Bush Ambush: “THEY ARE COMING THROUGH THE BUSHES!!”

 

There was commentary following last week’s review that the tone leaned towards the ruthless but the outcome was surprisingly generous. Well, it wasn’t generous enough, I can tell you that. The reason for the intense scrutiny is because, as labeled, this is an all new car; and it therefore follows that it can and should be scrutinized a bit more deeply than other typical “first drives” of what are essentially facelift  models or the introduction of new components to an existing vehicle or, perhaps, the expansion of the color palette. The all new Discovery can be had in a slew of new hues previously unavailable on the outgoing Discovery 4 car.

 

 

(The scene is the RSA’s Marakele National Park, a setting whose semi-sparse flora and dusty ground is immediately evocative of our very own game communes. For our second night in South Africa, sleeping arrangements had been made at a tented camp somewhere within the park. Keen followers of my travels will understand why I started questioning the wisdom behind my boarding the aircraft in Nairobi twenty eight hours earlier: I abhor camping following a chain of encounters with things that go bump in the night. Marakele National Park is home to a variety of these critters, in varying shapes and sizes, one of which is Loxodonta africana, the African Bush Elephant.)

 

 

Much as we did not have this particular spec in our dozen-odd convoy, the all new model marks the first time the Discovery line sports a 2.0-liter engine ever since the original gangster, the sometimes-here-sometimes-not Discovery 1 debuted back in 1989. I do not know who this engine is targeted at, but it will not be bought Stateside, nor will it be bought here. Maybe the more pragmatic and realistic Europeans will shell out for it. We, like the Yanks, have something against small engines in big vehicles, whether or not they offer performance at par with more generously endowed competition. And if previous experience with the famous “Ingenium” 2.0 liter mill is anything to go by, there will be no shortage of passable performance in the breadline model.

 

 

(The entrance to the park serves as a staging area where our broken up convoy can gather itself up again before proceeding on the day’s final leg: a 40-minute drive on murram roads through the thicket to the camp. The whole convoy of twelve, thirteen, fourteen all-new Discovery cars is lined up at the side of the road, bookended by two Range Rover Sport support vehicles. A third Sport, a white SVR, shows up and drives off into the wilderness, and it sounds like… it sounds like the aftermath of the Big Bang, actually. I’d love that exhaust note on my own crummy sixteen-year old Japanese longroof. There are rules in here, we are told at the briefing; rules that are strictly enforced and are designed to keep your game drive trouble-free. Maximum speed is 40km/h. Don’t agitate the animals by needless revving or hooting or making noises at them. Maintain some distance from the vehicle ahead of you. This is handy in case of an attack by several tons of irritable game meat: it will allow you to make a smooth getaway maneuver without risking the integrity of the expensive vehicles y’all are helming. If and where the convoy makes a turn at a junction of some sort, make sure the vehicle behind you is within line of sight before you make the turn as well. Whatever you do, DO NOT STEP OUT OF THE VEHICLE UNTIL SAFELY WITHIN CAMP. All clear? Good, let’s go.)

 

 

It is hard to predict exactly how sales figures will go but my crystal ball points towards a bleak start. Many are those who describe the new vehicle as a design sellout, insisting that it reeks of the Toyota Fortuner. From a Land Rover perspective, that is calumny and vilification – no offence, Toyota, but Land Rover is a rung or two above on the luxury hierarchy, and comparing its most famous family hauler to Toyota’s duty-bound utility is like comparing a designer snakeskin loafer to those plastic safety shoes they made us wear at the Iveco factory last month.  I may or may not agree: there are design cues that make the vehicle lack distinction and look a bit generic, there are holes in the overall appearance that I pointed out last week, some changes were not really necessary and avoiding them may have in fact rescued the look from tending towards anonymity: one of these changes being the switch from a vertical to a horizontal taillight treatment.

There was no word on pricing, but we have can make some guesses. The car should cost more or less the same as its predecessor, with emphasis on more. We live in times of increase: the vehicles are increasingly complex, financial systems are increasingly capitalist, shareholders and boards are increasingly demanding, it therefore follows that the vehicle should have an increase in price. While the outgoing 4 started at about KES 10 million for bare-bones XS model, expect this new car to cost up to 30% more than that, even for the puny 2.0 liter. This is for the simple fact that it CANNOT cost KES 10 million, because that is what the “smaller” Discovery Sport costs. Do you see what you have done here Land Rover? You now have two 2.0 liter, seven-seat SUVs being sold in the same market that look exactly the same but cannot cost the same for obvious reasons. You are going to cannibalize your own sales.

 

 

(The initial drive goes according to plan. We maintain a sober separation between the cars, maintain speeds of 40 or below and soon enough we are rewarded with glimpses of Africa’s beauty lurking in the shadows and in the undergrowth. Some giraffes here, some gazelles there. Marakele is profound: the landscape is dramatic and the peace and quiet is unnerving to the point of being oppressive to city types accustomed to bedlam. I love it here. Sunset comes, and the twilight bathes the entire setup in a dull orange glow that has me thinking: I was right to get on that plane. Some experiences cannot be bought, no matter how much money is thrown at them. The sedate pace and slowly winding down psyches (it was the end of a long day after all) mellows moods and pretty soon we forget some of the park rules. We start unwittingly closing the gaps between the cars until suddenly the entire convoy grinds to a halt. There is a late-model Nissan X-Trail heading in the opposite direction and it has stopped for its driver to mumble something to our convoy lead in the Range Rover Sport. Shortly afterwards, the two-way channel broadcast radios (what you call walkie-talkies) in the all the cars crackle to life…

“A herd of elephants has been reported blocking the road a short distance ahead, so I’ll ask everybody to stop here for a minute I see if I can clear the way for us. Stay put”

And the Range Rover Sport takes off, leaving its sister cars huddled in a muffled pool of idling engines. I think I am the only one who notices that we have bunched up together closely. Our first mistake.)

 

 

There is some justification for the upward tick in sticker price, and that is simply because the current car is far more advanced and much better specced than the unit it is replacing. Besides liberal use of expensive aluminium in the chassis, the new tech it is packing is a typically Land Rover-esque approach to semi-autonomy: Land Rovers have always been about adventure and practicality, so rather than go for yet another self-driving annoyance, they have instead boosted the driver-assist boffinry in the car to make plowing through the clag as easy and finger-light as pulling up into your own suburban driveway. I mentioned these last week: the usual – and highly capable – Terrain Response System and Hill Descent Control setups are now flanked by the all new APTC… ACTP… ATPC… whatever… the auto-throttle mechanism that takes low range driving to a whole new, graceful level. The backup cameras have “trailer assist” which is a network of lines on the screen that align the vehicle with inch-perfect precision to the trailer you are hitching on to, and the control panel in the boot allows you to adjust the ride height at the back up and down to dock on to the trailer without muscle or skinned fingers. The overall practicality of the all new Discovery has been compromised relative to previous models, but this has been compensated for by a split trunk lid that can be opened either conventionally or through a series of dance moves that involve a river dance, a fox trot and a “Throw-Your-Hands-In-The-Air-Like-You-Just-Don’t-Care” hip hop gyration. Just kidding (about the hip hop).

 

 

(We wait for some minutes. There are random cacklings from the radio. Some are just plain static, some are updates, and the prognosis is not good. The ellies up front look like they are in a bad mood, so we need to find a new path pronto. The instructions are fairly simple: first car in the Discovery convoy pull ahead slowly until you see the Range Rover Sport, you will be shown where to safely turn your vehicle and head back. Second car will follow after you have turned. Cool. We were second in line, so we primed ourselves to make the move when our turn came. As the first car slowly crept forward, a new voice piped up on the radio, a French accent crystal clear enough to indicate that the speaker was just within a few feet of us:

“Ah, guys… err… On ze right; look on ze right”

So we all look right and swallow collectively at what we see:

Elephants.)

 

 

The all-important question has always been: would I buy one? The answer is: not really. There is nothing inherently wrong with the all new car save for the usual finicky Land Rover electronics (our reversing camera went briefly offline during the test drive) but the blurring of lines between models means that this new car will probably be priced closer to the Range Rover Sport in a bid to escape from the Discovery Sport’s cost radius. And do you know what the Range Rover Sport is? It is yet another seven-seat Land Rover product with a 3.0 liter engine, just like the Discovery. And that is why I’d rather go for the Sporty Range.

 

 

(The sight is unmistakable, it is as clear as day. There are several tons of game meat right up our chuff. The separation from us is, what, twenty, thirty yards maybe? Doesn’t really matter. We have trapped ourselves; we have driven into an ambush. Special Forces types call this kind of scenario a “kill sack”.  There is a mother and her baby, never a good combination. The mother is nonchalantly feeding, deliberately plucking leaves in slow motion; suspiciously tiny morsels that indicate she is not so much feeding as standing guard over her descendant. The morsels are also deliberately fed into her mouth equally slowly as she gives us the eye. It is reminiscent of that movie scene where a particularly unsavory character slowly twirls a coin prior to visiting a nasty brand of violence to his helpless victims. But mommy Ellie is not the problem, Baby Ellie is. Baby has stopped feeding and is staring us down meanly. I have watched enough National Geographic to know that what happened next was a clear signal that the day was about to end badly for some of us if we didn’t react immediately. Baby Ellie flared her ears, pushed her trunk up in the air, shook her head from side to side, stamped the ground severally and blew one long, loud, angry foghorn blast in our direction. Mommy Ellie stopped feeding and turned to fully face us. She looked displeased.

“We need to get out of here. Now,” I instructed my colleague firmly but quietly. He responds by pushing the transmission out of Park and into Drive.

We don’t even await instructions, we start creeping forward in the typical fashion of automatics using brake tempering. The first car successfully does a three-point turn and the radio crackles at us to have a go at it as well. As we complete the turn, Baby Ellie lets off another train-like hoot. I laugh nervously. Turning around means we have lost about five or so yards to the two pachyderms, so they are within charging distance. The cars are too many and too close to each other to maneuver as skillfully as the Roman army, we have to go barbarian. Tension is building on both sides to the point that the rest of the convoy is asked to reverse, they may not get a chance to turn around. Reverse immediately and keep going, DO NOT STOP. Baby is still flaring ears and stomping the earth.

So three cars – not counting the convoy lead Sport, which is now the convoy tail – make the turnaround while the rest back up. Baby Ellie and her five tons of maternal fury are now just behind us as we hear a third blast. We chastised ourselves for forgetting park instructions and are trying to compensate for it (and possibly placate the oversized herbivores) by sticking below the speed limit, but the third trumpeting was immediately followed by a harried voice over the radio gasping breathlessly:

“Ah, whoever is now at the front of the convoy, could you please speed up BECAUSE THEY ARE NOW COMING THROUGH THE BUSHES!!”

Say no more. We gunned it and hightailed it out of there like a pack of shiny metallic jackrabbits.  It feels like a scene from Hollywood: a convoy of more than a dozen Land Rovers carrying journalists kicking up dust beating a hasty retreat, the radio crackling endlessly as updates and instructions are barked in quick succession with small breaks for a very nervous French voice to do some rapid translation for our West African compadres. We are giggling nervously as we strain to peer through the dust being kicked up by the vehicles ahead of us, twirling the tiller hither and thither, dodging potholes, ducking thorns and branches (that paintwork is expensive, lest you forget).

 

 

Why did I call it a kill sack? Because on our way back to “safety” we spotted one or two other loxodonts, what looked like lone males, making their way towards the hot spot, their massive silhouettes etched proud and beautiful against the rapidly darkening dusk sky like a painting. These beasts are not military strategists, but the herd that blocked the road, the pair that harangued us and the rapidly closing in support cavalry had pulled off an almost successful ambush that Julius Caesar’s standing army would have been impressed with. We had bunched ourselves up despite contrary instructions, we failed to be keen enough to spot the mother-child pair that snuck up on us and we just barely finagled our way out of being completely surrounded. If you want to know how an encounter with an irate bush giant ends, look up videos on the internet. Being inside a metal cage is not a guarantee of safety. Tonnage trounces trickery out here in the wild: you WILL be crushed)

 

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