The sensation of wheels spinning in the mud can be pretty cool, especially if the vehicle is moving and preferably sideways. The same sensation when the vehicle is stationary is not so cool but no big problem. But, when we experienced wheel spin in our 4WD, complete with big tires especially designed for mud driving, it proved to be more a saga than a problem. And what’s more, to compound our problem we were on a very narrow & very remote track in the Amazon jungle during an impressive tropical deluge. We were bogged with no winch & self-recovery likely the only way out, this is how Global Inc Safari found themselves on this dark and particularly wet Amazonian evening. With no other option available Russ, armed with his headlamp, raincoat and jungle jandals (havianas) followed the track into a complete darkness that is the jungle at night.
Russ walked slowly, allowed his night vision to develop as he tracked the washed out wheel ruts in the dark. At times precious ambient light managed to filter through holes in the canopy where trees had been felled during the construction of the track. Having resign to a potentially long walk for help Russ came to a fork in the track, not more than a kilometer from where he had left Anna & Troy. Closing one eye he switched on the headlamp saw the main track continued straight ahead and the other appeared to be a driveway of sorts, after a short one eyed, wonky walk up the driveway he was pleasantly surprised to see a house up a small rise but there were no lights and nobody appeared to be home, bugger. Russ continued on the main track for another 600 odd meters and saw a very dim light glowing through the growth. The light disappeared when he looked at it directly, but in peripheral vision it was as bright as a search light.
The light disappeared and reappeared as the track snaked toward potential help. The downpour was slowly abating and Russ could make out an outline of a porch and the source of the light, but under the canopy it might as well have been raining as every faint breeze brought a new drenching from above. Russ knocked on the door and was greeted by an older Bolivian woman who spoke perfect English, this has to be the English Bird watchers residence, and was he invited in. After a brief introduction Russ explained what had happened and if help could be forthcoming. The Brit gave an emphatic “no, not a chance of any kind help from me sunshine, go and see the German in the other house” but he did impart some advice to Russ “never drive off the track, that would be disastrous, I had a sign at the main gate stating that but it fell down and I never repaired it”, yeah, thanks for nothing wanker. With nothing else to say Russ bid the couple good evening, apologised for the intrusion and slowly walked back to the other house in the vain hope that somebody was home. During the walk back Russ formed a recovery plan and mentally prepared himself for no sleep and a lot of digging, more so if the rain kept up.
The good news was that the German was home, he welcomed Russ in and he had a guest that spoke excellent English. The bad news is that he had a 2WD car, bald tires and no winch. We cannot remember his name so for the sake of the yarn we will call him Hans. After a brief Spanglish/ English/ German explanation of what had happened Hans said he would help us recover troy from the clutches of the jungle, but, after his dinner. Russ trudged back to Anna and prepared the recovery strap for an attempt at forward recovery. The back of Hans’s car appeared a half an hour later, tail lights bright in the darkness as he reversed down the track and stopped at the end of the recovery strap. After brief introductions and a detailed instruction as to what Russ wanted to happen the strap was attached to Hans’s vehicle and we were ready to go. Russ beeped once and Han’s gunned his car up the track taking up the slack in the strap as he went.
The theory is the strap acts as a super heavy duty elastic band and will stretch some 20-30% in length all the while gaining elastic potential energy as it reaches a maximum stretched length, without delving into basic physics the stuck vehicle should slingshot out of trouble with the aid of the forward dynamic energy of the recovery vehicle… in theory. In practice Hans’s car decelerated from 35-0 km/h in 10mm and nearly pulled the arse out of his car. Also, in hindsight, I should have told him to wear his seat belt and brace for the strap take up and impact. Han’s, the poor bugger, staggered from his vehicle dazed, bleeding from the brow and cursing colorfully in German. Russ didn’t really think it was going to work but we’d never of known unless we tried it. Plan ‘B’ involved a bigger 4WD vehicle, brought in from the rear, with lots of friendly neighboring Bolivian blokes, axes, spades, shovels, hand winches, pulley’s , steel cables, ropes, torches, food and drink, discussion & planning, talking, laughter, swearing, frustration, resignation and finally defeat.
The clock on the dash read 12:38 AM and the Bolivians finally called it a night. Not so Hans, his one remaining Bolivian friend and Russ. After another discussion Plan ‘C’ was hatched and Han’s drove back up the track for more timber planks. After much digging, planning and ramping Han’s and Russ, inch by precarious inch, managed to drive troy out of the Mud and up onto the track proper, the clock read 01:48 AM and we were mobile again some 10 hours after sliding off the track and into a silty side drain, axle deep. We drove up to Hans’s house and parked to one side of the track and set up camp. Hans offered us both the use of his shower and after washing the mud and grime away we crawled into bed for a well-deserved sleep. The next morning we thanked Hans for his help and bid everyone goodbye, but not the Pom and Russ slingshot a few rocks onto his roof as a parting gesture.
We very cautiously backtracked to the main road, being very careful not to deviate, even remotely, from the track. Muted morning daylight lit the jungle track and we saw how easily a small vehicle could stray and slide into the swampy washouts that ran on either side of the track. Previously unseen plank bridges, barely wide enough for us to drive on, spanned small deep creeks of mud and silt. Somehow we had managed to get it right with exception to the final crossing which took 10 hours to cross. We were certainly one, if not the largest, vehicle to ever drive on the track.
Once we gained the main gate we had to bash our way back through the flooded & completely torn up main road to town. Eventually we regained the paved road and then the main highway to Santa Cruz. The drive to Santa Cruz was hot and uneventful and we made great time to the city. The road to Santa Cruz was fast and straight and soon we were inside the outer ring road and in the city proper. Not really sure where we were going to stay we tried to find a hotel with suitable and secure parking. Not having any luck we decided to try two camp grounds we had passed on the way in. Russ also spotted a Toyota workshop on the main road and we pulled in to see if they could replace Troy’s CV boots. A very helpful service adviser, who spoke excellent English, advised us that Bolivia will not repair a Toyota Tundra older than 2008 as they do not stock parts for the older models, that really sucked. But he did put me onto another workshop that Toyota contracts work out to and the location of a parts supplier that had everything we needed. Russ booked Troy in for new CV boots and we went in search of a camp for the night.
The first place was resort style and didn’t want to know about us unless we booked an expensive room and ate at their expensive restaurant, no thanks amigo. The next place was 20 km from town and down a crap dirt road. We pulled into the Colpa Caranda camping and resort and were greeted by the Manager and his staff. We explained our requirement and were given the perfect spot nestled in among the trees in the best camp ground we have stayed in, ever. We had access to hot showers and the staff ran an electric lead to the camper, we paid a few dollars a night and had free run of the resort and grounds, including a lake complete with a resident capybara colony. We ate at the restaurant the first evening and made friends with Panchito the prickly pig or Pancho for short. We later found out that Pancho has a penchant for beer, the little bugger could easily knock back a dozen cans if you’d let him and not slur his grunt. Yet again we had another resort to ourselves, not another guest in sight so we explored the lakeside tracks watching grunting capybara’s leap into the water when we approached and spying toucan’s with their huge multi colored beaks flit through the canopy high above. Also thrown into the animal mix were a few roaming mares with fluffy inquisitive foals, we managed the odd scratch behind an ear or a dusty pat on the neck before they moved onto another patch of lush green grass. We spent one day in Santa Cruz replacing Troy’s CV boots and decided that the following morning we would make for the historical and Bolivian constitutional city of Sucre, some 600 km from Santa Cruz.
We were packed down and about to bid our farewells when the manager advised us that we couldn’t pass through Santa Cruz today because of road blockades. We had heard about these political blockades and seen them on the news but had not encountered them so far on our travels through Bolivia. Today was our first blockade experience and it sucked being at the mercy of angry locals blocking off the highway at multiple locations with rocks and burning tires, effectively isolating the entire city from all external traffic. As we soon learnt, every blockade has an alternative route around it and almost always on a crap Bolivian 4WD track that leads over a mountain and far away. We were given the directions for the alternative route to bypass Santa Cruz but decided to wait it out. At 1 PM the manager found us and announced that the blockade had finished and the highway was open, we had lost 5 hours of driving time but decided to head off anyway as there might be another blockade in the morning for any one of a thousand reasons.
Not long after leaving Colpa Caranda camp ground we were driving the outer ring road that skirts Santa Cruz and heading west to Samaipata and the southern boundary of Amboro NP. We decided to take the old highway to Samaipata, which was a 2 hour drive from camp and stay at there for the night. We we arrived we found it was not suitable and we pressed on. Anna had coordinates for a camp up in the hills near a nation park so we drove up another crappy Bolivian bush road/ track and eventually came to a very steep driveway that lead down to the valley far, far below. We had seen buildings in the same valley from another point on the road and hoped that was not our destination. But the sign said it was the track to the camp ground and Russ wasn’t keen to take troy down so steep a grade and he was even less enthusiastic about having to drive back up it. We were finding that a lot of tracks here were proving too greater a risk for us to drive on in Bolivia due to our size and height. Regardless of the grade Russ decide to run to the camp and ask if it was OK to camp up at the road. After 45 minutes of running Russ was at the valley floor and over the river that ran through it, but no nearer to the buildings we had seen previously. Light was fading fast and he decide to abandon his run and make back to Anna and Troy with all haste. There was no running up the hill, instead Russ walked up on rubber legs and with a pronounced wheeze, the last time Russ had done any kind of aerobic exercise was in 2002 when he played first grade for East’s. We won’t say how long it took Russ to get back to Troy but it was well dark when he arrived back and he looked a bit thinner. The executive decision was made to drive back down to the highway and find another camp for the night.
Most overlanders will tell you ‘the golden rule is to never, ever drive at night’, and there is a fair bit of justification with that statement. But desperate times call for desperate measures and it can be done. We have driven Southern & Eastern Africa, Mexico, and Central & South America from dusk to dawn, on remote bush roads and highways and has never had a problem, near misses, yeah sure, but no more than in Sydney, L.A. or any other civilised country. Two of the most dangerous drives we’ve experienced is western Tanzania after dark and the other is on any outback road at dusk or dawn when Skippy, the 8 ft tall 90 kg Western Red Kangaroo, somehow feels obliged to hop toward headlights and make a grand entrance through the engine bay or windscreen at +120 km/h. There are always the obligatory roadside pedestrians at night such as black people, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, dogs, llama’s, alpaca’s, giraffes & perhaps the odd rhino, cyclist’s without reflectors, motorcyclists without reflectors or lights, vehicles without reflectors, lights, doors, bonnets or windows and let’s not forget the bricks, rocks, road craters and small trees left on the road to warn of a broken down vehicle ahead and the large rocks used as wheel chocks left behind by the now repaired broken down vehicle, also the head on trucks overtaking trucks, buses overtaking trucks, trucks and buses overtaking donkey and cart all at once or the generally poor road conditions. My all time favorite are the cars, trucks and buses with only one working offside headlight on high beam driving toward you down the center of the road. But, if your vehicle has a decent set of driving lights and you keep the speed down it can be done in relative safety, just don’t get lost and don’t stop, ever.
After gaining the highway we kept driving west and eventually came across a large road sign advertising a campground with an arrow pointing down a side road, we turned off, followed the road for a couple of hundred meters and made a river crossing before driving into a huge run down camping ground that hadn’t seen a camper in many years, perfect. After a futile door knocking on the only building with a light on we were ready to pick out a spot and set up for the night regardless when a set of headlights swung into the gate and made for us. Russ said hi to the owner of the ground, negotiated a fee and was given directions to our location for the night. We pulled up not far from the ablution block and made camp. It had turned into quite a big day for us and we were both tired, we also knew we had another another big day on the road tomorrow. The next morning Russ noticed fluid leaking from one of the new CV boots, it wasn’t too bad but it was still a leak all the same, we couldn’t do anything until Sucre anyway so we continued on the same highway until we reached the first turnoff to Sucre.
The highway was still paved up until this point and it continued on ahead, the new highway was a rough unpaved road which would likely shake the hell out of our vehicle and camper as Bolivian roads tend to do. We had 2 options open to us at this point, option 1: take the shorter but rougher route or option: 2 take the better but longer route. We took option 2 to avoid smashing the shit out of our truck and camper. Little did we know that our better, but longer paved road turned into an unpaved road as well but it was still in better condition and easier on the truck than option: 1. We traversed huge mountains and passed by dramatic road side drops that can only be witnessed in Bolivia. In the distance we watched clouds cascade over the lip of a mountainous escarpment and float some 5000 ft. to the valley floor below like some heavenly waterfall, we passed ancient alpine forests with gigantic grandfather trees draped in moss and glistening with diamond droplets of moisture left over from the last passing cloud. As we descend off the mountains the cloud soaked bush thinned to pine forest and then to patchwork farms and crops of corn and wheat. The local indigenous Indians still managed their land with hoe, plow and sweat just as their ancestors had for centuries, nothing has changed except that solar cells & satellite dishes now point skyward from thatched roofs and mud brick walls.
Eventually we did regain the paved highway and arrived at the next intersection that will take us to Sucre. We make the turn and drive a further 15 km and into the neat little village of Totora, our overnight stop. We view a local hotel and decide that it’s safe to camp under a street light in front of the Municipal Offices. We pop the camper roof and set up for the night. The locals don’t know what to make of us, they stare and talk among themselves but never approach the camper and never touch it. We find a local restaurant for dinner and say hola to the local Policia who assure us that we’re OK where we are, they have already seen us and we feel as secure as you can on a street. Russ will still sleep with one eye and one ear open. After dinner we explore the small town and make our way to the main square. A few of the shops have closed but most are still open, this is a rural town and the tienda’s (shops) are geared up for the farmers and sell everything from bread and eggs to fertiliser and farming implements. We walk into a brightly lit tienda and buy a tray of eggs, the señora (lady) asks why Russ is purchasing so many eggs and he tells her they are ‘to be cooked and eaten’ (para ser cocinado y comido), surprised she asks where he is going to cook them to which he replies “en mi cocina señora” (in my kitchen ma’am) we don’t know what she says next but we think it went something like this; ‘where is that gringo idiot going to get a kitchen from? He’s clearly not from around here and more to the point does he even know how to cook an egg’.
Our street camp happens to be on the main thoroughfare through the town which meant that every bus, truck, car and donkey drawn cart had to pass by us. Russ brought in the back step to prevent people from stepping up to the camper door, it’s not that easy for us to step up without the step and for a short arsed Bolivian, not a chance as was proven at check points. We watched a movie before crawling into our super comfy bed and hunkered down for a well-deserved sleep. Trucks laden with goods parked up next to us during the night and overnight buses stopped briefly. It was a noisy night with the constant traffic but we both slept pretty well regardless. The next morning the sun was bright and the air chilly, Anna ‘cooked the man some eggs’ and we ate breakfast. Soon after we packed down and left our cosy but noisy street camp, we hadn’t yet left the town when Russ saw an elderly lady trying very hard to place a tin star on a hook above her doorway, she was 3’6” in height, foot to fingertip, and the hook was about 7’ high under the eve. Russ pulled over and got out, said good morning and asked if he could help her hang the star, delighted, the old lady handed over the battered Christmas star and Russ hung it over her door. We were invited in for tea and something to eat but unfortunately we did not have time and still had a reasonable distance to travel. Russ did ask permission to photograph her and with great reluctance she agreed. He took a photo and then we made tracks for Sucre.
Bolivia does have some strange structures that do seem out of place considering the location in which they are set. During our drive on one particular rough and remote section of highway/ unpaved road at best a very modern and well-constructed bridge appeared out of the bush spanning a river at the bottom of a deep gorge. We were used to crossing bridges with exposed and rusting reinforcing steel and large holes through the deck or both so we were surprised to see this one in the butt end of nowhere.
As we neared Sucre we could see in the distance the last climb up an escarpment and into the city, that was when Russ noticed the long line of parked trucks snaking from top to bottom, this spelt only one thing, a blockade. We drove to the Policia checkpoint at the bottom of the escarpment and spoke to the duty officer who told us in English ‘the blockade will finish tomorrow morning, but there is another way in if you have a 4WD’. No thanks mate, we will wait until tomorrow. There was a service station at the bottom and we asked if we could stop there, the place was slowly filling up with trucks and cars, the buses still trundled past and up to the blockaded section of road to drop off passengers who then walk past the blockade, catch another bus on the other side and continue on into Sucre. Another night in another service station didn’t sound very nice so we back tracked to a few riverside locations we had seen from the road that might make a good overnight stop.
Thirty five minutes later we drove into a small town where we had seen people waiting for the ‘bus that never comes’. Russ got out and had a chat to them and an older lady who was a nun and spoke great English said we could stay at her house for the night. Anna moved over and she hopped in and we drove to her house. The house was amazing with a huge section of land and a pool that overlooked farm paddocks and the river in the distant. The nun lived alone but had a young girl stay with her in the evenings for company. Anna offered to cook dinner for everyone that night and asked if a beef Rogan Josh curry would be OK, the nun loved the sound of the idea but wasn’t sure if the young girl and her sister would like it, they were about to find out. The curry was fabulous and the nun loved it, Anna made as mild a curry as she could but it’s still a curry and by nature it’s a spicy dish. The girls ate a fair amount but in the end it was too spicy for them having never tasted curry before this, ever. Anna made a meal pack from the left overs to gave it to the girl’s mother and father to taste, we suspected that they have never eaten curry either.
We were up early the next morning and after our thanks and farewells we made for Sucre. Not too far down the road Russ heard a not so good screech, crunch and then rubbing sound that changed in pitch with the road speed, he got out for a look and saw fluid on the inside of the rear drivers side tire, the fluid was oil which meant a rear bearing and seal, damn, but we could still drive and Russ monitored it, the CV boot leak had gotten worse so Russ dumped 500 ml of transmission fluid into the front differential, it would last until Sucre, he hoped. We reached the escarpment and drove past the rocks and burnt out tires that were yesterday’s blockade. The road took us through the industrial section and Russ saw a Toyota Parts tienda and stopped for a chat, the owner knew a mechanic and could get the parts that he needed. We drove to the mechanic who was perched on the side of the hill which is a far cry from the Toyota workshops with air-conditioning, coffee machines, internet and slinky sales chic’s strutting around in smart skirts, lip stick and high heels.
Russ booked in for the next morning and we made for the campground that every overlanding gringo stays at when in Sucre. We found our way to the gated campground in the center of the city and squeezed in with 3 other overland vehicles. The camp ground was more of a back yard that had a small workshop in the front and a kitchen & ablution facilities at the rear. At a pinch and with some very tight maneuvering another two 4WD vehicles might fit in, just. We parked in the driveway effectively blocking everyone else in which didn’t matter because nobody was interested in driving anywhere anyway. The blockades had spooked everyone and some had been trapped here for weeks. The main square was a few blocks from the campground so we set off for an explore. The lonely plant said that Sucre was a beautiful colonial city that rivals any other in the Americas, as far as colonial cities are concerned it was pretty ordinary, we had passed through far better on our way down and agreed we wouldn’t waste too much time here. The next morning we had the rear bearing repaired and as it turn out that the previous mechanic in Santa Cruz had left a sliver of metal inside the front diff when the CV boots were being replaced, the metal sliver made its way to the seal causing the leak, over time when in 4WD (which we always engage on unsealed roads) the leak had gotten worse to the point of a steady flow . After the repair was finished we made for camp and another explore of Sucre.
Our next destination was Uyuni or more specifically the Sal de Uyuni, the highest & largest salt flat on earth and a 360 km drive south east of Sucre. Not surprisingly another blockade was in place since arriving in Sucre and we were stuck, again, or were we? We did learn that blockades are not really enforced during the night between 10:30 PM and 06:00 AM because, A: Its cold and B: it’s boring and more comfortable to be asleep in your bed at night. We also learnt that all blockades are suspended on Friday nights and are never enforced over the weekends so Bolivians can attend the very important football matches being played all around the country, but, come 6 AM on Monday morning it is game on again, lets start burning tires. On Friday afternoon we decided on a night trip with an over-nighter in Potosi, the home of Bolivian silver mining and home to Potosi Real FC, Russ’s adopted favorite football club. We readied Troy for travel, restocked the pantry, polished the headlights and prepared for the night run to Potosi, some 2-3 hours away. Another haggling game at the gas station negotiated a fair-ish price at the pump and we fueled up, ready to go. We reached the first blockade expecting the worst but instead saw that the rock’s and tires had been pushed to the side and not a soul was in sight, obviously the Sucre FC team bus had passed through during the afternoon, it was probably on it’s way to play Potosi Real. Viva Potosi Real!
With the last of the fading light we were making great time but Russ noticed the complete absence of oncoming traffic, this wasn’t all bad, it did signal that a blockade was in force at Potosi but it also meant that we had the road to ourselves, sorry I meant ourselves and any local wild Llama’s we might meet on the way. The highway was in great condition and the lack of other vehicles on the road made driving easy and when we were a hour or so from Potosi we encountered the first of a long line of on coming buses heading in the opposite direction, woohoo, the Potosi blockade had been suspended for the weekend footy. Next stop Potosi.
Check out The German, a nun and a Prickly Pig blog pics here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.553636888005421.1073741844.319040084798437&type=3