Journeys Back. Breakfast Break and Petrol Fill-up

You can listen to the voice narrative or read through the text below.



The petrol raced down the syphon pipe and sloshed into the tank below like it was having light-hearted fun. For me it was deadly serious. I glanced past my leg to count the containers I had left. Four. Eighty litres. Depending on how heavy the terrain is, between three hundred and five hundred kilometres. I have been meandering quite a lot, and the nearest refill point now lay some eighty kilometres of heavy bush driving back. Ahead was untamed wilderness. I dare not venture deeper than another one hundred kilometres or so.

Over the years of wandering the wilderness, I have come to adopt certain rules, or habits. Some have to do with comfort, some with being in an environment of rhythms and forces and wonders that far exceed my abilities to comprehend or oppose, yet are so very fragile to what I bring to it. Many have to do with survival. Some of these have been learnt through experience – mostly of the bad sort.  They are the ones that must keep me alive.

One such rule is the rule of petrol – Always make sure you have enough petrol left to get to the next reliable replenishing point.  I have learnt to keep updating my calculations of what I will need as the situation develops, and to leave a reserve. Depending on the situation, it could be twenty to forty litres. That quantity of petrol is then held sacrosanct, to be used only for the shortest route to a refill point. Now, I will put in this container, and one more. The rest is for getting out.

The gurgling changed to a stutter as the last bit of petrol is sucked into the hose. This is no longer merry; more like ominous. I lifted the next container onto the roof. As I unscrew the cap, I thought of me and Gerhard, once, towards the late nineteen seventies, in the Nuanedzi Valley in Zimbabwe.

I have dropped in a little anecdote from The Wanderers:

We had been driving around a lot and we needed to replenish our petrol stock. On our way into the area we had passed a little roadside shop which had, to my surprise and delight, a forties-era hand operated petrol pump with twin glass measuring cylinders. Its red paint was faded and flecked with rust spots and its body had a few dents, but it still stood tall – a real classic.

We loaded our 44-gallon drum (brought along for extra petrol) and left our camp at dawn, reaching the little shop just before noon.  It turned out that they had run out of petrol, but we were given eager assurances  by the proprietor, clearly not wanting to forego the opportunity of selling so much petrol in a single transaction, that ”the truck it is coming”.  We decided it was worth waiting for a while, and we settled down on our chairs under the only reasonable tree in the area (a wild olive, if I recall correctly) to brew some tea.  Our host, a large, sweaty man with the front of his shirt hanging over his bulging tummy like a tent,  sent us each a can of lukewarm coke “on the house”, just to show how generous he was towards his really big customers.  The tracker we had brought along, a chap called Nyani (not the best tracker I had ever worked with but very pleasant, with a brilliant smile and laughing eyes, and, like most Zimbabweans, able to speak a good English), was delighted because he ended up scoring the cokes.

Once we had settled down with our tea I studied our surroundings with more attention to detail.  It is strange how the average western mind tends to filter out  all but the information directly connected to the mission or task at hand, and how we then often miss a lot of charming detail.

Our tree was about a sixty or so paces away from the shop, on the opposite side of a dusty track running eastwards into the oblivion of the tribal area.  The area around us was bare and dust  trodden except for a few defiant grey shrubs and faded mounds of donkey dung, deposited by the  few rather scrawny looking specimens  (even by donkey standards) that hung around listlessly for reasons unknown, because there certainly was nothing for them to eat.

The little shop was every bit as classic as the petrol pump.  It offered  anything from agricultural equipment and bicycle spares to warm beer and patent medicine, all safely ensconced  behind a counter with a sturdy wire mesh barrier stretching from its counter top right up to the bare corrugated iron sheets of its roof.  Its faded sign hanging from one corner, and its cracked front veranda and paint-starved walls with the red bricks showing here and there where the plaster had fallen off, testified that it had not seen any maintenance since being taken over by the present owner (when the previous one departed for South Africa or England or such).

Besides the usual sunglass-sporting loafers posturing self-importantly on the front porch and a noisy group of men playing some game on the cement floor, oiled by generous quantities of beer, there were several resigned-looking people sitting in the narrow strip of shade along one wall.  They all had bundles of stuff with them; one had a small wood and wire mesh cage with three chickens in it.

“Nyani, what are those people against the wall doing here?”

“They are waiting for the bus to come, Sir” (such delightful manners, most of those Zimbabwean chaps).

“Ah, and when is the bus coming?”

“The bus is coming Sir” – a white matter-of-fact smile.

I looked down the dusty track expectantly, but then realised that his answer didn’t mean that arrival was imminent, just that it is expected, possibly this hour, possibly later today, possibly tomorrow or the next day – at some time in the future.  “Nyani, the petrol truck, when do you think it is coming?”

“A, but it is coming Sir.” The smile now showed a hint of uncertainty.

I turned to Gerhard and said “You know what all of this means? It means that bloody truck could be arriving any time between now and next week…” Gerhard hadn’t been paying much attention to my and Nyani’s discussion, but he paid a lot of attention to my last remark.

“Damn, we’d better make another plan”, he snorted indignantly.

“Hmm, Nyani, where else can we get petrol?” I inquired.

“Maybe we can get at Mwenezi  Sir,”

“Ok, how long will it take to drive there?”

He screwed his face into intense concentration.  “Uhh, maybe it can take three hours Sir.”

“Hmm, sounds like about sixty to eighty k’s”, I quickly calculated.

“Shit that’s quite a way.  Do you think we can make it with the petrol we have in the tank?”, Gerhard asked hesitantly.

“ Risky,” I said, adding “And if we got stuck between here and Mwenezi  we’d be in real trouble.  It could take days before we can get going again.  But you know, I’m just thinking of something.  Once, when I was a boy, I had to help out my great uncle – my grandfather’s brother – on his farm.  He farmed next door to us and he would often send for me to come and help him – actually just to have someone convenient to send around.  He had to deliver a load of hay, but his old GMC lorry was too low on petrol to make it to the nearest filling station.  So Oom Thys  simply started it up and let it run warm, and then he added some diesel into the tank – just enough to get to the petrol station.  The old truck was stuttering a bit, but as long as one kept the revs up it went…”

Gerhard looked at me uncertainly, his eyes slitted in disbelief.  “Wragtag?” “You sure that wouldn’t damage the engine?”, he softened his suspicions when he realised I wouldn’t really do anything to jeopardise our vehicle

“Not really.  Of course if there was too much diesel in the petrol it would simply not run”

“Ok well, we don’t have any diesel”, he said, almost with relief.

“No, but maybe they have some at the store”

“Ok, lets try!”  Gerhard said gamely.

Our generous host took the news that the big petrol deal was off rather badly.  He couldn’t understand why on earth we were in such a hurry – after all, the truck was about to arrive anyway.  He was absolutely convinced it was in our best interests to stay and wait.  But we discovered to our (my) delight that the chap actually had a stock of power paraffin “at the pump”.  He explained that he used it for his pump engine, and insisted that we accompany him to fetch some and take a look at the installation.

We set off behind his panting hulk along a well-worn footpath.  It led to a little pump house that apologetically peered out from among some fiercely growing acacias on the edge of a depression that was treeless because it held water during the rainy season.  It was of bricks, but part of one wall had been pushed over by a tree, and some of the roof sheets had been removed to cover something else more important.  We couldn’t actually get inside because the floor was swamped in a few inches of water from the leaking pump (our host explained that it only leaked “a little bit when it is running”).

The engine was probably an ancient Lister, driving a turbine pump of uncertain origin through a single tattered V-belt, augmented by a makeshift strip of rawhide.  In several places nuts or bolts were missing, or had been replaced with incorrectly sized ones, some unceremoniously driven in with a hammer, and generous use was made of wire to hold the contraption together.  The whole installation was covered in a thick black layer of old oil and dust.

Just to witness (as an engineer) how equipment could somehow be kept functioning under conditions and for periods way beyond what could reasonably have been foreseen by the designers as the most extreme possible, was a revelation.  Some of the industrial and agricultural equipment made by the British during the early part of the century was simply indestructible, I thought.

Our host insisted that we observe it in operation.  He instructed the “operator” that he had commandeered to accompany us, to start it. He remained safely outside on dry land with his guests to enjoy the show.  The operator was clearly familiar with the starting drill.  He first had to switch from power paraffin to petrol.  The old Lister once had a two-way brass valve for this purpose, but that had long been worn out beyond repair.  The switch was now accomplished by simply pulling out and swapping the fuel line from the paraffin tank to the petrol , and plugging the paraffin line with a specially fashioned wooden plug removed from the petrol one.

I had looked around for the starting crank, and noticed it lying half submerged on the floor among the debris of the fallen wall. It was battered almost beyond recognition by its various roles as hammer, crowbar and the like over the years.  It didn’t look as if it had been used in any other but such secondary roles for a long time.

I was right.  The operator unceremoniously took a rawhide thong, about three meters long and soft as a piece of cloth from frequent use off a wire hook on the roof, and proceeded to wind it several times around the large flywheel of the Lister.  He then cranked the engine by pulling hard on the thong, showing great skill (no doubt perfected over many sweaty hours of trying) at rapidly altering his grip on the thong to keep up the tension on it.  The venerable old machine caught on and started chugging away gamely, and soon water began to spurt rather forcefully in all directions from the pump, causing the operator to bolt out of the structure to safety behind the wall.

The last bit of the complicated starting procedure was to swap back to paraffin once the old lady was well warmed up.  This was again accomplished by the fuel hose-swapping routine, but of course the machine died when its supply of petrol was cut off, so the rawhide thong procedure also had to be repeated, now on paraffin – but, having been warmed up, she caught on obligingly.

Our host’s  attitude was much improved by our astonished remarks and amused chuckling (the motivation for which he might have misunderstood somewhat), and especially by our announcement that we would buy a whole ten litres of power paraffin from him at (his) petrol price.  He promptly instructed the drenched and rather dejected-looking operator to measure out the correct quantity and take it to our vehicle.  But generosity is relative, and the two cans of coke also suddenly made their appearance in the transaction.

We got the Land Cruiser going, and let it run a bit before adding our power paraffin,  plus  a litre of methylated spirits and half a litre of sunflower cooking oil we had in the back.  And then we took off, Gerhard driving as economically as possible without dropping the revs,  and we both holding our breaths and thumbs and rehearsing our prayers.  We actually made it to Mwenezi,  albeit stuttering and lurching a bit, and, to our relief, they had petrol there at the (slightly bigger) little store! We soon headed back, now fortified by a coke each from their fridge, and when we drove past our little shop at dusk the petrol truck had still not arrived.

One Comment

  1. Nice! I love this story!! :) And this too:

    “Some have to do with respect for a world where you are a guest – like moving quietly and humbly and with care, for you are in the presence of rhythms and forces and wonders that far, far exceed your abilities to comprehend or oppose, yet are so very fragile to what you bring to it.”

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