26 February 2019 11:35
The Kammermanns travel on to the pole of cold, defying all obstacles – part 9
Travelling across frozen rivers, meeting Yakutian horses and minus 40 degrees in the cab: an extraordinary stage for the Kammermanns. Here comes part 9 of our series.
The thermometer shows minus 15 degrees and it almost feels like spring. As long as it doesn't get colder than minus 20 degrees, we don't need gloves. It has been very icy for over a month and we have got used to it. Yes, we reached Oymyakon, our third extreme location in Russia's Far East. But first things first; because the way there wasn't easy and our stay even less so.
A few days after our last report, I suddenly saw tongues of flames coming out from below the box body in the dark – due to the short days we had started driving in the evenings too. Mike stopped the truck and jumped into the box body with the fire extinguisher. After a long moment of shock we finally realised that nothing was burning, but that oil was leaking out of the transfer case and evaporating on the hot components of the truck. The position light on the lower section of the body made it look like flames.
At walking pace we drove to the next exit and spent an uncertain night – one of the coldest of our trip. The next morning the thermometer was still showing minus 45 degrees. We could now see that a lot of oil had leaked, but not where from. We topped up the oil, but we didn't really have enough with us to make up what we had lost.
Enormous distances, a meagre infrastructure.
Very slowly we covered the 50 kilometres to the next village – where we became aware of just how enormous the distances are here and how meagre the infrastructure is: it was still 800 kilometres to the authorised workshop belonging to the Daimler subsidiary Kamaz in Yakutsk where we had already arranged to have an inspection. On the way there we were at least able to top up oil in a small workshop and thus risk the journey to Yakutsk with less of a feeling of unease.
On the hilly and snowy route, we came across a good few vehicles that had broken down, slid off the road or had tipped over – and extremely cool Russians: we stopped to help a truck, stranded at the side of the road. But the two passengers standing there, totally relaxed in minus 40 degrees, just waved us on. Someone was coming!
Across the exposed ice in the Axor.
Workshop boss Aleksandr welcomed us before we reached Yakutsk. Because we came across an obstacle: the river Lena. In summer a ferry crosses the river and in winter you cross on … the ice. The traffic police had approved the river for vehicles weighing ten tonnes; too little for us. But Aleksandr said he would help us to get across. We were sceptical. It is 10 kilometres from one bank to the other! Some of the driving was on an island, but still the sections across the bare ice were enough for us to feel uneasy.
After translating back and forth using an app, we decided to follow Aleksandr after all. Before reaching the ice, signs stipulated 50 metres between two vehicles and a speed limit of 20 km/h. The locals didn't seem to care about this; several cars overtook us. As if the view of the ice under the wheels with the river shimmering deep blue below wasn't frightening enough! But, we survived!
On to the decisive stage!
In the workshop it was revealed that an old seal was the cause of the oil leak. What a great piece of luck that no big repairs were necessary! The mechanics also insulated the cables and the container for the power steering and then we were ready for our next destination: Oymyakon. About another 1000 kilometres! After crossing another river we also negotiated a mountain range on the Kolyma highway. The landscape was breathtaking! As the sun is always close to the horizon so far up north, the light is perfect for taking photos all day. Whereby, in winter, it is only light between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
We drove the final 200 kilometres along a smaller road, only meeting three or four cars the whole day. In the evening, thanks to the LED Lightpower headlamps on the roof, we are always able to see if somewhere is suitable to stay overnight or not. However we still meet with some surprises in the mornings. On this stretch of the journey we received a visit from some Yakut horses.
“Servus” at the pole of cold.
Then finally, early one evening: Oymyakon! The official thermometer showed minus 49 degrees. The first thing we heard was “Servus”: two Austrians who had come here on a tour greeted us as we got out of the truck. We were almost a little disappointed that the first thing we heard at the other end of the world was German.
During the night and the next day it got a few degrees colder. But we didn't experience the minus 70 degrees that are also possible here. Nonetheless, the cold was bad! Under those conditions even the smallest things don't work as expected. Our sticky tape has no effect below minus 30 degrees, cable ties break when you pull them tight and the seals on the doors contract to such an extent that the wind whistles through the cab.
Aimée had to wear a jacket and shoes; otherwise she would have got cramps in her paws. The minimum of dampness that escaped from the auxiliary heater turned to icicles. In short: everything froze! A pleasant side-effect: we were able to switch off the freezer box and stow its contents in an external box. We had a lot of time to research. But it is not possible to imagine how minus 50 degrees feels until you have actually experienced it.
Extreme cold, extreme conditions.
It was then that we learned to love the box body and the Axor anew. But even the best system has its limits: in the morning in Oymyakon the truck wouldn't budge. The engine had been running around the clock and we had covered the radiator with a tarpaulin - the oil pan at night too. But the Swiss mechanics from Merbag AG had warned us that if the clutch didn't get any waste heat from the engine, this could cause problems. And sure enough: it went on strike that morning. It took a good number of attempts before we could start.
However the cold test still wasn't over: 40 kilometres along the bumpy, snow-covered road to the next village, Tomtor, forced Mike to drive slowly. The engine didn't warm up properly, the heating remained weak and despite the additional insulation in the cab it was almost as cold as outside: minus 40 degrees. Sitting for an hour in this cold – torture! After Tomtor, Mike was finally able to speed up somewhat.
Breathing a sigh of relief at minus 30 degrees.
When we left in Yakutsk, Aleksandr had invited us to visit him again on the return journey. It was pure relaxation to drive the Axor to his workshop and fill up our water reserves. We stayed for a few days in the city and Aleksandr played tour guide; showing us the fish market and the ice sculpture museum.
We also reached the city of Ulan-Ude in a flash. Because we knew the route and because we knew: if the weather forecast said it would be minus 40 degrees at night, that would be no problem – we had experienced much worse. And even minus 30 degrees on the thermometer was reason enough to be happy.
Now we have spent the last few days with Lukas whom we met on the outward trip. The engine is off, the water tanks and food reserves are full and we are taking a break for a few days. Whereby anticipation is steadily growing: the next stage is to Lake Baikal.
Part 10 of the RoadStars series will be published on 25 February. Stay tuned!
4-Xtremes – the tour of superlatives.