So you brought an 18 year old Land Rover to Africa…?

Having got the car sorted in Swakopmund we headed north-east. We’d booked to stop at a nice little camp site, Hoada, where we’d stayed for one night last year and wished it could have been longer, and from there the plan was to head for Etosha National Park. Probably Namibia’s most famous park, the game viewing here is excellent – elephants, black and white rhino, lion, leopard and cheetah, you name it they have it – so we planned time to view and time to relax. We had booked three nights at camp sites in the park, and another three in a private game reserve just outside. We could camp here but also use the lodge facilities so had booked Christmas dinner in their restaurant. We were really looking forward to it.

On the way to Hoada we had a fantastic morning driving along 4×4 trails rather than on the gravel roads. Beautiful scenery, fun and sometimes challenging driving and no-one else around. We had lunch next to a dry river bed under the shade of an Acacia tree, hoping to see the Desert Elephants that roam the area. Sadly they had roamed away but the drive was great and we finally saw one of the Namib Desert’s oldest-living plants – Welwitschias.  In fact we saw hundreds of them. They consist of a single pair of leaves (at least that’s what the book says but they seem to have several to us) but can grow up to 1m tall and 8m wide. Some are thought to be over 2,000 years old. The population in the Angola part of the Namib is higher as it is better protected…  by the concentration of land mines in that country. Something to consider for the UK’s most threatened plants???? Maybe not.

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We had great fun out on the 4×4 tracks

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Welwitschia – which can live for over 1,000 years

Getting back onto gravel roads we headed to the camp. Stopping to admire the view, smoke came belching from the engine. Not again. Must still be some oil left on the exhaust from the sump gasket job. The smoke cleared and we headed off, taking it a bit more slowly to reduce the temperature and therefore the burn-off. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t the problem. Although while driving it seemed fine, albeit down on power, each time we stopped the smoke billowed. We popped the bonnet and there was oil near the top of the engine. Arse. The harder the engine worked the worse the smoke and then it started coming from the exhaust. That’s a very bad sign. We nursed the engine to camp, not helped by a steep mountain pass on the way. In the morning Gareth took the inlet manifold off. We had a split gasket. That might cause the engine smoke as it burnt off but would it cause the exhaust smoke? We didn’t know.

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A poorly car and a sad Gareth – not a good look (on either)

We called around and found a garage in the nearest town, Kamanjab, about an hour away. Our man in Swakopmund, Nico – who knew more about Land Rovers than we’d had hot dinners (which is quite a lot…) – was now about 6 hours drive away, also put us onto a garage in Outjo, that was about 2 hours beyond Kamanjab. We headed to the closest first, where we stopped on the edge of town for the smoke to fade. At the garage, the owner was there but wouldn’t open up to help us. It was the 19th December and he’d shut up for Christmas and wouldn’t re-open til the 3rd January. Come back then. Then he handed us his card. “My main business is tow-ins. It’s a 24 hour / 365 day service. If you break down give me a call”. So you won’t help us now but you will come and get us if we break down in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Day? Great, but don’t file his card in the square one just yet.

We phoned the guys in Outjo and got an answer phone message in Afrikaans which seemed to suggest they had closed on the 15th and wouldn’t open until the New Year. Great. We decided to try really gentle driving and see if it would stop smoking, with the aim of creeping our way round our planned route through the park. We gave it 20km and it was obviously no good. We either went back to Hoada for 2 weeks and hoped the local guy knew enough about Land Rovers to actually help us or we could try at least to use some of the camp sites we’d booked and have our planned Christmas, even if we didn’t drive through the park. We chose the latter and headed for Outjo, which was en-route, going back via Kamanjab to get some more oil in case we needed to top up. As we got towards town, but before we’d had a chance to cool the exhaust, we found a police car behind us. As the speed limit dropped and we slowed down, the car started pumping out smoke. He backed off. As we got to the petrol station he flashed and pulled in behind us. We took our sun glasses off and smiled. They didn’t.”Where are you going?”. “Outjo”. “Why are you driving this car? It’s not fit to be on the road. You’re ruining our environment. The car should be towed” and various words to that effect. They had a very good point and we didn’t really  have an answer for them. We explained our situation, that we’d tried the local garage and he wouldn’t help and that maybe we should just head back to Hoada for 2 weeks. It wasn’t looking hopeful but then the senior officer seemed to change, took off his sun glasses and said “Outjo, you should go there. To Weimanns garage. They will help you”. “That’s what we wanted to do but we called and they are closed”. “They are open. I was there yesterday. Go to Outjo”. So we grabbed the opportunity and nursed the car to Outjo, and the notice on the very closed door at Weimanns garage said they were closed from the 15th of December to the 9th January… Maybe he just wanted us off his patch – too much paperwork with a foreign car? Who knows.

We found a nice camp site just outside of the town (with T-bone on the menu!) and pondered what to do. We could try again for our other camps or stay put til the New Year. Maybe our man in Swakopmund would be open after Christmas. We’d try and call him in the morning. We slept on it and called. He was open, but closing tomorrow. Can you come in today? No. We wouldn’t get there in time. What about the day after? Friday, 23rd. Yes, we could make that. OK, see you then. We headed straight off. The drive was all on tarmac which made it a bit faster and easier going but it still took about 7.5 hours. We stopped before every town to let it cool down so that it didn’t smoke too much and we prayed we wouldn’t see any police. No such luck. We turned onto a major road after a very long uphill section and the traffic came to a stop. A police check point. FFS. No chance to pretend we had a healthy car. But the queue was long and by the time we got to them the smoke had stopped. They were checking road tax and waved us through. OMG. We breathed a sigh of relief. We eventually got to near Swakopmund at about 5.30 and got the last pitch on a camp site 13km out of town. We were nearly there but one by one our days in Etosha were being cancelled.

The following morning we set off again, straight into another police check point. The queue was fairly long and we prayed for the smoke to die down. It carried on, despite the fact the engine was fairly cold. Shit. One of the police was definitely looking in our direction. The car billowed. Shit. We’re definitely going to be pulled over. Will they tell us to get it towed? We had our story all sorted. Poor tourists, no-one can help, had to come to Swakopmund, nearly at the garage, it’s Christmas, etc. etc.. The smoke just about stopped as we pulled alongside them…. and they waived us straight through. Incredulous we pulled away slowly, the car once again billowing. No reaction. Unbelievable. We took the back roads into town, belching smoke all the way, other drivers overtaking and shaking their hands at us. Sorry! Not our finest or most stress-free hour(s).

We were at the garage for 8am. They got stuck straight in and after a good look over and pulling various bits off announced what we had feared. The turbo is gone. “I have the gasket, I don’t have the turbo” he told us. He disappeared and the guys carried on prepping the car for the gasket. We were stuck in Swakopmund for Christmas, at the height of their tourist season, with no accommodation booked. But no. Nico returned with a turbo. He had called a Land Rover parts supplier and despite the fact they were closed for Christmas he had got the turbo from them! What a star. They fitted the turbo. They took the car for a drive and returned. Our hearts sank – it was still billowing smoke… OK, the system is still full of oil. He took off the exhaust. The catalytic converter was caked in it and looking pretty blocked. He cut out the cat and welded a plain section of exhaust in its place – a custom de-cat. We don’t bother with these in Africa – as soon as my new Defender is out of warrantee, that’s coming straight off.

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Custom de-cat – another thing you can do with a welder

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A rather grubby looking 300Tdi with no turbo

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Here was problem number 1

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Some of the team – at one point we had 5 men working on the car

They ran the engine for a while to get rid of as much oil as possible and took it for a spin. You guessed it…. “Oh bother” I think were the words we used. He pulled the turbo away from the engine to check for oil coming from the engine itself. There was none. The turbo’s dud – a brand new Garrett one! He double checked and called the supplier, who turned up, had a look, agreed and apologised. But he didn’t have another one. We were stuffed. But no! He had sold one to another client who hadn’t fitted it yet and could get it back from him. He would have it by 8am in the morning – Christmas Eve. Nico and his team would come back in the morning to fit it for us! We were gob-smacked and humbled. We couldn’t believe the trouble these guys were taking for us.

It was 3pm. We found a space on a camp site on the beach (sounds lovely but think ‘exposed, very windy and very, very busy’) and got a little sleep.  By 7.45 the following morning they were working on the car again. The second new turbo was fitted and they took the car for a spin and…. it came back billowing smoke. It’s not the turbo. Nico scratched his head. In years of working on these vehicles he had never had a problem like this before and he didn’t know what the problem was. We fully expected to be told to come back in the New Year but no. They carried on. They spoke in Afrikaans as they worked, most of which we didn’t understand. But we did pick up the occasional word. Well the same word was used more than occasionally… I think it is similar in many languages…

They’d already checked all the oil feed pipes and all of the other pressure equalising pipes. Maybe something was blocking them deep in the engine? He really was at a loss. So, they took the sump off again and cleaned it all up. In the meantime, Nico was reconditioning an old turbo he had as a back-up plan.Nothing obvious in the lower part of the engine but they put it back together again and took it for a spin. We couldn’t bring ourselves to look.They said nothing but Nico looked more relaxed. They called Gareth to come for a spin. They were gone for ages. When they returned, no smoke. NO SMOKE!!! YAY!!! He admitted he still didn’t know what the problem was – maybe a small blockage somewhere? It was 1pm. We looked at our timing and decided to try and get to the site we had booked outside Etosha. Sat nav said 6 hours. Nico gave us his card and told us to call him if we had any problems, even over Christmas and to text him that all was ok when we got to the first town en-route (about 130km away). They’d worked for over 10 hours in he car and he charged us for 3 hours labour. We really didn’t know what to say to them except Nico, Robbie, Kenny, team. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved our Christmas.

We should also mention the final member of the team, the garage cat, a stray that had adopted them. He was incredibly vocal and very friendly and provided some stress relief during the hours of waiting. He had no name but after a comment from Robbie we christened him Grease Monkey.

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Grease Monkey – one of the friendliest but grubbiest cats we’ve ever met

The trip to north took 8.5 hours. Gareth drove all the way. The last hour and a half were in the dark, something we had hoped to avoid in Africa. This brought unexpected consequences. The bad side was that the night air was full of insects – we’ve never seen so many. Lit up by the headlights, and attracted by them, it was like driving into snow. They hit the windscreen like living rain. The windscreen washers couldn’t clean off the resultant ‘fluid debris’ and left Gareth with a small and smearing patch in the windscreen to see through, which slowed progress considerably.

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Carnage on the windscreen

The good thing was that we avoided driving into elephants and there were no cars driving without headlights which we’d heard is common in rural Africa. But the best thing was that we saw an Aarvark. They are mainly nocturnal and they shared the top spot with a handful of animals we really wanted to see. They are so cool. We couldn’t get a pic but watched him for several minutes trundling around looking for ants (their common name is Ant Bear). 

We rolled into camp at 9.50pm. They’d kept the gates open for us and dismissed our apologies with big smiles and a warm welcome. We set up our tent and, too tired to cook dinner, made do with a glass of wine before heading to bed. As we sat there utterly exhausted a lion roared in the distance. Happy Christmas. Welcome to Etosha.

4 thoughts on “So you brought an 18 year old Land Rover to Africa…?

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