Zimbabwe – breakdown in the bush

This June, we went to Zimbabwe with our friends from Johannesburg with two Land Rovers. Ralf owns a TD5 and we rented a Puma from Southafrica 4×4. We have rented a Land Rover from Carel several times, so we thought we were well prepared for an epic trip ahead, but reviewing what we experienced on our way from Chizarira National Park to Lake Kariba: we learned something new: a breakdown in the bush must not be a bad thing for your holiday!

The trip form Chizarira National Park to Lake Kariba is about 430 KM long. The first 290 KM are exactly the reason why you do such trips on a 4×4. The Roads are a mixture of gravel,  sand and stone – no tar at all. We we prepared for a long day driving, considering the fact that you can be lucky going between 30-40 KM per hour on such roads. We knew we’ll go back on tar and comfy drive from Karoi, so this was our plan b destination for this day. Everything started well, but about 120 KM in front of Karoi, there was a red light with a battery on my dashboard, followed by a smell of burned rubber and the loss of power steering and brake booster. A quick view into the engine revealed that the ball bearing from the pulley holing the fan belt tight was gone and took most of the fan belt with it. Ralf did have a spare ball bearing in stock but the fan belts from a TD5 and Puma are not quite the same. A TD5 has a short fan belt as you would expect, but the Puma engine has a belt which is almost three meters! long, powering air-condition, engine cooling, power steering, brake booster all at once. Check mate for today. A lot of people asked me why we did not use my wife’s tights to fix it. The answer is simple: a) usually you do not bring tights into the african bush and b) I have not seen 3m long tights for a while 😉

 

So all we could do for the rest of the day was to get the car away from the road into the bush to be out of danger from night driving cars on the road and set camp – wild camping in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, you get less dusty when anyone passes by. There was no settlement close so we decided there was no chief to be asked for permission to camp on the land.

We did phone our rental company with the sat phone (no cell reception at all in this area) provided with the car and told him what happened. We needed a fan belt, the repaired pulley with the new ball bearing would do for a while (in fact for the rest of the trip). At this time it was 3:30 in the afternoon and we waited to get a call back with details how to proceed.

To be honest, it took us quite a few calls to sort everything out. It starts with describing what exactly is wrong with the car (the car is broken and does not go anywhere does not really help) and how to get help. Later on, Carel told us, there is a fan belt in Harare which will be brought to us but no pulley. So, everything left to do was to prepare dinner, light a fire and enjoy another day in the african bush. There was nothing really worth mentioning during the night. We still had some water and food, so no need to panic.

On the next morning we got news that a driver and a mechanic were on their way from Harare. They had to get the fan belt and drive about 320 KM, with a significant off-road part on their journey.  Furthermore, I did relay GPS Coordinates with our exact position to make sure they find us. When I talked on the phone to Carel and he asked me: “where are you?”, my answer was: “Africa, Zimbabwe I guess.” I do point this out because it is not really easy to find your position on a map (if you find a good one) and give directions for someone else to find you if you do not really know the area.

We decided (in the best BBC TopGear tradition) that there was not really much our wives and the kids could do. So they took the second Land Rover and the camping trailer and drove off to Lake Kariba. We set up a meeting point at Kariba Kashinga Lodge. It was in our satnavs database. With at least half a day of waiting for the fan belt to arrive, we decided to take a walk to explore the surroundings. We met a friendly farmer who told us how he manages his land and that his wife and daughters are off for the market in Harare to sell their crops. We went on for about 7 KMs to a village and took a look into the local shops. The were well equipped with rice, pap and oil. Just the basic things, accompanied by loud music from their solar powered ghetto blasters. On our way back, we stopped at a primary school. Ralf as a teacher working in Johannesburg was keen to have a look how the system in Zimbabwe works. So we entered the premises to have a look.  Two white guys in yellow shirts, not really clean from the mechanical work with the car did catch the students attention. We also got a warm welcome from one of the teachers, payed a short visit to the principal an were allowed to enter a class. 80% of the students in Zimbabwe speak Shona as their first language and they start learning english from the first grade which we visited. It was a very interesting peek into the school system and we did give them a math lesson in return which was a lot of fun for all of us.

At noon, we decided to walk back to our  Land Rover to make sure we do not miss the guys with the fan belt. In the afternoon we got a little inpatient and started calling over the sat phone. The mechanic from Land Rover Harare took his own car instead of the company Land Rover so there was a point where he could not go further onto the road. So he hired a local guy from Karoi to deliver the package. In this process, our location was not exactly passed by so the local guy searched us on a different road. Lots of phone calls later, we were finally able to call him and told him where our location was. To be honest, this was a little tiring. We did try to get the engine running with the rest of the fan belt but that did not last long. You could not close the engine cover until it sprung off. But we made a sketch how to mount the fan belt. With the dusk on the horizon, we were prepared for another night in the bush and talked to a lorry driver who offered us to take us to Karoi on his way back from Binga if we are still there the next day. Ralf said: tomorrow, we’ll find two trees to build a ramp to drive the Land Rover onto the lorry. We sat in front of the fire when we heard another car approaching slowly. I went back to the road and to our great surprise it was Eddy with the fan belt! Because we had a lot of practice mounting the remains of the fan belt during the day, it took us a couple of minutes until we had the engine running. So we offered Eddie and his friend a cold drink and had a chat in front of the fire. He had to get back to Karoi, so we decided to hit the road and head to Kariba for a few Kilometers. When road conditions got worse and we got tired, we set camp on the way.

On the next morning, we early in the morning and arrived at Kashinga Lodge before noon, much to the surprise of our wives.

On the next da, we picked up a parcel with two more fan belts and a pulley in Kariba:

Verdict:

I believe in Africa! Considering the fact, that Carel was able do supply us with the necessary spare parts within 24 hours and deliver additional parts over a 1500 KM distance within 48 hours, Zimbabwe does not feel so remote as you might think. Furthermore, I do not expect to get help faster if this happens in a remote corner of Germany. You can certainly ask why we did not have a spare fan belt with us. Next time we will. This breakdown did cost us two days of our trip, about 50% of the reserve we planned. But it brought us an unforgettable experience and got us closer to the people than we ever expected.