Monday, March 12, 2007

That Car

This is a car. This is a car to remember. When we arrived in South Africa (August 2003) we had three days to get a car and head north to Bulawayo. We went to a car dealer recommended by a friend (without whose recommendation we would indeed have been stuck): the car above was the result. A 1988 Mercedes Four-door Sedan. Looked wonderful. Wasn't.

We made the mistake of setting the amount we thought we could afford, and bought a car for that amount. We sold it when we left in December -- back to the dealer for close to the original price. It all worked out in the end, definitely a better deal than trying to hire a car for five months. But oh my goodness, what a car!

I could write about the roads instead. We travelled over good tar roads and rough dirt tracks. We drove from Johannesburg to Gaborone to Bulawayo, then north to Livingstone and Choma. We drove back south through Botswana to Jo'burg. Then 16 hours West to Windhoek, out to Swakopmund, and back to Jo-burg (but going the long way round. not through the desert this time). So we made the car work.

At first it seemed like a good deal. Nevin wrote in an email that we could never afford a car like this in Canada. Later we could add that we wouldn't want to. Driving north to Bulawayo went okay: we had cruise control and air conditioning. The car was a bit sluggish, but not bad. After seven weeks in Bulawayo we headed north -- 280 miles to Victoria Falls. And the trouble began. We had had new brake pads put in while in Bulawayo: they squealed the rest of the time we had the car. But far worse was the petrol (gas) problem.

We were half way to the Falls when the car lost power and coasted to a stop: quite a helpless feeling on a relatively deserted road in a country with almost no fuel. we looked at the motor, not knowing what we were looking at, then Vaughn and Nevin wondered aimlessly down the road to look at the road and the trees. Within five minutes a car appeared -- a couple with their daughter, on their way back from taking pictures of animals. He was a naturalist-photographer. More importantly, he showed me how to open the fuel line, blow into it to clear it, suck on it to get the petrol flowing again, and replace the line. I did this about 10 times between that first stop and the Falls. We stopped in Hwange, the only town between Bulawayo and Vic Falls, where they blew out the fuel line with an air compressor. Didn't work.

The Falls deserve their own post: enough to say that no human problems with running a country can dim its glory. It truly is an amazing sight. Lois and I had a cup of coffee, while Vaughn and Nevin went to watch the sun set through the spray and haze on the south side of the Falls. At sunset we crossed into Zambia, car and all.

The experience led to a surreal exchange with the Customs Officer at the Zambian border. "This car is registered in your name." "Yes." "But you are a visitor in South Africa." "Yes." "But the car is registered in your name." "Yes" "But you are a visitor in South Africa!" "Yes." I don't know how many times we repeated this; it evidently bothered him. I felt like saying, "That's their [the South Africans'] problem; don't worry about it", but managed to say nothing. Finally with an expression of disgust he stamped the papers and sent us on into the Zambian night.

We were headed about three miles into the country to a well-recommended collection of rondavels, where we planned to stay the night. About a mile short, the car stopped again, and I fiddled in the dark to try and clear the fuel line. Then a pick-up arrived, with load of helpful Zambians on the back. They clustered around, pushed me aside, and fiddled less expertly than I (but with the lights of the pick-up shining on the motor). Then one of them bumped a plastic piece attached to the radiator, snapping it off and spraying hot, hot water everywhere. By the time we had given them all the loose foreign exchange we had (US$5 and 100 Rand) for their help (I use the word loosely), we felt frazzled and limped into the Rest Camp.

The next day I nursed the car on into Livingstone, where a garage owner located a replacement for the broken piece (ordered and then rejected by a local Merc owner!) and drilled a hole in the petrol tank cap (to let air in so that it wouldn't stop on us -- brace try, but wrong answer to the problem). Then we headed on to Choma. Half way there we were able to verify that the fix didn't fix the problem.

In Choma, the mission mechanic (Given Mweetwa: pictured at the top of the blog) spent his off-day -- eight hours on a Saturday -- diagnosing and fixing the problem He replaced the fuel pump: that wasn't it. He then removed the petrol tank through the trunk and found that the filter at the tank was so rusted as to let very little through. He cleaned the filter gently with a toothbrush and paraffin (kerosene), since there were no replacements here in Choma. And that problem was fixed. All the way back to Jo-burg.

In Johannesburg we had a mechanic give the car a thorough over-haul. What he didn't know was that our tires were bad. We had two flat tires on the way to Windhoek -- the second about an hour from the half-way Rest Stop at Kang. As we sat, watching the sun set and knowing we were stuck in the desert, a big new Merc truck pulled up, and picked up our luggage and tire and us and took us to Kang. I got a tire sent up from Gaborone by country bus (no Merc tires there: special order only), had the tire put on the rim, and got a ride back to the stranded Merc. Soon after Lois heard me and Vaughn come driving in: she heard us before she saw us thanks to our squealing brakes.

The next day we set off for Windhoek (day three of what should have been a two-day trip). About an hour out of Kang I stopped to check the tires. They were fine, but when I tried to start the car there was nothing. General electric failure. I guess the Jo'burg mechanic didn't find everything. We should have realized we were in trouble when we entered the Kalahari two days earlier. The air conditioner gave out, and the heater came on. We couldn't turn it off, so we drove through the desert with the heater on, pointed out the open windows -- our contribution to global warming.

Pushing the car didn't work. The first vehicle that came by did what they could, but no luck. The next car by was headed towards the Rest Stop. They took me back to Kang. When I walked in the owner looked at me and said: "What are you doing here?" I said, "General electrical failure." He found an electrician, and provided us with a jeep to take the electrician back to the car, where Lois and the boys waited. They had five hot hours in the more than 40 C (104 F) sun.

There the electrician re-did the connections to the battery, rewired the alternator, and bridged three fuses that had blown out. We had our air conditioner back! We gave him all the Pulas (Botswana's currency) we had left, and headed off for Namibia. When we found a proper garage, we had all of the work re-done, and in Windhoek spent another 2,000 Rand on repairs so as to drive safely back to Jo-burg. But I never did quite feel safe after that.

One can draw lessons. In our time in Bulawayo 1988 to 1992 we drove mission vehicles -- all paid for by the church. This time we experienced life more like many residents of Zimbabwe and southern Africa, driving what we could get. We also discovered how ready people are to help. We never waited more than ten minutes for help, although we were in unpopulated areas. The Kalahari is not where you want to break down!

I remember Nevin's comment in another Rest Stop the evening after the general electrical failure. With five hours waiting in the desert, and another three hours driving to the Rest Stop in Namibia, where we stayed that night, we had finished all of the water and other drinks we were carrying. Just before we went to bed, Nevin said: "You know where Jesus says, 'I'm the living water'': I think I understand better know what he meant."

And I remember the car. Next time we won't ask, "What can we get for this amount of money?" We'll ask, "What does a reliable vehicle cost?" The memories are good, but I don't want to repeat them.


KGMom said...

I recall learning about this trip from your email postings at the time. I remember thinking--GOOD GRIEF. . .heading into the desert with an unreliable vehicle. Counting on the kindness of strangers time & again. Well, just glad that all was well in the end.

Vagogan said...

I suppose with all that went on during that crossing of the Kalahari it's impossible to include every last detail; but it seems a shame to leave out our experience of riding back to where we had left the car by the side of the road, piled into the back of an old rustbucket driven by Herman Englebrecht, with the lady we then learned was his mother, barreling down the trans-Kalahari at speeds surely in excess of 130 kph... one of the more surreal moments of the trip for me, at least.