Emergency bush mechanics

Photographs: Braam van Niekerk

About 100km north of Upington, in the North West Province, lie two salt mines. One covers 1200 hectares, and salt is mined from it. The other is half the size, and while its surface is also white from the salt, there isn’t enough to make mining viable.

This smaller pan is called Gurapan, or Goerapan (depending on which GPS program you use), and can be found on a 17 000 hectare farm owned by Piet Kotze, a champion 4×4 driver who has won the Spirit of Africa trophy on two successive years.

Every day Piet drives along a sand route, checking his livestock and his water supply. Porcupines often smell the water in the irrigation pipe, and chew holes in it so that they can have a drink. Unfortunately, they don’t fix the hole when they’re finished, and the precious liquid disappears into the sand.

The ground in this area is hard and full of calcium, and the sand that lies on top of it is blown around by the wind, forming tall sand dunes. The result is probably the best 4×4 sand route in the country, winding through and over these dunes.

Piet often invites us to go and visit him, and to drive this spectacular route, and last month we accepted his invitation. We went in 16 vehicles, anticipating one of the best 4×4 weekends of our lives. The dunes were huge, and Piet had planned the route to make them even more challenging. We battled, we charged, and we had plenty of fun.

Then, when we were really enjoying ourselves, Dawid Pretorius’s Ford 4,0-litre began to overheat. Luckily it was a petrol engine – these aren’t as sensitive to overheating as diesels. When a diesel engine overheats, it often suffers serious damage to the cylinder head and pistons by the time the increased temperature is noticed.
Ian van der Berg quickly pulled out a bottle of radiator sealant and came to the rescue. But the engine was very hot, and when we tried to fill the radiator with water, it simply spat it back out onto the desert sand.

It’s a bad idea to fill a hot engine with cold water, and this can cause a cracked cylinder head or engine block. So we left the vehicle where it was to cool down, and continued our drive through the dunes.

When we returned two hours later, the engine had cooled down enough for us to fill up the water, and add the radiator sealant. The leak disappeared almost immediately, and Dawid was able to return to camp, and even drive 1000km home the next day, all with no problems.

These radiator sealants work very well, but are only good for emergency use, as they also block some of the fine tubes in the radiator. So it is a good idea to have the radiator cleaned, the leak properly fixed, and new anti-freeze added as soon as you can.

On another occasion, a few years ago when beach driving was still legal, a group of us drove 50km along the beach north of Sodwana. We had reached a spot where the sea went right up to the dunes at high tide, when my friend’s top radiator hose burst. We were in serious trouble, as the tide was coming in, and were in desperate need of a plan.

I had a tube of silicon sealant, and my friend, being a medical doctor, had a supply of thin bandages. We cleaned the hose very carefully, applied a thin layer of silicon, and wrapped a bandage tightly around the hose, over the silicon. Then we added another layer of silicon, and another layer of bandage. This we did about eight times, and when we were finished the hose was better than new. After all, this is basically how hoses are made in the first place!

My friend was able to drive back to Sodwana, and then back to Johannesburg, without any trouble, and actually only fixed his hose three weeks later.

There are a few things that you should always have in your toolbox for moments like these. Even if your car never breaks down, you might still be able to help someone else.

The most essential items for any toolbox are: extra fuses, a tube of silicon, good glue like Q-Bond, radiator sealant, cable ties, a piece of electrical wire, a can of Q10 spray, binding wire and pliers, a vice grip, and a shifting spanner – just for emergencies.

Then I also put a can of bully beef, a can of sweet corn, and some drinking water into my car, for the day when I run out of plans!

Till next month, have fun in your 4×4.