Of Plastic Knives, Ice Packs and Paper Napkins

This article originally appeared in my blog. It has been faithfully reproduced here for your amused pleasure.

This weekend was the celebration of my beloved’s birthday, so a number of friends and I decided to treat him to a day trip to Sun City. He had never been during the day, and it seemed a fitting gift for a 25th birthday.

Six of us set off in two vehicles – us two followed the other four – at around 6:30am, and off we drove to Sun City. The journey was fairly uneventful, until about half an hour before arrival at our destination. Paul who was driving ahead of us overtook a vehicle in a 60km/h zone, at 120km/h, and was caught on camera. I was fortunate enough to get stuck behind the vehicle we were trying to overtake, so was not caught.

We pulled over, the traffic officers threatened to take Paul away in chains because of the high speed, and he managed to talk his way down to a R550 fine and no jail time. This whole turn of events was taking time, so I decided to turn off my car.

That was the beginning of our troubles.

After we decided to get going again, having accepted the speeding fine, my car would not start. Some nuns who had been pulled over for speeding because they were “in a hurry” (I am not making this up) lent us a set of jumper leads to get the car going again.

We found our way to Sun City at a reduced speed, arriving at 8:30, having a champagne breakfast outside the Valley of Waves, and then going in for an excellent day. We went on the tube rides, we went down the Temple of Courage (a 70 or 80 degree drop for those who don’t know it), and lots of other things, including an impromptu hike through the huge man-made forest up to the Palace of the Lost City. Basically, your typical day trip to Sun City.

We decided to depart at around 3pm, and went into the main Entertainment Centre to enjoy sundowners before our trip back. We were going to take a detour back to Jaco’s parents’ house in Rustenburg to fetch a pet bird.

We left the parking lot at around 4:30pm and headed off to Rustenburg. Along the route, my air conditioner packed up, the ABS light turned on, and the radio turned off. I figured there was an electrical fault due to the jump start earlier, and thought nothing much else of it.

Then the lights stopped working, including the indicators, the brakes and the headlights. This was worrying. We phoned the four guys in the car ahead and said we’d be going straight home so that we didn’t have to drive in the dark. This was at about 5:15pm.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later we were stranded on the side of the road, with a flat battery. According to the Mercedes-Benz 230E handbook, the ABS light only comes on when there is less than 10V coming from the car battery, at which point ABS is disabled to conserve power.

M called his uncle who lives in the area, and Paul and Jaco to come past from their detour in Rustenburg to jump start the car again.

Twenty minutes later, the uncle arrived with his Isuzu truck and daughter in tow for moral support. The uncle supposed that the battery was flat because the alternator was not charging the car, due to a broken connection. He used a white plastic knife to strip the cable, and reconnect it to the battery terminal. Then we ripped open an ice pack to use the gel to clean the acid build-up on the terminal, and paper napkins to dry our hands. Well, the uncle’s hands: I was too busy being a poes.

After a while, Paul arrived with the other three in tow, plus jumper leads, and we managed to get the car started again. Now that the alternator cable was reconnected, we all said our goodbyes. M and I would spend our evening in Rustenburg to be on the safe side, and purchase a new battery in the morning.

Five minutes later, the car had managed to turn around under its own power, but died again. This time, the sun was down, so we were towed in to the uncle’s house. If any of you want to have your driving skills tested, try this for size: the road is a single lane in both directions for a large portion of the trip, steering an automatic E-class Mercedes-Benz with no hydraulics behind an Isuzu bakkie in the dark, with maniacal drivers overtaking with their bright lights on, and just enough electricity in the car battery to power the hazards.

Now, take that experience, and do it for half an hour, up hills and down hills, and around bends, and then end off with a dirt road. Add in a tow rope that is just long enough to see over the bonnet of the car.

Now take out the normal driver and put in someone who can’t concentrate for longer than a few seconds, hasn’t eaten in hours, and wants to look at the flashing lights on the bakkie instead of keeping his eyes on the tow rope and the bakkie in front of him.

That was me, this last Saturday night. I was a nervous wreck when we arrived at the uncle’s house. He instructs me to leave the car open for him to tinker the next morning and put in a battery if we’re not awake yet.

Then the daughter (M’s cousin, of course) invited us for drinks to the local hangout to meet a girlfriend there. If any of you knows anything about the night life of Johannesburg, you’ll understand why we were reluctant to go out in Rustenburg. Fortunately, we were dressed for the occasion in our board shorts and slops.

We got to the place, called “Dusk To Dawn”, and I commented that it sounded like the name of a certain vampire movie. Anyway, in we go, and the girls order from the bar, and we find a table in the corner. This was not before an old drunk Afrikaner wolf-whistles the cousin’s blonde friend. We dub him “Oom Kallie” after local comedian Casper de Vries’s character of the same name.

We drink, we listen to the really bad music, we comment on how much of an experience this is, and then we watch the old Afrikaner take a woman onto the dance floor to sokkie with her. After two shakes of his hips, he drops her and falls over too. We laugh.

The music gets boring very quickly, so we decide to leave. We go back to the house, watch some TV, and then go to bed. Since M and I are visiting family, we are put in separate bedrooms. Not a shit am I sleeping alone after such an ordeal, so I sneak into his bed. Fifteen minutes later, the uncle comes into the room with his torch telling M to find me because he’s fixed the car battery and wants to check it. I have never hidden myself under a sheet so quickly before, and we still don’t think he saw us.

Anyway, we go outside, check the car, it starts beautifully, we agree to buy a new battery the next day, and we go to bed. In separate rooms.

The next morning, we’re up at around 10:30, I shower, we do breakfast, and then we are off to buy a battery. In Rustenburg. On a Sunday.

We go to Builder’s Warehouse, and they don’t stock car batteries. We go to Game, and they stock batteries but they are the wrong size. We go into town and look at the Game there, but their batteries are even smaller. So now we decide to drive around, hoping to find an open shop.

We find one by sheer luck, run by Indians. For the record, South Africa has the biggest population of Indians outside of India. They sell us a compatible battery for almost R500. We take it, because they’re the only open place and it comes with a 1 year warranty.

Back home, we put in the new battery, the car starts, we have a little rest and then we’re on our way. The trip is uneventful, the aircon works, the ABS works, the radio works, the lights work, and we’re happy. We arrive at my god daughter’s birthday party three hours late, but we’re happy.

After an hour or so we decide to get back to my house because we’re tired. Start up the car, no problem. Drive up the road, no problem. Turn the corner, the radio cuts out. We’re 6km from home now. Will she make it? Won’t she? We decide to go straight home and I free-wheel most of the way to conserve energy. We make it, but only just. Pop out the battery, take it into the house to stick on the charger.

As I write this, you’ll notice that it is Monday, late morning. As of now, the battery is still not fully charged, I’m borrowing M’s car for today, and borrowing my god daughter’s parents’ spare car this evening until the 14th. We *think* the alternator is the problem, but I cannot get the car anywhere because I work 8 to 5, and it’s Monday. I have to wait for Saturday before anyone can look at it.

To top it all off, I got burnt on my shoulders at Sun City.

So, how was your weekend?

UPDATE: It was the alternator after all.