The roads in Botswana are overall much better than what we had been dealing with in Southern Africa, however up north there are patches were they can be quite crappy. On our way to Gweta, we hit a big pothole going pretty fast. We have seriously hit a million pot holes on this trip and this one didn’t seem any different. However, shortly after that hit, the car started making a weird noise. We thought it would go away… but it just kept getting worse. Finally, we pulled over to check things. Nothing obvious was wrong, no leaks, no smells – just a weird metallic noise. Garrett called his mechanic friend who suggested that maybe the air conditioning compressor had seized up because the noise was coming from this area. We tried to loosen the aircon tensioner without luck, so we cut the aircon belt. We eagerly started up the engine thinking we had solved our problem but the noise persisted and got worse!
We were just 7k from Gweta so we figured our best bet was to get ourselves to Gweta Lodge for the night. We barely made it, limping along while the engine made noises like there was a box of rocks in it. The manager was super nice and very sympathetic. His response to our situation was – “You know was the problem is, the problem is you have a Land Rover!” (An all too common joke in Africa). Thankfully they had a mechanic onsite and he was very hopeful they would be able to help.
This slight ray of hope quickly dissipated when we tried to start the car for the mechanic – it made the most truly awful noise I have ever heard. Now it would not start at all. Crap. Something much more serious was wrong….more than could be fixed in Gweta. Our stomachs dropped. The mechanic said he could try to look at it but was too busy with their own cars so it would likely take about a week. Even then, he couldn’t guarantee that he could fix it or that we would have the right parts. The only other option was getting it towed to Maun where there are enough 4×4 shops and parts to fix Land Rovers. But it wasn’t going to be cheap. The manager said he would call a few people and let us know what the options were. In the meantime he suggested we go on an afternoon tour to see the salt pans and the resident meerkat colony. We had planned to try to do this on our own because the tour is really expensive but obviously that wasn’t an option now! So we joined in on the tour in the hopes that rolling around on the ground with some meerkats would cheer us up!
Well, no such luck. Our visit to the meerkats seemed doomed from the start. The guide was unbearably annoying and slow. The usual tour involves finding the “meerkat man” who lives next to the colony and finds them each morning so that when the guide comes he can lead them right to the meerkats. You are supposed to have about 45 minutes to sit on the ground with the meerkats and watch them play. If you are lucky they will climb on your shoulders and even sit on your head! I have visited this area before with Planet Baobab (without Garrett when I came as a resident to work in Botswana) and I knew how the tour was supposed to go. Well, our guide could not get in touch with or find the meerkat man – which is NOT supposed to happen. He tried to find the meerkats on his own. Nothing. We drove to a different colony….no meerkat man….no meerkats. To make things worse, the Ntwete salt pan was flooded so we could not drive out to enjoy that. The trip took 5 hours and all we saw was cattle, donkeys and cattle posts. For that they wanted to charge us $150. You can imagine how upset we were….it had been a truly shitty day thus far and we didn’t need anymore disappointments.
When we arrived back at the lodge we got some good news and bad news. Good news was that the manager, Jake, found someone who could rescue us. Bad news was that it was going to cost $400. This was unfortunate, but actually didn’t sound that unreasonable. Getting your car towed in the US will cost you 200 straight away. This guy was going to have to travel 400k to rescue us….so sounded like an okay price to me.
We just really wanted to know what was wrong with the car, if it could be fixed and more importantly how long it would take to fix. If it was going to take a week, it didn’t make sense to sit around Maun. We would miss all of our reservations in Nxai pan and the Central Kalahari. Botswana is annoying in that things book up a year in advance so you can’t switch your lodging dates last minute. Also, everything is prepaid so we would miss the experience and lose money.
Our options were to rent a new 4×4 – cheapest would be about $150/day. Or our friend offered to let us use his Prado but we would need to drive it up from Gabs – meaning Garrett would need to fly down and drive for 2 days to get back to Maun. Although the Prado was fully kitted out, it didn’t have room for a roof top tent which we really wanted for the places we were staying in Kalahari and the Delta which are known to have lions and other predators in camp. Neither were great options.
I also started getting really sad that we were going to have to say goodbye to Boomie. Even though the car had been a huge pain in the ass, loud and uncomfortable, it had become our home and I wasn’t ready to just abandon it. I had become attached to it…. Boomie had all our stuff and more importantly it also held all our memories. It just wouldn’t be the same to be in some rental car. It would totally change the trip and make it much less of “our adventure”. We wouldn’t find out what tough decisions needed to be made until we got to Maun and had a mechanic look at it. We just had to hope for the best and wait with a pit in our stomachs.
Gweta Lodge felt really bad for us. They generously gave us a 50% discount on the meerkat tour and a free chalet for the night (which costs $75 normally). I couldn’t believe how kind this was. They could tell how heartbroken we were about the car and knew how much we were going to have to spend on fixing it. Just another one of the things that would never happen in the US and makes living in Africa really amazing!
The next morning we waited for our “rescuer” to arrive – he finally showed up at 1pm (which was annoying because all we wanted was to get the car checked out so we could start figuring out our plans). McKenzie from McKenzie 4×4 came to our rescue with his Toyota and an assistant to help steer the Landy once it was attached to the tow hitch. McKenzie – known by everyone as “Mac” is famous all over northern Botswana for rescuing breakdowns.
We then drove 200K as one attached unit. The road is tar but there is about a 40k stretch with horrible potholes which was incredibly nerve racking to drive through hooked up to the Landy. It took about 4 hours to get there and we arrived around 5pm. We were really anxious to have someone look at the car so we could figure out if the problem was fixable.
Mac’s main mechanic was gone for the night which was bad news. We couldn’t stand sleeping another night without knowing what was going to happen with the car and if we needed to move to plan B. Thankfully Mac was able to get another mechanic to come over and take a listen. After listening to the engine for a few seconds, he knew immediately what the problem was. Mechanics are pretty amazing. It is almost like watching a cardiologists with a stethoscope finding a murmur. They listen, diagnose the faults and then know exactly what needs to be done. It is quite fascinating.
We soon found out that the bolt that holds the timing belt tensioner had snapped off. This caused the timing belt to jump out of the grooves on the belt which jammed the belt and shredded it. It then caused a chain reaction which bent the push rods in the engine. That basically halted combustion which brought the engine to a complete standstill. A perfect storm of a disaster. What bad luck for this silly bolt to snap! We still wonder if we had been able to dodge that pothole…..then maybe the bolt might not have snapped…. But we also think about what good luck it was that all of this happened in Botswana where we had all the resources to be able to fix it.
In just a few minutes a plan came together. We called Riley’s Autoparts in Maun to make sure they had the needed parts. Garrett would meet Mac and his mechanic at 7am the next day which was Saturday. They would get the necessary parts in the morning because the auto parts store closed at noon. They would be able to fix the car that day by putting in a new timing belt, straightening out the push rods and installing a new tensioner with a new bolt. Garrett thought it could even be fixed in time for us to leave that same day….I knew this was too optimistic. They ended up working late into the afternoon but amazingly it all got done. We had to stay an additional night in Maun which only slightly altered our upcoming plans. In Maun, we typically stay at Old Bridge Backpackers but they were closed for remodeling. So instead we tried the Okavango River Lodge. It was great. Their manager was also super nice and again felt bad for our car situation. They offered us a full room for the price of camping! What a treat – and they had good wifi so I was more than happy to hang out for a day while the car got fixed.
I felt like we very narrowly escaped disaster with this breakdown. It was a reality check for how lucky we had been the whole trip. What if this had happened in central Mozambique? Where no one spoke English and we wouldn’t have a anyone to call for help? How much would it have costed to tow the car 1000k down to Maputo! Thank god we made it through Moz and Malawi and Zambia and Zim without a full breakdown. The whole experience was humbling. How lucky we are to have vehicles that keep us safe and get us to where we need to go….most of the time.
We also really enjoyed meeting Mac who started McKenzie 4×4 which is now an institution in Maun. He is 72 years old and still working full time. He has given up most of the business to his son and he now just does the breakdown rescues which he enjoys the most. He told some epic stories about people getting stranded, stuck and broken down for all sorts of reasons in all sorts of scary places. He most commonly has to rescue people out of Moremi Game Reserve. The coolest part is that during his many years of rescuing – he has seen more amazing wildlife than any tourist. I was floored by all the incredible kills and predator encounters he has witnessed – crazy things like lions taking down elephants.
Mac pretty much knows everyone in Maun and at all the lodges. He follows a personal mantra of always greeting everyone everywhere no matter what. When he walks into a room he will walk around and greet everyone, no matter how long it takes. Being happy and pleasant all the time no matter what is how he chooses to live his life. He shared stories about his childhood in South Africa and how life changed drastically during apartheid and there was nothing he could do about it. Then, after apartheid his life turned upside down again as all the local people turned against anyone white. He was beaten at his job and actually held at gunpoint one day. That’s when he deiced to leave and move to Botswana to try to live a peaceful happy life – which he has succeeded in doing. We now feel much safer driving out into the bush knowing that we know we can always call Mac to rescue us! If you ever run into any car trouble in northern Botswana, I would definitely recommend calling McKenzie 4×4 for help.