Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

The Lion's Sibling

25 December 2017

Categories: Homepage News, Big Cats Campaign News, Kenya News

By Martin Nduru – Head Driver - martin[at]

Building 10 predator-proof bomas in 10 days in Amboseli is no mean feat. It takes grit, dedication, buckets of sweat, and a reliable Land Rover vehicle.

All was set to build the bomas. The boma beneficiaries, volunteers, Born Free staff, most of the materials, and journalists to cover the momentous feat.  Except for one. The wire mesh. It had poured torrents the previous night. And when it rains in the Amboseli ecosystem and you are not on murram or tarmacked roads, you are likely to spend a night or two in the bush. Stuck happens in those volcanic soils which, when wet, are identical to black cotton soils! As a 3-ton truck carrying the wire mesh made its way to the site, the inevitable happened. I was then driving a Land Rover TDI 300 and found an exasperated truck crew but assured them that they would get to the construction site. That’s exactly what we did – I towed the truck for five kilometres and despite a couple of hours delay in getting started, we managed to build the bomas as scheduled!

Having worked with Born Free since 2003, I have been privileged to drive both the manual and computerised Land Rovers. The numerous trainings I have also had from the UK Land Rover team have helped in getting to know these vehicles well. Every month I make field trips to Meru Park and the Amboseli ecosystem where we have our project with either of the Defenders - the new 2.2 puma engines or the older TDI 300.

In my experience, the new puma is very efficient in fuel consumption and speed. The emissions aspect is also acceptable because of the EGR value which sort of regulates the combustion so that the smoke is reduced. It is also quieter and smoother than the TDI 300 engine. But on the other hand, I have noted that there is nothing much you can do when the vehicle breaks down. Given that the vehicle is computerised, you would need a professional technician with a machine to diagnose the vehicle. In the remote parts of Kenya where our projects are located - rarely a walk in the park - the only option is to search for mobile telephone network (which is in pockets those areas), contact my colleagues in Nairobi and have the vehicle towed to a garage that has all the facilities.

Another thing I have noted about the puma engine is that it is not friendly in muddy areas and with wading.  Before the computer senses and alerts you that you are about to get stuck, you are caught up in the sludge already.

Two years ago while on duty with three Born Free senior management staff including the President Will Travers, we set off for Tsavo from Amboseli to attend a meeting with the KWS management.

It had rained heavily the previous night at Olbiri area located between Chyulu Hills and Mt Kilimanjaro. We hadn’t been long in the puma before we got stuck almost a metre deep into the mud. Determined to make it to the meeting, we folded our shirt sleeves, threw off the shoes (they tend to pile up weights of mud) and got down to work. Being in the savannah, the area was littered with thorns. But that didn’t deter us. We first tried pushing and winching the car using trees but the winch broke.  

Then together with some community members, we all pushed and pulled the vehicle for 10km from 10.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m and couldn’t move an inch further. Having by then found an alternative vehicle for my seniors, they grudgingly left for Tsavo after I reassured them that I would find a way out of the quagmire. We had also sent out word for a tractor to tow the Land Rover and by the time one was found two hours later, we were bonnet-deep in the mud and exhausted. A little bit re-energised, we tried to tow the puma but in vain - the tractor’s chain broke after some struggle. In utter frustration and resignation, I spent the night there. Eventually, a bigger tractor was found the morning after and we got towed out of the muck and to Nairobi for repairs. 

For the TDI 300, it’s a manual and simple engine, making it very reliable. The major downside is that it’s noisy and not quite environmentally friendly. Whenever it breakdowns, it is likely to take one a few minutes to fix it if you have a screwdriver and pliers. It is quite DIY- friendly. Sometimes you may ignorantly drive the vehicle while faulty and yet it does not stop. Unfortunately, you are then likely to cause more damage as there is no warning for small things whereas for the puma engine, even a small faulty censor brings the vehicle to a halt. You can imagine such a challenge when you are working in the middle of the bush and particularly at night.  

The older TDI can even submerge two metres deep in water and emerge victorious. Like once while we were at Eselengei area in Amboseli. It was early afternoon when we left Lenkisem Secondary School - one of the schools we support - and were heading towards the Park. In the distance, we could see that a rainstorm had built up upstream the Eselengei River and were hoping to cross it before it flooded as happens in such instances. When we got to the river, we disembarked from the car for a couple of minutes to inspect the area and confirm that it was safe to cross. We could hear the roar of water in the distance and it was getting louder by the minute. We decided to go for it.

Unfortunately, as we were halfway, we got stuck in two deep holes that had been dug up earlier by sand harvesters and filled up with water. The approaching roar was now thunderous and we had to make split-second decisions and work fast. So we opened the windows, winched the vehicle to a tree, placed some of the stuff we had on the carrier and ferried the sensitive items to the bank. Then we stood by the bank, watching and waiting in terror. Within no time, the river flooded up to five feet. The vehicle was like a leaf in the sheer force of the water – it got pulled out from the holes and was turned to face the direction we had come from. Two hours later, the water subsided and by then we had found a tractor to tow us out from the river. We then drove to the Park without a hitch!

At the end of the day, the puma or TDI 300, they are all Land Rovers. And despite a few challenges while in the bush, they are no comparison to other vehicles. They help us keep wildlife in the wild. Indeed, they are the lion’s sibling – the king of the jungle.

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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