Animals in destress have a unmistakeable urgency to their sounds and movements. Impala will run for fun, with a fast, agile, bouncy step. But when they are threatened, their gate takes on an entirely different profile. They signal to each other with an audible and disquieting hiss. It turns out people in distress are no different.
We were tracking lions. Or, rather, Gee our venerable guide was tracking them while we bounced along in our safari vehicle encouraging the hunt. The sky was cloudless and, save for the occasional range of trees, we could see planes of grass and mash for kilometers in every direction. We stopped to look for tracks. Across the marsh we saw a group waiving —not an entirely unfamiliar site as we’d encountered other safari-goers during some of our game drives. Only this group was waving with urgency.
Our diesel engine clattered to rest. We heard them screaming help! Please help us! Help!. One was waving something shiny, all of them had their hands in the air, moving wildly. They never stopped shouting.
I hope it’s a vehicle emergency and not a medical emergency. We all agreed we needed to go to them. Gee, in what would become a hallmark trait of the day, didn’t rush. Instead he quieted us and said he needed to make a plan.
We can’t just go to this place. It’s all water from here to there, he explained. Gee, a native of the Okavango Delta, took off his shoes and climbed out of the truck. Nick, will you come too? I hopped out, followed by my dad and we trodded off over a kilometer of ankle-deep marshlands.
By the time we were close enough to see the faces of the distressed wavers, it was clear they were all sobbing heavily. We’ve been out her for four days, the gentleman said through sobs and a non-native-english-speaker accent.
That hit us hard. 4 days!
By then we’d taken in the scene. They were a family of self-drivers, people who rent a 4×4 decked out with roof tents, shovels, camping gear and food. Only their 4×4, a converted Toyota truck, was buried nearly to the doors in a muddy bog. (Along our trip, we’d remarked on how fun self-driving seemed.)
We tried hard the first day to get it out but once it got so stuck, we were scared we’d lose the truck; it was our only safety. I tried to walk out one day, but there were too many hippos. We’ve been sleeping in the cab at night. He and his wife were still a bit teary, clearly frazzled and, above all, concerned about their two young boys.
This is going to be fine! Gee is always cheery. We’re going to get you out today. Gee is always timely. I’ve been driving here for 15 years, I know how to do these things. Gee is always confident.
Their truck was too buried to be driven out, even by an experienced driver. Once the differential and under-mounted spare tire are buried, there’s too much drag. Gee and I debated the merits of axel lockers. I defered to him, knowing my own track record for getting stuck. Gee grabbed their Hi-Lift jack —a staple in any well-equipped 4×4 (I keep one mounted to the front bumper of my ’73 Land Rover). We improvised a base out of some wood and plastic and began lifting the rear corner of their truck out of the mud. We need lots of logs, small, straight logs. Gee sent us scouting.
The family had been using a nearby rock as their daytime base of operations. They’d hung water bottles in the only tree near the rock —a smart move, light reflects through the bottles and can be seen by planes. They also kept a fire going. The father took a bucket from the front passenger seat and emptied it into the grass; thankful it would be the last time for that chore.
We grabbed all the 3–5″ diameter straight logs we could from their firewood pile and began stuffing them under the rear wheel of their truck. We did the same for the spinning front wheel. But it was no use.
Gee trudged back to his converted Toyota Land Cruiser —the safari vehicle we’d been nearly living in ourselves for the last nine days. He carefully drove it as close to the mud hole as seemed safe. The rest of our party climbed out, carrying our provisions for high tea. They joined the family at their rock and setup for tea and rusks.
Gee and I joined the tow strap from the stuck truck to Gee’s tow strap. The father asked me to drive their truck, having understandably lost some confidence in the whole ordeal. I climbed in and signaled to Gee that I was ready. I expected a strong tug. I didn’t expect the tow strap to snap. We tried again, knotting the broken tow strap back around itself. Soon Gee was also stuck.
The marsh was deceptive. In most places, a few inches of water covered a hard-packed sandy floor. There were reeds and grass covering the ground, so it was difficult to tell where the water was deep and where it was simply damp ground. On more than one occasion, moving around the stuck truck, I went knee, or thigh deep. I could drink this water and be fine. It’s very clean, very clean, Gee told us. This, and axel lockers, may be the only points on which Gee and I don’t agree. The water was brown and murky and not without the occasional dark, fast-swimming shadow.
Don’t worry, he chuckled, we just need logs. Lots of logs. Gee never loses his cool. He unbolted his own Hi-Lift jack and began lifting the back corner of his truck. Using his bare feet, he manipulated the logs into place and tucked in a thick rubber mat for more traction. Gee never complains. Twenty minutes later, we repeated the process for the opposite front tire. Gee gave it a shot and began rocking his truck back and forth. Not enough logs, he laughed as he said it and made himself a cup of coffee. We are getting out of here today, do not worry. He punctuates each of the last three words for effect. Gee never stops laughing. So, we jacked up our trusty safari truck, stuffed more logs in watery holes, and tried again. Nearly an hour later, Gee’s truck was again free. (I’d also earned Gee’s confidence to use the Hi-Lift jack on my own. I feelt accomplished and proud.)
While Gee and I had been working to free his truck, my dad and the father of the stranded family were doing the same to their stuck truck. By now, I estimated, there must be a veritable forest’s worth of wood under each tire. Gee took a different angle, avoiding the deep ruts and holes from our previous attempt. Look at all the logs, * he pointed into the water, we’re not the only ones to be stuck here*. Gee giggled.
I climbed back into the stuck truck and jammed the stick into reverse. I was careful not to gun the throttle. If you go too fast, you just dig deeper. That’s the theory at least. Once I felt the tow strap tug the truck, I forgot my training and stomped on the the accelerator. This time, the truck moved! It lurched backward; I heard the sucking sound of the tires breaking free of their deep ruts. There was also cheering and clapping.
Once we were free of the mud bog, I tucked the truck in behind Gee’s Land Cruiser. We high fived. We patted backs. We cracked opened local Hasana beers. Gee had a coke. Ok, here is the plan, I have the plan, Gee announced. Gee is proud. I am going to drive across this marsh. Then, I will come back and drive you out. Do not follow me, ok? Gee is laughing between each word. We finished our beers, climbed into our safarimobile and started recounting the story of the day. We inched forward, Gee tried to keep the truck in the ruts, where the hard-packed sandy bottom was preferabe to the muddy holes. Halfway across the bog, we began to sink. Gee is undaunted.
Do you think it would help if we pushed? My aunt, Phyllis, isn’t one to shy from a challenge. (A Dawson axiom, often said about my grandmother, is anything worth doing, is worth doing to extreme.) Before Gee could answer, Phyllis rolls up her pants and is finding a good hand hold near the spare tire on the back of the truck. Soon, we’re all out of the truck with our hands and feet hunting for traction. Gee throws it into gear and we start pushing. It sinks down, the back right tire spinning in a muddy socket.
Now, we’re old hat at this. Base, jack, logs, rubber, repeat. We tackle the spinning front tire. I sink one of the truck’s spare tires into the mud as a jack stand. Where’d you learn that trick? Gee asks me with a hint of surprise.
This isn’t my first rodeo, I’ve been stuck lots of times before. On previous drives I’ve told Gee all about my Land Rover and 4×4 adventures. But I’ve never really gotten myself unstuck before… Gee lets out a belly laugh and keeps jacking the front of the truck. Logs, rubber, repeat.
We reassume our positions behind the truck, feet digging into the sand, water up to our knees. You know, if this wheel spins, we’re all getting covered! Jineen is right, we all know it, and we all laugh. This is adventure. Well, it is to us. We haven’t been living in the cab of our truck for four nights. Before we try again, Gee reassures our new friends: I have a radio, I’ve been in touch with three other rangers and my other truck… (our support team is back at camp with their own well-equipped Land Cruiser)… we’re getting out of here today. No worries. No worries! Again, he punctuates the last words.
Our safari steed is in gear, the diesel engine is ticking over slowly, forceably, with much more torque than us petrol drivers are used to. We’re pushing. It’s moving. The logs beneath the tires are cracking and snapping as the Land Cruiser lurches forward freeing itself from the muddy suction of the bog. A few of us can’t keep up, and a few others keep pushing, running behind the truck. In another 30 seconds it’s across the bog and back on to dry land. (Dry land, interestingly enough, is mostly sodium bicarbonate washed down from natural deposits from Angola.)
Insert more cheering and another round of cold Hasana lagers.
Gee sloughs back to our new friends and instructs me to drive his Land Cruiser around the dry road to the other side of the marsh. I’d like to think this is what it’s like to be called up from the minor leagues. I knock the mud off my boots, climb into the driver’s seat, and find first gear. *Ok gang, no more lions, we’re rescuing Europeans today.” Not many laughs, but I’d like to think I’d still make a fine Okavango Delta guide. By the time I drive the Cruiser around —after you’ve mastered Delta vehicle rescue, you can shorten it to Cruiser —Gee had piloted the selfdrivers’ truck to dry road. We invited our new friends back to our camp for lunch.
Nearly five hours after seeing and hearing their destress signals, we caravanned in to Camp Xakanaka (ch-Ta-Ka-na-ch-Ka). Open, one of our porters, stood with a tray of iced bush tea. Today’s special touch was a rim of candied sugar and a slice of cucumber. A second table had been added to our camp dining area. Matchsticks on the tablecloth spelled “welcome”. There were more tears, lots of recounting of events and another round of Hasanas.
After lunch, Gee and I drove them to the main gate of the Moremi game reserve. Gee gave them a map and very specific directions to Maun. They’d decided to abandon the rest of the their selfdrive adventure in favor of a warm shower and hotel bed; and I can’t say that I blame them in the least. We hugged, exchanged contact information, and they were off.
I don’t know how we can thank you, the father had said over lunch.
You’d have done the same for us, we said. And it wasn’t just a line. We’re not so different from the animals. Hearing the urgency and fear in their yelling that morning triggered something more primal than the word ‘help’ on its own. You really would do the same for someone else. We’re one big herd, us humans. We take care of each other. And when real stakes are on the line, we drop everything to help each other. Every other animal we saw in Africa behaves the same way (except hyenas, they’re apparently pretty big assholes).
I don’t know what I’d have done if I were part of that family. Four days is a long time to spend lost, alone and stranded in the Botswana bush. Heck, it’d be a long time to be lost and alone in the Appalachian mountains. I was hiking a few years ago on the Appalachian Trail and came across a search and rescue mission in progress. Someone had been missing for 12 hours and there were 5 teams out looking for him. There are real dangers to being stranded in the wilderness and make no mistake about it, the Southern African bush is among the most dangerous places on earth in which to be stranded.
I would have lost my cool. Many times. Every day. I’d have hurt myself trying to take my frustration out on something like a jack or tire or bumper. I would have been tempted to break (literally) rule number three: never leave your vehicle.
Gee, on the other hand, never lost his cool. I learned four important lessons that day:
- Never lose your patience. It took us five hours to get both trucks unstuck, multiple times. You jack, you dig, you collect logs, you place them, and you try again. You move 2 feet. You repeat the process. You have high tea. You get wet and muddy. You keep repeating. Then you get free. Don’t fight the process, just keep your cool.
- Don’t travel alone in a dangerous place without experience. Even then, you probably shouldn’t be alone. Two trucks can help each other in ways no one truck alone can.
- Be prepared. Boy scouts know it, soldiers know it, grandmothers know it. Our new friends didn’t have a satellite phone (we were 5 hours from the closest village with a cell tower), they didn’t have a flare gun, a signaling mirror, nor an airhorn. Would any of those things have shortened their stay? Maybe, maybe not. But one of Gee’s constant reassurances was: I have the radio, I can always call for more help if we cannot do this. But we can do this. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. The radio is a lifeline to other people. Gee never had any reason to panic because if it really got worse, he could call for more help.
- Trust your instincts. On many counts, the stranded family made some really smart choices based on instinct. They kept a fire going on the nearby rock. They never left their truck and knew to keep it safe too. It was all we had, they said. They knew if they were to burry it further, it might not run, then they might have been in much worse shape (temperatures ranged from 30s at night to 90s during the day). They also knew it wasn’t safe to walk, even though our camp was only five 5km away. Between us and them were several pods of hippos, a pride of lions and almost certainly a leopard and many of the aforementioned asshole hyenas.