Caprivi | A bridge too far
In the past four years, the Fourie brothers from Pretoria have crossed the country’s borders 13 times. However, what they experienced in the Caprivi in July last year, no one could have predicted – except maybe their mom.
This time, the itinerary of the brothers – Wilbrie, Reynold and Bennie – was straightforward: they would drive from Pretoria through Botswana to Kasane via the Makgadikgadi Pans, head to the Caprivi and visit the wild, unspoilt Mamili National Park, before returning home.
Up to just before Mamili, the tour with their parents, sister and eleven friends in four vehicles had gone without a hitch.
You don’t often hear about Mamili, and few people visit this park in the southeast of the Caprivi.
The little info you find on the internet warns you against a myriad things, like deep rivers, bad roads, and elephants and other wild animals that walk through your campsite.
And a Tracks4Africa map teems with red danger flags.
But the brothers had been to the park twice in the previous two years and knew they needed to be careful and well-prepared.
But how do you prepare yourself for a rickety bridge?
Wilbrie tells the story:
DAY 1: Is that a hippo or caravan in the river?
To get to Mamili is usually relatively simple: Turn off at Sangwali, drive over two wooden bridges crossing tributaries of the Linyanti River, pay the park entrance fee at a little bush office covered in skulls and horns, and then it’s just you and the great outdoors.
If only we had known that this time it wouldn’t be as simple as our two previous visits, we would have turned back at the first bridge.
For starters, the bridge was 40 cm under water. But the bridge keepers who collect the toll assured us it was safe as other vehicles had crossed it that day.
My mom was very sceptical. “I don’t trust this bridge at all,” she said a few times, and warned us not to drive over it.
But in a family with four men listening isn’t exactly the norm.
Besides, the previous year we had driven over the exact same bridge with the same vehicles and equipment.
First up was my dad in his Terracan towing a B’rakhah Ingonyama off-road caravan.
I walked ahead to indicate where he had to drive, because the driver can’t see the submerged 50-m-long bridge.
When it was about halfway across the bridge, the caravan bounced slightly, there was a cracking sound and some rocking before a piece of the bridge started giving way. The caravan’s right rear end then started sinking into the water …
Everyone was gobsmacked. The back corner of the caravan was about a ruler-length into the water, and it kept on sinking as the water poured in.
If the caravan got too heavy from the water pouring in, it could break the bridge even further and pull the Terracan into the river – which is up to 4 m deep in some places. Not a good prospect.
We were in shock, but knew that something had to be done – and quickly too.
“Just get everyone’s passports!” was my dad’s first order.
First, we tried pulling the caravan forward with the Terracan, but the caravan jammed against the broken bridge. And it couldn’t go backwards either, because that part of the bridge had collapsed.
Some of us dived in to see what was going on under the surface, and realised that the caravan was so stuck that we wouldn’t be able to get it out that day.
We were very careful in the water, because on our previous visits we had photographed loads of hippos and crocodiles in this very river.
Meanwhile, the caravan had sunk deeper than a meter into the water, so the first step was to lighten its load. We had to step very carefully inside the caravan not to disturb its precarious balance.
We quickly formed a human chain up to the bank and carried out the contents. (To everyone’s surprise even a flower pot with roses came out of the caravan …)
The next big decision was whether we should unhitch the caravan. The sun was setting fast and we had to decide if we could at least save the Terracan.
Oh, and by the way, meanwhile my dad was sitting in the Terracan, cool as a cucumber with his foot on the brake.
Just then, two Land Rovers came driving up from the park’s side of the river – a brand new Defender towing a brand new Discovery.
They couldn’t have been happy to see the only way out of the park blocked. (The only other road out of the park – about 15 km east from us – was so badly washed away, it was impassable.)
After we had put our heads together with the Land Rover guys, we decided to unhitch the caravan – after we had tied it to the part of the bridge that was still in one piece, with some towropes.
Then we had to use a high-lift jack to lift the caravan’s nose so we could unhitch it (the jockey wheel wouldn’t extend far enough).
What a complicated process: we had to lie in the water and get the jack to jam against the broken bridge – on the same side that the caravan would fall towards if the bridge were to break further …
But three hours after the bridge had given way, my dad’s Terracan was safely on the other side of the river – and the caravan was tied as securely as possible to the bridge.
Meanwhile, we started setting up camp under the nearest big tree, and deposited the two Land Rover guys back with their families where they were camping, which was about 70 km from Mamili.
Throughout the night we heard big things splashing around in the river. Was it a hippo or the caravan falling in?
DAY 2: Bright ideas and impatient Germans
Our question was answered the next morning.
The caravan was still on the bridge – so it must have been hippos gallivanting during the night.
If ever there was a Catch 22 … We were glad indeed that the caravan was still on the bridge, but it meant we had to dive into the river again.
A worried Lionel, who owned and maintained the bridge that he had built, arrived and we started devising plans in earnest. After all, it was his main source of income.
Barely five minutes later a convoy of five Hiluxes full of Germans drove up from the park side of the river. As their accommodation had already been booked and paid for, they had to stick to a strict itinerary, and they weren’t impressed with the situation at all.
What could we say? The best we could do, was to assure them that we would repair the bridge as soon as possible.
First we tried pulling the caravan forward with a block and tackle, but it wouldn’t budge. Despite all the hippo activity of the previous night, we had to jump into the river again.
The plan was to lift the caravan with a high-lift jack, slide sand ladders and poles in under the wheels, and pull it forward.
It may sound simple, but diving into a 4-m-deep, hippo-infested river in the middle of winter, and getting a jack to jam up against a broken bridge, was a nightmare. And that’s putting it mildly.
By 11 am, the two Land Rover guys arrived after getting a lift, and we decided to rather use the winch of the Land Rover Defender, which was still on the other side of the river.
We lifted the caravan slightly with the high-lift jack, and pulled it forward with the winch.
It went terribly slowly, but at least it helped to lift the caravan out from between the crossbars where it had fallen in.
Slowly but surely we made progress, but only until 2 pm, when the Defender gave up the ghost too.
After struggling for ages, we identified the diesel pump as the culprit. But because the Land Rover has loads of electronics, you need a computer to fix it. So it was back to the block and tackle.
By 4 pm we had devised a plan to build a wooden A-frame structure in the river, fasten the block and tackle to it and lift up the sunken side of the caravan.
We found two 5-m-long tree stumps which we anchored in the riverbed. We then fastened the block and tackle to the A-frame, hooked the chain around the axle of the caravan and started hoisting.
Initially it went slowly, but as the water poured out of the caravan, progress was quicker, until the caravan was relatively level, with one wheel on the bridge and the other in the air.
Some locals brought long planks, which we placed under the wheels. Meanwhile the owner of a campsite in the park had also arrived.
While we lifted the front of the caravan by hand, he fastened the caravan to his Ford bakkie with a long towrope, and pulled it forward bit by bit.
On the “safer” side of the bridge we were eventually able to hitch the caravan to the Terracan again and tow it over the bridge.
But this was the “easy” part of the process – about 8 m of the bridge was still broken and needed repairing.
For the first time in two days we could see what had gone wrong: some of the threaded rods that kept the bridge together had rusted through and broken off.
Now it was time for Phase Two: repair the bridge as quickly as possible, continue with the tour and get the two Americans in our tour group to the airport in time for their return flight to the States.
The first step was to dive into the river and retrieve all the bridge poles from the riverbed.
Now, on the photos it may look warm, but to go diving in the river in the middle of winter for a couple of hours was icy cold. And don’t forget about those biting river-dwellers …
“Bring coffee, please. And lots of it,” you often heard.
By this stage, loads of locals wanted to help, but there was one big problem: there was no way they were getting into the water – and that’s where most of the work needed to happen. Maybe they knew better…
We tried using the existing support pillars to repair the bridge, but there were some problems:
- We couldn’t get the threaded rods out of all the poles to hammer in new ones;
- It’s an immense struggle to square up a swollen pole that’s a metre under water to hammer threaded rods through it;
- No one had brought along an underwater drill; and
- After a while we stopped counting how many times equipment such as pliers, hammers and saws had fallen into the water – which we first had to find and then dive out.
Lionel suggested that we plant new support pillars in the river that the bridge could rest on. Initially we were sceptical, but later realised that was all that would work. Luckily, he had a water pump sent from Katima Mulilo that would make the pole planting easier.
Meanwhile, George, an employee of a hunting operation in the park, offered to have the poles cut and have it delivered the next day.
We stopped work for the day and were quite satisfied: The caravan was off the bridge, and we were well on our way to repairing the bridge.
All night long we listened to the hippos storming into the river – less than 50 m from where we had to build that bridge every day.
But we were determined to repair the bridge – and the Germans were in a hurry. By the way, they didn’t lift a finger to help, but did come to monitor our progress every three hours, asking, “The bridge finished yet?”
DAY 3: Pole position
The water pump arrived by late morning, and George delivered the eight supporting pillars.
Planting a pole on dry land is easy: You simply dig a deep enough hole and plant the pole. But it’s far more difficult doing this at the bottom of a river. Here the water pump was worth its weight in gold, but not because of its normal function.
Each support pole has a large fork on the one side and the eight poles had to be planted in such a way that the horizontal poles that carry the bridge run through all the forks.
To plant the almost-5-m-long poles, we first had to move it to the right spot in the river and hold it upright.
Then we had to dive down with a long black PVC pipe that was connected to the water pump to blow away the sand around the pole so that it would progressively sink in.
And once the pole has been planted, it’s impossible to pull out because the sand sucks it in tightly. So with every pole you only have one chance to plant deep enough and in the right spot.
We were in the water all day long, and by sundown there were only two poles left, which we intended planting the next morning.
Luckily, the hippos didn’t venture near the bridge-building spectacle – the bridge keepers said we were making too much noise. But that night we heard them again.
DAY 4: The end is nigh (we hope)
Everyone was up early and we were quite excited as the previous three days’ effort would hopefully end on this day.
Within two hours the last two support poles had been planted. Thereafter, we placed the load-bearing poles, on which the cross poles rest that you drive on, in the forks.
It didn’t go smoothly all the time, because some of the load-bearing poles were still connected to some of the original support poles, and some of the bolts had broken. But eventually we could lay down the cross poles and wire them to the load-bearing poles.
After four days’ hard work, everyone was really excited, but also tense as the vehicles would now start driving across.
By 3 pm the last poles had been fastened and the bridge was checked a last time.
“We go first!” the Germans insisted, as they weren’t towing anything. We didn’t mind …
With a great cheer (and some bated breaths and palpitating hearts), the first Hilux crossed the bridge.
Within moments, all five were safely on the other side of the river – without even a thank-you.
When one of us sarcastically said, “It’s a pleasure,” the retort was, “But you broke the bridge!” Fortunately, we didn’t see them again.
Next up was the Terracan with the caravan. Bit by bit the Terracan drove across while we prayed constantly.
A few minutes later both were safely on the other side of the river.
All that remained were the two broken-down Land Rovers.
George pulled the Discovery and Defender over the bridge with his Land Cruiser’s winch.
It was a rather slow and tense process, but both got to the other side safely.
A recovery vehicle that had been sent from Francistown in Botswana towed the Land Rovers further.
Because we had initially only planned to spend three days in Mamili and our two American friends had to fly home just after the holidays, we couldn’t explore the park as planned and had to turn back.
Good thing too, because my mom would never have allowed us to cross that river again …
Four days in a river with crocodiles and hippos – without any injuries. We wouldn’t have wanted it any different (except for my mom, of course).