The Struggle Back to Square One

I am squinting into the midday sun, clinging to the side railings of our Landrover. Crystallized salt burns in the criss-cross cuts in my hands and my eyes no longer focus with exhaustion  I am caked in drying clay that hinders all movement and dexterity  Our car is tilting to roughly thirty five degrees, the maximum point, beyond which it will roll. We have been dragged twenty metres, sliding laterally across an embankment by a tow truck. Despite the contributions of our supposed rescuer, our position is more perilous then ever. The body of our car lurches off the rear left suspension, front right wheel deeply embedded in the sucking clay. In fact all the wheels are axle deep in the cursed mud. If my hands tire and I slip off the railing it may mark the tipping point.

This is the second of the three abysmal low points of our journey so far. They all happened within 24 hours of each other. This is our account. We had spent many hours planning for crime, mechanical failures and natural disasters and but overlooked arguably the greatest threat to our adventure: Ourselves.

Rural Turkey

Rural Turkey

We had left Istanbul as a trio. Having recently been seven, the car seemed quiet and strangely empty. Spirits were high however: We had our ferry tickets to Africa and eight days to enjoy the rest of Turkey. The weather forecast for the central plateau predicted sunny days of 10 degrees with clear nights of -1. Up on the high bridge, in slow traffic, we crossed the obsidian Bosporus into Asia minor. The lights from both sides of the city merged and scattered in the cold water beneath. Istanbul is huge beyond understanding; over eighteen million people sprawling across two continents.

Two hours later we were still among the high-rise suburbs, navigating our vessel through five lanes of undisciplined and unscrupulous competition. Driving in Istanbul is by no means for the faint-hearted. “Lanes” is a word far more generous then the system deserves. Fortunately some belligerent driving from the helm of our hulking, bull barred vehicle* meant we were usually left a wide berth.

Out in the countryside we found a late night roadside diner that not only sold good, hot food but also long-johns, we stripped in the car park and donned layers more fitting for the coming cold. We then completely unpacked and re-packed the car to the inevitable large audience (we are becoming used a life of constant observation and performance). The proprietor, who must have warmed to this industrious farce offered us a wooden pallet. I doubt we would have survived the following nights without the long-johns and the pallet to use as firewood.

Under the midnight moon, we turned off and vanished into the hills. We slept on the platforms inside the car, in a forested hill, underneath radio masts. It took two sleeping bags and fleeces each, to keep out the cold until dawn. The next morning we drove on through the Anatolian plateau of central Turkey. The landscape changed from pine forest into sandy red scrubland. Minarets marked out villages embedded between hill and escarpment. We could now say that, beyond rational doubt, this was no longer England.

Due to a ‘misunderstanding’ with the automated toll barriers we were now unable/not allowed to use the Turkish motorways. However the old road was empty and just as fast when your top speed is sixty. The day drew to a close in the hills to the east of the city. We wound our way through villages where tired, low beamed houses bow under the weight of their tiles and the old men sit and watch. From a distance the whispering grass was interrupted by the roar of our engine and people who went to bed with the sun were brought out of slumber as their baying dogs chased a roaring, diesel monster from their village.

The frigid hills were now dressed sparse with rocky grassland. At one town we found lights in a tea-house and sent Dan to ask for directions. Rich and I neglected to remind him he still wore a head torch and a novelty Fez. After he had marched back, brow furrowed with embarrassment to return his costume, the villagers provided us with a hand-drawn map that showed where we were (which we knew) and where we wanted to go (which we also knew) connected by a straight line. We opted to continue using our own map and pressed on.

The full moon illuminated a winding shepherds’ track up into the hills. Our car scrambled up the dirt until we reached a rounded summit. We cut the engine to ringing silence and turned our headlights off to reveal that it was not night, nor day but timeless in a still and monochrome plane, rolling out to distant horizons. We climbed out of our capsule.

The Chef at Work

The Chef at Work

Bubbles and swirls of jet black twist through the perfect pure-white crust around our wheels. We’re sinking. I jump down off the bonnet into half a foot of clear salt water. Dan’s face is still cheerful. He has just asked me if I want to drive. I garble my realisation, profanities filling every available space. Keep driving. Keep driving. He understands instantly from my blood-drained face and jumps in the car. The engine roars, four wheels fly into a mad spin, the inky blackness spreads out further across what before was a mirror. The car sinks further as Turks yell and gesture fıfty metres away on the shore…

We rose with dawn to see a great swathe of Turkey beneath us, layered horizons fading into the haze. An eagle had began its days work. Its screech and the distant goat bells were the only feature in an expanse of silence. We made breakfast and congratulated ourselves on yet another excellent camp. This hubris proved too much for the fates to leave unpunished…

As we begun our daily inspection, disaster struck. Since a lubricant change in Greece, our rear differential had started slowly dripping oil. Lying on the dusty track I undid the inspection plug, checked the level, which was fine, re-tightened the plug with our breaker bar. I became worried when, after continued turning the plug was still loose in its thread. Confident in the knowledge that the piece fitted, I decided to give one further turn. As I eased the final turn there was a horrifying click and the plug slipped through the cast iron casing into the Diff.

I knew this was bad. A loose component among the complex gearing would blow the differential unit as soon as we tried to drive it, rendering our car immobile. I waited a moment before gathering the courage to inform the group. The load shared, we analysed the problem: Any attempts to move would destroy the drive chain to our rear wheels. The only way we could move would be to remove the half shafts (wheels), drive shaft and limp on to Ankara for help (at great expense and expertise. We needed to get that plug out. Our parts manual revealed a removable inspection panel, hidden on our car by the rust. If we could break the ten ancient and accustomed bolts, drain the lubricant and free the panel then we would be able to move off the mountain.

We took our turns lying flat on our backs with a wrench, heaving the stubborn bolt-heads. Each person would expend their energy and retire blinking out the dirt and rust to allow a fresh attempt. Silently, the doubt grew as to whether the panel was movable at all under the amorphous crust. The bolts were moving however and one by one, with the patience of those with no alternative, the ten holes we had pushed into cardboard to house the bolts were filled.

The three of us lay flat carefully inspected the casing, caressing the seam. We then struck it with a lump hammer. The panel split off like a flake of desert rock. Inside the oiled mechanics we revealed. Sitting among the gears was our culprit. We designed a new gasket from the card cover of our now obsolete Europe road map and began to put everything back together. It was afternoon, on a day which we had needed to put a solid eight hours driving in, when we eventually trundled off the mountain. However we drove a working car. Never had it felt so good to be back to square one.

The next destination on our long map was the salt lake of Tuz Golu. We made excellent time and our spirits rose and we held steady on the long, straight road. Our arrival at the lake was announced by the disappearance of the visible horizon. All we could see was the pink sky and the setting sun in double. Giddy and disorientated we steered our car toward the first possible slipway. We scouted the path down onto the perfectly smooth salt flat and were anxious about what we found. There was a moat of boggy clay about twenty metres wide separating us from the salt, that underfoot, felt like asphalt. The shimmering mirages beckoned, we threw our caution to the breeze. The last thing Dan said as he gathered the revs was,

“Are we all on board with this?”

The last thing I said was,

“Just hit it really fast.”

We gouged about twelve metres of axle-deep trenches before our momentum ceased and the wheels span us down to rest our chassis evenly on its earthy bed.

Thus began our great struggle. Looking back at the first hours, I realise how much we learnt about getting a car unstuck. Whilst there was still some light to work by, we tenuously picked our way through the salty mud, trying not to get our trousers muddy, gathering and placing rocks behind each wheel. I don’t think we realised how severe our situation was. The strange clay was the consistency of plasticine and stuck in great cakes to everything. A brick dropped into the sharp-scented bog needed a great heave to release it from the suction. Each thrust of the shovel strained our backs before the ground gave up its load with a reluctant, inward belch. The all-terrain tyres were slicked smooth and oily.

Stuck Again!

Stuck Again!

It took us an hour to discover that the rubble we were filling the tracks with was only hindering the tiny progress we had made back to Terra Firma by chocking the wheels. By now were caked in the mud, our hands fat and slippery on the shovel handle.  At this point we employed our sand ladders and wood planks. With continued digging and pushing under head torches we gradually clawed our way back to within a few feet of the slipway. Always, there would be one troublesome wheel spinning away our power *2.

The narrow earth slipway entered the mire at an angle to the car. We knew that we had to turn the car, in the next big push to hit the safe ground for on the other side was a deeper and soggier expanse to envelope us if we overshot. Sand ladders in position, Dan, who had remained the driver throughout engaged the wheels with measured throttle. The wheels caught and we hauled ourselves from our binding. Things happened quickly then. The momentum continued, the downhill wheels span and the bank collapsed. Tired beyond emotion we watched as we smeared a track down into the other side.

We could only press on. Dan, the least muddy, walked off towards civilization for food to raise spirits. In a nearby service station, the occupants gasped as a muddy, bearded man, wrapped in a blanket and a furry hat strode toward the bread rolls. With angry shouts the drove the vagabond out. It took a lot of explaining and convincing before he was allowed to buy food. With increased skill but empty energy reserves we continued edging our way across to mud-flat.

It was around midnight when I was roused from a world of digging by strange men shining torches in my eyes. We dropped our shovels to see Dan, standing behind three uniformed men with sub-machine guns. Dan had managed not only to source food but to persuade the reluctant police chief of a nearby town to come and help.

The car was rigged up with cable as our attempts to help were sidelined. We watched as their truck screamed and the cable tightened. One back wheel came over the slipway’s edge. They hit full power and our two ton red box lurched sideways, front wheels spinning huge ditches in the bog. Unperturbed, they dragged us in this awkward position for twenty meters before their tow-bar snapped. We were now leaning, stuck with one wheel high up on the slipway’s side and the others deep in mud. Our position was worse than ever as the police, shuffling and looking at their feet, muttered apologies and left. Totally drained we gave up and pitched camp. That night, the world span with fatigue. I dreamed that I was sinking in a swamp, being enclosed in the moist ground.

We were awoken by the sun and climbed out to be reminded that we had chosen a beautiful place to get stuck. The lake was shimmered the morning light. We had breakfast and got back to work. Rich was able to fix our previously broken high lift jack as I dug a deep pit for the hand winch to anchor. It was nearing midday when Dan arrived with a confident looking man and, more importantly, a tow truck.

Again, without any heed to our advice or help they pressed on rigging up the car. Again the car was dragged sideways as the angle reached tipping point. We started to hang off the side as it began to look critical. The driver’s response was only to rev harder. Furious and desperate, we shouted him to stop and think. He looked upset but stopped, studied the situation then sulkily re-rigged at a more favourable angle.

With four people hanging off the side, the car gave a final lurch, teetered on the brink and then began to slowly tilt back towards the flat as a second wheel cleared the edge. We were free.

After we had washed in the salt-saturated lake, we then had an important discussion. We had located a clay free route down to the water’s edge. So far, we had been defeated by this lake. Rich was reluctant. We had no food, no money and no energy were we to get stuck again. However,  there was no mud to be found. We decided to go for it, with Dan still at the wheel. We edged down to the lake and into the water, the ground was firm beneath us as we gained confidence slicing through the shallow water.

It was only when we stopped, far out from the coast did I spot our deepening tracks and it dawned on me that we had cracked the thin layer of salt and were sinking. It was too late however. The first flurry of activity ended with four wheels pressed through the sharp edges of four black holes. The soft clay beneath the crust, like the chocolate of a melted smartie, wasn’t holding our weight and we continued to sink. There was no towing from this far out. Dan, on the brink of despair whispered apologies to Rich. This despair only lasted a long moment.

With any badly stuck car, one’s chances of getting out tend to decrease with every attempt of escape. We had the added problem of what was essentially, quicksand. If we had any chance at all, we had to get it right first time. Had we not gathered the experience we had during catastrophe number two, I doubt we would managed. We would have had to salvage what we could and the dark silhouette of our wrecked car would have become a tourist attraction.

I scrambled up onto the roof and handed the newly-repaired high-lift jack down to Rich, who was able to lift each wheel out of its hole high enough to be filled with a sand ladder or a wooden plank. Everything now rested with Dan.

“Showtime mate,” said Rich as our driver gingerly climbed behind the wheel.

All I remember of the next few minutes was pushing desperately whilst I was sprayed with brine. The wheels span, caught, span and caught. At full-throttle our car lifted out of the abyss like an angered beast and jumped forward. It smashed fresh holes in the salt with a splash but the momentum carried it through. Then I was standing by Rich. Dan did not take his foot off the accelerator until he was on solid concrete. When we eventually caught up with him, we had to prize his white knuckles off the steering wheel.

We silently packed up and drove off on solid tarmac to Cappadocia.

Salt Lake Serenity

Salt Lake Serenity

* 1. I imagine that, to the original designers of the Defender, the concept of ‘crumple zones’ was as inconcevable as the internet or a smoking ban in pubs

*2. For those not familiar with the world of off-roading, drive (power) is like electrical charge and follows the least resistance, so a wheel spinning takes all the drive out of a car. ‘Differential lock’ partially solves this but power still escapes if two wheels are spinning.

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