November 16, 2010 GMT
More Light!

It's been a fairly dull and dismal time since returning from the great journey. It really beats me how the continent was ever called 'Darkest Africa'.

More on that in a minute.

I've been trying to start my other bikes that have been sat idle in the damp English climate for too long.
My old XBR Honda had a reminder note on it - 'steering lock'.
I couldn't remember what that was for. It was leaning up against the Dominator, so I assumed I'd written it to myself to remind me to unlock the steering before trying to move it. Which I did.
But it was still locked.
Then I remembered. The steering lock broke two days before departure September last year.
It locks OK, but won't unlock. The bolt won't withdraw from the frame when the key is turned.
Have to find a thin screwdriver, and a torch to see with, to help the bolt return as the key is turned.
A torch in broad daylight! But it's November, more on that in a minute.

Having released the lock and wheeled it into a position where I could use the kickstarter, I confidently kicked the engine over a few times, slowly, petrol on and choke out, until it felt as though it had turned enough times to draw plenty of petrol in.
(The battery was flat as a pancake, but it starts easily without it so no problem. For those who don't know, it's a 500cc single).
Then a couple of proper kicks.
No matter how long it's ever stood idle, two kicks is ALWAYS enough.
Not this time.
After quite a lot of time kicking it over - but after thirteen months away I'm not in any hurry - there was not a single solitary splutter.

Time for some contemplation. Whereupon I saw it........
The ignition key was still on my workbench after all the fuss with the steering lock.
Well, it's good exercise I suppose.
Anyway, that bike was then up and running quickly enough.
I've never done anything to the engine of that XBR since new (except rigorous oil and filter changing, and very occasional valve clearance checks) and it has 80,000 miles on the clock now. It still goes brilliantly and will tick-over at 500rpm almost like a steam engine. Also, I've never touched, or even got close to the carburretor in all that time, which is another reason why it goes well and ticks over so majestically and reliably.

Next in line was not so simple.
The Dominator has the same engine as the XBR, albeit 150cc bigger.
But it's newer, and unfortunately has internal 'improvements'. And Mr. Honda definitely had never heard of the Law of Unintended Consequences when he agreed to those 'improvements'.
Inside the camshaft there's a hellish contraption, comprising more cams and springs and levers and centrifugal weights, designed to act as an automatic decompressor. This is a device that operates a valve during starting, so that the engine can be turned more easily by the starter motor. (There's no kickstarter on this bike).
Well, that alone would probably have been a successful design. But the Japanese, always looking for the next new innovation, added even more levers and springs to it, to make it act as a 'reverse decompressor' as well.

Anyone who's read the long-winded piece on this blog buried in the section for Kenya, just before our arrival in Nairobi, and could make head or tail of it, will remember the failure of the electric starter mechanism on Beau's bike, needing the fitting of a replacement starter clutch.
I tried to explain that on these single-cylinder bikes, when the engine is turned off, the piston and crank usually bounce backwards against compression, quite violently, and engage the starter clutch with detrimental results. On Beau's little TTR, over the years, that had caused sufficient wear in the starter clutch to make it jam.
On a big single-cyclinder bike, like the Dominator, the bouncing backwards is even more violent and can cause damage in the starter mechanism in a fairly short time.
So this 'reverse decompressor' is an attempt to use more cams and springs and things to prevent the insides of the engine from bouncing backwards when it's switched off.
And that's the device that has to be fought against when trying to start the bike after it's been idle for any considerable time.
Situated right at the top of the engine, by the exhaust cam (which is a pretty hot place to be situated), this multi-purpose decompressor needs a good supply of oil to ensure that it engages and releases smartly whenever it's supposed to. But when the bike's been unused for a year, there's no oil up there, so it gets stuck in the wrong position at the wrong time, all the time you're trying to start it.

On past occasions it's taken me an hour or more of starting, with jump leads connected to the nearest convenient car, to get the engine going after a year or so of disuse.
Eventually some oil frees off the springs and levers a bit, and the engine coughs and splutters for maybe another ten minutes before suddenly running properly at last, gently ticking away like Big Ben as these big single-cylinder engines are supposed to.
A slight problem during all of this is that, with the exhaust valve mis-operating most of the time, there can be some almighty great backfires, audible a long way down the valley I think, that don't do the silencer any good at all.

And so it has been on this occasion. Last week, having got the XBR running like a precision timepiece once the ignition key was in the switch, the Dominator refused to co-operate. This is the longest I've ever left it unused, and it was not happy.
I don't know how long I had the starter spinning for, connected up to the car, but after a lot of deafening backfires, one of which split the (somewhat rusty) silencer joint, it was still only half-heartedly coughing and spluttering, needing a lot more engine spinning yet.
So, like the pilot in Cape Town, and with the light disappearing rapidly (hey, it's only three o'clock) I reversed it back into the garage, and unlike that pilot, left it there for some other day.

Which was today.
After maybe another ten minutes of running the starter motor it was coughing and popping fairly regularly.
There must be just one particular lever or spring in the decompressor that needs a lot of activation to get it freed off properly, because after another ten minutes of spluttering and backfiring, suddenly as if by magic, the engine ran absolutely perfectly. Reliable tickover, smooth pick-up, not a single misfire.
So at least that's done at last.
I heard there's a cure for all this, posted on the internet somewhere. Remove the cylinder head cover and grind something off of the end of the camshaft to disable the reverse decompressor. But like my XBR, the engine on this Dominator has never been disturbed, and I'd like to keep it like that for the moment.

So back to that 'Darkest Africa' nonsense.
It's been quite difficult to find the impetus to get things straight and organised here, and to make those visits to the garage to get at least one bike back on the road.
When I returned home, my place was full of stuff spread all around in big piles, completely in the way of unpacking all the luggage back from Africa. And that was just my garage.
Indoors was even worse.
Those few weeks just before departure over a year ago had become pretty hectic. Trying to finally decide over the last few days what to take and what not to. Packing and re-packing. Spreading everything around to try to decide priorities. And everything that was spread around and not taken, is still spread around now. All over the place. In the garage and indoors.
Add to that everything that I brought back from Africa.
Well, all this mild chaos was to be expected I suppose, but it's been a slow process to get to grips with it.
And this afternoon, having finally got the Dominator running, and finding the last bike probably needs injectors cleaning before it'll start, and the light almost gone before four o'clock, I realised that that was the problem.
The light.
Back home, after all that time in Africa, there's hardly any to speak of.

I'd met quite a few people in Africa who ask, as you'd expect, can you help them in their ambition to go to Europe?
Can you help them with sponsors? Visas? Contacts?
Well, the answer is always no. And I generally try to tell them the other side of the coin - the reverse side of 'streets paved with gold'.
The cost of just renting a little place to live in.
The difficulty of finding a job that will pay enough for it.
The cost of travelling to the job.
The long hours that will need to be worked.
Probably needing two jobs.
The loneliness of living, for instance, in London with no money left to go out anywhere.
The price of a loaf of bread in Tescos compared to that in your local market in Africa.
And so on.
Many people seem to understand those issues, and maybe have a determination to overcome them.
But then we move on to,
"You'll have to spend a lot of money on heating your home from September all the way to April."
The jaw drops a little.
"When you go to work in the morning in winter, it'll be dark, the sun won't have risen. There'll be ice on your windows"
A very puzzled look appears.
"And when it's time to go back home, it'll be dark again, the sun will have already gone."
A look of disbelief.
"In winter you can have two weeks or more of solid cloud, without seeing the sun at all. Even in summer, you may not see the sun for over a week at a time."
And it is obvious that they cannot begin to comprehended such a thing.
"Students from Africa who arrive in September to start degrees at English Universities regularly find themselves in hospital by December because there just isn't enough sunlight for their skin to function."
Now they think you're mad, and realise you were right the first time when you said you couldn't help them with visas or sponsors.

Yes, it's the light. And after a year in Africa, then flying back to London in just a few hours, in November, there's a huge change. But you don't realise it for a couple of weeks or so. Well, I didn't anyway, despite talking to Africans about the whole subject.

Wall to wall sunshine. How DID it come to be called 'Darkest Africa'?
Even in Nairobi's wettest rainy season for three years (as reported) there were a good few hours of brilliant sunshine everyday. I didn't time it, but at least four or more.
And the sun starts straightaway in the morning. No hanging around. It "comes up like thunder," (outer China 'crost the Bay!)
Every day.
And lasts the full day, high up in the sky, before plunging below the horizon, not hanging about just above it for an hour or more, dithering.
Give or take a bit for the season, winter or summer, it's a full twelve hours each day.
And without wasting time, it's a quick change to blackest night, enough stars to almost see by, or the brightest of moons if it's there.

So it seems reasonable to assume that for us white Europeans, when we find ourselves in twelve-hours-per-day sunshine for a year, well, our skin turns the tap off a bit on all those things it produces for use elsewhere in the body. Even when it's safely covered up.
Back here, the cold and the damp and the rain and the frost are OK. It's the lack of light that's the problem. Needing a torch during the day. The sun, when you can see it, never higher than the lowest trees. Lights on indoors by four thirty.
Hope the tap gets turned on to 'full' again soon.

Posted by Ken Thomas at November 16, 2010 11:38 PM GMT

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