64 Elephants, 24 Jeeps, And 2 Tourists
"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.