Mzee: A Well-Travelled Range Rover

My son, Jan, set me up for this story last week, when he wrote about his weekend safari with my older son, Andreas, up in the Aberdares. In his Going Places article, Jan mentioned how amused I was when Andreas asked me if he could borrow my old Range Rover, Mzee, for the trip – with a view to borrowing it again in order to take some clients up Mount Kenya.

‘So what’s wrong with your own car?’ I asked. (He has a Toyota Land Cruiser, specially stretched and kitted out for his safari business.)

‘It wouldn’t make it at that altitude,’ he said. ‘It’s too long and heavy.’

Yes, if only Mzee had feelings, he would have smirked. And I could – and will – tell you a few more stories about times when Mzee would have smirked.

But first, for those of you who haven’t been introduced to Mzee before through the Going Places column, let me tell you something of his official pedigree. His birth certificate states that he is a 3.5 litre Range Rover, born in 1976. I acquired him in 1994, when I commissioned Rainald Schumacher to rebuild him at his garage, then in Nairobi’s industrial area. He came out with leather seats, a wooden storage console, a viewing hatch, and African bush-style green paint.

It was in Uganda that I first realised how well-known Mzee was becoming. I had a consultancy with the Ministry of Gender there, and I drove the road from Nairobi to Kampala many times. I used to set off at 6 am, up to Eldoret, through the border at Malaba (where you had to temporarily export your car), across to Jinja – and I would be in Kampala for an afternoon tea at around 3.30 pm. That was in the late 1990s – you couldn’t do that kind of time now, even in a Ferrari.

On one occasion I was staying at the Fairway Hotel in Kampala. I asked the young newspaper seller what time the Sunday Nation would arrive. Around 4 pm, he told me. And he agreed to save me a copy. When I went down to collect it, he said, ‘You are John Fox, aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘But how did you know?’

‘I’ve seen your car in the carpark.’

‘But how did you know it’s my car?’

‘Because I have seen its photo in the paper sometimes.’

However, it was Mzee’s drive to South Africa and back that really made him famous. I did the safari with both my sons. We set off from Mombasa two days after Christmas in 2011. After the border at Lunga Lunga, we were to travel through Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and north-eastern South Africa, in order to reach Andreas’ research camp in the Karongwe wildlife research camp near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province.

With a detour to see the Victoria Falls at Livingstone, we had just over 4,000 kilometres ahead of us. I didn’t tell the boys, but I anticipated mechanical problems with Mzee, and I guessed the drive would take us at least eight days. But Mzee didn’t put a wheel wrong, and his engine ticked over nicely all the way. We made it in six days.

In the four Going Places articles I wrote about the trip in early 2012, I wanted to emphasise how easy and pleasurable the drive was. The roads were smooth; the accommodation along the road was varied and ample; the border crossings were less stressful than anticipated – and there were plenty of interesting incidents to write about.

I thought the two years in the Karongwe reserve would finish off Mzee – but my wife, Lut, flew down to South Africa in late 2013 to enjoy a relaxed drive back to Nairobi with Andreas, with a detour through game parks of Botswana.

People still remember those drives. Only a few weeks ago I was running a workshop at the Hemingways Hotel in Karen. One of the participants asked, ‘And how is Mzee?’

‘I’m fine thanks, ‘I said. ‘A dicky hip sometimes, especially when the weather is cold, but otherwise I’m fit!’

‘No, no,’ he said, ‘I was talking about your Range Rover. I really enjoyed your stories about the drive to South Africa.

Finally, let me tell you about what must have been Mzee’s most satisfying smirk.

We bought another rebuilt Range Rover. He was younger, sleeker, than Mzee, and he had a magnificent roar. We called him “The Beast”. For his first long trip, we drove him to the Masai Mara, and also we needed Mzee because we had my daughter’s family out from the UK. As he was the new one, I was driving The Beast. And before we reached the Siana Springs Camp, The Beast broke down along the stony road. Ignominiously, he was towed into the camp by Mzee.

The Beast has been sold; Mzee is still with us – and he will stay with us.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation