Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Turning left past Lodwar, I exhale. The trip becomes easy. Smooth roads and three hours of high speed driving will take us to our home, at least our home here on Earth.

Racing into the setting sun, I silently run some numbers. It is 3:15 pm, so we should arrive in Loki before 6:30. Sunset is probably around 6:50, so we should have time to make it before dark, even if we have a short stop along the way. I settle into my seat, slip my used crocs off my dirty feet, and press harder on the gas pedal.

My clothes sport a fine coat of dust. The same dust clings to my face, collects where the skin around my eyes crease together and add to the discomfort of hot dry air around us. Air conditioning would be nice, but whenever I hit the button, the engine shudders and an overwhelming groan rises out of the pounding steel and aluminum in front of me. Still, with my sunglasses on and a fake Indiana Jones hat on my head (father's day gift), I feel great on this homeward stretch.

Home! It seems strange to drive to Loki and equate it with returning home. But it's true. The thought rings in my brain "Where is home? I guess it's a place I have never seen."

The needle rises above 100 kilometers per hour, and as it rounds near 110, the car lurches. I let off the accelerator, the engine picks back up. I must not have felt that. Did I feel that? No way. I fixed that problem already.

FIve minutes later the problem reoccurs.

Do we head back to Lodwar? We just can't turn around. I can't imagine the phone call telling everyone we will be delayed again until we sort out the issues with the car.

On the other hand, if the car dies between Lodwar and Loki, there aren't any comfortable sleeping options. Plus, roving bandits may take it upon themselves to help lighten our Land Rover's load considerably, hopefully leaving us unharmed. But they sometimes shoot first and take things later.

As we speed on, I think about the previous four days.

Before we left Nairobi, Breanna sent me a text message saying the car wouldn't start. I called her while away on a retreat. It seemed a mystery. The glow plugs that heat the engine before it can start only turned on for a split second. Also, the starter didn't even turn. However everything else electrical worked. I asked her to call an AIM AIR mechanic, Nate, who lives in the neighborhood. He couldn't figure it out either.

When I return to Nairobi, I try in vain to repeat the problem. I check all the connections on the battery and the starter. The shop washed the engine the same day Breanna had the problem. So, I decided the contacted must have had moisture in it, preventing it from powering the starter. The problem refused to reoccur, and I figured we could still travel without a starter if it was absolutely necessary. So, we scrambled to get ready the next day. We hadn't packed, planning on a day to fix the car.

We left in the afternoon, and drove into the night for our first stop. Three hours from Nairobi, as I inched over four small speedbumps, the car died and refused to start. This time the starter turned but extremely slowly. I popped the hood, and began looking for problems. I flagged down a passing car and asked for a jump. Still, the starter turned slowly.

It began to rain. The good samaritan said my jumper cables were bad because they did not create sparks when we attached them. I wasn't sure. My battery seemed completely charged, and therefore, the cables did not arc when connecting the two batteries. The eager helpers removed the battery from the other car (after untying the long pieces of timber tied on the roof and over the hood). They held their battery delicately next to our battery, connecting them with two end wrenches. Still no sparking and the starter barely turned the engine. We tried roll starting, but even as fast as we could push it, it would not turn the engine. I realized something serious had happened that prevented the engine from turning. Breanna called our host for the night and asked if he could come get us.


He arrived, but did not bring a tow rope. We unloaded everything from inside and on top of the car, then loaded it into and onto his car, in the pouring rain. We arrived at our cabin around midnight, then I went with him to tow the car in. It rained most of the time.


The next day I tried starting the car. As the starter turned, a squealing noise began. We isolated it to the alternator. I removed the serpentine belt, and tried cranking the engine again. It turned over quickly, like a champ.

A mechanic helped me remove the alternator, and we took it into the small town. We were in a rural area. In fact, we planned to stay out here and relax for a mini one day vacation before heading back home. The one day would probably not be enough. In town we went to a small shop. More like a closet, actually. The alternator repairmen shared the closet with a shoes salesman, and a leather worker. I wondered if my alternator would come back with the same parts that it had to begin with.

The repairman disappeared for hours. He eventually returned with alternator rotor removed, and the problematic bearing off and in pieces. He struggled to remove it, and in the process chipped part of the rotor. I bought the "nearly same size" replacement bearing from a nearby shop, then insisted a welder fix the chip in the rotor. Finally, the repairman "delicately" tapped the bearing into the alternator housing.


"How long will this last? Could I make it to Mombasa?" I asked.

"Sure, it will go," he replied.

"And South Africa?"

He smiled… "Oh… no that is too far!"


With my repaired alternator, under a questionable warranty, we returned to install it in the car. Everything ran fine. The alternator charged the battery, and engine turned normally. I had a brain wave: Drive to Nakura National Park, like we wanted, look at animals, and test the repair of the car at the same time!

So we packed a lunch and loaded up. The sun shone brightly, the road carried us smoothly, and I smiled widely. Half way into the hour drive to Nakuru, the car hiccuped. It became frequent, until, about 15 minutes from Nakuru, it died. Grace immediately started wailing. She has a ways to go to becoming a true Land Rover kid, apparently.


I figured this problem must be fuel related. However, fuel spurted from the pump just fine. We limped into Nakuru, and I called a mechanic I trusted. He listened to the symptoms and instructed me to replace the fuel pump. I decided to ask a local mechanic to find a fuel pump and fuel filter and save us time hunting them down. It was almost closing time, and I didn't want to risk being stuck because we went to the wrong shop.


Together, we found replacement parts. He installed them for me, and it ran again. However, as he finished, part of the manual primer for the pump fell off. He showed me, and said we have to replace the pump… again. That means coming back tomorrow.


I sighed.


Another test drive, I guess.


The vehicle ran great. The next morning we left early, drove the hour to Nakuru and then drove around the game park. We saw wonderful sights. A lot of flamingoes, a lot of zebra, cape buffalo, and rhinos. As we headed out, we saw giraffes. Everything was going well again. Then we drove back to the mechanic for the replacement pump to be put on.

The car ran well the rest of that day, and almost the rest of the trip. Early the next morning we packed up, cleaned up, and headed north for Turkwell Dam. After a night there, we drove across the roughest road of our trek and towards Lodwar.


The road from Kitale to Lodwar continues to deteriorate.  It offers the choice of a ribbon of tar in the center laced with small craters, or wide sandy shoulders sculptured into a washboard that pounds and pounds at any speed over three miles per hour (5 kph). The washboard becomes bearable again at around 30 miles per hour (50 kph), but the sand shoulders have eroded through time, and worn deep ruts into the edge. You usually see the rut just after the point you can practically slow down on the washboard.

The two  younger kids loved this road, and I'm still not completely sure why. It had to do with being tossed in the car on a wild ride and not having to stay in their seats like on the high speed highways of the US.

Up front it was more like a 50's era black and white comedy, with dry humor and no laugh track:


Breanna (with a vibration induced vibrato): So, what do you think if we paint the walls first, then invite people over for dinner?

Continuation of sounds of gravel hitting the side of the car and tires pounding on the sand


Jerry: Ahh! I hate that!

I gear down and ease out of the hole we just rammed through.

Jerry (speaking slowly, while focused intently ahead): Sorry, I can't really hear you. What did you say?


And after Lodwar, the washboard ended, and as I already described, our problems resumed.


I tell Breanna my plan…

These symptoms are different than the fuel pump problem. (Although, in my mind I am angry that I may have bought a counterfeit fuel pump that already died). I think we probably picked up bad Diesel in Lodwar (actually sounds like a good rock'n'roll song title). We have an extra fuel filter in the spare parts bag. If this problem persists, I will change out the fuel filter and see if it can get us to Kakuma, at least. It's a town made famous and large because of the nearby refugee camp built for the lost boys and others from South Sudan. 

I pray fervently for God to take this problem away (I forget to add 'not my will but yours be done').

Five minutes later the engine dies, and we coast to an agonizing stop. I expect one of the girls to wail about more car problems, but instead it is silent except for tires crunching over gravel.

"Why are we stopping?" Grace asks

"Something isn't working with the car, and Daddy's taking a look."

The something of course, would be our engine.

We are just outside of a small village, so at least civilization is close. I disconnect the fuel line to the fuel filter, and decide to crank the engine. Instead of the starter turning, it is completely silent.

This isn't a fuel problem.

With my back to the sun, I ask Bre to turn the key. I try to listen to the click of a contacter. Instead, I see it. A faint wisp of smoke rising behind the engine on the firewall. I look at the source up close. A wire had been added by someone in a hurry, and they secured it a cooling hose and also to an angled piece of metal on the firewall. As the cooling hose vibrated, it moved the wire against the angled metal. The insulation had worn through, and the bare wire now made contact with the electrical ground- a short circuit. The smoke and hot wire gave me evidence of that, and I guess the wire was added with the alarm system by the previous owner. It disabled the engine, even though the engine never had a computer controlling it, the alarm must turn off the fuel solenoid and turn off the glow plugs.


I  rejoice quietly and thank the Maker of all. He chose instead of a smooth ride, a way forward through the bumpy challenges. I move the wire away from the offending metal, then secure it. I ask Breanna to try starting it again, and sure enough it runs immediately. And it runs for the rest of drive to Loki. I now have an alarm system to get rid of. Oh, and an extra fuel pump that I now realize worked fine the whole time.


Irony strikes me thick and heavy as I realized the washboard pounding prevented us from being stuck. That wire was probably shorting out quickly, then bouncing away before it could shut us down, and we never even noticed, not until we hit the smooth road.


Obviously, we prefer the smooth roads, smooth flights, smoothies (or Sonic's cream slushes during their happy hour from 2-4 are an acceptable substitute), and all our favorite things. However, I've seen God use the washboard ruts on a hot sandy road to lead us where he wants us to be.


So here we are, wiser with regards to our vehicle, and ever more dependent on His plan. And thankful just to be home … this side of Eternity.

1 comment:

Anne Dyck said...

so blessed by you guys and this blog entry... Keep pressing forward!