Posted by: Tommy | January 29, 2011

Remember that time in the Kalahari Desert?

We woke up at 5 AM this morning to the sound of lions roaring around us, as they had done all night long…a bit eerie. But the upside was that there are lots of lions to see, so we headed out on our morning game drive excited to find them.

We planned to start at Deception Pan and proceed to Leopard Pan if there was time.  We’d be back by 9 or 10 to nap, then have lunch before heading out for the afternoon.  After breakfast and a few housekeeping activities, we hit the road about 6.  Deception Pan is only about 10 miles from the campsite, so we got there around 6:30.  Across the pan (a big, flat area where animals graze), we could see a LandRover that had made camp the night before on the side of the road.  They had a roof-tent popped open with a table full of breakfast.  Odd.

The road through Deception Pan was, as all the roads have been in the Kalahari, muddy.  Standing water covering the road, with deep track marks all over it.  Normally, this would indicate that we should turn around.  However, we spent all day yesterday bashing through deep mud pools in our giant, diesel-powered Land Cruiser.  If we were going to avoid all mud puddles, we wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere in the Kalahari “desert”.  Our experience yesterday taught us to charge full speed ahead – the Land Cruiser could handle anything.

Except, apparently, Deception Pan.  Maybe that’s where it gets its name – it deceived us into thinking we could cross it.  We made it about 50 yards into the muck before the Land Cruiser’s wheels started spinning in vain.  We’d lost all traction and our momentum came to a halt.  Tom jumped out to survey the damage – and quickly sank to his knees.  This was bad.  He tried alternating reverse and forward, trying to rock the car out of the hole.  He tried flooring it, but that only dug deeper holes around the tires.  After a few minutes, we gave up, turned off the car and all dismounted.

It was easier to walk without shoes – the mud sucked at the bottoms of our flipflops and made walking very difficult.  We’d only been stuck a few minutes when a safari truck pulled up, staying well away from the mud we were in and stopping in the dry area.  We walked toward it, the driver got out and walked toward us and the guy from the Land Rover that had been sitting across the pan jumped out and started toward us as well.

The three of us met in the middle.  It turns out the Land Rover had gotten stuck in some other mud yesterday and had still been unable to get free.  The man in the Land Rover was actually the owner of a safari lodge in the Okavango Delta, on vacation with his wife.  They’d been forced to sleep in their roof tent, rather than in a proper campsite the previous night and still hadn’t gotten free this morning.

The driver of the safari truck, a local guide named Brooks, was as nice as could be – while denying us a tug.  He didn’t think he could get close enough to our truck to use the tow rope without risking getting his truck stuck as well.  He had 8 paying guests on mobile safari with him, so getting them stuck for the whole day trying to help us wasn’t an option for him.  He was able to get in behind Mr. Land Rover and pull him out with no problem.

Mike (Mr. Land Rover) pulled his truck into a dry spot, then got out and came to help us.  He wasn’t willing to risk getting stuck again (can’t blame him) but he would “help us manually”.  Apparently, that means “tell you over and over again, 100 times, that the fatal mistake you made was trying to get unstuck.  You’re going to be here all day, so enjoy it.  I don’t think you’ll be able to get this out at all.”

His negative attitude was pervasive and we were all feeling pretty down.  We certainly didn’t come to the Kalahari to sit in one spot all day.  Tom got out the high jack and started on the back wheels, while I crossed the pan to the Land Rover to borrow Mike’s axe.  Our axe was back at camp, sitting next to our pile of firewood.  Perfect.
With Mike’s axe, we were able to cut off several branches from a nearby acacia tree.  Acacia trees are long and thin, with long, sharp thorns up to two inches long.  Trying to get in near enough to chop, then actually chopping and dragging out the acacia branches had us all covered in scratches and bloody tracks.

I did most of the chopping, while Tom put up with Negative Mike and maneuvered the high jack.  Eva and Anna looked around for sticks and branches that were on the ground and took turns with the axe when I couldn’t chop any more.  After three hours, I had blisters popped on both hands plus scratches on my legs and a cut in the bottom of my foot.  Everyone else was in similar shape.  But, during that time, Tom had lifted both back wheels and used the branches we’d cut to make a mat under them to provide some traction in the mud.

Stuck in Deception Pan

Negative Mike decided we had enough wood, so could he please have his axe back?  There wasn’t much more he could do for us – we just needed to be patient, jack up the front wheels and use the rest of our wood to make a mat under them as well.  He promised to come by our campsite later in the evening (it was barely 10 am at this point) and make sure someone had given us a ride back to camp before dark (there was no way we’d get the truck out before dark, he implied) and would try to send the rescue tractor to us if he ran into them.  We were glad to be rid of him – even if it meant we’d lost our axe.

He hadn’t been gone 5 minutes when the 4 of us unanimously agreed that he was an idiot and we’d try again to drive the car out.  Tom got behind the wheel, Anna, Eva and I got in the front to push and we went for it.  To describe the furious action that was packed into the next 15 seconds would take more words than you’re willing to read – there was lots of pushing, grunting, revving and mud flying everywhere.  But the end result was Tom getting out of the muck and driving the car a safe distance, clearly on firm ground.  Anna, Eva and I jumped up and down, hooting and hollering.  We wouldn’t be digging and chopping for the whole day!  We gathered up the tools and waded through the knee-high mud back to the truck.

We considered continuing our game drive, but it was 11 and the sun was hot and high in the sky.  The general rule of safari is to rest from 11-3, because the animals are on siesta during that time anyway.  We were all drained – we’d eaten a tiny breakfast at 5am and nothing since.  We headed back to camp for lunch and a nap.  The high point of the whole day – running into Negative Mike on our way back to camp.  He looked dismayed to see us less than half an hour after proclaiming us “stuck for the day”.

We had used the satellite phone (it came with the truck rental) to call the gate early that morning and ask them to send the rescue truck to pull us out.  We were assured that it would be there within the hour.  We made several more calls as each deadline they’d set for themselves passed, with no rescue truck showing up.  When we got unstuck, we called to tell them nevermind.  So we weren’t at all surprised at 1:30 when the rescue truck showed up at camp, having not found us in the mud at Deception Pan (they did find, and rescue, another truck that had gotten stuck there, so that’s good).  Unfortunately, they showed up at camp while we were a bit preoccupied with the fire that Anna started trying to make lunch.

Apparently the screw-on burners that sit on top of the propane tank weren’t on tight enough, because as soon as she lit the fire flame started spouting from the side of the tank.  It completely engulfed the off-valve, making it impossible to turn the gas off without sticking your hand in the fire.  It was as the 4 of us were crowding around the tank, trying to solve this dilemma that the rescue truck showed up.  She tried to talk to us and Eva explained (hilariously, in retrospect) that we’d love to talk to her about getting unstuck, but right now our camp was on fire.  Tom finally solved the dilemma with a long pair of pliers.  We tightened the seal on the tank and Anna started on the omelets, while the rest of us talked to the rescue truck driver.

At 3:30, it started to drizzle.  We hurriedly threw everything that needed to stay dry in a tent, zipped the flaps shut and decided to depart early for our evening game drive.  I’d even poured 10 liters of water into the hanging shower bucket for the sun to heat it – but we left before Anna or I got to take our showers.  Oh well, we’d shower when we got back.

We knew better than to head for Deception Pan – it was covered in mud.  So we headed the other way instead – toward Leopard Pan.  The Dutch couple we’d talked to at The Bridge, who had spent time in Kalahari before Maun, recommended it.  They had seen lions there.  We turned off the camp road, heading toward Leopard Pan, at about 4pm.  At 4:20, 1.5 miles from the turnoff, we hit a slick patch of mud and turned sideways, skidding off the road and up the embankment.  Our differential lodged in the slope alongside the road and like that, we were stuck again.

We were already cut, bloody and tired.  But we knew what to do.  And it didn’t look nearly as bad this time.  The front wheels weren’t stuck in the mud at all, they were still sitting nicely on top of the dryish dirt above the road.  The back wheels were another story – the passenger side wheel was about half way embedded.  We first tried jumping up and down on the front end, hoping those wheels would find purchase and drag the back end out.  Then we could just drive through the scrub brush and back onto the road.  No luck.  This time, all the extra spinning the wheels did make a noticeable difference and we were definitely in deeper than before.

So we got out the axe (we had thoughtfully put it back in the truck just before leaving camp) and the high jack.  Tom started with the jack, and I with the axe.  This time, there would be lots of digging so Eva took the shovel.  Anna scavenged for loose sticks.  There was a clump of trees growing across the road, so she and I walked toward those.  I’d chop stuff down and she’d drag it over to Tom and Eva, who positioned it under the wheels.

The going was much slower this time.  The morning had been cool and overcast – but at 4, the sun was in full force.  We were already tired and beaten up – and now we were mentally drained with the prospect of doing it all over again.  We cut enough branches to again get a mat under the back tires, though we didn’t feel we needed anything in the front.  We knew we were doing the minimum that might get us out, but we were tired.  Tom got behind the wheel and the girls and I got in back to push – this time, I was covered in mud from the spinning back wheels.  But for nothing.  We remained mired in the goop, with the front wheels tearing up the previously-packed dirt and digging in.  The back wheels grabbed at the branches, but couldn’t do anything but push the differential further into the mud.

Stuck, again

It was getting to be twilight and we hadn’t seen another car.  Anna had made multiple calls to the gate, to the lodges and to Dave, the guy that rented us a car.  The gate said they’d send the rescue woman back out to get us, but she wasn’t back from rescuing us the first time.  Dave promised to call the lodges and see if they could send someone, for a fee, but it was after 5 and he wasn’t hopeful that he’d get anyone today.  No lodges that we called answered the phone.  We’d heard the lions the night before and knew it wasn’t safe to walk, even though we were less than 3 miles from camp.

We decided to make one last go of it.  The high jack was stubborn – it would jack the truck up okay but it took Tom 45 minutes to lower it enough to use on another tire.  We cut as much wood as we could, jacked both back wheels up and piled wood under them.  This had to work.

It didn’t.  We managed to make a mangled pile of extremely thorny branches all along the ground, sticking numerous acacia thorns in our feet and hands.  My hands and wrists were oozing blood, one of my 4 shirts was full of tiny holes and I couldn’t walk without a limp.  Eva’s feet were in worse shape – she couldn’t set them down without wincing.  Anna (who I’d never seen engaged in physical labor) had popped blisters from using the axe and thorns in her feet.  We were out of energy – there would be no more attempts today.  We tried the gate one more time.  It turns out the rescue truck used all of their fuel coming to pick us up earlier and the 2 hour trek back to the gate had left them too low on gas to drive to Leopard Pan and back.  They couldn’t come pull us out until they had gotten more fuel.  It would take at least 2 hours. They estimated they’d be there around 8:30.  This was at 7pm.  I can only say that this math did not inspire much confidence.

Anna and Eva took stock of our food and cooking gear situation and did the only sensible thing – distributed beers.  We had a fridge in the truck and 18 cans of Windhoek Draught, though we weren’t supposed to use the fridge too much because it runs off the truck battery.  We had a bag of apples and a package of crackers, as well as some biltong (the African version of beef jerky).  Oh, and a bottle of vodka.  So we mostly drank our dinner and ate apples, alternating from period of giddiness (mostly tired, though the alcohol and lack of dinner may have played a part as well) and quiet despondency.

At 9, with no word from the gate, we each drifted off to a fitful sleep. No one slept very well – sitting up straight, no air conditioner, lions roaring all around (though we didn’t see any).  I woke at midnight and looked at my watch, annoyed that we still hadn’t seen the rescue truck.  At 3 am, we were all awake, for some reason.  At this point, humor was needed.  We had a strange 20 minutes where we each drank another beer and we all talked excitedly, cracking jokes about the rescue truck, Negative Mike (who would have been thrilled, I think, that we ended up stuck somewhere for a long time) and our situation in general.  Fortunately, the 4 of us all got along extremely well – I can’t imagine being in a situation like that with people I didn’t like – it would have turned a miserable experience to something unbearable.

After 20 minutes, we lapsed into sleepy silence just as quickly as we’d come awake at 3.  Around 7, we woke up but were unwilling to get out just yet and get to work on chopping, digging and jacking again.  We were holding out hope that the rescue truck had meant 8:30 am.  We dug out cereal and milk from the back of the truck, before realizing we didn’t have any bowls.

Around 7:30, we heard a motor in the distance.  I crawled up on top of the Land Cruiser with the binoculars.  I could see a truck in the distance, coming down our road. They stopped well short of the watery area that we had driven foolishly into.  I climbed down and we all set out to go try to beg a tow.  As we got closer, we could see the truck – it was Brooks, the same safari guide who’d refused us the day before.  I tried to show him how dry the ground up above our truck was – I was certain he could drive up there safely and get us out.  But he wasn’t convinced.  He wouldn’t give us a pull.

But he would still help us.  He wanted our axe – until he saw it and gave a laugh.  Similiar to Crocodile Dundee – “That’s not a knife, this is a knife” – Brooks went to his truck and pulled out his own axe, a full size axe at least twice the size of ours.  He then set about chopping down an entire tree to use.  We had been chopping down branches, hesitant to desecrate a National Park.  Brooks showed no restraint, going immediately for the trunk of a medium-sized tree and felling it in less than 5 minutes.

While he chopped, Tom jacked up the wheels higher than we’d done the day before.  Brooks insisted they needed to be higher.  Ok, Brooks knows what he’s doing.  While he was chopping, the guests on his safari couldn’t have been nicer.  Rather than be annoyed by the delay, they were extremely gracious.  One of the ladies made us coffee, another offered cookies.  A Danish man looked thrilled to be allowed out of the truck and was soon wading through the water, helping Brooks chop and drag wood.  We probably should have been trying to give them a hand, but we were all pretty exhausted from a night spent sitting in the Land Cruiser.  We just let Brooks do his thing.

We got all the wheels off the ground, then put the big, thick pieces of wood Brooks had cut under the wheels.  The logs were large and long enough to fully support the truck – it wasn’t touching the ground at all by the time Brooks was done.  All the men, me, Brooks and all of his guests, fully dressed, got into the mud to push our truck from behind.  Tom started it up and, with no problems, we were out of the mud and back on dry land.  He parked on the dry stuff and we all thanked Brooks and his group for their kindness.  We debated going on a morning game drive – we still hadn’t seen any of the famed Kalahari lions that we’d heard non-stop for 2 nights – but we were all too tired.  We knew we couldn’t handle getting stuck again – we were all eager to pack up camp and get the hell out of the Kalahari.

When we finally got to the gate (I was driving this time and we had a few hairy moments where I was sure we were about to be stuck again), we found the rescue truck woman sitting peacefully.  It was now 21 hours since we’d called her the first time….and she was still waiting for the fuel guy to get back so she could come and get us.  We were horrified, but she wasn’t worried.  “A guy got stuck in Leopard Pan three days before you and I just got him out yesterday” she told us.  I guess that was supposed to make us feel better.  Looking at the visitor log as we were signing out, only 7 cars had exited in the last 7 days.  I guess the Kalahari isn’t very popular in January – and I understand why.  If I ever go back (and I hope to, despite this experience) it’ll be in June, when it’s dry and lives up to its Desert title.  As it is, I’m hopeful that someday Anna and I can look back and think “Remember that time in the Kalahari Desert?”

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  1. This is one of those things you think — if your marriage and trip can survive these kinds of challenges it can probably survive anything. Wow — never thought this is something Anna would voluntarily do.

  2. […] volume.  Still the gold-standard for bad travel experiences. Sleeping in the Land Cruiser in the Kalahari – perhaps if we’d showered after the first stuck-in-the-mud ordeal, this would have […]

  3. […] Kalahari – Getting our truck stuck in the mud for the second time in one day was bad enough.  But being forced to spend the night, covered in mud, bleeding and blistered with only a bag of apples to eat pushed our Kalahari experience to Survivor levels. […]

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