Steering noise redux (a bit long)

Yes, I've mentioned this before, but I've gathered a more complete view of the symptoms, and wanted to see if they add up to something specific.
It's a bit of a pain to take vehicles in here - they'll keep the vehicle
for a day or two to start, just to sort out what's wrong, THEN ask you to bring it back to get the thing fixed. That's just too long to be without wheels (and AC) in this climate; Oz auto shops don't do loaner cars. Riding a bicycle sucks in this weather. And, as will become clear in a minute, it wouldn't do me any good to wait until cooler weather to have them look at it.
So, that's why I'm hoping y'all can help. You've accurately diagnosed my truck's problems before (well, at least someone usually hits on the right answer) :) Read all the way to the bottom, 'cause there's what I expect is an important clue down there...
2001 Dakota, 4x4, standard 5-speed. Was in the UK for 3 years, so it's got more underbody rust than it should. Now it's in the Australian Outback, subject to rather extreme hot and dry temperatures. No adjustments were done to compensate for the climate- don't know if something should have been done...
The noise is sort of, but not quite, a cross between a clunk and a grind, depending on what else is going on... It is heard and felt in the steering column/wheel - my impression is that it's under the dash.
Ok, so the symptoms are sometimes a noise or two when turning, that as the air temperature increases, becomes more like a grinding - same noise, just more of 'em.
Also, today I noticed that shifting while turning at low speed, will cause a single iteration of the noise as I shift, that I may be able to feel in the stick (pretty faint tho, could be my imagination). Since when I'm turning I'm also shifting and braking, it's been a bit difficult to try to narrow down exactly what's happening when, but when I came home today, the noise was clearly happening as I shifted AND turned. Normally there's nothing abnormal about how the truck's shifting sounds.
The steering also makes the noise but more like a rattle, when going over bumps and such. I first noticed this when going down washboard roads. It sounds like something's loose under the dash, but I can grab the steering column under there, and there's no play. There's also no play in my steering wheel. It doesn't seem to particularly want to track along road irregularities or such.
Here's the clincher: during a stint of cold weather (for here & now), I discovered that the symptoms *disappear completely* when the temperature dropped into the 70s. No noise, no feel, just normal driving. So it seems that my initial impression that it was getting worse wasn't correct, except that the problem gets worse as the temperature increases. Since the truck's been in the UK the last three years, even if there was a problem, there was no symptoms 'cause it was too cold. Seems to be temps over about 80f that starts to show symptoms. Lately, it's been around 100f every day (for weeks now)...
It occurs to me that perhaps the temperatures are simply exceeding the Dak's design spec, and there's nothing actually wrong, just metal expansion in the heat, creating movement where there was none before. Possible?
If that's not the case, what should I look to, to help narrow down what the problem is - if any?
Thanks, guys, for your help!
jmc
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Mike
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The first thing came to mind, since it's a 4 x 4, the front differential may be dry. Look for a fill plug some where on the front differential. My non-Dodge truck takes 80 W90 gear oil. One auto parts place had a gear oil container with a pump, so I could pump the fluid up from under the truck. Worth a try. I know I had to top off my front differential twice a year, on my last truck. To reach this, you have to jack up the front end, and lay on your back. On my non-Dodge, the plug was towards the rear of the vehicle. It had a gasket to seal, so it was obviously a plug, not a mounting bolt.
You didn't mention trouble with the power steering, and it may well be manual steering. But on a 4 x 4, it's probably power steering. Check the fluid while you're under the hood (bonnet for UK speakers).
I can't remember if manual steering gear boxes have fluid, but I'd expect so. It's been a long, long time since I worked on anything manual steering. This would only be a problem during turning, I'd think.
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Christopher A. Young
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Suddenly, without warning, Stormin Mormon exclaimed (12-Dec-06 11:37 AM):

Thanks. It does have power steering, and there's no problem there but probably not a bad idea to check fluid levels anyway. As hot as it is here it's possible that there may be greater evaporation.
It sounds more like a looseness (or misalignment) than a dryness, but I can check that too. Thanks!
Jodi
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