Richtersveld | Six mistakes and seven lucky breaks
On a trip to a soaked Richtersveld, the experienced and usually level-headed Francois Smit learned – the difficult way – not to play with a flash flood. Here’s how it happened.
Trapped behind the wheel of your 4×4 in a flash flood, waist deep in a freezing, muddy and rapidly rising Richtersveld river, is as good a time as any to panic.
Too shocked to think, I’m desperately trying to keep the engine running while a submerged rescue team are frantically trying to locate the recovery points, hidden deep below the fast flowing water.
As a seasoned off-road traveller − usually very responsible and sometimes overly cautious − attempting this crossing was well out of character. But here I am … what was I thinking?
During a recent river crossing in the Karoo, I sat for two hours waiting for the water level to drop, but not today …
Pg 2: Where there are clouds
Where there are clouds …
Although some of our most memorable trips have started as impromptu ideas, that weekend in the Richtersveld National Park unravelled into a series of twisted events for which no amount of planning could have prepared us.
We decided to leave Cape Town on Thursday after work, planning to be back by Sunday.
Although keeping a weary eye on the winter weather when we left the Mother City, a friend, Ken Cason, and I didn’t care − we just needed some time out.
The desert mountains were heavily laden with clouds when we arrived in the Richtersveld.
By Friday evening we were settled into our campsite at Potjiespram in the Richtersveld, ready, we thought, for our big adventure.
However, at midnight the heavens opened, flooding the desert. Torrents of water rushed through our campsite, and a little bit later, into our tents. (We heard later that more than 30% of the region’s annual rainfall had fallen during that weekend.)
Saturday morning, soggy and bedraggled, we called off the adventure, packed up and started driving home. Not ten minutes later however, just as we passed the Akkedis Pass turn-off, the sun broke through the clouds, unburdening us of all logic. We looked at each other, wordlessly reversed and headed back into the park. Mistake #2.
My Land Rover Discovery sailed through the pass and in no time delivered us to De Hoop, our planned new base camp. De Hoop was not what we expected – a police search operation was underway for an eleven-year-old girl that had drowned a few days before and police divers and search crews were still on site.
My usual, cautious self would normally have noted these obvious warning signs and turned around – but not that day. We decided to push on towards Richtersberg, 11km to the southeast. Mistake #3.
Just 3 km before the Richtersberg campsite we arrived at a usually dry riverbed that had changed into a flowing rivulet.
On the opposite bank were a Land Cruiser and Disco¬very that had just crossed.
We watched a Prado cross, then a second Cruiser – that of Gert Pretorius – towing a heavily laden trailer. It made it halfway before getting stuck. Within minutes, it was recovered.
With three potential recovery vehicles on the other side, we felt confident we’d get through the just more than shin-deep water. Unconcerned we decided to cross. Mistake #4.
Pg 3: It’s all downhill from …
It’s all downhill from here
I carefully lined up the Discovery and made the perfect entry, with a good bow wave. Picking a line slightly to the left of the last Cruiser’s tracks, I hoped to avoid any holes it may have created.
But it wasn’t enough − we hit a ditch and stalled. The river sand starting giving way and the next eight minutes seemed to last a lifetime.
I fired the engine and tried to move, but the river sand kept giving way. The Disco stalled again. No problem. She restarted and I tried to reverse. Again no luck.
Okay, time to think; something was obviously wrong.
Within seconds, everyone was shouting instructions.
Bertus Hechter (the guy in the first Cruiser) had already moved his vehicle into position, while his friend Henk van Heerden waded towards us, recovery strap in hand.
What I did not realise then was that the river was rising, rapidly (we later calculated it rose almost a metre in ten minutes).
Ken was still struggling to get out of the vehicle to assist when Henk attached the strap to the Disco’s bull bar, and before I could object, gave the pull command. The bull bar gave way without the Disco moving even an inch. We were in trouble. Mistake #5.
Meanwhile, Peter Muir in his Discovery charged back into the river, to an island in the middle, hoping for some solid footing to try a double snatch.
Waist deep in the middle of the river, Ken was shouting that I had to keep the motor running.
All this time the Disco was sinking in deeper and deeper.
Twice more the engine cut out and twice more I got it going again – thanks to a snorkel and some serious praying.
And so it came to this moment where, waist-deep (and rising) in freezing water inside my beloved Disco, while blue smoke and steam crept over the surface of the water around me, I started panicking.
Submerged beneath the front of the vehicle, Ken, Henk and Peter are all trying daringly to locate the recovery points, now hidden deep below the fast flowing water. Peter is underwater, trying to screw in the bolt of a D-shackle. Ken and Henk are clinging to him, fighting to hold him in place against the water’s increasing force.
Eventually a soaked Peter runs back to his Discovery, now hooked up with Bertus’ Cruiser for a double-snatch. They put foot and … nothing happens, except that the Cruiser starts digging itself in after the third attempt.
Astonishingly, my engine is still running. Lucky break #1.
Bertus repositions his Cruiser to avoid the churned-up mud left by his earlier recovery attempt, he hooks up with Peter’s Discovery again, and they pull.
Amazingly, the two straining vehicles slowly pull the sodden Disco from the fast flowing waters. Lucky break #2.
Cheers all round give way to a solemn silence as we reach dry ground and open the Disco’s doors. Have you ever pulled the plug on a PortaPool? Water gushes out from everywhere.
(Thankfully, the 220V inverter under my seat that usually powers my laptop and Tracks¬4¬Africa data logger was not connected.)
Unbelievably, the trusty diesel engine is still running. We aim the Disco in the right direction and limp toward to the Richtersberg campsite. Figuring the worst is behind us, we stop at the first sunny site.
Old reliable had somehow made it all the way here, why shouldn’t she take us the rest of the way home the following morning?
Pg 4: Disco’s lights go …
Disco’s lights go out
Still numbed by shock, we unpacked and tried to settle in for the evening.
Everything was wet, our gear ruined.
Worse still, the high frequency (HF) radio, our only link to the outside world, was silent.
That night was probably the coldest we ever had to endure; I couldn’t sleep.
By now, our families would be worried as we had missed two scheduled communicat
ion appointments. If we missed the third appointment, they would launch a search-and-rescue operation. Problem was, at the last communication we had told friends we were heading home, so nobody would look for us in the park. Mistake #6.
Sunday morning we tried starting the Disco again. On first try, she miraculously spluttered to life and idled for a good 40 minutes. Hope restored, we switched her off and loaded up what was left of our gear.
Not an hour later, packed and eager to go, we turned the ignition. Nothing.
Another hour of trying every option later, we accepted the inevitable − the immobiliser and other electronics (what little there is in a Disco I) had succumbed to the water. Now our biggest worry was getting help.
We were seriously overdue for lucky break #3 when Gert Cloete, a park ranger stationed at Tatasberg, further up the river, strolled by and inquired if we were okay. “No!” Ken and I responded in unison, we were anything but.
Nevertheless, there was little Gert could do. He had no vehicle and wasn’t expecting anyone for days. “You don’t perhaps have a radio then?” I asked tentatively.
“Yes, sir,” he answered, “I can speak to Anna (Cloete) at the office (Sendelingsdrif), but only if the radio wants to − and it doesn’t always want to”.
That’s all we needed to know. In anxious anticipation, we walked over to the campsite of Donny and Joanne Nadison, the only remaining campers at Richtersberg, and begged a lift to Gert’s chalet. No problem.
That day the radio worked. Lucky break #4. Between dealing with guests, Anna at the office graciously got my wife on the phone. It was the best conversation I had had in years. I told her we would attempt to reach Sendelingsdrif the next morning.
Pg 5: Generous strangers
That evening, Donny and his family invited us to a braai. Obviously aware of our predicament, they had taken it upon themselves to take us to Sendelingsdrif.
“No, comrade,” he said. “It is your right. We not only have to, but also want to help you. This is the way of our people and it is who we are.”
His words ended all debate and silenced me into a sense of gratitude.
Here was a couple prepared to sacrifice a day of their holiday and endure a gruesome 10-hour return drive, with three kids in tow, for people they didn’t know from a bar of soap. Lucky break #5.
For the very first time that weekend I slept well: I had spoken to my wife, we had a great supper, made new friends and, to top it all, we now had transport out of that mess.
At first light on Monday we moved the Discovery to a safe, shady spot.
Donny soon arrived in his wife, Joanne’s, brand-new Land Cruiser 200, and we were on our way.
The antics of Donny and Joanne precluded any hopes we might have had of catching up on long overdue sleep.
This was their first off-road trip and Donny got out for the smallest obstacles to guide Joanne over and around them.
She was quite adamant that guidance was unnecessary and … well, let’s just say things took a bit longer than anticipated.
We arrived at the Sendelingsdrif park office just past midday and faced our next challenge − getting home.
Springbok was another three to four hours away, and the park manager could only take us there in two days’ time.
That’s when I remembered the promise of my off-road insurance: “We will get you out – wherever you are”.
Damn, why had I not thought of it before? I have been paying my dues for just such an event.
“Where are you exactly,” a friendly voice asked from an office somewhere in Gauteng.
“The Richtersveld, Sendelingsdrif,” I replied.
After spending a further half an hour giving exact details of our location, we were informed they would call us back.
“Sorry sir, but we will only be able to get transport to you by tomorrow afternoon.” A car would have to be sent from Upington and a tow truck from Springbok.
Through gritted teeth I dismissed the planned recovery as totally impractical – the Richtersveld is no place for a tow truck; it won’t even make the first bend on Akkedis Pass, never mind towing a two-ton, water-drenched 4×4.
I made a mental note to talk to the insurers about the real meaning of “off-road” and “wilderness”.
My next call was to Carel Oberholtzer, a fellow radio amateur in Springbok I had spoken to a few times.
I was in no way prepared for his response.
Carel was in a meeting, but his secretary promised he would call back. Within 10 minutes he had done just that, informing us that he had already sent a bakkie and a driver to fetch us. It would reach us before nightfall. Lucky break #6.
The super-efficient Carel had even organised a rental vehicle that was waiting for us in Springbok. Neither of us had even thought that far ahead.
Just before 6 am on Tuesday, 24 hours after we had left the Richtersberg, and four days after we left Cape Town, we were home.
Pg 6: More generosity
Back at the office later that morning, I received a call from an acquaintance: would I mind if he joined in the planned recovery of my Disco that
Recovery? I stared at the receiver. What recovery?
It’s all over the Land Cruiser Club of Southern Africa’s (LCCSA) internet forum, he responded. I was stunned.
It turned out that Carel and Johann Marias, both avid members of the LCCSA, had initiated a recovery of my Disco. All I had to do was sort out the insurance; they would take care of the rest. The recovery was in fact so well planned the insurers authorised it and contributed to the cost − at least I could reimburse some of the guys’ fuel costs.
By this time, the previous weekend’s cold and wet nights had taken their toll − I was man down, in bed with pneumonia.
Reluctantly, I had to stay behind when the recovery team left that Friday morning.
Sunday afternoon, 36 hours after they left Cape Town, they arrived at my home, Disco and all. Best of all, the Disco made it home under her own steam.
The team had bypassed the electronics and got the Disco going in less than an hour. Lucky break #7. (Read about the recovery at http://landcruiserclub.co.za)
Mechanically, she was still in good condition with no damage to her engine. The electronics however proved no match for the water. As for the rest of her, well, you can just imagine …
Ultimately, what stands out from the ordeal, is the overwhelming goodwill of the 4×4 community and strangers’ astonishing willingness to go to heroic lengths to help.
We are forever indebted to those who went the extra mile (or thousand) to rescue us.
We promise to pass on the favour one day and do as you have done for us.
Pg 7: Lessons learned
- Always stick to the basics and follow your instinct;
- When in doubt – even a little – don’t do it;
- Knowing your own and your vehicle’s limitations are paramount;
- Take heed of flood warning signs, such as water in normally dry riverbeds and especially rising water levels. Wait for rising water levels to subside before crossing;
- Don’t be overly confident, even if there are vehicles to recover you;
- Stick to yo
ur planned route and have a communication protocol in place;
- Ensure your insurance has an efficient off-road recovery protocol in place;
- Forget about being “experienced”. A good friend, Wouter Brand of Tracks4Africa, once told me: “There is no such thing as experience, especially in the African bush. All it is, is a licence to do incredibly stupid things” It rang rather true that day.
Pg 8: A price to pay
A price to pay
Having reached an agreement with the insurance company, it was decided not to write off the Disco. The next challenge was to get her back in the same condition as she was prior to the fateful trip.
Mechanically, she was still in a good condition with no damage to her engine. In contrast, the water damage to the electronics and the interior was a different matter altogether.
Besides the obvious repairs such as to the bull bar, more than 50 components (including the instrument panel, radiator, air-con, various panels, carpets … every¬thing that wasn’t welded on) were removed, cleaned or repaired and refitted.
An additional 18 components had to be replaced.
The recovery and overhaul cost a total of R75 000, which excluded the R15 000 that the insurance still agreed to for the replacement of the HF radio.