Love Guns, Gear, & Vehicles? Then Share it!
Safari RidesWords by Joe Coogan
NOW AVAILABLE ON NEWSSTANDS!
In the 1960s, Land Rovers and Land Cruisers were more than just a means of transportation—they were timeless machines transporting us to a world of adventure.
In 1966, my family moved to Mombasa, Kenya. One of the first things my father did was purchase a short-wheelbase (SWB) canvas-topped Series II Land Rover. We were truly fortunate to live within a couple of hours of some of the best big-game country in Africa.
It was rugged terrain, made up of bush and plains, stretching from Somalia down through Kenya and into northern Tanzania. That 150-mile-wide swath of bush country included Tsavo National Park, which, in those days, was rich with black rhino and home to some of the largest tuskers roaming Africa.
Soon after settling into our Mombasa home, my father began accumulating the gear and equipment that would make a week’s stay in the African bush comfortable. But before we could navigate Kenya’s trackless bush in a Land Rover, we had to negotiate miles of red tape to obtain our residents hunting licenses and import the firearms we’d need. Only then could we begin outfitting our own DIY safaris.
My father added a number of modifications to the Land Rover that would protect it when bush-bashing and also accommodate our hunting needs. He fitted gun racks to the framework behind the front seats and bolted brackets on the front and rear bumpers to secure a hi-lift jack, shovel, ax, second spare tire, and spare jerry cans for water and fuel. Metal boxes housing the tools and spare parts were located for easy access even when the vehicle was fully loaded.
Often we traveled deep into hunting areas 100 miles or more from the nearest village or paved road, so extra fuel tanks were essential. While in the bush we were completely self-sufficient. We carried enough water and fuel for the time we were there and to get us home.
Water for both drinking and washing was contained in three 20-gallon, heavy-duty plastic containers. The SWB Land Rover’s load space was limited, so we added a trailer to help carry all of our safari equipment and camping gear.
As our experience and safari kit increased, so did our vehicle needs to carry people and equipment to the remote areas where we hunted. We eventually added a second Land Rover—a long-wheelbase (LWB) pickup model with a canvas canopy to cover the bed.
We pursued adventure and big game over trackless Africa with those machines. Stopping to let big-tuskers cross the track in front of us and accelerating away from ill-tempered, snorting rhinos was all part of the day’s experience.
It was wild, remote country with terrain that challenged our vehicles and us. Travel through the bush was fraught with obstacles, from the ever-present thorn brush to hidden stumps, rocks, and holes. The ground was often rough and hard, caused by rooting warthogs or elephants leaving deep tracks during the rains when the soil was muddy.
Our Land Rovers were extraordinarily reliable vehicles, earning our deepest respect over years of dependable service. Rarely did they ever let us down. Few things went wrong with the gutsy little four-cylinder engines, but when it did, it was easily fixed.
Flat tires were a nagging problem with the constant travel through thorn brush. The most serious problem we ever faced was a broken side-shaft on the rear axle. However, we never lost a day’s hunting nor failed to arrive at a destination due to breakdown. Little did I imagine back then how much safari vehicles would later become so much a part of my life.
The First 4x4s Tackle Africa
The Land Rover was first introduced by the British in 1948 at the Amsterdam Auto Show. It was a SWB four-wheel drive, canvas-topped version, similar to our own first Land Rover, but designated the Series I Model.
Maurice Wilks, chief designer at the Rover Company, designed the original Land Rover vehicle in 1947. Wilks was inspired by an American World War II jeep. The first Land Rover prototype was even built on a jeep chassis and axles. The early choice of color was limited to military surplus aircraft cockpit paint in various shades of light green. All models, until recently, featured sturdy box-section, ladder-frame chassis.
Land Rover quickly became known for producing rugged vehicles that fit the needs of colonial government agencies, military contracts, as well as the burgeoning African safari industry. Land Rovers were the first four-wheel-drive vehicles able to take on the challenges of trackless bush and remote rural settings.
They soon established a reputation for being a tough and dependable vehicle all across the Dark Continent. It was a lucrative market, which the British carmaker dominated for many years.
In 1951, Toyota entered the scene when it introduced its own version of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, calling it the Jeep BJ. Originally, it was a close copy of the Willys Jeep. The multipurpose, compact, short-bed-type truck underwent a series of body design changes and was renamed the Land Cruiser.
In 1956, Toyota adopted what was called the “Land Cruiser Strategy” for foreign markets. Competing with the American Jeep and the British Land Rover, Toyota pushed the Land Cruiser to the front of its foreign markets to spearhead later introductions of its passenger cars, the bigger part of its business.
The Land Cruiser first rolled onto African soil in February 1958 with Toyota’s export of eight FJ25s to Angola, a Portuguese colony in southwest Africa. Exports were soon extended to include Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa.
In 1960, Toyota took the FJ-type Land Cruiser a big step forward with the introduction of the 40-series. Within a few years, Toyota was challenging Land Rover’s dominance in Africa, particularly East and South Africa.
For safari work, the best suited and most widely used model from Toyota was the FJ45, a LWB pickup model with an enclosed cab. A safari vehicle usually begins life as a basic or standard LWB pickup model. It is then customized with a new body or add-on features that enable it to perform the specific functions required of it, such as moving people and supplies through the African bush.
In Nairobi, body shops specialized in safari-body conversions for Toyotas and Land Rovers. They designed a functional and distinctive look for the “Kenya-style” safari vehicles back in the late 1950s and ’60s. Hard tops were fitted over the cab and rear of the vehicle with a game-viewing roof hatch added for passengers riding in the rear seat.
Canvas rain curtains protected the open side areas from rain and wind when rolled down. Brackets were fitted in various places to hold accessories, such as jerry cans for water and fuel, extra spare tires, and one or two hi-lift jacks. Final outfitting for safari work meant beefing-up the front bumper and fitting it with a heavy-duty brush guard.
Safari Work—Rover or Cruiser?
In 1972, after six years of big-game hunting in Kenya, I joined Ker, Downey & Selby (KDS) Safaris in Botswana. Harry Selby, who managed KDS Botswana, advised me that it would be best to sell the Land Rovers in Kenya and purchase another vehicle when I got to South Africa.
The vehicles used in Botswana were either imported to or manufactured in South Africa. Naturally, I planned to buy a Land Rover, which I regarded as a trusted and proven friend. Unfortunately, this was not possible due to Land Rover’s filling a large military contract for the South African Army. There was a six-month waiting list, and I didn’t have the time to wait.
Several of my safari colleagues already owned Toyota Land Cruisers. At the time, a Land Cruiser was selling for less than a Land Rover—one of the big reasons why people were giving them a try. The price of a brand-new Toyota FJ45 Land Cruiser was about $4,000. Furthermore, spare parts were economical and readily available. The vehicles were proving to be reasonably trouble-free, so I took a big leap and purchased my first Toyota FJ45 Land Cruiser pickup.
Making my new Land Cruiser “safari-ready” meant adding a rear high-seat and toolbox behind the cab. A load-bearing roof rack was bolted to the roof of the cab, and brackets were added to various locations to secure a shovel, ax, and hi-lift jack. A hi-lift jack was an indispensable piece of equipment. It was useful for changing tires or lifting a stuck vehicle out of mud, sand, or a hole. A hi-lift jack could even be employed as a winch. Metal-pipe framework attached to the bed supported a canvas canopy cover.
To handle the serious bush work to which a safari vehicle would be subjected, I replaced the Land Cruiser’s stock bumper with a length of five-inch channel iron. A strong brush guard constructed of metal pipe and expanded metal was attached to the bumper. It protected the radiator and headlights and prevented brush damage to the front end of the vehicle. For maximum protection, the piping extended from the brush guard along the mud guards to the running board.
In the course of a nine-month safari season, our safari vehicles never saw pavement. They remained in a constant state of four-wheel-drive in order to negotiate miles and miles of Botswana’s wet and sandy Okavango Delta and the dry, dusty Kalahari Desert. After months of driving through and across bush, grass, and water, the front surface of the differentials and tie-rods under the vehicle gleamed like polished silver.
In high flood years, we spent so much time in the water that our Land Cruisers were affectionately called “puddle jumpers.” The Land Cruiser’s ignition system was so well sealed that deep-water crossings were often possible without stalling the engine.
The key was to keep the vehicle moving without racing the engine. The vehicle’s forward momentum created an air-pocket under the hood, which allowed the engine to continue running even when water washed over the top of the hood.
In the early part of the season following the rains, long-grass conditions plagued bush travel. In order to slow grass seeds from clogging the radiator, we placed several layers of nylon-mesh screen in front of the radiator.
But even that didn’t completely stop the seeds from getting in. Toyota radiators were easily removed in order to blow out the seeds with compressed air from a spark plug pump, flush it with water, or carefully poke them out with a guinea fowl feather quill.
Repair and maintenance on safari vehicles was never-ending, often done in the field or in camp. Fortunately, Land Cruisers were easy to maintain, so we often repaired our own vehicles while on safari to reduce any downtime.
A field workshop located behind our camps is where we fueled the vehicles, fixed broken springs, replaced spring bushings, changed oils, or cleaned grass seeds from radiators.
Petrol was carried to camps in 44-gallon drums. Because the drums were often dirty, rusty, or contaminated with water from condensation, it was important to filter the fuel when filling the vehicle’s tanks.
We commonly placed plastic in-line fuel filters on the fuel line between the fuel tank and the fuel pump and another one between the fuel pump and the carburetor. These filters were checked regularly and changed often.
The FJ45s provided dependable service—a strong testament to Toyota’s quality and reliability. The success and popularity of the Land Cruiser was such that by the late 1970s this hardy vehicle had almost completely taken over the market in Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya.
I was fortunate, indeed, to have had the opportunity to hunt in Kenya, beginning in the late 1960s, and then later in Botswana and Tanzania. Owning three Land Rovers and six Toyota Land Cruisers over a period of 30 years, I came to love and respect them both.
They met or surpassed my expectations as bushworthy, reliable vehicles. Their performance and ability to navigate challenging terrain was impressive indeed. Never once did I have to spend a night out due to vehicle troubles—except almost once when attempting a deep-water crossing that drowned the engine and killed the battery, but that’s another story.