It was late afternoon at the beach just metres from our campsite. We had been trying, unsuccessfully, to catch a fish for dinner for the past couple of hours as the surf was flat and the late-autumn weather was far too pleasant to not be outside enjoying our surroundings.
Jahla’s initial enthusiasm for fishing had quickly diminished as she faced the realities of having to cut and rig the smelly bait, combined with the fact that neither of us really had a clue what we were doing. So it was unlikely that we’d fluke a hook up anyway, let alone catch anything decent. Even if we did catch something, we’d have a new challenge of trying to figure out how to prepare and fillet the fish, and cook the potential meal.
As Jahla wandered back to camp, volunteering to begin dinner preparations from our own supplies, I decided to go for a walk up the beach to talk to some other fishers I had spotted and maybe get some advice. As I approached, I made out two characters that you would normally describe as ‘seedy’, but hey, we were in the Eyre Peninsular region of South Australia, camping on a beach in an isolated area. Most people, aside from the odd ‘grey nomad’ (retiree travellers, generally with fancy 4WD vehicles and caravans), looked a bit rough. It was all part of the experience. We looked pretty scruffy ourselves, so who was I to judge?
I honestly don’t remember their names, but I do remember it was something that matched their initial appearance. Names like “Davo” and “Richo” are the status quo in these backcountry coastal areas in Australia. I immediately felt a bit self-conscious as I introduced myself without an “o” at the end of my name; it just didn’t seem right in the context.
I wish I had been more forward and gotten a photo with them. One wore an old, dirty children’s hat with ear flaps that was fashioned to look like a mouse, something you’d see a five-year-old wearing at a suburban mall. It was quite comical given the situation and person wearing it. They both had scraggly beards, a few missing teeth and wrinkled, weathered faces. They sipped cheap beer as they casually flicked their lines out into the water.
After explaining my mission to catch some fish worth eating, they suggested that I try a productive semi-secret spot, known only to locals and long-time visitors, approximately 5km up the beach. As they gave me directions on how to find it, they briefly mentioned that access to this spot was by the beach only, but “…you won’t have any problems with it…”
As we sat back and watched the sunset, the one with the mouse hat offered me a toke from a homemade pipe. “This is some of the best weed in South Australia is grown ‘round here,” he said to me between coughs “so be careful if you go wandering around the back tracks”. Not being a smoker myself, I declined his offer as politely as I could. As the sun began to dip below the horizon and darkness set in, I decided it was time to head back to camp and bid farewell to the two fishers.
Conscious that high tide was in the early afternoon, we got up and left the next morning right after breakfast. I had reasoned that we should have plenty of time to get up to the spot, park above the high water mark, fish, look for a surfable wave, and then drive back to camp after high tide.
I had found the beach access point near our campsite and the sand seemed firm enough. I did note that there weren’t any recent tyre marks, but I had assured myself that this was simply because it was the off season in an area with a small local population. Before leaving camp I quickly adjusted the tyre pressure to 20PSI. From our previous experience this was usually more than capable for sand driving and shallow mud.
As we reached the beach access track that cut through two small sand dunes, I shifted into standard high-range 4WD mode, which, like the tyre pressure, has been more than enough for standard off-road driving in the past.
Sticking the firm sand below the high tide mark, the first 800m went fine. But as we got further up the beach the sand became increasingly boggy and difficult to maintain momentum. The engine was working hard and I realised that this little adventure possibly wasn’t the greatest idea considering we were alone and in a fully loaded campervan on an isolated stretch of beach.
“I think we should bail and go back, this sand is getting really boggy,” I said to Jahla, who, sensing my concern, agreed to my suggestion. I looked up the beach and saw a section that seemed reasonably firm and bit wider. The beach was quite narrow and the Delica has been described as having “the turning circle of the Titanic”, so, with this in mind, I took the opportunity to avoid doing a three-point turn on boggy sand.
My plan fell apart as soon as I started cutting into new sand on an angle towards the shore. Within seconds we’d lost all momentum and had bogged down. Remembering what my dad had always told me during our practice drives in the past, I stopped accelerating immediately to avoid getting more bogged.
Despite being nervous about our situation, I reminded myself and Jahla that this was all part of the fun and that everything would be OK. After all, we still had a lot of cards to play to get us unstuck and back to camp, and high tide wasn’t due for a few hours which should be plenty of time.
Being prepared for this situation helped our morale. I popped the back door open and dug into the storage compartment for our recovery equipment bag. Inside we had a recovery hitch, a few high strength D-shackles, snatch strap, bridle strap, exhaust jack and a couple pairs of heavy duty gloves. We also had a long handled post hole shovel and some foam floor mats to help remove the sand obstructing the wheels, and provide a firm surface for the tyres to grip onto.
Our approach was absolutely text-book; we lowered the tyre pressure further to 12PSI, dug out the sand from the wheels and undercarriage, and placed the foam mats and footwell carpet under the four tyres. Attempting to increase our chances of success, I also engaged the 4WD system to low-range for maximum traction.
With Jahla standing outside to observe and warn me of wheel spin, I gently began to accelerate in reverse, thinking that going over existing tracks and then using it as a run up to get through the new, boggy sand would be the best idea. Unfortunately, the van moved about 10cm before the wheels spun and bogged down again, even deeper than before.
As we assessed our options, a quad bike rider came down the beach past us. We didn’t wave him over, because we were feeling a bit sheepish about getting stuck and wanted to self-recover. He must have noticed that we were in deep, because he turned around and came back. “You look like you’re having fun?” he said. “Yeah, we’re down to the belly and not having much luck” I replied, looking back at Jahla and the piles of sand around our van. There was no time for pride now. “Wait here, I’ve got some recovery tracks on the back of my ute that’s parked about 15 minutes from here. I’ll get them and come back to give you a hand”. With that, he turned around and took off.
Feeling slightly reassured, but not wanting to rely on the word or kindness of one stranger, we repeated the recovery process again; digging around the wheels and under the chassis, clearing a path for our escape. I tried again, same situation.
In desperation, we decided to remove the fridge and other heavy items from the van to lighten the load, and placed it all in a pile well above the high water mark. We attempted recovery once more, with no success.
By now we’d been furiously digging and attempting recovery for about an hour and a half. Fatigue and anxiety was starting to kick in as we watched the ocean slowly rise with the tide and growing swell.
“This is getting a bit hectic,, ” I said to Jahla as we both stood in the shade next to the van, the heat of the day and the harsh reflected sunlight starting to affect us. The area around the van looked like we were having some kind of manic sandcastle building contest. “I think we need some help. Do you think you could quickly walk back up to the camping area and see if one of the grey nomads with a decent 4WD would be able to come down here and help us out?” It was a long shot, but the camp was only a 10-minute walk away and we’d seen a couple of caravaners arrive the night before with beefy looking Nissan Patrol and Toyota Landcruiser 4WD vehicles. “Sure, just stay here and I’ll go back and see if anyone’s there to help out” Jahla replied, and she turned and started walking at a fast pace back towards the campsite.
I leant against the shady side of the van for a few minutes, resting my aching legs and gathering my thoughts. I considered the multiple scenarios and contingencies. All the while the tide continued to slowly rise, which was unsettling as we were bogged just below the high tide mark and I knew that the high tide was due to be slightly higher today, and the swell was picking up which was pushing the water further up the beach.
Just as I got back to work with the shovel trying to clear the sand stuck under the chassis, I heard the quad bike coming through the sand dunes. Shortly after the rider arrived and I saw that he had a pair of bright orange, plastic “Max Trax” branded recovery tracks strapped to the back. I’d heard of these recovery tracks before but had never used them. The quad rider, who introduced himself as “Crowey”, told me with confidence that they would get us unstuck without too many hassles.
Crowey was a semi-local, spending half his time working on the mines in South Australia’s outback, and the other half on his property up the road from the beach. Crowey told me that we were crazy for driving on this beach at this time of year, as even locals wouldn’t attempt it in anything other than a motorbike because it was so boggy and treacherous, and that the other tracks on the beach were from other visitors who’d also made the foolish attempt to drive up the beach a few days earlier.
I mentioned the two fishermen from the night before that had told me of this spot, and that they’d said it would be fine. Crowey’s reply was that he knew the two, and they weren’t long time locals, didn’t drive own 4WD vehicles, and that “you can’t trust everything people tell you around these parts”. Lesson learned!
A few minutes later Jahla arrived back from the campsite. “I spoke to a couple of people, one had a new car and didn’t want to take it on the sand, and the other said they would try to come help but had to unhitch it from their caravan first.”
“Fair enough” I replied, “did you warn them that it’s pretty boggy and to drop their tyre pressure right down before driving up here?” Jahla confirmed that she did, but wasn’t sure if they’d actually do it. “Great, that’s all we need, another vehicle bogged on the beach with a rising tide” I thought.
Right after we’d discussed our plan for recovery using Crowey’s tracks, I spotted a white Toyota Prado driving cautiously on the firmer sand below the high water mark up the beach towards us. The car came to a stop next to us and almost became bogged at that instant. The driver, a middle-aged early retiree from Port Macquarie in New South Wales, wasn’t thrilled. “This sand is too bloody soft!” he said, sounding more anxious about the situation than we were, “sorry guys, but I don’t think I can help, I’m heading back before this tide gets any higher”.
“Ok, that’s fine. Thanks anyway” I told him, “hey, you might want to lower your tyre pressure a bit more, what do you have it at?” I asked, “25 pounds” he replied. It was a wonder he’d made it this far. “Look, you should drop it down a bit more and then try to do turn around on the firmer sand, we don’t need two bogged vehicles OK” I said. I didn’t want to sound rude, but I didn’t have time to be indirect either. Thankfully the lowered pressure worked well, and he managed to gently turn around and head back towards the campsite without getting stuck.
We turned back to the van and got to work. Our first attempt with the recovery tracks wasn’t successful. The van was bogged too low and was still stuck on the chassis and front bash plate under the engine bay. Because of this it would just start spinning the wheels on the tracks, rather than get traction and move out of the bog. Crowey, having used the tracks a few times before (though only once for himself), knew that spinning the wheels would only damage the tyres and the tracks. So we needed to find a way of getting the chassis unstuck.
I suggested the exhaust jack, a large, heavy duty, pillow-shaped airbag that inflated from the vehicle’s exhaust through a one-way valve, as a potential solution. I had no ideas of how effective it would be as I’d never used it before, which is why I hadn’t thought to use it earlier. Crowey had never used one either, but we both agreed that our options were limited and it would be worth a shot to try out.
With that we rolled out the jack, built up some sand, positioned it underneath the driver’s side of the chassis where it was most bogged, put a couple of foam mats on top to prevent it from puncturing, and then connected the intake hose to the exhaust.
“Ok, it’s all good to go!” shouted Crowey from the back of the van, holding the air intake in pace against the exhaust pipe. “Here goes nothing” I thought, and fired up the engine.
The exhaust jack worked better than I could have imagined. Within seconds the jack was fully inflated and the driver’s side of the van was lifted about 40cm off the ground, just enough for the chassis and wheels to be out of the bog.
I killed the engine, jumped out of the van, and helped Crowey shovel and pack sand into the two holes where the wheels had been dug in. We then wedged both of the recovery tracks under the front driver’s side wheel, as that was the most bogged area and would provide both a traction and a ‘bridge’ over the soft sand.
With high tide now only a couple of hours away and the firm driveable sand slowly being consumed by the rising water, I climbed into the van feeling extremely anxious. We were out of options now, our self-recovery had to work, or we’d have waves crashing against us within an hour. I fired it up and accelerated gently in reverse, wanting to let the tyres get a grip on the tracks and listened for Crowey’s instructions as he watched carefully from outside. “Looks alright, keep going slowly, it’s gripping!” Crowey said. With that I felt the tyres grip and the van start to pull out of the bog.
“OK mate, you need to get some momentum and floor it so you will get through the sand and reverse up onto the dune where the sand is firm” Crowey told me. I took his advice and planted my foot down on the accelerator. Amazingly the van didn’t bog, and it managed to power through the boggy patch and up onto the base of a large sand dune.
Thankfully Crowey was right, the dune’s sand was very firm, and so we were now reversed up it with a pre-compacted track in front. This was our best shot to get a run up and plow through the 10m long section of boggy sand in front of us. If we could make it through to the firm sand on the shore side we’d be OK. With that we quickly loaded all our gear that we’d jettisoned earlier, buckled up, and braced ourselves. It was make or break.
Engine running and ready to go, I thought out loud “I hope this works”. I was half considering staying parked in place, reversed up the sand dune well above the high water mark. But I wanted to get out of there while we had Crowey around and another 4WD vehicle, this time the Nissan Patrol, coming down the beach from the campsite, just in case we got bogged again.
The sloped start on firm sand, lowered tyre pressure, and existing compacted tracks proved to be a winner. The van quickly picked up speed and momentum and carried us across the boggy patch, only slowing slightly. Relieved that wed made it across and onto firmer ground on the shore we pushed on in a straight line, following the tracks made by the other vehicles as fast as I dared to go with tyres at such low pressure.
A few minutes later we had made it up the beach, through the sandy access track, and back into the firm ground of the campsite. It was past noon by then, we’d spent the past three hours desperately digging and packing sand trying to get out of our bog. We were both incredibly relieved that we’d persevered and made it out unscathed.
We spent the next half hour standing around the van, talking and laughing about our situation with Crowey and the other campers. It was embarrassing to get stuck like that, but by that stage we really didn’t care. We were just happy that it ended well, as we’d seen bogged cars washed away by high tides before and didn’t want to join that particular club.
I thanked everyone for helping, especially Crowey, and told him that I’d be buying a set of recovery tracks at the next opportunity. We all agreed that they aren’t cheap, but they’re cheaper than being stuck somewhere!
One of the grey nomads asked us what we’d be doing after our little adventure. “We’re going to have some lunch, read a book and go for a peaceful walk up the beach I think. We’ve had our share of drama for one day!”.
And that was the truth.