Desert GRrrowl… Toyota Hilux GR S 11 meets ‘Lion Man’ Cruiser

What do actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio and the ‘Lion Man’, Cambridge-educated conservationist Dr Philip Stander, have in common? We visited the barefoot Doctor in Namibia in the new GR Sport to find out.

There was a spring in his step and a purposeful glint in his eye as he descended from his Land Cruiser 79 to greet us. Dr Philip Stander, observably proud of his new steed, immediately proceeded to show us around the purpose-built vehicle, saying, “I do not have a lot of time. I must find the lioness I’m tracking before nightfall so she can be collared…”

We were standing close to the mouth of the Huab Lagoon on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, having travelled over 2,000 km from Gauteng in an Arizona Red Toyota Hilux GR S 11 — the latest and most powerful model in the ever-popular Hilux bakkie range — to meet him and his new, purpose-built, and extensively kitted-out Cruiser.

When we last visited him in early 2022, craggy-faced Dr Flip was not in a good space. The desert lion project and associated Desert Lion Conservation Trust went through tough times due to the Covid pandemic and funding all but dried up.

This made it difficult to keep up with his research, yet he carried on regardless. He tracked his beloved lions by day and by night in his old, trusty but slowly decaying Land Cruiser research vehicle (his second Cruiser since he started his research over two decades ago using an old, converted Hilux), desperately in need of replacement.

It was good to see the change in his demeanour now, although physically he’s much the same. Still rugged and gnarled as the desert landscape — his heimat for the past 30 years — and barefoot, with a wild beard, now he’s armed with a resolute look and a confident step.

His research has borne much fruit, culminating in a follow-up to the award-winning documentary Vanishing Kings — Lions of the Namib Desert. The sequel, called Vanishing Kings II — Desert Lion Legacy, tells the story of a male desert lion and the most remarkable lion coalition that has ever existed.

We specifically tested this aspect … and were duly impressed, particularly by the controlled rebound of the shocks keeping the Hilux stable over humps at high speed.

Leonardo and the LRF

So, how did the change in fortunes come about? Well, recently the international Wildlife Conservation Network and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation launched the Lion Recovery Fund (LRF) in a concerted effort to stop the crisis of the “vanishing lions”. (Lion populations have dropped from 200,000 a century ago to just over 20,000 today.)

The LRF granted funds for Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation in Namibia to create a ‘Lion Ranger’ programme, which will help communities keep livestock safe and reduce the killing of lions.

This welcome funding made it possible for Dr Flip to purchase a new Land Cruiser 79 4.5 diesel V8 single cab and, with the help of a variety of local sponsors and organisations, the vehicle was converted in Swakopmund to his plans and specifications to suit his unique requirements.

A spacious, high cab that serves as his office, lookout post, tracking centre, and mobile home (complete with curtains to keep the harsh sunlight out) was designed and bolted onto the Cruiser chassis. A huge sound system has been installed to attract or chase the lions away (they hate the music of Jack Parow, for instance).

Dr Flip's new Land Cruiser which was converted in Swakopmund to his plans and specifications to suit his unique requirements.

The driver’s compartment, with numerous custom-made brackets for computer screens and iPads, looks like a messy space agency control centre. Along with full connectivity (via satellite link) it has infrared camera capability for tracking and filming the lions at night.

Also new is a dedicated roof turret to observe the lions without having to leave the vehicle, and there’s a dedicated camera mount on the driver’s door (used to good effect for tracking shots). The cab is spacious enough to carry equipment, spares, and provisions for trips of up to two weeks.

Dr. Philip Stander on the lookout for desert lions

Showing us the new Cruiser’s party trick, Dr Flip became quite animated. It’s clear that he’s particularly proud of this ingeniously engineered full-electric rear hatch, operated from inside the vehicle or via cellphone signal, designed to carry nearly a ton to lift and transport a comatose lion, or fit it with a collar after it’s been darted.

Adding some GRrrr …

Mechanically, the Land Cruiser is standard, except for a heavy-duty suspension with bigger shocks and stiffer springs to deal with the harsh environment, much like our dust-coated Toyota Hilux GR S 11 sports new monotube shock absorbers and stiffer springs to deliver improved high-speed stability and handling response.

We specifically tested this aspect while negotiating the quite smooth, salty sand roads meandering close to the Skeleton Coast shoreline. We were duly impressed, particularly by the controlled rebound of the shocks that kept the Hilux stable over humps at high speed.

While designed to be the performer in the Hilux range, the tyre package of this second iteration of the GR S 11 (thankfully with a much toned-down paint and decal package) featuring bespoke 17-inch alloy wheels with a titanium finish, has been revised with taller profile 265/65R17 rubber, offering enhanced off-road performance.

On the sweeping and undulating dust roads, it made us feel like we were doing our own Dakar, while ironically, and unbeknown to us, the real Toyota Gazoo Racing team was busy with final shakedown tests for Dakar in their growling GR DKR Hilux T1+ vehicles at this time.

Unique design features differentiating the GR S from its stablemates include a prominent black grille with a horizontal cross bar finished in a carbon-fibre pattern, and chrome Toyota lettering mimicking the real Dakar Hilux vehicles. There are also vertically stacked air ducts with integrated LED fog lamps, bumpers based on the Raider design, and wider black overfenders with contrasting inserts.

Black mirror caps and door handles, graphite-coloured side steps, and a rear styling bar with GR branding create a sporty contrast on this hero model, and customers can opt for GR side decals on the doors (ordered and installed as a dealer option) to add to the visual drama.

Road manners

On the long, busy N14 from Johannesburg to Upington, we appreciated the interior design changes, including the new instrument cluster with a cog-like metallic bezel, red needles and unique gauge face, and sporty aluminium pedals (with rubber inserts). The perforated leather-trim steering wheel is decorated with red contrast stitching and GR badging, as well as the push start button and centre console.

The interior design changes, including the new instrument cluster with a cog-like metallic bezel, red needles and unique gauge face,

The brushed finish in Legend models has been replaced by attractive carbon-fibre trim complemented by red accent panels, while the comfortable front seats (with power adjustment for the driver’s seat) feature Alcantara inserts, and there are GR badging on the headrests.

With temperatures reaching 35°C, the dual-zone climate control was appreciated, as were the air-conditioned upper glove box and cupholders in front of the air vents to keep drinks chilled. The familiar infotainment system is retained, but a new panoramic view monitor, providing surround camera and a bird’s-eye view of the vehicle surroundings, came in particularly handy when traversing obstacles.

All this kit (also including Toyota Safety Sense active safety aids) makes the GR S more desirable, but the clincher (abnormal for the grade) is the engine power increase to 165 kW (+15), with torque ramped up by 50 Nm (to 550 Nm). Accomplished via a special ECU calibration, it really perks up the hero Hilux in terms of performance and high-speed cross-country prowess.

The interior of Dr. Philip Stander's Cruiser, serves as an office, lookout post, and tracking center.

Even so, we used the Power driving mode sparingly. Incidentally, we found the added aluminium paddle shifters for the six-speed auto transmissionsuperfluous, other than for holding a selected gear, favouring Eco mode on our 5 000 km long trip. Over the distance we averaged around 10l/100 km, compared to the claimed 8l/100 km.

As for Dr Flip, well, as far as we could ascertain, he did find the lioness roaming the Huab River mouth with his new DiCaprio-gifted Land Cruiser, and she was collared in time for the holiday season, thus ensuring the safety of the fishermen and anglers that descend on the area over this period.

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