“Errmm….. Daddy, I think there is a flood outside!”
Definitely NOT the words we wanted to hear from Alisha, just as we were all settling down for night.
We’d driven further along the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape to Chinsa and parked up in the pretty campsite down a wiggly lane at Bucaneer’s Backpackers. We were just 5 minutes walk from a stunning white sandy beach backed by dunes and forest, the surf crashing. There had been monkeys and black haired pigs gorging on windfall guavas as we’d settled for the evening. Nightfall comes early in the winter in South Africa and by 5.30pm, we were all snuggled in out of the cold. The rain started to fall as we tucked into bangers and mash. It whipped up into a heavy squall as we washed up, then came lashing down while the girls went to bed and continued heavy on the roof as they tried to get to sleep. For once we were relaxed about the torrential rain. Usually, as the truck weighs about 10 tons, we worry if we are parked up on soggy grass or mud but we had parked on the gravel track as they had asked us to, so we happily sat there reading and listening to the noisy drumming on the roof, feeling all smug and warm.
Looking outside we could see that Alisha was exactly right there was deep, fast flowing water running under the truck and right across the campsite. After a few choice words, we leapt into action, jumped in the front and put on the roof mounted spotlights (they look cool but are only ever used “in an emergency”). They showed that the fast flowing water and debris was everywhere, it looked like a river had burst its banks. More choice language followed, as Steve gunned the engine and tried to remember where the small track was between the trees. Amazingly he squeezed the truck between the trees and kept us off the grass until we made a wrong turn. I grabbed my wellies and jumped from the back door into the waters. I needn’t have bothered with the boots as the water was well over my knees. Through the pitch black and in the heavy rain, I tried to remember exactly which trees we had passed on the way in??? Finally after a nasty reverse, we thought he was driving in the right direction. My only clue was that underfoot, it felt slightly harder on the path than it did on the mud either side. I remember there were small ditches in the campground and I tried to guide Steve away from those as I walked ahead, trying to show him which direction to go. My main thought was that if it was a river that had burst its banks we might be dealing with a lot more water and branches if we hung around for much longer. We knew the track from the campsite went steeply up, so we were aiming for that. Steve did a brilliant job battling though the rising waters and we were just metres from where the track out rose sharply. Suddenly the rear wheel slid out and the left side of back of the truck dropped into a hole. With the black swirling waters we couldn’t see what an earth was happening, just that the box on the back was now at a crazy angle. After checking that the other 3 wheels seemed to be on solid-ish ground underneath the waters, he had another go at getting the truck out, the back wheel spun and now the water was up to the bottom of the wheel arch (usually about 1.10m high) and the back was at a scary angle.
While I ran up the hill to the hostel to get help, Steve tried to assess the damage. Inside he found Alisha still riveted to her book, even though her bed was now at an impossible angle. He couldn’t see any damage inside and outside the water was just too deep to see anything, apart from it did not look good! I like South Africans for many things, two of them are they are unflappable in hairy situations and they are generally brilliant at outdoorsy things. After having a good look Shaun, the owner of the hostel suggested that we do nothing till morning. It was absolutely pitch black and we were all worried about someone getting hurt if we tried to recover the truck in the dark. He kindly gave us a cottage to sleep in and we spent a sleepless night praying for the rain to stop. We heard afterwards that 150-200mm (6-8 inches) fell in 2 hours, eventually at about midnight it did stop.
Steve was up before first light to check the truck hadn’t been either washed away or tipped over, thankfully it was ok and most of the water had run off to the sea. The other piece of good news was that the hostel’s dam that provided much of the water they needed in the dry season had just about held, although there was serious damage to the slipway. With most of the water gone, we could see what had happened. Steve had gone wide on the track to avoid a tree and the back wheel had slipped off the track into a recently filled hole. Luckily the neighbour’s JCB digger that had been doing the digging was parked nearby, Shaun and his number 2, Marcus, rallied to find who had the JCB’s keys and to get a tractor pull us out, if that didn’t work. Eventually the JCB driver was found, there was much discussion about the best way out. First Steve raised the air suspension at the back of the truck which got the back lockers above the mud so they wouldn’t drag and get damaged on the way out. It made me feel a little better to see the number plate at least, emerge from the quagmire. Eventfully it was decided backwards was the best way, the JCB had to pass us to get behind. As we were barely on the path there was plenty of space to get past. That is when the JCB driver drove off the other side of the path and got himself stuck in mud way above the axles! I’ll take back what I said about South Africans being brilliant at things outdoors . To be fair to the JCB driver, who was helping us out of the kindness of his heart, I won’t say any more. Just it took him a further hour to get himself out of the mud, thank goodness he had his front and back buckets to lift himself out. Eventually he was in place behind and we were all chained up but after the initial tug, it looked like the whole truck would go over if they pulled any more as we’d pitched even further over. It was back round to the front again, without driving off the path, and they re hitched the truck back on. With both buckets of the JCB pushing back, it’s wheels spinning and our wheels spinning, the truck started to inch forwards. There was a quick repositioning, then another strain. Eventually we were looking straighter, with all four wheels back on the ground, Steve then slowly drove the truck up the hill. I have to admit there were tears in my eyes, as our home…transport….trip was safe again. We thanked the guys over and over again, especially as they refused to take any payment for their help.
After raising the rear suspension: Amazingly there appeared to be no damage, we cleaned out the mud from lockers that has been submerged but as everything was in ammo boxes, nothing inside was wet. The following morning when back on the road several of the engine warning lights came on. Luckily there are many MAN garages in South Africa, so we stopped off at the nearby one in East London. The whole workshop came out to have a look and a chat as they plugged the truck into the computer and checked everything underneath. Thankfully, it all looked ok, so we were soon back on the road. We broke our journey for the night in the historic university town of Grahamstown. Which looked remarkably like a small English country town, complete with delicious smells coming from a fish and chip shop. The girls were very excited to get their first wildlife viewing experience on this trip as we spent 3 nights at Addo Elephant National Park. Originally created to protect the last remaining local elephants in the 1930’s, it has many different species and extends all the way out to sea protecting whales and sharks too. We were all thrilled to see a caracal just a few minutes into the drive, these small wild cats have amazing tufts of fur on the tops of their ears. Usually nocturnal, it was trying to dry out after all the rain.
Initially we had been a bit concerned about the trucks size for game watching but with the roads being wide and the animals unconcerned about our presence, we soon relaxed. Having our home along with us made things very easy. We got into a bit of a routine: with the first couple of hours drive with cups of tea and the girls still in their pyjamas. Then stopped for breakfast at a waterhole or lookout, a bit more of a drive then parked somewhere interesting while Steve kept a lookout and the girls did school. Our second day’s school was rather interrupted by elephants wandering past and a lioness looking out for prey. Someone had told us earlier that there was a lioness resting in the bushes, we could just about made her out with binoculars, so we parked up and started school. After an hour or so, Steve called through to the back that a group of kudu were getting very close and we bundled through to watch. Unfortunately they smelt her before anything could happen but after that she ambled out, sauntered down the hill and lay just beside the track before strolled off after the direction the pray had gone. Fabulous! It was hard to return to maths after that. The unique species in Addo is the flightless dung beetle. It makes a ball of dung, rolls it along, buries it and lays its eggs in it. There are signs everywhere reminding people not to drive over the elephant poo on the road to avoid killing the beetles. As there are so many elephants in the park, they made up to a 100kg of poo a day and they like to walk along the road Steve was having to swerve all over the road to avoid all the dung. It was a good thing he was driving so slowly. Lucy was in her element, she particularly loves dung beetles after learning about them on a BBC documentary years ago. She insisted on dressing up as a dung beetle when she was in Nursery back in Prague for World Earth Day, complete with a yoga ball as her dung, so she could show everyone how it should be rolled with the back legs. The great interpretive centre had a live beetle display, so she could happily get up close to them.
We left Addo a happy family having seen many different animals: lots of elephants, kudu, buffalo, zebra, jackals, eland and many more. Driving around in the truck made things very easy and relaxed. There was no need to return to camp for food or the loo, so we stayed out far longer than you could do normally and we could just sit, wait and watch where we wanted to.