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Stranded in the Okavango Swamps

Stranded in the Okavango Swamps

In a world of paved roads, cell phones and roadside assistance, most people today think “getting stuck” means sitting in a traffic jam. But becoming truly stuck, in a good old-fashioned sense of the term, is still possible while on safari in Africa. Whenever I’m frustrated with the mayhem of rush hour or sitting in gridlocked traffic, I recall a particular day in Botswana several years ago. 

Fellow professional hunters Tony Henley and Soren Lindstrom and I were on safari with Frances Billups and her family from San Antonio. They were a fun and adventurous group who included daughters Liza, LeAnn, Marci, Francie and son, Jaime, as well as Liza’s husband, Jack Lewis III. It was August—the time of year when the waters of the Okavango Delta reach peak flood. We were camped on the northern edge of the Okavango at a place called “Splash,” named for the shallow sandy stream you splashed though to get there. 

On this particular day Soren and I teamed up, planning to push deeper into the Delta than had ever been attempted by vehicle. Our sights were set on a large, never-before-hunted island located several miles south of our camp. We knew from flying over it the island held plenty of game.

“I don’t know if we can get there,” Soren said. “But I’ve always wanted to. From the air I’ve seen buffalo, kudu, sable and loads of lechwe. I’m sure everything must be there.” 

“I’m game—no pun intended,” I replied. “And I’m sure Jack and Liza are, too. But we’ll have to come with you on your ‘Puddle Jumper.’ There’s no way my Land Cruiser can make it.” 

High water that year made vehicle movement between the palm-fringed islands of brush that dot the Okavango floodplains challenging, indeed. But in anticipation of a particularly wet year, Soren had converted his Toyota Land Cruiser into what we called the “Puddle Jumper.” The major modification was re-positioning the springs to the top of the axle, thereby lifting the vehicle by more than a foot and eliminating the drag-effect caused by the spring-hangers being attached to the bottom side of the axle. Fitting the vehicle with oversized, aggressive mud-lug tires further increased its height. When the conversion was completed a ladder was required to climb into the cab, but its high profile would allow it to wade through just about any depth of water—or so we thought. 

We convoyed with both our vehicles as far as we could, which took us only a few miles from camp. We parked my vehicle, and my two clients, two trackers and I climbed aboard Soren’s Land Cruiser. Piled into the back of the “Puddle Jumper,” we held on and enjoyed the ride while Soren navigated through miles of freshly flooded meadows and plains and breezed through several deep-water crossings. The farther south we traveled the more game we encountered. 

Soren’s customized Land Cruiser successfully navigated the high water, and we arrived at our island destination just before lunch. We spent the afternoon hunting and exploring this virgin territory, a sandy savannah that looked and felt like we were in a game park. It was large enough that in the course of the afternoon we never got the tires wet. A few hours of hunting resulted in our clients taking a sable, a warthog, a tsessebe, a reedbuck, an impala and two lechwe. It might also have included a leopard, but the big cat managed to elude us in tall grass. Our day on the island resulted in a heavy load in the “Puddle Jumper” when Soren swung it around and pointed it toward camp. 

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“Now that was an incredible day,” Soren remarked. “The quality of game on this island is tremendous. We couldn’t have turned down any of these heads.”

It was late afternoon. Getting back to camp meant navigating four deep-water crossings, the first of which we crossed right at sundown. The “Puddle Jumper” wallowed and lurched through with tires spinning and mud flying—but we made it and a huge cheer went up from the back.

While the gang high-fived in the back of the vehicle, Soren and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. The difficulty we’d just experienced getting through the first crossing was not a good omen, considering that the next three were deeper, longer and muddier than this one had been.

By the time we arrived at the second crossing daylight was fading fast. A hushed silence settled over the back of the vehicle as Soren nosed the Land Cruiser into the inky darkness and stepped on the accelerator. In the middle of the crossing at the deepest part, the tires started spinning and loosing traction. We held on with fingers crossed as the vehicle rocked and swayed, churning up the bottom but barely moving and sinking deeper into the muck. The vehicle eventually lost all forward momentum and settled into the muddy confines, gurgling and bubbling as water rose over the engine and covered the distributor. The engine sputtered, coughed and died with a wheezing, watery belch.

Our predicament was serious now because it was getting darker and colder by the minute, and there was no hope of help reaching us at night. Although the rest of our party back at camp knew roughly where we’d gone that day, they could never have found us with a conventional 4WD vehicle.

“$#&!—this is what I’d hoped to avoid,” Soren said. “We left it a bit late, and now we’ll be working in the dark … not to mention it’s getting bloody cold.”

Soren, the trackers and I removed our shoes and slid gingerly into the cold, waist- to chest-deep water, our toes sinking into the bottom’s mucky softness. The front bumper was fitted with a Warn winch, which required one of us to take a breath in order to dive down to reach it and pull out the cable. With the winch cable wrapped around a tree on the opposite shore, Soren pressed the electric switch. Operating the winch underwater, without the engine running to recharge the battery, soon zapped its strength and the winch came to a halt with a bubbling groan.

We were stranded in deep water with a dead engine and battery, and we faced the prospects of a cold, dismal, not to mention uncomfortable, night in the African bush. Nearby, a lion roared, followed by the wild whoop of a hyena, causing everyone in the back of the vehicle to huddle a little closer together. Those of us in the water were even more concerned with the thought of the monster crocs that inhabited these waters.

“Everybody just stay where you are—we’ll be out in a jiffy,” I said to our clients, trying to keep the mood light. “Who’d like a drink?” Fortunately, Soren had thought to include a bottle of scotch in the lunch box, which I retrieved and handed over to eager hands.

“When all else fails get out the Hi-Lift jack,” Soren announced, as if the solution to our predicament was simple.

“We can use it as a winch,” he said. “We’ll anchor the end of the shaft to that tree where we wrapped the winch cable. Then we’ll attach a length of chain to the vehicle and the other end to the jack’s lifting unit and jack it forward.”

With this arrangement, we pulled the vehicle forward the length of the 4-foot shaft. When we reached the tree end of the shaft, we slid the lifting unit back to the vehicle end of the shaft, took up the slack in the chain and cranked the vehicle forward another 4 feet. It was a slow, tedious job, but at least we were moving the vehicle.

After more than an hour of cranking inch by inch, foot by foot, we finally winched the vehicle through the crossing and out of the water. Our shivering clients climbed down from the back of the “Puddle Jumper” to warm themselves by a crackling fire the trackers had started right after the first lion roar. 

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undefinedBack at camp our other PH, Tony Henley, and family matriarch, Frances, were monitoring a shortwave radio, hoping to hear from us; but even if we could’ve spoken to Tony there was little he could’ve done to help. Still, we would have liked to make contact to assure him and the rest of the family we were okay. We decided unanimously to press on through the night.

“We’ve got to get everything dried out, especially the distributor, before the engine will start,” I said to Soren.

“Yeah, well, we’ve got an even bigger problem—our battery is dead,” Soren pointed out.

Normally, you can start an engine without battery power by pushing the vehicle to get the engine turning over, but pushing the “Puddle Jumper” across soft sand would be impossible. So how, you might wonder, could we start the vehicle if we couldn’t push it?

We gave that some thought, and came up with a plan based on something we’d heard about, but had never tried. It involved jacking up the rear of the car in order to free up the wheels so they could turn. We figured that if we could turn the wheels fast enough, and then popped the clutch, the engine might start. But how could we get the wheels turning fast enough?

“I think I’ve got it!” Soren said, as he snapped his fingers. “But first we have to off-load everything from the back of the vehicle—including the game.”

Everyone moaned at the thought, but got busy lifting and heaving everything out of the back of the vehicle. Then we jacked up the rear end so that both wheels turned and removed the right rear tire and rim from the brake drum. We’d had a flat tire earlier in the day, so we removed that tire from its rim. Then we bolted the empty rim back on the brake drum, which enabled us to wrap the chain around it.

Wrapping the chain around the empty rim contained it well enough for us to pull it to get the wheels turning.

Next, we designated the smallest person to sit in the driver’s seat as the clutch “pilot” with the clutch pushed in and ready to “pop” it when given the signal. The rest of us gripped the chain and braced ourselves to run with it. By running with the chain we hoped to get the wheels turning as fast as possible. We figured this would have the same effect as pushing the vehicle—except we forgot to factor torque into the equation, or the lack of it.

Our first attempt must have looked like the Keystone Cops on parade—and would have been hilarious to watch. At “Go,” we all ran with the chain as fast as we could. Then Soren shouted “Now,” and our clutch pilot popped the clutch, which instantly stopped the wheels, and took all of us off our feet in a pile. Fortunately, no one was hurt and everyone laughed as we reconsidered a better way to “pull-start” the Land Cruiser’s six-cylinder engine.

After several more futile attempts, we realized the only way this was going to work was to start the wheels turning with the vehicle in gear and without engaging the clutch, but the clutch pilot would need to be ready to step on the clutch as soon as the engine fired.

When the engine did fire using this new method, our clutch pilot wasn’t fast enough stepping on the clutch and the engine stalled when the chain wrapped itself around the axle and locked the wheel. Several more attempts later, with everyone finally in sync, we had success. It was a sweet sound indeed to hear the engine fire up and remain running without stalling.

We left the engine running at high revs in order to recharge the battery, while we replaced the empty rim with the good tire and reloaded everything and everybody back onto the vehicle. We then drove to the next crossing—the deepest of the four.

“We should remove the fan belt to prevent the fan from soaking the engine,” Soren said, as we surveyed the crossing.

We knew we couldn’t trust the battery to restart the engine, so we had to think of a way to push-start the “Puddle Jumper.”

“What if we find a big termite mound and back the vehicle onto it?” I said to Soren. “Then we can turn the engine off to take off the fan belt. Maybe we can push the vehicle off the mound with enough speed for a running go to start it.”

And that’s what we did. We found a broad-based termite mound and backed the vehicle up onto its incline. This enabled us to switch off the engine, remove the fan belt and then push the vehicle off the termite mound with enough momentum to kick life back into the “six-banger.” (In those days, Toyota’s Land Cruiser gasoline engine was a carbon-copy of a 1935 Chevy six-cylinder engine.)

With the fan belt removed, the “Puddle Jumper” fired right up with the push start and easily negotiated the deep-water crossing without drowning the engine. The vehicle’s forward motion through water created a bow wave that maintained a cavity of air around the engine. On the other side we found another large termite mound, backed onto it, switched off the engine, re-fitted the fan belt then push-started the vehicle. We repeated this exercise for the last crossing and then, thankfully, without further delay, we were able to roll into camp shortly after midnight to a rousing welcome.

I’d have bet a month’s salary we’d have spent that night in the bush!

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But the day’s adventure held one final unpleasant surprise.

“Oh, my God—look!!” one of the girls shouted as she pointed at our legs. “What’s that on your ankles?”

There, hanging like fat grapes on Soren’s ankles and mine were several blood-engorged leeches. Repulsed at the thought of providing sustenance for the slimy bloodsuckers, we facilitated the release of their toothy grips with lit cigarettes and copious amounts of trophy salt from the skinning shed. You want the little devils to let go of their own accord, to avoid too much bleeding. If you yank them off, which is what you feel like doing when you discover them, the bleeding can be profuse. Leech-free, we all downed our nightcaps and turned in, thanking our lucky stars to be back at camp.

So, today, whenever I’m stuck in a city traffic jam and my blood pressure starts to soar, I recall Soren’s “Puddle Jumper,” being stuck in cold murky water, with roaring lions, laughing hyenas, monster crocs and blood-sucking leeches in attendance, and the bush-league solutions it took to get us out of the jam. It makes everything else seem minor, and brings a smile to my face every time.

Editor’s Note: Soren Lindstrom and the author currently offer big game, bird shooting, fishing and photo safari adventures. For more information visit Africa All-Ways at africaallways.com or call 321-480-2300.

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