A ROCK, THE DIFFERENTIAL, AND A LUCKY ESCAPE - A BELIZEAN JUNGLE EXPERIENCE

 Tony King, Las Cuevas, Belize, 1995

"I'm in trouble, over." The squelch was strong, they should have heard that one. Having finally found a position where my hand-held radio could hit the repeater station way up in the Pine Ridge to the north-east, I wanted to ensure I got my message through to base-camp without further delay.

            I was breathing heavily, the jungle at night seems saturated with invisible perils and I had had to find this spot without a torch, stumbling at haste down the steep stony track. Having successfully delivered my call for help, I could make my way more steadily back to my Land Rover, Chapal would not arrive for at least three quarters of an hour.

            The bright moon cast eery shadows on the track ahead of me, one in particular resembling the coiled body of a small snake. I threw a couple of stones at it but it didn't move, I accepted that I was letting my imagination get carried away with the situation so continued on past.

            After just twenty minutes, it had seemed like much longer, I was back at the Rover. It was a white petrol 110, I'd had it for what, five days? Within the Belize Forest Department these white Land Rovers were known by their number plates. Mine was 643, Chapal would be arriving in 978. 978 had a superwinch, 643 didn't. I'd also asked him to bring rope, 643 was in a precarious situation, it's right side hanging over the edge of the narrow hill-side track.

            I'd been driving non-stop for three and a half hours, night had fallen, I was hungry, and nearly home, when, as I was climbing this steep stony and eroding track in first gear, suddenly ahead of me was a huge 12-wheeler carrying six magnificent mahogany boles, it's bright headlights bearing down on me with overwhelming menace.

            The chance of him stopping was negligible, what with the weight of his load, the steepness of the hill and the loose surface, I had to get out of his way. If I pulled over to the inside, he would almost certainly have been forced over the edge, or to save himself he would have had to plough into me. Neither option appealed to me, so I pulled over to the outside, my right-side wheels just a fraction of an inch from the drop.

            I pulled in my wing-mirror, and hoped there would be space, that he wouldn't give me that little nudge that was all that would have been needed to send me rolling through the vines and spindly trees below me. My heart missed a beat as the driver's left hand left the steering wheel to acknowledge me, but with a cheery grin he made it past and continued on his way.

            I gently got out of the Rover to assess my situation, this would have to be the most controlled hill-start I'd done. Back inside I gave the engine some gas, toyed with the clutch, and gently released the hand-brake. As I did so the Rover slipped sideways, just a little, off the gravel and over the edge. I hit the brakes, but we'd already stopped.

            Then I felt it slip again. Again just a little, again it stopped.

            That was enough, I pulled on the handbrake, turned off the ignition, left it in first gear and got out, grabbing the radio. I have never closed the door of any vehicle, let alone a Land Rover, with such gentle care as I did then - we'd put a lot of work, and cash, getting this Rover on the road, and I wouldn't hear the end of it if I lost it now.

            The hill blocked the line of radio transmission to the repeater, so I had had to follow the track round the hill until I could get a good strong squelch.

            Chapal arrived with 978, and a torch. "God have mercy!", he gave me the torch. The right wheels were supported by nothing more than blades of grass, all that was holding the Rover was a rock wedged against the front differential. "The rock that saved me", it sounded almost biblical.

            We couldn't simply winch it back, once off the rock it would have rolled. We decided to secure it with rope for the night, then tackle it in the light of the morning. I was thankful for a hot meal and a good sleep.

            We returned at first light, our operation planned. The rope was secured low at the back of 643 and then up to a sturdy tree on the bank on the other side of the track. 978's winch was attached to the front of 643, with 978 itself tucked in close to the bank. Chapal tautened the winch, then Harvey tentatively slipped 643 into neutral and removed the hand brake. Slowly the winch wound 643 in, and as it did so the nightmare of the previous evening transformed into an adventure story of a rock, the differential, and a lucky escape.