Rescue drama in the Ugab


Floris Steenkamp

The two men, one a Swakopmund resident and the other from Walvis Bay, who went missing during a camping trip to the Brandberg were safely back home on Wednesday in the late afternoon, approximately three days since their ordeal started in the remote Ugab River.

Mr. Marko Zahradnicky and Mr. Kai Jacobi, both 28-year-olds, were rescued thanks to the search efforts by three aeroplanes to located them, and a helicopter which then came to their rescue.

The duo departed the coast on Friday for a long weekend to the Ugab River to search for the desert elephant.

They camped at White Lady Lodge on Friday, and on Saturday slowly moved in a westerly direction down the UgabRiver, excited to find and photograph elephant. Late in the afternoon on Saturday they camped for the night.

On Sunday they moved further down the river and decided ataround 15:00 to find a camping spot in the shade, as they wanted the last hours of daylight to take photo-graphs and to make a potjie.

On Monday morning they decided to spend a few more hours at this camping spot and to leave the area at around 13:00 and drive back to Swakopmund.

Their ordeal started at exactly that moment, as they discovered to their horror that both the vehicle’s batteries were flat and the vehicle would not start. As it has an automatic trans-mission it was not possible to run-start the vehicle.

“When I realised we have trouble and would not make it home that day we climbed the closest mountain to get a cell phone signal. No success”, Mr. Zahradnicky told Namib Times in a telephonic interview yesterday.

Adding although they were concerned, they knew they still had adequate water, food and beverages with them to wait for some-one to rescue them.

As both Zahradnicky and Jacobi know the area fairly well, they decided at around 16:00 on Monday to walk to a Save-the-Rhino camp that was some 5 kilometres away. The deserted mining town, Brandberg Wes, is also some eight kilometres from this rhino camp.

Zahradnicky had proper shoes for walking, but Jacobi only had a pair of flip-flops. When they reached the camp, not only were there no people, but Jacobi decided to stay put as he could not walk any further giving the situation with his shoes.

Zahradnicky then walked further, to see if he could reach a cell phone signal. He walked to Brandberg West and beyond to the T-junction where you could either go to Uis or Mile 108.

At around 19:45 he still could not find a cell phone signal. He only had one litre of water with him still and no warm clothes. He walk-ed back to the Save-the-Rhino camp and reached his friend Kai Jacobi at the camp just before 23:00.

They then walked back to their stranded vehicle, reaching it at around midnight.

On Tuesday morning they realised people would be concerned about them now, since they were expected back home the previous evening. Subsequently they decided to stay at the vehicle, as it would not be long before a search would begin.

“We once again took stock and realised we had enough to eat and drink, we had the safety of the vehicle and shade. That kept us positive”, explained Zahradnicky during the interview.

Later in the day (Tues-day) they started to hear aircraft flying in the area.

“We knew they were looking for us. At around 15:00 an aircraft flew so close to us that we thought they must have located us. Unfortunately, this aircraft made a turn and flew off. It was obvious they did not spot us. It made us feel depressed, and again we had to work hard on ourselves to stay positive”.

Adding: “We decided to move from under the trees to a more open area, for passing planes to see us. We also collected firewood by then, in order to make a fire and for the smoke to assist the pilots spotting us.”

Then without warning at around 16:00 an aircraft approached them and judged to the movement of the plane it was certain they were spotted. They were delighted when the aircraft circled and again flew overhead, this time dropping two bottles of water.

Not very long thereafter they heard a helicopter approaching and to their joy saw the faces of pilot Mr. Frank Stein, accompanied by local businessman Mr. Jannie Theron.

“We felt we could cry with joy. It is emotional to suddenly see the familiar faces of old friends and you know you were rescued”, explained Zahradnicky to Namib Times.

Messers Stein and Theron then flew to Uis to get a battery for their stricken vehicle. They returned with a battery, but that too was flat and the vehicle wouldn’t start.

By that time, it was very late on Tuesday afternoon and Stein and Theron decided to fly to Uis, spend the night there and bring another battery to them on Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday they brought a fresh battery, and although not the exact size for the vehicle, they nonetheless got the vehicle going and they slowly drove to Swakopmund.

They reached their loved ones in Swakopmund and Walvis Bay at approximately 18:30.

“We don’t have words to thank the three pilots who went on the search and rescue mission. Especially the flight of the Intelligence Support Against Poaching (ISAP), piloted by Dave Francis and Stephan de Wet, that found us”, said an audibly emotional Zahardnicky.

He also thanked Brandberg Rest Camp’s owner at Uis, Bazil Calitz, for offering Messers Stein and Theron free accommodation on Tuesday night, so that they could find a battery and fly it to Zahardnicky and Jacobi on Wednesday morning.

He also thanked the pilots of the other two aircraft who were searching for them on Tuesday.

Photo:  The plane from which the missing 28-year-olds were spotted in the Ugab.

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