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Getting sticky with it





10 December 2009


Text: Danie Botha
Photographs: Jannie Herbst

10:00. The Nissan X-Trail 2.0 dCi 4×4 LE is loaded, ready to roll. Tour guide Kalbas Nell and his henchmen are loading the last few supplies in his Cruiser. So instead of standing around and irritating Kalbas with our suggestions on how he should really pack his bakkie, we head off for a last ride around the island. This normally takes about five minutes.

10:01. The X-Trail is heading towards the actual pan, from the rocky and elevated Kubu Island. We see a clear track, heading onto the pan, from our higher vantage point. We decide to head out on the track, for a last photograph of the Nissan on the flat expanse, with Kubu in the background.

10:02. What a place! We’re cruising along at about 70km/h on the hard surface, with the Nissan’s All-Mode 4×4-i system in “Auto” mode. Meanwhile we’re watching the rear-view mirrors to keep an eye on Kubu, and plan our photograph accordingly.

10:03. After covering about 1km, we were almost perfectly positioned. In the distance, the twee-spoor track stretches as far as the eye can see, as straight as an arrow. We see what looks like a stump, sticking out of the surface of the pan, in an upright position. Jannie mentions that a stump in the middle of the pan could not be a good thing. Then?

10:03:30. Out of the blue, the Nissan’s speed drops markedly, even with the go-faster pedal immediately pinned to the carpet. The stump is still some distance away. We flick the 4×4 system to “Lock”. To understand what it feels like: imagine the X-Trail is connected via a 500m long snatch strap to a large object, like a heavy bulldozer. Then imagine driving away from the bulldozer at 70km/h? until all the slack in the strap is taken up, and halts your progress in a split second.

That is what it felt like. No ABS system on earth could have made the Nissan stop so rapidly.

10:04. We try going forward, with the traction control on. The wheels just turn. We try going forward, with the traction control off. The wheels just turn, aimlessly. Ditto with reverse gear. We get out and inspect the situation. Walking on the pan’s surface, we battle for grip. And the Nissan is lying on its belly, in this slippery sludge.

We are well and truly, and without any doubt, very, very stuck. Oh bother.

10:05. “Kalbas, come in! Kalbas.” No response from the two-way radio. “Kalbas, come in!” No response. Could we possibly be out of radio range? Surely not. We try calling Kalbas a few more times.

10:10. “Kalbas? Please come in? Kalbas?”

10:15. “Kalbas? Where are you? Can you hear us? Kalbas? Hello? Anyone?” Jannie Herbst tries too: “Kalbas!! Kalbas!!” A short while later, relief. It’s Kalbas’s voice, beaming over the radio’s speaker: “Where are you guys?” We answer: “Well, we were going to take one last photograph, and drove onto the pan?” Kalbas, with a weird-sounding voice: “Yeeees?” We continue: “And we got a little, um, stuck.”
Kalbas didn’t answer. Possibly he was already planning the recovery. More realistically, throwing things around in the Cruiser’s cabin. But on the horizon we saw the tell-tale dust of the Land Cruiser approaching.

10:18. Kalbas didn’t say a word when he stopped the Cruiser some distance away from the stricken X-Trail. Instead he walked over to the Nissan.

10:25. A plan is hatched. The Cruiser cannot venture too close to the Nissan, as the pan’s surface is so slippery one can barely walk on it. So we attach the X-Trail to two snatch straps, which in turn are attached to the Toyota’s heavy duty winch. This should do the trick!

10:30. Kalbas starts reeling in the Nissan. Ohhh, maybe not. The Nissan is reeling in the heavy Cruiser. Kalbas hooks reverse, as the Toyota battles for grip. The Cruiser sinks into the muddy mess. The Nissan had moved a total of 28,3cm. And now two vehicles are stuck.

10:45. After generous use of the one small shovel to clear the worst mud from the Cruiser’s big wheels, Kalbas lets it rip, while the rest of us add a bit of manpower. The Toyota’s straight-six engine howls, and the wheels spin as Kalbas rocks it forwards, then backwards, trying to build up a small head of steam. She’s not going anywhere.

10:50. After some more shovelling, the procedure described above is repeated. And? yes! The Cruiser is out! It felt as if we had scored a major victory.

11:15. With a new angle of attack, we are optimistic. The same procedure follows: hook up two snatch straps to the Cruiser’s winch, clear the worst mud from behind the X-Trail’s wheels? and? the Nissan moves 25,1cm before the Cruiser bogs down.

11:45. This time the Cruiser is more firmly, er, embedded in the mud. The wheels just turn aimlessly, the specialist BF Goodrich tyres clogged with mud. The lone shovel gets its most arduous work-out. To aid traction in the most slippery mud on earth, Kalbas hauls out three sleeping mattresses from the Cruiser’s canopy. These are wedged in front and behind the wheels.

12:17. After a lot of preparation work, we are finally ready. Kalbas points me in the direction of the steering wheel. He will add his more considerable weight to the pushing effort. I rock it forward, backward, forward, backward, building up the tiniest amount of momentum. Then? I floor that big-six engine in reverse gear, and the Cruiser hauls itself out of that hole. It felt like another major fight had been won.

In an attempt to bring a smile to Kalbas’s muddy face, I joke: “You should have let me drive the Cruiser a long time ago! It’s easy!” Surprisingly, Kalbas didn’t smile.

Indeed, we had won a battle. But the war was still far from won.

12:25. Kalbas heads off towards Kubu Island. He is going in search of anything that could help extricate the Nissan from its muddy predicament. Meanwhile we try and clear the Nissan’s belly from the mud.

13:16. Kalbas arrives back at the scene. He has not managed to secure a longer tow rope (so that the Cruiser can winch from more solid ground), but instead he has gathered more stumps, sand, and? Whiskey, the Kubu Island “manager”. He has come along to assist.

14:22. A new angle of attack, as well as a new plan of action, are on the cards. Sand, stumps and mattresses are deployed. Instead of attempting to winch the Nissan, Kalbas is now going to try and pluck the Nissan out of the mud with a snatch strap, attached to his Cruiser’s rear bumper. But to do this, he has to venture perilously close to the X-Trail. And? this time the Nissan moves 16,1cm before the Cruiser sinks into the muddy mess. It’s the deepest it’s gone so far, and it is lying on its belly. Oh boy. Oh boy.

15:51. After much shovelling, and the strategic placement of the mattresses and stumps, it’s time? Kalbas gives it a go. But the big Land Cruiser is not budging. Not even an inch.

16:17. We focus our intentions on the X-Trail. If we can get the Nissan out, we can go in search of help, maybe even drag the Toyota clear of the mud. We go through the whole procedure again of “unplugging” the Nissan, placing those mattresses, and shovelling.

16:30. With all the manpower at hand, we manage to move the Nissan 48,8cm before it bogs down again. We are in a spot of bother here. If only we could anchor that winch to something!

16:32. Snap, crackle and pop! Jannie comes up with a plan! Maybe, maybe it would work. If we bury the Land Cruiser’s spare-wheel in the ground, and use it as an anchor point for the winch cable? this way the Cruiser can be dragged free, followed by the Nissan. This method is called the dead man’s anchor. Much like a last throw of the dice, really.

16:57. The wheel is in the ground, and Kalbas starts winching. The wheel starts dragging itself free from the clutches of the earth. The spare-wheel needs to go deeper, and at an angle.

17:21. With the spare-wheel now more firmly buried in the ground, Kalbas starts winching… and, yes! Yes! Yes! We can! The Cruiser drags itself clear of the hole! We now hook up the Nissan too.

17:25. What’s that on the horizon? Three human-like shapes walking across the surface of the pan, towards us.

17:30. This Nissan is moving! The plan is working! Amazingly though, the X-Trail’s front wheels just drag through the mud, not turning, even though the gearbox is in neutral. This mud is something else, and is preventing the wheels from turning. We use the Nissan’s engine to spin the front wheels, just to get them to rotate again.

17:40. The three human-like shapes have arrived on the scene. It’s a young couple from Spain, along with their local guide. They had heard of our, er, situation. So they had walked out onto the pan, bringing rope.

We thank them, but the time for rope has passed. The Nissan is now making steady progress, thanks to the dead man’s anchor. Meanwhile the pan is getting ready to put on its spectacular sunset show. The Spanish tourists take lots of photographs. Not of the looming sunset, mind you.

17:42. Nooo! We have used up all the available winching space, and the Cruiser can go no further. Now we have to relocate and bury the spare-wheel further away! Where’s that damn shovel?

17.47. We’ve got the spare-wheel out, and have moved it to a new location. But just as we are about to get digging, a shout: “Look! There!” And true’s Bob, on the horizon, we see two 4×4 vehicles approach.

17:51. Greg Justus and Heidi Stapylton, and Piet and Annedine Strydom arrive at the scene, armed with a Jeep Cherokee and a Nissan Safari wagon. A plan is quickly fabricated: a train of 4x4s will be formed, with snatch straps in between, and the X-Trail will be tugged out of the quagmire at maximum possible speed. Great plan? except that the Nissan was going to go maximum speed, backwards. The Spanish tourists, as well as Heidi Stapylton and Annedine Strydom, take a lot of photographs and video. Not of the now spectacular sunset, mind you.

17:58. “Ready? Go!” And so, a peculiar event took place. With the Nissan Safari, Jeep Cherokee and Toyota Land Cruiser champing at the bit, and picking up speed at the best possible rate, the Nissan was unplugged from that mud in such a fashion that even NASA’s rocket scientists would have sat up and taken notice.

Some of us have driven sideways before. But how many have driven sideways? in reverse? On that slippery surface, and at what felt like at least 162 km/h, the Nissan’s nose slid this way, then that way, as I counter-steered for all I was worth. Somehow the Nissan missed all our gear that we had unpacked from the X-Trail’s boot. In fact, I only saw it after I had passed the heap of stuff. At times no steering input had any effect? that’s when the X-Trail became airborne over the rough patches.

17:58:20. The 4×4 train stops on the hard surface of the pan. We are clear of the mud. It had taken us eight hours. We thank our train drivers, and the Spanish tourists.

18:01. We arrive back at our camp site at Kubu Island, and start setting up camp. We had intended to cover about 400km that day. In the end, the Nissan X-Trail’s odometer bragged with only 3km for eight hours worth of effort.

18:01:15. We have our first cold one for the day. Dammit, it is so, so good.

Class of Makgadikgadi
After an event like this, one obviously goes through the customary list of “we shouldn’t have done this” and “we should have done that.”

Well, we shouldn’t have assumed that a clear track running onto the pan would be safe to drive on. Especially with all the unseasonal rain the area had received in the winter months.

What we probably should have done was to wait for Kalbas to pack his gear into his bakkie, and told him exactly how he should be doing it.

Oh yes, and early the next morning, as we left Kubu, that sticky mud came back to haunt us. The Nissan’s wheels were clogged with the stuff, and since we had no means of cleaning them properly, we had to drive along at a maximum of 80km/h, thanks to the out-of-balance wheels. At the first opportunity, in the town of Lethlakane, we got a local car wash with a high-pressure water system to take to the wheels. That got rid of most of the mud.

But it was only after two more mud-removing sessions, on the way to South Africa, that the Nissan X-Trail was happy again.

A helping hand, anyone? Anyone?

In December 2005 Vic Cook, his wife and two friends were on holiday, and en-route to Moremi, Savuti and Chobe. But then the foursome arrived at the entrance gate to Nxai Pan. There they found some fellow overlanders in desperate need of a helping hand. So they went to help.

Day one.

It all began rather innocently.

Two French nationals, driving rented Toyota Land Cruiser station wagons, took a wrong route, and ended up burying their 4x4s up to the axles in mud, near the famous Baines’ Baobabs landmark. But this was not normal mud. It was the same sticky, gooey stuff that had us sweating for a day, getting the Nissan X-Trail and Land Cruiser bakkie free.

Good thing, then, that a bunch of South African holidaymakers in two bakkies came to the Frenchmen’s rescue. Well, rescue is maybe a strong word. Instead of extricating the French team, the two bakkies also got stuck.

This is the scene that greeted Vic Cook and his travelling companions when they were asked if they could assist. Vic, being a sensible-type of person, first walked the surface of the pan, and inspected all the options.

“I decided it would be safe for the Landy, so we set to work. The Landy’s winch worked hard that day, and the battery was taking a hammering, but eventually we had the two bakkies out. I got stuck briefly, but with some manpower, of which there was plenty of, we got her out. I got stuck a second time, and again we got her out, thanks to the manpower. But the third time she went down, and I turned to call on help, the South Africans had left for Baines’ Baobabs in their bakkies, leaving word that they will find and send us suitable help.

“So there we were, very stuck! We were not very impressed with our countrymen at that very moment. We then carted some of our camping equipment though half a kilometre of mud and water to the Baines’ Baobabs site and prepared for an uncomfortable night,” explains Vic.

Two more South African 4x4s arrived at the Baines’ Baobabs camp that evening.

“After they learned of our predicament, they walked out onto the pan to inspect our dilemma. But they sensibly decided that there was little they could do to help. They then insisted on giving us a supply of meat, all their drinking water and enough toilet paper to supply an army! They promised to come back the next day to check on our progress, which they duly did and this did a lot to restore my faith in South African overlanders,” says Vic.

The Frenchmen, who had been there for some time already, had in the meantime organised a recovery truck which had come all the way from Maun. It had cost them about R10 000! The truck arrived after dark but the driver insisted that he would be able to rescue the stranded vehicles. But before any 4x4s could be recovered, the big truck also sank into the quagmire.

“We spent an extremely uncomfortable night camping at Baines’ Baobabs as most of our equipment was still on the Landy,” says Vic.

Day two.

The next morning Vic was on the job early, along with his newly-found French friends, and the staff of the recovery vehicle. The parks department, alerted of their plight, had sent a 4×4 tractor along. But when the tractor drove out onto the pan, it immediately got stuck! The rest of the day was spent attempting to recover the tractor.

“The Frenchmen were extremely concerned for our safety as they had seen lion tracks in the vicinity, so they organised that we were transported, along with them, to Planet Baobab Lodge, which was approximately 150km away. We just had to pay for our accommodation, and they sorted out the rest. It was really nice of them, and in fact, we became quite good friends too,” says Vic.

But the vehicles, including a large recovery truck and 4×4 tractor, were still stuck on the pan.

Day three.

“The next morning Planet Boabab’s game viewing vehicle transported us back to the pan .We spent
the day digging the 4×4 tractor out of the mud,” explains Vic. “By then, senior parks board officials had become involved, and we had a small army of helpers at our disposal. Late in the afternoon the tractor was finally pulled out of the mud.

“By sundown we had managed to free the two Land Cruisers, but the Landy was still firmly stuck,” explains Vic.

“Supper at the lodge was filled with mixed emotions. The ordeal was over for the Frenchmen, but we still had to recover our vehicle. To the credit of our French friends, and in contrast to some of our countrymen, they assured us that they would not be leaving until we were out of the pan.”

Day four.

The entire group travelled back to the pan with us the following morning and, much to the relief of all, the Landy and the recovery vehicle were quickly rescued from the pan.

“It was finally over, but we had lost four days of our carefully planned holiday,” explains Vic.

But the contact with the senior park officials stood Vic in good stead.

“They sorted out our bookings at all the parks we were heading to, making sure that we could still enjoy all the areas we had intended visiting. And so we eventually completed our holiday, still experiencing all the wondrous things we had planned to experience, despite our four-day delay. Admittedly my travelling companions, who were 4×4 newbies, were initially quite traumatised by the whole thing. Devastated even. But eventually they really, really enjoyed the experience too,” says Vic.