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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
I’ve been driving for over eight hours on rough roads when I turn off onto a tiny track, aiming to find a tiny hot spring on the shores of mighty Lake Albert. The track is small and rocky, but not a problem at all. It’s already early afternoon and I’m starting to push my luck in terms of finding somewhere to camp, though I decide to push on.
When the stunning lake comes into view I have to jump out for a photo, so I angle the Jeep across the track, pull the hand brake and leave it in first gear. The hand brake has needed adjustment for a long time, but I have been lazy about adjusting it, and just know it’s limits. As I always do I sit in the seat for ten seconds while grabbing my camera, and the Jeep doesn’t budge.
In the past I have seen it roll over the engine on a steep enough hill, though it always moves only about an inch every ten seconds – what I assume is just one cylinder rolling over. As I get out and walk back I figure I will just jump back in if it does roll over a cylinder, which seems like a perfectly good plan.
As I climb up the bank for a photo, I see the Jeep move. Almost before I can react it has traveled an entire Jeep length, and is picking up speed fast. I run after it but have no hope in the world. Realizing what is coming I keep clear, utterly helpless. Within about three lengths it goes into the ditch on the left, hard.
The front drivers side tire hits the rock wall, flips the Jeep over, smashing down onto the passenger side.
The whole event is over in less than five seconds, and my heart rate goes to about three hundred beats per minute as the crash fades in my ears and the reality of the situation – and my stupidity – sinks in.
Suddenly I feel more helpless and alone than I ever have while on expedition – maybe more than I ever have in my entire life. I’m terrified to walk over and have a good look at the situation, and spend quite a bit of time staying away, somehow feeling like I can deny reality.
Conveniently I have my camera in my hand and so I snap a few photos, though even that makes me feel sick and I’m just not in the mood.
Attracted by the loud crash locals begin to materialize, and time and again they’re relieved no people were involved, and clearly think I’m an idiot (rightly so). When I stop shaking and start using my brain, I have a good look around. There are a couple of trees off to the side that would be perfect for winching, and so I endeavor to get out the winch controller, no easy feat. I have to climb up the skid plates on the bottom of the Jeep (now the side) like a ladder and in the drivers door before lowering myself down until I’m standing on the passenger door. Looking around I see absolute chaos inside, including a bunch of smashed glass beer bottles I just bought thirty minutes prior.
My winch cable is not long enough to go to the tree and back to the Jeep via my snatch block, though one local guy assures me with the help of everyone gathered we’ll get it back on the wheels. Thinking about all the fail complications I have seen I’m certain I must sit in the drivers seat with my foot buried on the brake pedal – the last thing in the world I want is for the Jeep to be back on it’s wheels and continue rolling down the hill.
With the winch to a sturdy tree and the locals pushing on the rear corner it slowly comes up and bounces back down on it’s wheels. Because of the angles it’s still half in the ditch, though after a lot of back and forward I manage to get someone else to disconnect the winch line and let it roll forward. A local then chocks the wheels with massive rocks, and finally it feels like the Jeep won’t move.
Again I’m reluctant to survey the damage, and finally bring myself to walk around to the passenger side. I’ll let the photos do the talking, though you can see miraculously there is no broken glass, and the fiberglass J30 pop-up roof is almost entire unscathed (there is a tiny chip in the fiberglass pop-up section which is completely cosmetic).
I don’t usually like to put things down to luck, though in this case I have to say I might be the luckiest person in the world.
It seems the AEV snorkel took the brunt of the impact, as did the mirror which is completely broken off, and the two plastic fender flares which are almost entirely broken off the Jeep. There are dents and scratches in both doors, and both door handles are broken, though overall I’m immensely impressed how well the Jeep has held up.
I’m afraid of oil in the cylinders, and so let it sit for four hours wile I slowly clean up and attempt to put things back where they belong. I also wonder about any damage caused by the engine turning so fast. I left it in first gear, and I note it didn’t pop out of gear. That means the engine was mechanically turning by the weight of the Jeep, and quite possibly faster than the rev limiter. I don’t know how fast it would actually go at red line in first gear, and I think it didn’t goo too fast. If it did, there is every chance the engine has skipped some teeth on the timing chain, which would be a catastrophe.
Gorilla tape does wonders to hold the fender flares on, and I just throw the mirror inside. Under the hood everything looks extremely sane, with just a hint of power steering fluid leaking from the reservoir, and some engine oil leaking from the filling cap on the valve cover.
Originally I plan to remove all the spark plugs, though night has well and truly set in making the task so much harder. I rationalize that it’s now been sitting right side up for four hours, and it was only on the side, not actually upside-down.
After topping up the engine oil and with a lot of trepidation I turn the engine over a few times then immediately turn it off before it actually fires, and everything sounds and seems good, so I start it up and let it idle.
Again, miraculously, everything seems fine, and I have no reason to think I have caused permanent damage.
During all of this a local guy has hung around to talk and reassure me, and he suggests I camp near his house, less than fifty yards away. I limp the Jeep over and feel relieved it drives OK, the setup camp and continue the massive clean up job. I’m sure I’ll be cleaning broken beer bottle glass out of the Jeep for many months. The J30 roof opens perfectly fine, and almost everything inside is OK. At firs the Dometic fridge won’t turn on, though it comes good after a few hours of being ride-side-up.
In a strange twist of fate I then see one of the most beautiful things of my entire life – thousands and thousands of small boats have rowed out onto the lake to fish for the night – the small kerosene lamps look like an ocean of stars, and is simply breathtaking.
I’m still shaking when I finally climb up into bed near midnight, feeling like this has all been a horrible dream.
I planned and dreamed of this expedition for so many years – but I never dreamed of this.