Today we want to use our original diary entry as a blog, because the details are not unimportant and we would lose too much momentum in shortening this very relevant experience for us.
December 15, 2017: Chos Malal / Ruta 40 – Laguna Llancanelo
The day started off unspectacularly and ended in three days of ultimate chaos. We continued north in the morning to Lagnuna Llancanelo, about 80 km east of the city of Mallagüe which we should also get to know well later ….. After registration at the Guardiaparque we drive at numerous gas exploration stations of YPF to the parking lot of the Laguna. After the many miles of the last few days, we decide to pitch our overnight stop here in the early afternoon. I do some weight-training as usual, and I see that the actual Laguna – that is, where water begins and the flamingos as described in the guidebook – are still several miles away. Bypassing the parking lot around there is a lane with various current traces. In addition, with more than 30 degrees and very strong Andean wind we do not have hiker friendly weather so that we drive Shujaa closer to the lagoon.
We follow the path, which is also marked with lava stones on the right and left, towards Laguna, I turn on the 6×6 wheel drive …. You never know. Suddenly I realize that the ground is getting softer and Shujaa digs easily on the rear axle. As you should not stop in such situations I try to use the remaining traction to drive in a large circle back as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I only get 90 degrees and then we are totally sunk.
Knowing from our various test drives and driver trainings that air deflating, shoveling freely, and three powered axles work wonders, we go for it very relaxed, and supposedly experienced. Already with the free shoveling I have to find out, unfortunately, that there is under a relatively firm approx. 20 cm deep sand layer muddy loam soil and under it water. The first attempt fails, so that level two of the learned escalation program is applied ….
We shovel again and use our sand trays to make it easier to get out. And it’s hot. After shoveling for 1.5 hours, I actually succeed in the second low transmission gear with use of all three differential locks about 50 meters to move forward. Unfortunately, although I had really good speed and I drove over a few supposedly traction-promoting tufts of grass, Shujaa got stuck again.
Meanwhile, we have 20:30 h and I realize that it will be dark in 30 minutes and therefore we have only one more attempt for today. To make matters worse, the Guardiaparque comes over and reproaches us how stupid it can be to even drive into the lagoon. They park their 17-tonne lighter Jeep safely, at a distance of several hundred meters and come by foot.
In fact, my view of the GPS shows that we are now in a blue – that is, a lake area – but the visible water is still around 500 meters away. Slowly I realize the entire dimension: the lake has dried up and has retreated further and further, but is still existent about 40 cm below the surface. The third start attempt must of course also fail, we only dig deeper and we decide to call it a day. The urgently needed shower is only possible with big obstacles, since we are so inclined that we are pushing more with water into the gutter than to clean ourselves – otherwise the water would flow from the shower into the interior.
We have no hunger in spite of high physical effort and I cannot close an eye at night – despite the valerian administered by Karin and other homeopathic remedies. Karin and I are not feeling well and many thoughts go through our heads. I make many, many re-approaches why I drove with an 18-tonner in the lagoon without having tested the ground on foot, and without having looked at my navigation at that moment, where I should have recognized the situation.
December 16, 2017: Languna Llancanelo
After yesterday’s day was already borderline, today’s day was even worse by dimensions with several super chaos: at six in the morning I am up again – without having slept a minute – and shovel Shujaa free. I want to use the early morning hours and cool temperatures to get Shujaa free. Unfortunately, I realize that Shujaa has a plate on the front left. The mega-Gau, since a tire change in this muddy ground is a hopeless task. With the help of my two lifting / recovery pillows and two underlaid sand sheets (which subsequently have the shape of a banana) I manage to lift the front axle so far that the tire is halfway upright again and the hole seems to be so small that I can pump up the broken tire again with the help of my tire inflation system – and the air loss stops first.
The subsequent attempt in getting Shujaa out of the mud then succeeds – but unfortunately again only for 20 meters and then we are stuck again with the two rear axles … .. the ground is still very muddy. But somehow I have to come back to the original lane in a wide arc – since I have all the differential locks on, so also the front axle differential – and the tires have drained to 1.5 bar of normally 7 bar, I cannot make any small turns.
Soon the three guys from the Guardiaparque are with us again: they are worried, if we got through the night well. Otherwise, they annoy with well-intentioned salvage and driving suggestions, even want to drive themselves and want suggest that we rather drive backwards in our buried lane instead of forwards. I’m skeptical, the mood is very tense.
As part of the clearing one of the Guardiaparque employees actually manages to break the starter battery’s main switch – the battery box behind the last rear axle hung safely deep in the sand, but when clearing away, he had come too close to this main switch. The battery main switch controls the entire engine of Shujaa – no more starting is possible, no and jump starting is also out of the question, because the connection line of the batteries to the engine is severed. In addition to the flat tire that is the second major problem, because I realize that a non-starting and thus non-wheeled Shujaa can only be recovered with a Black Hawk helicopter. In addition, the Guardiaparque guys explain to me that no excavator or other caterpillar is dumb enough to drive onto the lake. Nevertheless, they advise me to get to Mallargüe, the nearest city about 75 km away, and try to organize help. They expect us to take a taxi to the city tomorrow morning at the latest. In addition, they absolutely want us to spend the night in their hut about 17 km away, but we refuse and do not want to abandon Shujaa – our house, our baby. Knowing that we alone cannot accomplish much here. Nevertheless, we try to repair the battery main switch: The amateur repair, to stick the main switch with Pattex again, of course, must fail.
The third super chaos of the day is that we can no longer swing our swiveling underrun protection backwards, which is a prerequisite for making the battery box and thus the main switch accessible. For hours we try to get the fixation bolts out – without success. Since it is crystal clear that a non-starting Shujaa is not salvageable, we decide to divert the underrun protection unceremoniously so that a potential electrician is even able to make a repair. In extreme desert winds, scorching hot heat and sparks, this first flex adventure of my life is a very special challenge. I’m scared but it succeeds finally.
In the evening, just before dark, an employee from the nearby exploration fields comes by. I explain to him the problem with the battery main switch. As a true bush mechanic, he means “no problem”, we establish a direct connection. Unfortunately, the darkness and a sandstorm with over 11 wind forces makes an repair impossible, but the guy acts competent and promises to come back early morning the next day after his nightshift to fix the problem.
The second night in the lagoon is even worse than the first. Karin has supplied my numerous wounds with our perfectly equipped medicine box (blisters on the hands from permanent shoveling, from the extreme sunlight and the wind-torn lips, extreme eye pain from the sand, the wind and the welding). I’m feeling very, very bad and the physical pain is only the slightest evil. In addition, we have an extreme sandstorm shaking all the time at Shujaa during the night.
December 17, 2017: Laguna Llancannelo and Mallargüe
In fact, at 7:00 am, Jorge from the exploration company actually comes by and in less than 5 minutes he has placed a direct battery connection to bypass the broken main switch. Shujaa starts and the damaged tire has even lasted overnight. First hope sprouts up. After the Guardiaparque boys have come back to us (but without taking a shovel in hand, only admiring the wild working Karin and me are doing), to tell us that our taxi for the trip to Mallargüe has arrived in their 17 km away base station, we try a last trial … .. again without success.
Completely frustrated, Karin and I pack our necessary things into our backpacks and leave Shujaa – our baby, our house, our base – with very, very emotional feelings. We have been given a few addresses of construction companies, etc., where we are trying to get a Caterpillar (which according to the Guardiaparque guys will not drive into the lagoon and thus requires a salvage of over 200 meters distance). In addition, they have already forewarned us in terms of cost of several thousand USD. Due to our mood, we hardly talk to our taxi driver. Only shortly before arrival we engage in a conversation. In fact, it turns out that his brother is the head of the local public construction yard, responsible for all public excavators, trucks, etc. in the area. Of course we go straight to him – no matter if it is Sunday. He is standing behind the counter in a butcher’s shop, cutting meat and talking to many customers. Everything is very strange. In 30 seconds (elevator pitch!) We explain our situation to him and show him some photos. Again we hardly understand anything, because all this is not really Spanish – but his brother, our taxi driver, tells us that the next day (Monday morning) at 7:00 h a truck with a Caterpillar digger would make his way to the lagoon. In the aftermath, we still need to clarify significant details: for example, how do we get back to the lagoon, etc. As “Controlletti” I want to make sure that something really happens the next morning. We therefore take a completely wrecked room in a hotel in the city and vegetate the rest of the day with high emotional mood. The third night in a row I cannot sleep, I’m hardly hungry and must force myself to drink something.
Again I am very impressed with Karin: how hard she works physically in this extremely harsh environment, how she supports me emotionally, how she still has the strength to provide for my physical wounds – I really get to know my dream woman again from another side.
December 18, 2017: Laguna Llancanelo – Mallargüe
In the morning at 7:00 am our taxi driver is actually at the hotel to drive to the yard.
When we arrive at the yard and ask for the Chefe our action is already well known and the excavator is being loaded onto a truck. My efforts to organize more people and equipment beside the truck and the excavator driver are not fruitful. Since we cannot drive four in the truck, another manager drives us 80 km into the Laguna, so that we are already at 9:15 h back to Shujaa.
Not completely surprising, Shujaa is still intact and on exactly the same please where we left it, but unfortunately the tire is flat again. Again we unpack the lifting cushions, put them on the sand trays to avoid too much sinking and pump them up. This time we need much longer to inflate the tire on the rim again, but it succeeds. Fortunately, it just seems to be the valve and depending on the valve position you can minimize the air outflow.
Then we start digging out the vehicle again, we reduce as much ballast on the rear axles as we always bag there: Quad (400 kg), both spare wheels (total 400 kg) and our 500 liters of fresh water (500 kg). We hope to optimize the recovery when the excavator arrives.
We wait and wait, but there is no truck with excavator.
At about 1:00 pm our three boys from the Guardiaparque are showing up again and report that the excavator is approaching. We mount my mountain rope to his bucket and parallel, with the movement of the bucket, I drive out until I’m halfway out again. This works very well and everyone in the room thinks that I would be able to make it to the lagoon shoreline alone. Far from it, again I dig in the back. After a total of 6 exits with excavator and then traveling alone 50-60 meters, I finally reached the edge – we cannot believe that we made it. The excavator brings us the two dismantled spare wheels, the underrun protection, the lifting bags and the various mountain ropes to the shore, we ride our quad again all the way to collect shovels and other tools that we used within the last 3 days. Then it goes to the stowage. The yard truck takes the underrun protection to Mallargüe. Even the guys from the Guardiaparque are overjoyed because they were very worried about our health and that something like that has to happen in their area. We say goodbye with a photo session.
When we finally put everything away, we notice the next problem. One of the hoses of the tire pressure air system is leaking. Since the system controls the pressure in all six tires in parallel, we cannot inflate Shujaa’s tires. With the tire pressure lowered to 1.5 bar, driving on the sometimes very sharp lava rocks, would destroy the very expensive tires. Just then, however, another Exploration Station mechanic comes by out of curiosity and – as these guys are real bush mechanics – he expertly repairs the damage in minutes.
On it goes to the 80 km away Mallargüe, but the day should not be over yet …. Since we urgently need to drain gray and black water, we drive on the way back in a small gravel road to a communications satellite in order to dispose undisturbed our wastewater there. As we drive back to the main track, the willow rust breaks under us. Thanks to its extremely big tires, Shujaa can easily get out of there, but what do we do with the destroyed rust? At that moment, an employee of the satellite operator comes by in his jeep, responds mega-relaxed, we swap addresses for a possible loss adjustment and then make us finally on to the last 20 km to Mallargüe.
There we fill up our fresh water tank, go to a supermarket and move into our overnight accommodation directly in the parking lot of the supermarket. Our first time to stay overnight on a supermarket parking lot, but we are so tired and just want to go to bed. For three days we finally sleep again.
December 19, 2017: Mallargüe
Today is the day of repairs, cleaning and summing up. First we drive to the building yard to say thank you. For the entire 12-hour salvage operation with a truck, an excavator and two employees he wants to have the equivalent of 90 €, an extremely fair price. In addition, he does not hesitate, as we ask where we can weld our cut-off underrun protection and calls in South American macho mania his welding team together. 1.5 hours later, the underrun protection is back, the badly deformed sand sheets straight and cleaned again and Shujaa also gets a little car wash. We really were very lucky in this misfortune.
Then we clean Shujaa ourselves for 8 hours: I focus on the outside. The loamy mud has settled between the axles and on the air suspension and is now so bone-dry that even the high-pressure cleaner has its challenges. Karin cleans inside, where the sandstorm has left its mark everywhere and together we clean the outer storage compartments. In the evening, we goe to the tire experts to have our leaking tire valve examined: fortunately, only the valve has loosened a bit of the rim and after a brief retighten everything fits again. The tire has remained intact.
In the evening with a good wine we conclude:
- We were at the absolute limit of our psychic and physical capacities, yet we can both say that through this totally new experience, we have become even closer and more connected as a couple. We have seen that everyone can absolutely rely on the other in such an extreme situation and that we “work” when it really matters.
- Of course, we briefly asked ourselves why we do all these adventures – voluntarily, but we have never really thought about stopping the trip around the world, but have rather seen this experience as a “seriousness test” as a prelude.
- We have learned a great deal: in the future, we will be more cautious and more attentive to examine the ground in such situations. Also we will consider driving backwards after the first digging in, instead of going forward in a big arc to the starting point and hoping for a firmer ground again. Or just unpack our quad to explore uncertain surroundings (that is why we have it for)
- But we also saw that our extensive driver training with Hans and Nancy in Morocco was an extreme help, where we practiced all the actions (ropes, excavation, sand trays, lifting bags). These experiences gave us at least some sovereignty in an almost hopeless situation.
- There is always a solution: In the end, despite the 6 rescue attempts we also needed with the excavator, everything went very quickly.