Words and pictures by Jon Monsoon
Seven 4x4s, eleven people, one trail, 12 kilometres, 24 hours… No survivors.
So far, not a scratch. 500 meters into the trail, nature gave us some pebbles to warm up on. The ’08 Rubicon (Supercharged) driven by Andre van der Sandt leads the charge. Behind him, the never-say-die 280 Isuzu Frontier piloted by renowned offroadsman Sakkie “Oubaas” Coetzee and his wife Adele. Behind him, Willie “Sampie” van Rooyen’s stock-standard Jeep JK Wrangler gets its flex on.
There are few things more alluring to offroaders than the challenge of a new trail – going where no man has driven before. On a balmy summer’s morn, five Jeeps, a pipe car and an Isuzu Frontier set out in search of adventure.
Carnage Canyon is a stretch of boulder-strewn riverbed located just outside the town of (deleted)*, just south east of (deleted)*. This particular stretch of riverallows one way in and one way out. Anything else requires vertical take-off; or lots of rope and possibly a rescue team. Now, as anyone who has ever traversed a semi-dry riverbed knows, plotting a definitive route can be… unpredictable.
With an attitude of “let the most able vehicle lead,” it was decided that the mostly-Toyota pipe car, built and driven by trail leaders Theo and Gawie, would take the forward position. With coffee and introductions over, the angry hiss of deflating MTs soon gave way to the roar of engines and adrenalin. A short burn down a dusty track took us to an old steel girder bridge. Just beyond that was the trail entry point, a steep donkey track. The sight of the Isuzu Frontier 280 being gently coaxed down to the riverbed by Sakkie “Oubaas” Coetzee, with his trusting wife Adele, made the rest of us wonder if this was perhaps not going to be as straightforward as we had believed.
One by one the Jeeps followed; the bleached expanse of boulder-strewn riverbed yawned in the early morning sun before us. Beyond the first gentle river bend, the boulders began to stack up and the course narrowed to a vehicle width. The Toyota 4Y EFI-engined pipe-car, with its Toyota G52 5-speed gearbox, rumbled over every obstacle in its path, mocking the American and Japanese technology that dawdled behind. The convoy wound slowly along the river course, with the expletives of its apprehensive human challengers echoing off the canyon wall towering above them. A narrow weir just metres ahead of the second bridge offered us the first opportunity to get creative in the ways of trail driving, obstacle clearance and complex problem solving – and also showed the importance of the ground clearance offered by 33” tyres.
Those lacking these basic requirements took damage to their vehicles. Even the unstoppable pipe car, which had sailed over every obstacle with ease up to this point, struggled to get through. In the end it was manpower which prevailed on this gnarly stretch of riverbed: boulders, branches and stones were shifted, pushed, kicked, sworn at and eventually winched into a series of rough steps which allowed the vehicles to climb the weir.Just clearing the weir had taken the best part of an hour. With the sun reaching its zenith, we saw a stretch of almost boulder-free sand bed in the middle distance, so perhaps the worst was over. “Not too far!” confirmed trail leader Gawie from the pipe-car cockpit. “We just have The Wall to get over.” The Wall was all that separated us from The Beach: the end of our journey, the place where we would make camp. But now it was revealed in hushed tones that it was at The Wall that another band of would-be trailblazers had been forced to admit defeat. This made us even more determined to push forward, to show this Wall who was boss.
Of course, Nature had other plans. What awaited us around the next bend made the weir trap seem like a level parking lot. Boulders the size of small Korean hatchbacks reared up like angry protesters at a wage dispute. Progress slowed to a crawl (0.4 km/h, if you must know) as, one by one, each vehicle got stuck, got wedged and got damaged. The Jeeps got the workout of their lives while the Isuzu soldiered on valiantly at the rear. At one point, it was winched out of a tight spot with all of us standing by, cheering it on like one does the fat kid in the 100-metre sprint on sports day, who knows he’s beat but gives it all he’s got.
Sakkie, arguably the most experienced off-roader among us, was almost clear of the umpteenth growler when a short sharp “tang!” sound signalled a snapped steering-rod. We stood around, stumped, staring at the dangling steel rod, until Willie “Sampie” van Rooyen quickly assembled a make-shift arc welder using three batteries joined in series using jumper cables. Gripping a welding rod between the jaws of the last jumper lead, and with a welder’s mask made up of everyone’s sunglasses worn over each other, Willie got down to a bit of DIY welding that resulted in a fixed steering rod. While the bushveld workshop was busy, the rest of us sought respite from the brutal afternoon heat. Squatting in the scant shade of the one skinny tree in the canyon, sipping from bottles of warm water and discussing Jeep mods, no-one really wanted to think about what lay just ahead. Across the riverbed sat an ancient cattle-hand with his three dogs, and if he was surprised by our antics, it never showed. More than likely he was laughing inside.
With the repaired steering rod back in place, we regrouped and pushed on. A fast-flowing stretch of river water saw JKAccessories’ owner Shane (running on 32” tyres) up to his axles in loose river sand and needing a winch. “I couldn’t follow Willie’s line sixty percent of the time,” he wailed. Willie was on 285/70/17s, so where he slid over, Shane’s Rubicon diffs hit – and hard! This taught us a valuable lesson: 33” tyres (on a 2-door Jeep) is as small a tyre size as this trail will tolerate. At one point in this stretch, every vehicle (bar the pipe car which had trundled ahead to recce the path) had stuck in or on something, leading to a surreal scene: all the drivers standing next to their marooned vehicles wondering whether to ask for help, or offer it.
“Die diff is op die klip! Hy sal nie opkom nie.” This was the most repeated phrase of the trail at this point. It was here that the danger of attempting this trail on your own became apparent: get stranded or seriously hurt, and you’re in trouble, as there’s no cellphone signal and no-one’s likely to wander by for weeks.
Straps and tackle were deployed, and one by one the vehicles managed to orient themselves towards the next least-stuck vehicle for a rescue. The value of a good spotter – someone to guide you along some kind of useable line while minimising the damage you’re likely to incur – became clear. A few short metres downstream, The Wall waited patiently. A message, crackled through the 2-way radio from the pipe car up ahead, broadcast bad news. Given the scene which had just played out, there was no way any of the vehicles would be able to pass.
Our goal of reaching The Beach, the place we had all pinned our hopes on since starting out a few kilometres (but many hours) before, began to fade with the dimming of the day. Believing that if we had made it this far, then we were surely immortal, the group made the decision to soldier on. A steep incline of scattered rock led to a small series of lakes (little more than large puddles, really,) before The Wall. We summitted the slope with the now customary mix of swearing, scraping, clanging and cajoling, and found the maggot-infested corpse of a dog lying half submerged in a septic lake against a steep cliff wall.
Getting stuck here with the stench was unthinkable, so (with windows rolled up) everyone took it carefully. Once past the dog, another sandy stretch took us to The Wall, a vertical chunk of rock clearly not to be messed with, and certainly not to be climbed by a 4×4. Well, not today, anyway. Realising that we were defeated, some of us walked the last few hundred metres to experience the mystical Beach we had laboured so hard to reach. A few more steep sections and some thick riverine scrub led to a clearing beside a beautiful rock pool, which sparkled under the sunset as schools of small fish darted about in the clear water.
It was idyllic. Although we’d been defeated in our object of driving up here, the scene was nonetheless breathtaking; somehow it seemed fitting that we‘d been denied the chance to clatter clumsily up to the sandy bank in our gears and steel and rubber. We discussed setting up camp on the Beach anyway, but we all felt that it seemed like cheating; and besides, the slightest gust of wind carried with it the reminder of dead dog. We decided to turn ourselves around, go back, and pitch camp where Sakkie had broken his steering rod.
Once there, we immediately ferreted out the coldest drinks from cooler boxes and fridges. A crackling fire soon sent embers dancing up the canyon wall, and cast long shadows down the riverbed, while we laughed, braaied, and discussed things of great import: vehicle capability, solid axles, and Land Rover vs. Jeep. Those not driving the next day drank cream soda chased with shots of Madagascan rum. Waking the next day to the special kind of headache delivered by drinking Madagascan rum mixed with Cream Soda, we drank strong coffee and prepared ourselves for the trip out. We then discovered that river boulders have more than just one face to them. The side you see when navigating over them one way, is not the side you see when trying to traverse them from the other way. Boulders that were bastards on the way up, were likely to be double the bastards on the way back. Occasionally, the opposite of this also proved true, offering us easier progress over rocks which had held us up for hours on the way in.
In the early-morning light, we were also better able to assess the damage to the vehicles. “My Jeep looks like it lost a battle, if you take a look underside!” commented Andre from beneath his Rubicon. The worst visible damage was at the suspension mounting points, but he also pointed out a new dent on his front bumper off the ground. Every vehicle displayed acres of new rock rash, and three of the vehicles were leaking oil or showing signs of damage which would make traversing the riverbed back to the start point either impossible, or just plain dangerous.
The JKA Jeep was leaking oil through a damaged rear diff and one rear shock absorber had been banged flat and square. Richard Curtis’ black Rubicon had a bent tie rod. The Isuzu, which had lost a left rear shock mount and right rear tyre valve, plus other damage, retired completely, and opted to take the donkey track out the canyon. The JKA Rubicon and the black JK followed in its footsteps. The rest of the convoy, all of whom were running 33 or larger tyres and who had sustained less damage, opted to complete the return course. At the time of writing, Carnage Canyon remains unbested. It’s not that we failed, but rather that we discovered what doesn’t work. Lessons were learnt, and notes taken. A return trip is planned. Probably in the new year, after the rains, when the river is good and clean again.