Words and Images by Graeme Bell
The trail rating was “moderate to difficult” but the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the track we were driving on a cold afternoon was anything but moderate. It was tough going. Tough enough that the Defender 130 needed low range and diff lock to conquer some of the steeper, muddy switchbacks as we climbed the Rif mountain range (the origin of almost all Moroccan hashish) into the clouds.
Eventually, after driving 15 miles in three hours, the trail became smoother, gentler, dryer and flatter. We began to see signs of settlements and passed the odd tiny village built into the walls of green, pine valleys. Deep blue sky began to peak through the gray clouds and we relaxed, only 40 miles to go and we would be back in the camp above Chefchaouen, sipping a beer with the gathered tribe of European overlanders.
I slipped the gearbox into high and cruised down into yet another gully. As I gently accelerated up a hill, a bang (!) erupted from the gearbox and we lost all drive. I hit the brakes, depressed the clutch and tried to engage low. No drive. High. No drive. Gears 1,2,3,4,5 and reverse. No drive.
This was not our first remote breakdown and will undoubtedly not be our last. In times like these, it’s important to remember 12 golden rules for dealing with an immobilizing, remote breakdown.
No.1. Chill out everyone. Stop, drop and roll. You need to be calm and evaluate your situation with a cool head. Giving in to anger and frustration helps no one and can often make the situation ten times worse. A positive attitude is your most valuable tool. This is particularly important when you have passengers who rely on you – they will react as you react and you need to ensure that they know you are in control of the situation.
No.2. Remove the vehicle from the road, track or trail. You may be able to push or roll backwards but you need to get the vehicle onto a workable surface.
No.3. Make a cup of coffee or tea and evaluate your situation. Check the vehicle fluids, look for obvious signs of failure and decide the next course of action. Can you get the vehicle running, do you have enough food and water, how far are you from the nearest village or town, is there a clear and present danger?
No.4. Attempt a repair. You may find that you are able to repair the problem or at least get the vehicle moving, you might have a suitable spare part in your spares box and the problem could be solved by replacing a fuse or a wheel bearing or a fan belt.
No.5. Go back if you can, forward if you must. As you drive it is important to memorize the road, making mental notes of sources of water, flat areas to park, houses and villages and gas stations and stores. A map can offer a decent amount of information but often not enough. If you are able to get the vehicle moving but are unsure whether you can rejoin civilization, return to an area where you can set up a temporary camp and work area. If you can’t get her moving you need to make the most of the situation.
No.6. Tap into the internet. Sometimes this is easier said than done and you may need to go for a long walk once you have ensured that your vehicle and passengers are safe and comfortable. Once online you can search for solutions and reach out to your tribe who will be able to advise you. Calling for a recovery vehicle before you have tried every possible repair is lazy – you got yourself into this mess, you should try and get yourself out before inconveniencing others unless you feel that you are in danger, in which case a speedy recovery is the most responsible course of action. Being able to solve your own problems is immensely satisfying and empowering and will give you the confidence to travel farther afield.
No.7. Work on the vehicle. Start with the obvious and work your way towards the complex. It is incredibly important to do your own maintenance and to familiarize yourself with the mechanical and electrical systems. Use only the best parts you can afford and avoid low cost parts as they are the very definition of false economy. It is also best to carry essential parts such as wheel bearings, fan belts, relays and fuses, spark plugs, filters, etc.
No.8. Keep your work area tidy and your tools in order. It is a constant struggle to maintain a positive attitude and losing wrenches and tools can only lead to more frustration. Be calm, be systematic.
No.9. Settle in. If you are in for the long haul, make your breakdown area as comfortable as possible- seek a water source, build a fire ring, establish a latrine area, take out the chairs and table, make a fire, have a cold beer and stare at the flames while contemplating your situation, imagining scenarios and solutions and wondering how the heck do you get yourself into these situations. Sleep well, stay calm, think, think, think.
No.10. Establish a relationship with the locals. Where there are trails, there are people, usually. Your situation may be beyond their ability to assist but you must treat them with respect and remember that you are on their turf. They may be able to assist with food, information or a tow if you have no other options.
No.11. Keep on working. Eventually most mechanical or electrical problems can be solved and at the very least you are able to limp back to the real world. In extreme cases the vehicle must be abandoned as you set out to arrange a recovery but the priority is not the vehicle – the priority is the safety of you and your crew.
No.12. Find a best case scenario. If, like us, your breakdown took place in a foreign land in the midst of a intercontinental voyage, you will need to assess the best options for relocating the vehicle to a place where you can communicate with the outside world and receive crucial spare parts. In our experience a significant breakdown can take up to a month to resolve and you need to be somewhere comfortable and affordable where you can drop the gearbox and replace the clutch, or find a shop to overhaul your alternator, fuel pump, starter motor.
These 12 rules helped us through a four-day remote breakdown until eventually I paid a local farmer $100 to tow us with his old tractor 20 miles down the mountain to the town of Bab Taza, where we paid a tow truck $50 to carry the Landy back to the campsite above the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen. My family pulled together, and worked together, which made the experience an adventure, not a nightmare.