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Back in August, Nellu and I signed up to do an overland Africa adventure with G Adventures, formerly known as Gap Adventures (more on the name change later). We had planned to do some kind of safari while in Africa and after some complex and not so complex justifications, we signed ourselves up for a month-long trek. Our route from Johannesburg to Nairobi would take us through 6 countries in 28 days. (For more of our itinerary, click here.) It was certainly more than we would normally take on, on our own. The fact that we’d need to do 21 days of camping… well, we needn’t worry ourselves with such details especially with a part of our trip that was more than 5 months away.
When we arrived in Johannesburg on an overnight bus from Cape Town, we hadn’t fully wrapped our heads around what we were getting ourselves into. But one thing was for sure, the idea that for the next 28 consecutive days we knew where we’re going to sleep was filling me with a deep sense of joy. (To be honest, I didn’t know where were going to sleep. But I knew that someone knew and that’s all that mattered.)
If we could make it to the airport, our hotel the first night of the trip would pick us up from there. So Nellu did some extensive research via the intraweb and figured out a train we could take from Park Station in downtown Johannesburg to just outside the airport. We’d need to walk about 1.5km from the train station to the actually airport because it wasn’t South Africa’s fancy new airport Gautrain, but the regular old metro. The route was straightforward and it cost just a fraction of the Gautrain. As Nellu put it, “All the people who work at the airport, this is how they get to work everyday.”
We definitely got some looks on the metro, but that happens a lot. I assume it’s because we’re carrying massive military duffels on our back but who really knows. When we were finally in the van on the way to our hotel, our driver pointed to the very metro we had just gotten off and said, “See this train. Never take this train. This is the train where the robbers get robbed.” Good to know.
We made it safe and sound to the hotel, and from there on we were in the hands of G Adventures. But I was nervous, mostly about our stuff. We assumed that most of the people who do this type of trip don’t do it as a part of a longer 10 month round-the-world adventure. What if our bags didn’t fit on the truck? We had emailed back and forth with our G Adventures representative Amanda to make sure it would be all right. But you never know for sure until you know.
And then there was the issue of the people. There would be 20 other people joining us on this portion of the trip. What if the other members of our group didn’t like us? And more importantly, what if we didn’t like them? This was like the first day of school all over again.
To Be Continued…
“Do you have a big f-ing thing?” we joke, “Well if you do, then we’d like to climb it.”
After traveling for almost a year you start to develop a distinct modus operandi for getting to know a city. One piece of our pattern: find whatever big hill, mountain, building, mound or other big f-ing thing in the center of town that offers pretty good views of the place and climb it. Nellu likes to quote a line from Star Trek where Captain Kirk says something about climbing a mountain just because it’s there. That’s what we do. (By the way, my computer just spazzed out. It seems the very idea of me quoting Star Trek, even indirectly, was enough to send a chill through its motherboard.) But in general the climbing part works pretty well for us because it’s usually free, we get some exercise, and we feel mighty productive.
Many big f-ing things have cable cars to the top but climbing is part of the fun…most of the time. The only place we could have climbed but didn’t was in Bogota, Columbia. That’s because, as a friend of ours explained, “Yeah, everyone I know who’s tried to hike up Monserrate has been mugged.” So that time, we opted for the cable car.
Arriving in Cape Town, we soon learned that this city along South Africa’s southern coast offered a very seductive big thing to climb – Table Mountain. Table Mountain is an imposing mountain around which much of Cape Town is formed. We stayed at the foot of the mountain and had a great view of it from our guest house, the Lions Self Catering Guest House. Many days, late in the afternoon, clouds would come pouring over the top of the mountain with such ferocity you thought these clouds would actually envelop the whole thing. But they didn’t. As soon as the cloud reached a certain point on the downward slope of Table Mountain, they would evaporate. They called this phenomenon the table cloth.
To tackle this beast, our host suggested we take a commonly chosen path up the middle of the mountain called the Platteklip Gorge. Most people take a taxi to the beginning of the trail. We walked. So our climb started from the moment we left our door. It was pretty much straight up for 3 hours.
But the weather was ideal. The sun was out and beating down hard but the gorge offered plenty of shade and a cool breeze as we got near the top. The climb was tough. It still amazes me after all this traveling/climbing big things that I am sufficiently out of shape enough to huff and puff as I do these types of hikes.
And there are always those people that put you to shame, like the man who went up the rocky path barefoot with only a pair of short running shorts and a fanny pack or the woman who looked like she was in her 50s or 60s who passed me on the way up and the way down.
Our biggest mistake was that we didn’t bring enough water and there were no “entrepreneurs” at the top waiting to sell us more. In most places that are frequented this much by tourists, there’s always someone waiting for you at the top with overpriced refreshments, even in places that leave you wondering how one might haul heavy cases of drinks to that location.
Once at the top, Nellu informed me that we needed to walk another 30 minutes or so to the highest point on the mountain – Maclear’s Beacon. I was exhausted but at least this stretch would be mostly flat.
The payoff, however, was more than worth it, more than most climbs. At different points at the top you can see both the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. You can also see the town of Cape Town stretched out before you and you feel very, very high up.
The trip back down the path was harder for me than on the way up. There were big steps in path,which really require a balance and muscle use that most downhill treks do not. I encouraged myself on with the promise of the lychee juice slushies I would blend together the moment we walked through our guesthouse door.
For days after, I would stare at the mountain and say, “I can’t believe we climbed all the way up there, ” even as I limped my way around town. I was dumbfounded and still am.
I’ve found a new appreciation for the freedom of the road, which makes relocating cars our new favorite cheap way to travel. (If you’ve missed our adventures relocating vehicles in Australia, check out this post.) So when we wanted to head from Auckland on the north island of New Zealand down to the south island, finding a campervan to relocate was high up on our priority list. We used the same services as we did in Australia to look for opportunities – transfercar and standbyrelocs. But unfortunately, we hesitated on a couple of offers and missed our chance. So we were back on the bus.
It’s an 11 hour bus ride from Auckland to Wellington. From there we’d hop on the ferry to the south island. We took an overnight bus getting a pass through Intercity that would cover not only our bus fare but our ferry as well. The Interislander ferry can be tough on those faint of budget.
It was a harsh wake up call being back on mass transit after having vehicles all to ourselves. At one point I turned to Nellu and said, “I forgot what I hate most about the bus… other people.”
Our bus driver whose name I believe was Ed sounded like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. And boy did he like to talk. This bus was a milk run bus that made many stops throughout the night. Every time a new group came on the bus, Ed went through the rules one more time, retelling an elaborate story about kicking a man off because he was smoking and then having to call the police to arrest him because he wouldn’t get off the bus. “It’s tough to see a grown man cry,” Ed said, “But by smoking he was breaking the law and his ticket was invalidated.” The first time Ed told this story it was mildly interesting. The fourth time, it was sad.
But despite the talking and the subsequent lack of sleep, we made it to Wellington, on and off a ferry, and on to another bus to Nelson. We ran into some trouble as we arrived in Nelson due to flooding there. But after some time and a hitchhike, we made it to our lovely holiday home on Tahunanui Beach. We’d have 11 days there filled with friends and Christmas celebrations and a lot of time getting caught up on our work before heading back north for a flight to South Africa.
On the way back, we vowed to snap up any relocation we could. There were no campervans available but we did find a van we could drive from Wellington to Auckland. Certainly, it had to be better to sleep in a van than in a car, even if it wasn’t a campervan.
When you relocate, you never know what condition the vehicle will be in when you get it. Usually, they’ve been cleaned up but our van this time was dirty, really dirty, both inside and out. The man at the desk at the rental car agency bragged that the Hobbit production team had been using the vehicle and dropped it off just before Christmas. It would be a bit inconvenient to live out of the muddy van for a few days but at least it makes for a good story.
It was late afternoon when we picked up our van so we drove for a few hours before stopping for dinner – takeout from a food joint that made everything from Chinese food to chicken burgers – which we took to eat on one of New Zealand’s wide beaches and watched groups of people tailgating and enjoying a beautiful Boxing Day holiday. It’s moments like these that I appreciate most the more we’re on the road.
We drove for a few more hours and settled in for the night at a rest stop. The next morning, we resolved to get coffee at a McDonald’s where we hoped we could use the free wifi and check our email.
This is the point in what should have a very easy trip where everything started to go wrong.
The gas tank was almost empty so we pulled into a station to fill up where we could use the “save 4 cents on fuel” coupons we’d earned at the grocery store. I was very proud of our diligence in collecting these coupons. Even though it would only save $1 here and $1 there, these were dollars that we could spend on something better.
It had briefly crossed my mind that the van could have a diesel engine and I flipped through the materials the rental agency provided to check but found nothing. Surely the agency would have told us the car was diesel, I thought, and we weren’t responsible paying a diesel tax associated with such vehicles, so we barely thought twice about filling it up with 20 liters of unleaded.
This was a big, costly mistake, one that we’re blaming on the lack of coffee.
We were about 10 km outside of the town of Tokoroa when we first started noticing problems.
“Every time I accelerate, we lose speed,” Nellu said. Our Hobbit-mobile struggled to overcome even the smallest hills. By the time we had reached our McDonald’s the van started to stall. Nellu was able to coast into a spot in the parking lot. He jumped out and checked the gas tank. On the back of the door there was a small sticker that said diesel.
We crawled inside the McDonald’s with my laptop. We’d planned to use the free wifi to research what to do about our problem, but this particular Mickey Ds had no internet. We ordered our coffees (flat whites) and waited for the slow staff to bring them over to our table. Nellu and I both sat on the same side of the table, starring defeatedly over the chaotic scene in front of us.
An older couple sat directly to our left and started playing the where-are-you-from game with Nellu. “Israeli?” the man asked Nellu who was clearly not in the mood.
I was hoping that Nellu would chat this couple up and maybe, by luck or coincidence, they would have not only the expertise but the tools to solve our problem. But he wasn’t feeling chatty and I knew better than push to it. So we sat quietly sipping the coffee we needed to take on the next couple of hours.
Nellu was pretty confident that all we needed to do was get the bad gas out and the engine would quickly recover, but you’d be surprised how few people actually know how to siphon gas. There were two gas stations in walking distance and we checked with both to see if they had the materials we needed to siphon out the bad unleaded. I loudly announced our problem to the woman at the front desk at BP hoping that if she didn’t know how to help us, someone who did would overhear and offer to help. But no dice. Ironically, BP does not have siphoning tools “for environmental reasons” and the guy who usually performs this service for them was on vacation for two weeks.
But there was a car parts store in town where we bought a 20 liter red, plastic portable gas container to receive our bad diesel/unleaded mix, a 5 liter container to fill with fresh diesel and what we thought was a siphon hose. The hose turned out to be a siphon for the portable gas containers and not the gas tank, so I headed over to the hardware store across the street. The woman at the hardware store suggested I should favor a shorter clear tubing over a longer length. We learned later that this was bad advice. The hardware store closed for the day as I walked out with my short tube.
But Nellu and I were resolved. We could do this. We had a few tools. We could siphon out the gas. Maybe this problem only needed to cost us $50 to resolve. We took turns trying to suck the gasoline into the clear tube to create the pressure needed to usher our bad gas out of the tank. It didn’t work. Instead of getting a stream of gasoline rushing through the tube, we got a cupful at a time.
But I learned that gasoline actually doesn’t taste as bad as you’d think. I remember Harry Connick Jr. talking about gagging when siphoning off gas during the aftermath of Katrina. Considering my over active gag reflex, I assumed I would have the same reaction but I’m proud to say I didn’t. Gasoline does, however, have a greasy feeling that sticks with you no matter how many times brush your teeth or rinse out your mouth.
Several people along our tools gathering path informed us that not only did we have to clean out the tank but we also had to clear out the injector tubes or the engine simply wouldn’t work. It would be damaged, they told us. Nellu and I started to lose our confidence.
But as our desperation became stronger, a young couple from Wellington (clearly on vacation) drove past and asked if we needed help. “Do you know how to siphon gas out of a tank?” I shouted.
The man, who we came to know as Scott, parked his car and came over to help while his wife Renee and their five-year old daughter Piper watched. Nellu and Scott tried to no avail to get access to the engine underneath the front passenger seat to check the injector tubes. This project was quickly spiraling out of control. We decided that it was not a do-it-yourself operation and Scott loaned Nellu his phone to call the rental car company for help. The rental car company referred us to their roadside assistance company with the reminder that we would be financially responsible for what ever it would cost to fix this problem.
The roadside assistance company was zero help. They straight away informed us that it would be very costly to get someone out to help us today since it was still the Christmas holiday. It was December 27th. They found a tow truck for Nellu but the truck operator asked Nellu where he’d like to have the van towed since many businesses were still closed. This guy was clearly no help either.
As we started estimating the costs in our head – the cost to get the van towed, the cost to empty the gas tank, the cost to clean out the injector tubes, the cost of returning the van a day late to the rental agency, we became exasperated. “You know what I really want to do,” Nellu announced. “I want to blow up this van so at least will get our $1500 worth.” $1500 was the amount of money we would be responsible for if anything happened to the car.
Thank God for Scott and Renee who proved to be quite resourceful at our moment of need. They spent over an hour with us, loaning us their phone, and in the end researching and finding someone who would help. They hooked us up with Bryan and his company Tirau Motors motors, a one stop shop mechanic and tow operation that was not only working that day but could come pick us up in about an hour. I didn’t get Scott and Renee’s details. I wish I did because we would have been lost with out their help.
Bryan picked us up as promised about an hour later and we got help from a few random men to push the van in neutral from the McDonald’s parking lot to the street and pulled it up onto the flat-bed. We drove about 30km north to Tirau, where his shop was located. On the way we chatted and learned that it was a very common mistake to put unleaded into a diesel running car, even by people who actually owned the vehicles. I suspected this all along. In fact, I kept telling everyone, “This has to happen all the time.”
It took Bryan less than 10 minutes clear our gas tank. He raised the van up with a lift, unscrewed a bolt under the tank and let the unleaded drain out. Once the gas tank was clear, he filled it up with our diesel and through in some of the diesel he had in his shop for no cost. He then pressed the gas pedal to rev the engine and clear out injector tubes and our big problem went up in a puff of smoke.
We got the shy Bryan to pose for a picture before we headed out. If you have any needs on the north island of New Zealand, Bryan and Tirau Motors are top notch.
All the worse case scenarios we had been considering never came to pass. We were quickly back on the road, heading up to Auckland to return our van on time, and even managed to visit Hobbiton itself, the town of Matamata which was used as a backdrop for the Lord of the Ring movies.
Our credit card statement may bear the scars of our bad decision but we’re both really glad we didn’t blow up our Hobbit-mobile.
|TIRAU MOTORS LTD TIRAU (The fix)||Gas/Automotive||$248.51|
|BUNNINGS – 9432 TOKOROA (Our too short plastic tube)||Merchandise||$4.05|
|MOBIL TOKOROA TOKOROA (The replacement diesel)||Gas/Automotive||$6.12|
|REPCO TOKOROA 18 TOKOROA (Gas containers, siphon tube)||Gas/Automotive||$36.26|
|GULL ATIAMURI ATIAMURI (The bad unleaded)||Gas/Automotive||$33.43|
|Total Cost of Putting Unleaded in a Diesel Van||$328.37|