A Horse With No Name

Land Cruiser

Preceded chronologically by Night shift

Le Baie du Lévrier is a rundown hostel in Nouadhibou, Mauretania. It consists of a small courtyard with several concrete chambers that have to pass for hotel rooms, along with a single washroom and an old kitchen. In the corner of the courtyard sits a large Bedouin tent made of thick red fabric, decorated with carpets and pillows like something materialized out of a thousand and one nights. When I drove my bike into the courtyard a large Toyota Land Cruiser was parked next to the tent, and the first thing I noticed was the Dutch license plate on it. The second thing I noticed was the man climbing down from the overlander tent on the roof. A little taller than me, a little skinnier perhaps, smiling broadly under a head full of messy curls. “Goedemorgen” I exclaimed, and he looked up in surprise. His name was Eric, and he was in his early 40s.

Later that night as we sat outside on the pillows, the tent a quiet oasis in the middle of the city, he explained that he had been on the road for nearly two years. Starting from the Netherlands, he had driven to Tehran, travelled around Iran, and then shipped the car to Port Sudan. From there on he had followed the coast south to Cape Town and was now nearing the end of his journey on his way north, hoping to be back home in time for a wedding somewhere next month. His car was a 70 series Land Cruiser, renowned for their reliability and used widely by militaries and aid organizations alike.

He had made numerous modifications for his journey: besides the large tent on the roof he carried a full set of extra tires, a compressor, four large batteries, a small fridge, and even an electric razor. Not limited by existing roads and carrying ample supplies, he would often simply trace a route between two interesting looking places and go straight across the bush or desert. Having covered nearly 80,000km since he left home, he explained that the car only ever failed him once - on a dune, in Angola.

The story begins when he was driving through the desert in Southern Angola, going up a large sand dune. Suddenly the car slows down and grinds to a halt, then starts sliding back down the hill. Although the engine is running there is no power going to the wheels, so he carefully rolls the car to a stop and parks it on a flat bit of sand below the summit. Although Eric has become somewhat knowledgeable about the workings of this particular vehicle, he can’t seem to find what’s wrong with it. So he takes out his map and GPS and determines that there is a paved road and a village about five miles away due west. He takes a bag with his important documents and some water, locks the car, and sets off in the mid-day sun. Three hours later he gets to the village and it’s just that, two dozen houses, a gas station, a church, and some shops along the road. He finds Pierre, the local mechanic, and explains his predicament. Pierre nods understandingly but points out that it’s late afternoon and it’ll be dark before long, so they’re better off having a look tomorrow.

As a mechanic, Pierre is one of the more important people in his village, and he lives in a bungalow away from the main road with his wife and six children. There’s no running water, but they have an outdoor shower fed from a large plastic tank on the roof, a guest bedroom, a squat toilet, and electricity from a solar installation. Eric is welcomed by the family and joins them for dinner. The next morning they pack some tools and set off across the desert to check on the Land Cruiser. Once they get there Pierre gives it a thorough look-over. The engine runs fine, all the electronics are working, the final drivetrain isn’t damaged, so what remains is the gearbox, which provides transmission of the power from the engine to the wheels. They return to the village to fetch a handcart, and in the sweltering afternoon heat they partially disassemble the car, and take out the gearbox, a 150-pound hunk of steel. By the time they get back to the village it’s getting dark again, so Eric stays another night at Pierre’s house, helps preparing dinner, and plays with the children, who are especially fond of his blonde hair and beard.

The next morning they buy three tickets on the bus to the nearest major town, and the whole afternoon they bump along potholed dirt roads, first across the desert and later the savannah, with the gearbox on the seat between them and the handcart strapped to the roof. Once there they locate a garage, and explain that there’s something wrong with this gearbox, and they need a specialist to find out what it is exactly. The garage owner nods. He’s not the specialist they need, but he’ll make some phone calls to see if there’s someone around. Twenty minutes later he returns with a smudgy note with the address of another garage on the other side of town. It’s already closed for today however, so they should try tomorrow morning.

They find a hotel in town and over dinner and drinks Pierre tells his life story. He’s thirty-eight and has now lived in the village for more than a decade. The house was built by his parents as an improvement on their childhood home while he was away studying engineering in Johannesburg. He initially didn’t plan on staying in the village, but when his parents died in quick succession he didn’t want to sell the house, so he moved back from South Africa, got married, and had kids. Now he fixes cars, motorbikes, and water pumps, and he has recently started installing solar panels and batteries in the homes of those lucky enough to be able to afford them. He enjoys a decent standard of living, his children are happy and going to school, and he never has to worry about whether he can afford to feed them. The next morning they wheel the gearbox to the new garage, located just off a busy through-fare. The head mechanic takes one look at the cart and exclaims: “That looks like the gearbox from a 70 series Land Cruiser”. Eric and Pierre share a glance, and he thinks “Great, this is the guy we need”. The mechanic proceeds to lay down a large white sheet on the street in front of his shop, grabs his toolkit, and starts disassembling the gearbox piece by piece. The process takes well into the afternoon, and by the time he is finished Eric and Pierre have drawn up chairs and a parasol, and a small crowd of children is watching the spectacle. Sweating profusely, the mechanic eventually reaches a sprocket ring with several cracks in it, which falls apart in his hands. “This is your problem right here. I need to make some phone calls”.

The first problem is figuring out exactly what the name and number of the part is, and nobody in town seems to know. So while Pierre stays behind to guard the stash of carefully arranged parts sitting in the middle of the street, Eric and the mechanic head out to find an internet café to try and locate a Toyota catalogue. After several hours of searching and waiting for webpages to load on the awfully slow connection they eventually find the right part number and description. On the way back they buy a stack of boxes from the marketplace and as dusk falls they finish storing away all the valuable parts and pieces in the corner of the garage. The three of them go out for dinner, and the mechanic explains that with the part number in hand he can make some phone calls to see if anyone has a spare one lying around. The next day he spends an hour on the phone calling a dozen different garages while scribbling furiously on his notepad, and eventually ends up on the phone with the main Toyota garage in Luanda, the capital. They promise to enquire with their inventory manager, but since it is now Friday it is unlikely that they will get a reply before Monday afternoon.

Determined to make the most of their impromptu stay in the city Eric and Pierre visit the local hospital, the municipal museum, and the local social club where they find themselves on Saturday night enjoying an AC/DC cover band playing on instruments that are all but falling apart. Everything in town is closed on Sunday but they secure the key to the garage from the mechanic and spend the afternoon carefully inspecting, cleaning and greasing all the other parts from the gearbox. Then finally on Monday afternoon the phone call comes. No, this particular part is not available from our warehouse in Luanda, and we have checked the official dealers in neighbouring countries, and they can’t help you either. The good news is that it is possible to order the part from Toyota Motor & Co Japan, but this will be expensive, and take time. How expensive? “Forty-six dollars for the sprocket, and a hundred and fifteen for shipping”. That’s not too bad, Eric almost says out loud, but the man on the phone continues: “And it will take about two months to get to you”.


Unperturbed by this news the mechanic suggests trying some more garages in town. Someone might have an idea, surely? So he picks up the phone again, while Eric and Pierre go out to buy lunch. Eric is frustrated; his car has now been sitting in the desert for six days, assuming it’s even still there. Could he rent a truck and tow his car to the village, or even to the city? Does he want to wait around in Angola for two months for the replacement part, or might he take a flight and have a little time off somewhere? Could someone maybe weld him a new sprocket? Upon their return to the garage the mechanic is beaming with joy, and while clutching another grubby note proceeds to explain the solution he has devised. The note holds the phone number of a German expat living nearby, but who is away for business and who won’t be back until after summer. He happens to own an identical Land Cruiser, and the gearbox parts should be interchangeable. If only Eric would call the man, explain the situation, and ask for permission to exchange the parts? The mechanic could then order the replacement part from Japan and when it arrives, re-assemble the other car well in time before its owner returned. After going over possible ways to convince someone to let them disassemble their vehicle for parts in their own garage while they themselves are half the world away for business, Eric makes the phone call. The German is very kind and understanding and doesn’t require much convincing at all. He explains that he is familiar with the challenges of keeping his stock rolling in remote places, and everything is fine with him if his car is back together and working when he returns later this year.

Through the Germans housekeeper they obtain access to his private garage. Pierre and the mechanic disassemble another gearbox, reassemble the old one, and after almost a week in town Eric and Pierre find themselves back on the bus with the fixed and cleaned device sat between them. Eric has by then spent nearly 1500 dollars on the whole ordeal, having paid for all of Pierre’s time and expenses, the mechanics time, and of course for the replacement sprocket that’s due in two months so the mechanic can reassemble the other vehicle. On their return to the village they are welcomed by Pierre’s wife, who assures them that his car is still there, safe and sound. How does she know? Just go and see, she tells them, so they cart the gearbox back into the desert. His car is still there, ten days after he left it abandoned in the desert. As they approach it, they notice that a tarp has been strung up on one side, and under it they find Pierre’s eldest son and one of his classmates, doing their mathematics homework. The children explain that when the villagers realised that Pierre would be gone for a while they got worried someone might find the car and steal it, or strip it for scrap. For the last week and a half, he and his friends had taken turns guarding the vehicle day and night, to make sure it wasn’t touched.

Eric stays another two nights in the village, with the Land Cruiser parked outside Pierre’s home. He makes a generous donation to the local church and the school, and upon his departure is faced with what can be most readily described as a farewell parade, with half the village coming out to wish him a safe onward journey.