Doin’ the Namibian Limbo

The time had finally come to clear out of Windhoek. I was twitching with anxiousness to be on the road again. My Windhoek host had kindly advised me on my next two stops: Peace Garden Lodge in Grootfontein, a small town on the edge of Namibia’s breadbasket, and Ngepi Camp, an all-outdoor riverside campground on the close side of the Caprivi Strip. Peace Garden Lodge was shy of 500km from Windhoek, and Ngepi about the same after. Neither day should be too much of a hike. I lazily prepared for the day, making sure I got my goodbyes in at C’est la Vie.

The time had finally come. My things were packed, and in an iteratively better way with the knowledge of my previous strategy, combined with the necessity of starting from scratch after heading back stateside. I hit the road. The bountiful joy of the wind passing through my mesh jacket was tempered only by the brutal heat of the day. The first several hours had become old hat — I’d passed this stretch of highway there and back from Etosha and Düsternbrook. I filled up my tank at the same gas station my Etosha truck had used on the way back, even managing to quickly hop on a wifi network from the next door coffee shop. The same familiar endless scrubgrass desert and open plains dotted with occasional mountains continued to unroll on the horizon. I stopped frequently to stretch and cool down in the shade.

Finally, at the town of Otavi, I turned off a previously-traveled road towards the oddly named Kombat, precursor to Grootfontein. An impressive mountain ridge dominated the skyline to the north. A few miles after the turnoff, I started noticing the occasional misfire. I was cruising around 67mph, my tank was more than half-empty, there was no backfiring nor did the issue appear to persist for more than a single rotation, and with the issues I’d had with my petcock after AfrikaBurn, my mind first went to vacuum. (NB, skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want a short lesson on the fuel system of mine and many carburated motorcycles) The petcock is a simple little switch on the bottom of the fuel tank, meant to be easily manipulated while riding, that allows you to pick between a few simple options: “ON,” the default setting, only allows fuel to flow when suction is created by way of a hose connected to the engine, “RESERVE,” like on, but drawing from the bottom of the tank instead of an inch or two up, which you’re intended to switch to when the engine dies from lack of fuel, and serves as an indicator of low fuel levels since there’s no fuel indicator, and “PRIME,” which allows fuel to flow freely from the tank to the carburator without the need of vacuum. When the seals of my petcock dissolved after AfrikaBurn, the engine would only run smoothly at high speeds when on PRIME, as the lack of seals failed to properly use the suction to draw fuel.

The missfires were few and far between (think one every 2-5 minutes), but cause for concern; a properly running engine doesn’t behave that way. I switched the petcock to PRIME. A few minutes later, it happened again. I was in the middle of nowhere, nearly 100km outside of Grootfontein, and I was still able to soldier on at a good clip, so I thought it best to continue. The problem persisted, and the intervals shortened. I’d been worried about stopping for fear of whatever the problem was stranding me, but 12km from my destination, I needed a break and was concerned enough to follow through. I pulled into one of the many rest areas (a turnoff, occasionally with shade, with a picnic table and trash can) and took stock of things. Nothing was visually apparent, so my next thought was I’d potentially gotten bad gas at the last station. My reserve tank was from a previous place, so I poured it into the tank in the hopes that that would buy me some time (bad gas usually consists of setiment or water. Either way, adding more gas is far from a perfect solution). The bike started on the first crank. I hopped on and rolled up to the highway. When I went to merge, the engine stuttered and choked.

This was bad. I limped along what passed for a shoulder on the highway at 8mph, trying everything I could to get some power out of the bike. I tried the choke, I tried all the fuel settings, I tried giving it enough gas to overcome whatever was going on (backfire!), nothing worked. It idled fine. I could increase the throttle up to 8-10mph, but beyond that, it would shudder, lurch, a knock. I pulled over and tried the Software Engineer approach, turning it off and on again. Once again, it immediately fired up, and the idle sounded perfect, but even in neutral I couldn’t rev the engine beyond a handful of RPM’s over idle before it sputtered.

There aren’t a whole lot of usual suspects when an engine is running but poorly like this. Generally speaking, there’s fuel, compression, and spark (ignition). Given the sound of the engine at idle, compression seemed like an unlikely culprit, so it was on to the fuel and spark. Unfortunately, the only easily-accessible part of those systems, the choke and petcock, I’d already fidgeted with to no avail. I’d limped the bike about 2km before giving up on it, thereby leaving the relative safety of the rest area, so I pulled as far off the road as I could (not far at all), and resigned myself to digging deeper on the side of the highway.

I pulled out my tools and went to work. There were two issues I knew how to look into from my position, and at least one of them I could potentially fix:

  1. A fouled or worn spark plug. I carried a spare.
  2. A clogged or otherwise fouled carburetor. I could potentially see loose sediment, or hope to dislodge any grit or grime clogging a jet.

Of these, the carburator seemed like the most likely option. Given the idle was steady, I figured the spark plug was operating okay. (NB, skip this paragraph if you don’t want to learn about carburators) The carburator is a much more complicated beast. A carburator’s role is to mix gasoline and air (oxygen) and deliver it to the engine. The throttle is directly connected to the carburator, and acts to alter the internal geometry and therefor change the air/fuel mixture, effectively delivering more or less gas and air. The thing is, they’re remarkably sophisticated machines, with a multitude of ducts and jets meant to alter the composition of the mixture in different circumstances. If a jet for low rpm/idling is free and clear, but another for higher power is clogged, it could create exactly the situation I was in.

To get to the spark plug or the carb, I had to tank off the fuel tank. I did so, with trucks and cars barreling down the highway a couple feet from my bike. My money was still on bad gas/a dirty carb, so first I went about taking it out. I’d never done it before on this bike, but unsurprisingly, it’s a pain in the goddamn ass, and the first time around takes me a long ass time to do, but I get it out. Next, I’m holding a ridiculously complicated mechanical machine in my hands. I’ve seen carburators before — I helped my dad clean out one on his KLR when we were on our way to South America and his bike was giving him issues — but this one is another story. It’s not the stock unit; the previous owner has opted for a much more sophisticated high-performance model instead. There’s always a reservoir at the bottom, so I started there. Aside from having a billion parts, ducts, and jets, things looked pretty clean, and what gas I hadn’t spilled taking it apart seemed clear… But it wouldn’t take much to clog a jet. I just had no way to try and clear them all!

I dumped the gas that was in it, reseated it, threw the tank back on top, and started the bike up. Once again, it immediately came to life, but once again, had no power beyond an idle.

I killed the engine, pulled the tank, and got out my spare spark plug. Thankfully, with the tank removed, swapping the spark plug is a relatively easy procedure. The old plug was pretty crispy, but that’s no surpise after the backfiring. I reseat the new one, throw the tank on once again, and start the bike. Same thing.

I curse. I feel anxious. I wonder what to do. I don’t want to leave it where it is, but Google tells me I have 10km to go to get to Peace Garden Lodge. The sun is just starting to kiss the horizon, taunting me with a glorious tableau I can’t appreciate. At 8km/h, night will arrive before I do. I figure I don’t have a choice, and start re-assembling the bike.

The highway, like much of Namibia, is mercifully flat. I ride on the side of the road, a dangerously steep and sandy shoulder taunts me inches away, complete with shards of broken bottles glinting in the waning daylight. Traffic is light, and visibility is good. I turn on my left blinker (remember, Namibia is left-hand drive) whenever I see vehicles approaching in the distance. A couple small hills make my heart catch in my throat as I fear the tiny amount of power my bike is generating will be insufficient to summit them, but somehow it makes it. I hold my breath coming down the larger of them as I put the bike in neutral and manage to get up to 12mph before popping the clutch, hoping I can somehow pull the engine to where it runs again, but the bike just lurches and pops until it’s back to 8mph.

I’m getting good at nursing the bike along just on the edge of where it stutters, cruising at a consistent speed. The last bits of the sun are disappearing out of view. I’ve been hugging the edge of the road for over 40 minutes. I look down at my dash and realize I’m going 10mph. Cautiously, I increase the throttle. The bike responds, accelerating, then lurches, then accelerating again, and then I’m going 60mph. I’m in a state of shock mixed with awe. The last couple kilometers fly by, the wind finally putting the buckets of sweat I’m covered in to use in cooling me down.

I pull into Peace Garden Lodge at 6pm. It’s too dark and I’m too exhausted and filthy to camp, so I’m excited when they have cheap TV-less rooms for rent, and a restaurant that’s still open. I hop back on the bike and cruise to my room without incident, unload my essentials, and have a delicious schnitzel dinner complete with ice cold beer straight from a tap. After dinner, I give another once-over to the bike, but ultimately hope for the best in the morning.

Breakfast is included with my room, and checkout is at 10. I wander back to the restaurant, stoked to see genuine (if shitty) filter coffee. Syrupy disgusting juice, overdone eggs, floppy bacon, stale cereal with warm milk, white bread, and a bowl of apples and oranges (surprise breakfast standout!) were the other accouterments. I shoveled it all eagerly into my face before heading back to my room to repack my bike. I got everything loaded, handed the key back to reception, and started the bike.

The engine engaged on the first crank, but a quick rev yielded no power. I cursed, stripped off my helmet, gloves, and jacket, and started tearing the bike apart in the dirt in front of my room. Long story short: nothing I tried helped. I went back to reception to check back in and ask about the possibility of a motorcycle shop. They gave me back my keys and told me there was a motorcycle shop in town, 6km away! Motorcycle shops aren’t particularly common in Namibia, and Grootfontein is far from a bustling metropolis, so this was extremely lucky. I unloaded the bike back into my room, packed my tools, and started the long slow 8km slog into town. The shop was attached to a service station on the near side of town, and I rolled into the parking lot backfiring around 11:30am.

I was amazed. Here in Grootfontein, I was looking at a large motorcycle and quad shop with a huge variety of bikes in various states of disassembly. A father and son team with a handful of helpers, all of which were engaged in projects when I arrived, dropped everything immediately to help me. The father hopped on the bike and took a spin around the block. They changed the gas, they cleaned the carb, swapped the spark plug and its connector, they checked the compression, oil, etc. I helped insofar as I could with my tools.

My carburetor disassembled.
The crew at work with me freaking out in the wings.

The day crawled on. My confidence, despite the owner of the shop continually reassuring me, dwindled. The bike stopped starting. The battery drained from repeated starting events and had to be put on a charger. When 6pm rolled around, the wife of the owner gave me a ride back to my place and promised to keep me in the loop. She also offered to pick me up and bring me back in the morning (Saturday) when they’d continue working on things, which I was thankful for.

I was worried. It wasn’t apparent to me what was going wrong, or why things had gone from idling to not. While I was there, we’d taken the carb out a half dozen times. Likewise the spark plug. I went to sleep unsure of what would come.

In the morning, I got up and had another bleak breakfast, and renewed my room. I went back to my room and packed my backpack for the day, and just as I was finishing up, there was a knock on the door. Instead of the wife outside my door, it was the owner of the shop! I grabbed my bag expecting to hop in his truck, but instead he told me he had bad news. My blood ran cold. He said they’d worked until 9pm the night before until they found the issue: my stator had fried. He grabbed the oily object from his truck and showed it to me. He had ideas on where to find a replacement, but warned me that options were limited. He also said he may be able to have it rewired in Windhoek. Unfortunately, because it was Saturday, I wouldn’t get an update until Monday.

The owner left. I took solace at having a competent and friendly guy helping me. I sat tight the rest of Saturday, reading my book, enjoying the sun, another tasty dinner, and having a couple beers at the completely empty bar I’d discovered was next to reception.

The place I was staying had a minibus that went to town a few times a day (6am, noon, 2pm, 4pm) that I was able to catch to and from town, so on Sunday I escaped to Grootfontein proper. There’s not much to it, especially on a Sunday, but at least I managed to get some walking in, do some grocery shopping for snacks, and eat at a different restaurant.

On Monday, I caught the shuttle to the motorcycle shop for an update. The news wasn’t great. There were no replacements in Namibia or South Africa. They could send mine to Windhoek overnight and see if a shop there could rebuild it, but even then it won’t be as trustworthy as a new one. I told them to go for it, and ordered a replacement to get shipped to Rachel and then on to the motorcycle shop, which had given me an importation number to use as well. After that was a comedy of delays that would consume the next 12 days of my life, and cause an absurd amount of stress and boredom.

The days crawled past. Barely-functioning WiFi, a general lack of human contact, no stores within walking distance, and no personal transportation took its toll. I became a staple at the lodge, which was actually mostly detrimental. Every day, a dozen people would ask me about my bike, which only made the subject more sore. The women started asking me to buy them things, and one behind the bar even asked me to buy her a bottle of sparkling wine for “our date” she’d just invented. I became somewhat of a recluse. There was also some pity from the manager, who gave me a couple free nights and a couple nights in an upgraded room with a TV.

On Tuesday the 30th, almost 2 weeks after I’d arrived in Grootfontein, the motorcycle shop contacted me to let me know the rebuilt stator had made its way back, they’d installed it, and the bike was running! I caught the next shuttle to town and picked it up. I had to haggle with the owner of the bike shop to charge me more, as he’d only billed me for 4 hours of labor, and I’d been there for 7 hours of their entire shop working on my bike! These guys were ridiculously nice! I rode around a bit that day, and on Wednesday went to the one touristy destination around: a huge meteor in the desert.

Big meteor is big!
Look at the space!
Hanging out with a space rock.

It felt good to get some riding in, but I was still stuck until the replacement stator Rachel had shipped made it. On Friday, I made a new friend at the grocery store and found out about the happening spot in the low rent part of town and figured it was time for a change of scenery. Because I had to ride there, I had to take it easy, but it was by far the most exciting night I’d had in Grootfontein. Deep in a neighborhood of small houses along rutted dirt roads was a bustling scene in the night, with people and cars weaving through the street. The music was blasting, the dance floor was packed, and cheap drinks were flowing. Between pulling up on a motorcycle (which aren’t common in Namibia at all), and being the only white dude there, I felt the presence of many eyes on me, but far from in a threatening way. It was a weird feeling, and I couldn’t quite banish the tongue-in-cheek adage “stuff white people like: being the only white guy in an ethnic restaurant.” Folks were friendly and out in their party outfits: Chicago Bulls jerseys, Nike and Adidas hats, and more that wouldn’t be out of place in America. Personal favorite: a shirt that said “Santa Cruz Summer Camp” and had a soccer ball and watermelon on it. One guy gave me his number and wouldn’t walk away until I promised to call him the next day. During one song, a crew of four dudes did some sort of synchronized choreographed dance. It was a trip. I went home before turning into too much of a drunk pumpkin to ride home through the dark streets.

After 4 days in customs, the stator arrived Saturday morning. I was triumphant picking it up, and extra thankful for the motorcycle shop folks working Saturday to hand if off to me. By 10am, I was on my way to Ngepi, two weeks behind my original schedule, but with a new lesson in Africa Time hanging in my memory.

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