alan little’s weblog

what i did last sunday

20th November 2003 permanent link

Sunday was the last day of Maria’s mum’s visit from Russia. We had to hire a car anyway to get her to the airport early on Monday morning, so we decided to have a day out. We went to the Altmühltal national park in northern Bavaria: saw a very impressive mediaeval castle, walked in a spectacularly beautiful autumn beechwood, and had lunch in a country pub. So far, so good. But was I then content to say “ok, we’ve had a good day out, now we’ll go home”? Unfortunately I was not.

Not far away was a place where the Danube flows through a gorge with cliffs on both sides, and I thought that would be worth seeing. Which it was, when we finally found it after over an hour of wandering around on poorly signposted country roads. Then the adventure happened.

We take the wrong road back out of the gorge, and just as we’re starting to think “this isn’t the road we came in on”, it turns into a muddy track in a field with steep banks on both sides. I decide I don’t like the idea of reversing a couple of miles back to the last village – instead I try to turn round in an equally steep and muddy field gateway. Mistake. I let the car roll back just a little too fast, the reverse parking alarm screams, a cloud of smoke, the engine dies. Game over.

A quick investigation reveals that the exhaust has buried itself in the muddy bank at the side of the road. The engine will start, but dies as soon as I actually try to move the car. Maria suggests trying to dig the exhaust out, but it I think it’s too firmly rammed in and the earth looks hard and stony. I try the engine a couple more times, but no joy and meanwhile baby and grandma are sitting in the back of the car, alternately shivering and choking on the nasty engine fumes. Decide to get the baby out of the car, and park his child seat a little way up the track covered with quilts and sleeping bags. But it’s cold and dark, he knows the grownups are stressed, and he’s not happy. He informs us of this. Maria and I try pushing the car, but the back wheels are crossways in a deep rut and it's going nowhere. Maria’s mum wants to help. Now I have a car firmly wedged into the side of a field, a baby screaming twenty yards up the track in the darkness, and a little old lady trying to help me push the car. No. Time to try another approach. If we actually knew where we were we could call out a rescue service but we don’t. Women and children, abandon ship – we decide Maria and her mum will walk back to the village with the baby and call a rescue service from there.

They go. I sit for a while getting cold and bored. Sitting getting cold and bored isn’t good, so I try pushing again, and the start-the-engine-and-see thing a few more times, both with just as little success as before. I decide I might as well just see how far the exhaust is buried. And the ground as it turns out is softer than I expect, and the ice scraper for the windscreen turns out to be good for sawing through grass roots, and if I’d just listened to Maria when she first suggested digging the exhaust out, we’d have been out of here an hour ago. Meanwhile here I am, lying in a muddy field in Bavaria in the dark, with my hand up a BMW’s exhaust pipe. The exhaust pipe is full of earth further in than I can reach. Hmm. Wait, there’s a pipe wrench in the emergency toolkit (why?). Presumably not for getting rammed-in earth out of exhaust pipes, but it works fine for that too, and I’m free.

Down to the village, pick up the family, home.

What lessons can I derive from this experience?

  1. When you’ve already had a good day and it’s getting late, go home
  2. Turn back while you still can
  3. The car we had was a BMW. I’d never driven a BMW before, and it was pretty nice.(*) Unfortunately it was an automatic. Lesson three: cars with automatic tranmissions — just say no. Not only are they less pleasant to drive, but there are at least two ways a normal car could have got me out of this situation that an automatic can’t (**)
  4. More general version of lesson three: if you use dumbed-down technology that exists to make life easy for the lowest common denominator user in everyday situations, and you find yourself in a non-everyday situation, you’re f*cked.
  5. Finally: sometimes, many thousands of pounds worth of fancy technology can’t save you from having to dig with your hands in the dirt.(***)

(*) If you don’t need a car every day, hiring one every now and then is a good way to save money whilst getting to drive a wide selection of nicer cars than you might otherwise. This time I had booked and paid for a Volkswagen Passat. Another time, I booked and paid for a Golf for a weekend in the Italian Alps, and they gave me an Audi TT.

(**) Way Number One: start it in gear and use the start motor to pull you forward that crucial few inches. Way Number Two: let the clutch in carefully to try to get forward that crucial few inches before the engine dies.

(***) I know a guy who works for BMW in product design. I doubt if he’ll be ringing to ask if they can use this as a marketing slogan.

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