As the shipping of the vehicles was delayed from Panama to Cartagena (Colombia), we had an impromptu break of 9 days while we waited for the ship to arrive and the contents to be unloaded. While the break did allow for the team to catch up on a bit of sleep and to relax a bit, there was actually a huge amount of work being done as well.
Each team member was working hard to ensure that our passage through the remaining 5 countries was smooth but also highly visible to the local population. In addition, we had the really hairy task of navigating the archaic customs procedure to ensure that when the container did arrive, we would swiftly be able to get the vehicles out and back on the road again. Bear in mind that many people travelling the Pan-Am Highway get stuck on the Panama/Colombia logistics for months at a time, so we were anxious to avoid this!
In and amongst the working sessions we did enjoy ourselves though! The weather here is really exquisite, and we were fortunate enough to get a really cheap deal in the most beautiful apartment right on the seafront. Added to this that you have a bustling old town centre with beautiful colonial buildings, there was always plenty of things to see and do. Add to this some restaurants with very delicious food, and you have an ideal setting for a really relaxing time. With hindsight, we really needed this because following our semi-break were the biggest challenges to face the RGE team so far.
To give you an idea of the dates so this is all put in context, we arrived in Cartagena on Tuesday 7th September, and the container was delayed in Panama until it arrived on Monday 13th. Given our experience with customs, we gave ourselves a long time to get the cars out of customs and back onto the road again. The plan was that we would have the vehicles out of the port by Thursday 16th, and that we would start driving on Friday 17th.
In the build up to getting the car out i.e. Tuesday-Thursday, Toby and Clemens were feverishly running around the city making sure that all the paperwork was signed and that all the necessary government departments were happy. This was a mountain of a task, and continued all the way up until Thursday night when, even though the cars were sitting outside the container, we still needed some final signatures to release it from the port. I have never seen such a huge stack of papers needed to move 3 cars 20 metres through a gate, but that was the state of affairs!
We found ourselves at around 9pm in quite a euphoric state because everything had been signed and we were finally able to get the cars out and to continue our journey the following day. In addition, we had absolutely smashed the record for getting vehicles through customs and into Colombia. Not i am not making this up; this was confirmed by our customs broker and really demonstrates how well organised we have been.
I am writing this blog post on Friday, just less than 24 hours after the previous observation, and all I can say now is what a difference a day makes! Shortly after getting the final piece of paper signed, we got a call from Toby, who was sitting with the cars inside the port. Apparently the SRZero had caught fire, but through bad mobile phone reception we couldn’t get anything more out of him. The visions going through my head were pretty catastrophic; I was thinking that everything we had worked for, all the time and effort we had put into making this project so successful had just gone up in smoke. We raced towards the port (we were currently in a car going to the port at the time of the call) to see what the damage was, and what we could do to fix it.
Getting into the port so that we could see the car proved the next challenge as security was very tight, and we needed permission from somebody who needed permission from somebody else etc; i.e. the normal story. But after explaining the emergency, they were fairly good at getting us in without a huge amount of waiting around. We ran up to the car, which was still covered in the fire extinguishing powder used to put out the fire, and we were able to inspect the damage.
Fortunately, Toby had acted very quickly, and with the help of others in the port, they had managed to put out the fire with relative ease and expedience. In addition, the damage was extremely localized, and orders of magnitudes less than I had anticipated. The only damage was to a section of the BMS measurement wires, and superficial damage to some cables surrounding them on the right hand side. The bodywork was still fine as was the tyre, chassis, suspension, cooling system and all the high power components. This was a massive relief I can tell you! At first estimation, it looked like the fix would not take longer than 2 days, and we had all the spare parts in the van to effect immediate an immediate repair. It was only 12 out of 165 measurement wires that were affected, and our first thought was that there must have been a local short circuit between the wires causing them to heat up extensively.
Nevertheless, the priority was to get the car over to the secure garage we had organised so that we could fully inspect it. With the car not driving, this was, of course, an additional challenge. Our first action was to call a vehicle recovery company in order for them to send a tow truck over. Half an hour later, the truck arrives, but then the driver refused to take the car! Why he refused the good money we were offering is still beyond us, but after lowering the bed of his truck and us lining up the car to board it, he suddenly had a change of heart and drove away! What an annoyance!
So our next and only option was to tow the car to the garage ourselves. Given the less than perfect road conditions in Cartagena, we were not thrilled with this idea, but at this late stage in the day, around 11pm, we had no other choice. After hooking up the car to the van and around 45 minutes later, we had successfully made it to the garage. And this is where our plans were thwarted once again. We had organised with the owner of the apartment, a really great guy going by the name of Tom, that we would be able to use both of his parking spaces in the garage for the night. But the security guard wasn’t buying it; he refused to believe in such a story, despite Tom having advised security that this would happen. No matter how much we pleaded, we were clearly not getting in that garage.
And this is where I now mention the so far unsung hero of the day; Wilmar. Wilmar is a customs broker here in Cartagena, and he has been the helping hand behind everything. When we needed the mountain of papers signed, Wilmar knew who to go to, how to skip the queues, and crucially, how to do this quickly. When we needed to go from office to office, Wilmar drove us there. And when we needed to tow the car to the garage, Wilmar did it with his car so that the support van could trail behind and block off all the traffic. Despite being very quiet and calm, his knowledge of the customs system, inexhaustible patience, and seemly being friends with literally everyone, he was entirely invaluable to our efforts here in Cartagena.
Wilmar’s help didn’t end there, for when we needed a garage, he knew exactly where to go. There was a public parking enclosure a few hundred metres up the road. Sure, it wasn’t pretty and it had lots of wild dogs running around, but it was walled and looked fairly safe. With this in mind, we parked the SRZero and the van here for the night. However, being a little paranoid and noticing a few unsavoury looking characters around, I opted for hiding in the van to do the night shift and make sure that no one touches the SRZero! It certainly wasn’t glamourous, but it gave me peace of mind to see that it was indeed a safe place to leave our precious baby. So, with a lot of unknowns hanging over our heads, we prepared ourselves for the next day where we would hopefully come up with some solutions. It was a shame that we hadn’t completely exhausted our run of bad luck, because there were more nasty surprises to come…