We nearly died
The story and lessons from a stupid mistake on our campervan
We came close to dying. It involved a silly mistake, some foolishness, and three people in a campervan in the Eastern Bavarian Alps.
We've been trying to make full use of our recent campervan purchase and going on road trips around Germany. One day on a recent trip, we decided to spend the day hiking, so we googled hiking trails near the southern tip of Germany near where we happend to be. Minutes later, we found one. The pin on Google Maps is named "Eastern Bavarian Alps," and the reviews as a hiking trail were glowing. Great!
With a destination in mind, we started the van and were on our way. We were discussing the method we'd prefer to bring our 10-month-old daughter along. Body carrier or a pram? We were distracted by another topic that came along while we drove and didn't come to a conclusion.
About half an hour later, we arrived at a parking lot that at the far end led to a gravel road. I drove right up to the side of the entrance and killed the engine.
By the entrance of this road was a circular signpost with red borders. It showed a symbol of a car and a motorcycle, without an X across that would have meant no entry, and beneath that was a rectangular sign that said, in German, something about free access for forestry vehicles above a certain weight class.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Bavarian Alps was still something like 15 minutes away from that car park according to Google Maps, which was still telling us to continue driving via the gravel road ahead of us. This was what roughly played out in my mind:
The start of the hiking trail is ahead; you have to drive to get there. Google Maps is saying that.
Eh, but why is there a parking lot here? Perhaps it's for people who preferred to start hiking from here instead of halfway up the trail?
Yeah, maybe. But then this signpost is saying something. Cars and motorcycles and forestry vehicles above a certain weight class. What about us in a tall campervan? Is the road made for vehicles like ours?
It was then that my internal monologue got interrupted as I noticed a red sedan driving past us and onto the gravel road.
I turned to Charlane and said cheerfully, "Well, there's proof that cars can indeed drive onto this road!" Until then, I wasn't sure that the road was made for cars to drive on despite the signpost. It just looked too... loose. Furthermore, the presence of a car park full of cars made me suspicious. But here was the evidence that it was okay to drive. So I hopped back into the car and let Google Maps take us to our destination where we'd begin our hike.
We drove -- no, perhaps "crawled" would be a more accurate description -- for 20 minutes through gravelly and uneven paths, sometimes just narrow enough for our van to pass, and finally arrived at our destination.
There was nothing there except more stones ahead and trees on both sides.
Shit. What the hell. I think this is one of those situations where the Google Maps pin is referring to an area rather than a point.
I was getting increasingly nervous because the road leading up to this "point" had been tricky to drive on. Worse, I hadn't seen a single opportunity for a 6m-long van to do a three-point turn and head back the way we came.
I once again killed the engine to discuss our next step with Charlane with the sourness of disappointment in my heart, knowing that our hiking plans were now kaput. Charlotte would need to nap in an hour or so.
The first thing we did was to turn to our phones to see if Google Maps could tell us the shortest path out of the woods. And... it didn't work. Google Maps had disconnected. Our phones weren't getting a signal in the thick of the woods. My heart starts beating a little faster. My mouth felt parched. I took a sip of water and turned to Charlane and said, "Eh, this is scary. But if the roads ahead are of the same grade and width as the ones we've driven to get here, I think we can safely drive ahead and we'll be able to get out of here from the other side."
That was, in hindsight, a stupid way to reason. Past results do not guarantee future performance. Wide enough gravel roads behind do not guarantee wide enough gravel roads ahead! Nonetheless, that's what we did. I turned the ignition, the engine blared, and we crawled on in our campervan with no idea how much longer the road goes and whether it leads to an exit. We foolishly soldiered on.
We came to a fork a few minutes later and saw a wooden signpost with directions to several named "Alms." I had no idea what Alm meant in German at the time and couldn't translate it without the internet but it was still good to know that something was ahead along both paths. The left path was sloping down slightly while the right one sloped up. Based on that alone I chose the left path.
As we drove, our surroundings got gradually darker as the foliage of the forest became thicker. The road was also starting to become narrower in some parts. My heart is beating faster and I could feel the adrenaline in my veins. I was starting to feel very stressed about the situation but I kept it from showing. We were not in any true danger yet.
I was sure that there was no turning back anymore. The roads were already so narrow that there wasn't any way for one vehicle to wait by the side while the other passed. I was also sure that I wasn't supposed to be here, and certainly not with a big and tall Westfalia campervan like ours. Our centre of gravity, I said to Mei, was quite high, which meant we could easily topple over. All these thoughts made me more nervous and stressed and the adrenaline was now surging through my body, but I had no choice but to think about them. In emergencies like this, I believe the best approach is the calm approach. When you're calm, you're able to think. I was merely trying to think of the biggest risks to our lives as we drove on gravel.
We could have a tyre rupture and be stranded. This may not be so bad. At most, we lose everything in the camper, including the camper itself since a tow truck isn't going to make it in here. We'd still be able to walk on foot back to civilisation. I knew we weren't that far away because we had passed a few bicycle trail signs.
I could accidentally hit a tree softly and damage the camper. So be it. Nobody would be in danger. This risk is okay as long as it doesn't cause the tree to fall onto us.
Those were the main risks I'd assessed. They were honestly not too bad.
About 15 minutes past the Eastern Bavarian Alps pinpoint, however, the road became incredibly narrow. Had I not had the experience by then of driving our van for a few weeks, I would probably have gone off-road.
Off-road. Hmm, what's off the side of this road? I had been so preoccupied with checking the angle of the path and staying on it to prevent us from tipping over that I hadn't surveyed my surroundings for a while. I looked to my left (the side I was driving on) and I felt my blood turn cold. We were on a cliff! If our vehicle slipped off-road, we would be hurtling down a great height like coins in a metal can. I was sure if we toppled we would not survive. On the right was the face of yet a higher cliff. No chance of toppling there, only grating or crashing. That felt slightly reassuring.
With my foot firmly on the brake, I turned and said to Charlane, "Mei, I'm very, very scared. This road is really narrow and to my left, even though you can't tell from your side, is a very steep drop."
I think Charlane understood the gravity of the situation then, as she picked Charlotte from her car seat (which was on the left side of the vehicle), brought her to the passenger seat on the right side of the van, and held on to her. (I'm making up puns only in hindsight. I don't think I had a drip of humour when we were in that forest.)
I told her to hold on tight to Charlotte. She did. Charlotte, our ten-month-old baby, had no idea that we were in danger as she stood on her mummy's seat and leaned against the passenger window, banging on it with excitement. She must have thought the bouncy roads were a lot of fun. All I could think of was how bad a father I was for getting her into a situation like this. Her innocent light-heartedness made me even more guilty.
New risks assessment:
We could ride over a bump and topple over the cliff side and hurtle towards death.
Our tyres could lose their grip on the gravel and skip, causing us to swerve and slide down the cliff and die.
Now it was looking bad. I was terrified of stepping too hard on the accelerator to go upslope causing us to swerve or to miss a detail on the profile of the road and cause us to topple over or, even if I did everything correctly, the floor could crumble under the weight of our van.
But since we had decided that the only way is forward, I released the brake and stepped on the accelerator. We were crawling forward again and I was much more careful this time.
A few minutes into cliff-side driving we came to what was the hardest part of the entire trail: a steep, narrow upslope. Charlane and I became mute. We were both focused on getting out of this quagmire. I looked at the path and decided it will be fine as long as I regulate our acceleration. So I tiptoed on the accelerator...
The van, along with our young family, started to make the climb. The engine roared at 3000 RPM in first gear, a noise that heightened my alertness even more. Then, one of the things I feared came true: one of the wheels started skipping on the gravel.
The path was so steep and narrow and full of stones that our camper's wheels spun on the spot and skipped, losing grip before regaining traction and then losing it again, the whole time howling like an injured animal trying to escape being eaten by the things in the forest. I held on tight to the steering wheel to prevent it from swerving out of control, which seemed to be keeping us steady enough to continue to climb up the slope at a snail's pace.
Eventually, we made it out of that steep gravelly slope path. We then crossed a few wooden bridges with no visible weight classification signs that I sprinted across with the van. Thankfully all of them turned out to be heavy duty.
The fact that I sat in our camper that evening to note down what happened gives away the fact that we got out alive. I'm very grateful that nobody was hurt. There was even no visible damage to the van. But I'm shaken. I'm shaken at the centre of my being. We almost died that day!
All I can think of after we made it out was that we should think of the lessons that we can learn from this experience and try our best to use those lessons to avoid getting into one of these situations again. These are the lessons I've learned:
When Google Maps shows a point on the map and it has reviews, don't assume that it is literally one point that you can drive to, even if the reviewers talk about it as though it was.
On Google Maps, when in doubt, always use Street View to confirm what that specific place looks like.
Always doubt Google Maps in non-city areas.
Ask your partner to confirm if the found location looks legit.
Avoid off-road paths in general unless necessary.
If there is a car park before the entrance to a gravel path, even if the signpost says that cars and motorcycles can pass, you're probably better off parking the vehicle and going on foot. There's a reason the car park is there. Also, remember you're trying to hike, and a gravel path is already suitable for hiking.
If in a situation like this again, go on foot to scout the trail ahead and assess the risks of driving further, rather than drive and assess on the go.
Watch out for others - leave a note wherever it makes sense to warn future users from committing the same mistake. (I left a one-star Google Maps review with the warning "do NOT try to drive to this point".)
Be aware as a software engineer to design digital products that don't misrepresent facts because your work is consequential.
When we first emerged from the woods and saw tar road again, I pulled over, killed the engine, slouched deep into my seat, and heaved a sigh of relief. I turned to look at Charlane and Charlotte and let out a smile that concealed incredulous laughter. We laughed anyway, but we laughed with furrowed brows.
I realise now that I should have hugged her and thanked her for trusting me to drive the van in such a precarious situation where her life and our baby's were obviously at stake. I hugged her the morning after. I have an incredible partner who truly entrusts her life to me. I shall not take that lightly.
Here's a view of the Bavarian Alps from the highway to end off this reflection. All I can think of is that it's a beautiful work of nature that needs to be enjoyed responsibly. Stay safe and smart!