By Armand Rodrigues
My first car was a VW Beetle, in 1956, when I was working in Uganda. I loved cleaning the spark plugs at regular intervals and correcting the gaps. I also cleaned the carburettor at the same time. The car responded with smooth performance and was always a joy to drive.
A salient component of my job entailed safaris across the 90,000 square mile expanse of the country.
Diversions across the famous national parks always appealed to me because of their variety of flora and fauna, and I seldom wasted an opportunity to get off the main road and cut across a park. Narrow, one-way tracks – essentially fashioned by elephants – came with the territory. Flanking the tracks would be 10-foot tall elephant grass.
Time and time again, I was held up by elephants with their hindquarters on the track, grazing on the tall grass on both sides, back- to- back. A couple of times I quickly found myself surrounded by them ! Egress was impossible until the pachyderms sated their enormous appetite and sauntered away. For up to an hour or two, the risk of real danger to life was palpable. I was the intruder, and a U-turn was impossible. No humans were anywhere near or expected. And, a VW Beetle was no match for a spooked elephant.
On one occasion, I suddenly found myself nose-to-nose with a huge hyena dominating the middle of the track. It simply refused to budge. I accelerated towards it, gunned the engine, shouted profanities, yelled at it. All to no avail. All I could do was to stay put until it got tired of the charade.
Then there was the time I was driving along a main road. Out of the blue a mother boar dashed across the road in front of me. It was a close call. (The thought of a potential pork roast and a missed opportunity crossed my mind later). I braked as hard as I could. Little did I know that a slew of piglets were following her from the dense undergrowth, and had now become separated. The furious sow was not happy and came charging towards me. I took off as fast as I could, and the car only received a glancing blow in the rear.
A number of country roads had black cotton soil (like quicksand) that one could come up against unexpectedly. Most cars would get bogged down and stuck. A VW, however, had an advantage. The chassis was a flat metal plate and so the car would “sit” on the quagmire while the wheels laboriously moved it forward. Likewise, “drifts” were quite common. It could rain several miles away but a fast-flowing river could cut across a road and make it impassable. The flat chassis kept the car “afloat” and the wheels propelled the car forward to the other side making it an amphibious vehicle in the short-term. Other cars ended up on the road-side.
Another time I was driving back from Tanzania, via Kenya, to Uganda. Our four-year-old daughter was in a child seat in front and my wife in the back. In Kenya the highway cut across the famous Tsavo National Park, where wild animals came to grief in encounters with motorists at night. The carcasses provided a feast for hungry vultures. The road was dead-straight but it was raining a bit. I was doing a steady clip when I spotted a flock of vultures in the distance, gorging on road-kill. I naively assumed that they would take off when they saw me coming. I was wrong. Most were able to fly away after a running start on the tarmac. Some were so stuffed and, with rain-soaked feathers, that they could not get airborne soon enough. One crashed into my windscreen and left a gaping hole in the shattered glass. Fortunately, the VW had a circular patch incorporated in the windscreen, directly in front of me, and I was able to stop safely. My daughter had blood on her face which, luckily, turned out not to be hers. I jammed a towel in the hole and cautiously continued in the rain, without the use of the wipers, until we got to Nairobi, Kenya. To add insult to injury, my insurance company declined to reimburse me the cost of the windscreen as I was only covered against “flying stones.” ! In a twist of fate, the dead bird became a tasty morsel for some other creature of the wild.
For good measure I should mention that cars of the day had water-cooled radiators that had to be topped up religiously, whereas the VW had an air-cooled engine that obviated the chore. Also, with the passenger seat removed, I could carry my WWll paratrooper’s motorbike in the car if I was going hunting or fishing along footpaths in the forests.
Needless to say. the car served me and my family well.