Spot the Land Yacht
(Or four wheeling across Africa in a Land Rover)
September 17th, 1999 - ?
(this page is under construction)
The purpose of this web page is to keep a running chronicle of Spot, Jim and Kathy's Land Rover, and our experiences bouncing it across the African terrain. I'll be dropping the second person as I (Jim) write this, since truck maintenance and driving have fallen mostly on my shoulders. First off, let me state that not only is this my first experience with a Land Rover, it's also my first experience with a British-design vehicle of any kind. In fact, I have a bias against British vehicles in general. This is based entirely on horror stories I've heard from friends about the trials of owning Austins, Lotus and Jaguars.
There's a good joke that sums up my attitude: "Q: Why don't the British make stereos? A: Because they haven't found a way to make 'em leak oil yet." British engineers are notorious for building designs that sooner or later must leak. A good Japanese or American car, when designing a system that holds a fluid, takes care not to engineer a gasket line underneath the fluid level. Brits have none of this, and regularly position gaskets so that they are always submerged. Some gasket lines are even vertical, so that the full weight of the oil or fluid is brought to bear against the gasket seal. All you need is a little skanky quality control (also not a British strong point) and its leak city. It doesn't help that Spot is a late apartheid vehicle, built when sanctions against South Africa were the worst. Some of the "back door" imported parts on Spot look like they were engineered in the 1940s, and South Africa is the only place they could be sold. Also, the mood of the populace was such that every day must have been like a Monday or Friday, the two days you don't want your vehicle assembled on.
"So, Jim" you might ask, "why did you buy a Land Rover?" Many practical reasons, most of which I'll discuss in a later section. In fact, we came very, very close to buying a 1987 Toyota Land Cruiser that just had finished a three month stint around Southern African, and we're sure it would have made a fine vehicle. However, Land Rovers are the truck that allowed motor culture to conquer Africa, and since purchasing Spot a number of people, upon learning our plans to travel much of Africa in Spot, have told us that we're enacting their dreams. Much of the best of Africa can't be reached by any other way than 4WD, and for all of its problems Spot is one tough truck in the dirt. Even early on in our trip we've met a number of people who come on up and want to ask us questions about Spot and what we're up to. Travel in a Land Rover has a certain romance to it, one that persists even though most South Africans now-a-days buy Japanese.
However, we'll see if the romance lives up to the reality of Africa. We're taking Spot on the roads Africa is legendary for, so if it holds up to our beating, then you can be sure Land Rovers are good vehicles. Be warned, though! The spoonerism they like down here in South Africa is "Rand lover" (Rand being the currency in South Africa), and it is applicable.
What is Spot?
Our Land Rover is a 1992 Defender 110 Station Wagon domestically built in Cape Town before Rover moved the factory to Johannesburg. Equipped with a roof rack, front mounted roof top tent, three gas tanks, and all the ususal petrol cans and camping gear Spot is fully fitted for African safaris.
Powered by a Rover 3.5 liter dual carburator all-aluminum V8, Spot is fast by Land Rover standards. With the five speed transmission, Spot is able to maintain 120kph on paved African roads -- most other Land Rovers of this vintage or earlier are cranking to do 100, and are much more comfortable at 80. The story behind the Rover V8 is an interesting one. This V8 engine is actually of American design, created by Buick and first used in a new sports car called the Skylark in 1960. GM throughout the sixties experimented with aluminum engines, with the 427 Corvette engine and the Vega four cylinder among the most notable. But the Skylark 215 was the first, and it was a commercial flop. Seems that the average Buick customer wasn't interested in a sports car, especially one with such a small engine (by American standards of the day).
For over ten years the blueprints for the 215 gathered dust
on some shelf in Detroit. Meanwhile in Britain, Rover was examining its
competitive position and decided that an automobile product line where all
the engines were designed before 1950 simply wasn't cutting it anymore.
How they noticed the 215 and approached GM isn't known, but in the mid-seventies
Rover purchased the 215 design and molds and began production. First used
in high-end autos, the now relabeled 3500 entered the Land Rover line with
the advent of the Defender series. Little changed from the Skylark days,
the 3.5l is still in production today and gives Rover its most powerful
Log of Petrol Purchases
Through July 17, 2000:
total kilometers: 37043 total petrol (liters): 7323.07 total cost: US $4026.03 mileage: 5.06 cost/km: US $0.109
A detailed log can be found here.
Repairs Spot has needed so far
Start of trip: Johannesburg, 27.9.1999-3.10.1999
Rebuild both back and front right brakes, replace left front wheel bearing, replace fuel filter, change all fluids, buy two new spares, balance all tires, align front end, and inspect suspension and drive train. Fuel pump was something meant for a little four cylinder, so it gets chucked and replaced with a high flow model.
Dismantle carburetors and attempt to fix leaky float and seal. Jury rig up a gasoline evaporative canister to replace missing one.
Rebuild carburetors. Replace front right flat.
Tighten axle bearings. Replace leaking rear right tire.
Victoria Falls, 7.11.1999
Replace leaking water pump-intake manifold hose.
Drotsky's Cabins, 19.11.1999
Replace blown steering bushing. Note that opposite side (right) also needs eventual replacing.
Blown rear axle. We've stripped the left rear axle hub, so we creep around on front axle only. Parts will take a week to arrive, so we have axle welded together. Mechanic says Defenders are notorious for this; older models simply twist the axle shafts in half. Replace rear pinion oil seal, tighten front pinion, adjust parking brake and fill all drive train fluids. No off-roading until new parts arrive. Note that left rear torsion link bushing should be replaced, and that front axle is beginning to show the same kind of wear on the axle hubs as rear -- this means that the CV (constant velocity) joints should eventually be replaced.
Replace right and left rear axle shafts, hubs and seals.
Namib desert, 19.12.1999
Right rear brake line snaps. Turns out the Outjo mechanics didn't bolt down the securing bracket. As it is Sunday, we must wait one day to get a replacement line made in Walvis Bay.
Strip left rear hub again. It's obvious something is wrong with the axle. Toss in the welded axle shaft. Notice that the power steering box has begun to leak oil.
Cape Town, 7.1.2000
Take Spot into a shop called Roverland specializing in Land Rover repair and get a thorough inspection. Our axle problems stem from the fact that Spot was once dropped down a deep hole and has a bent and cracked rear axle. Our power steering box turns out to be completely shagged as well; Martin, the mechanic/owner at Roverland says that someone disassembled it, stuffed in new seals and lots of grease to hide the problems and tossed it back in. He says both problems couldn't have been noticed by a visual inspection; only driving or dismantling would expose them. We sign on for a new steering box and to get the rear axle welded, straightened and rebuilt. Since our repair bill is already the size of a small country's defense budget, we decide to go for it and get all leaking seals replaced, marginal bushings fixed, and a general spruce up all around. One bit of good news is our front axle checks out as healthy, CV joints and all.
Cape Town, 2.2.2000
After driving Spot around for four days in the wine country we bring it back to Roverland to fit the parts that have recently arrived (rear spare tire mount), fix a hole in the radiator, and a few other minor repairs. We've also noticed a couple of leaks from repaired seals in the transaxle, so Roverland pulled the flanges (which had been sleeved) and re-machined them. The radiator turned out to be quite an ordeal, as the leak would not occur when pressure tested cold. It took three mechanics all afternoon to figure out where the leak was.
Cape Town, 8.2.2000
Another visit to Roverland to replace a rear axle seal that had been torn during installation, a wheel bearing seal that gave way, and an exhaust pipe that cracked when the transaxle was removed and the engine hung only from its mounts.
Mossel Bay, 11.2.2000
Replace secondary battery, which has died because we've run it flat too many times. Primary turns out to be too small and is at 75%, so we end up replacing them both (got a good deal, too!).
Cape Town, 17.2.2000
One last visit to Roverland to get warranty work done on the still leaking real pinion seal and radiator, and to have the exhaust pipes tightened. Turns out the pipes loosened up because the engine mounts are sheared through, so have new mounts installed. Front pinion nut has inexplicably loosened up as well, so it gets tightened, locktited and pinned. Rear pinion is buggered (the resleeving wasn't done properly), so a new pinion is fitted. Radiator is clunking against the front bodywork, so new radiator mounts installed and some sheet metal gets finnessed. Finally, seems that the exhaust pipe leading out the muffler over the rear axle was rotated when welded on and clangs against the axle, so new pipe is installed. Martin supervises the work personally; he's probably annoyed and embarassed we've had to bring it to him three times to have work redone. One nice thing, at least: for the first time since we've had the truck, it's not leaking anything.
Cape Town, 8.5.2000
Storing Spot for a month and a half resulted in two dry batteries and one flat tire. The spare needed fixing as well. Finally installed the stereo and mounted the auxiliary lights high on the roof rack. I leave the light wiring temporary in case I need to move the lights to the bull bar (apparently, high mounted lights are illegal in South Africa, as if anyone ever enforces the law).
Left front brake pads have completely worn away, resulting in that lovely metal on metal sound when braking. Right side are down to 2mm, pretty bad since the pads on both side were replaced in January, a mere ten thousand kilometers ago. I rebuild the left side caliper, have both rotors turned and install new pads. The left rotor appears to have had difficulty in the past, as it is a mere 9mm thick when 13mm is the recommended replacement thickness. Spot no longer pulls to the left, and gas mileage jumps right up to 6 km/l. Not too fuel efficient when the brakes are always on, eh?
Have Hendrix, the sign painter at Jolly Boys, paint Spot like a leopard. While he paints, I prepare the truck for Zambian roads by adding white reflective tape to the front bumper, a chevron to the rear and fix the secondary fuel tank so that it actually works.
Kande Beach, 11.6.2000
The bottom falls out of the alternator output, so replace the alternator's integrated regulator, rectifier and brush pack, and clean off the armature contacts and all other connectors. Electrical output is now quite gratifying, and both batteries are fully charging.
Dar Es Salaam, 19.6.2000
Pull into town and notice that the add-on tank has sprung a leak. It always had seeped a bit of gas, but the rough roads I've been banging around on has turned it into a liter a day pisser. Pull the tank and have the leaking seam welded up. A check at the local Land Rover spares shop reveals that parts' prices are indeed reasonable, so I pick up the pieces I need to completely rebuild the front left brake which has begun dragging again. Install new disc rotor and calipers (a new caliper is cheaper than new pistons). An examination of the old caliper reveals that because the old rotor is so thin the pistons become canted under braking and are unable to retract.
While driving around on a hot day in Dar Es Salaam the alternator output suddenly zooms way off the scale. Stopping and starting up again results in a fried regulator and no alternator output. The only explanation can be that a diode in the alternator's rectifier pack goes open when hot. Install new regulator and rectifier pack, and completely check out all windings and connections. Electrical output gratifies once again.
The same thing that was wrong with the left front brake rears its ugly head on the right hand side. I had hoped to reach Cape Town before having to pull it apart, but just south of Lusaka that lovely metal-on-metal sounds greets me again. Replace the right front disc rotor with spare I purchased in Dar Es Salaam and install new set of pads. Spot's braking is now silky smooth. Take the opportunity to inspect the rebuild job on the left front and find the break-in complete and all wear normal.
Why a Land Rover?
Reasons we were given why a Land Rover is the vehicle to transverse Africa with:
These reasons get repeated so often by the 4WD books, magazines and afficionados that they soon begin to sound like a mantra. A few months of owning a Land Rover have begun to make us wonder whether the 4WD crowd is working with current information. While Spot has never stranded us, you can see that it has had plenty of problems, especially for a vehicle that had 106,000 kilometers (about 64,000 miles) on it. While some repairs are expected at this mileage, the difficulties we've had with the steering box, leaking seals and rear axle stem from design flaws. It doesn't help that Spot's previous owners performed little or no preventative maintenance while beating the crap out of the truck.
While it is true that mechanics know how to do many repairs on a Land Rover, it is difficult to find a mechanic that knows how to work on them well. Cape Town is the first city we found that had a mechanic that understood the root causes of our axle problems and how to fix them. Everyone else was merely treating the symptoms. The Land Rover dealer network is not what it once was, while certain Japanese makes (most notably Toyota) have at least one and oftentimes two or more dealers in each town. We saw Toyota dealers in even the smallest of African villages.
Parts availability (they call 'em "spares" here) isn't bad, but you can expect to pay two or more times as much for them as you would for the corresponding parts for an American or Japanese make. Used and rebuilt parts are very hard to find for Land Rovers, making the very expensive new parts your only option. Seems that junked Land Rovers don't last long here; the demand for parts is so great that they are picked clean faster than a kudu carcass in the Karoo. Also, body parts are impossible to find used, as the Land Rover aluminum bodies are immediately melted down and sold as scrap.
To add insult to injury, we have found that Land Rover parts distribution to be in flux. BMW bought Rover a few years ago, and changes have taken place. In Zimbabwe, for example, we found the former shop and parts network to have been decimated, replaced by a centralized dealer in Harare (Quest). Seems that the person who owns Quest is a Mugabe crony, so one has to wonder at what happened behind the scenes to cause a wonderful grass roots part network to be dismantled.
A garden industry is sprouting up in Africa to supply Land Rover parts at reasonable prices. The "pirates", as they're called, get the spare seals, bearings and such directly from the same suppliers that Land Rover uses, or find exact substitutes for the parts that are standard, thus bypassing the pound of flesh Land Rover demands of its customers. The pirates don't do everything (yet), so for some parts you still have no alternative but Land Rover's bend-over prices.
There's no promise of the situation improving either; seems that BMW is having severe problems managing Rover. Less than 3600 Land Rovers were sold in South Africa in 1998, compared to over 130,000 Toyota trucks, and the Rover division of BMW lost over one billion dollars in 1999! It's clear the situation can't continue and BMW has begun negotiations with Volkswagen to see if the two companies can jointly manage Rover and turn it around.
Fortunately for us, South Africans have a long standing love affair with Land Rovers. All the Land Rovers sold in southern Africa are manufactured here, even during the difficult embargo years when parts were next to impossible to import and had to be manufactured locally. We feel we have a good chance of recovering much of the money we've spent on Spot. Time will tell.
Breaking update: BMW did what should have been done long ago and split Land Rover off from Rover. Actually, they broke Rover into three parts: Rover autos, Land Rover, and the Mini division. Rover was sold to a British venture capital group, Ford picked up Land Rover, and BMW (for the moment) is holding onto the Mini. Ford is in the midst of a big South African push, so stay tuned to see if situation here for Land Rovers improves.
What is necessary to travel across the African continent
Driving around Africa is quite unlike driving around North America. Almost all the countries in sub-saharan Africa have import duties on motor vehicles, and in order to drive through a border most countries want to make sure that you don't bring in your vehicle without at least guaranteeing that you will pay the import duty if you were to sell it. Countries that neighbor your home country usually allow you in without worry, but if you wish to drive farther afield the countries you visit will require guarantees. For a South African vehicle, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe will simply let you in; they figure they'll catch the buyer when they try to register the vehicle. Moçambique, Malawi, and Zambia will issue you a triptyque and ensure that when you leave the country you have the vehicle with you. All the others will require at the border a refundable (ha-ha) cash deposit in US dollars equal in value to the vehicle, or a carnet.
A carnet is essentially a warrant from a large organization that if you were to import a vehicle, that organization will pay the duty. The Automobile Association of South Africa issues them here, but for the privledge they require you to leave behind a deposit in a frozen account equal to the value of the vehicle. If you leave the country without the vehicle, AA will pay the import duty and confiscate the frozen deposit. Simple enough, except that South Africa currently makes it a royal pain for foreigners to get local bank accounts. Apparently, it's part of their currency control legislation, and is a misguided attempt to limit the value of assests leaving the country. It is possible to get an account, but you must steadfastly maintain that you intend on leaving the assests in South Africa (no matter what your true intentions may be).
African Driving Habits
Other interesting links:
So, either you're
thinking of coming to South Africa and buying a Land Rover to safari around
the continent, or you've made the plunge and your Land Rover is giving you
difficulties. In Cape Town there's an honest businessman that can help you
sort out your problems. Land Rovers are his passion, and it's his pleasure
to either connect you with a good quality Land Rover for your trip or to
repair the Land Rover you already own. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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