Monday 10 February 2014

Generators and Eccentric Germans

Andy’s boys turned up on Friday and set to rebuilding the generator.  There were three Sri Lankan Mechanics supervised by Jako ‘Slim’ Nieuwenhuizen, a damn great Boer who told me never to call him ‘Slim’ so naturally he’s called Slim.  No slight is intended.  It is just the same as calling a vertically challenged individual ‘Lofty’, a particularly skinny bloke ‘Billy’ (as in Billy Bunter) and a non-reflective bloke (am I still allowed to say that?  I want to say black man, but I know that’s illegal now) ‘Chalky’.  So, for example, I was flattered, not offended when my ever considerate CO in the Army at his weekly ‘O’ Groups, clearly reluctant to overtax his subordinate would, with an appreciative nod in my direction often state, ‘No point asking Captain Stupid’.

They had brought with them an impressive variety of filters, gaskets and seals as well as the reconditioned head of my generator engine.  They had, they claimed, removed about two kilogrammes of sooty carbon and clinker from the ports which did not make the heavy cast iron lump feel any lighter but certainly left it looking cleaner and rather like someone who had rapidly sucked a handful of Fisherman’s Friends, able to breathe easier.  The problem, apparently, is that the generator is running under a woefully insufficient load. 

US$665 worth of filters, gaskets and seals
So that's what a head is supposed to look like!
Without a decent load, I was told, the engine would run inefficiently, half the diesel fuel turning to clag rather than burning clean, and produce far more pollution.  I was not only wasting fuel, I was damaging the engine as well as our precious environment.  Diesel engines, like women, need to be worked hard to get the best out of them.

And that got me thinking.  Most people who are off grid buy generators powerful enough to cope with the maximum load that can be expected but virtually all the time, these generators are just yawning along well under capacity.  I considered my own case, what were the chances I would have absolutely all my electrically powered devices running at the same time?  I have some heavy load items on the circuit, the water pump, the oven, the washing machine, several air-conditioning units and seven large fridges and freezers but they are never all running at once.  The pump only clicks in if the water pressure drops as a tap is opened and shuts off as soon as the tap is closed.  The oven is on about twice a week and then only for a couple of hours, less if all I am doing is crisping up yesterday’s bread, and things like aircon and fridge compressors only spool up as required.  At any one time, the most my appliances were drawing was about 5 amps on each phase, perhaps an extra ten when the ice cream machine was freezing the mix.  Had I known when I ordered the ice cream machine that merely by digging a well I would encounter a reliable supply of fresh cool water, I would have ordered a water cooled machine instead of the power hungry air cooled model I have now but even so, it is hardly worth my generator getting out of bed in the morning just for 25 amps.

I have decided, therefore, to install a hybrid system.  The extra amps the generator is capable of producing will be used to charge a bank of batteries.  While the generator is charging the batteries, it will be running at around 80% capacity and far more efficiently.  Once the batteries are charged, the generator will switch off and my power requirement will be drawn through an inverter from the battery bank.  The generator will run a third of the time it is currently running, I will save loads of fuel and treble the service interval.  By running the generator at full chat for a shorter period, I will actually reduce my carbon footprint.  Before anyone congratulates me for Going Green, let me assure them that my motives are to save money, not the planet which is why I will not go the whole hog and install tens of square metres of very expensive solar panels.  With diesel costing 40 cents a litre here, it is cheaper to run a generator.

Note the clinically clean environment in which the engine is being reassembled
With the engine bolted back together, the time came to start it.  I had no idea whether the influx of water, normally occasioning disastrous consequences for a compression ignition engine, had stuffed the bottom end of my motor.  Jako has the optimism which only comes along with a deeply religious upbringing.  If your belief is intense and sincere enough (I fail on both counts) nothing can go wrong but if it does, it is merely God’s mysterious way and nothing to get upset about.  I have known Jako for must be six years now.  When we first met, we had to come to a mutually acceptable understanding.  He had to understand that my soul was, in my opinion, beyond salvation so he need not waste his time.  I just wanted to understand him.  English is not his first language, as it isn’t for many Boers who were, let’s face it, yet another race treated appallingly by the English so were understandably disinclined to learn the hated sprache.  With his help I learnt to understand the peculiar syntax and grammar of Afrikaans English.  I give you a simple example: ‘I are wearing a jeans pant’.

Jako was standing at the downwind end of the generator when it coughed into life.  He immediately disappeared in amongst a cloud of the thick white smoke spewing out of the exhaust.  Fuck me, it never did that before, I thought. 

‘Normal!’ shouted Jako coughing his lungs up, ‘they always do that after a rebuild!’  The guys quickly shut the generator down again.  We all moved upwind and gave it another go.  This time it started easily and the smoke quickly disappeared.  I was delighted.  Marcia appeared looking equally happy.  Then I noticed Jako and the Sri Lankans weren’t sharing our joy.  Actually, they looked anything other than happy, not quite ready to throw the towel in but still the wrong side of glum.  I said nothing and Marcia folded her arms in the way women do when they suspect things aren’t going as swimmingly as their husband’s had suggested.

It was only running on two of its four cylinders.  Injectors were swapped around to see if the fault followed them.  It didn’t so the injectors were OK.  I heaved a huge sigh of relief.  These things are indecently expensive.  The fault was traced to the injector pump.  This is hideously expensive and can only be properly rebuilt and set up in a laboratory.  My heart was in my boots again.  The thing is, and there was no point me trying to kid myself, I had not been able to tell the difference between a diesel engine running on four cylinders and this one running on only two so there was no telling how long it had been running like this before it finally gave up the ghost.  If the pump was knackered then, once again, it was my fault.  The fuel system had been fitted with an extra, very expensive and very efficient fuel filtration and water separation unit made in Germany and universally held in high regard by those who know what they are.  I didn’t.  I did not know that the unit I thought was merely a water separator also contained a 10 micron filter so never changed it.  Naturally, these guys knew all about Separ Filters and the first thing they had done when they were stripping the engine had been to attempt to remove this filter.  I say ‘attempt’ because through such prolonged neglect, it had collapsed and was bloody hard to fish out of its housing.  If the pump was gummed up, this was why.

Air intake makes a good drinks cabinet
At times like this, rather than moping over the shoulders of those who really do know what they are doing,  it is far better to leave them to it and get on with something within one’s limited skills base.  I went back to the kitchen and busied myself finishing off the much delayed lunch.  I was just cruelly boiling lobsters alive when Jako came in and asked if it was OK to throw the trip switches on the generator to feed power to the house and shop.

‘Is it running?’ I asked in astonishment, ‘I can’t hear it!’

I looked through the kitchen window.  Normally, if the generator was running, there was a faint exhaust haze discernible.  I couldn’t see any sign of it.  I had to go out onto the veranda before I could detect a very gentle humming noise.  I was impressed.

‘I just need to shut the small gennie down and take it out of the circuit,’ I said hurrying off across the garden.  They waited until I got to the big generator before throwing the switch.  The revs hardly altered.  ‘No load,’ they said knowingly.

'So what was wrong with it in the end?' I asked.

 'You got shit in the injector pump,' replied Jako.

 ‘Really?' I said. 'How often should I do that?'
A typical snack at Fort Hippo's
We had lunch and then the generator alarm went off.  This time I remained calm, it was only a low fuel warning.  Jako and Marcia headed off for the gas station to fill the drums with diesel on Jako’s car while the Sri-Lankans and I set about changing the oil on the Jeep.  If you recall last week’s episode, I had drained the oil from the generator and changed the oil filter with a new one, not the correct one but one that fitted, that I had found lying around amongst the mechanical related clag I kept in a box under the house.  Since, after an engine rebuild, it is always advisable to change the oil and filter after only a few hours, it was decided to run with my filter rather than the new Perkins one which I would use when I changed the oil next week.  The Sri-Lankans told me that the filter I had bought for the Jeep would not fit.  Sure enough, the new filter supplied by Jeep downtown had a much larger diameter thread.  Naturally, I was reluctant to put new oil on the car and then fit the old filter.  That would be like washing your hands scrupulously clean and then drying them on an oily rag.  ‘See if the Perkins filter fits,’ I told them.  It did.  So I now have a generator running with filter for which the true application is unknown, and a Jeep running with a Perkins filter.  Never mind, that’s two oil changes needed in the next few days.

Jako and Marcia crawled up to the shop in low gear.  An old white guy on a push bike was following close behind.  I looked at Marcia quizzically.  ‘He’s German,’ she said.  Oh well, that explains it then, I thought.  ‘I found him at the petrol station,’ she added as if he were no more than a particularly interesting bit of driftwood she had stumbled upon, ‘he needs a place to stay.’

‘I am looking for somewhere to stay,’ he said, no doubt to eliminate any doubt.  Do I really wander about all day looking confused?

‘What sort of place are you looking for,’ I asked him in German, ‘a tourist place?’

‘Somewhere very cheap,’ he said.

‘That’ll be us, then, ‘ I told him, ‘wheel your bike up to the cottage.’

A 61 year old German and his 28 year old 'bike
Dr. (Ing.) Stefan Frotscher is 61 years old, comes from Coswig near Dresden and is barking mad.  He is riding from Cape Town back to Germany on a 28 year old standard bicycle which, were it not missing a basket in front, would look like the sort of wheels a butcher would issue to his delivery boy.  His only luggage consisted of a couple of small panniers front and rear the limited volume of which, he admitted, was mostly taken up by water.  He had covered 121kms that day and was, he said with heartfelt sincerity, ‘very hungry’.  There are only two places he could have stayed around here that night, the cheapest of which was $400 a night so he was bloody fortunate to have run into Marcia.  He was even more fortunate that the Sri-Lankans had not eaten everything so, much to his delight, he was immediately served a plate of chicken curry and a couple of lobsters with a nice dipping sauce along with an ice cold beer.  His timing had been perfect; two hours before, we didn’t have any cold drinks.  He was halfway through Angola and, best of all, did not speak a word of Portuguese.  His next country will be Congo.  He doesn’t speak French either.

After dining, of course, he really wanted to bathe.  I showed him to his room and told him to dump all his kit in a pile and I would run it through the washing machine for him.  All through Angola he had been sleeping in medical posts or police stations and washing out of buckets.  Figuring that he already knew water in Angola was a precious commodity so he would probably just have a splash and dash to save my water, I told him about my well and its limitless supply of fresh, clean water.  Sie können ruhig unser Wasser gnieβen,’ I assured him.  The sum total of all his clothes (I had lent him a fresh set of mine) wouldn’t have stretched a Tesco’s carrier bag so I threw a load of my stuff into the washing machine as well.

When he came out, much refreshed, I asked him if he wanted to catch up on the news in German.  He did, very much.  As I switched over to Euro News and changed the language, I casually asked him what he thought about Angela Merkel being dismissed for drunkenness.  ‘WHAT!!!?’ he exploded.  I had intended to wind him up further knowing he must be months behind on current affairs but the thought of old Angela being tossed drunk out of her office had clearly nearly given him a heart attack so thought I had best not tell him that Germany had pulled out of the Eurozone and changed all deposits held in German banks from Euros to Deutsch Marks at a one to one rate; the last thing I needed was to explain a recently expired German to the Angolan authorities.

As I have already intimated, there was something quite eerie about Dr. Stefan’s timing.  There is an old Portuguese guy who has a bakery on the outskirts of Luanda where we used to live.  He has a van and working to a strict schedule best described as ‘when he feels like it’, he runs his van full of bread down to the Barra de Kwanza to sell it to the two tourist lodges and Marcia’s shop.  The bread is really nice, especially his rolls, quite unlike anything bought from the State bakeries and very similar to the bread available in France or Germany.  It freezes well and is delicious when crisped in the oven.  To announce his arrival in the village, he has fitted an ice cream van style electronic Glockenspiel to his van with a volume control which is either off, or more usually on so you can hear him coming miles away.  I was just making an early morning pot of tea and had only just asked Stefan what he missed the most and learnt it was buttered fresh brötchen with jam for breakfast when I heard the Glockenspiel. 

‘Is that an ice cream van?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s selling your breakfast.  Why, do you like ice cream?’

‘I love ice cream,’ he confessed.

‘What flavour?’ I asked.


Timing again.  Now that the power was back on, Marcia was mixing up a batch of ice cream.  Our machine can do two flavours at a time.  I asked Marcia to make one of them rich cream and the other, just so he had a taste of the tropics, coconut flavour.  It is also bloody fast, probably why it draws so much power.  Stefan enjoyed his fresh bread rolls with butter and Guava jam and for me, the sight and smell of it was so evocative of my time in Germany, for the first time in years, I had breakfast too.

Andy Mallett appeared in the doorway along with Richard, a mutual friend.  Keen golfers, they had just finished an early morning round at the nearby resort and dropped in, as Andy stated, to quality control the work on the generator.  Lunch was Tagliatelli Carbonara with ice cream for dessert.

By now, Stefan was making some serious, ‘I’ve got to go’ noises.  He intended to split the seventy odd kilometre trip to Luanda into two stages as he only needed to arrive in Luanda on Sunday so that he could get his visa from the Congolese Embassy on Monday.  There is only one sizeable village between here and Luanda and while it offers places to stay for tourists, the cheapest is about a 100 bucks.  Furthermore, it is only 25 kilometres down the road so seemed to me hardly worth the effort; after all, he had covered 121 kms the day of his arrival.  Why didn’t he spend another night with us and start off very early Sunday morning and do Luanda in one day?  He was adamant.  He would never spend more than one night in the same location otherwise, he said, he would never get back to Germany.  Fair enough, I thought, but I still felt he would end up cycling into Luanda in the early hours not having found anywhere to stay on the way.  Marcia wrote him out a note in Portuguese which stated.

‘Hi!  My name is Stefan, I am German.  I am riding from Cape Town to Germany and I would like somewhere cheap to stay the night.  Thank you for your help’

Cynically, I thought this translated as:

‘Hi! I am vulnerable, please take me down a dark alley and rob me’ but kept such unpleasant thoughts to myself.

Before he set off, I noticed him carefully logging his mileage in a book.

‘How many kilometres have you done with this 28 year old bike?’ I asked.

I was not ready for the answer.

‘342,000 kms,’ he said indicating the speedometer on the bike.

‘Bloody hell!’ I said, ‘you must have done some long trips on it!’

‘I have,’ he confirmed, ‘don’t forget, I had to ride to Cape Town from Germany down the eastern side of Africa before I could ride back up the western side…’

He thinks he will get home by March… next year.

Mad.  Stark staring mad.  But what a bloke, eh?


  1. Love the post! Long distance cyclists are a breed of their own. My son did 8750kms this summer across Canada. While he was gone we hosted folks coming through via We had some amazing guests from all over stay with us- and we still keep in touch. How wonderful he found Marcia, as it sounds like he need a great place to stay.Glad you are getting your generator problems sorted out.

    1. Old Stefan was very lucky to bump into Marcia but even if he hadn't, I am sure he would have landed on his feet. Your son must be fit

  2. And there I thought the Brits had the market cornered on the mad dog in Africa thing!!!! Seems there is all sorts of nut jobs wondering around the dark continent. Sounds like you all had a fabulous and productive weekend. Meanwhile we are digging out of an other 12 inches of global warming.

    1. Who is the 'nut job' when it comes down to it? Me struggling to get the restaurant going and you shovelling snow or him riding casually up the length of Africa without a care in the world?

  3. Barking. Absolutely barking! (Those lobsters look delicious)

    1. They were! Wait til you see the local prawns...

  4. I hope you oiled up the axles on that bike for him. Those also must be some good tires under it.A doctorate in engineering! I'm guessing manianical engineering. :-) I hope he makes it home.

    1. Electrical engineering. I am sure he will make it, he appears to be an old hand at this game.

  5. Also: Some of us might like to know what was the final solution to the generator. Or did I miss something.

    1. The core plugs on the head were replaced and new gaskets fitted then the fuel system was flushed through and completely cleaned.

  6. Great post..fascinating tale of the german cyclist, and I now know a lot more about generators than I did! ( I knew nowt before)

  7. Replies
    1. I think every nationality has its characters (thank goodness!)

  8. Awesome. I reckon you may well get a mention in his journal, the mad Englishman who can "produce" fresh German bread and top class ice cream in the middle of Africa. A lucky man to have found Marcia. All in all, a good result for everyone mentioned in this fine tale, including yourself.

  9. Well, you lost me at gasket. Mechanically challenged, I do know what a generator and filter are. That is it. I am impressed. We have a generator, installed for my peace of mind if a tornado or ice storm downs power lines. Only now, thank you, I am worried something will go wrong with it since it doesn't get used often. Love the story of the bike rider. The world is so full of such wonderful people, places and things. Can't imagine the fortitude it would take to undertake such a trip. I stay here alone most of the time on my farm, my sanctuary, can't even imagine something like that. Enjoyed it.

    1. Just start the generator once a month and run it for an hour to keep all the fluids good and the battery charged and you will be OK. If you ignore it all year and then try and start it when you are up to your tits in snow and really need it, like a woman, she'll get the hump and refuse to play.

      Fort Hippo is my sanctuary now but it is always open to visitors.

  10. Since there is no end to your talents I don't bother any longer to read to the finishing line. Always preferred sprints to marathons.

    Don't sulk, Tom. It's by way of recycling. Even I won't live for ever. Spare a thought for your mother.


    1. I forgot you have the attention span of an amoeba so don't bother reading the posts, just stick to the comments. My mother sent me her first email in two years in response to my annual Christmas and Birthday emails to her saying that she had decided in 2012 not to talk to me anymore as she was so upset with an email I sent her that year reminding her that she had two grandsons she has never acknowledged.

    2. Dear Tom, and I mean the dear even if you and I don't see eye to eye,

      My son and I are very close. Not in a cloying way. Just dead close. So I can't imagine what it's like between you and your mother. Normally sons (forget that shit Freud spread) are very protective of their mothers. And, dare I say, so are you. Most likely. When mothers don't stick to the bargain any time after birth it's shite. I feel for you. As indeed I feel for my father who had a physically beautiful and hugely egocentric - if family folklore is to be believed - mother. Whose attitude made him decide to move out at age 14. Age 14. Even the thought of it - she has been dead for a while and I never got a chance to talk to her, really, properly - makes me cry on my father's behalf. Men need mothers. You know that saying that a man will never be more successful than when his mother truly (stress 'truly') believes in him? I don't know whether this is so. I am not even sure what 'success' means. Anyway, veering off subject now. Let's leave that thought for another time.

      Fact is, Tom (or should I call you by your other name): Do make peace with your mother. Somehow. When my paternal grandmother died I phoned my father to pass on my condolences. He was short, brushing the grief he may have felt off like a piece of fluff. Yet, when he does speak of her, sometimes, by way of anecdote, he remembers his early childhood fondly. I know what I want to say to you, Tom, but words are sometimes hard to find. And sometimes the sad fact is, as I have found out in a different context, some people are just what they are. Not very pleasant. And a woman who does not acknowledge two of her grandsons ... well. Let's leave it there.


    3. I believe Mr Larkin said it best:

      This Be The Verse

      They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
      They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.

      But they were fucked up in their turn
      By fools in old-style hats and coats,
      Who half the time were soppy-stern
      And half at one another’s throats.

      Man hands on misery to man.
      It deepens like a coastal shelf.
      Get out as early as you can,
      And don’t have any kids yourself.

  11. I was thinking too bad you didn't get his reason for the trip. Personal best? "I thought I'd go round the horn." Time to kill.
    But, it makes not difference, does it. No matter what, as you said, mad.

    1. Your personal best was going round the Horn? Wow! I'm impressed. I have no idea why he does it, I don't think he has really. But, he is obviously enjoying himself meeting all those people and seeing new places at the sort of pace that really allows appreciation. I admire him. And you for going round the Horn...

  12. is that freaking lobster in that dish??? Seriously??? BIG HUGE LOBSTERS? Because i didnt read a word you wrote - I WAS TOO FIXATED ON THE LOBSTERS...

    1. Yes, dear ladies, lobsters, lobsters fresh from the sea and alive and kicking as they went into the pot. The sea here is full of them. The shrimps are huge and taste even better than the lobsters. In addition, we have fresh water crayfish in the river (they call them Gabbies in Australia I think) which are also very nice. I was never really very keen on fish but now that we get fresh, fresh fish, I love it.

      I tell you what, I will swap you all the lobster you want for cottage cheese, Brie, rye bread, salami, Schwarzwalder schinken, cherries, lebkuchen and marzipan kartoffeln. That list is by no means exhaustive!

  13. Mad (and lucky to be alive). When Chez Hippo opens, will those lobsters be on our menu? Oh boy!

    We had an 'imposed' power cut yesterday morning, and both my neighbours started up their 1950's generators.... what a bloody racket. I was quite happy to have no electricity for a morning; not them, the noisy bastards.

    1. Lobsters, shrimps, clams, all sorts of fish, mussels, squid, all cuts of beef, pork and game, guinea fowl, quail and, of course, duck and chicken.

      Fortunately, my generator is silenced and the nearest unsilenced generator is over a mile away. The beach on the long bar in front of the river mouth is about two miles away as the crow flies but you can still hear the locals partying there at weekends. Now they are REAL noisy bastards!

  14. I loved today's story. We see those crazy people on bikes all the time here too ~ peddling along the highway. Couldn't think of anything worse than having to smell road kill along the way. You reckon he was crazy before he started the trip or because of the trip?

    1. He must have been off his trolley (or badly in need of getting away from his wife) before he started, otherwise he wouldn't even have considered it! Take my hat off to the fellow though.

  15. I thought it was old mad dogs and englishmen that go out in the midday sun...not Germans as well. How do you make the rebuilding of a generator seem interesting...that's quite a feat! So did you just happen to have a whole bank of batteries lying around, or was that just coincidence?

    1. No, I need to find a source of batteries. I've had a whiff so am just following up the lead. Perhaps because I depend on the generator, I found the rebuild intensely interesting!


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