Monday, 16 July 2018

The slow grind of gearbox trouble

Ever since we set out on this trip we’ve had some trouble with Blac’s gearbox. First it was just difficult to change gears, but eventually we had this list of troubles:
  • Noise in 5th gear. 
  • Getting stuck in 2nd and also in reverse.
  • Play in the output shaft, 
  • Oil leak and 
  • Last oil change (gearbox) revealed silver speckles (7000km ago)
Initially to fix this H looked at replacing the gearbox with a second hand one. Parts for Blac (a Mercedes Benz G-Wagon) aren’t cheap. A new box could be sourced for about €3500. H started looking and asking and used ones were offered to us for €700-1000. 

But, this gearbox was already a used replacement of the original. H had replaced it 30,000 kilometres ago, and it started troubling us 10,0000 kilometres ago. So, we decided that used gearboxes are too much of an unknown. 

This left 2 choices: new or reconditioned. I always want to save money so I was pushing for the reconditioned option, which we were told should cost in the vacinity of €1500 (a price can’t be firmly quoted until the gearbox has been opened to inspect what’s needed). 

Finally we decided on getting a reconditioning done, which meant we had better find a place and get it done. We figured it should take 3-10 days depending on parts availability. H would need to remove the gearbox and hand it to them, and Blac would have to stay wherever it was. We’d like to stay in Blac too, as this is our home and anyplace else is an extra hassle and expense. 

We know that country places suit us better. So, we sought a gearbox specialist who wasn’t in a city. Freight, phones, and internet make these businesses able to source whatever is needed while they have less overheads. Rural industrial businesses are also more likely to have more space, and we were hoping we could remove the gearbox right there and camp onsite. 

Lucky for us we found Neil Engineering in Glengarnock. Stuart and Andrew are super friendly, know gearboxes, and had a yard more than big enough for us to camp in (not the most picturesque or quietest of camps though). 

Unluckily for us, amongst the parts needed 5th gear wasn’t available. I mean, eventually we could get one as Mercedes Benz will make such parts on demand, but we couldn’t find one sitting on a shelf somewhere. 

That was until the Neil brothers looked in their storage container and found they had a whole used G-wagen gearbox sitting there. In fact, turns out it had been sitting there about 25 years and long been forgotten. 

Finger crossed as it was opened, it was discovered that it was in much better condition than ours and 5th gear was fine. It however couldn’t be swapped into Blac as the bell housing had the starter on the opposite side to ours. But parts we needed were usable. 

Parts and special oil did have to be bought in, some from Germany,  so the job did end up taking a while to complete. Added to this, when we paid our bill and left it wasn’t quite right so we brought it back to them after driving 30km. The guys were good though about rectifying the problem. These things happen, they had made an error but it wasn’t a big problem. They could fix it and it’s this and the attitude that matters. 

Unfortunately, on a subsequent reinstallation of the gearbox H managed to damage the bell housing, by kind of shearing off the thread. It was buggered. But we had a spare: in Belgium, on the gearbox that this one had replaced 30,000 kilometres ago. With help from H’s brother and a neighbour we had DHL pick it up on Saturday morning and we had it by Monday morning. And it was good to see it opened by Stuart and Andrew and see what condition it was in. 

Finally, it’s all back together and we are driving down the road after 3 weeks of lingering around Ayrshire! (Although we did leave for a few days in the middle while extra parts cane in). 

The final price? Well we’re so glad we didn’t spend €700-1000 on a used gearbox because we just got a reconditioned gearbox for £850 (€960). Plus we spent at extra €255 with DHL, but that shouldn’t have been part of the story. Even with the DHL bill it’s cost us less than our original budget of €1500. 

We’ve learnt lots about gearboxes too: and 30,000 km ago we shouldn’t have replaced that one with a used one, we should have gotten the one we had reconditioned. 

The brothers at Neil Engineering have told us our reconditioned gearbox should last the life of Blac.... but they couldn’t possibly imagine how much more we want to do in Blac. 

The reconditioned Gearbox ready to go back into Blac.

The reconditioned Gearbox ready to go back into Blac. 

Inside a gearbox this is what a gear looks like.

Inside a gearbox this is what a gear looks like. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Overlanding Portugal

A few days ago we left Portugal after a lovely, but wet, 3 weeks there. We’d started on the Southern Spanish-Portuguese border and intended to travel all the way North, but we didn’t make it quite that far, instead we turned east along the beautiful Douro River and headed back to Spain. 

Our time was running out and when I checked the weather forecast it was obvious that staying longer in North Portugal would mean looking at more rain. It has rained for a lot of our stay in Portugal. 

Despite the rain, we’ve both enjoyed Portugal and intend to come back, one day (years from now). It has beautiful buildings, amazing tiles on buildings, spectacular beaches, great history, scrumptious food and the people are worth seeing and meeting too. 

My favourite part of travels is always the ‘human element’. We found the people of Portugal to be friendly (if approached). Often we noted some basics in life there: women doing laundry by hand in public purpose built facilities, and hanging the clothes on rudimentarily constructed clothes lines; people traveling by horse and cart; hardware shops selling new kerosene lamps and fuel burning cooking stoves. (These are just a few exceptional things we saw, for the most part people seem to live as you might expect in a European country: washing by machine, travel by car or public transport, cooking and lighting via wiring and plumbing to appliances.)
Clothes lines next to the public laundry facility. I didn’t photograph the women doing their laundry by hand.
Clothes lines next to the public laundry facility. I didn’t photograph the women doing their laundry by hand. 

Eating out or having a coffee out in Portugal can be very affordable. A shot of espresso: €0.65, a ‘menu of the day’ meal of 3 courses with wine €7.50; coffee with a famous Portuguese custard tartlet €1. So, we made sure we tried a few specialities while we were in Portugal. 

Our favourite eats were: the spiced bbq’d chicken we had at a Sunday market - olives, bread, whole chook, salad, wine for me and beer for H, total cost €11;  The delicious octopus meals we had in Algarve (not so cheap, but worth it); the delicious Portuguese custard tarts, which we ate again and again across Portugal, and often trying a different type of cake or tartlet. Oh, and let’s not forget the cafe overlooking the ocean in a tiny coastal town where we had 2 coffees (for H), tea (for me) and a big slice of cake still warm from the oven all for €2.90!

In Portugal it’s also really nice to shop at the local market: there are permanent fresh produce and fish markets in many towns. 

The Portuguese also have great festivals. We accidentally arrived in Alcoutim during their ‘Festival of Contraband’ and it certainly was a lively and fun festival, but I guess any festival with wine sold for €0.50 per serve is going to be lively! And we went to Sao Brás de Alportel’s Easter Sunday procession of flower torches. For that they decorated 1km of streets with flowers laid in patterns on the bitumen and then the men, carrying torches made of flowers, walked through them in a religious procession. It was such an effort by people to stage this fantastic event. 
Volunteers laying down the flowers in São Bras de Alportel.

Volunteers laying down the flowers in São Bras de Alportel. 

The procession of the flower torches in São Bras de Alportel.

The procession of the flower torches in São Bras de Alportel. 

We saw some stunning coastal scenery from long beaches to rocky headlands. A brief break in the wet weather allowed us to stand in front of the old fort at Nazaré and excitedly watch the massive waves and a Jetski tow a surfer out to surf them (they are said to be the biggest surf waves in the world). 

Inland we saw the forests of cork trees with their bark removed, and many plantations of olives, and citrus, and, of course, grapes in the Douro valley. 

We saw grand castles and palaces, and impressive buildings of religion, as well as admiring the ‘average’ houses adorned in fantastic tiles and the striped houses of Costa Nova. 
Striped houses in Costa Nova. The effect in town was sometimes by tiles, sometimes paint.

Striped houses in Costa Nova. The effect in town was sometimes by tiles, sometimes paint. 

Despite our dislike of cities we enjoyed both Lisbon and Porto, rode old trams in each, cycled the river of each, and in Lisbon we  were gobsmacked by the Jeronimo Monastery and from a Regua-Porto river cruise we were struck by the beauty of the Douro Valley. 

In an artesan’s shop in Nazaré the owner described to me, with passion, the various types of Fado music after I returned to tell him how much I liked the music in his store. And on our final evening in Porto we saw 5 different and wonderful Fado singers acompany the Fado string instrument musicians at a local bar (with local, not tourist, prices). 

Fado in a local bar in Porto. The singers name was Patricia and she was one of 5 talented singers who accompanied the wonderful musicians.

Fado in a local bar in Porto. The singer’s name was Patricia and she was one of 5 talented singers who accompanied the wonderful musicians. 

So, yes, we liked Portugal a lot. And we really do intend to go back one day. 

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Pesky insects inside the RV

Insects can be quite a bother when you’re living in a motorhome or any type of RV. We’re living in confined spaces and we need open windows to take in the best of the local environment, as most of us don’t have the luxury of air-conditioning while we are parked. 

We have wonderful windows in Blu with built in insect screens. I say wonderful as I think the concept is quite fantastic, but it has its faults which you can often see discussed on RV online forums. The screens are on rollers from one side and the blinds are on a roller from the opposite side and the 2 meet in the middle, it takes up minimal space and the idea is really quite clever. 

Blac has pleated screens and blinds on the roof hatches which are pretty cool too. But I’m going to talk about how we’ve dealt with insects in Blu, as Australia is the country to really test the insect proofing of any system.

So, the screens in Blu do keep most insects out. But still, due to the attraction of light or us insects will still come to the screens. Tiny insects will come through the screen and the occasional larger insect will crawl around the side of the screen where it’s not fixed (it can’t be fixed since it’s a roller system). 

Our solution for the attraction of the lights is to cover some of the LED lights with yellow cellophane. Then, in the evenings where insects are problematic we’ll only turn on these lights. This system has worked really well for us. But, if you intend to do this then do be careful as cellophane on a hot light would potentially be a fire hazard. In our case it’s been fine. 

Then there’s the attraction of human blood. It seems that I’m particularly attractive to midgies (sand flies). They hardly bother H but given the chance they’ll feast on me while I sleep and I won’t know it’s happening until I wake up in the morning. 

Our solution to this has been to spray the insect screens with Permethrin. It’s the same stuff as is sprayed on mosquito nets, hikers clothing, and dogs (for fleas). It works but insects that land on it are indiscriminately killed (which seems a terrible thing to do) and then the land on the bottom roller (for our rolling blind) and get squished in its action. Also, the screens, with Permethrin, do seem to get dirty really quickly. 

So, that’s our 2 solutions for keeping insects out. You might also be able to install yellow lights directly. If it is your lighting that’s attracting the insects then having yellow lights instead can really improve things for you. 

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The pleasures found off the beaten path, Alhama de Granada

I think that what I like most about this means of travel (ie, travel by RV) is being able to visit small places. Places that aren’t easy to get to when you are reliant on public transport and a tight budget become available when you have a motorhome, even with the tight budget still!

Most the top attractions of the world seem to be in cities, but I don’t think it’s because they are any better than some far off places, it’s just that they are more accessible to more people: there’s a big population right there, airplanes fly in, buses and trains stop, and hotels and restaurants are available. But with an RV you don’t need these conveniences. You just need a road to bring you within some proximity of the site. 

We mostly avoid cities. They’re not fun to navigate in a big vehicle and although Blac (our European motorhome) is roughly half the size of Blu (our Australian one) it’s still a big vehicle for Europe. But occasionally we will visit a city. Last month we did Amsterdam and yesterday we visited Granada. We enjoyed attractions in both. But between those two cities their isn’t a major city that we visited, but plenty that we could have. 

This place we are in now is particularly nice. It’s called ‘Alhama de Granada’. The town is high up above the river, which is carved into a gorge, and the edges of the old town are built right to the edges of that gorge. It’s spectacular.  

Within the gorge are the old flours mills, one in ruins, the other restored. From a distance, you see the old town of white buildings clustered around a tall grand church (at the highest point), all this sitting about the gorge. 

Alhama de Granada

In town the locals are friendly and we’ve observed an old man leading an old donkey with big panniers (empty) into town from the fields and also watched a flock of sheep be brought from the town area out to the fields. 

We had coffee this morning in a bar where they played loud flemenco music, gave us a map and told us what we should visit whilst giving us a taster of their homemade ‘nutella’ with fresh strawberries. Then we stopped later for tapas and were given a plate of lovely roast pork to try (as well as the selection of cured meats and cheese we’d ordered). 

This is the stuff I really like. The friendly locals and the locals doing their thing. 

Not so many tourists make it to Alhama de Granada but those who do, I believe, mostly come for the thermal pools. They’re free! Okay, normally there’d be some more that aren’t free (at the site of the old Roman Thermal baths that, I also believe, have been restored) but that establishment is currently closed and work is being done. 

Right beside the river, a couple of kilometres from town, are the thermal pools (both the free and not-free-but-closed). They’re nice. The middle pool is a nice temperature (the top pool is the warmest but also the smallest and almost always full so I didn’t try it). 

Aside from soaking in the warm waters (and it’s been cold and rainy here) I also liked the local aspect here too. The locals simply wear their underwear in the pools. And sometimes a local will go down to the bottom pool (there’s just 3) to wash with soap. Some people might find that idea horrid and some will not like it environmentally but I just found it interesting to observe that this is how things were done, and I’d read that these people may not have washing facilities in their house. 

Thermal pools, Alhama de Granada

Thermal pools, Alhama de Granada

So, we really did like Alhama de Granada. It’s one of many places that proves why travel like this is so good. 

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Ali’s brilliant method for getting a mouse out of the motorhome

It happens, we camp in various parts of world, we have food on board, and our land-yacht isn’t mouse proof. So eventually a mouse will get into almost an RV. 

Horror stories are around of mice or rats chewing wiring, especially in the motor compartment. It’s not so bad if they get into your food, it’s easier to replace, but it’s still horrid. 

So, one night while I (Ali, the Aussie) struggled with some insomnia I heard a mouse in a kitchen cupboard of Blu. ‘Bugger!’ I thought. ‘What will I do?’ I had no traps and no poison (not they I would have used poison... I’d rather not have a dead rodent stuck somewhere I couldn’t get to.). 

I got up. I rattled things in the cupboard. The little bugger was hiding, of course I wouldn’t see it. I went back to bed. I heard it again. I couldn’t sleep with this! (I already had insomnia!) I got up, I rattled things, I went back to bed, again. Again!

Then I thought of something. Amongst my amoury of tools against insomnia I had downloaded various podcasts. One of which was the sound of a cat purring. 

I grabbed my smart phone, hit play on the purring cat podcast and left it on the kitchen bench. 

In the morning I found the ‘calling card’ left by the mouse. ‘Calling card’ used in this way means mouse poo. I cleaned up. I never saw that mouse or heard it or saw another calling card again. I believe it left. 

So, I think it’s brilliant but maybe it’s not. But, I do recommend that if you’ve got any type of RV, caravan, motorhome, or land-yacht, then download a purring mouse podcast or sound recording.