Having a Breakdown

Back home after five glorious sun-kissed, sand-sloughed days at the beach playing at being the millionaires we will never be: stayed in a house – sourced by a friend – that sat perched up on the cliff like an eagle’s nest from where we had views of tides and gulls and waves crashing upon distant reef. We drank cold beer, ate prawns by the bucketful, dug oysters from rocks with a screwdriver and enjoyed them there and then clad in only our swimming costumes and then we embarked on our journey home.

Which was when we returned to our more usual reality with jarring bump; trust my car to be the one to put us firmly in our places.

Four hours into our six hour drive back she breaks down.

Ironically in exactly the same spot as she did last time – six months ago – with precisely the same complaint: a hole in the fuel filter.

For those who have never endured a hole in the fuel filter, let me describe to you what happens. One moment you’re sailing along counting the hours until you can sink into a hot bath and the next you’re juddering to an unexpected halt.

You look anxiously at spouse hoping he’s just suffered temporary aberration of memory and has forgotten how to keep his foot on the accelerator, but no, sadly his anxious look mimics yours and both of you say, at exactly the same, ‘Oh crap’ (or words to that effect), ‘not again’.

No such thing as auto rescue in this part of the world, you’re on your own now: broken down in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

You open bonnet and peer into car’s innards, each hoping the other might spot something that looks recognizably at fault and reasonably easy to fix. But since each is as poor a mechanic as the other, this is unlikely.

Except in the case of hole-in-fuel-filter scenario, of course, because the symptoms (car losing power and juddering to feeble halt) and the smell (quantities of diesel being sprayed from beneath you and onto surrounding, baking countryside) are horribly familiar.

Bloody fuel filter again you say simultaneously.

It is at this point that husband directs me to locate the spare filter we had stowed in car last time, congratulating ourselves smugly that we had the foresight to consider same problem arising in future.

Except, of course, that in the six month interim somebody has taken it out. We glare at one another accusingly.

Husband then sets about car searching for strips of rubber he is also sure he stowed therein; strips of rubber being endlessly useful in similar African predicament. He can’t find that either, can only find six inches of rather corroded old inner tube. It’ll have to do; he bandages the filter and we manage to limp a mile back down the road to the safari hotel we limped back to last time which is why we know it has a workshop and plenty of mechanics who won’t peer beneath bonnet in quite such a confused fashion as us and who will be keen to make some pocket money.

Except that this time its Easter Monday and there is no help to be found; we must, the hotel manager informs us, return to the nearest town, 30 miles back the way we’ve come. On seeing our crestfallen faces he gives us a whole old inner tube to strip as bandages to plug filter’s hole, which is what we spend the next hour doing, stopping and starting and replacing bits of black strapping and kangaroo-ing back to town.

The children settle down on the back seat wearing expressions of bored resignation. No tantrums or complaining or even much (which is unusual) scrapping. Not – I must add – because I am a paragon of maternal virtue who has raised cherubs that demonstrate tireless grace and patience under trying circumstances, but because long journeys are familiar in Africa. And longer journeys still are especially familiar when borne in my old car with her apparent susceptibility to breakdowns.

Husband and I are very hot and very smelly and very bad tempered by the time we finally get back to the town we passed through several hours ago whilst I was breezily anticipating home and a hot bath. We source the jua kali (literally translates as hot sun since such enterprises generally pop up out of nothing on the roadside) garage the hotel manager has directed us to; a dusty shed surrounded by old heaps (not unlike our own). The garage manager is called Patrick; he has an air of great importance and summons a crew of overall clad fundis to assist. Swiftly our filter is replaced and the cause of the hole identified and rectified – it would appear that my old car suffering automobile equivalent of middle age spread and her innards beginning to shift, as a result something that ordinarily wouldn’t be close to the filter has pierced it. A marifa – make-do – arrangement is implemented to create a distance between filter and offending sharp object and then, with assurances ringing in our ears that we will, absolutely, make it home tonight, we press on, back the way we’ve come, up the dusty road that forms a lonely, scrub-laced corridor between Kenya and the border with Tanzania.

We stop several times to ensure no nasty jets of diesel springing from under the bonnet and once confident they’re not we press on with rather more speed that we ought. In the fading light we hit – well, husband hits since he is the one behind the wheel – a block of cement in the middle of the road and we write off a front tyre. We come to rather more grinding halt this time.

Husband swears loudly, ‘shouldn’t have effing well been there’, he roars. No, I concede, great big chunk of cement probably oughtn’t to have been in road but then he ought – perhaps – given its size – have seen it.

Happily – though there is probably no coincidence in this – incident occurs by tiny roadside village. Several Africans leap from the dark to assist with our ‘puncture’. One helps to jack the car up, another sets to with the wheel spanner and Anthony tries to get the spare off the back. Only the securing bolt is broken and he can’t undo it with the wheel brace.

Who broke this effing thing? He shouts at nobody – though probably me – in particular. We all shuffle in the dust and say nothing. Several more Africans appear to help us break the wheel free – in somewhat unorthodox fashion –with the aid of large hammer and chisel.

Time ticks by, we’re reduced to seeing what we’re doing with the tiny bulb in my cell phone.

Finally we’re got the spare off the back and on the front and the flat off the front and hanging, somewhat precariously, on the back and we’re all scrambling into the car again, shelling out 200 shilling notes in gratitude.

It’s too late to make the border now; it closes at 7, we’re still 40 miles from it and it’s half past already.

We remember a camp we’ve stayed at on this road before and mercifully – and more importantly – we remember how to get there. Which we finally do, by 9pm.

How we don’t hit the roadside buffalo which ambled out of the bush, or run up the backside of an elephant that stood in the middle of the road as we rounded a bend, I have no clue. But thankfully we don’t.

The camp staff are very kind and locate a couple of tents where we can have a hot shower and wash quantities of diesel from our skin.

And then they feed us a late supper.

Hattie reclines in her chair and says with a big sigh, ‘I feel drowned’.

Overwhelmed? Exhausted? Drained?

Whatever; I know exactly what she means.

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4 Responses to “Having a Breakdown”

  1. Steve Crane Says:

    This is hilarious. Brings to mind some of my family’s misadventures during my childhood in the 60s and 70s when South Africa was a lot more like the rest of Africa than it is now.

    I went to look for this post on Afrigator so I could vote for it, but you don’t seem to have signed up there. You should as it would be a shame to keep your great writing from reaching a wider audience.

  2. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you, Steve, that’s very kind. I had to keep telling myself, throughout a long and hot ordeal, that it’d make good blog fodder if nothing else! I can’t find Afrigator … am flattered that you suggest I should sign up there so would like to have a look and see. Once again, thank you for reading me and for being so encouraging. RM

  3. Steve Crane Says:

    My bad, seems I messed up the link; it’s afrigator.com.

  4. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Gotcha! Thanks very much Steve; I am fairly technologically challenged but getting there … albeit slowly.

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