Written mid-November 2019
We can’t deny it’s been a tough few months. We re-entered South Africa at the end of July and confidently expected to be back in Cape Town to support our daughter through her Prelims in late August – and definitely in time to accompany the African Climate Alliance to the Global Strike on 20th September.
Well guess what? Late again Sampsons! Ruby’s doing Matric right now and the Big Green Truck is still not home.
After travelling through Swaziland in early August, we arrived at Mercedes Commercial NMI-DSM in Durban North for a roadworthy.
They gave Big Reg the once over and said everything looked fine, they just wanted us to nip up to Pinetown to have an injector pump leak fixed. Bowling along up the hill, the power suddenly dropped: pop! The compression rings had gone again… Breakdown number 26.
Sampson was gutted. It was the third time this year. By this point, we’d already had the engine out in Tanzania and Malawi (twice) and spent 85 days in garages in 2019. We comforted ourselves by reflecting how lucky we were – we had been on our way to Lesotho, so it could have happened on the Sani Pass! But to breakdown just a few kilometres away from the biggest Mercedes truck garage in the southern hemisphere – that had to be a blessing.
Dealer Principal Robbie Van Der Merwe of Mercedes Commercial NMI-DSM listened kindly and put us in the capable hands of Service Managers Ashwin Dalthmum and Kisten Govender. Big Reg got cosy in a corner of their enormous carpark – there were more than 200 brand new and used trucks on sale, with around 50 vehicles being worked on daily, from very early morning till late late at night.
We want to make special mention of the patience of Workshop Manager Terence Nayager, the long-suffering man in the middle, constantly juggling the competing needs of his clients, his bosses and his mechanics. Profit margins are now so narrow, it can be cheaper for fleet owners battling to meet delivery deadlines to buy a new truck than spend 3 days fixing a broken one.
This terrifying environmentally-threatening fact seems to be why there are so few remaining capable mechanics in Europe and South Africa – apprentices are mostly being trained to be ‘fitters’ now. Our experience shows that only in remote Africa is it financially viable to bother to mend broken trucks as old as ours. ‘Uptime’ is a major bonus feature of new Mercedes trucks – their latest model Arocs provides instant satellite notifications of any engine problem to the nearest service provider to ensure swiftest possible resolution and return to the road.
In these circumstances, we were very lucky to be in a position to receive the advice of veteran expert Randy Krishna as well as the services of senior mechanic Sashen Chetty (around his long list of priority client jobs).
To have driven more than 46000 km around the continent just to break down so spectacularly within sniffing distance of home seemed unnecessarily taxing at this point. But thanks to Mr Nizam Akoob, the owner of NMI-DSM, agreeing to sponsor the labour required, trusted partners of Mercedes in Durban were also willing to come on board.
In the end it took contributions from 10 different companies to get Big Reg back on the road, including: Alert Engine Parts, Dave Wesley and Son Engineering, CBS Clutch &Brake Systems, Mac’s Electrodiesel Services, Turbo Exchange, Cabris Driveline Technology, Diesel Electric Natal, Gabriel and Protea Truck and Bus Parts.
Pulling all this together was a mammoth undertaking – and Sampson has the high blood pressure to show for it. But it was also very humbling and inspiring to be witness to such an enormous demonstration of solidarity and support from Mercedes Commercial and our Durban sponsors who saw how far we’d come and wanted to help us make it home. It showed us that contemporary South Africa has managed to retain the traditional African spirit of compassionate assistance (a.k.a. ubuntu) while cultivating the kind of technological expertise usually only expected in Europe.
Only the combined force of the Mercedes family of fundis were able to give us the insight we needed to work out why the same problem had kept happening to the Big Green Truck all through 2019.
Expert engineer Craig Wesley (from Dave Wesley and Son) concluded that our problem was a combination of fuel dilution and carbon. When you use waste vegetable oil as fuel, carbon build-up in the engine is accelerated and moves into the engine oil. On top of this, fuel dilution – which happens to all engines after some time – was caused by cooking oil leaking past the pistons. He thought these combined contaminants were causing substandard lubrication, poor performance and eventually sludging of the engine oil.
That had happened to us for the first time in Cameroon, after doing 10 000 km up the west coast of the continent from SA. But on the east side, since our oil change at MCV in Egypt, we only managed 3000 km across Sudan and Ethiopia before sludging to a standstill at the Kenyan border – probably because Big Reg had spent a hectic couple of months running under harsh conditions through hot deserts and over cold mountains.
Craig said that, due to the carbon build up, the injector nozzles weren’t giving a good spray pattern. They had already been compromised by using WVO in too-cold conditions through Europe and northern Egypt, resulting in low power. Straining the engine up and down the mountains of Ethiopia at high altitude, low revs combined with contaminants in the engine oil had led to sludging and repeated overheating – hence Sampson’s ‘McGiver fix’ with a hosepipe spraying cooling water onto the radiator.
The only way to avoid this problem while using WVO as fuel, Craig advised, is more regular changes of both engine oil and injector nozzles in future.
Finally the constant overheating had stressed the block too far – Craig assumed it had probably hairline-cracked back then, four countries ago, even though he was the first to spot it. So even though we replaced the pistons three times, they were just going to keep popping due to pressure from the distortion of the block. Phew.
So now, for the third time this year, we had a whole engine to rebuild. The good news was that we knew what was happening and could nail the problem this time. But the bad news was that we’d run ourselves down to the wire paying for imported parts in Tanzania, and again in Malawi. How on earth were we going to cover the cost?
I didn’t think we were going to make it home until Faraad Ebrahim of Durban central branch of Alert Engine Parts came on board at the end of August and persuaded the owners of four other branches to come together to sponsor the shared cost of the block (R15 000). I would sincerely like to thank him for taking the lead – without Faraad getting the ball rolling, we would probably still be sitting in that corner of the carpark next to the eThekwini refuse trucks…
Our hero Craig Wesley skimmed the head and exhaust manifold, engineered the parts, then handled the sub-assembly of the whole engine (plus the alternator bracket).
Alongside the huge contributions of Alert, CBS, and Turbo Exchange, the MOTUS group of companies also persuaded Roger Wilkerson at Gabriel to donate new shocks.
At the last minute, Diesel Electric Natal sponsored a new lift pump and got it sent down from Jo’burg when the old one’s aluminum housing cracked during fitment just before the test drive.
But it was Protea Truck and Bus Parts who truly saved the day:
Another new friend, Philip Symons, founder of eWasha washbay water recycling, spent an afternoon explaining to us the clever process by which the NMI group has recycled 49 million litres of carwash water in the last 8 years, saving the company over R2million!
eWasha also recycles washbay water at Bidvest Car Rental – and thanks to Philip putting in a good word for us, Bidvest lent Sampson a bakkie for a couple of weeks to go get our groceries while Big Reg was stranded without an engine.
Plus Seaport Supply who gave us a water pump when our kitchen tap failed. Seriously, it seemed that everything that could break was breaking. Some days it felt like this relentless onslaught of small setbacks might break our spirit too.
So we were lucky to be surrounded by the Mercedes Commercial team, who just kept going no matter what challenges were thrown at them, especially after Sampson’s lunchtime show sharing stories of our journey round Africa so far:
Thanks also to Angie and Dave, new friends we met in Mozambique, who gave Zola and I shelter for a week to save me from the worst of the workshop fumes, and to Rogers who ran Sampson around from the cheapest hardware stores to the best curry houses!
Towards the end of September, the engine was back in, but the ‘old-school’ clutch and accelerator linkage were causing major headaches. Sampson eventually modified the new clutch himself with an extended rod engineered by Craig Wesley, a custom-fix that Terence called ‘genius’. But more hiccups kept holding us up…
At this point a very dear friend of mine – who’d suffered a severe stroke at the beginning of July, followed by 8 weeks in a coma, a miraculous resurfacing then several traumatic brain-draining procedures – passed away in Cape Town. Marooned at Mercedes Commercial, we’d missed the Global Strike and all of Ruby’s September school holiday; I couldn’t bear missing paying my respects to Sue as well. With less than 12 hours’ notice, I booked Zola and I on a flight back for her memorial service. A day later, on Oct 1st, he started back at school.
I’d like to apologise to Mercedes Commercial NMI-DSM and all their partners for the delay in publishing this acknowledgement of their support and generosity. Through October and November, grief and single parenting took a heavy toll on my M.E. body, which was already struggling after spending half the year battling the fumes, noise and stress of living in garages with a teenaged boy doing school in a 3m² space. Hats off to Zola for surviving it.
Big Reg broke down on August 12th and only left Mercedes Commercial NMI-DSM on October 18th, having spent 61 days there – that’s a total of 146 days in garages in 2019. Mark and Mojo are slowly making their way home…