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Desert Rescue: Going for a dip

I was sitting on the north western side of the Panton River. The couple I was sent out to help was sitting on the south eastern side waving to me, their outback trip coming unravelled twenty four hours earlier. The four wheel drive I was sent out to rescue was wedged firmly on a large rock and tied to a tree on my side of the river, the winch was only stopping the front end of the vehicle being moved by the flowing water, not holding it in place.

Where we were the Panton River varied in depth and width. The river crossing where the four wheel drive pair had tried to cross varied in depth between about 800 millimetres and 1200 millimetres and was a good solid water crossing at all times except when the river was in flood. Although some water had flowed down from up stream I would still have considered the water crossing the pair used to be safe and solid. Looking at their four wheel drive I could also see that it was well set up and probably had a sufficient wading depth to cross the river at that point without being dangerous or stupid. From where I stood it appeared the cause of the problem was either driver error or just bad luck.

We’d shared a greeting across the river but it was wide enough that we had to yell and I don’t like yelling so I decided I would join them on the south eastern side and talk to them face to face. Although I probably didn’t need to do it I did a walk around the Beast checking to make sure she was ready for a water crossing, I’d already lowered the tyre pressures when I came on to the sand so I knew they wouldn’t be an issue but there is a lot more to a safe water crossing that just tyres.

As you already know I’m a stickler for safety and although I thought she was ready for a crossing the thirty seconds it takes me to check is better than having to repair damage. Because of the higher wading depth of the Beast I was not going to have the same issues crossing the river as most people did but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t still be taking all precautions.

The dirt ramp that led down to the river was solid and well used , there was ruts in it which had been dug by years of run off from the rains in the wet season but they would not be an issue. I slowly edged down to the waters edge, I was of course in four wheel drive and crawling in first gear. As soon as all four wheels were in the water I could feel the water pushing against the Beast, it wasn’t dangerous but it was obviously something I needed to be aware of.

I pushed forward, crawling in low gear at a speed barely registering on the speedo. The water came up over the top of the tyres but was no danger to me or the Beast at that depth, providing I continued to drive sensibly. The river was moving fairly fast and I could feel the water rocking the Beast from the left hand side but it was not enough to change my driving habits, that was until I got to the centre of the river.

Like most river crossings in the area the base of the water crossing I was using was mostly sand and rocks, it was solid and although wash aways did happen from time to time it was usually only after really large storms. However there is always the potential for things to float down the river, even under normal flowing conditions, it only took something to be dislodged up stream and it could end up anywhere. And that’s exactly what had a happened.

I felt the front left hand wheel rise, which in itself would not usually be an issue, things like rocks often did that during a water crossing, where the issue arose was when the front wheel rose what appeared from where I sat to be nearly twelve inches. As soon as the front corner rose I felt the pressure of the flowing water push against the Beast and I suddenly realised how the four wheel drive wedged on a rock to my right ended up where it did.

Having done many water crossings in my time, some a lot more dangerous than the one I was doing, I was used to unexpected things arising half way across, it’s why the experts always recommend people get out and walk a river crossing before they attempt to drive it. While that is great advice, I could have walked that river crossing three times and still not found the single rock the Beast was rolling over.

With a smaller vehicle than the Beast, like the Mitsubishi sitting to my right, having the front wheel so much higher than the other wheels meant that a strong surge of water, which they reported caused the incident, could easily have off balanced their vehicle enough and lifted some or all their wheels off the river bed and after that they were just passengers.

Now I am not too proud to admit that had a strong surge of water come down the Panton River at the exact time my front left wheel was so much higher than the rest even the Beast could have been washed away. I’d like to think that because of the height and weight of the Beast I would have a better chances of getting out of it than most standard vehicles but the truth is it could still happen. Rivers and river crossing are never something to be complacent with and despite my skills and my years of working in the the area even I could get caught out.

I kept my foot on the accelerator, keeping the Beast at a steady speed. I held the steering wheel firmly so that it didn’t try to pull out of my hands and turn in either direction. I wont say it was all easy, I wont say my heart beat hadn’t raised a few notches but I will say I remained calm and gently rolled the Beast over the large rock. Once the front tyre had rolled over the rock and dropped back onto the river bed I was firmly back on all four wheels. Again still not a time to be complacent but at least that little episode was over.

I immediately turned the wheel and pulled the Beast right, not a savage turn just enough to divert the rear left hand wheel around the large rock so that I didn’t have a repeat of what just happened with the front. Potentially raising the rear of the vehicle could see me in a worse position than with the front raised. Because the back end of the Beast was a tray and had a lot less weight it would take less of a water surge to move it, although a surge was not likely good practice in all situations always wins out in the end.

Two minutes later I was parked on the south eastern side of the river next to where the two men I’d come to rescue had set up camp.

Previous Desert Rescue story here.

4 Comments

  1. Just one question, of course I could look up on Google, but asking you first. Why soften the tires on sand? I would think you would want them harder.

    • Lower the pressure and the tyres become wider, wider tyres means more tread on the surface.

      Similar principal on rocks, wider the footprint the more tread to work with, however with rocks it also allows some leeway because the tyres can sort of fold around the rocks.

      Many of the tracks up there are sandy and rocky so having softer tyres is often a mix of a wider footprint and softer ride over the rocks.

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