We fail miserably at van life for 24 hours

Ruby had been running well so far, we’d driven over 500 miles on this continent and also for well over 24 hours, just in the last week. Apart from the niggly power issue, things were going well. We set off to put some more miles on the clock that morning as we left Gramalote, heading towards Cacota as we started to wind our way south now. 

We made it about 5 minutes from the campsite when the engine died. We quickly realised that we couldn’t hear the fuel pump and after a check it was clear that we had no power going to the pump. After quickly bridging it out, she still didn’t start. Then we realised that we had not just lost power to the fuel pump, but all the power. The fuse for the engine management circuit had blown for some reason. We swapped it out and drove on, as we weren’t in the best place to stop for long. Within a few minutes it blew again. This time I got out the floor mat, checking under the front of the van where the wiring loom came through the floor, for any obvious issues. It seemed like we would have to take all the front cab apart to check the wires, but here in the middle of the road wasn’t really the place. We tried to get a little further towards the town, slowing burning through our supply of fuses. When it went again, I realised that in all the excitement I had left the floor mat in the middle of road when we drove off. I walked back to get it. It’s harder on foot sometimes to remember exactly where you were, especially coming from the other direction. I must have walked far, far further than was necessary before I definitely concluded that it was gone. In the five minutes it had taken me to retrace my steps, someone had taken it. 

The only good thing about this unnecessary walk, was that it gave me time to mull over the short circuit issue. Then I remembered. I’d never taped up the wires for the engine management light when I had disconnected it. I had decided that a battery charger switch was a better use of the hole in the dashboard than a light that was permanently on, and had changed it out in Panama. Over the course of our drive, I wondered if the wires had moved and touched something. Back at the van I greeted Lee with the good and bad news. While I’d lost the floor mat, I was pretty sure I knew what was going on. Sure enough, one of the bare spade terminals was touching a relay under the dash. A minute later we taped it up, swapped the fuse again and drove off. This time it seemed like it as all good. We had wasted rather a long time however, with this unnecessary stop.

It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the border town of Cucuta. This would be the closest we would be getting to Venezuela on this trip, not a currently a viable country to travel in. As it was the largest town for a while we headed into a big supermarket to stock up. Already behind on the days schedule, we then waited over 45 minutes to pay. I went back to the van to open the doors for the cats, as we had dropped back down to a lower altitude, it was once again incredibly hot. Then I got a message that the cashier wouldn’t serve Lee until they’d seen his passport. Typical, the first time ever in Latin America that a supermarket was wanted to see a passport so we could buy groceries and it was today, when we were running late . After more messing about we were finally ready to leave the town and continue onwards. 

As is the way, when you’re already late, everything else goes wrong. Now the van was back to driving fine and we had stocked up food we were all set, we had just enough time to reach our campsite in the daylight. Except now we were sitting in an enormous tail back for some roadworks as teams of workers tried to reinforce the cliffs in order to prevent landslides. We sat there for over an hour. Eventually we left the enormous queue, tailing up mountains road in a string of slow moving lorries. The worst thing possible for our cooling system. The engine was down on power now as well. As we drove through the last village with the sun setting and the brakes not feeling quite right we probably should have stopped. With a lack of decent places to park though, and the sat nav telling us it was only half an hour further, we kept on. 

We wanted to park at a nice looking laguna above the village of Cacota. Now fully dark, we drove through the town and began to climb up some pretty steep roads out towards the laguna. It’s hard to see in the dark what’s coming, especially with our terrible headlights. It’s one of the main reason we don’t drive at night, the visibility is so bad. With the engine having one of it’s moments we creeped up some of the steeper hills. Foot flat on the floor, slowing down. We just made it. We were 300m from the final spot when the last steep section of hill just proved to be too much. We ground to a halt in the middle of the road, in the dark. 

If we could have made it to the bike it would have all been fine!

It was that steep that we didn’t have the engine power to go up, but going back down wasn’t so easy either. Ours brakes may not have been great, but they were enough to lock the wheels while the van slid on the concrete road. That was pretty terrifying. We ended up angled across the road with the back wheel in the ditch and four hefty boulders to keep us there. After trying a few times to make it out and slipping down the hill several times, we decided we had no choice but to wait for morning. In the daylight we could see better and get some help. For now we hoped no one wanted to pass, we were blocking the road. 

A guy in his bike came past and gave us his phone number, apparently he knew someone with a truck if we needed a tow. Not sure how that would work though when it wasn’t possible for a car to pass us. In the end we resigned to sleeping at a ridiculous angle in the middle of the road. It wasn’t possible to make the bed either so Lee slept across the cab seats, while I attempted to sleep on our small sofa. Neither of us had much sleep that’s for sure. Slightly confused cats slid around in their litter tray and then perched on top of us, we had taken their space.

Stuck. This picture did the rounds in the town.

In the morning we set about trying to get out. Another guy passed and said he would get us some help, but nothing really seemed to be happening. I walked up the remaining section of road to see if anyone had a car up there, but there was only a few abandoned buildings. If there was nothing here, I decided, I would walk into town and ask the police to help us. No point sitting here expecting someone to rescue us. As I stood in the nice flat spot where we should have been parked, I saw a truck coming up the valley towards us. By the time I got back to the van it had arrived. The local bin men. As we were completing blocking the road they couldn’t finish their collection. But they were more than happy to help us. It took 5 blokes with the engine as well to help push us out of the ditch and onto the road. They asked if we still wanted to go up. 

“No.” We said, “We just want to get out here!”

And so with the help of all of these guys we inched our way back down the hill. One guy walked along next to us, giant rock at the ready in case we started to slide which we nearly did a few times.

After we got down the steepest part we managed to turn around and make our way back down to the village facing the right way. That was one of the most stressful things we have ever done and we decided right there and then that we would not arrive at any unknown camp spots in the dark again. It seemed that the short drive down had also overheated the brakes, so we parked in the main square to give them a minute. 

Our lovely team of rescuers

We were now pretty famous in the village. Lots of people came over and wanted to talk to us. Everyone had seen the picture of the stuck gringos on the hill. They wanted all the details and offered us showers and places to camp. They were adamant that after all this, we should see the laguna. We could go on a trip that afternoon, in fact! It was very kind but after barely sleeping all we wanted to do was leave. And so, with the brakes still feeling horrible, we crept out of town. We headed for a mountain spot only an hour away where we decided we would recover for the day. Even this turned out to be unpleasant. We drove through the rain, without the windscreen wipers working properly and barely any brakes. The gears were playing up to, I couldn’t get first at all and barely second. We juddered around the hairpins, climbing higher and higher in a protesting third gear. Then, we arrived in the torrential rain, to a closed gate. Lee went to check it out and we decided to drive up and see if we could stay anyway. Luckily, the owners were happy to let us park in their car park for free and within a few minutes we were snuggled up in our level bed, glad for this 24 hours to be over. 

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