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Africa Halfway: Jeep Maintenance


Road conditions on the West Coast of Africa have been nothing short of gruelling. Through tens of thousands of kilometres, it’s been a changing kaleidoscope of sand, mud, rocks and intense heat and humidity… not to mention occasional torrential downpours. Make no mistake: these are some of the worst roads on the planet.

My 2011 JK Unlimited Rubicon Wrangler has performed flawlessly, but after 51 000km of this stuff, it is time for maintenance that is more serious than just the usual oil changes and tyre rotations. I’m also making a few key upgrades which should help us keep the perfect-reliability record for the next 60 000km or so.

While camping at a working farm with a huge workshop, I tackle as many of the jobs as I can myself. I prefer to do everything possible myself so I know that things are done right. I decide to start with the easy jobs as a lead-in to the more involved work.

Cleaning off the DRC mud from the engine is a good place to start, and a few rounds with Mean Green cleaner and a hose gets the job done. The 0.5 Micron water filter is one of the most important parts of my living setup, and it has been fantastic. I have relied on it heavily throughout West Africa to provide clean drinking water. The flow rate has slowed significantly since a few questionable fill-ups in Northern Angola, and I’m not at all surprised to see that the old filter looks dark brown compared to the new white replacement.

One end of the tie rod has had a torn boot since the Congo, so I change it for a brand-new part from Rugged Ridge. To maintain the wheel alignment, I use a tape measure to make certain that the overall length of the tie rod does not change.

I replace the brake pads on both the front and rear, and I see that each of the sets has been getting very thin. On the West Coast, I did not have access to a grease gun with a small enough end to grease the HD Universal Joints in the front axle shafts, so both have a lot of play after countless deep river crossings and no grease. After taking out the axle shafts, I carefully remove the old U-Joints and put in new ones, using the opening of a bench-mounted vice and a sledge hammer. I’m happy to get the new HD Rugged Ridge joints in without losing any of the tiny needle bearings; and, when all is done, everything moves freely. I take my time with reassembly, and am happy to have completed the whole job without a problem.

For a few months now, there has been an intermittent problem with the starter that I have not been able to pin down. For about 10% of starts, the starter will fire, and then almost immediately cut out before the engine has barely even turned over. The engine always fires right up on the second attempt, so I have not been overly worried about it. I’m not certain what the problem is, so I swap the starter for a new one. This fixes the problem for only a week, before it returns. Upon close inspection, I notice that the trigger wire is bent back on itself, and the bare wires are broken and badly corroded. Thinking about the symptoms, I figure that the resistance of the wire must be very bad, and that sometimes the vibration of the spinning starter causes it to lose power altogether. I cut away 30cm of wire and replace it with new, and the problem has not returned. I should have located the faulty wire in the first place; though now, at least, I’m carrying the old starter as a spare.

Over the course of a morning, I change the oil in both the front and rear diffs, the transfer case, and the NSG-370 six-speed transmission. I get the correct Mopar oil direct from the Jeep dealer in the city, and I immediately notice a difference in shifting. Second gear has been crunching a little when cold, and now it’s back to perfectly smooth. There are very few iron filings on the magnetic drain plugs, and I’m happy to see no sign of water in any of the oils – apparently my breather-hose extensions are doing their job.

The electronic sway bar disconnect on the JK Rubicon is notorious for failing, and mine has not been working properly since Angola. The bar has been stuck in the disconnected state, and the flashing light on the dash is annoying, more than anything else. After looking at a few pictures online, I feel confident that I understand how it works, and so I remove the entire sway bar assembly from the Jeep and dismantle the unit. Not surprisingly, it’s full of mud and water, so I clean it thoroughly and re-pack it with grease. I now, once again, have a functional sway bar disconnect, and no annoying light on the dash.

When I was designing and building custom aspects of the Jeep, one of my primary concerns was overall weight. At the time, I felt certain I could keep it under the GVWR of 2650kg, and hopefully closer to 2400kg. When I was choosing my suspension, the team at AEV warned me that their 2.5-inch lift was not designed for heavy Jeeps, but I chose to ignore their advice and stuck to my guns.

Unfortunately, when I finished my build, the Jeep tipped the scales at nearly 3000kg, much heavier than the 2.5-inch lift was designed for. For a few months now, I have been dreaming of an upgrade, and I locate Zone Offroad, an AEV dealer in Midrand. Their modern shop is impressive and it’s clear that they know their Jeeps. While fitting the suspension, they notice that both the front and rear track bars have been moving slightly in the mounting holes, causing them to become larger. This is a sure fire path to death-wobble, so steel washers are welded over the existing mounting holes to stop the problem in its tracks.

Upgrading to AEVs 3.5-inch lift makes an enormous difference on-road as well as off-road, and I’m extremely pleased by how well it handles the weight of my heavy Jeep. Potholes, corrugations and rocks that previously required first gear, can now easily be negotiated in second. As an added bonus, the lift comes with AEV’s Procal programmer, so I’m able to turn off the Daytime Running Light feature of my Canadian-spec Jeep. Having the lights always on has attracted a lot of unwanted attention, and has been the cause of multiple bribery attempts.

While I was at Zone Offroad, we discussed the clutch on my Jeep, which has always been an unknown for me. I bought the Jeep used, with 115 000km on the odo, and the previous owner assured me that it had the original clutch. It has never given me cause for concern, though with all the extra weight, I have often wondered about its condition. I decide it would be much better to find out here, in a very clean and professional workshop with qualified mechanics on hand, rather than on the side of the road in Sudan.

I really want to know for sure, so choose to have the entire clutch, flywheel and thrust bearing replaced. Once it’s all apart, we see that the clutch actually has a lot of life left, although the bearing has some play and has worn a groove into the sleeve it rides on. I’m happy to have replaced the entire unit and feel confident that I won’t need to think about it for the remainder of the expedition.

The windscreen has been badly cracked since Gabon, and the cracks have continued to creep across towards my line of sight. Getting a replacement fitted is partly about safety, and partly to avoid future bribery attempts, which I am told are rampant in countries like Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

Recently, while doing my morning walk-around, I noticed that a boot on the front driveshaft was torn. When I took off the driveshaft, there was a lot of play in the joint near the transfer case, so I have chosen to go with an entirely new joint and boot to avoid any problems in the future.

The BF Goodrich A/T KO2 tires have a total of 64 000km on them, and still have a lot of life remaining – somewhere around 40%, I think. I have only had three punctures (always nails) and the tyres have been nothing short of fantastic. The more I think about it, the more I realise that they will be towards the end of their life somewhere around Ethiopia or Sudan, where I expect to encounter very rocky desert conditions. Tyres in my size will be hard to locate and very expensive, so I decide to have a new set fitted in Pretoria. The American size of 34×10.5 R17 is not available in South Africa, so I go with the very common 285/70 R17, which turn out to be virtually the same size. As a bonus, the new tyres have an E load rating, so the sidewall should be tougher and able to handle more abuse than the old D-rated tires.

With all of that complete, I feel confident that the Jeep is ready to tackle the next 60 000km through whatever conditions East Africa can throw at it. Onwards to Cairo!