Unimog Roll and Self Recovery: Mowgli Takes A Tumble

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Midelt is set in the heart of the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. There’s beautiful and dramatic scenery at every turn. At an altitude of 1600 – 2200 metres, we figured on it being a fine location for a bit of off road driving. The Cirque de Jaffar is a popular, challenging 4×4 track through this region and on a crisp morning, we set off for a day in the mountains in Mowgli the Unimog. We hadn’t anticipated what was to follow. Seeing the Unimog roll and self recovery with a winch was not on our agenda.

Unimog roll and self recovery
And it all started so well on Cirque Jaffar. Glorious scenery.

Cirque de Jaffar begins on the outskirts of Midelt and takes a fairly gentle ascent through the foothills of Jebel Ayachi. The track becomes increasingly rocky and by the time we reached an altitude of 2000 metres, we were winding our way through boulders and shale. We hate these tracks; they usually end up damaging vehicles and we always find ourselves saying “no more tracks”. We do this every time!

There is a point on the track where we could turn left or right. Take the track to the left and we’re warned there’s an adverse camber and it’s not advisable for high sided vehicles. At 3.2 metres high, we reckoned we’re classified this way, so ever sensible, we took the track to the right.

This route took us to the top of a relatively steep ravine. We could see the steep winding track down, the dry river bed below and the track continuing at a more gradual incline on the opposite bank.

Unimog roll and self recovery
Mmm. That’s a steep drop. Best we walk it first.

The only part that we wanted to check out further before we committed was the initial descent. It was steep with a tight hairpin bend and the ground was rock and shale, dotted with almond trees. Walking the first part of the track, we assessed the situation and figured on it being ok to proceed. With caution.

Fairly straightforward. Not too much of a drama.

Unimog roll and self recovery
Yeah, this is ok.

So far so good. However, the Middle Atlas Mountains are renowned for heavy snow and rains in late winter. This flow of water inevitably leaves deep ½ metre crevices in the ravine. Had we walked a little further while assessing the route, we’d have seen these and probably avoided the route altogether. Hindsight is a marvellous thing!

Unimog roll and self recovery

About half way down the ravine, we first spotted one of these crevices. Steering in 1st gear with all round diffs locked isn’t easy at the best of times, and Mowgli was starting to slide on the steep shale. Even at the slowest of speeds the front right wheel slid, caught the crevice and dropped into it. With the back left wheel in the air, we were precariously balanced and the Unimog wasn’t far from her tipping point.

Unimog roll and self recovery
Mind the ruts, darling!

Quickly, we pulled the winch rope through from the front, beneath her undercarriage and stropped her to a tree behind. The tree was precariously clinging onto a rock, but this gave us enough hold to prevent further movement.

Our 9000lb winch is not designed to lift a 7.5 tonne Unimog. It’s useful only to give her a tug if needed and until today, we’ve only ever used it to winch out less heavy vehicles. We’ve a snatch block fitted to double its capacity though and it was holding her well. With Mowgli secured for now, it was time for a ponder.

Unimog roll and self recovery
Stropping her up ready for a supposedly straightforward, reverse winch.

It seemed the only option was to attempt to reverse her out, keeping the winch taut. However, things were about to go from bad to worse. With the Unimog already teetering on her roll point and so much weight resting on the side wall of the rear right wheel, the slight reverse movement made it slip from under us. Mowgli was almost fully on her side and sliding forward. Thankfully both the winch rope and the tree held, and Mowgli’s left side was left up in the air.

Unimog roll and self recovery
Oops! Gravity had other ideas. The winch is the only thing preventing her from toppling completely.

This is a bit of a problem. We couldn’t even get to the kettle to make a cup of tea! Extra strops and land anchors are in the garage, the entrance to which is also up in the air.

Enter Shepherds, Stage Right

So you wait for ages, then 3 come along at once. Well we certainly weren’t complaining when 3 local shepherds arrived together with one rather large flock of sheep, two mopeds, a pickaxe and a donkey carrying 5 lambs. That was hardly enough horsepower to pull us out. You couldn’t make this stuff up! In true Moroccan style and with no questions asked, we had 3 extra pairs of hands.

Unimog roll and self recovery

We needed to right Mowgli but in order to do so, we needed the winch to be repositioned; the same winch that was currently stopping her from tipping completely and sliding down into the ravine.

With all the extra man power, we piled rocks on the underside of the camper body and placed our spare tyre and a discarded car tyre we found nearby, underneath her. We slowly let the winch out to drop her gently on to the hastily made pillow.

Unimog roll and self recovery
Rocks, a discarded spare tyre and one of Mowgli’s spare shoes serves as a pillow so the winch can be released.
Unimog roll and self recovery
With the winch free, Mowgli laying precariously on the tyres, the winch can be repositioned.
Unimog roll and self recovery
With the winch attached in 2 places and hooked around a large rock and a couple of trees, we’re ready to get her back on her feet.

Luckily we were amongst a few flimsy trees and a couple of large rocks, so positioned the strop around a rock and a tree for a side pull to right her. Of course, our helpers don’t speak English and we don’t speak great French or Arabic, so we were working together with sign language and few words.  We slowly started to raise her. After telling the shepherds to stay away from the winch rope, Graham went to check that the rear wheel was not sliding. Then came the schoolboy error. Graham stepped between the winch ropes and Mowgli. At that precise moment the strop snapped on the rock and Mowgli fell to her side and slid a few feet further down the gorge. Graham was incredibly lucky. Things could have turned very messy at that point with one small, but potentially fatal error of judgement. Had it not been for the tree beside Mowgli, she’d have just slid and the rope would have brought Graham with her.

Safety Warning

Time for another ponder, a smoke and a word with ourselves.  We are calm in times of drama. We don’t panic, we work well together and we get on with the job in hand. We know what’s safe, and we certainly know what is not safe. Stepping inside those ropes was not safe, and Graham knew it before he did it. Yet with all the pressure, he distractedly stepped into a danger spot. So take this as a gentle reminder. Despite all the fun you have at weekend off road events, recovering yourselves and each other, take your time and first and foremost, be safety aware. It is so easy to get caught up in the moment and overlook deadly situations.

Back to the Self Recovery

With the broken strop knotted together we slowly winched Mowgli back onto her feet. Her front wheel was well and truly stuck in a crevice the size of a gorge. The only way was forward. With gravity still in charge, we chocked the front and repositioned the winch, ready to lower her down the ravine.

Unimog roll and self recovery
Back to where we’d started. Let’s give that another go shall we?

For the next few hours, we tirelessly filled in the crevices with rocks, removed boulders and even parts of the mountain that posed a risk. We lowered Mowgli inch by inch until she was on a solid slope, with all 4 wheels firmly planted. Our new found friends were outstandingly strong, helpful and having fun. Without them we would still be filling the gorge ourselves.

Unimog roll and self recovery
With plenty of ruts ahead of us, each presenting a further toppling risk, a nervous time followed. And lots of moving rocks into the ruts.
Unimog roll and self recovery
Just removing part of the mountain that poses a risk.
Unimog roll and self recovery
With the winch securing Mowgli from behind, we eased her down. Slowly, slowly.

The ground at this part of the ravine was just loose shale. We needed to let Mowgli off the winch and drive her to the bottom. In reality, this was more of a semi controlled slide 100 metres to the wadi at the foot of the ravine.

And as quickly as it had all started, it was all over. Time for tea, relieved laughter and much gratitude to our wonderful helpers M’hamid, Tarak and Amrou.

Unimog roll and self recovery
One very relieved Unimog owner and 3 wonderful local samaritans!

The shepherds left to tend their abandoned flock and we assessed the damage. Remarkably, unlike our pride, Mowgli is mostly unscathed.

Unimog roll and self recovery

She has a few small dents to the front fender, slight dink to the bumper, amassed some character enhancing scratches and lost a bit of door frame trim. The fine china was all in place and unbroken and the only damage internally was to the neatly made bed. After adjusting the pillows, checking the engine, oils, wheels, chassis and after a couple of mugs of tea, we headed off Cirque de Jaffar to live another day.

So with that, the only thing left to say is, “no more tracks”.

Here’s a video of Mowgli going down another Moroccan mountain track. Without taking a tumble.

So What Went Wrong?

The initial reverse winch actually made the situation worse. Having studied the photos for many hours since, we’re still not clear on what went wrong at that point. Mowgli was balancing on her rear right and front left wheels. Maybe we should have had her strop anchor points positioned away from the centre line and towards the rear left wheel? Hindsight is marvellous but we’re still digging deep to understand how we could avoided her toppling as she did. It’s still keeping Graham awake at night.

Click here if you want to read more about Mowgli the Unimog.

10 thoughts on “Unimog Roll and Self Recovery: Mowgli Takes A Tumble”

  1. What a great story! My only comment regarding safety is, as you put it yourself, the difficulty to steer with all lockers turned on. I have seen many 4×4 vehicles flip due to exactly that; trying to steer on steep inclines with the lockers on. So if you ever go offroading and ascending or descending steep slopes with turns, only lock the center diff. I only lock the rear diff when hitting or mud. For inclines with turns it is best to keep front and rear diffs unlocked. Stay safe on the trails and so happy to read you got away relatively scratch free.

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  4. Critiquing someone else’s recovery goes against my general modes operandi . but since you asked….

    Well….I wasn’t there so I can’t possibly know what all the circumstances were. All I have to go on is the pics and description you provided. So here goes:

    Running the winch line from a front mounted winch underneath the vehicle to pull backwards is one of those things that get taught in those “recovery schools” and gets me clenching my teeth in frustration. Often it is forgotten that running the cable this way will always result in downward force at the front. Even if just a bit. With the rear left in the air and the truck sitting on it’s tipping point….bad news.

    Something else that caught my eye (and again, this is only from the one picture…I could be misinterpreting what I see) is the connection with the snatch block and winch cable. it looks to me that the “V” that the snatch block is attached to is secured on one end to the Mog…. this is what we call a self defeating rigging. You are, in effect, pulling with the anchor instead of securing a solid base to pull from. Even if this worked, the snatch block would pull the “V” strap along with the vehicle..it would be the same effect off the tree(?) you wrapped it around didn’t hold.

    From your description of the events just prior to the slide, you mentioned you had all the diffs locked… why on earth would you lock the front diff while moving downhill? Perhaps if it was a straight line and you didn’t need to steer any. Gravity is on your side and locked diffs will not greatly effect speed, just steering. Also, you are fighting the inner set of wheels any time you steer off of true…maybe starting the slide?

    and the absolute last comment: I loved the idea of the rocks and tires to prop the vehicle up. That was a clever bit of work!

    • Hi Loco,

      Thank you for your in depth review and comments. You’ve raised valid points and given me plenty to think about.

      Diff locks for a decent, unfortunately on our mog it is either centre or all around front and back. I agree that normally I would run with just centre diffs or just rear diffs locked if I could for a down hill descent. After the first hair pin, which I had reversed on to do a 3 point turn I left all the diff locks in for a seemingly relatively straight track. I should have gone back to centre diffs only after the hairpin.

      As for the reverse winch, this is exactly the reason we toppled. So a lesson for me to take on board.

      What is not shown is the strop is wrapped multiple times around the tree to provide a single anchor point to the chassis as a holding line, and the other free end used to attach to the snatch block. It was all I could think to do with our limited amount of winch gear and a few flimsy trees.

      Really appreciate you taking the time to comment in such detail. You learn much more from your mistakes and the feedback from those more experienced.

      • well, like I said, I wasn’t there and cannot possibly know all the circumstances. In the end, you pulled of a difficult self-recovery with limited gear and minimal damage…..huge kudos for that!

        That makes sense with the rigging on back. I would have tended to have used a “V” instead of multiple wraps. But truthfully, it doesn’t really matter. In fact, the “loose” end attached to the truck does give another hold point…..possibly a good idea in these circumstances. Then again, I most likely would have tried recovering forward in the first place….backwards in this case just looked bad.
        It’s always a judgment call with the diff locks and of course you have to work with what you got.

        Y’all did good and I hope you continue having a great and memorable time!

        Take care!

  5. It looks like your big challenge was lack of anchor points for the winch, where you want them. We have had good luck with aluminum Fortress yacht anchors. The big ones are light enough to carry easily and they will bite hard into the kind of ground shown in the photos, and they take a pull of several tons with ease. Having such a ground anchor may have made all the difference as you did a straight side pull to balance the truck and then let it drive down as you ultimately did

    • Thanks John. The land anchor would have come in really useful. We have a Devon 4×4 competition land anchor that we carry. It was neatly packed away in the garage of the Unimog. The garage is situated above the rear left wheel – the one that’s several feet in the air in the pics. :-) We could have reached it with a ladder, but that was also neatly packed away beside the land anchor. We could strap recovery gear to the outside of Mowgli. This brings a chance of theft, affects her good looks (we think), not to mention the affect on streamlining :-) . We live in Mowgli, she’s our home so ultimately, it’s all a compromise. But land anchors are definitely a good idea.

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