How Betty almost sunk into a well in the middle of the Kazakh steppe, and how we were rescued by laughing farmers.
The Kazakh landscape is endless steppe as far as the eye can see, with very few bushes above knee height. The roads are rough and full of potholes. Excited about seeing yurts, we didn’t mind avoiding a few potholes here and there, but searching for a campsite was again proving difficult.
“Someone must have camped over there before”, Phil said, after hours of desperate searching. A faint track on the side of the road indicated that someone had driven here before. What’s more, there seemed to be a decent spot behind a group of trees at the end of the path. Phil, on investigation shouted “This looks like a way through to the other side”. He was wrong.
The track came to a swamp that looked far too boggy to drive, so I carefully drove backwards through the long grass. As I was about to stop and pull forward onto another track I realised something was wrong with the back right wheel…
I attempted to brake as the car dropped into a huge hole I hadn’t seen in the grass. The front left wheel was about a metre in the air and the car was dangling at a precarious angle over the hole, almost big enough to swallow the entire car. It was filled with water of an unknown depth. Every movement we made caused the car to wobble slightly- it could tip into the hole at any moment.
We shifted our weight to the left and carefully emptied everything from the back right of the car through the left passenger door. The back right wheel was sitting on nothing but was right on the edge of the rocky wall so I thought it may be possible to chock it up. There was an old tractor tyre laying in the grass nearby so Phil rolled it over and dropped it into the hole in the hope we could use it to help chock the wheel. The huge tyre fell into the hole and slowly sank into the water and out of sight. Oh dear, the water was much deeper than we thought.
With two of us balanced on the car to try and stop it tipping into the hole, we tried a few more rocks and logs right on the edge under the wheel. It was hopeless, everything sank into the depths of the mystery hole. We were well and truly stuck and one of us needed to go for help.
I felt responsible for not seeing this giant hole and getting us stuck, so I ran away as fast as I could to get help, leaving Chuck sitting on the bonnet, a metre in the air, and Phil hanging off the left hand side. We prayed that Betty would stay there until I found someone to pull us out. I ran across the field, maybe 500 metres to the road. From his elevated position on the bonnet Chuck could see me cross the field and attempt to flag down cars. It only took a minute before a small truck pulled over and a friendly Russian man poked his shaved head out the window and said something to me in Russian. I ran at him and desperately attempted to mime ‘our car has fallen into a big hole- heeeeelp!’ He had clearly thought I was trying to hitch a ride and now looked at me with a tentative expression. I was also unsure if his small truck would be up for this task but he agreed to come and have a look (well that was my interpretation anyway).
I indicated towards the track and ran alongside. As the truck got near enough to Betty for the friendly Russian to see the situation he stopped. He opened the passenger door and motioned for me to get in. “You need tractor” he said. (Thankfully tractor in Russian is the same as English so I knew what he was saying). He motioned back down the road the way we had come. I remembered seeing a tractor on the farm closeby so I got in the truck and we turned around and headed back towards the road.
The friendly Russian dropped me at the driveway to the farm. I thanked him and he continued on his way. I could see the tractor shifting dirt and two Kazakh men working with shovels nearby. They spotted me coming down the driveway, and looked amused to see a lone woman, carrying nothing but a phrasebook, running towards them. They stopped working, sat down, lit cigarettes, and watched me as I came toward them. I smiled and spoke some of the few Russian words I know.
“Good day” I said, “Can you help me? Our car has fallen into a large hole. We need your tractor to pull it out.”
They laughed at me and said “Angliski Tourist?”
“Yes” I said “Stupid tourist from Afstralie, got my car stuck in a big hole”
They laughed at my face. The older man was maybe in his late sixties. He had a happy face and a toothless grin. The other man was a couple of decades younger. His grin was dotted with gold. They called to the third man, who was driving the tractor. He looked very unhappy to be disturbed, but went off to get some rope. He was a skinny but tough looking man, perhaps late thirties. His friends yelled to him that I was a tourist from Australia. Just like that his expression changed. He was grinning from ear to ear and was suddenly very enthusiastic about the job at hand. He waved me towards the tractor and said:
“COME WITH ME!”
We hopped in the tractor and I pointed towards the trees where the car was stuck. We set off across the field and could soon see the car, a silver speck in the distance. He pointed at her and laughed. I apologised for being a stupid tourist and causing him trouble but he just smiled and waved his hand like it was no worry.
It was a very slow journey in the tractor and I felt as if we would never get there even though it was only a kilometre or so across the field. Chuck had seen the tractor in the distance but it took him a while to decide if it was actually moving towards them. Eventually we got close enough for Chuck to see I was in the tractor and the rescue party had arrived!
Our saviour’s name was Marat and his tractor was called Lucia. We introduced ourselves and Betty and he set to work tying on the rope and deciding the best way to pull Betty out. Once she was secured I jumped into the driver’s seat and put her into Four Wheel Drive mode so the tractor could pull easily. Once all four wheels were back on solid ground I was able to drive her away from the hole. I was worried we had damaged the back wheel axle because of the angle the wheels had been sitting on. It was fine.
Marat explained to us that the hole we had fallen into was his well. We were suddenly feeling very guilty. We had trespassed on his land, driven our Hilux into his well, and then made him stop work to come and pull us out. We apologised over and over but he just laughed and told us not to worry. We left out the fact that we had also thrown an old tractor tyre into his well. Whoops! We told him that we had been looking for a place to camp for the night. He simply replied:
“You are silly, you should come to my yurt.”