By Robert N. Jenkins
What’s that? You want me to drive into that trough of muddy, brown water when I don’t know how deep it is? Why would I do that?
Because this dirt road in Arusha, Tanzania, only goes one place: through the water, which, it turns out, reaches the tops of my Land Rover’s tires.
Barely recovered from watching the wave of dirty water splash near my window ledge, I drive up a 30-degree hill whose exaggerated slant eliminates the view of everything, even treetops beyond it.
It was all part of the Land Rover Experience, established this year at the posh Arusha Coffee Lodge to show safari visitors firsthand what they might encounter in the bush.
Just minutes after I got the Land Rover over that steep hill, I had to drive along a hillside so tilted that I was frightened I might roll over — on the driver’s side.
Not exactly Armstrong-landing-on-the-moon stuff, but by now I appreciated the basic driving lesson ($150). The lesson takes place near the lodge’s upscale villas on a dirt road course amid the coffee bushes.
But the pleasant landscaping belies the exhilaration, bordering on fear, you’ll experience behind the wheel.
A lesson in a $120,000 Land Rover Discovery begins with an instructor in the seat next to you explaining its complex options: A driver can push center-console buttons to maximize use of the transmission and wheels to work through various road surfaces: water, sand, mud, rocks and ruts. You can also raise the undercarriage as much as 5 inches to clear obstacles.
In Tanzania, you drive on the left side of the road, so the steering wheel is on the right. That transition, and the instructor’s occasional directions to tap a console button or to simultaneously use both brake and accelerator pedals, adds to the challenge.
The final teeth-clencher is crossing a 6-foot-deep gorge on tree trunks barely wider than the tires. The guide gets out and positions himself across the bridge, using hand signals to have you turn the wheel to line up the tires and logs.
Navigating the course can thrill or chill; I was closer to the never-again side of the garage.
In addition to the basic one-hour lesson providing at least three circuits of the course, there is an eight-hour lesson ($350, lunch included) that enables visitors to drive their own vehicles on the course. There is also a nine-hour drive ($790) through Arusha National Park.
Three- to seven-night safaris explore the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and other national parks. Guests drive a Land Rover as part of a group of up to six Rovers. Guides are in their own vehicle. Per-person rates run from $4,025 to $9,320 and include meals, lodging and walkabouts.