We were travelling Australia by four wheel drive – a trip which was the culmination of a dream I had had for many years, built upon the tales of a trip around Australia my father did back in his twenties.
Our steed was the legendarily rock solid Toyota Landcruiser 80 series – a vehicle which for many is the definitive off road companion. The challenge before us was to cross a river, the first body of water across a road we’d encountered in our trip so far.
Crossing a river is one of the riskiest endeavours possible in a four wheel drive. Water and engines don’t mix too well. And this being Australia’s Northern Territory, the water was likely to be filled with all sorts of deadly creatures, not least of which would be the saltwater crocodile, a fearsome man eating beast capable of growing to up to five metres in length.
Normally, one of the first things you’d do when pondering a river crossing would be to walk across the river and gauge the risk. In this case, being in croc infested territory, this wasn’t an option. Our only aid to the task before us was a little depth marker sitting in the water which indicated the river was 0.8 metres deep where the depth marker was. This wasn’t entirely reassuring.
At this point in our trip, our vehicle wasn’t fitted with a snorkel – a device which moves the air intake of the engine to a happy height just above the roof. If you’ve got water up to that point, you need more than a decent four wheel drive. Without a snorkel, 80 centimetres of water was the absolute maximum that we could risk driving through – any more and the engine might flood, with disastrous consequences.
Nor had we had the foresight to learn how to fit a “blind” – essentially a tarpaulin stretched across the front of the engine to help stop water from pouring in through the front vents. No – hugely prepared we were not. I had read a book on the subject of four wheel driving which had covered river crossings. Theory was about to become practice.
Our only alternative to crossing the river was a massive back track, back along the four wheel drive track we had just spent a couple of days driving through. The far side of the river was home to a main road, which could blast us up to Darwin in barely any time at all.
We couldn’t handle the thought of defeat and so we decided to press on.
I engaged the low gear ratio, and set the hand throttle to a steady pace. Using the accelerator in a river crossing isn’t usually advisable – a bump in the riverbed could cause your foot to slip with a potentially catastrophic loss of speed.
We nosed our way down the river bank and into the river. The water rose to the top of the tyres. We had already measured these as being seventy centimetres in height – we only had ten centimetres to play with. But we were committed now – no turning back.
The secret was to keep a steady pace, to stay just behind the “bow wave” that the vehicle created.
The engine fan, which we later learnt we should have disabled, was quickly immersed in the water. This resulted in water being sprayed out of the top of the bonnet. This was deeply unnerving stuff. And the river was at least twenty metres wide – we prayed there were no hidden holes.
The tension was nail biting. But our steed was more than up to the challenge. Her wheels bit the riverbed firmly, and she conveyed us with dignity. There were no hidden surprises, we didn’t meet any sleeping crocs, and we emerged at the far side, dripping and triumphant. Our first river crossing of many to come.
Shortly after this river crossing we fitted our vehicle with a snorkel and learnt how to fit a blind. We also adopted a new river crossing tactic – to wait until someone else gave it a go before heading in ourselves to get an idea of the depth and hidden risks ahead. Faced with the same challenge today, and knowing what I know now, I’m not sure I’d still take the risk we took that day. But it was a hell of a ride.
About the author: Laurence is the author of Finding the Universe, a travel/photo blog detailing his ongoing journey, started in June 2009.