"Monkeys!!!" Jerry dug his fingerprints deep into the dashboard as my foot stomped on the brakes. We'd already survived four airplane rides, one helicopter trip in high winds, a run-in with a really irked water buffalo, 15,000-pound elephants wandering aimlessly onto the highway, a desert hike with no escape from hovering vultures, two nights in a tent surrounded by vocal wildlife, a handful of border crossings, and an unquestionably inedible pickled salad. But it was gonna be the monkeys that would do us in. We were careening toward the flock ... the throng ... the whole mess of 'em like a high-speed bowling ball in a winning strike. Crap.
It was just a couple days earlier when 30 journalists-five Americans, two Canadians, one Mexican, and 22 Greeks-landed in Johannesburg, South Africa. The group was to embark on a journey through Africa to kick off the international launch of the Jeep Liberty-a vehicle that when exported is renamed Cherokee. The '05 Liberty is available with, notably, a new 2.8L common-rail diesel and a six-speed manual transmission. Seeing that the tranny isn't available in North America, and the CRD won't be legal in California, New York, Vermont, Maine, or Massachusetts until at least 2006 on account of those states' stricter standards for diesel fuel, we jumped on the chance to play with the technology. We figure the diesel/manual unification will make its way into the redesigned Wrangler or the upcoming entry-level Compass concept-based Jeep, but we wanted to get to know it now.
The African adventure would start in Zambia, take us through Namibia, and cruise into Botswana. The trip would start off in Africa-explorer David Livingstone's (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame) town of Livingstone and make a giant loop, covering a couple-hundred-plus miles of pavement and dirt. But unlike Livingstone, who traveled via God's highway (the Zambezi River) with a battered journal in hand, we would make our way through Africa in a Jeep by way of the year-old ZamTrans-built highway, a laptop keeping track of the trek.
The American and Canadian expedition arrives in Johannesburg. We check into the nearby Caesar's Palace resort. The Kiosk at the casino entrance reads "gun check." Are you carrying a weapon, sir?" Jerry is asked. "No," he answers. "Do people often carry weapons here?" "Yes, sir." The attendant informs us that AK-47s are popular, widely available, and cost as little as $35. Attendant recommends a nearby weapons dealer. Jerry defers, not sure what the customs implications will be if he brings one home.
7:15 p.m.: Someone in our party has a harebrained idea: We should ignore the hotel's 10 gourmet restaurants, hire a car, and ride an hour for dinner at a restaurant in Soweto, a shantytown once famous for its anti-apartheid riots. In a stupor from malaria-pill dosage, we all agree and pile into a taxi van.
7:30 p.m.: A request is made to get "closer" to an outdoor market (is Cleveland close enough?). Our driver explains that the market is where everyone hangs out on payday. Our taxi is lost in a tsunami of battered VW minivans, all honking, driving multiple directions on the same one-lane road, and slaloming through curbside bonfires. Our driver expresses road rage in Zulu. Bluelight-special AK-47s are coming to mind. We are mentally composing farewell notes to loved ones.
7:45 p.m.: We arrive at the restaurant, but it is hard to avoid the nagging voice that keeps repeating, "Hope you enjoy the traveler's diarrhea you'll be experiencing post-visiting this five-star restaurant. And by five stars, we mean five out of one million." Dinner selections are at least fresh: roasted goat, boiled chicken necks, and barbecued wildebeest are identifiable. Other buffet items are grouped under a general heading of carbonized mammal parts.
9:30 p.m.: The traditional after-dinner brandy is replaced by a tour of downtown Jo'burg: Forlorn skyline. Abandoned skyscrapers. Squatters are taking over the city. Was Escape From New York filmed here?
10:45 p.m.: Before retiring, the consensus of the group is to not brush teeth with tap water beginning ... now.
* Soweto's upper-class suburb is called Beverly Hills; Desmond Tutu's home was located there.
* Nelson Mandela once lived in Soweto.
* It is the site of the 1976 uprisings, which stemmed from protests over Afrikaans being the language of choice for teaching in schools; it marked the beginnings of the anti-apartheid movement, which culminated in 1990 with all South Africans earning the right to vote.
* In the international market, the Limited model of the Cherokee/Liberty represents 42 percent of sales, the Sport 40 percent, and the Renegade 9 percent.
Today we will return to the Jo'burg airport and head to Livingstone Airport in Zambia. Livingstone town was established circa 1890 and is named for the Scot missionary/doctor who spent about 30 years exploring the continent. His body is buried in England's Westminster Abbey, but he left his heart (and other internal organs) in Africa. Literally.
11:30 a.m.: The journalists board a flight to Zambia. It has been oversold. No problem! Extra passengers stand in the back or are relegated to the toilets. Despite the extra income from overbooking, no one bothered to pay the power bill, so there is no air conditioning to speak of. It's stifling, sticky, cramped, and crowded-all we need is a goat or a chicken to run through the cabin to complete the experience. New Livingstone Airport is impressive; rumor is that the old airport was detonated in filming of Raid on Entebbe. If a sequel is ever made, new airport ought to be considered for detonation too.
2:01 p.m.: Desperate journalists visit the airport bathroom facilities; the previous night's cuisine proves an effective digestive aid. Jerry reports that he has already lost one-third of his total body weight and two dress sizes since last night.
4:30 p.m.: The journalists hike to Victoria Falls, while snorting hippopotami serenade from the Zambezi River. The guide tells the assembled media to stay together, but house cats are easier to herd than journalists. Once we reach the Falls we are all in paralysis mode, overcome by what nature can do. We are told we will soon fly over them in a chopper. The Falls are a bit over a mile in length and more than 300 feet tall. While the Lozi or Barotse tribe refers to them with the "thunder" name, the Matebele call them "the water that rises as smoke." The Victoria Bridge connects Zambia and Zimbabwe, and it was built between 1903 and 1905.
4:32 p.m.: Did I shut my balcony door? Did I actually fail to follow the detailed instructions laid out by Jeep representatives, hotel employees, other travelers, common sense, and women's intuition about how to avoid finding a monkey in my hotel room? And worse yet, how do I get the monkey out of the room? There's no good way to segue from Musi-O-Tunya to monkey-in-ya-rooma. A quiet decision is made to sleep in a Liberty if necessary-if Jerry doesn't believe the lie about how we should trade rooms "because I hate to hog such a spectacular view."
* Zambia got its name in 1964 after it received independence.
* Its currency is kwacha.
* The Zambezi River is more than 1,600 miles long.
* Livingstone discovered Victoria Falls in 1855.
* Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World (Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon are among the others), and it is eroding at a rate of about 14 inches each year.
* The Jeep's trailer weight when equipped with the turbodiesel is 5,000 pounds. (The '05 Grand Cherokee with the 3.7L V-6 is 3,500 pounds.)
Many of us seem to have had a restless night, staring at the ceiling with amusement-park anticipation over the forthcoming wildlife exposure (uh, the forthcoming opportunity to drive the Jeep). But for one of us (monkey girl), that was immediately replaced by the thought of what would make a better story for Four Wheeler: Death by elephant trampling, or death by wild monkey gnawing at the jugular? It would be nice if it were glamorous in print ... but over quickly. Today we depart Livingstone for Botswana, which will require crossing the border into Namibia.
8:00 a.m.: More than 1,200 words into the story and finally it's time to drive the new Liberty!
8:01 a.m.: Adjust new-and-improved-for-'05 seats, which are better but by no means mistaken for Barcaloungers. Driveline hump/transfer-case bulge resembles two volcanic lava domes ready to spew magma; body placement to compensate causes instant discomfort for both driver and passenger. And, hey, what's that? The fuel filler-door release is on the driver side? Makes sense-except this is a right-hand drive. This vehicle really needs a visit from the ergonomics police.
9:30 a.m.: We are an hour and a half into our testdrive, and have been on a paved road that never strays from straight and narrow. What is the Zulu word for "boring"? Although this road that travels through Kazungula, Sesheke, and Katima Mulilo is new, the Jeep doesn't really like it, tracking with every imperfection in its path. It's also sluggish in this skin, mated to the five-speed automatic. As we head toward the Ngoma border crossing, we pass by village after village, each nothing more than huts made of sticks. No water. No power. No DSL. Nothing has changed since Livingstone was here.
12: 15 p.m.: The day so far has been spent going in and out of border crossings: Zambia, Namibia, Botswana. We would like a Department of Tourism map, but the only freebie handout at immigration is condoms. HIV/AIDS is epidemic here; Botswana has the world's highest rate of infection. Truckers passing through are fingered as the culprits who spread it among the villages, since no one else has a car; beer is also a contributing factor. Plenty of happy, perky highway signs with all the colors from the Crayola box promote safe sex/condom use.
2:15 p.m.: The off-pavement adventure begins! As the caravan drops into Elephant Valley, we hit sand, washboards, ruts, and tight turns. Its size makes the Liberty maneuverable, but the relatively shallow sand swallows it. The turbo lags and bogs, then suddenly slams on, then slams off (the automatic seems to not be the right match for the diesel in these conditions). Wait-is this sand or quicksand we're driving in? As the pedal is mashed and the Liberty tries to not be overcome, we begin to wonder about its "Trail Rated" badge-and the curious fact that tow hooks are not standard equipment in four-by form but rather part of the skidplate group.
3:00 p.m.: Finally, an elephant sighting. The engine is switched off. Thrashing in the bush gets louder, until a large bull elephant moves silently out from cover and begins crossing the road in front of the Jeeps. More elephants follow. They walk with the same quiet purposefulness of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. Anything that gets in the way becomes salad. Elephants eat 400 to 500 pounds of shrubbery a day, and drop small bales of hay behind them as they go. They trample to death 10 times more vegetation than what is eaten. You do the math: This forest will soon be stubble.
5:40 p.m.: The Jeep tackles a few impressive rockcrawling spots and drop-offs with relative ease, although capability for articulation must have been measured at the chassis rather than at the suspension. Get the Liberty off the sand and it's a happier, more eager 4x4. No locking diff is available, but of course you shouldn't be holding your breath for a Liberty Rubicon.
* Elephant Valley started off as a cattle-grazing area.
* Botswana is slightly smaller than Texas; the locals are Batswana.
* English is the official language, but Setswana is also spoken.
* Namibia borders the South Atlantic Ocean between Angola and South Africa.
* In terms of languages in Namibia, English is 7 percent, 32 percent German, and 60 percent Afrikaans.
* 5,000 diesel Libertys will be produced for Canada and the U.S. combined in 2005.
The goals today are not just to see large felines and giraffes: We demand to drive the uber-Liberty, one with the diesel and the six-speed transmission. But before grabbing the keys to the holy grail, we need to simply survive an early-morning nature hike led by what appears to be a stick figure named Darryl, who carries a pocketknife and a Winchester .458. Jerry recalls the .458 getting bad press recently when game hunters found batches of ammo with poorly packed explosive charges that caused some bullets to barely produce enough thrust to fall out of the end of the barrel. Others had enough zip to leave the weapon but then merely skittered along the ground. The bad bullets were recalled and replacements were offered. We hope Darryl got the memo.
9:05 a.m.: We leave Elephant Valley and head to the Mabele Hills, through the Kasane Forest extension, then onto the main Kasane Ngoma road and to Chobe National Park. Ancient sand dunes make up the challenging sections of the off-road portion of today's drive, as do rocky, off-camber spots. Some of the Libertys withstand body damage, but it's really difficult to point the blame at the vehicle when it smacks a tree. The switch to the six-speed brings a refreshing introduction of power and control off-road over the automatic's performance-this is nearly mechanical perfection. Or at least until we hit the washboards and dirt trails with loose rocks ...
10:10 a.m.: ... which is when we begin to wonder why the six-speed's shifter pulsates like it's stirring an imaginary cauldron as we buzz down the road. Worse is the ground clearance, which is 6.4 inches to the front skidplate, about the same measurement as a '49 Mercury. This means that the littlest pebble bangs on the skidplate like a prisoner dragging his tin cup on the jail bars ("It hits everything!" is a popular phrase on this course). And while we're doling out minuses in off-road finesse, we might as well mention the attempt to "floor" the Liberty to get it out of the path of oversized wildlife; mashing the accelerator was reciprocated with us seeing the 4,000 redline in 0.1 second, Fourth gear. At least we got a close-up photo of an elephant.
12:35 p.m.: The Jeeps have remained in convoy procession, with the Americans at the back, which means CB announcements of animal sightings are nothing more than a tease of dust-settling footprints by the time we get there. Making matters worse, Group Americano is guided by a Flemish/Czech/Zulu-accented fellow, who leaves us asking after each point of interest, "What did he say?"
"The elephants in Chobe can bowl and hula for cockfights on Jupiter in September."
Wait-are we being Punk'd? Are we supposed to believe in such things as "Chobe chicken"? We travel a handful of miles before the airwaves are interrupted again by the ambiguous accent:
"The giraffes eat buildings for the toolbox over the silverware in Africa forward lunchbox."
There was no mistaking this one: Giraffes in our midst! A dozen clattering diesels should be enough racket to scatter big game herds from here to Zimbabwe, but we defy the odds: Within five minutes we see multiple giraffes, a crocodile, and, yes, a Chobe chicken.
3:45 p.m.: We are now to head back into Zambia by way of the Zambezi River, but this is not the return of the amphibious Jeep. We will be loading the Libertys onto a rickety little car ferry, which looks like a candidate for World's Worst Ferry Disasters on Fox. Wonder how long a Liberty can float, given its 4,372-pound dead, er, curb weight? It is agreed: not long. It might bob a second or two longer than a Grand Cherokee, which is 400 pounds heavier.
3:58 p.m.: Land! Specifically the Kazungula Border Post, and from here it is about an hour's drive back through the Zambezi National Park and into Livingstone.
4:45 p.m.: Cue the monkeys.
* There is a Fawlty Towers Hotel in Zambia.
* The highest population of elephant in the world can be found at Chobe National Park; it is about 70,000.
* The bushmen of Namibia are the oldest inhabitants of Africa.
* The roof lights on the Liberty Renegade are optional; they'll save you $120.