After many safe kilometres, I had my first breakdown and was stranded next to the road in the middle of nowhere. I travel with my wife and three kids, aged 7, 9 and 11, so I have an added responsibility to keep my family safe, not just get us out of the mess. We’ve been camping a lot throughout the years and we have been on a few remote trips, but I am not an experienced overlander with all the knowledge and gear needed for a breakdown. Let me share my thoughts which I wish I knew before this trip.
We did a 2 weeks Northern Cape/Kgalagadi camping tour with my Pajero 3.2D 2010 model and a home built 4×4 camping trailer. Our itinerary was Centurion, Vryburg, Twee Rivieren, Mata-Mata, Nossob, Kgalagadi Lodge, Khamkhirri (day visited Augrabies and Riemvasmaak), Groblershoop then Witsand Nature Reserve, then back home. We traveled 4100km of which about 1500km was off-road or on gravel road. On our last day, when we had to head home, we left Witsand Nature Reserve early in the morning. The first part is a 70km gravel road between Witsand Nature Reserve and Olifantshoek before you reach the tar road. The road is not great with some pools of water and mud because of the rain, but the road is not the worst, I was doing about 60km/h average.
I was still driving comfortably when my trailer’s wheel rolled past our car accompanied with a big roaring sound from the trailer. I hit the brakes. We are still 30km from Olifantshoek and in the middle of nowhere. I looked down at my phone and I see “No Service”. My wife and I got out of the car to see the right side of the trailer buried in the thick sand. I went to find the wheel in the bushes next to the road, thinking the wheel nuts must have come loose. When I found the tyre, all the wheel nuts were in place and the wheel had broken off the axle. I realized my problem was way bigger than I thought and had a bit of a panic attack. My wife calmed me down and I start to think about what we could do. Okay, we have enough food and water if we are stuck even for more than a day and we are in the Northern Cape on a gravel road, so we should be safe.
First we grabbed our cell phones, and I now have only one bar of reception. I tried to Google towing services in Olifantshoek, but there was no internet connection. I walk up and down to try and find reception, but there was no reception. I then tried to phone and that worked. I phoned my insurance broker first and he gave me the number of my insurance’s roadside assistance. I then phoned them and explained the situation. They first informed me that my trailer is not insured, therefore the recovery cost will be for my account, but they can assist to get someone to tow us.
At that moment, I didn’t care, any help was better than none. They carefully established my location and then said they would find a tow service and get back to me. In the meantime I phoned Witsand Nature Reserve to see if they could help, but they gave me a number of someone that could barely speak English, which did not help. I phoned my brother in Pretoria to inform him that we are stuck and where we are and that he must just check-in later.
My insurance’s road-side assistance phoned me back after a while and they found someone from Kathu that could assist us in a few hours and the quote was R10800 to come with a flatbed and pick the trailer up and transport it to Centurion. Ouch! At that moment I couldn’t see any other option and confirm for them to come out. We managed to get a WhatsApp pin location through to the tow-in service and they were on their way. What a relief.
We then attempted to unhook the trailer, but there is no way we could accomplish that with the sharp angle the trailer was lying at in the sand. We then unpacked the Pajero’s overfull boot to get to the bottle jack hidden below the boot compartment. I wondered why in the first place is the jack situated where you have to unpack the whole car to get to it. Oh, did I mention it was muddy and it started to rain. I started digging the trailer out using my fold out spade and bottle jack. The bottle jack did not extend enough to lift my 4×4 trailer out of the thick sand, not even close, I would have needed three of those jacks stacked on top of each other to cover the distance (I am not saying stacking jacks is a good idea).
For some reason we broke down in the most rock free place in South Africa and I literally can’t find a single rock anywhere to put under the jack. I used the jockey wheel and the stabilizer of the trailer and then I stacked the jack on the rim of the loose trailer wheel and I slowly managed to raise the trailer. Eventually I get a level enough angle to at least unhook the trailer and I could then start assessing the axle. At least now I could drive off with my car and leave the trailer if necessary.
A friendly farmer stopped in his Ford F250 with sheepdogs at the back of his bakkie and got out to see if he could assist us. He looked at where and how the trailer had broken and informed me that it was really not such a big problem, as it was just the bearings. He suggested I go to Kathu where I would be able to find spares and replace the bearings. He tried to think of other ways he could help, but I assured him the tow truck was on the way. He asks if we have enough water with us and he is on his way. The children showed no sign of distress or worry and my son got his kettie out and did some target practice and my two daughters made themselves comfortable in the boot of the car and read their books. They thought it was part of the adventure.
Finally, hours later, we saw the little orange lights of the flatbed truck coming over the horizon. What a relief. When the guy stopped there, the first thing I asked him was if we could change the destination to Kathu. He had no problem with that and says it will cost around R1600 and he can help to replace the bearing in Kathu as well. It was a bit painful to get the trailer on the flatbed with one wheel left. The sound of iron scratching on the flatbed and a part of the trailer box bent a little while getting the trailer onto the flatbed, but at least we are mobile again. We all jumped into the car and went ahead. We met the flatbed driver later in Kathu.
We arrived in Kathu and first found something to eat and drink. Then we met our trailer at the tow-in services yard in Kathu where the driver caught up with us. We removed the hub from the wheel and I took the hub and went looking for parts. He recommended some places to go to and my first stop was at a trailer rental place. I got the exact bearing kit needed from them and they even helped me to fit the bearing in the hub before leaving. Back to the tow-in yard and the tow-in service guy helped me to replace the bearings. The old bearings didn’t come off easily, and he took out the big hammers and spanners and eventually we managed. My wife in the meantime booked us in at a bed and breakfast in Kathu. There was no way we were hitting the road so late with a repaired trailer, and we still had 7 hours left to get home. The next morning we hit the road nervously, but we had safe travels home without any hick-ups.
What I learned from my break-down:
Trailer wheel bearings
You absolutely have to service your trailer’s wheel bearings before a big trip. Do not neglect it, it is not worth it. Breakdowns due to bearings running dry happens frequently. I did not check my bearings before the trip because the trailer had less than 500km on it in total. Still not sure why the bearings failed. From now on I am traveling with a spare bearing kit for my trailer with some extra tools (hammer, chisel and a number 24 wrench) so that I can repair it myself if it happens again. Bearing kits usually cost in the region of R 500 – R1000. The lesson learned is that the fatal alternative was R 10 600. My school fees were paid.
I had 5 litres of water with me that forms part of my recovery kit hidden in the compartment below the boot next to the jack and tow ropes, so at least I ticked that box, but was reminded how important it is.
Cell phone reception
Cell phone reception is much more critical if you travel alone. It is important to check your route and plan ahead. If you are going to be out of cell phone reception for an extended time in remote areas, consider traveling with a group of two vehicles or rent a satellite phone for the trip. If you can’t do that, then at least make sure you travel early in the morning to your destination, having the whole day in front of me really helped. I would have felt really unsafe to be stuck on that road at night. What can also help is to let someone else know where you are and where you expect to be next to ensure someone will come and look for you if you never arrive at your destination. That is basically what the staff do in the Kgalagadi with the permits. You hand in your permit before you travel to the next camp or before you go for a drive. If you are not at your camp by nightfall they go and look for you.
One bottle jack is not sufficient if you travel off-road with your car or if you tow a 4×4 trailer. Add an additional jack to your recovery kit with a bigger range and jack base plates, or invest in an airlift or high lift jack. If you want to keep it lean, add solid pine wooden blocks to your kit that you can use below and on top of your jack.
I did not have enough reception to use the internet, but I could make calls. Make sure before your trip that you have some kind of roadside assistance number for that area or make sure you saved your insurance’s roadside assistance number if applicable for you. I would really have struggled to get a towing company without my insurance’s road-side assist service.
I have insurance on my Pajero, but not on my trailer. I never insure my trailer, because it stands unused for 350 days a year. But, if I had added the trailer on my insurance just for the trip, it would have covered the recovery cost of the towing and they would have even covered the stay at a bed and breakfast. They fortunately still assisted me to get someone to help, and I just had to cover the cost myself.
The overland mindset
The biggest thing I’ve learned from this is what I call the “overland mindset”, which is to learn to relax if things go wrong. Simply, stop rushing, forget about your itinerary and make plans to get things fixed. Setbacks and breakdowns are part of the overlanding world. You have to learn to roll with the punches. The aim is to get to the closest town and get things fixed, not abandon the trip. It saves you a massive amount of money, but it also enables you to continue with your trip. That is why you need good maps (hard copies) to know where the closest town is. You’ll also need some knowledge of the area, a decent toolbox, spare tyres and spares. I realised again that is why people prefer a minimalistic approach for overlanding. They prefer older cars that are easy to fix and no big rigs that they tow. It is not about if it will break or not, it is about the ability to get it fixed and continue with your journey.
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