The end of the road, at least for our Safari
First thing to remember, is that it could have been worse. A lot worse.
Was this the good deed that saved us? Irrespective lets start there.
Sat-nav / watch log data for beginning of day. We left the Brandberg White Lady Lodge at 07:37:49 and retraced our steps to the C35. On Google Maps 21°01'19.2"S 14°40'58.8"E or -21.022000, 14.683000 and on Garmin S21°02.757' E14°42.298'.
We had left the Brandberg White Lady Lodge and decided not to follow the possible sightings of Desert Elephant along the Ugab River, which was of course, just a dry river bed. Not because of worries about flash floods but more about getting stranded without any off road equipment or any other traffic. How many days would it be before we were found if we got stuck in the river bed. The host at the lodge thought it would be a good route, but we were not so sure.
We kept to the road. Just after we joined the D2139 we crossed the river bed we could have driven along. We stopped and looked for evidence. Indeed there was evidence of recent elephant activity. They had already passed us by, so unless there was more than one herd moving along that particular river bed, we would not have seen them. It was a nice change to see so much green vegetation. Never mind, there would be more opportunity at Palmwag.
Our good deed was at the junction of the D2139 where it joined the main road. All things of course being relative. The main road was still a small corrugated dirt track, just not as small as the previous one. There was a woman standing in the shade of some empty stalls, in the middle of nowhere, gesticulating for a drink. It was about mid 30s C in the shade, but much hotter in the sun. Writing this, much latter, and looking on Google Maps satellite image there was a very small community not very far away which would explain the tables set near the road, presumably for locally produced goods to be sold to tourists, in the high season. Now this is not that much of a good deed. not sufficient to crow about, but maybe, just maybe, it made a difference. Little acts of kindness, and all that. We stopped, and gave her a bottle of water. We don't carry much food as it was always provided by the lodges we stayed at. We may have given her an apple as well as the water. She was amazingly grateful for the water. We joined the road and continued towards our rendezvous at Palmwag.
Our next night stay was due to be under canvas, away from normal habitation. We were due to meet our guides at 15:00 at Palmwag. We would leave our car and go into the bush. According to the itinerary, 'Here you will leave your vehicle and be met by the guide from Etendeka, who will drive you the final 18km into the middle of one of the most remote and beautiful areas in Namibia. Etendeka is a legendary eco camp where you can enjoy the total solitude, the magnificent scenery and with luck Damaraland’s famous desert lions, elephants and black rhinos along with all the usual plains game.' As it was we were doing OK and would still have time for lunch at Palmwag before the meeting time. There have been good things said about lunch there.
Driving at normal speeds for dirt corrugated roads, well within the speed limit, we approached an easy bend on a slight rise. Similar to many before it. There was a road sign to give warning of the bend, again not unusual. However, this time the car and the road decided to have a falling out, a bit of a spat, for no apparent reason. It started with rear end step out which became a spin. That was controlled to an extent, but the straight line it settled on was unfortunately not the same as the road. The path can just be seen on the photo looking back towards the bend.
It had set its course towards the desert scrub beside the road. That would be OK you would have thought, it was a 4 x 4 and should be able to cope with a little off roading. However, the side cast created at the edge of the roads by the graders, is less soft than one might have suspected or hoped. Instead of a bumpy leaving of the road going over the hump of the berm, it became flying lessons in the desert. A crash course in flying, in a car, in a desert, is not recommended.
A mangled car was the result.
That is pretty much the end of the bad news. However is is still not an easy article to write and will probably take awhile.
It could have have been worse, but of course it could have been better. No disagreement between tyre and dirt would have been much better. Even a slight rear end step out. There was even a minute moment where the car was again travelling along a straight trajectory. Unfortunately not along the same line as the road. A tweak of the steering wheel to correct the angle? Just right, or back end into the side cast, followed by another spin, or a sideways roll over the berm. Break heavily to reduce speed whilst in a straight line? Was it totally straight? Either way, it would be a nose down, approach to the rapidly closing grader side cast. An approach with minimum suspension when maximum was required. So, in that minute moment I choose to bump over the side cast and stop in the desert. Then check if it was all caused by a blow out. Look round for any damage. Relax for a while and then drive back onto the road and continue our journey.
[Placeholder for GoPro video of accident, if I decide to publish it]
Contrary to conventional wisdom, David being thrown out of the car was for the best. He landed several yards away from where the car eventually stopped. Yes, he was injured upon meeting with the rock strewn desert at speed. However, when sat in the car seat his head was almost against the roof. There is a distance between the seat and the roof which is almost the same as the length of David's spine and head. That distance was considerably reduced in the accident.
By not being in the seat ...
As the dust settled, but wait, I don't recall any dust. As I write this I realise that perhaps I did lose consciousness. Up till this time I always thought it was only David. In fact, thinking about it I don't recall anything after leaving the road, until I look around and see that David is missing. I look around outside the car, and terrifyingly see David slumped motionless on the rock strewn desert behind me. I shout "Are you OK?" David replies, "I could do with some help." Relief. I tried to get out of the car, but was trapped inside. I thought about crawling out of the broken back cab window. Logic won fortunately, and I avoided getting stuck and lacerated by the remaining glass in the frame that I was far too big to fit through. David stood up and limped the 20m or so to the back of the car and climbed onto the now horizontal tail gate. The canopy / hardtop had flown off during the acrobatics and the tailgate opened itself. As soon as he had clambered on, he was off again, and laid himself down on the lumpy desert floor, but under the shade of the tailgate.
We could not see each other, and I don't recall talking about our respective injuries. We did talk about how long we might have to wait before anyone drove along the road, and how we might attract their attention.
In some countries car wrecks are left on the side of the road. Sometimes due to a lack of interest, or apathy, and at other times, as a specific policy, part of the warnings to other drivers to be more careful. Some places even build concrete plinths and place the mangled cars on them to further reinforce the message. I suspect that Namibia is more into clearing away the remnants of any accident and recovering anything of value. This could prove to be in our favour as we might be noticed. We were about 50m away from the road but in plain sight.
The drivers side window was shattered so I could put my hand out and wave vigorously at any passers by. I was still trapped in the car, in the driver's seat.
We were concerned that, based on the traffic we had seen before, that it might be over an hour before anything drove by. That was a long time in that temperature. David had a Garmin Activity Watch and the strap broke on a rock as he landed. The watch itself did not break, just the strap lugs. It sat in the sun where it had fallen. It continued to move time forward, to metaphorically tick, and recorded various metrics, including the temperature. It hit 67deg C before the watch was found and put in the shade. That is hot. It is just over 150 F.
On 4 Sep 2016 - Daylight Saving Time started in Namibia. Clocks, camaras, sat-navs all seem to record different times which need adjusting to make sense of the sequence of events. In 2016 Namibia was in the West Africa TimeZone and used DST. So, on the 7th Nov 2016 WAT was UTC+1 plus another 1 hr for DST = UTC+2. Since then, on the 24 October 2017 Namibia changed its TimeZone to Central Africa Time CAT with no offset for DST making it continually UTC+2. The closeup of the watch shows a timer of 6:13:16 in the below photo, which after starting at 07:37:49 is 13:51:05 GMT or 15:51:05 WAT with DST. The camera time of the photo was 17:01:21, which was adjusted to 16:01:21. A reasonable correlation with just a 10 min 16 sec diferencial.
At 12:08:08 GMT from the sat-nav and the watch tracker, 14:08 local or 2:08PM, on 7th November 2016 we had hit the end of the road for our Namibia Safari in a dramatic and terrifying way in just 13 seconds, and we just had to wait immobile at 20°2'26.377" S 14°2'49.833" E.
According to Google Maps we were 20km past Bergsig, a tiny place we hardly noticed, but apparently the Torra Converency capital. Only 18km away from our 2:30PM lunch at Palmwag.
We were lucky, again. After about 15 minutes, or so it seemed, a car approached from Palmwag direction, I waved frantically, and miraculously it stopped. That was the beginning of our rescue. Actually, using times from camaras and sat-navs and making appropriate adjustments for different TimeZone settings, it was at 14:28, just 20 minutes after the accident. Very, very fortunate.
I can hardly put into words the relief that I felt that somebody had seen us and stopped. That single act of stopping made a significant difference to the outcome.
Once one car had stopped the chances of others seeing them, and us, increased considerably.
We found out later that the couple in the first car were fellow travellers, Werner and Eva from Antwerp. We are still in contact with them.
Werner immediately came over to the car and tried to open the doors. Eva tried to contact the emergency services. Mobile signals are not strong in the countryside of Namibia. Another vehicle pulled up behind Werner's. I can't remember if it was a Land Rover, but it did have a high lift jack attached to the front. I thought that the jack could be used to force open the doors or any other opening so that I could get out and help David. I don't know if David was conscious or not at this stage. Before I could express my thoughts on the jack, Werner had managed to pry open the passenger door. I was able to clamber out and see David for the first time since he crawled under the tailgate. Then two french medical Doctor's arrived from the opposite direction. One of them specialized in A&E (ER) and immediately started working on David. All in what seemed just a few minutes. We were so lucky. Forever grateful to these two couples, both on the tourist trail in Namibia, who had their days dramatically changed.
Our luggage was strewn across the desert, some open. Tipped out of the back of the pickup as the hardtop came off. There were two first aid kits we had bought specially for this trip, in our luggage. Lifesystems Mountain Leader Pro First Aid kit and the smaller Sterile Kit. We had no intention of needing or using them, but bought them just in case. As it was they proved to be excellent, and had everything that the Doctors needed. Eva had contacted the emergency services and both looked after me, and started pulling our stuff together. There were wallets and paperwork all in the open. Eva sorted that and put it away safely. Eva also sent me to sit in the passenger seat of her car, to be more comfortable and to be in the shade. I also recall a hat from somewhere. I didn't stay there long and wondered around in a befuddled state, quickly rounded up by Werner or Eva and sat in the shade again, either in their car or ours. I kept saying that I was fine, and there was nothing wrong. At one point, I seem to recall walking back to the bend. I thought I could make out the tyre tracks going diagonally across the road. Not that I knew how confused and concussed I was at the time. I thought I was keeping out of the way of the Doctors and Werner working on David. I still wanted to be close though. Eva did a brilliant job searching the desert and finding all our stuff thrown out of the car during the crash. Finding the Go-Pro and the sat-nav attached to the now non-existent windscreen. Just some of the small things, among all the other. The suction bracket of the sat-nav was broken, but both the Go-Pro and the sat-nav is still working and in use today.
The cameras were less fortunate. Camera bags were open on the back seat for easy access. They were launched into the air and cameras and lenses broke on impact, almost all of them. At least the memory chips survived.
Fritz Schenk arrived from Palmwag Lodge. He is a friend of the organiser of our trip Kathryn Haylett of UK based Your Safari Ltd. To this day I don't know if he was passing, was out looking for us as we had not arrived, or had picked up on radio traffic. He was also involved with Camelthorn Safaris and Omarunga Lodge in addition to Palmwag Lodge. He was a manager with all the local contacts and used this to advantage. He used his radio to get back to the Lodge to improve communications. There appeared to be some confusion about the ambulance with perhaps one coming from the North and one from the South, or perhaps both cancelled. He called for a team to come with another vehicle and they collected all the luggage and prepared to take it on to the Lodge for safe keeping.
Eva had also noticed something glittering in the sun. It was David's broken watch, now showing a temperature of 67 C. Nearby she found the single rock that almost took out David's eye as he landed. It was covered in his blood, sundried now. We took it with us.
At some point the police arrived. Possibly two different sorts of police. Fritz evidently knew Warrant Officer Samuel, the leader of the police. The luggage was all loaded up before WO Samuel insisted on taking it into police safe custody, he appeared very conscientious. It was transferred to the police pickup. WO Samuel was very aware of the tourist industry and the need to maintain the reputation and ensure nothing was lost or stolen. The other police asked about the accident, if there was a bend sign, the speed we were doing. They even noticed the out of date tax disk on what was left of the broken windscreen. I explained the situation and said that we had requested a replacement from the hire company. They accepted that there was a fourteen day grace period. They decided that they would not charge us.
A few locals had arrived and stood a reasonable distance away and watched the goings on. Unlike some countries, there was no attempt to approach, make gains, or steal anything. Credit to them.
The two Doctor's continued to work on David, and the police also became involved in checking on the progress of the ambulance. It was terrifying to hear the Doctor say "Stay with us David" from time to time. I hope that the phrase was being used to remain conscious. The other Doctor cleaned one of my wounds and applied steristrips. I was still not in pain, and thought I knew what was going on. Later I found out that the Doctor's were Cecile & Christian from France. Again, forever grateful.
David was more stable and asked to speak to me. I was so glad to be able to comfort him. Fortunately this whole period is a blank to him.
It was getting late and a joint decision was made to lay David in the back of the police pickup and take him back to Bergsig police station, to wait for the ambulance there. I think it was Fritz who suggested that Werner and Eva should not travel any further that day, and return with him to Palmwag Lodge. I understand that he looked after them with a place to stay and dinner. It is a shock to be in an accident but it is also shocking to be involved in the aftermath. Not a good condition to be driving any distance in. Werner and Eva would also not arrive at their next planned destination before dark, and driving at night was on of the Safari don't do list. WO Samuel arranged for a policeman to stay with the car through the night until the car was collected by the hire company.
Both David and I were brilliantly looked after by the six people who were not in our lives before that day.
A sort of Spinal board for emergency and rescue, stretcher came from somewhere and was used to move David, followed by a very bumpy ride to Bergsig.
It was fully dark when the Ambulance arrived at the police station in Bergsig, at least six hours after the accident.
As an aside, this is a difficult article to write bringing back so many memories. The good thing though is that there are as many good memories as bad, if not more, which makes it achievable. I think writing it now was triggered in part, by David being back in Southern Africa, some of our friends doing a self drive safari tour of Namibia, and the upcoming two year anniversary of our trip. If fact our friends got back home yesterday, safe and sound, having had a wonderful time.
From Eva's perspective, in her own words
Whenever I scroll to my pictures of that holiday, I am always a bit overwhelmed by the pictures of the accident, I get thrown back to how I reacted at that moment: at first I was in disbelieve -this is not really happening-, a bit later in total chaotic stress -I tried to act but was barely able to think straight, forgot how my phone worked, where the sheet with all the emergency numbers was etc- and after that I think I just focused on you. Werner was mainly busy with David and I tried to make the whole situation a bit less horrible by asking you questions, throwing in a joke, just to distract you and maybe to reassure myself everything would be ok.
The first image we saw of you was your arm waving out of the broken vehicle, in my memory you waved very much in slow motion, not at all the kinda wave when you greet someone or want to flag someone down. To me it was a tired, exhausted kinda wave. A please help us-wave.
I think I stopped every car that passed by, to get as much help as possible.
Fritz helped indeed in any way he could, over the years he must have experienced similar situations before but nevertheless he stayed on the scene to make sure you and David got at least minimal help from police etc. and he reassured your luggage was safe so you needed not worry about it.
He also acknowledged the fact Werner and I were in no state of mind to drive further to look for a campsite, he arranged a spot on his campsite and offered us a free meal in the restaurant of his lodge. We even drank a gin & tonic with him as aperitif, to let some steam off. He definitely cares for people. It's these things that can turn a bad situation a bit around, make it a bit less bad.
Before I move on the trip to hospital let me tell you about what I remember about the car.
It was thoroughly broken. In the UK I suspect it would have been a write off. Namibia may well be better at reusing things, but it could well have still been a scrap car just providing parts. None of the tyres had shredded but most were flat. It may have broken it's back. No airbags inflated. Panels were crumpled and windows smashed. I don't recall switching the engine off, but I may have done, or perhaps it was dead.
[Place holder for photos of car]One before and the rest after.
At the airport on the way home a group of tourists helped us with our luggage. It was an club on an organised tour. One of the leaders, and perhaps a bit of a journalist asked if we were in four wheel drive. I said no as it wrecked tyres on those sorts of roads. "Are they wrecked now?" I was not quick enough to add that it also had the potential to break the half shafts and drive chain as well, leaving you stranded in the middle of nowhere. Having said that, there are lots of cars that now have variable power four wheel drive that can be left in all of the time on any surface without damage. I don't think our car was one of those. Would it have helped, perhaps.
Ambulance to Hospital
I am not sure that I can write the next part without sounding disparaging and derogatory. However, that is not the intent in anyway. I am trying to provide you with an image in your head, an appreciation, and understanding of the circumstances surrounding how the rest of this story plays out. I suspect that I may repeat and re-emphasise this from time to time.
The ambulance arrived sometime after 18:00. It was already dark and torches were in use. The police helped transfer David into the ambulance, wished us well, and waved us off into the night.
The unofficial rule of not driving at night was fortunately dispensed with. The dangers accepted.
David was laid on the stretcher in the back with the nurse and I was in the cab with the driver. There was no more space in the back.
The ambulance did have some equipment cupboards but there was little equipment. I only have experience of UK Emergency ambulances to compare this one against. It was very different and somewhat sparse. Irrespective, it was still a very welcome sight.
We bumped out of the village of Bergsig and joined the road. It was still a corrugated dirt road but the situation was different. Somewhat uncomfortable. It is so much more difficult to drive on dirt roads with just the headlights to see by. Occasionally the dirt would become a short section of rock outcrop. A very different surface to drive on, which evoked a few sudden swerves.
I should point out that we British are very lucky in so far as there are so many places that we can go and find English speaking people. Perhaps in some countries it is understandable that the tourist industry and associated people speak what would be foreign language to them. We had left the tourist trail and were now in the hands of the local state health service. We were still able to communicate well in English. All credit to them.
It was not long before we drew to a sharp halt. The driver got out and inspected the vehicle. The drivers side steering rod had sheared. We were not going any further for the time being. The driver spoke to the nurse and then said he was going to call it in. It was pitch dark in the middle of the countryside. He could not get a mobile signal, so told us he would climb the hill / mountain beside the road to see if he could get a signal from the top. It is one thing going for a walk in the dark in a town, where it is never really dark and generally there are pavements. To go climbing up the uneven surface of the hillside in the very dark, lightless night, not knowing where the next footfall was going to take you, is a very different matter. All that before you consider the possibility of bumping into a wild animal or perhaps more than one. A brave man. After a while he returned not having made the call. Still no signal.
Was it the sound of the engine or the headlights which told of the approach of a vehicle? It turned out to be a pickup with a trailer sent by our car hire company to collect the wreck of our car. It was so rare for another vehicle to be out at night that they stopped for a conversation. They offered to take out driver back to the police station where communications would be better. Time for us was by now very indeterminate. How long it was between events I can't say. Eventually he returned and we waited for the replacement ambulance to arrive. We all sat in the back and waited and talked. The temperature had plummeted, which was a good thing. I have just checked the weather in Bergsig, today it is clear and sunny, a mear 41oC. The average November temperature day is 34oC and night 19oC. Recent night time temperature has been as low as 14oC. The cooler night time mountain temperature was less oppressive and draining than the earlier exposed daytime temperature. Every so often the driver would go back to the cab and run the engine for a while. The lights had to be left on both outside to ensure we could be seen, and inside the back for us to see. The battery would quickly drain if left on all night without some recharging.
After sometime the relief ambulance arrived. This time it was a Land Rover. I suspect I looked at my watch for the time, but in reality, for us, time had become indeterminate. Again, I was put in the front, with even less room in the back. David was transferred from the old to the new. We were ready to set off again.
The saga was not over yet. Still driving through the night. Only things visible were in the beams of the headlights. The ride was different being a different base vehicle, but the road was still corrugated dirt with occasional rock sections.
Another problem! This time it was fixable. A flat tyre. The driver soon had it changed and we were on our way again.
At the edge of the town the road turned to blacktop and the ride improved considerably. Five minutes later we arrived at Khorixas hospital.
It was after 1AM the next morning. About 13 hours after the accident. A little outside the golden survival hour mentioned in the UK.
This story is taken up again in the 1st Hospital.
The flag counter below is for my original travelogue, which is slowly being replaced by this one, but can still be found here.