The biggest problem with modern vehicles is that they are electronically so advanced that only the official agents are equipped to work on them if something goes wrong. Bush mechanics can do very little to help.
Last year, while we were in the Addo Elephant Park, an elderly couple in a 4×4 ventured far too close to a group of elephants in order to get a good photograph. Then, as the elephants approached up the road towards them, they started to panic.
The old man shifted to reverse gear and backed up, but his vehicle was in low range and it did not move fast enough. He then stopped and changed to high-range 4×2, but it was a model without a gear lever for the transfer case – you had to push a button to change the 4×2 selection, and it always takes a few seconds before it changes and you can drive off.
In his panic, the driver changed to the reverse gear before the transfer case could complete the selection. The result was that the transmission stayed in neutral and the vehicle did not move.
We saw “panic stations” in the vehicle in front of us! The elephants came closer and the couple could not get away. The engine revved and the gears grated, but the vehicle did not move. The old lady started crying while the man pushed buttons and changed gears, all in vain. The lady tried to jump out but her husband locked the doors.
Fortunately, the revving engine scared off the elephants, and they changed course into the bush. We were not far from the couple, so I went over and tried to calm them down.
The only words the old man could get out were: “The gearbox is broken. Please tow us out of here.”
After a while, when he had calmed down a bit, I explained the working of the gearbox and told him to shift the main gearbox into neutral, keep the brake and clutch depressed and press the 2H button. Within ten seconds we heard a “clack” sound as the transfer case selected 4×2 high range and the vehicle was ready to drive again.
I blame salesmen for near disasters like this. I have been witness to salesmen trying to explain to potential customers the features and workings of a new 4×4. If only I’d had a tape recorder. Some of them had no clue.
I remember the days of mechanical features in vehicles that were very basic but lasted for years.
There are still many of the old Russian ex-military trucks in use in many countries in Africa and Asia.
In Georgia, we saw them being used for road building in the mountainous areas. Those old trucks are six-wheel drive and powered by a side-valve V8 petrol engine. When I asked an operator if it paid to work with such a fuel guzzler, he explained in his broken English: “Heavy on petrol, yes, but no payment every month and no breaking.”
Those old models from the 1940s even had a system which enabled you to alter the tyre pressures from inside the cab.
When I looked at this particular truck’s system, I discovered that the mechanism still worked! I doubt that a modern electronically controlled system would last so long under those conditions.
In Angola, one of those old Russian 6×6 trucks stood under a tree for more than ten years. The tyres were flat, but otherwise it was complete. It was easy to recognise, thanks to a distinctive blue colour and a mudguard with three bullet holes in it.
One day we saw the same truck in the streets of Namibe, carrying a load of building rubble – the same blue truck with the three bullet holes in the mudguard.
Yes, new vehicles are fast and economical, but are they as reliable as the old ones?