Journeys Back. Breakfast Break and Petrol Fill-up

Being In the wilderness comes, to me, with certain responsibilities and rules. Very few are written. Some are simply common sense; intuition. Some, including a lot of the intuition, are learnt through experience. I have touched on some, and I will on more, on the journey back.

Some have to do with respect for a world where you are a guest – like moving quietly and humbly and with care, for you are in the presence of rhythms and forces and wonders that far, far exceed your abilities to comprehend or oppose, yet are so very fragile to what you bring to it.

Others have to do with comfort – keep the chair and the tea stuff and the recovery equipment easily accessible, have some trail snacks that you can nibble on for blood sugar if you are on a long walk, don’t walk with shoes that are hot or gather burs or stones…

Still others have to do with survival. These are part rules, part laws. They are the ones that keep you alive in an environment that can be brutally hostile if you approach it in the wrong way. They are about your behaviour in the presence of wild animals and about practicalities like time and distance.

One such is the law of the water, which I had yarned about in a previous blog. Another such is the law of petrol, which is really a common sense one: As you are moving deeper into the wilderness, keep calculating as accurately as possible how much petrol you will need to get out, then add twenty litres and do not use any of that petrol except for the shortest possible route out.

I prefer to take along my extra petrol in separate containers – twenty litre Jerry cans. Depending on where I go, I will take six, twelve or eighteen Jerry cans. They are robust, easy to handle and I simply find it easier to keep pace with how much I use and how much I have left.

Journeys into the wilderness  require careful planning, and none more careful than the petrol logistics: Where is the last point where you are likely to find petrol, how far do you hope to venture from there in the vehicle, what kind of terrain is it and what is the consumption likely to be, do you need to return or could you reach some other point, how much petrol do you need to save to get there? It is not all exact science – unless you know the area well, the surface conditions are partly a guess, the density of vegetation could have quite and impact, forcing you to weave more, and if you get stuck, you use more fuel. So one needs to leave a margin – hence the “then add twenty litres.”

I am reminded of and experience I once had with running out of petrol.  I dropped in a little anecdote about it from The Wanderers:

The area was huge, and it took a lot of driving, and after a time we were beginning to run low on petrol.  We decided we had to replenish our supply.  We had passed a little roadside shop on our way into the area which had, to our surprise and delight,  still standing tall despite its faded red paint and dented body, a  forties-era hand operated petrol pump with twin glass measuring cylinders – a real classic.

We loaded our 44 gallon drum (brought along for extra petrol) and left our camp at dawn, reaching the little shop just before noon.  It turned out that they had run out of petrol, but we were given eager assurances  by the proprietor, clearly not wanting to forego the opportunity of selling so much petrol in a single transaction, that ”the truck it is coming”.  We decided it was probably worth waiting for a while, and we settled down on our chairs under the only reasonable tree in the area (a wild olive, if I recall correctly) to brew some tea.  Our host, a large, sweaty man with the front of his shirt hanging over his bulging tummy like a tent,  sent us each a can of lukewarm coke “on the house”, just to show how generous he was towards his really big customers.  The tracker we had brought along, a chap called Nyani (not the best tracker I had ever worked with but a very pleasant chap with a brilliant smile and laughing eyes, and, like most Zimbabweans, able to speak a good English), was delighted because he ended up scoring the cokes.

Once we had settled down with our tea I had the opportunity to study our surroundings with more attention to detail.  It is strange how the average western mind tends to filter out  all but the information directly connected to the mission or task at hand, and how we then often miss a lot of charming detail.  Our tree was about a sixty or so paces away from the shop, on the opposite side of a dusty track running eastwards into the oblivion of the tribal area.  The area around us was bare and dust  trodden except for a few defiant grey shrubs and faded mounds of donkey dung, deposited by the  few rather scrawny looking specimens  (even by donkey standards) that hung around listlessly for reasons unknown, because there certainly was nothing for them to eat.  The little shop was every bit as classic as the petrol pump.  It offered  anything from agricultural equipment and bicycle spares to warm beer and patent medicine, all safely ensconced  behind a counter with a sturdy wire mesh barrier stretching from its counter top right up to the bare corrugated iron sheets of its roof.  Its faded sign hanging from one corner, and its cracked front veranda and paint-starved walls with the red bricks showing here and there where the plaster had fallen off, testified that it had not seen any maintenance since being taken over by the present owner (when the previous one departed for South Africa or England or such).  Besides the usual sunglass-sporting loafers posturing self-importantly on the front porch and a noisy group of men playing some game on the cement floor, oiled by generous quantities of beer, there were several resigned-looking people sitting in the narrow strip of shade along one wall.  They all had bundles of stuff with them; one had a small wood and wire mesh cage with three chickens in it.

“Nyani, what are those people against the wall doing here?”

“They are waiting for the bus to come, Sir” (such delightful manners, most of those Zimbabwean chaps).

“Ah, and when is the bus coming?”

“The bus is coming Sir” – a white matter-of-fact smile.

I looked down the dusty track expectantly, but then realised that his answer didn’t mean that arrival was imminent, just that it is expected, possibly this hour, possibly today, possibly tomorrow or the next day – at some time in the future.  “Nyani, the petrol truck, when do you think it is coming?”

“A, but it is coming Sir.” The smile now showed a hint of uncertainty.

I turned to Gerhard and said “You know what all of this means? It means that bloody truck could be arriving any time between now and next week…” Gerhard hadn’t been paying much attention to my and Nyani’s discussion, but he paid a lot of attention to my last remark.

“Damn, we’d better make another plan”,  he said indignantly.

“Hmm, Nyani, where else can we get petrol?” I inquired.

“Maybe we can get at Mwenezi  Sir,”

“Ok, how long will it take to drive there?”

He screwed his face into intense concentration.  “Uhh, maybe it can take three hours Sir.”

“Hmm, sounds like about sixty to eighty k’s”, I quickly calculated.

“Shit that’s quite a way.  Do you think we can make it with the petrol we have in the tank?”, Gerhard asked hesitantly.

“ Risky,” I said, adding “And if we got stuck between here and Mwenezi  we’d be in real trouble.  It could take days before we can get going again.  But you know, I’m just thinking of something.  Once, when I was a boy, I had to help out my great uncle – my grandfather’s brother – on his farm.  He farmed next door to us and he would often send for me to come and help him – actually just to have someone convenient to send around.  He had to deliver a load of hay, but his old GMC lorry was too low on petrol to make it to the nearest filling station.  So Oom Thys  simply started it up and let it run warm, and then he added some diesel into the tank – just enough to get to the petrol station.  The old truck was stuttering a bit, but as long as one kept the revs up it went…”

Gerhard looked at me uncertainly, his eyes slitted in disbelief.  “Wragtag?” “You sure that wouldn’t damage the engine?”, he softened his suspicions when he realised I wouldn’t really do anything to jeopardise our vehicle

“Not really.  Of course if there was too much diesel in the petrol it would simply not run”

“Ok well, we don’t have any diesel”, he said, almost with relief.

“No, but maybe they have some at the store”

“Ok, lets try!”  Gerhard said gamely.

Our generous host took the news that the big petrol deal was off rather badly.  He couldn’t understand why on earth we were in such a hurry – after all, the truck was about to arrive anyway.  He was absolutely convinced it was in our best interests to stay and wait.  But we discovered to our (my) delight that the chap actually had a stock of power paraffin “at the pump”.  He explained that he used it for his pump engine, and insisted that we accompany him to fetch some and take a look at the installation.

We set off behind his panting hulk along a well worn footpath.  It lead to a little pump house that apologetically peered out from among some fiercely growing acacias on the edge of a depression that was treeless because it held water during the rainy season.  It was of bricks, but part of one wall had been pushed over by a tree, and some of the roof sheets had been removed to cover something else more important.  We couldn’t actually get inside because the floor was swamped in a few inches of water from the leaking pump (our host explained that it only leaked “a little bit when it is running”).

The engine was probably an ancient Lister, driving a turbine pump of uncertain origin through a single tattered V-belt, augmented by a makeshift strip of rawhide.  In several places nuts or bolts were missing, or had been replaced with incorrectly sized ones, some unceremoniously driven in with a hammer, and generous use was made of wire to hold the contraption together.  The whole installation was covered in a thick black layer of old oil and dust.  Just to witness (as an engineer) how equipment could somehow be kept functioning under conditions and for periods way beyond what could reasonably have been foreseen by the designers as the most extreme possible, was a revelation.  Some of the industrial and agricultural equipment made by the British during the early part of the century was simply indestructible, I thought.

Our host insisted that we observe it in operation.  He instructed the “operator” that he had commandeered to accompany us to start it, while he remained safely outside on dry land with his guests to enjoy the show.  The operator was clearly familiar with the starting drill.  He first had to switch from power paraffin to petrol.  The old Lister once had a two-way brass valve for this purpose, but that had long since been worn out beyond repair.  The switch was now accomplished by simply pulling out and swapping the fuel line from the paraffin tank to the petrol , and plugging the paraffin line with a specially fashioned wooden plug removed from the petrol one.

I had looked around for the starting crank, and noticed it lying half submerged on the floor, but battered almost beyond recognition by its various roles as hammer, crowbar and the like over the years.  It didn’t look as if it had been used in any other but such secondary roles for a long time.  I was right.  The operator unceremoniously took a rawhide thong, about three meters long and soft as a piece of cloth from frequent use off a wire hook on the roof, and proceeded to wind it several times around the large flywheel of the Lister.  He then cranked the engine by pulling hard on the thong, showing great skill (no doubt perfected over many many sweaty hours of trying) at rapidly altering his grip on the thong to keep up the tension on it.  The venerable old machine caught on and started chugging away gamely, and soon water began to spurt rather forcefully in all directions from the pump, causing the operator to bolt out of the structure to safety behind the wall.

The last bit of the complicated starting procedure was to swap back to paraffin once the old lady was well warmed up.  This was again accomplished by the fuel hose-swapping routine, but of course the machine died when its supply of petrol was cut off, so the rawhide thong procedure also had to be repeated, now on paraffin – but, having been warmed up, she caught on obligingly.

Our host’s  attitude was much improved by our astonished remarks and amused chuckling (the motivation for which he might have misunderstood somewhat), and especially by our announcement that we would buy a whole ten litres of power paraffin from him at (his) petrol price.  He promptly instructed the drenched and rather dejected-looking operator to measure out the correct quantity and take it to our vehicle.  But generosity is relative, and the two cans of coke also suddenly made their appearance in the transaction.

We got the Land Cruiser going, and let it run a bit before adding our power paraffin,  plus  a litre of methelated spirits and half a litre of sunflower cooking oil we had in the back.  And then we took off, Gerhard driving as economically as possible without dropping the revs,  and we both holding our breaths and thumbs and rehearsing our prayers.  We actually made it to Mwenezi,  albeit stuttering and lurching a bit, and, to our relief, they had petrol there at the (slightly bigger) little store! We soon headed back, now fortified by a coke each from their fridge, and when we drove past our little shop at dusk the petrol truck had still not arrived…

1 Comment

  1. Nice! I love this story!! :) And this too:

    “Some have to do with respect for a world where you are a guest – like moving quietly and humbly and with care, for you are in the presence of rhythms and forces and wonders that far, far exceed your abilities to comprehend or oppose, yet are so very fragile to what you bring to it.”

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