African Automotive Adventures, or, How many Men does it take to Dismantle a Wheel?

This morning, still in the north Serengeti at the campsite with the decent bathhouse, we went on an early game drive. We left camp at 6:15; it was just getting light outside. We drove for a while, hoping perhaps to see lions, or other cats, or maybe a kill. Frank had talked to the park rangers the day before and they reported that a lot of the big migration had already gone from the park, out to Maasai Mara. We were thinking maybe I wouldn’t see it after all. The migration is the event of the year, as the dry season wears on and water dries up, the animals head north to find more water and the cats try to fatten themselves with the prey. Millions of wildebeest and zebras are on the move. You usually see them a few hundred at a time.

We saw some more brightly colored African birds, and a small group of topi (another antelope), more buffalo, baboons, hartebeests, storks, vultures, black-backed jackals, impalas, zebras and some small groups of wildebeests. Frank actually got all the way to the end of the track, and despite his searching with binoculars, trying to follow the vultures and the jackals, we did not see evidence of lions, cheetahs or leopards. He turned around and we went back the way we came, eventually getting to a well-traveled road. There, we found maybe two thousand wildebeest all strung out along the hillsides. Many were standing right in the road. It was really cool. The thing I wasn’t expecting was all the hooting! These animals make a sound like a cross between an auto horn and a duck. Their voices are penetrating so the sound carries a long way. The males walk around grunting and hooting, showing their strength to the females. They are rather ugly creatures, unfortunately, but the noise is something else: comical. To me, anyway. Before long they began to run as a herd and we watched them as they continued their migration. We had not missed it after all.

On we drove, looking for lions or other cats. We saw a couple of secretary birds, so named for their white shirts and black skirts, and the long quill pen they have as a tail. They and the Maribou storks were walking over a recently burned area looking to eat smaller birds that the recent fire had killed. The park service performs controlled burns often during the dry season, in order to encourage new grazing grass and maintain a balanced ecosystem. There were some fires visible yesterday and again today. Most animals survive these controlled burns, but sometimes the small birds die from the smoke and become food for the bigger birds later. The tsetse flies were becoming active, unfortunately, as it warmed up. Frank & I continued our campaign of eradication in the car. At first, I merely disliked these flies until I tried to walk around taking pictures of baobab trees at our campsite, but now I hate them. I could not think straight long enough to compose a picture with those devils, let alone avoid getting bitten. And it hurts!

As we looked for lions we passed a lot of whistling acacias. There are at least ten species of acacia and this one has large shelled balls with thorns, seed pods, I think, that when empty make whistling noises as the wind blows. The ants like the trees because the seed pods are edible, and the ants keep the acacia from being as attractive to giraffes as other acacias are. Even though all acacias have long thorns, giraffe tongues are unaffected by them – only the swarm of ants are sometimes a deterrent.

About a minute later, there were car noises. On inspection, we found that our left rear tire had all its lug nuts off but one. Worse, it appeared most of the bolts had been sheared off by the wheel! Uh oh. But what to do about it? We were not on a level place in the road, so it was not a good place to deal with the problem. But if we kept driving any further, we might shear off the only bolt and nut holding on the tire. Moving the car seemed just as bad an idea as not moving it, so we did not move it. The wheel looked unusable on the existing tire. Frank got the jack, removed the spare tires from the back, and got the bad wheel off the car. But then it became clear that our jack was not tall enough to enable us to get the spare tire back onto the car. You see, the wheel had not had enough nuts to left to properly align with the axel, so the original wheel was looped up a couple of inches off its proper position. The tire would come off but another one would not go on. A fly bit Frank while he was working and he swore at it – so I knew the automotive repair experience was in full swing. We were both trying to figure a way out of this too-short-jack problem when I saw another car coming. It was a park ranger, and they have proper tools for this sort of thing. They got out their “high jack” and the guys got going, but then the car got just a little too high and began to slide off the road!. They had to dig out dirt from under the tipped jack base for some while before it came loose and they could try again. Eventually the spare tire was on the car. It turned out we had two bolts still left, and one lug nut, and since the two bolts were directly opposed, we had a chance to make it to our camp, which we did (robbing a lug nut from the spare). From there, it was time to call for assistance. But there was no radio in the car and cell phone coverage was spotty. Frank walked off to find a signal. After an hour, he still wasn’t back and Nassoro and I were starting to worry. Turned out, he’d had to scale a kopje to get phone service, standing up on the bluff repeatedly calling when the signal cut out. Man, I am glad that was not my job. He came back to tell us that replacement lug bolts had been requested from somewhere in the center of the Serengeti, about an hour and a half away from camp.

Soon after that, Nassoro and Frank set to work on the car so they would be ready when the replacement parts came. Turns out Nassoro the cook is a decent mechanic. It is thanks to him that we got the car going at all, I think. Before too long, several other men had shown up to help (there were about seven guys all together). We were the only show in town. So every ten minutes or so, one man would get tired of trying to fix the problem and another would take over. It went on this way for hours. The wheel was a little warped from driving on it without enough lug nuts, and it took a lot of hammering to remove. There were few tools, and those available were of poor quality. I think there were about five wrenches, and there was no screwdriver. Eventually they resorted to tent stakes and a hammer. During this process I found out that this is not Frank’s usual car. His car is getting bodywork and paint right now to extend it for larger safari groups. In that car, there are tools, a working high jack, and a machete – all things we could have used. This car is the “town car” used by Tropical Trails for pick-ups, etc, and had not really been into the wild before. It is because I was traveling alone (we were a small party) that we used it, and of course because Frank’s usual car was in the shop. We were very lucky this happened to us on the main road and not out by the desolate river or we would have been stuck there, and I don’t know what we would have done except hope for help to pass by, or for Nassoro to send for assistance. The road was little used. From there, one can get charged, gored and/or eaten on the way back to camp.

Around three hours later, the other Tropical Trails truck showed up with better tools, more men and lug bolts and nuts. The guys were working off the distorted parts of the wheel by this time and nearly had the assembly down to the emergency brakes. Another hour passed while they worked everything off and got the new bolts put on. Then it was about 30 minutes before everything was put back together and we were loaded, and ready to go. It was 5:30 by now, and soon it would be dark. We sped off into the dusk and Frank drove hard, telling the wildebeests to get out of the road. But a little while later, there was a short halt: Frank found a cheetah! It was dark, the animal was 50 yards away; I did my best, but the photo came out very grainy. We also saw a hyena and the brush fire very close up. Before long we reached the next camp, safely, and we celebrated with some clapping and hooting ourselves. Tents were set up, dinner got onto the table, and we all slept well. Hurrah!

This entry was posted in Africa, Far Far Away, Round the World Journey. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to African Automotive Adventures, or, How many Men does it take to Dismantle a Wheel?

  1. Meggi Raeder says:

    What a story!!

  2. Joe H. says:

    I lost a wheel once while driving — the lug bolts had stripped because the nuts weren’t tight and the tire was hitting against them. Luckily, it was on a mostly empty trailer with 3 axles, but still not the sort of thing you want to happen.

    Glad to hear your tire problems ended up okay.

  3. How did you recover from it Joe? Did you get a tow truck?

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