HOW WE SUNK THE TRUCK AT THE GREAT MABABE DEPRESSION By Allan and Mira Culham
Allan and Mira Culham
The story of our drive through Northern Botswana starts with a footnote from a travel guide.
("NOTE: This is only a suggested route and some areas are not accessible during the Okavango's wet season when the water reaches far into the Moremi and floods many of the roads. Please check with Botswana travel experts regarding the conditions at the time of your planned self drive safari." From "Safarico - Africa Travel Made Easy".)
Needless to say, after having lived in Botswana for nearly 7 years a young man, I was the "Botswana travel expert" and needed no warnings from any internet web sites.
We left Maun in Northern Botswana at 5 am in the morning for the town of Kasane, a distance of some 350 km. Kasane is located on the Chobe River in the far noth of Botswana where the four countries of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe all meet. The idea was to pass through the Chobe National Park, which is famous for its large herds of African wildlife, with a brief stop at the Savuti Channel. It was at the Savuti Channel where I had spent a memorable New Years eve in the year 1979.
Driving off in our four-wheeled drive Ford F-150 Ranger truck, we felt invincible. We drove the first 30 km on a paved road heading north, while avoiding the various cattle, donkeys and goats which had chosen to use the road bed overnight to take advantage of its extra warmth. The paved road soon turned into a dirt road passing through the magnificent countryside of this remote corner of Africa.
As the sun rose, we were greeted with herds of giraffe silhouetted against the rising sun, Cape buffalo moving across the road forcing us to stop and wait for them to move on, and the plentiful elephant, the true owners of this part of Botswana.
About 126 km north of Maun, we came upon a sign which simply said "Water". Thinking that odd, we proceeded up the road until we did indeed hit a stretch of water completely covering the road. The road entered the water and we could see the road emerging from the water on the other side, about 100 meters distant. We stopped the vehicle to better ponder the situation.
Thinking we could get across, I put the truck into low gear and ventured into the water with the hope of reaching the other side. Unfortunately, once past the point of no return, the water just kept getting deeper and deeper until the vehicle was actually floating. In short order, the engine failed, the electrical system shorted out and the vehicle started to sink.
During the relatively slow sinking process, we instinctively grabbed our backpack containing passports, money and iPad and shoved it onto the dash board above the steering wheel. As the vehicle slowly settled onto the bottom with water above the bottom of the windows, our luggage, food, equipment and ourselves were soon a soggy mess. Very fortunately, the driver's side window was open which meant we were able to quickly vacate the vehicle by squeezing ourselves out the window.
Chest deep in an African watering hole at dawn and not knowing if there were any crocodiles around, our first inclination was to get to dry land. We waded back in the direction from which we came. We now found ourselves wet, disheveled and more than a little disheartened in the middle of the African bush. We were also confronted with the realization that we were utterly defenseless at a watering hole in the middle of the African bush.
During our drive from Maun, we had seen no other vehicles along this road so rescue could not be taken for granted. Compounding our worry, we surmised that we had somehow missed a "Detour" sign somewhere back where we saw the "Water" sign. In hind sight, I had noticed a small track disappearing off to the right and had wondered at the time where that might be going. Whatever the situation, we were now off the main road and rescue by a fellow vehicle was not likely. Any hope of rescue would now have to depend on our walking back through the bush to the "Water" sign in hopes of flagging down another vehicle for help.
As my brain slowly started to kick in, if we were going to walk out of there, having that backpack with our valuables and identification would be a good idea. Trying hard to ignore the possibility of crocodiles, I waded back to the truck to retrieve the backpack. Once again back on dry land, I realized that having some water and food might also be a good idea for our survival. So, once again, it was back to the truck. This time I had to squeeze back in through the window in order to rummage through the floating boxes in the back seat. Having retrieved some water bottles and sealed crackers, I once again returned to dry land. Luckily without incident.
Trying hard to forget the surrounding African wilderness and the wildlife that it contained, it was time to walk out of there. Holding hands, we quietly and carefully started back up the road, trying to look (and feel!) as big and as brave as possible. It took only 10 minutes before we were accosted by an elephant that moved onto the road blocking our way. While keeping a wary eye on us, the elephant lingered on the road for a few minutes before moving on. Another 10 minutes had passed when I heard an ominous rustling in the bushes behind us, accompanied by the fierce snort of a Cape buffalo. We quickly moved on.
After about 45 minutes, we found ourselves back again at the now famous "Water" sign. By this time, the sun was fully up and the temperature was starting to rise. Sure enough, tacked onto the bottom of the sign was a small piece of wood with the word "detour" scrawled on it and a small arrow pointing to the right. Off to the right, there was indeed a small track heading off into the bush.
While certainly no safer than anywhere else, if rescue was to happen, this was the place to stay. There was no point in walking back to the sunken truck or walking further back to the nearest settlement which was about 40 km. Despite having seen no other vehicles in the entire trip from Maun, we had no choice but to settle down and wait and ponder our situation.
About 30 minutes later, we heard then saw a convoy of two trucks coming up the road. Both of these vehicles were big "unimogs" with oversized wheels, well-suited to the African bush. We immediately flagged down the first truck whose driver referred us to his "boss" who was in the second vehicle. His "boss" turned out to be Dube, who was driving a container of thatch to a safari camp further north near the Caprivi Strip. Dube quickly ordered his truck helper, Isheto, to vacate the cab and he scrambled to a perch on top of the container. Mira and I thankfully climbed up into the cab with Dube. Dube could not restrain his amazement at finding two "elderly white people" at 9:30 am in the morning in the middle of the African bush. We were clearly in trouble, however, so the unwritten law of the bush stated that Dube could not leave us behind and would help us to the best of his ability.
When Mira exclaimed, in expressing our thanks, that "You have saved our lives", Dube looked at us as quizzically if we were aliens from outer pace and stated emphatically "Yes, there are many lion here." He was amazed that we had not seen any (or that they had not seen us) as lions were very common along that particular stretch of the road. Following the Detour sign, Dube launched his vehicle along the two ruts disappearing into the bush. We passed through any number of elephant families along the way, thinking how lucky we were that the elephant that had accosted us on the road was a bachelor and not part of the family grouping. As we chatted, Dube clearly thought that we were crazy to be in such a situation. Dube eventually came back onto the main road and followed it back to the water hole where we could see our forlorn Ford truck nearly submerged in the water.
Backing his massive vehicle into the water, he instructed Isheto to attach a chain to the front axle of the Ford. Isheto stripped down and dove under the water bearing the heavy chain which he managed to somehow attach to our truck. Dube drew in the slack in the chain and began slowly to haul the now utterly sodden vehicle out of the water. Within seconds it was a dripping mass on dry land. Clearly it was beyond immediate repair and was not going to start again any time soon.
Getting behind the wheel of the Ford, I steered while Dube and the "unimog" pulled us about 4 km up the road to where there was a very small village by the name of Mababe. Dube was taking a left hand fork at Mababe and could not afford to take us any further. But again, according to that unwritten law of the African bush, he could not just leave us to bake in the African sun without assistance. Dube took the time to ask a teacher at the local primary school if we could borrow her cell phone to be in touch with Maun. He then used the same phone to call a mechanic friend of his in Maun to request his assistance in Mababe. The mechanic, Chaka, said that he would buy some spare parts for our vehicle and get on the road to Mababe. At this point, Dube and Isheko left us as they headed further north, leaving us parked near the main road through the village of Mababe.
Dube and Isheko
The village of Mababe is very remote with a population of about 300. We soon become objects of great curiosity and fascination for the local residents who found these two strange people suddenly parachuted into their midst. We quickly made acquaintances with the local primary school teacher, staff nurse at the local clinic and policeman as well as the various school children and village residents who were passing by.
Taking advantage of our long wait for the mechanic to arrive and having nothing else to do, we started to dry out our clothes. We spread them out on the grass and the bushes around the truck where they soon started to steam and bake. The temperature rose to the low 40s celsius, which was good for drying our clothes but was hard on our bodies. We sought what shade we could under a neighbouring tree and against the wall of an unused general store called "The Good Life".
Chaka, the mechanic from Maun, finally arrived at about 3 pm. He seemed competent enough as he started to take the motor apart and drain the water from the various pieces and hoses of the engine. After about 3 hours of work, he miraculously managed to get the vehicle started, although the engine ran rough and most of the electrical systems were not working. As dusk approached, having only one head light, we started the return drive back to Maun.
Chaka was not going to leave us given the tenuous state of our truck. We also needed his headlights if we were to navigate safely back to Maun. So with Chaka in the lead, we headed back down the road. When we came to the detour heading south, we wisely took it and headed off into the bush. During the 30 minute trip on the detour, we encountered three or four different elephants families which were happily working over the forest. Back on the main road, with sunset shortly upon us, we were left with one half-functioning headlight and Chaka's tail lights as our guide. His brake lights signaled either animals on the road or water damage which we took extra care to navigate around. Following an exhausting and nerve wracking 3 hour drive back into Maun, we drove to the nearest ATM to get the cash to pay Chaka for his services. We later managed to find a room at Riley's, the same hotel which we had left some 16 hours earlier.
Safely checked into our room, we showered, put on our least dirty clothes and headed to the bar to reflect on the days adventure. The best beer of Botswana has the unlikely name of "St. Louis Lager". But whatever the name, that beer at the garden bar of Riley's Hotel in Maun, Botswana, was the best beer that I have ever had in my whole life!
(Postscript: Little did we know at the time, but the place where we sunk the truck is commonly known as the Mababe Depression. Following our accident in the Mababe Depression, the people of Botswana who helped us were so incredibly kind and helpful. From Dube the driver, Isheko the truck labourer, Kebogolo the primary school teacher, the nurse who kept checking on us, the young students who wanted to practice their English, Chaka the mechanic, the receptionist at Riley's Hotel to the Europcar representative who helped to get us back on the road the next day - all will be remembered for their remarkable kindness and their assistance to their fellow human beings in need.)
Allan and Mira Culham
Tags: Allan Culham