There is something slightly depressing about waking to an unresolved problem. More so when the solution is predicted to involve considerable discomfort and a long period of hard, physical work! Or maybe that’s just my age.
The scene that welcomed us the next day was like a battlefield. Our Landy was tilted at a precarious angle, surrounded by small piles of mud, dirty footprints and the detritus of the last evening’s fruitless attempt at self-recovery. The winch rope lay dirtied on the salt, the anchor buried in the torn furrow it had ploughed pointlessly the night before, and every scar in the surface of the Salar had filled with ice cold water, the water table laying just five centimetres beneath the surface.
Laying on my stomach to inspect the situation, I saw that the rear of the chassis disappeared below the mud, and a bank of mud and salt had built up ahead of the rear axle. The front wheels had sunk about three centimetres overnight, and the tracks they had made across the salt in front of the rear wheels were muddy – the salt was very thin here.
Porridge is always a good start to a hard day, so we cooked up a pot and sat amongst the shambles of our accidental camp to eat it. I shared my plan with Helen, and we worked out our roles, so as to spread the labours of the day.
Fed and watered, we set to. Helen began unloading the side lockers so that we could use the shelves as additional makeshift sand ladders for the front wheels, while I dug away the mud from in front of the rear wheels to place the bridging ladders. I then used the barbecue grill, an upturned aluminium cooking pot, and a ratchet strap to make it possible to jack each rear wheel in turn out of the mud just enough to place the end of the bridging ladders beneath them. It was cold and filthy work. As each spadeful of mud was removed, it was replaced with freezing water, heavy with silt, and the saturated saline solution stung bare flesh like acid.
When the side lockers were emptied, we continued to unload the truck, eventually raising it about two centimetres. With the truck lightened, and the load taken on the improvised ladders, I turned my attention to the winching arrangements. I was conscious that we would have only one attempt before the ground in front of the truck was ploughed into a treacherous and uncross-able quagmire. We would have to winch free, and turn, before our wheels met the carnage.
I set up the ground anchor dead ahead, just under half a rope length away – about 15 meters – and ran the winch line through a pulley on the anchor and back to a shackle on the winch bumper, giving twice the pull at half the speed. I then ran out the extension winch rope in a ‘V’ shape behind the anchor, and at one end dug a circular hole and buried the spare wheel, and then at the other end of the ‘V’, using my experience of snow anchors from my climbing days, dug a large bollard into the surface of the mud, around which I placed the tree strop. To further strengthen the anchor arrangements, and to take some load off the mud bollard, I dug the barbecue grill vertically into the mud halfway between the ground anchor and the bollard.
Having placed all the anchors, I cut vertically into the salt crust with our axe along the line of the connecting winch ropes, so that when the lines tightened, the pull would be through the mud, not over the surface.
I had been putting off the worst of the work, but now, convinced I had done the best I could with the anchors, I set about removing the vast quantity of salt and mud from beneath the chassis. Lying on my side, I first dug from each side ahead of the rear wheels until I could see light from either side, and the front of the axle casing was freed.
I then lay at the rear of the truck and dug deep under the buried chassis from the rear, a job made more unpleasant because the wheel furrows had filled with icy salt water. About an hour into this part of the digging, I smelt diesel, and my heart sank.
Clearing the remaining mud with increased vigour, I discovered a stream of diesel winding its way from under the truck – an oil river on top of a saline river. The drips seemed to be coming from a rubber fuel pipe connecting the main tank to the auxiliary tank, and while I prayed this was the source, in my head I knew we were looking at a larger problem. Although dirty, the pipe appeared intact.
Eventually, we were ready to go. After a final check of the anchors, sand ladders and winch, we talked through the process until we were both clear about all the ‘what ifs’. Helen fired up and warmed the engine, then increased the revs to winching speed so as to provide ample power for the winch under load. From outside on the salt, I winched in until the cable tightened, and confirmed preparedness with Helen. We were good to go.
Easing the clutch up and applying power while I winched in, Helen slowly drove Landy out of his predicament, amidst the roar of the engine, and a loud sucking noise from the tyres. Landy inched up the bridging ladders to sit precariously on the Salar, the underside dripping filth, and we celebrated our major win of the day.
I walked a route towards the shore and found a relatively firm patch of salt about a hundred and fifty metres closer to land, and we agreed that would be our target.
We let the air out of the tyres, deflating them to about 15 PSI, and inched Landy gingerly toward the parking spot, where we parked on top of the bridging ladders and shelves again to spread the load.
It had been one of our hardest days so far, but the feeling of exhaustion was lost in the sense of relief that we had freed ourselves from the mud. The GPS would register that we had travelled a total of 150 meters that day, but as overlanders we knew we had come much farther than that.
As night fell on our third day on the Salar, we started the task of lugging the unloaded gear across the mud, but eventually, after ten trips, spent a second cold night contemplating the two remaining problems: How to cross the soft mud and get to shore; and how to cross the remaining 500 kilometres of largely uninhabited wilderness to Chile while losing 2 litres of diesel an hour.