It’s Mitsubishi Pajero Week here on Venturesome Overland, and – wow – did we have a week with the Pajero.
We’ll have a lot more to say about our recently curtailed overland adventure to the western reaches of Botswana’s national park system, but for now, be prepared for a lot of photographs of me – or more accurately, half of me – under the big blue Mitsu.
To reel in a really long story, the big fish on the hook is that we broke down.
I say “we”, but I really mean the Pajero. Though, both Julie and I may have flirted with breakdowns as well.
I can only speak for myself. It’s awfully hot and gritty laying on the ground under the Botswana sun, even in the shade of the chassis of a three-ton SUV that’s leaking coolant on your face, wrangling ruined wires leading to nowhere, and especially with only yourself to blame.
That’s both a truck and a woman getting a much-needed tow.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s review a few best practices for overland travel in southern Africa.
- Plan for the worst: If things go sideways, upside down, or simply cockeyed, you may find yourself in need of help that might be a very long ways away. Always carry more fuel, water, food, and tools than you think you may need.
- Make Friends: When the worst strikes, you might need to rely on the kindness of absolute strangers, and even people you know well. There is a lot of fear in this world. But in our experience, when you are at the end of your own options, there are always other humans. Most of them are willing to help. Be kind, be friendly, offer something in exchange for their troubles, even if they refuse.
- Don’t Panic: Thank you, Douglas Adams for those immortal words printed in “large friendly letters” on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s admittedly hard to quash the peculiar anxiety you feel when you are well and truly stranded, but take stock of your mind and your world, breathe deeply, and if you’ve planned for the worst and made friends, the panic will subside. At least we had a towel.
Did I Panic? Maybe just a little. Here is where we found ourselves when the Pajero tapped out – on the southern cutline road that marks the border of Botswana’s Khutse Game Reserve:
We broke down late in the day, 80 kms from the nearest village, 50 kms from our destination at the south gate of the Khutse Game Reserve, and a long, long walk from, well, pretty much anywhere. On this rough track we had fractured a coolant hose, one very particular to our Pajero, and not readily repaired in the middle of nowhere.
We lost so much coolant so quickly that the temperature gauge didn’t even have time to register the problem. The engine shut down on its own terms. We tried multiple times, but it wouldn’t run again, and in the fading evening light, our options narrowed.
But we had Planned for the Worst!
We had food, water, and fuel. So we decided to camp right there in that random spot on that lonely track. We set up the tent (a new-to-us roof top tent installed by Hi-Range Safari City in Gaborone that I was really hoping to review instead of writing this), made a modest supper, and turned in.
An hour later a Land Cruiser pickup was towing us at supersonic speeds across the Kalahari.
A work crew grading the road that we had passed earlier in the day had come across our makeshift camp long after we had gone to bed. The high beams of their Land Cruiser cutting even through the thick canvas of the Eezi-Awn.
As they pulled aside our beached blue whale, I leapt from the tent in my pants, and little else, asking if they could help (Some panic in my voice? Perhaps.)
We had Made Friends. The three guys from the road crew quickly diagnosed the same problem I had earlier, agreeing that the Pajero was well and truly dead.
They said, “Are you going to the Khutse Gate? We will tow you.” It was nearly 10:00pm.
“No, no. Just tell the Game Reserve staff at the gate that we are here, they will find us in the morning.”
“No, rra. Do you have a tow rope?”
“I do, but…”
So we went.
That tow is one of the most crystalline experiences I have ever had.
The road workers waved off my expensive and never-used tow strap in favor of what I can only describe as their own worn length of linen, possibly stolen from the mummy in a long lost Egyptian tomb.
They wrapped it around the bumper of their Land Cruiser pickup, and tied it into the tow points on the front of the Pajero. There was maybe 10 feet between the two trucks. We rode ten feet on the tension of a threadbare strap for 50 brutal kilometers across the Kalahari bush.
I stared, hands welded to an unassisted steering wheel, at a tailgate that read
T O Y O T A
for two hours as we jerked and swayed across the desert. We dodged porcupines, gemsboks, Mopane trees, and other obstacles that I never saw, and we made it. It was just a sandy patch of road outside the Khutse Game Reserve gate, but it felt like home.
A nice wad of Pula and many beers from our cooler richer, our new friends turned around and drove back to their work camp. We set up the tent again and collapsed.
New friends are not the only friends.
The next morning, towed to within saving distance, but still equally stranded, we asked the camp mechanic at the Khutse Game Reserve to help. Donald is a recent University of Botswana graduate in mechanical engineering, and he said:
“Oh, rra, you’ve broken this hose.”
We knew the hose was shot, what we needed was something to replace it.
Jovan and Dina from Road Beneath Our Feet were scheduled to meet us at Khutse that very day. Still without a cell signal, I called Jovan using the phone at the entrance gate office. The completely random number on his caller ID was probably pretty confusing.
“Dude. We’ve got a problem. Can you stop at the parts store, bring some 14mm heater hose and plastic T-fittings?”
With remarkable and comforting calm, Jovan said, “No problem.”
Recruiting some help from the camp staff, we fixed those hoses. We refilled the radiator, and we tried to restart our Pajero. With four more days planned on our Botswana adventure in Khutse, we had hoped for the best.
But it was worse than just a split coolant hose – I had overheated the engine, and likely blown apart one, if not both, head gaskets on the 3.5L V6. Starting the car only resulted in big waves of water blowing out the exhaust pipe.
We were finished.
That’s me and Jovan, not panicking.
Julie and Dina pitched in throughout the afternoon as we all tried in vain to revive the Pajero, but to no avail. Another tow was the only way out.
In all of this, we learned one more best practice for traveling in remote southern Africa.
- Don’t Hurry: I am convinced that I fractured that coolant hose because I was driving too fast for the conditions. Slow down, consider the road, evaluate both your short and long term options as you move toward your travel goals. Err on the side of caution.
We were trying to reach the campground at the gate of the Khutse Game Reserve before dark, and I was pushing harder than the Pajero could actually handle on that particular track.
The drive to achieve the goal of the gate overwhelmed my mechanical sympathy for the vehicle, and I am pretty sure we paid the price for that decision.
My mechanic says otherwise – he thinks it’s not that bad, it can all be repaired, and that one hose was bound to fail eventually. We definitely have at least one blown head gasket, but the Pajero is likely to ride again.
Stay tuned, because Africa has no shortage of surprises.