Nelson down…and rises again

On these trips of mine I tend to have a new copilot each month or so, for me this is a six month trip and a week here or there does not really matter, for them it is a long and quite expensive holiday when flights are considered, so taking time out to do maintenance or just to chill out feels to me that I am to some extent wasting their short holiday time so I try to build in these things between departure and arrival of my passengers.  Sometimes it does not work out like that and they get the “full” Land Rover experience and so it was with poor Mark and Northern Chile.

Things started well, we were going to meet at Arequipa due to the near revolution that was going on in La Paz our original planned meeting point, and I had got there a day early to have time to rest and to spend a morning doing the maintenance checks on Nelson.  I found two problems in addition to the usual changes in oil, filters, suspension and brake checks.  The first was more challenging as both my steering “balls” were leaking oil badly, I was able to change the seals on these in an all morning job using some short cuts (literally cutting the seal) suggested by my internet chums, so I had nice clean balls and no leaks from the front steering system and was feeling very pleased with myself.

The second problem was a mild engine oil leak from the oil filter housing were the oil cooler pipe joins it, the leak was mild so i was not too worried as topping up oil is easy, but I had lost about a litre of engine oil which is more than I like so i went round and tested all the joints for tightness and one was a bit loose so I “nipped it up” as we say and it seemed to stop dripping.

So the Landy was all fixed, clean filters, greased and oiled and ready for a new adventure with Mark….for the first night I had booked him a room in the hostel so he could crash as he arrived at 10pm from Europe, which he gratefully did.

The next day Mark loaded his stuff into Nelson and we set off for a beach camp near the Chilean border, stopping along the way to see some nice waves and odd crabs.

Getting to this beach was down a rough path so Mark got a lesson in low ratio gearbox work on the loose hairpins but it was an interesting lunch spot with hundreds of these small crabs popping in and out of their burrows.

For Mark this was the beginning of his induction into the deep end of Overlanding as the beach camp we headed to was actually closed and the town was an off season ghost town with some local boys hanging around in cars drinking.  As the sun was setting I went to the local police station and enquired about options to camp, a good tip for this part of the world, anyway the very nice policeman pointed right in front of the Police station and suggested the best place to camp was right there in the street under the watchful eye of the night shift.  So that is what we did, ate at the one open restaurant with the local fishermen, took a walk to the beach and went for an early night in a ghost town, quite an introduction for Mark.  He coped well and was happy to make breakfast on the side of the road as you can see below.  Mark has a good trick in urban environments at night he simply turns off his hearing aids and sleeps soundly not disturbed by dogs or cars passing.

Outside the police station on the road, an interesting first night for Mark, however it did not put him off his breakfast !

Next day we crossed into Chile, I think Mark was bemused by all the running around needed to cancel the import permission in Peru, exit our passports and then do the reverse in Chile being sent from window to window in search of the needed five stamps to exit the border post and the whole inspection process of the car which was pretty through.  After about an hour and a half we had all the stamps we needed and were released into Chile.

The next section of the trip was a high altitude climb up to about 3500m, we had been taking some medicine to ease the affects of altitude but going up such a height from sea level in one day is around the maximum which is wise even with the support of the diamox.  So we ended up in the nice village of Putre around 4pm which was to be our overnight stop before entry to the high Andes Parque Nacional Lacua which would take us to 4000m plus.  In this case our parking place was very luxurious in a car park outside the Muncipal offices in the main square, which had public bathrooms and some restaurants, but nothing else, so Mark was getting a pretty rough introduction to Overlanding.

As we walked back to the truck I noticed with alarm a big oil leak under the engine spoiling the nice car park surface, on investigation the same joint I had worked on in Arequipa was now really dripping oil at a high frequency, it is unusual for an oil leak to get worse like that so I got on my overalls and stripped the joint, nothing seemed wrong, the seat of the seal was good and the pipe seemed fine so I thought that the accident may have bent the pipe and lifted one side of the seal so wrapped it in PTFE tape, reseated it, tightened it up and the leak appeared to have stopped once again – at this point I was a bit dubious and we were heading deep into the mountains.  Checking locally there were no garages, no petrol stations and nowhere selling oil unless we returned to the coast 150km away and down 3500m.

Discussing with Mark I told him that we needed to check the leak again in the morning and after 20km or so to see if my repair had held, if it was still leaking at all then we needed to get to civilisation and a proper workshop rather than head on up to the mountains.

The next day as the engine started it seemed fine, a small weeping of oil but no big leak, so I had hoped that my repair had worked and perhaps a more careful sealing with the PTFE tape would even remove the weeping and allow us to continue, so we drove a short distance into the sun (it was about -3C in the village out of the sun too cold to work on the car) and I set about a more comprehensive repair.  Unfortunately there was still a small leak so I decided to turn for the coast and headed gently down the hill, after about 50k I checked again and the leak was worse as I checked the flange fell apart in my hand suddenly explaining the problem.

In the accident in Columbia the flange that we were screwing the oil pipe into had cracked, when we repaired it and tightened it up the vibration of the engine just opened up the crack more, so it would seem to be better and then as the crack (hidden from view under the joint) would open up a bit more and the leak would return, finally the flange came apart as the cracks joined and the joint was done.

So we were down and out, without the flange there was no way to drive the car, so far no other damage had been done as the engine still had good oil pressure when we stopped but we needed to be recovered to a proper garage from a long way up in the mountains, thanks to the wonders of the iOverlander system and a weak signal we were able to contact a garage in Arica who promised to come and get us and arrived some two hours later


Nelson left quite a trail of oil as he was winched onto the recovery truck

There were only three seats in the recovery truck so Mark sat in with the two guys from the garage (the younger a student brought along to translate) and I got to sit in Nelson as we bounced down the hairpins and under construction roads which was a bit nerve-racking as we cornered.

Late in the afternoon we got to the garage, they were pretty busy and it was Friday at 4.30pm so I suggested that I strip out the parts while they went off for some food so they could see the problem clearly, an hour or so later I had the parts in my hand and could show the garage guys the problem.

We all agreed to think about it overnight and meet the following morning, I would research the parts needed from the UK, they would research availability in Chile and if it was possible to fabricate a part to fit.  Mark was great, as well as finding the recovery guy on google in the first place he had researched a hostel for us to stay at which was on the beach and had a fine restaurant just beside it, so we had at least a base, a shower (badly needed in my case), and some decent food.

Over dinner we debated our options, likely it would take a week or 10 days to get the specific part from the UK, I had found one on ebay bought it and had it sent to home in Edinburgh (£27) as it was not available on the normal international sites, Mark had researched buses in case we needed to leave Nelson (which seemed likely at this point) and backpack for a few weeks until the part arrived, finally we flopped into our hostel bunks and slept (badly in my case as options whirled around in my head)

The next day we appeared at the garage to meet the guys Armando and Pedro at Gruas N&C, I was a bit pessimistic at this stage  as my research and advice from my friends had pretty much ruled out welding the aluminium flange as a reliable repair.  Armando however was full of energy, he brought me to a parts place and asked for a selection of big nuts, eventually he found one which fitted exactly the oil pipe and another that could fit over the broken stub of the flange.  He explained to me that there was a place with a milling machine and precision welding and they could cut down the nuts to half size, cut down and put a thread on the outside of the broken flange and they would then weld the nuts together to make a seal that worked in both directions.

So they did and here is the remarkable piece of engineering, screwed on to the broken stub of the flange, even with just the right clearance for the flange bolts.

In reality it was not that simple, it never is, we had a pressure sensor break in the assembly which coated me in oil, we had to weld a pinhole leak in the pipe and the new piece had to be “adjusted” in depth to get the seal to work by a few mm.  All three of us worked on the car at different times as the guys also had another urgent job to get done before Monday.

Finally however it did work and we had a happy crew (I have just changed out of my equally oily overalls before the picture but it took three days to get the oil out of my hair properly)

I am writing this in San Pedro de Altcama a week after the repair and Nelsons new oil seal is still in place, and still not leaking at all, having traversed the Bolivian Altiplano, the great Salar and the high altitude Lagunas route without spilling a drop of oil.  The new parts needed to restore the oil system to normal are in my house in Edinburgh and will be brought out at Christmas so all is well with the world and we are adventuring again.

Tremendous thanks to the team at Gruas N&C for a super job and great creativity and determination to get us on the road again.  That night we ended up by the beach with a pool and a sink for laundry much relieved….and special thanks to Mark who was very supportive throughout the whole thing, helped with many practical things including recovering my hub which fell out of my pocket in an uber and including reminding me to eat and drink during my focussed oily frenzy of repair work!

off to Bolivia next …

About Gerry Mulligan

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