Leaving Swaziland and re-entering South Africa was not without a dash of stress. What should have been a simple border crossing was beginning to queue up flashbacks of Mozambique border officials. Ahead of us, vehicles were being searched very carefully. Multiple officials were hovering around. We got the feeling the border guards were either bored or looking for someone or something after having received a tip. A crutch bearing gentleman ahead was made to empty out the full contents of his sedan trunk. Another vehicle was asked to pull aside for a delay was to be expected. Although we had nothing to hide, the thought of emptying the contents of the entire Land Rover on the road only to have a rogue official take exception to some ridiculous item was not appealing when we’d rather be making miles. Our turn came up, the official asked for Michel’s drivers license of which we easily provided. He was not satisfied with the Alberta Drivers Permit and asked for an International Drivers Permit (not an official requirement in South Africa). Once it was clear we were in compliance with all documentation requests, the official asked to see inside the Yster Ratel. This was not all that uncommon a request as we had to show the Mozambique and Swazi officials inside as well. The inspections never really amounted to more than a brief chat about our intentions in the country and the age of the Land Rover. Fortunately, this time was no different and the officials focused on our case of lead replacement fuel additive required for the Yster Ratel’s vintage engine when not using lead containing or LRP petrol. A brief lesson explaining the need for the additive and differences between unleaded and LRP petrol and we were on the road again.
South of the border we turned onto a back road to cut into Sodwana via the back way. What an unexpected treat. We found ourselves driving through the Mun-Ya-Wana Game Reserve with a posse of three cheetahs lounging by the road. A couple hundred photos later we were pounding down the washboard and pothole infested gravel road. Stopping to take pictures of a leopard tortoise we discovered that our nearly impeccable mechanical record was now broken. Our fuel tank had been broken off the rear mounts at the hands of the African potholes. The rear 12” of the frame and centre section of the rear bumper were completely perished. We were aware that the entire chassis was in excellent condition with the exception of this particular area that we had hoped would hold up to the intense African punishment. The tank was now only supported by two half inch dia bolts sandwiching a flimsy front tank mount to the chassis. Resting tightly against the rear diff kept the entire tank from dragging on the ground. With wild predators calling this park home, a bandaid fix had to be quick and effective so as to minimize our time outside the vehicle. First a strap was belly wrapped under the tank and tightened in place. 1km down the road the strap had been cut and we were back to scratching our heads and looking over our shoulders. This time we needed a more robust fix as we were unsure when or where we could repair the damage. A ratchet tie down was up for the challenge and off we went anxious for the warm waters of Sodwana Bay.
Pushing on, with our fuel tank still secured by a ratchet tie down, we made our way to St Lucia as we were pumped to go on a night chameleon drive with a local biologist led tour company.
South Africa is an evolving nation with well known challenges but of paramount concern is the problem of aggressive vervet monkeys. The males are easily identified by their neon blue/turquoise testicles and once treated to human food these monkeys become viciously aggressive pests. After braaing a nice meal in the park at Cape Vidal, 35-40 monkeys were circling our camp with military precision and silence. Unfazed by rocks and sticks we resorted to admitting defeat and eating in the Yster Ratel fully surrounded. This wasn’t our first rodeo as we’ve had bad encounters with monkeys in Blyde River Canyon and Kruger. Monkeys started out our trip as cute little photogenic creatures and have now became enemy number one. Since harming the animals is unacceptable, tasers, firearms, heat seeking missiles and snares are out of the question although they did come to mind. Most seasoned South Africans quietly recommended slingshots with paintball or pepper spray ammunition. Frustrated we wondered if these spoiled pests could ever be rehabilitated and considered contacting the highest government officials to discuss possible, humane solutions…… Fortunately our new found biologist friend in St Lucia was sympathetic and advised of a simpler fix. He suggested using a simple laser pointer, as the monkeys are petrified of laser pointers since they associate them with gun sights during a cull. If this proves successful we will have a pointer holstered at all times when in monkey territory.
Yet another testament to the tight knit African Land Rover community. The owner of Shaka Barker tours in St Lucia (owner of multiple Land Rovers) suggested we contact Ricky Sparks in Empangeni who may be interested in buying our extra 15” rims we’ve painstakingly been storing on the roof rack. Rick was in Durban when we passed Empangeni so we had written off meeting. Luck sometimes has a way of landing onto those who are lost. As we were parked in an Engen parking lot, trying to get our bearings a gentlemen walked up to the Land Rover greeting us with a handshake. It was Rick driving back to Empangeni! We discussed our frame/fuel tank predicament and the need to do some work on the brakes and Rick generously offered us his shop space for working and home for staying until the Land Rover was back in tip top shape to carry on our travels. What a generous offer! We graciously accepted and rushed to Durban to pickup our spare parts before doubling back to Empangeni.
Over the next eight days we rebuilt the rear section of the frame and rear bumper to re-mount the rear fuel tank in place. In between the frame welding and fabrication, we replaced the front cabin vent gaskets, rear pinion seal, transfer case seal, rear prop shaft, brake drums and shoes as well as the second fuel tank mounted in the original location below the cab. For increased range, Rick insisted that he give us a used stainless steel tank to replace our rotted out original tank mounted below the front seat.
We stayed in the front house with Rick’s son Richard and his roommate Terence. Rick’s wife Sharon treated us to Durban Curry and fantastic Milk Tart – the absolute best desert we’ve had in Africa! Terence slaved over the coals and crafted up a special ox tail Ptotjie. When we weren’t enjoying the African culinary delights Rick entertained us with tales of African Land Rover adventures and driving Global Expedition Unimogs across Africa – what a dream!
Land Rover hobbyist was a gross understatement – Rick is from this day forward christened: Dr. Land Rover. Rick knows Land Rovers like an open heart surgeon knows the human heart. If you’re in South Africa and are in need of Land Rover mechanical services contact Landyman Rick Sparks in Empangeni.
The night before leaving we made up a couple batches of our favourite unbake cookies for the guys while packing up the Yster Ratel for tomorrows departure to the Drakensberg. Rick, Sharon, Richard and Terence truly made us feel as though we belonged. After spending 8 days in such great company it was difficult to leave but the Drakensberg range was beckoning us.
We pulled into the Mahai valley with the engine running hot and some troubleshooting to do the next day. A fellow camper and avid Land Rover enthusiast conferred with our theory of a faulty thermostat and we proceeding with removing the culprit. A good test drive in the hills assured us of a solved problem. We planned to camp four or five nights in the Drakensberg while completing some stellar hikes. First we hiked into the Tegula gorge to reach the base of the amphitheatre and 948m (depending on flow rate and measurement methods) Tegula falls. The following day we hiked 15km across mountain faces and up chain ladders to the top of the Drakensberg escarpment and mouth of the falls with a spectacular top-down view of the entire amphitheatre. It was humbling to have lunch on the edge of a 1000m abyss watching mountain lizards curiously scurrying about. What a stunning place! The hiking possibilities are endless in the Berg and even with slow travel we’re accumulating a list of “unfinished business” places to one day return to. The Drakensberg has made the list and one day we will return to complete the 230km Drakensberg traverse.
Content with our hiking, we’re now camped near the base of the Sani Pass ready for the challenge of conquering the pass in the ’69 Yster Ratel and the sense of accomplishment and pride should the original 2.25L, 4cyl, 77 bhp mill power us to the top.
Cheers, Tamaira & Michel