It’s been a very exciting two weeks here in Botswana, action packed could easily be an understatement. Whether its been chasing wild dog, stalking leopard, tromping through the marsh to find the rarest species of African owl, flying around the Delta to help with animal surveys or running into car problems when you are four hours away from town in the middle of the bush, the excitement here never seems to cease. Having said that, I am having the time of my life out here… there’s not a dull moment to be found!
If there’s one thing that Africa teaches you, it’s how to deal with your vehicle. I must admit, when I left the states, I hardly knew how to change a tire..but since I’ve been out here, I must have learned how to take apart an engine and redesign an entire land rover. Firstly, the research vehicles we are dealing with are easily twenty years old so they are quite prone to breakdowns. The second problem – we use land rovers as opposed to land cruisers (land rovers are notorious for being unreliable vehicles). And lastly, I cannot stress how important it is to know how to make a quick fix when your vehicle brakes down 10 miles outside camp and you are surrounded by lions, elephants and hippos. Not a situation you would likely face back in the states, which is likely why I was completely car-ignorant before arriving here, but wow do you pick up quick when you live in the bush. I’ve probably changed a tire a day out here, hoisted an entire land rover back onto a bridge two jacks and some bricks, driven through water over four feet deep while praying not to get stuck, plugged a diff casing with a modified stick, and driven nearly three hours back to camp at a drooling 10mph after needing to remove the drive shaft from a misfit of a truck. One things for sure out here in Africa, never does a day go by when you don’t get your hands dirty.
Two particular circumstances come into mind when discussing some of the issues I’ve had with these land rovers in the past two weeks. First was when a few of us had just done an environmental inspection at a new camp about four hours away from town and were heading back home. While we were at the camp, one of the mechanics replaced the oil in the diff housing, but apparently screwed the plug on a bit too tight. As we left camp, the plug actually fell into the diff and was swimming around in the oil, but unfortunately this meant no way to keep the oil from spilling out. None of us knew it had happened of course, and we were driving along merrily about an hour outside of camp when all of the sudden we heard a loud cracking noise and the car came to a sudden jerk. We looked under the car only to notice that the diff had no plug (it had fallen inside, but we didn’t know this at the time). Not only that, but the oil had completely drained so now it was bone dry inside the diff housing. This is a major problem because the gears that spin the wheels would start to catch on each other and completely stall the tires from spinning.
To our surprise, there was an old road maintenance truck abandoned on the side of the road a few hundred meters ahead so we figured we could drain some oil from it and use it in our own car. The oil wasn’t by any means diff oil - it was jet black and very soupy - but it would make for a quick fix that would (hopefully) get us back into town. After a very messy exchange of oil from that ancient machine into our broken machine, we chopped down some branches to improvise a plug for the housing. We stripped the bark off and jammed the tree limb into the hole, crossed our fingers that it would stay in, then headed off again.
Next problem: the diff plug had fallen inside the housing and was now bouncing around, so it snagged on the cogs only a few minutes later causing us to lurch into another screeching halt. Time to get creative…so we removed the entire drive shaft from the bottom of the vehicle and drove at a depressing 10 miles per hour for the remainder of what should have been a three hour drive, but instead took about eight hours. I have to admit though, despite the breaking down and slow going, I was fairly amused throughout the entire situation simply because it was such an unusual experience. Quite funny how you manage to work your way out of problems like that.
The second car issue I’ve had in the last few weeks was when my land rover’s tires were completely dislodged from a log bridge. Apparently my one of my rear tires had not been completely aligned with the bridge when approaching it, and it threw the entire vehicle sideways and off the track. This was quite a sticky situation because the car was literally resting on the front CV joint and the rear diff, not the tires, which I thought was sure to do some serious damage. I was also worried that we would have to cut some of the log poles on the bridge to get the car off, something that the company would not be particularly happy about. We were, however, able to hoist the car up and over the edge of the bridge and back on it properly with a few jacks and some ingenuity. Amazingly it was completely undamaged, but ironically as we were just about to back it up off the bridge, the steering rod snapped when we turned the wheels and one got caught between two logs. Oh well, for such a dramatic incident, a broken steering rod was the least of my worries.