Don't Panic - Hard Lessons from the Kalahari

Don't Panic - Hard Lessons from the Kalahari

by Stephan Edwards

Already here on the Overlander Notebook we've covered some of the common mistakes and miscalculations you can make on an overland trip that will end your adventure prematurely, or even in disaster. 

But often it's good to learn directly from others' real-world successes and failures to really drive home some of those lessons. What follows below is the story of one of the worst mistakes... no... I will go ahead and call it the worst mistake I've ever made on long-range expedition. Let's look at how it unfolded, what we did to address it, and what we can learn from it.

*  *  *

In 2017 my wife Julie and I moved from Montana to the southern African nation of Botswana for two years - one of the world's truly great homebases for overland adventure.  

Soon after we landed in Botswana's capital of Gaborone, Julie bought a 2001 Mitsubishi Pajero from a fellow American expat. The Pajero is the carbon copy of the Montero in the North American market - down to the 3.5 liter V6 and the transfer case that shifts among 2WD, AWD, and locked 4WD. 

 

Mitsubishi Pajero in Botswana, dirt road

 

Honestly? It wasn’t my dream overlander in a land teeming with 70-Series Toyota Land Cruisers and Land Rover Defenders. But, it was affordable, available, it was in excellent shape, and we trusted the seller. I came to love it - sometimes you get the truck you need, rather than the one you want.

The air conditioning needed a new compressor (absolutely required in southern Africa), the front axles were leaking badly, and the tires were at the end of their service life. We replaced all of those in short order, and had ourselves a pretty rad adventure mobile. Later, we added an Eezi-Awn roof tent and some basic camping gear, but otherwise we kept the second-hand Mitsu entirely stock.  

At the wheel of the Pajero we went on adventures. First a short trip to the Khutse Game Reserve, not far from our home in Gaborone. Then, one of the truly bucket-list expeditions in all of Africa - a south to north traverse of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. 

Alone. A journey even Andrew St. Pierre White turned back from

 

Mitsubishi Pajero in Botswana, muddy road

 

The logistics and endurance of that expedition were staggering, especially given the thirst of the heavy Pajero’s V6, and the distance from all civilization and assistance. The experience was unforgettable. I will write this tale in future posts - it was one of our greatest overland achievements.

But you’re here for the failure. 

Be prepared for a lot of photographs of me – or more accurately,  half of me – under the big blue Mitsubishi.

 

Repairing Mitsubishi Pajero

 

To reel in a really long story, the lunker on the hook is that we broke down.

I say “we”, but I really mean the Pajero. Though, on second thought, 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.

 

Broken Mitsubishi Pajero on tow truck

 

Yup.

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 remote places.

  • 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 medical supplies than you think you may need, and the proper tools for your rig. Always let others know where you're going, for how long, and when you intend to be back in contact. Carry a satellite communication device, if you think it will be useful. 

  • 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. 

 

 

"X marks the spot", as they say. You can get a more detailed idea of approximately where we were by following this Google Earth link.

We had embarked on a long circuit of some of southern Africa’s most inaccessible terrain, and we had succeeded against many odds to this point. The capabilities of a bone-stock 4x4 will surprise you. But this point was not where you want to find yourself.

We failed that day 80 kms from the nearest village and 50 kms from our intended destination at the southern entrance gate of the Khutse Game Reserve. A long, long walk from, well, pretty much anywhere. It’s nearly impossible to explain how far we were from any human contact - it may be one of the loneliest places on earth.

 

Broken coolant hose

 

On this rough track we had shredded 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, knowing better, shut down on its own terms, and in the fading evening light, our options narrowed.

But we had  Planned for the Worst!

We had a large surplus of food, water, and fuel. Our friends were expecting to meet us the next day, so they would know if we didn't show up that something was amiss. We decided to take a deep breath, evaluate our options, and camp right there in that random spot on that lonely track. Did I mention the lions? The Khutse Game Reserve has plenty of lions. We set up the tent, made a modest supper, and turned in.

Two hours later a Land Cruiser pickup was towing us at supersonic speeds across the Kalahari Desert.

*  *  *

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 cut even through the thick canvas of the Eezi-Awn.

As they pulled aside our beached blue whale, I leapt from the tent in my boxers, 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.

It was nearly 10:00pm, but they said,

“Are you going to the Khutse Main Gate? We will tow you.” 

“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?” (“Rra” simply means “sir” in Setswana, the native language of Botswana. It’s used to address politely any stranger you may encounter in daily life there, “mma” is the female equivalent.)

“I do, but…”

“Let’s go.”

So we went.

*  *  *

That tow is one of the most crystalline experiences I have ever had.

The road workers refused 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 some 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 30 feet between the two trucks. We rode thirty 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 in big red letters:

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 bare, sandy patch of road outside the Khutse Game Reserve gate, but it felt like home.

A nice wad of local currency 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, dragged within saving distance, but still equally stranded, we asked the camp mechanic at the Khutse Game Reserve to help. Donald was a recent University of Botswana graduate in mechanical engineering, and he said:

“Oh, I’m sorry rra, you’ve broken this hose.”

We knew the hose was shot, what we needed was something to replace it.

 

Repairing Mitsubishi Pajero

 

Our friends Jovan and Dina, an adventuring couple themselves known as  Road Beneath Our Feet, were scheduled to drive north from Gaborone to meet us at Khutse that very day for a long-planned team expedition. Still without a cell signal, I called Jovan using the land line 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 auto parts store, bring some 14mm heater hose and plastic T-fittings?”

With remarkable and comforting calm, Jovan said, “No problem.” I finally let out that breath that I had been holding for 15 hours.

*  *  *

 

Repairing Mitsubishi Pajero

 

Recruiting more friends 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, 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 V6. Starting the car only resulted in a big wave of water blowing out the exhaust pipe.

We were finished.

*  *  *

Don’t panic.

 

Repairing Mitsubishi Pajero

 

That’s me, 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. This time a very expensive one  - a few beers wouldn’t cut it.

In all of this, we learned one more best practice for traveling in remote places.

  • Don’t Hurry: I am convinced that I shredded 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. Know your vehicle’s limits. Err on the side of caution.

We were trying to reach the campground at the gate of the Khutse Game Reserve before dark that day, and I was pushing harder than the Pajero could actually handle on that particular track.

 

Mitsubishi Pajero on tow truck

 

The drive to achieve the goal of the gate overwhelmed my mechanical sympathy for the vehicle, and I am sure we paid the price for that decision.

My mechanic back home in Gaborone thought otherwise – trying to console me and soothe my bruised ego, he said, “It’s not that bad! It can all be repaired! That hose was bound to fail eventually!” We definitely had a blown head gasket, but they fixed it, and the Pajero rode again, for a while.

*  *  *

All in all, we were very lucky. But keeping these principles front and center in our minds - plan for the worst, make friends, and don't panic - meant that we were able to solve the problem, even if the outcome meant a long sweaty ride back to town in the cramped cab of a tow truck.

Travel in wild places is the reason we do this, but you always want to come home. 

(Photos by Stephan Edwards and Julie Edwards)


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