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VW Syncro

The Syncro Saga


An article in SA4x4 of February 2016, titled ‘Shoebox on wheels – Zim, Zambia and Bots in a VW Syncro’ brought back so many memories of our own attempt to drive through Botswana’s Moremi and Chobe game reserves in my dad’s VW Syncro.

That was back in October 2009, when we were in our late twenties, and my husband and I and two friends (one being three months’ pregnant at the time) decided after months of research and preparation that we had done enough to tackle Botswana. We’d even had a custom roof rack, the length of the Kombi, made out of steel, which weighed a ton and took all four of us to carry.

What we could not have planned for, was that Botswana had experienced some of its highest water levels in 40 years in the time we had chosen to visit. We entered Botswana through Martin’s Drift border post, driving via Palapye, Letlhakane, Rakops (where we overnighted) and Maun, before entering Moremi. It poured with rain during our two-day trek to Maun and this should have been a sign of what was to come.

I can echo Rene Bauer’s experience of finding that park officials gave his Syncro a strange look, and commented that he and his  passengers were ‘nuts’ to attempt the rough back roads. That is exactly what we experienced upon entering Moremi: looks of utter disbelief. The more they explained that we needed a 4×4, the more we tried to explain it was a 4×4. Eventually, they gave up, and let us continue on our way.

South Gate

We entered Moremi through South Gate, where we also camped for our first night. The next day, we were off to Third Bridge campsite, which was when the adventure really began.  There were huge water puddles, which were more like pools, all over the roads. We did our best to dodge them, but we couldn’t always go around the edges because of the foliage and dead trees lining the roads. The Syncro did well, except that the splashing water kept wetting the spark plugs, which would cut the engine. After almost every pool crossing, my husband and our friend Peter had to unpack the heavily-laden boot to get to the spark plugs, and dry them with the electric mattress-pump. Without this little device, we would have been completely stranded. After a few minutes of drying the spark plugs, the engine would start, the guys would repack the boot, and off we’d go − until the next puddle. Eventually, we packed the boot luggage onto the seats and just left Peter in the boot, so it would be easier for him to hop out and tend to the spark plugs.

This painstaking process made it a very long trip. Along the way, we had to contemplate a rather bad bridge crossing, which we assumed was second bridge. However, Joe and I managed to find an alternative option about 80m to the right of the bridge, and although it involved water, there was a lot of grass for traction and we sailed through without a hitch.

One safari-operator’s vehicle was not as lucky, though. They also opted to cross, but kept close to the bridge where the water was rather deep, and they got badly stuck… trailer and all. It was quite funny to see the tourists (most of them German women) up to their knees in water, trying to assist.  Our guys got out to help them, but they were eventually assisted by another vehicle with a winch.

We continued on our way, as the light was fading fast, but landed up getting stuck in some very deep sand. We were digging so furiously that we didn’t even notice a herd of buffalo walking a short distance away alongside the track. Luckily, a fellow camper in an old red Hilux stopped to help us, and we were finally freed. We arrived at camp late, and found ourselves in trouble with the camp official. It was odd having rules applied to a camp with no fence or gate, but there it was. We explained that we had stopped to help at the river crossing and had then got stuck ourselves, but he would hear none of it. He eventually gave a huff and left us alone.

Third Bridge

We pitched tent in the dark, had a braai, and finally relaxed.  It had been an exhausting first day in Moremi. During our few days at Third Bridge campsite, we did some exploring and took a wonderful mokoro trip with Mboma Boat Station. On our way back to camp, we passed a stationary Defender with a young boy standing on its roof. His father told us that their vehicle wouldn’t start, and that they had sent a message for help.

Around the camp-fire one night, our fellow campers told us about their trip and that their Hilux’s radiator fan had broken off during the river crossing. This made my husband anxious, but the rest of us assured him that all would be fine. The campers also told us that the crossing was the only route to Chobe; the bridge, which was the alternate option, had been damaged by a big truck the previous week, and was impassable.

North Gate… and Chobe?

We packed up camp the following morning, and made our way to North Gate.  Shortly after leaving Third Bridge, we passed an Isuzu bakkie that was experiencing gearbox problems. The driver told us that he could drive only in first gear, and was on his way to get help. With each of these revelations, my husband grew more concerned, but the rest of us convinced him that it was all part of the adventure.

The trip to North Gate Camp involved less water, but thicker sand, so we kept the momentum going in order not to get stuck. We spent only one night there, and the following day packed up camp.

We were filled with excitement as we made our way to Chobe. Then, there it was – the river crossing. ‘Okay,’ we thought, ‘this must be the notorious crossing we’ve heard about.’ It didn’t seem as bad as it had sounded in the stories we’d heard. My husband and Peter jumped out of the car and walked the route.

We were a little nervous, but went ahead and sailed through. We all let out a huge cheer when we reached the other side. “Woohoo, we made it!”

“Well done,” I said to my husband. Feeling very smug, we continued on our way. A few kilometres further, reality dawned and all our stomachs sank. The river we had just ‘conquered’ had been just a warm-up for what was to come. The real, notorious, river-crossing now lay ahead of us.

My husband was adamant that he was not going to cross it, but after a short argument, he realised that there was no other way, and that we would miss out on the next part of our holiday if we didn’t reach Chobe. The number-plates on the river bank set off alarm bells, but we all put on a brave face for him.

Again, my husband and Peter walked the route across the river.  It was wide, but shallow for most of the way.  Eventually we had to take the plunge.  We all hopped back in and the rest of us cheered him on.  We were doing great, and were almost at the other side of the bank, when the Syncro suddenly hit an incline and just seemed to lack the power to get up the other side. My husband revved the engine, but we didn’t seem to move. The back of the Syncro was in the water, and because we were making no progress, we eventually cut the engine. Water slowly started seeping in through the doors, and rising.

We rushed to get everything that we could off the floor and throw it all onto the seats, before climbing out of the windows into the water and then onto the bank. We were thankful that a Discovery 2 had crossed just before us and waited, as they helped by winching us over the last stretch.

It was a sorry sight as the water drained from the vehicle, but we were all optimistic that the Kombi would start again, and left it to dry out as much as possible.

The Bush Mechanics

Luckily, a safari guide in a big, empty Land Cruiser came past, and stopped to help us.  He tried his best, but the engine was flooded and we couldn’t get the Kombi into gear. He managed to move the crankshaft, and water poured out of the exhaust. By this stage, my distraught husband had started walking away from the scene, until suddenly there was a loud bang and an orange flame. He raced towards the back of the Kombi with the fire extinguisher. Our ‘bush mechanic’ had poured a bit of petrol onto the spark plugs and ignited it with a lighter. We aren’t quite sure why he’d done that, but it didn’t help.

He suggested towing us to an area where we could set up camp for the night. We eventually got there: somewhere in the middle of nowhere. There were no other people for miles. He continued to try to help us, and suggested that we drain the oil (which was mixed with water) and put new oil in. Off he went in search of oil.

He returned, hours later, with some oil − but it was not enough. He then stripped the engine and tried in vain to get it going. He thought perhaps a jump-start would help, and hitched the Kombi behind his vehicle, then towed it back and forth through the bush while my husband tried to start the engine. It looked like something out of a Leon Schuster movie, and we spectators had a good laugh!

As it was getting late, he had to leave us; but promised to return the next day. There we were, just the four of us, in the middle of nowhere. Six big bull elephants appeared out of the bush and strolled toward us. We all hurried into the Kombi and locked the doors, but when we saw that they were only interested in foraging, we climbed out, sat in our camping chairs and watched them.  It was a surreal moment.

The following morning, our ‘bush mechanic’ returned, and continued to try to help us, but without success. Then, out of nowhere, a local appeared with a receipt book, wanting to charge us for camping in the Mababe Community area of the park. We were confused, and explained that we had paid all our camping fees in advance. However, this was separate, as it was part of the community area, he explained. We had no choice but to cough up R620 to camp on their land, with absolutely nothing provided – no toilet, no tap…

Our ‘bush mechanic’ then offered to tow us to Mababe gate at the entrance of Chobe, in order for us to get help. We had parked the dead Kombi about 150m from the gate entrance as instructed, so as not to block other visitors. There was a boom gate, and a small office with Parks officials inside.  However, their landline was not working, so we couldn’t call for help. Luck was just not on our side.

We sat, literally like squatters, on the stoep of the gate entrance for what felt like eternity, getting strange looks from passers-by puzzled about what we were doing there. We dozed off after a while, and woke to find a hyena lapping water at the tap across the road.

Eventually, the official said that it was after office hours, and he had to lock up and leave us − but not before warning us about the resident leopard.  We retreated to the dead Kombi and set up camp, with a tent on either side of the Kombi. On the bright side, at least there was a toilet and a basin at the gate.

For the rest of this story, grab a copy of the January issue of SA4x4 Magazine.