No Planes, No Trains but Some Automobiles

Clinic Delivery - partially unloaded

Clinic Delivery - partially unloaded

Over the past two months I’ve been trying to get permission to drive government vehicles. I began this arduous process back when I thought there actually were some vehicles (it was always lack of drivers I was told by various people).

Though I now realise once you take away special “globally funded” cars on specific projects only, those in a bad state of repair, those reserved for taking the families of key people around and those mysteriously unaccounted for this is not the case. However perseverance has become like a badge of honour to me.

Having ever so slowly managed to move the process forward I was still some steps away until, amazingly, the transport manager needed my help in delivering the district supervisors out for National Immunisation Days phase one. Magically it seems when they need you to be able to drive the permission can be completed in about four minutes.

It was through this process that last Monday mid-morning I found myself in command of a 4×4 only slightly smaller than the hospital not having driven for the preceding three months.

First I had to go around Opuwo taking a couple of people to the bank to get literally wedges of cash out and then to various other banks and NamPost to pay it into accounts (for people using their personal vehicles for NID).

This involved excellent pimp-style sitting around outside places and then handing brick-sized bundles of notes out through the window (hopefully to the right people).

Finally having completed this task, got back to the hospital, waited for people to show up, waited a bit more, went left, went right, stopped at the bank, stopped at Ok, went back to the hospital for stuff we had forgotten and stopped once more to Ok (all standard Namibian pre-departure procedures) we were ready to leave Opuwo at about 1.30.

I drove first to Outjo down through the Red Line and Kamanjab where (as I’m sure is the law) we stopped at the petrol station. There was little traffic (no surprises) and few cows trying to commit suicide (more surprising) so we made pretty good time and got there at about 5.30.

Having dropped the Outjo supervisor off, delivered the tonnes of crap as per usual and stopped at Ok (to buy cheese – CHEDDAR!!) we departed, now in the dark, the next 130km to Khorixas.

Tarred roads all the way.

Got to Khorixas and managed to find the hospital, found someone to accept the post and dropped the Khorixas supervisor off to his duties I popped in for a chat and a cup of coffee with my pharmacist friend living in the hospital grounds.

She is in a single room in a brand new (but already falling apart) nurses accommodation block. I would have been jealous of her accommodation until two weeks ago, now I am just jealous of her always on hot and cold water. Their shared kitchen is also yet to become a cockroach paradise (I told her it’s only a matter of time).

By then it was time to return to Opuwo (now on my own) so I did the 14km on tarred roads before turning off onto the “good gravel” road (130km long) from near Khorixas up to Kamanjab.

This is where the journey turned from just epically long to epically epic.

Of course I’ve never actually driven on gravel roads before. Certainly not at night. In the middle of nowhere. In Africa.

Well it’s interesting to say the least. Especially when massive thunderstorms are closing in on you illuminating the whole sky in bright flashes and you know you’ve got about a trillion more miles to go to get anywhere like home so you can’t afford to crawl back.

Actually (as I was to discover later in the week) it was an excellent gravel road (as these things go). There were no sudden bone-shattering dips and the bits where it narrowed were actually signposted.

Of course I had little to no traction and every time I even dreamed of touching the brakes the ABS shuddered immediately and the car slowed ever so imperceptibly.

After a few miles of this road, slewing left and right in a fountain of dust, I had a stroke of genius. Why not engage the four wheel drive?

You see (just to bore anyone who doesn’t know about such things and enrage anyone who knows lots about it with my simplistic explanation) the type of 4x4s we use here are not “permanent all-wheel drive”. Most of the time they coast along in 2H that is two wheel drive high range where the rear wheels only are driven and you can get normal “high” speeds from them.

If you engage four wheel drive then a number of mechanical things happen, primarily the front drive shafts start to turn and the “free wheeling hubs” on the front wheels engage (in two wheel drive operation these stop the front wheels from turning the drive shafts etc by disconnecting them).

Sitting next to the main gearstick is an enticing lever with various modes on such as 2H, 4H and 4L.

Now of course thanks to my nerdishness I know all the theory of this and that, selecting 4H rather than 2H should seamlessly drive all four wheels and give me greater traction and engine breakability.

Tempting.

Just as I was about to wrench the lever over I thought – “Woah, I wonder if you have to be fully stationary or do something special with the clutch or something”. So I stopped, had a quick picnic under the absolutely staggering full-on milky way night sky and fished the owners manual out.

Blah.. Blah.. Engage four wheel drive.. Loosing traction.. Blah.. Stationary if hubs not engaged… Blah.. Don’t exceed 100kph (60mph) – fat chance.

Then my eye was drawn to an ever-so-tiny box at the bottom. “Warning: Engage your front hubs and drive mechanism at least once every month to keep them lubricated and in working order. Failure to do so may lead to irrevocable damage when you shift into four wheel drive”.

The chances someone had ensured everything was turned over at least once a month? Zero.

Now to be blunt the idea of irrevocably damaging a government vehicle doesn’t phase me as much as the idea of irrevocably damaging a government vehicle in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

As I’d picnicked on the bonnet one of the startling things was the absolute and total quiet out here. There were no other cars on this road (I saw three the entire journey home).

So this left me with a quandary, continue four-wheel drifting two-wheel driving along or, at the risk of a graunch followed by total mechanical failure, switch to four-wheel drive in the vein hope it would be better.

How I pondered. In the end I reasoned that I had made it this far on two wheels and would make it the rest of the way. My hand kept itching towards the drive selector but I managed to resist.

Several hours later and with a high opinion of my ace off-road (well on-road but off-tarmac) driving skills I finally re-emerged at Kamanjab, got back on the tar, and began the next neverending stage of the drive back to Opuwo.

I eventually got in at about half past one on Tuesday morning having covered near on 1000km (600miles).

Then came Thursday. Our chief clerk (and part-time pastor) asked if I could do him a favour and drop a delivery off at a clinic some 130km (90-ish miles) away. One of the artisans would come with me and knows where it is etc. Now some of our clinics are so remote we’re have to use a helicopter to reach them so naturally I asked if it was near the main road. “Oh yes”. On further enquiry which direction it was from Opuwo I was told “Past Ok” i.e. south, to Kamanjab, on the tarred road.

So 130km on tar. Ok no problems.

We took the cab off the back turning our 4×4 into a pick-up truck type of affair and then proceeded to dangerously overload it with a fridge, table, TV, toolkits, 12 chairs and, for added zizz (or rather added baaadddaaa-booom) a massive (5 foot) full gas bottle. Oh and various other sundries.

We then tied all this down with washing line and set off.

“So you know where this clinic is then?” “Sort of, I’ve been there once”.

Good start.

14km out of town (journey barely begun) and we turn right. Onto a dirt track.

Needless to say the next 100+km made my previous experience look like a walk in the park on a bright summer’s day. There were potholes the size of the car, massive ditches, ruts. At one point the road disappeared but we could just see it again in the distance so we just went cross-country until we caught up with it.

Dried up rivers were crossed. At many points I missed the craters and smashed into them causing the cargo to jump a good foot in the air. Each time the artisan hung out the rear window (he was sitting in the back, the only place we could squeeze the TV was in the front seat) and shouted “it’s good, go, go” to my unasked “****-a-duck is everything still attached?”.

Again time was a factor as I knew we had to be as quick as possible to drive the least distance back in the dark.

After a while it got really fun. It was honestly like a stage from Colin McRae apart from the fact there is no way in hell a rally car could make it through. Up steep slopes, picking through boulder fields.

Eventually we actually made it to clinic which was in a tiny little village. Unloaded everything and headed back.

Thanks to my take-no-prisoners allow-no-safety-margin driving we were off the truly extreme part of the road by nightfall and just had the odd ditch and river crossing to contend with. Back by half six.

It’s done my kudos with the transport team no end of good though. Apparently the transport manager was beside himself when he found out I (who he obviously had no faith in) had gone to that clinic and decided he would never see us again.

On Friday I had to repeat my Monday journey (Opuwo – Outjo – Khorixas – Opuwo) and pick up the supervisors I’d dropped off and one other.

This went pretty smoothly apart from the varying mechanically dubious noises coming from the wheels (just needs a service I’m assured) and the ninja-style cow dodging once it got dark.

I did get to have a nice lunch with some friends in Khorixas though which more than made up for the long drive.

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