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Old is gold: For the love of vintage safari

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Philip Mwakio | February 21st 2021

Lofty tours and Safaris and Director of Valentin Investment Company Monika Solanki with her tour vehicle. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

What comes to mind when you think about tour vehicles? For many, these are sturdy off-road monsters. The kind that approach any terrain with a ‘can-go’ attidude.

What if you turned up for a safari and the vehicle on offer is a vintage 1970’s jeep?

This is exactly what a Mombasa tour firm offers. Vintage tour vehicles manufactured in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Take the big boy of the fleet for instance. A 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser HJ60 aptly nicknamed Bushbaby. It’s storied ‘career’ includes more than a million kilometres and at one time being stolen in Mombasa in 1989 in the morning and being recovered in Moshi, Tanzania, in the late afternoon.

Or a 1973 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ55, once used for hunting safaris when this was still a thing, spotting a teak wood body.

The owners found the car in a scrap yard in Kikambala, Kilifi County, and gave it a whole new body complete with cushion seats, teak wood and formica making it an original 1970s vehicle.

Lofty Safaris director, Monica Solanki, says the feeling when travelling in the vintage trucks is special.

Monica’s husband Mahendra Kanji Jetra Solanki (recently deceased) started the tour company from scratch in the early 1980s.

He was an accomplished mechanic, and his passion is clearly seen in the fleet.

Mahendra also loved safaris and after his death on January 19, 2021 and cremation in Mombasa, the family went to Voi Safari Lodge and planted 20 indigenous trees in an open area near the lodge's entrance in his remembrance.

Another car in the fleet is a 1983 Toyota Land Cruiser HJ60 christened Boni Forest after the Kenyan Coast’s indigenous forest that straddles Lamu, Garissa and neighbouring Somalia.

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“As part of our annual ritual of giving back to the society, my late husband and I used the Boni Forest vehicle to take us to the real forest including parts of Tana River and Lamu counties last year during the height of Covid-19 infections  to take relief aid to the less fortunate members of the society,” says Monica.

A ‘newer’ member of the vintage fleet is a 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser HJZ80, which joined the team in 2016.

In better times, Monica, a mother of two grown up children, Trupti and Yannish who both live and work in Germany made good business transporting tourists to Kenya’s idyllic parks; from the Tsavos, Amboseli, Meru, Masai Mara to Turkana. Covid-19 has changed this.

“There were times when we were lucky to have struck a working relationship with British, American and German military personnel who were on duty in Mombasa. We were hired to provide daily transport to the units including taking them to safaris. We deployed our other range of luxury buses which we had at that time,” she says.

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