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From Khartoum to Cape Town/AFRICAN JOURNEY. How the glamour of a trans-Africa trek by Land Rover can begin to wear thin

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YOU do know how to repair cars, don't you?'' the Australian expatriate painter asked, wiping his hands with an oily rag. A weathered Land Rover, scratched, battered, and with a roomy canvas tent affixed to one side, stood parked beneath the baobab trees overlooking the Indian Ocean. ``I mean, you wouldn't go knocking around Africa without knowing some of the basics, would you?''

I wasn't going to tell him that I barely knew where the fuel pump was located or that my sole source of mechanical know-how was a do-it-yourself manual. The fact was, my vehicle had mysteriously conked out and there was no way I could start it up again. For one embarked on a ``trek'' across Africa the problem was more than a little disconcerting.

The Australian, who lived, traveled, and painted out of his car, gave my Land Rover a quick once-over. The problem was simple enough, he concluded. No gas. I had accidentally switched from the main fuel tank to one of the empty reserve tanks.

Embarrassing as it was, the incident did bring home the urgent need for boning up on car repair methods, particularly for someone used to the convenience of airplanes, rental cars, horse caravans, or one's own legs when reporting in the third world. Mechanics are few and far between in the middle of the Somali outback or the Kalahari Desert. Maneaters of Tsavo

As it happened, less than a week later, I did break down in the wilds of Tsavo National Park about 100 miles southeast of Nairobi. Recalling tales of the Maneaters of Tsavo -- lions which plagued construction of the Mombasa-Uganda railway at the turn of the century -- I struggled to fix a faulty fuel line while my companion scanned the surrounding savannah for predators. It was with no uncertain relief that I saw a group of park maintenance men, casually clinging to the back of a tractor, rolling up to help me.


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