The Great Run XII, Part I

Tuesday December 5 2017

The Great Runners take time to consult over the

The Great Runners take time to consult over the route directions. The run was dusty for the most part. PHOTO| COURTESY 

Things do not always go according to plan. They sometimes veer off the charted path in a nice way, they sometimes do so in a not-so-nice way and they sometimes end up with the directors of the Great Run completing their own event in several different vehicles as a direct result of a series of curious events. This is the story of the Great Run XII, held last weekend.

 

The Route

We started off from a fuel forecourt at the Karen Shopping Centre and drove into Ngong town, took a left turn to Kiserian, a right to Kona Baridi and then another left into the wilderness that is Kipeto and the Champagne Park.

It is here, while riding shotgun in a Shogun, that I witnessed a Range Rover react to the bumpy terrain in the same way you’d expect a town girl to react when she sees a gecko: immediately catch air and perform a crazy jig with alternate feet touching the ground, one at a time.

When a town girl does it, it is amusing and forms the script of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. When your lawyer does it in his Classic, it is cause for worry and you immediately pray that he is in control.

From Champagne Ridge we took a left until the rough road feeds you into Isinya town, where we took a right and thundered down towards Kajiado, where the children’s home is.

Once done with the kindhearted acts that brought us there, we continued down that same road until Namanga, where we turned left to face the Amboseli National Park.

That road is nasty: Sandy murram in a windy location coupled with sporadic rain means rill erosion is a clear and present danger and the result is that the road turns into an incessant stretch of rumple strips and ridges that can easily break a car on a bad day. Saturday was not a bad day. Someone responsible deployed two graders to try and level things out in the interests of maintaining touristic traffic but in a convoy of 50 SUVs, each trying to drive lead through the hellscape, billowing clouds of dust quickly transform from a picturesque panorama into a real-time hazard and it is nerve-wracking when a massive tractor suddenly looms out of the sandy mists right onto your path and braking is not assured due to the loose carpet of churned up soil underfoot. Let’s just say people woke up and paid attention.

Reach Amboseli, enter the gate and take an immediate right into what looks like a desert, which for all intents and purposes, it was. Flat, dusty and with nothing to see for miles around except Landcruisers, Landcruisers, Pajeros and more Landcruisers.

Through the Amboseli dust and out at Kimana, join the tarmac for 30 seconds, make a left and the nightmare begins all over again as we headed to the Chyulu gate of Tsavo West  National Park. On past the haunting Shetani Lava Flow and finally into the respective nightly pit-stops to recharge our batteries for Day 2.

Day 2 was a walk in the park by comparison. Leave the hotels and take numerous lefts and rights until we found ourselves at Mzima Springs, where coastal people get all their usable water from. From Mzima Springs, we traced our way to Mtito Andei and then hit the tarmac all the way back to Nairobi, where the Great Run XII came to an end. What a drive!

 

CH and The Shod-A-Tod Campaign

KCH could be the number plate prefix of a vehicle registered in Kenya fairly recently, but KCH is also the acronym for Kajiado Children’s Home.

It was founded in 1997 by a missionary couple and cares for orphans and the destitute.  The more desperate cases are the ones given priority admission at KCH. These go on to graduate college and make a difference to society in their own way, their difficult pasts acting as a backdrop and impetus for their later lives. It is very sobering to learn the kinds of hardships people sometimes go through.

The current roll has 63 entries in primary school and 10 in secondary school. Financial constraints preclude the enrollment of more students in college and this is where Great Runners came in handy. Correspondence with the home yielded an entry list of the students with attendant shoe sizes and this is where a light bulb went on in my head: the Shod-A-Tod campaign.

The idea was simple. The number of children at the home was not that discrete from the number of participants in the Great Run. So why not task each participant with finding a pair of shoes for each child? One on one. Car No, 1 would buy shoes for Child No 1 on the roll, Car No 2 child No.2 and so on until we clear the list, and any remainders would be handled separately.

It might have worked, but being the self-effacing do-gooder that I believe myself to be, I think we can do better. I will polish the concept and take it further. Perhaps I’ll ask my lawyer to patent the idea, we have too many unsanctioned Great Run offshoots nowadays...

I may be a sketchy fly-by-night philanthropist, but first I’m a car reviewer and the fact that I rode in four different metal hulks means that the gears of analysis meshed inside my mind-brain as soon as I sat in the first one. So let’s talk about:

  

The Cars

1. Car No 7: White High Mileage V80 Mitsubishi Pajero, 3.2 V6 diesel turbo, Nairobi-Namanga- Amboseli-Kimana

This is the latest version of Mitsubishi’s Dakar-dominating off-road vehicle, and it is a model that has been around since 2006. It is also the most handsome of the lineup. In the hands of a close friend who, coincidentally (or not), happens to be a Murang’a TT champion and has graced these pages twice before (first time was during the Great Run 1, where he was driving a Lancer Evolution IX which is another Mitsubishi; and second time was when he was winning the time trial event, in the same Evo), the Pajero starts showing skills we were previously not sure it had. The car can rise to the occasion when asked to.

The owner says it is a bit down on power, but you’d expect such sentiments from a taciturn individual who drives an Evo. Blame the diesel engine. It is turbocharged and very smooth, but it is still a diesel at the end of the day. He opines that the top-rung 3.8 petrol V6 might be more to his liking. I don’t know; I kind of liked the little diesel with its economy – half a tank of fuel saw him drive around the night before the Great Run and through the entire first half of the Great Run, until the Kimana exit of Amboseli, whereas almost everybody else had to top up along the way. And it is not because we were driving like undertakers; we had a three-hour start-time penalty that saw us leave Nairobi when everybody else was already inKajiado, but he is not a Murang’a TT champion for nothing. By Kimana, we were ahead of the entire pack; it is written that the last shall be first.

(Disclaimer: please note that The Great Run is not a road race, it is an expedition. My driver’s skill on dusty roads is what led us to clear the field, most of whom were unfamiliar with driving on a lunar landscape. We did not break any traffic laws in the course of overtaking the other 49 cars).

 

The Pajero is comfortable and it is one of the few remaining SUVs that is not full-time 4WD. it has the 2-high setting for ordinary use, the 4-high for loose surfaces, 4-low for when the going gets military, and diff-locks in case you want to climb a tree, slowly. The self-shifting transmission has a tendency to hold on to gears even on part throttle, which is self-defeating with a diesel engine because you do not need to rev the beans out of derv-burners to extract performance out them.

The oodles of torque will handle it quite well in the mid range. The cure for this clinginess is to override the automatic and use the tiptronic-style “manual” to short-shift from around 2500rpm.

I once said in Car Clinic that this car is not really built from titanium, they have been known to break. Ours did not exactly break but we silently agreed that sustaining this kind of abuse over time will do the vehicle no good; you need the tempered-steel Landcruisers for that. Our headlamp washer pipes disconnected at Kimana and vomited soapy water all over the white dust; the only breakage the vehicle suffered.

Verdict: 87 per cent (it gets a high score mostly because the owner has maintained it very well and you can’t tell it has done the number of miles it actually has, which is a lot. The stack of service history records looks like a dictionary).

 

 

2. Car No 43: Black Zero Mileage Toyota Fortuner, Kimana-Chyulu-Tsavo West

That little heading is not snark, nor is it jest; the second vehicle I rode in was the diametric opposite of the first. One of us actually drove a Toyota Fortuner out of the showroom and straight into the Great Run. Did I hear you say shakedown? Damn straight; and shakedowns don’t come as thorough as this. It was so thorough, in fact, that the owner included the country’s foremost motoring columnist and self-proclaimed car expert as part of the running-in. It might not have been in his plans to do so, but I have been known to be pushy, cloying, immune to social etiquette and to infest other people’s vehicles with or without their consent. 

So now, the car. It’s a nice one, a far advancement from early examples of the Fortuner. Everything about the previous vehicle has been turned up like the corkage fee at a two-star game lodge. The overall design is better and the tailgate looks exactly like the one on the newest Lexus LX570. The interior is far better than before and actually looks and feels expensive, partly because of my forced friend’s sense of taste to deck it out in dark brown on black. The equipment levels are up – I will delve into details in a future review. The comfort levels went up as well, as did engine power and handling capability.

Toyota cars and Toyota sales are strong and resilient like The Great Run, but unlike The Great Run, they do not constitute charitable work and, therefore, the price of the Fortuner went up as well. For Sh30  million you can avail yourself of four fully-specced Fortuners from Toyota Kenya.

Two plus two is four minus one that’s three, quick maths: each unit will cost you Sh7.5 million, which initially might look like an unfair charge for a pretend-Landcruiser, but once we discuss the specification in a full-on future review and the traction control in the next paragraph, you will begin to empathise with the bean-counter who was asked to justify that price by his bosses, who probably ride in LX570s. There were no LX570s in the Great Run XII. The traction and stability control systems in the brand new Toyota Fortuner beggar belief in the scope of their ability. For the sake of clarity, when I did the Great Run IV four  years ago, I had a part-time 4WD pickup that I erroneously tried to tackle murram roads with in 2WD.

That little experiment quickly devolved into an unwanted excursion into the undergrowth, after which I meekly engaged 4WD and toned down my enthusiasm. Nobody drives on loose surfaces at a fair clip in 2WD unless they want to have a massive accident. When I say nobody, I mean people who don’t drive the new Fortuner.

It will break traction quite easily, but just as easily the electronic nannies will rope it back in to the straight and narrow. Actively inducing drifts results in the same thing: slight jiggle about the hips followed by an “Oh Lord, this is where we crash heavily” and then “Hold on, we didn’t... we are still going” and you proceed as before. It doesn’t even get scary for a minute. The result is the driver did most of the trip in 2WD while everybody else did it in 4WD. The transfer case is electronically controlled via a rotary switch in the centre console, just below the HVAC setup.

It is a modern SUV with seven seats, sharp looks, beautiful interior, powerful engine and I can’t wait to try it myself.

Verdict: 90per cent. It is hard to believe you are not in a Lexus when riding in the Fortuner. This model has come a long way from the funny-looking first generation cars.

 

3. Car No 38: Green HDJ80 “Lee-Dux” Toyota Landcruiser VX, Tsavo West - Mzima-Mtito-Nairobi

The first of the green pair and the first of the old school pair, this is the definitive off-road vehicle for anybody who has even the slightest knowledge of cars and an active Internet connection. I don’t even need to go into any explanations, if you do not know what an 80 Series Landcruiser is and is capable of, then perhaps you need to re-evaluate what you stand for.

This particular chariot came with a 5-speed manual transmission and a 1HD turbo inline six diesel.

It grunts and shakes and clatters like a true original gangsta diesel, and reminded me of my youth when the paterfamilias would show up in diesel company cars that sounded like a posho mill misfiring. There is something evocative and almost sensual about the idling riff of a well- tuned old school diesel.

It is extremely roomy, which is what you expect a vehicle of that size to be, and it comes with two tanks: a main one worth 90 litres and a 30-litre auxiliary. The fuel gauge for the auxiliary is on the roof, just below the dome light, and the switch to change over from one tank to the other is north of the gear lever where someone who is not the driver can reach it, ey Dan? (wink, wink).

 

4. Car No. 49: Green Range Rover Classic 3.9 V8

This is the one I sympathised with the most, because I could see it. There was a Mazda Axela as well in the lineup but I don’t like to think the torment that pretty little compact saloon suffered, so... wait your turn. It’s coming in the near future. But first, the Range Rover.

I have sat in this car quite a number of times because I like hiding behind my lawyer, and where better to hide than in his car? It is a very well-kept example and I recall expressing a little envy the day he acquired it. The V8 roar that has typified Range Rovers since birth is present, naturally, but when I say this car is well kept I mean it is still new. That engine purrs so smoothly and quietly that he could easily sneak up behind you and serve you a subpoena and you will never hear him coming. The fact that the Classic completed the Great Run unmodified and unbroken is testament enough to its integrity, despite almost a quarter century standing between now and the time it was built.

The inside is where you want to be. The view is commanding: you sit high up in the thrones and look down on everybody around you. “Blind spot” is terminology that was yet to be invented when this car came around: narrow pillars and that high driving position means you can see everything around you without the help of cameras like modern cars have. There are thoughtful little touches such as armrests both right and left of the flank passengers in the back seat, and it makes for a very comfortable ride that can easily transform freeloading ticks like myself into obnoxious and snobbish dictators.

It is not a new car, so of course there are weaknesses. The body roll is insane. The 3.9 V8 might sound like Barry White at his most seductive, but compared to 21st Century metal, it can get a little breathless when wrung and when it does, “fuel economy” joins “blind spot” in the Thesaurus of Terminologies that this vehicle does not recognise.

It doesn’t end here. There is still plenty more to be told, so see you next week as we blast across the “Amboseli-seli” sand pan and try to Find Ngulia.

 

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK...