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Cape Town troubles

October 31st, 2010

What a month this has been, we’ve had some incredible mechanical challenges to face, experienced some amazing generosity, taken in Die Hel and now find ourselves 2000miles down the road in Namibia.

This is a long one, so we’ve split it into 2 and we’d recommend a large cup of tea and a large slice of marble cake to see you through if you tackle the whole lot in one go!

As our party of three arrived in Cape Town, we first deposited ourselves into the care of Rob, Sian and Shannon Stampe, receiving a thoroughly warm welcome.

With Tash due to fly home 3 days later The Stampes helped us organise some sight seeing immediately. Sian got in touch with a local friend Linda and arranged for Tash to go horse riding and the following day Shannon joined us to form a quartet as we climbed Table Mountain, taking time to send postcards home from the shop at the top!

Unfortunately the views were badly blocked by low cloud, but we caught glimpses of the city and saw enough of the abseil down the mountain to know it wasn’t for us! The next day Sian drove us all around the Cape Peninsula, hoping to catch sight of whales. Unfortunately, although very picturesque, it was an unsuccessful spotting venture.

All too soon Sunday came around and the alarm was set for 4 am, in order to wave off Tash. However, she did go out with a bang, as Rob let Carl take her to the airport in his lovely Mercedes SLK sports car. Thanks Rob!

After saying goodbye to Tash following a thoroughly enjoyable and eventful three weeks, our next job was to start getting the car ready to take us home up the West coast. Being slightly over budget we decided to try and approach a couple of local companies for help with parts.

The local Land Rover specialists, Roverland, got right behind the trip. Carol and owner Martin, gave us lots of time and advice, and with all the relevant parts in stock we grabbed an armful of gaskets, seals, nuts and bolts to get the work started.

Having learnt our lessons from working on the car in the street at home, we immediately spoke to Rob (aka Mr Fix-it) with regards to a work space for the service. Rob rang his mate Andy, who kindly offered us workshop space in which to service our car, thus also saving Rob’s drive from any Landy-related oil patches.

At the workshop of Reactvid head honcho Andy Haigh-Smith, we were blessed with all the kit we could possibly need, as Andy’s barn is often used to service the Reactvid rally cars ( Incidentally, Andy’s son Ashley is the youngest ever South African rally champion and is winning races left right and centre. We would recommend taking time to go for a drive with him (, he’s a lovely lad and clearly one to keep an eye on in the future.

We completed all the routine menial task of tightening, oiling and greasing before moving on to asses the big issues.

When we discussed the ‘Worst Case Scenarios’ together several months ago in the UK, we both joked that blowing the engine apart on our Land Rover Defender would take top trumps.

At the time, we were smiling. Such a major mechanical malfunction could not possibly befall such a pair of diligent overlanders. Certainly not. Hmm.

As with all aspects of our trip preparation, when we assessed the problem, we sought advice from local notaries as to the health of the 300tdi. The common theme enthused by most was, “Well, its a bit worn, but that is normal on an engine this old, and these motors go on for ever. You’ll probably be fine”, which matched with our own estimation.

 Several months later, as we stared at our open rocker cover, watching the ‘put-put-puff’ of smoke blowing through, with thoughts as black as the oil it was displacing, we realised the situation had worsened.

Whether it be due to the extra load on the engine, the off-road terrain, 6 months of long motorway miles, the increased heat or the additional weight incurred by Carls high heel collection, the engine has now worn its way through a set of piston rings. Arguably of greater worry to all, Carl has worn his way through a set of heels.

Worn rings are allowing pressurised gas from the cylinder to escape past the ring, thus reducing power and efficiency. As well as hampering the engine, this is causing the pressure to mount in the rocker cover, situated directly above the cylinders.

As pressurised gas from the cylinders is forced into the rocker cover, so the newly pressurised oil is being forced out. The easiest route for the oil to take is through the breather unit affixed to the side of the block, carrying it into the air system.

As the turbo spins at higher motorway speeds, this oil-air mixture is again pressurised and thus ends up more pumped up than an overconfident bodybuilding contestant. Aside from the other checks, our most visceral indicator that things had taken a turn for the worst came from the rather splendid redecorating job the sprayed oil from the turbo was making of the engine bay and bonnet underside.

Andy suggested we contact his friend, a Landy and Jag mechanic of great local repute. Trevor, for that was and is his name, arrived and joined us in staring at the ominous columns of white smoke emanating from the open oil cap. Trevor stroked his beard and mused, “Well, if it was my car and I was driving up the West coast, I’d rebuild it”.

We took a deep breath, nodded to each other and reached for the torque wrench. As the cylinder head bolts were loosened, a sense of anticipation and excitement replaced our earlier trepidation. We were about to change the rings on our very first engine! Ok, so carrying this work out in Africa had never been part of the plan, but we were exhilarated (or running on shock) none the less. It was most probably our greatest mechanical challenge yet, but at least with doing this work we should see a noticeable improvement.

With the cylinder head and sump off, we removed the pistons one by one, marking everything and working as methodically as we could, with Trevor proving to be an excellent and patient teacher.

The first of a triad of problems revealed itself as we examined the damaged head gasket. A wafer thin strip clung onto existence in line with No. 3 piston. Our attention thus alerted, we inspected piston 3, finding it grooved and scored. The 3rd cylinder was, naturally, equally scored. Finally, we cast our wide-eyed gaze over the underside of the cylinder head. One, two, three, four, five and, ah there it is, six deep cracks.

**Censored, censored, censored**

This wasn’t going to be a simple ‘replace piston rings’ job, was it? No, this was a ‘total bloody rebuild’ job. In the subdued silence, we tried to remain lively and not stare inactively at the engine, lying in a dozen futilely well-labelled piles around the room. Numbers filled our brain, and we knew they weren’t small.

After searching the internet and speaking to suppliers we realised we were faced with a bill of £5000 to have the work done. Of course it is possible to rebuild an engine without a garage doing the work, but parts alone would come to over £1000 and on top of that we would need a good workshop and expert help to properly strip the engine and reassemble it, otherwise we were wasting our time.

The reality was simple, we didn’t have this to spend and still have enough money to return home.

Shaking ourselves from this stupor, we got back to our hosts house (the fantastic Rob, Sian and daughter Shannon) and did what we could. Emails were sent, phone calls made, answers sought, plea’s issued, prayers made. Quite frankly, we needed all the help we could get.

In short, we would need a new cylinder head, new pistons, new bearings, new gaskets, new head bolts and new seals. As well as sourcing new parts we needed to have the block re-bored and honed, in order to smooth out the scoring inside the cylinder, on top of finding an engineering firm to similarly re-cut the worn crank shaft.

Immediately upon seeing the state of the engine Andy said we could continue to use his workshop and Trevor offered his help for free. This was a huge relief and a great starting point in this immense challenge facing us, thanks guys.

First off, we contacted the big boys back in Blighty, Britpart and Bearmach, who both promised us all the support they could. The knowledge that people are going to go out of their way to help you when you are round the other side of the world with a broken car is wonderful and lifted our spirits significantly.

Aware of potential logistical issues with having items sent from the UK we also got in touch with the locally based GAP Agencies, the dealer for Land Rover original pistons, Germany’s Kuberschmidt Pistons. Very promptly we had a reply from Deutschland and the guys agreed to supply a set of pistons, complete with rings! Our thanks go to Ken Pell, who organised for everything to be picked up in Cape Town the very next day. Thanks Ken and Kathy for making sure that everything happened so quickly.

In amongst all this madness, with our heads this way and that Carl’s parents made a flying visit to Cape Town to see Rob and Sian en route to Tanzania, and with our trip running behind schedule by a few weeks we were there too! Within hours of them arriving Rob , Sian and Shannon had whisked us all off to the local town of Hermanus, reputedly the best land based whale watching spot in the world.

So for a couple of days our minds were taken off our Land Rover which currently had a huge hole under the bonnet where the engine should be. We wandered the beach, braid away, drank lots of wine, topping up Rob’s glass each time he wasn’t looking and brought Anna and Phil (Carl’s folks) up to date with the trip/photos. Unfortunately all too soon they were off again and were back to our little problem.

Meanwhile Richard from Britpart got back in touch with us to see how we were progressing and wanting to know exactly what parts we needed, insisting we send him the complete list. Those who are familiar with our previous blogs will be well aware than we have a great relationship with Britpart, representing as they do one of our largest (and certainly most understanding) sponsors.

Britpart have previously helped us out with a new flywheel, a new rear crossmember, a new set of headlights, new indicator stalks and switches to name but a few of the majestic myriad of parts we fitted.

So, we felt to ask Britpart for help with a new cylinder head was pushing matters somewhat. However, with the trip in the balance and the car unable to move, we felt we had to ask the question. As long as you avoid offending people when you ask for help, the worst that can happen is people say ‘no’.

After checking local availability in Cape Town, Richard got back to us explaining that all of the parts we needed to finish rebuilding the engine would be available for collection in two hours! We were speechless and sat down to take in the news. After repeated sleepless nights from stress and being faced with the reality of ending this challenge which had taken a year and a half of planning, just halfway, here we were presented with the opportunity to keep on track.

We still had a heck of a lot of work to do, but if everything came together it would have been hugely thanks to Britpart. ‘We best get you home’ Richard told us, which fits with everything that we’ve experienced from this family based company. What a lovely bunch of guys.

Somewhere in the middle of all of our running around, we received an invitation from Peter Hemmings, friend of Mike and Elidah in Zimbabwe, to give a talk at the local Rotary Club in Durbanville (Cape Town) so spent an evening talking about our experiences thus far and the charities, whilst being fed lovely food and drink. It’s always good to tell more people about what we’re doing and it was great to receive such an enthusiastic response from the guys at the club.

Back at home, always trying to be as much help as they could, Rob and Sian insisted we use one of their cars, so we set off to search for the best engineering company in CT, as all the new parts would be a waste of time if the block wasn’t machined accurately. A few phone calls later and we were in the car, with the 300tdi block weighting down the rear springs, new pistons in hand, racing over to Strand Precision Engineering to meet Eugene, owner and fellow overlanding enthusiast.

To our surprise and delight, Eugene offered to complete the boring and grinding of the block and crank for free! Further to this, we could have the work finished the same day that we delivered him the bearings. Unfortunately due to it being late on a Friday afternoon that would have to wait until the following Monday.

That night was just another evening during which we sat back and enjoyed our host’s company and sublime cooking ability. Chatting away about Africa and it’s problems, many of which are the same throughout the 14 countries we’ve been through, Rob made comment that education was the key to changing the South Africa’s fortunes. This was an opinion we had heard before and seems to be the only agreed solution to many of Africa’s hugely varied problems from North to South. We discussed our time in Ethiopia and it helped further put into perspective the benefit of the work of Link Ethiopia, never throwing money at a problem but simply supporting education so that Africans can help themselves. After all without wanting to demean Africa’s problems, to give a man a fishing rod is far preferable than giving him fish for a day.

If this is a viewpoint which you share, then we ask that you try to support Link Ethiopia’s work through the donation box on our website, because much as we might not give the impression as we regale stories of here, there and everywhere, this trip is about more than just the two of us.

Rob’s local garage also made mention of a local Castrol agent who occasionally support different and unusual events such as ours. As our oil suppliers in the UK, Comma Oil, don’t appear in SA, we contacted the local boys at Castrol the following Monday, as we needed approximately £300 worth of oil to fully service the car and get us home.

After a quick email to a delightfully helpful man by the name of Stephan, we were dodging South Africans in their white buckies (pickups) who all seemed to be pulling trailers in the early Cape Town rush hour traffic en route to meeting the head boys in their Cape Town Castrol headquarters. They readily agreed to help us out with specialist oil for the rebuild process, as well as ensuring that we were topped up with gearbox oils, transfer case oils, differential oils and top notch engine oils; we now have enough for the entire trip home! Thank you Castrol and thank you Stephan.

After saying goodbye to the guys at Castrol we headed to the Montague Gardens industrial area to take in more advice from Martin at Roverland and meet Mike from LR services who facilitated the collection of Britpart sponsored parts. Amazingly, Mike even offered to become a sponsor and kindly supplied us with all the filters we would need to get us home, as well as a replacement fuel lift pump as our had started to leak quite badly (

With lots of boxes containing shiny bits we headed back to Andy’s workshop and met clever Trevor who supervised and educated us how to rebuild an engine. His attention to detail was phenomenal, every torque setting was triple checked, endfloat checked for every angle possible and the engine spun by hand with clearances double checked left right and centre. “I don’t trust anyone’s work I don’t  know” Trevor told us as he double checked the measurements taken by the local engineers. “I want those con-rods spotless” Trevor was heard to demand as we developed a wirebrush, petrol wash, loctite routine for every bolt going back into the engine. It was a fantastic learning experience and a perfect demonstration for how an engine should be built. Having built race car engines for the previous 30years, Trevor was spotting wear and tear in places we wouldn’t have even noticed so a new crankshaft pulley and oil pump were added to the list of parts which needed replacing.

Over the course of the next couple of days the motor began to take shape once again, Trevor coming down in the evenings with friend Randal to help us through the complex aspects.

Getting taller and wider with every component bolted back on, before we knew it the sealant had set and it was time to put the engine back in. After a good old wiggle to realign the engine and gearbox we said goodnight to our friendly mentors Trevor and Randal and worked away into the night re-attaching pipes, hoses and other bits. We headed home at 3am and by 4pm the next day were in a position to fire the engine. Having corrected a mix up with wires to the fuel pump and oil sensor, we turned the key. Instantly, the engine fired first time, just as Trevor had said it would. ‘Of course it will fire, when every clearance and measurement is perfect’ he explained.

She ran, and she continued to run. We roared with delight, whilst aware that this by no means meant that we could start the party. We had seen a team of the Orange Trophy guys rebuild an engine in Khartoum, getting it to run for all of 2 minutes before it then seized, terminally.

However ours kept going, after a quick test drive we went through the bedding in process completing an oil change a few hundred km’s later. Whilst we didn’t notice an immediate increase in power, the improvement in low down torque was phenomenal and the engine was far happier cruising on the motorway than it had previously been.

As we bedded in the motor, we checked the rest of the truck for wear. Our closer inspection of the chassis revealed a small rust hole and a rust crack, adjacent to the trailing arm mount. We headed to the guys at Roverland who said that it could be fixed, but were doubtful it could be done before the Friday, with us needing to leave on the Sunday in order to meet Carl’s brother Christian in Windhoek, Namibia, the following weekend.

Speaking to Andy and Rob, they recommended a reputable local welder Jacque who would be able to get everything done in time, and as he was a friend of theirs it would even be done for free! We rolled the car over to Jacques’ workshop and began cutting.

Jacques worked fast and, by mid afternoon, all was plated, welded and painted. As with all such opportunities for the To Hel And Back team, many a joke was made about penetration and length of rod…In between all of this, we managed to say a big thank you to Jacques for sorting us out. Unfortunately we never did get the chance to share a beer with him before we set off, but our heartfelt thanks mate for hauling us out of a big hole (if you’ll excuse the pun) just as we thought we were good to go! First job for the two of us when we return home is to learn how to weld!

Final port of call before leaving Cape Town was flying visit to the scenic world cup football stadium. We went on a quick tour and enjoyed seeing all of the facilities up close. However the one overriding question as we left was how can they afford for this place to sit empty 360 days a year.

What is clear is that without the support of the local community here in Cape Town we would have got nowhere. Friendly car enthusiast Andy immediately offered his workshop to us and has been there every step of the way, explaining every query we’ve had, recommending engineers and making us feel completely at home in his barn. Furthermore Andy put us in touch with the lovely Trevor, who has given us countless afternoons of his time to come and guide us through the technical aspects of stripping the engine. A lovely guy and stickler for detail, we couldn’t wish for a better teacher than Trevor. See you in England in 2012 mate! Trevor also brought along his friend Randall to help us stick to the timescale we had to meet and Randall served as a great tutor, as well as having a great sense of humour.

As you can see we’ve been truly spoiled, by our hosts, Rob, Sian and Shannon. Without their phonecalls and contacts we wouldn’t have been put in touch with half the people who have ended up helping us, and this experience wouldn’t have been anything like as bearable as it had been. Even on our odd evening or day off from the workshop they’ve been there immediately suggesting we do something different to take our minds off our problems. Truly fantastic hosts and friends, thank you so much.

So after a month of almost solid mechanics, we found ourselves ready for the off. We were sad to be leaving Rob, Sian, Shannon, Trevor, Randall and Andy and family, as we had grown very attached to the people who had helped us.

That’s all for now, part 2 is on it’s way!

Enjoy a selection of mechanical related shots, a few of our lovely hosts including Rob battling to Brai in the rain and a sneak preview of South Africa’s latest football sensation giving a interview at the Cape Town stadium!

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