I've never liked Toyota Rav4s much. Something of the styling always spoke to me of neon, spandex, and other day-glo transgressions of 80s surfer fashion. Good for a Saturday night out in Umhlanga rocks, but of debatable poise elsewhere. Rav4s were to me, salsa and nachos to Land Rover's meat pie -basketball shoes and hoop earrings to the gumboots and tweed jackets of my Biggles-obsessed Anglophile youth in the Natal Midlands.
On my arrival in Tanzania last month, I rented a late model Toyota Land Cruiser, outwardly as robust-looking as a cattle trough on wheels. Sensible as a bowl of oatmeal. An imperious, four-wheeled deity of the Third World. Outwardly… Sadly the years nor the local roads had been kind, and in these twilight years of its dotage, the car’s sagging back springs, and mushy suspension made it bob and lurch like a dowager doing Callanetics on a water bed. Whether asthmatically wheezing uphill at a rattling, engine-roaring shuffle, or wallowing through off-road tracks, the grumbling old pensioner Land Cruiser made it plain it’d be far happier spending its golden years on a comfy suburban school run, or retiring to a well-tarred seaside town and playing sedate Sunday afternoon games of bridge – anything but the gymnastic 4x4 snakes and ladders game of Tanzanian roads.
A word about the roads here. Firstly the word “road" which -to my Southern African ear -conjures up miles of smooth tar, or well-tended rural dirt roads where a dry skid or mildly impolite speed bump is likely to be the only thing to topple your thermos of Milo. The Tanzanian roads -if I can call them that- are about as well tended as sinkholes, and once leaving any main track the track devolves into the most notional, abstract idea of a road, with bumps, crevices, and potholes the size of Zimbabwe's national deficit. Rough, bellicose - the type of ill-behaved, rambunctious ruffian that a conservative, God-fearing South African boulevard wouldn't want their daughters to date, let alone sit next to on the school bus.
Any speed faster than labouring, huffing first gear, made the elderly Land Cruiser lollop and yo-yo like a butter churn. Added to the laissez-faire, fatalistic traffic in front, behind, and side to side -the road beneath adds a sinister undertone to the whole experience. Arusha’s disaffected, dysfunctional roads greet your tyres like a bottle-swinging bar brawler spoiling for a late-night bit of aggravated assault. Belligerent, denture-snapping speed bumps; lurking, axel-snapping potholes the size of suburban swimming pools; faded, illegible road markings menacing as prison tattoos; and dust clouds blinding as pepper spray all add to the combative bellicosity of Tanzania's road surfaces.
So, the idea of swapping my rheumatic land cruiser for a rental 1998 Umhlanga by Night Surfer-Mobile Rav4 seemed an unlikely choice of weapons, like to taking an ice cream cone to a knife fight. In the dog eat dog of Tanzanian traffic, I'd prefer to do my shopping runs here in something far more substantial than a squat little mammalian Rav4. Something big, something fearsome- like a shark strapped to an elephant -just trampling or chomping anything you see. Nevertheless, I cautiously nosed the little Rav4 into the traffic, feeling timid as granny with some heavy shopping who had blundered into the bull run at Pamplona. To my surprise and delight, after the lurching, sagging, swaying of the elderly dowager Land Cruiser, the Rav4 felt surefooted as a cocky teenager. Like a Jack Russell chasing a marrow bone, it bobbed and darted into the bus, car, and motorbike soup of Arusha rush-hour. I felt as adroit and cocksure as a grinning, grizzled helicopter pilot at a expat pool party of nubile trustafarian NGO gap year lovelies.
Atheists make better drivers. Though Tanzania is nominally secular, the majority of the populace is evangelical Christian or devout Muslim. Never trust a driver with a firm belief in the afterlife. Taxis festooned with “Jesus is Lord", and “Allahu Akbar" above their cracked windscreens like the headbands of Kamikaze pilots. They overtake, race broadside into traffic, or veer onto your side of the road with a maniacal, grinning fatalism. Solid lines, red traffic lights, or the corporeal laws of Newtonian physics are blithely ignored in a roiling mad rush to get anywhere but here fast.
In the soul-sapping heat of a November afternoon in downtown Arusha, this furnace of rushing metal and rasping dust combines into a conflagration of chaos, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell where the damned ride motorbikes, cars, or herd gaunt, skittish cattle into oncoming traffic. Just as foxholes bring up the piety of even the staunchest non-believer, there are no atheists in a pothole.
Luckily, with the “point and shoot" one-handed simplicity of an automatic gearbox, my gear shifting hand was free to funnel high tar cigarettes to my fear-dried lips, mash rosary beads between my fingers as I muttered wordless prayers, or just cover my eyes when wincing and waiting for the blood-burning crunch of glass and steel that -praise whatever deity you may choose -never came. With power-steering light as the heft of a pool cue, Rav4 zipped here, dodged there, and delivered me on the edge of town. I patted the dashboard with thanks, feeling like Moses on the far shore of the Red Sea.
As you leave Arusha, driving North, the main Kenya road comes up like a smooth-tarred blessing, a weary monk's benediction. The Rav4's air conditioning whispers against your fevered brow like the minty fresh breath answered prayers of golden haired seraphim. After the oven-hot privation of Arusha’s roads, this long stretch of smooth, uninterrupted tar road feels like the first taste of cool cream soda when you were five, or like the balm of a long absent lovers touch. The little Rav4 purred down the road at a comfy 100 kilometres an hour-a speed belonging to science fiction in the normal Arusha driving experience. I smiled, turned up the dulcet, soothing, warm cup of Horlicks before bedtime sounds of BBC World Service radio, and all was right. For a time…
To my daily, handwringing regret-my drive home only takes in about eight kilometres of the sublime, untrammelled main road. Turn left onto the dirt road to my house, and the feeling of bonhomie and well-being turns quite literally to dust. Rural Tanzania roads may look very different from their leery, pocked urban cousins, but they have just as many dirty tricks up their sleeves as their street-fighting counterparts. The final five kilometres of dirt road up to the mountain to my house wades in fists swinging, like a bruising boxer in the final two rounds of the daily prizefight of the drive home. The road veers, undulates, then becomes more of a donga then anything resembling the meanest goat path. Fallen rocks, stray cattle, ant bear holes, and a peanut brittle, choc chip mud salad that leaves me wondering if the Masai have as many words for rainy season mud as the Eskimo do for snow. This panoply of hazards force even the weariest driver keep wide-eyed alert as a meerkat after 20 cups of dark roast Ethiopian coffee. Oblivious to my worries, the Rav4 seemed unperturbed as a gum-chewing teenager. Its permanent 4x4 put nary a foot wrong, as it insouciantly marched up twisted, steep inclines that would give even a mountain goat pause to ponder the right foothold. We parked, and I fist-bumped the steering wheel in triumph.
As I write this, the Rav4 is sitting contentedly in the driveway, unharmed despite all East Africa could throw at it. Next time I'm in Umhlanga Rocks -a garish, neon and chrome holiday I've always resolved to save for when I'm dead, though you never know -I just might hire another Rav4.