A Festive Tale of Woe

And lo they did see the light shining like a star down upon them. “Hark!” said they, the two wise women and two unwise men, “is that yonder star showing us the way to our saviour?”. “No” came a voice from above, “it is verily the light of the Condor which has caught fire”.

How I Tempted Fate

In the week(s) before the trip I fettled the Mighty Condor; fixed the handbrake (well tightened it), sorted the gauges (replaced a fuse), saw the reverse lights illumate for the first time in six months (mate reached underneath and plugged in the cable I’d missed), got two new tyres (making a total of six good and actually inflated), bought some spanners, checked the many fluid levels including various oils and shock of shocks had it cleaned.

The Plan

Go with John, Emily and Ann (Peace Corps co-vols) to a cheetah farm in Kamanjab and thence to Swakopmund at the coast for festive drinking, frollicking and as much debauchary as can be arranged for 20 whole Namibian dollars.

The Actuality

We set off only slightly later than planned and drove the 2 1/2 hours to the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm just outside Kamanjab.

I’ve previously been to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) which is near Otjiwarongo [EDIT 23/01/2011 *]. For your information the Kamanjab Farm is seems better and cheaper from a purely poor-vol-tourist perspective [EDIT 30/01/2011 **].

For N$150 you get to camp, meet the tame cheetahs, see them fed and then go out to see the feeding of the wild cheetahs.

So at 4pm we were in the farmhouse garden and three tame cheetahs wandered over and started licking us and purring away like some sort of massive and scary version of my cat.

Tame Cheetah at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab

They were all very well behaved and obviously like human contact, especially licking you with their extremely rough tongues. Once I overcame the natural inhibition with sticking my hand anywhere near their massive teeth or claws it was excellent to pet them.

Tame Cheetah at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab

After a while their food was brought out and each one took a piece of meat from the bucket and lay down to eat. We were advised not to get too close while they were eating and it was a chance to admire their fangs in action. While they ate we talked to the guys about the cheetahs and these three in particular.

We then headed (via a crazy bar with an elephants ears and trunk mounted on the wall) into the enclosure where the wild ones are. They quickly were stalking the bakkie as it drove to the feeding point.

These were a different kettle of fish, you can see straight away there is none of the softness or gentle plodding of the tame animals. They look and act like wild animals, fighting amongst themselves and calling each other with weirdly high-pitched birdlike sounds. The two guys then get out with nothing but a stick and start chucking lumps of donkey and goat out once all the cats were present.

Wild Cheetah Jumps for Meat at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab Namibia

Cheetah Jumps for Food at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm

The trick apparently (not that I wanted to try it) to getting out of the car with nothing more than a stick is to never bend down as cheetahs don’t attack large prey. Of course they also mentioned that every now and again a very unlucky Kudu jumps the fence and is quickly devoured (given that a Kudu is as tall if not taller than a man this seems to contradict the “you’re safe if you stay standing up” line but they’re the experts).

So after a jolly good time was had by all we drove into Kamanjab for some dinner and then headed back which is where it all went a bit wrong.

The Disaster

The farm is about 8km off the main road and just a few kilos down their track the Condor died the a splutter and failed to magically restart.

I opened the bonnet and quickly used up all my mechanical skills by checking that nothing obvious had fallen off and that the air filter was clean. I waggled a few fuel lines and considered loosening a nut to see if there was petrol getting through but didn’t as I thought I really hadn’t much of a clue what I was doing, the engine was hot and petrol is dangerous.

Having dispatched John and Emily to walk to the farm for help we realised we actually had cellphone coverage so I called the farm, apologised for bothering them and wondered if they could tow us to the campsite.

Soon the guys who had taken us round the cheetahs turned up in their bakkie and with an impressive array of tools and more confidence than me starting looking for the problem. When they got to the fuel system they did loosen a nut on the filter and just had time to say “yep, there’s fuel” when a combination of that fuel and a hot engine led to a whomf and orange flames springing forth.

Emily and Ann were inside the car when this happened and didn’t need me yelling to get out before they leaped clear as I grabbed the water container from the back. We quickly threw dirt (in plentiful supply) over the engine though and the fire was thankfully put out as suddenly as it had started.

Discretion being the better part of valour we decided to call it a day on fault-finding so disconnected the battery in case and tightened the filter back up. As a precaution non-essential personnel (or valuable personnel) went in the farm bakkie so it was just me in the Flaming Condor towed back to the campsite.

In the morning I was up at first light expecting the worst and found wonder of wonders that nothing at all had been damaged in the fire. There was some cool streaks of soot under the bonnet but all the delicate hoses and myriad of electrical cables were entirely unscathed.

We were towed up to the farmhouse and with a cool engine, isolated battery, ample tools and great assistance of the owner tried once again to figure out what was wrong hopefully without a full re-enactment of the night before.

The engine was blown clean with their impressive full on compressor and various bits and bobs tinkered with including blowing back and forth through the fuel system to clear any blockage.

I looked up to find a cheetah had decided to get into the car and was now munching away on my road map. Gallantly I told John he should get the cheetah out of the car which he failed to do as “here kitty kitty” didn’t seem to cut the mustard. In fact when the cheetah figured out we wanted it out she climbed further into the back and started sniffing rucksacks.

Cheetah Refusing to Get Out of the Car at Otjitotongwe

We had to ask the owner of the farm for assistance who deployed the multi-purpose compressor once again to make a hissing noise that sounds like a snake. Just before we’d been standing in front of the open rear door when the realisation we were in the path of a soon to be scared cheetah was made so we moved sharpish. A large dog wasn’t so lucky and was run over as the cheetah bolted (fast like, well, a cheetah).

Taking out a plug met with a hiss of air, the spark was good and the Condor now started on three and then (once the plug was replaced) four cylinders. In a triumphant scene we drove away from the farmhouse thinking about an airlock or temporary fuel blockage only for it to clonk out again 200m down the road.

By now we had narrowed stuff down and it seemed the fuel pump was the culprit. Like a lot of modern fuel injection cars this sits inside the Condor’s fuel tank so is nigh impossible to get at easily. Being Christmas Eve all the local garages were shut but the owners managed to find a mechanic on leave who said he would come and have a look.

While waiting me and John took out a rear seat hoping to find some sort of fueltank access panel but no luck.

When the guy came out he diagnosed the pump in less than five minutes, found the fuse had blown (brief bit of hope but when replaced same story) and then spent a while underneath tapping things with a rock while I turned the ignition on and off when commanded.

Diagnosis: fuel pump shot. Being Christmas Eve there was no hope of getting a replacement sorted so I had to accept leaving the Condor behind until some future time. We left her in a field guarded by two ostriches.

Escape From Kamanjab

Again the farm owners were absolutely excellent and said it was no problem to leave it there and sort it out once everything was open. They then gave us a lift into Kamanjab.

Christmas Eve night we stayed at the Kamanjab Rest Camp which is about 4km out of town. Like everyone else the Rest Camp owners went above and beyond; opening up the closed-for-xmas restaurant so we could have Christmas Eve dinner, letting us buy them out of beer and cooking an excellent breakfast Christmas morning.

We also met a German chap who was coming up for half-way through a motorcycle tour of Africa, starting in Germany he was heading down the West coast and made it to Namibia with the intention to carry on to South Africa then go back to Europe up the East Coast.

On Christmas Day after a hearty breakfast the owners gave us a lift into Kamanjab to try and hitchhike back to Opuwo.

Long story short I left it to my Peace Corps colleagues who “know hiking” to fail to get us a lift. In the end me and John went to the garage to canvass cars and on the third one a couple on their way to Angola said we could all get in if we could fit. Well yes indeed we could.

They dropped us off at the junction to Opuwo and we spent another little while sitting in the shade. A car with two seats came along so being the kind of gentlemen we are the ladies went first. In fact their car made it 100m and then pulled into a bar while me and John immediately got a lift in a combi which overtook the now-stationary car and flew back to Opuwo.

Brief bit of fun at a police checkpoint where, for the first time ever, I had to prove my legal residency in Namibia and we were home free. Home free to sit on our respective steps and wait for our keys which were with the other two as they had left first.

The Aftermath

When things reopened between Christmas and New Year I was able to track down a pump thanks to the excellent Marko Spares in Otjiwarongo. Sadly logistics are not always that straightforward in Namibia.

They could send it with NamPost but I couldn’t pay them the courier fee, it would be paid on delivery. The cheetah farm had been really, absolutely and amazingly excellent to us but I drew the line at asking them to pay for my courier charges.

So I had the pump delivered to Opuwo, paid the fee and had it just long enough to look at it and get a mechanically-minded friend to confirm it was the right thing before going to NamPost and re-couriering it to Kamanjab. Now you may think that with the NamPost truck it came on still idling outside there’d be a good chance it would arrive maybe sameday? No.

It then went back to Otjiwarongo (through Kamanjab of course), sat there for a week and then was delivered to the PO Box of the farm.

Once I managed to get an answer from NamPost it had been delivered I could ring the farm and ask them to collect it when they got their mail and also call the mechanic who came out over Christmas to ask him to go back to the farm and fit it.

He did this last Saturday and confirmed the Mighty Condor was once again purring like a mechanical cheetah.

The Recovery

On Wednesday I hopped aboard the 6am patient bus that went through Kamanjab and after getting dropped off on the main road hiked the 8km to the farm. Profusely thanked the owner for everything and in small token of my appreciated gave them a bottle of whisky (I actually managed to find in Opuwo amongst the dual-use whisky/paint-stipper a bottle of Jamesons).

Of course the battery was totally flat so it took some “jump charging” (not jump starting as was totally dead and the leads weren’t quite up to the job) before the Condor roared into life.

After a little while tinkering with make-work and waiting until I was confident the battery would start it again if I stalled I careened through the mud and back to the main road. Quick stop in Kamanjab to meet the mechanic, more thanks and some exchange of dollars and I was off back to Opuwo safe and sound.

The Condor is now back majestically sitting in front of the house and starts every time again. The only vestige of the trouble is the soon to be washed off sooty marks under the bonnet which I show people with pride.

And Finally…

Thank you Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm, thank you Kamanjab Rest Camp, thank you Adolph the mechanic, thank you Marko Spares and even thank you NamPost who (eventually) delivered the right part to the right place.

Serious disaster averted thanks to the kindness of strangers. I know who my saviours were over Christmas and New Year 2010/11!

Edit Notes:

* The “near Otjiwarongo” text has been changed after feedback from the CCF. They never claimed they were in Otjiwarongo rather it was assumed by me and my companions. I apologise for the inaccuracy.

** I originally opined that Otjitotongwe was “a million times better than CCF”. Following some discussion with CCF I would like to make clear that I was talking from a purely tourst experience point-of-view. CCF exist as primarily as a hardcore research centre offering education rather than tourist experiences (though I should point out that Otjitotongwe’s entire revenue from tourists goes to the costs of keeping their cheetahs housed and happy so they’re not an “in it for the money” tourist cash cow either). CCF do a variety of research (including genetic research which unfortunately isn’t geared towards crossing a cheetah with an elephant, making a warecheetah or a zombie cheetah) and run re-homing project aiming to put cheetahs back in the wild.

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