With our tyres as they were, and the temperatures hitting the low forties, rubber conservation was imperative. We were to start early in the cooler part of the morning before the ground got too hot and then drive for as many hours as necessary during day light maintaining our slow speed to avoid friction heating our tyres any further.
Before we could get going we heard voices coming along the road. Our eyes widened and our pupils dilated with nervous anticipation. The voices grew louder, we weren’t well hidden. Would it be the chief asking for compensation for us using his land, would it be curious locals coming to see if they could get some sugar or mealie meal, (crushed maize meal, the staple of African belly fill,) or would it be the middle aged Himba couple that we now saw approaching us aback their donkey steeds. The gentleman climbed down from his donkey, I say down but his feet were only six inches from the ground to start with, and he loosely tethered it around a bush. He was wearing an old long over coat loosely tied around the middle and I could see his loin cloth and bare chest through the opening of the coat. He then raised a leg onto the river bank and placed one hand on the raised thigh as if striking a thoughtful ‘catalogue’ pose. The silence was broken by the sound of running water and I immediately turned to see what Somers was up to, she was stood next to me. The noise was coming from in front of me. I looked back. The guy wasn’t smiling even though the corners of his mouth were slightly upturned and his eyes were ever so slightly closed, it was the satisfied face of a dressed man looking directly at us whilst having a wee.
His wife approached and we soon realised communication would be based around pointing and the art of mime. We understood ‘sooka’ to be sugar, but we had none so that was easy. The lady kept raising both arms to the blue sky. Sky equals rain, rain equals water. A commodity too precious to be given away, especially in our uncertain circumstances, empty bottles however were more than acceptable. We had four spare 5l empties. We handed them over. I offered them some of our porridge that I’d cooked the day before. It had taken on a burnt wood flavour and wasn’t entirely delicious. But with strawberry jam to sugar coat it, it provided some sort of nutrition. Mr and Mrs weren’t so sure. Mrs tried it first and seemed to like it, she got a second helping; Mr licked it and decided it wasn’t so good. We couldn’t blame him; we’d been battling a bit with it ourselves.
Anyway, no sooner had they taken the plastic bottles they had hidden them in a bush, to collect at alter date, and were back on their donkeys. They told us they were heading to Okangwati, which coincidentally was also where we were heading. I wondered who’d get there first.
Our slow trawl continued and two hours in we started to hear a banging noise from beneath the car. I thought it was the porridge pan at first but Somers advised that it was the car and that we should really have a look. For the next kilometre we repeatedly looked underneath Redvers, shaking his drive shaft, his transmission, his differentials, his exhaust, I even ran alongside to see exactly where the noise was coming from. It was his back right, somewhere near his wheel. After a while Somers worked out it was the shock absorber casing that was rattling. This was the one place that we thought we had covered. We had put brand new Old Man Emu shocks on for just this reason; we’d be driving hard ground. Old Man Emu is supposedly the toughest brand, its slogan is ‘Built Tough in Australia’ that should have been a warning. Even though it rattled it was all still firmly attached and we felt like it was working. We were driving slowly. We thought it should be alright.
An hour later we hit what we had least wanted to see. Ahead our ‘D-road’ became a washed out track that turned into a quite tough 4x4 course with very steep sections. We were climbing rocks two feet high and crossing gaps three feet deep. At times we climbed ten metres in only twenty metres of ‘road.’ Every foot of forward motion involved undue strain on our disintegrating tyres. (Redvers is more than capable of dealing with this territory, it was partly the reason that we’d come this way and we were confident enough that normally we could get through it.) Every inch seemed to have one of the tyres scraping for purchase and then once grip was attained the engine forced two tonnes of Redvers uphill on just a sharp edge of rock. We spent half an hour dealing with the worst of it and we were just getting to the top of a very tricky section when there was a bang and a rush of air.
Crikey was nowhere near as foul as the word I used. We’d had the wing mirrors trained on the back wheels since we set off and it only took a cursory glance at the flat heap of rubber that clung limply onto the back right wheel to repeat the word that sounded nothing like crikey. The sat-nav displayed one hundred kilometres to the main road. We’d been making good time, but once again we had a tyre to change in the middle of the day and this time, without shade. The second spare was on the roof, it took two of us to unbolt it thanks to my dodgy homemade ‘secure’ bolt fixing. I was walking around cursing like a drunk, collecting what I’d need to change the wheel. On the ground Somers was a little more cool headed and methodical. She’d chocked the front wheels and was now under the car looking at the damage. The tyre that we’d so caringly protected for 24 hours would still have been intact had the cheap, prison labour built, banana coloured excuse for an Australian shock absorption device not been neatly jack-knifed through our tyre. Curse, cursing curse, curse, curse. Criking Australians. I got the hi-lift jack and the number 19 spanner out, we’d need them both. The wheel came off. We stabilised Redvers with a small boulder under the diff and we switched jacks to take off our crumpled shock. We switched jacks again and put our spare wheel on. We packed away and set off an hour and a half after we’d heard the pop.
We weren’t yet through the rough stuff and we had no idea how much further it would go on for. Repeatedly we’d hit a nice stretch of track or sand before then hitting a rocky section again. It was on one such sandy section that Somers actually saved the day. With a good 70kms left to the main road she asked me stop the car, she could smell burning rubber. Crikey.
Once again we were on our knees, and then on our backs under Redvers’ back end. Without his shock there had been nothing to hold his suspension spring in place. One of the slow rough sections must have allowed the spring to partially jump out and it was now wearing a line through our already roughened second and final spare. Thus ensued another hour of jacking in loose sand. Jacking in sand is something akin to pile driving, the weight of Redvers just pushed the jack deeper through the sand. We needed a base plate. We found sequentially bigger rocks to act as such. One seemed to have worked before Redvers creaked and slowly leaned forcing the jack to slip and its’ end to dig into the body work. Another dent, another story. The jack stopped working, it took a few minutes before I realised a pin had come out. I dug around the sand and found it and hammered it back into place. More boulder hunting. Eventually we found a huge rock, we barely managed to carry it between us but even this small mountain needed extra support rocks beneath it. With the substructure in place the jack stood well and up Redvers went. We managed to get the spring back in place and lowered the jack. Yet, unless we could somehow secure the spring in place we would have to repeat this debacle every time we crossed a tough 4x4 section.
Somers however was sailing a purple patch and the genius that was spewing forth was uncontrollable. She appeared with a packet of tie wraps. Jeepers, I thought. How can two tonnes of metal be held together with a few narrow strips of plastic. “Just use lots of them,” she said. What else could we do? Redvers right hind leg was now held together using tie-wraps and hope. Our situation was thus: two perishing tyres in front, two suffering but intact and capable tyres behind. One shock missing behind and replaced with twenty seven tie-wraps. Somers had stopped us driving the second spare into another broken mess. We were on a road that was so bad we may not have seen another car for days. We certainly hadn’t seen fresh tyre tracks that day. It wasn’t worth thinking about our situation had we lost another tyre at this point. We’d have had to walk or wait. Somers had saved us for now.
Over the next thirty kilometres we stopped over twenty times to get out and check our spring was in place. We couldn’t afford to lose a tyre. Fortunately the road steadily improved from here. We reached the main road at Okangwati at half past five, it had taken all day to get there, but now we had a level, graded, gravel road. We turned north, away from Opuwo and away from fuel and fresh tyres.
An hour later we got to Epupa Falls. We managed to swim in one of the pools and saw the last rays of the sun setting on the Angolan hills whilst sipping gin and tonics on Redvers balcony. The relief was paramount.
We fell asleep to the rumble of the falling Cunene River and the sound of cicadas in the trees.