Slowly, carefully, the man to my right raises his rifle. It's loaded not with bullets, but with a tranquilizer dart containing M99 -- an analgesic 3000 times more powerful than morphine. For just a moment, the rhino turns her back to us, sniffing the air again, searching. My guide, African game veterinarian Dr. Pierre Bester, sees his chance. He takes aim, gently exhales, and squeezes the trigger
Think "perfect rig for an African safari," and the usual suspects readily spring to mind: Land Rover Defender, Land Cruiser, Toyota HiLux "bakkie." All are tough, truck-based, body-on-frame designs built to wade through African rivers, climb treacherous inclines, and roll right under the flaring nostrils of a Cape buffalo without so much as a quiver. But what about a carlike unibody crossover? Would anyone actually dare to drive an "SUV lite" into Africa's untamed, predators-filled wilds? Wouldn't it quickly be swallowed up by quicksand? Wouldn't a passing elephant squash it like a grape? Wouldn't Tarzan and Cheetah take one look and burst into giggles?
The folks at Subaru defiantly thought "no." And so, in the interest of science and great video, I and my team from Motor Trend's online show "Epic Drives" agreed to make like bait and pilot Subaru's all-new, fourth-gen 2014 Forester 2.0XT straight into the maw of South Africa's most hostile game preserves. The promise: up-close encounters with Africa's Big Five game animals (rhino, lion, elephant, leopard, Cape buffalo). The goal: chase down a white rhino, dart it, and fit it with a tracking device -- ideally, without getting ourselves skewered.
We start out big. The oldest and most famous of South Africa's many game preserves is Kruger National Park, established in 1926 and, at more than 7500 square miles, nearly as large as New Jersey. With our video and photo team following in another Forester and a third Subie, an Outback, trailing with a paramedic (just in case), I pick up a park guide at Kruger's main gate and steer our convoy into the bush -- where you never know what awaits around each corner.
Sure enough, within minutes we come upon a cluster of grazing impalas and zebras. "They like to hang together," says my guide. "For protection. When any one of them senses danger, they all run." Evidently, Japanese four-wheel-drive crossovers fit into the "uh oh" category, because the instant the animals catch sight of us, they're gone in a blur of stripes and hooves and dust.
Not to worry. Just a few hundred yards down the road awaits a Kruger resident not the least bit intimidated by our sheetmetal selves: a fully grown bull elephant. Probably twelve feet tall, weighing around 12,000 pounds, bearing gleaming white tusks as fearsome as a brace of .50-caliber machine guns, he doesn't even bother to turn our way. Instead, he continues ripping leaves off a tall tree with his trunk and shoving them into his mouth (elephants this big eat up to 300 pounds of food a day). Because he's standing right in the middle of the road, there's no going anywhere until big boy decides to move. And for now, almost as if he's letting us know just who's boss around here, he doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Shred shred, munch munch. "I may stay right here all day," he seems to be saying. Not that we can do a thing about it, either: African elephants -- particularly bulls -- often attack without warning, and can run down their prey at up to 25 mph (see also T-Rex: "Jurassic Park"). The 2014 Forester may be the first small SUV to ace every crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but one round with Jumbo and we'd be wadded up like a chewing-gum wrapper. Eventually, though, the elephant polishes off his appetizer and shuffles a few feet into the brush for more tree. We drive past. Like mice.
If there's a better way to enjoy twilight than out on the plains of Africa, I haven't found it. Sundowners by the fire, the calls of rare animals and birds filling your ears, fresh game roasting on an open fire, the sky pink and blue and enormous … this place speaks to you like few others. In the distance, a giraffe strolls amid the canopy of green. Nearby await canvas "tents" outfitted with four-poster beds and down duvets and folding safari chairs on raised decks from which to savor tomorrow's dawn. No five-star hotel could compare.
After Kruger, a long drive awaits to reach our next stop in the northern province of Limpopo. Here, the Forester quickly shows its mettle. With a generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance, it fords a river and climbs a steep, rocks-strewn hill without a misstep. The available X-Mode system integrates the standard Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive with traction- and hill-descent control to make creepy-crawling down the other side a no-brainer; X-Mode deftly modulates the throttle, brakes, and ABS to keep the Forester in control and on track -- even over rocks and bad ruts. And when the dirt paths finally give way to two-lane pavement, the Forester eagerly gets up and runs. My 2.0XT Premium includes the gutsy turbocharged 2.0-liter boxer engine -- good for 250 hp -- plus Subaru's Lineartronic continuously variable transmission. The CVT normally offers six "gears" you can summon manually using the wheel-mounted shift paddles, but switch to Sport Prime mode and the CVT slices up the torque into eight cogs. You know what? It's actually fun to hurl the Forester through twisting stretches, banging off the shifts, leaning into the turbo, easing the nicely weighted wheel back and forth through the bends. And that's not something you'd say about most full-on utility rigs. In fact, to ensure we reach our destination by nightfall, we comfortably fly across the empty wilderness tarmac at 90 to 100 mph. For hours.
Despite several previous safaris in Africa, I've somehow never seen a cheetah in the wild. But after breakfast of campfire-cooked eggs and delicious African coffee, this morning I'm going to do just that. The Witwater game preserve we're in today not long ago attached a radio collar to one of the local cats -- part of an ongoing effort to monitor and help preserve Africa's precious wildlife. All we have to do is follow the homing signal picked up by our guide's radio antenna. And so we set out, my Forester behind an open Land Rover (and easily keeping up), jostling over rutted dirt roads, crawling through the brush, the steady beeps from the radio slowly growing stronger. For miles and miles we roll on, passing more zebras, goofy-looking wildebeests, a few chunky warthogs—when suddenly … there she is.
A mere 30 yards away, the cheetah -- her coat tan with black spots -- is shifting slowly through the tall grass. My guide parks, motions me to join him on foot. Slowly, very carefully, we approach the sleek feline. My guide is armed -- his rifle has real bullets -- but he carries the firearm at his side. He knows this animal -- or so he says. She sees us, stops, turns. Now we're just 30 feet away, nothing between us and claws. Gulp. The cheetah sits, arches her back at our approach, stares. We freeze. Soon the cheetah lies down -- but we dare go no closer. The fastest land animal on the planet, capable of reaching 70 mph for short sprints, the cheetah could be on us before we had time to yell "holy …!" But despite one warning snarl, she stays put, watching. Soon my guide nods, and slowly we back away, our flesh intact. To see a cheetah like this was worth the wait. Oh yes.
By the next day we've checked-off four of the Big Five, including a brief and extremely rare sighting of a sauntering leopard -- in broad daylight no less. But still we haven't found our rhino. The guides at Witwater know that at least three of the animals live in the preserve -- somewhere. But with the hours running short, it's time to call in the heavy artillery. In addition to Dr. Bester and another team of ground trackers, we enlist the services of a helicopter to search from the air. Sure enough, our eyes in the sky soon hit the jackpot: the rhino trio is not more than mile from my ground position. Dr. Bester and I gun the Forester in pursuit. The turbo spools up to full boil as we close in fast, the Subaru slashing across the dirt like a rally car.