Since the Seventies, the Toyota Land Cruiser has been unmatched as the commercial vehicle of choice for mineral prospecting in remote areas of southern Africa. John Gaisford gives a personal account of these tough-as-nails vehicles…
The prodigy that is the Toyota Land Cruiser was first produced in South Africa in 1972, after a few batches had been imported in the year prior to that. At the time, its future rival the Land Rover was the ubiquitous companion of travellers and traders, hunters and explorers alike, and had been for 20 years. To this day, the Land Rover has retained its romantic fame as the traveller of Africa, but the Cruiser gradually found a niche as Africa’s dependable commercial off-road vehicle.
Toyota kept the mechanical formula basic and reliable, and learnt from their mistakes too, to ensure that from the early FJ-45 to the present day 79 Series, the Cruiser’s reputation as a working 4×4 was solidified by its consistent performance under load.
In the 1970s in southern Africa, the Land Cruiser was entrenched in farming, forestry and civil service operations. The Land Cruiser gained popularity in mineral exploration, too, as the remote nature of that work made it necessary to have a vehicle that performed well with a full load, and did not break down easily.
Its infallible reliability became pivotal to the success of many projects and the subsequent discovery of many mines, some of which still represent a major slice of southern Africa’s economies. Mineral exploration companies spend huge amounts of money combing vast tracts of unexplored land for new deposits of metals and minerals such as gold, copper and diamonds. With the right combination of shrewdness and luck, they might find a deposit big enough and suitable enough to mine.
For those not familiar with this work, it entails a motley crew of geologists, field assistants and the like climbing into their vehicles with prospecting and camping equipment, and months’ worth of tuna, bully beef and Eet-Sum-Mor biscuits. They set out on those great northern roads only to turn off at some or other point marked with a beer can in a tree, and follow a bearing through the bush until they reach their target area. Here, these bush-whacked geologists and fieldies live in tents for months on end, conducting their work and slowly losing their sanity and manners. They traverse the land, mapping the rocks and collecting samples, and spend their nights shrouded in smoke from their cooking fires while discussing the day’s discoveries. More often than not, and for many reasons, a seemingly promising mineral deposit will subsequently remain untouched by mine developers, but those that work out there find that unique and wonderful experiences can be had in places not many people have the privilege of visiting.
The explorers return home with wild scribblings, even wilder theories, and meticulously-labelled bags of rock and soil to be analysed for gold, copper, diamonds or whatever other rare commodity they may be looking for. Upon arrival in civilisation, they are found to be sporting uneven driver’s tans and patchy beards, and overcome by an unquenchable appetite for cold Black Label and fresh boerewors. But, after a couple of weeks, the noise and confinement of the city becomes too much, so they pack their bags and wait impatiently to be sent north on the next adventure. Geologists used to, and still do, go to some of the most remote and rugged places on the African continent; and for nearly 50 years they have relied on the Land Cruiser as a cowboy relies on his horse.