Thursday, November 27, 2008

Tonka thanks you

Thanks to all of you who have publicly or privately sent your best wishes to Tonka the Land Rover in his time of need. A special mention must be made of Grommit, Tonka's internet pen friend, who even sent a get well card (above).
Grommit is a Series IIa who lives in Australia and one day he hopes to visit Africa. Grommit's mummy and daddy, Jess and Alastair, would do well to read my last post about naming vehicles, but I fear it is too late for them. Anyway, thanks to all of you.
And in news just to hand... The Malelane Land Rover doctor advises that he decided to replace Tonka's piston rings (whatever they are) while he was busy fixing everything else wrong with Tonka's heart (engine), however the spare parts supplier sent him the wrong size rings. Tonka will be in hospital until early next week. He is in good company, though, as there is a Land Cruiser in the bed next to him.

A Land Rover is for life, not for Christmas

“Never give a vehicle a name,” a wise man once said to me in Zimbabwe. “When you name them they take on a personality, a life of their own. And then you start to worry about them.”

Legion of Fans (LOF), let me tell you, never a truer word has been spoken.

Our baby, Tonka, is still in hospital, but is due out tomorrow (Friday), hopefully. In other words, the mechanic at the local garage reckons he will be finished with the repairs to the engine of our ageing 1984 Series III Land Rover tomorrow.

Apparently some teeth have broken off the cam shaft (or is that crank shaft, I’m not sure?) and he needs a new timing belt. According to the doctor the problem was serious, but fixable.

When I was younger I was cruel to my cars. I went through a succession of vehicles and not one of them had a name. I used to treat ‘em mean, LOF, though I can honestly say they were never very keen to have me as their driver.

First there was the magnificent 1968 XR Falcon station wagon that my parents gave to me when they bought a newer model. It went from lovingly-cared-for family car to rusted out barely-mobile wreck in the space of a few short years.

I had a two-door Volvo (yes, a Volvo, but it was quite sporty) which was totalled in an accident, but even if it hadn’t been run off the road it would have died within a year of my constant abuse.

When I scraped the side of my 1984 XE Falcon (at eight years old, the closest I ever came to owning a new vehicle) I didn’t even bother getting the bodywork fixed and it, too, began to corrode. I barely made a tenth of the purchase price back when I sold it.

I rarely looked under their bonnets; never checked the tyre pressures; wouldn’t have had a clue how to change the oil or a filter; and never took them to a garage for servicing.

They were nameless, faceless machines. Hunks of metal. There was an unspoken compact between my cars and me. We both knew it would be a short, sharp relationship, and a very one-sided one at that. I knew each of my cars would be worth nothing by the time I came to sell it, and that’s the way I drove and treated them. They responded in kind.

What an awful person I was.

It wasn’t even Mrs Blog who brought about a change in me. We owned a Metro in the UK, which we left a crumpled wreck after I skidded on ice on the way to work one morning and rear-ended a Peugeot. We didn’t shed a tear for it or even spare it a moment’s thought. It was a three-hundred quid car that had lasted a year, and on that basis it was probably the best value for money car I’d ever owned.

And it didn’t have a name.

Then, one blustery London day in 1998, after perusing three Land Rover Magazines and making about two phone calls, we travelled to the charming suburb of Watford and met Andy, a backyard Land Rover nut, who had put together ‘Dodgy’ out of a collection of wrecks and second hand parts.

‘Dodgy’ had been christened by Andy’s family, who found him to be, in the parlance of Arthur Daily, a very dodgy motor indeed. Looking back on it, you would have thought that even two unsuspecting Australian tourists might have had second thoughts about buying a vehicle called ‘Dodgy’. I recall Andy’s glance at his son when he told us the vehicle’s name – it was the unspoken version of a clap about the ear-hole.

Yet Mrs Blog and I were smitten. From that first rattle of the engine and that first belch of choking black smoke, we knew that this vehicle needed to be ours. To the amazement of our friend Ray, who drove us to Watford, we bought it. Him, I mean.

Certainly, there was no way we were going to ship a vehicle half way around the world to Africa and then criss-cross the continent in something named ‘Dodgy’.

“He needs an animal name,” Mrs B decided, as he was soon to start life anew as a safari truck.

“He’s yellow underneath,” I said, scratching away at Andy’s shoddy (there is no other word for it) green re-spray of Dodgy. Apparently Dodgy (or, at least, selected parts of him) had started life as a bright yellow short wheelbase Land Rover, owned either by British Telecom or the AA, which both used canary-coloured cars. “He’s like a Tonka Toy,” I added.

“Tatonka!” Mrs P announced with an air of finality.

We had watched and enjoyed one of Mr Kevin Costner’s few successful movies, Dances with Wolves, and remembered the Native American word for buffalo – Tatonka – and Kevin’s ludicrous impersonation of one around the camp fire as he seeks to charm his Indian maiden.

So Dodgy was born again, as Tatonka, which subsequently proved too hard to explain to the many people we met on our travels in Africa. So he now goes by the name of Tonka, and it seems to fit him well.

And it became a he, with a sex as well as a name. We couldn’t call a Land Rover by a girl’s name, as that would be just cruel (though Tonka did once meet a very spic and span Series IIa pick-up with a girl’s name. We had high hopes that they might get on, but this particular vehicle, named Helga or Brunhilde or something like that, was as butch as the two ladies who were driving it).

Perhaps it’s because Mrs B and I are childless (Ag, shame, I hear all you mummies crying) that we have taken our little Land Rover so wholly into our hearts. Certainly, if Tonka has been a child substitute I’m not complaining, because even with a new gearbox and overhauled engine he is still a good deal cheaper than private school fees.

In 10 years he has taken us from the icy waters and biting winds of the Skelton Coast to the white sandy beaches of Lake Malawi and the Indian Ocean coast of Mozambique. He has survived charges by black rhinos and elephants, been crapped on by monkeys and even stabbed once, in the foot (not tyre) by a would-be car thief in Harare, who Mrs Blog and I foiled.

He has rescued Land Cruisers from muddy bogs in the Zambezi Valley and saved an African family of five from being marooned on the shores of Lake Kariba.

I know now, with the benefit of a decade’s driving experience in Africa in Tonka, that the only times he has been stuck in the mud and sand it was my fault. With better driving and lower tyre pressures these instances would not happen again.

I know Tonka like no other vehicle I have ever owned. I have changed his oil and his oil and fuel filters. Mrs B (who has an excellent mind for diagnosis) and I have fixed problems with the fuel system and the alternator on the road. I remain blissfully unaware of the white man’s magic that occurs inside the actual engine, but Mrs B and I have made it our business to find out how some of the easily accessible bits of him work.

When he goes into hospital (as he tends to, about once a year), Mrs B and I become worried and depressed. It’s not even about the doctors’ bills – we accept those as part of life – it’s about being separated from him. He is our life support system in the African bush, every bit as much as our Visa card is his.

We know he is getting old, even for a Land Rover, and we must think about his future. Selling him is certainly out of the question. We have discussed, quite seriously, the idea of buying property in Africa to have somewhere where Tonka can see out his days in peace and dignity, perhaps as a game viewer or farm runabout.

The other day, while Tonka was in intensive care, minus his engine, Mrs B and I snuck away to a Land Rover dealership in the Lowveld to become acquainted with some newborn Land Rovers and some slightly older orphans.

“We won’t be getting rid of our bab… I mean, Series III,” I said to the salesman. He smiled. “But we’re thinking of getting another one, to take the load off our current Land Rover.”

“I understand,” he said, and I think he really did.

Driving back to the car hospital in our rented VW Polo, Mrs Blog and I discussed the merits of the brand new Defender Puma 110 Hard Top, versus a low-mileage Defender with a robust 200Tdi.

I knew that if we bought a new vehicle we should be prepared to harden our hearts. Life would be so much easier, I thought, if I could go back to treating my cars like shit – as machines designed with planned obsolescence in mind. When it reached the end of its usefulness I would sell it and buy another one. Simple.

Then, in the way that old married couples do, Mrs Blog read my very next thought out loud.

“If we got a new one, what would we call it?”

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Two pictures, two thousand words.

I'll blog all about it when I am up to it. For now, say one for Tonka.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama free zone

Hey, I'm happy for the dude and all that, but you'll find absolutely no mention of him here

Instead, you'll find me, at my Getaway blog, talking about what makes a good campsite. Go there and post a comment. Make it look like I'm popular.

In other interesting news to hand... it's official Legion of Fans (LOF) I have a big head. I finally bit the bullet and went to an optometrist the other day, in Hazyview, near the Kruger Park. Quite an apt location as my view of pages has been hazy these last few months (yuck yuck yuck).

Anyway, turns out I do not have some rare disease that is causing progressive blindness - I'm just getting old. Also, did you know, LOF, that the average distance between human eyes (according to my optometrist) is 65mm, yet my eyes are a (frankly staggering) 75mm apart.

You knew it all along - my head has swollen.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


"Aaaaargh!" Mrs Blog just screamed.

Mrs B is lying on our mattress in the tent while I sit here, blogging while pretending to be working on my seventh novel.


A snouted dog-like face just appeared beneath the fly sheet of the tent and fixed her with evil red eyes. A second later I heard the grunting - not her, I hasten to add.

Baboon. Commando.

As I type (coming to you live from Africa, Legion of Fans) I can hear shouts of anger, panic and fear in Afrikaans and English echoing around the rest of the camp ground. The weekly raid has begun and all we can do is sit and wait and pray that it will soon be over.

If the ververt monkey is (as I have claimed repeatedly) the pirate of the primate world, then the baboon is the commando.

Pirates (as in human pirates) are bad, OK. Vervet monkeys are also bad, with their thieving, destructive, poohing and weeing ways, but, like human pirates (fictional ones, at least), there is something about them that is strangely redeeming. There is something devil-may-care and oddly cute about the vervet. It's the cheeky look on his face as he takes a dump on your tent, or the way he swings almost casually from branch to branch while effortlessly evading the rock you have just thrown at him. And their kids are cute when they're little.

The vervets plunder the campsite with the impudence and agility of Erol Flynn stabbing his dagger into a sail and sliding effortlessly down its face (oh, how I would like to do that in real life). If they could throw you a cheeky salute before bounding off to steal another banana or have sex with their sibling, they would.

Not so the baboon.

If the vervet is a diminutive, lithe hairy Flynn, then the baboon is an un-waxed Stallone or Schwarzeneggar.

There are no antics in a baboon raid, as there are in a monkey mission. No cunning diversions, no hide and seek, no play, no pauses for throwing eggs at one another.

Their arrival is heralded by a scream (in this case, the diminutive Mrs Blog) or the screeching sound of twisting metal as another baboon-proof rubbish bin fails to live up to its name.

"Hut, hut, hut, hut, hut," they grunt, urging each other on like members of a SWAT team. While one does the bins another rips into a tent - and I do mean rips. Baboon Blitzkreig is a thing to behold.

A tourist bravely picks up a pebble, raises an arm to throw it at a baboon.

The baboon squares up, and stares the would-be defender in the eye. He barks: "You want a war. I'll give you a war you won't believe."

Undeterred, the simian Stormtrooper snaps the metal band that holds the garbage bin to the steel post and up ends it.

Maximum destruction and minimm distraction. These are the hallmarks of a commando raid. Their credo: hit hard; hit fast; cram cheek pouches full of oranges, bread and koeksisters; and leave no marshmallow behind.

The baboon commando will retreat in the face of a determined counter-attack by armed men (they are sexist in the extreme and do not fear women campers at all. Fact: baboons will surround lone female humans. I have returned to a campsite to find Mrs B encircled, wooden spoon in hand and trembling). However, they will return at the first opportunity, sometimes minutes later, if they know there are still bins to be raided or eskies (cooler boxes) to be pillaged.

They pick their days and times well. Sometimes it's a Sunday, when most of the camp cleaning staff have a day off, but the bins are full after the departure of the weekend crowd. At other times, like today, it's a quiet mid week morning, just before the bin man does his rounds.

They continually communicate, after a fashion, as they sweep through the objective.

Stallone Baboon: "Wadda wadda wadda," grunting and pointing at a cooler box left unattended outside a tent.

Schwarzeneggar Baboon: "Ugh." (rips off lid) "Hasta la vista, esky."

Eastwood Baboon (staring at national parks ranger armed with catapult, while continuing to rummage through bin): "Go ahead, make my day." (turns head a fraction so that rock from catapult flies past ear). "A (hu)man's got to know his limitations."

Jean-Claude Van Damned Baboon (picking up a piece of ververt monkey pooh, left on Ouma's tablecloth outside caravan after the morning's monkey business, and tasting it): "Merde. Allez, mes amis. Time to 'ow-do-you-say, exfiltrate."

They leave with same military precision as their infiltration. Single file, taking it in turns to climb the chain link fence, hand over hand until they get to the electrified strands. At this point they leap, clearing the live wires, and land like parachutists on the other side.

Behind them are trembling camp wives, gesticulating men, crying children, torn tents, scattered debris, smoking camp fires, overturned bins, empty eskies.

"The horror, the horror," I breathe.

Schwarzeneggar Baboon: "We'll be back."

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Aandag, asseblief! Book signing in Nelspruit!

I'm on the road again. Sort of.

Following my sellout tour of suburban and regional libraries across Australia (except South Australia) and New Zealand I am heading into the fray once more, to shamelessly promote myself.

The South African leg of my round-the-world promotional tour for my latest book, SILENT PREDATOR, includes the following dates:

- Book signing, Exclusive Books, Riverside Mall, Nelspruit, Saturday November 15, from 10am to 12pm, and...

And, well that's about it.

However, I am very pleased to be signing books at EB Riverside Mall as it is a very lekker book shop with very nice sales people and they do excellent coffee in their cafe.

Mrs Blog is planning on taking all four of her changes of clothes to the Mall on the day of the signing, and will buy some hair extensions from Game while she is there. She plans on making several appearances in different guises, pretending to buy books from me so it looks like I am being mobbed by attractive (if short) women.

So, if there is anybody in the Lowveld actually reading this I urge you to come along and meet me and buy a book. Please!! (I'm not going to beg... oh, all right, I will if you ask me to).

SILENT PREDATOR is set largely in the Kruger Park and Mozambique, though some action also takes place in Johannesburg, so if you're a local you'll be able to identify with lots of the places in the book.