie's travails. The Troopie’s companion at Chololo is an early 80s short-wheelbase Mercedes G-Wagen, which belongs to the current camp manager, David Mascall. It’s led as hard a life as the Toyota (minus the roll), but showed its still-rattle-free build quality when David took us to photograph an experimental lighting system designed to deter lions from breaking into bomas. Some time ago the G’s original underpowered four-pot expired, and David managed to bodge in a used non-turbo five-cylinder Mercedes diesel with exactly zero access to proper mounts or ancillaries. The intake system now comprises some PVC piping and . . . plywood? Yes. But it starts and runs perfectly.

A Mercedes engineer's nightmare - but it works. Any British MOT inspector would fall over laughing at the sight of these two vehicles. Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to head for Cape Town in either one. Somehow, you just know you’d get there.