I Had the Time of My Life Driving a Toyota Land Cruiser Safari 4×4 in the African Bush

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At first glance, it doesn’t seem like the go-to vacation destination, but after a 9-hour flight from Bucharest, Romania, with a technical stop in Hurghada, Egypt, I found myself in Mombasa. This is Kenya’s second-biggest city after the capital, Nairobi, home to almost 4 million people, most of whom came from the rural areas in search of a better life.

Not knowing what to expect, I stepped out of the airport, looking for the shuttle bus to take me (and the missus) to the hotel. Only shuttle bus has a different meaning than what we’re normally used to, because it was an old and tiny Nissan van. Almost one hour later, we found ourselves at our first destination, on the coast of the Indian Ocean, in the Bamburi district of Mombasa, which is not far from a neighborhood that some millionaires call home: Nyali.

After settling in, it was time for the highlight of the trip: a 3-day safari. We woke up very early in the morning with the enthusiasm of children looking for presents under the Christmas tree. Our guide was waiting for us in the lobby, and behind him was a cool 4×4, modified for the arduous roads of the African bush. It had a jacked-up suspension, M/T tires that they have to replace every 20,000 km (~12,500 miles) to avoid getting a flat, snorkel, steel bumpers, and a chunky bulbar up front.

Since it was tweaked for seeing animals in their natural habitat, this Toyota Land Cruiser, and every other one that normally does the same job, has a longer rear overhang in order to fit more people, and a roof that goes up manually, giving occupants a 360-degree, windowless view of the surrounding area.

The cockpit looked very basic, with manual windows all around and no air conditioning. But that’s fine, because less equipment means less stuff to break down. The vehicle is built like a tank. The doors are heavy, the steering has a nice weight to it, although it feels kind of disconnected from the front wheels, the five-speed manual gearbox is very robust, and the naturally aspirated diesel engine, which our guide knew nothing about, fired up on the first try.

From the moment I laid eyes on it, I knew I had to drive it, even for a few minutes. But that required patience and a lot of luck, because if anything was to happen to it while I sat in the driver’s seat, the guide would have had to pay for all repairs and he would have been jobless.

Fortunately, the Gods smiled on this mzungu, because on the third and final day of the safari, on the last game drive, the driver asked me if I still want to test it out. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped in the middle of the dirt road, in Tsavo West, next to a ranger outpost, and said “okay, hop in, and I’ll sit next to you like a boss!”. This region is known by the locals as Maneater Alley for obvious lion-related issues.

In what felt like a blink of an eye, I finally found myself in the driver’s seat, in a surreal and unforgiving environment, right next to an electric fence that surrounded the President’s farm, where they grow vegetables. I pulled a chunky lever, adjusted the seat, pressed the clutch, shifted into first gear, and I was off.

The driving part felt like a walk in the park, even on the slippery sand/mud, though doing that while keeping an eye open for wildlife proved impossible. Thus, I left that job to the guide and concentrated on keeping us and the Land Cruiser safe, and simply enjoyed the views for what felt like 10 minutes.

However, I was already driving for about an hour, and since we were approaching the national park exit, I eventually had to pull over and leave the driving part to the expert who knew all roads by heart.

Thank you, Ali (our guide), for making my dream come true!