Friday, November 29, 2013

The Rainy Season Red Lagoon Roads of Zambia

The day started out badly with the discovery of a broken spring leaf. Then Scott sneezed and farted at the same time – never a good idea when your drinking water comes from Lake Tanganyika.
We had a long drive ahead of us from Ndole Bay to Kasama on one of the worst roads in Zambia. After two hours of organ rearranging dips and drops at an average speed of 19 kilometers an hour we hadn’t gotten very far. Suddenly we began hearing a swarming mass of cicadas all around us. Only it wasn’t cicadas, it was our vehicle. In the past when the Landy makes “funny” sounds like whirring or grinding or ticking we look at each other and say, “Let’s give it a moment and see if it stops.” Usually the sound disappears without us ever knowing what caused it. But this time the hissing was accompanied by extreme heat coming from below the gear stick – so extreme that when we stopped the Landy at the top of a rise I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the back. We were between sparsely populated villages and nothing was on the road but lagoon size potholes so we began to explore the source of the noise and heat. I started looking through the three Land Rover manuals we have on board while Scott looked under the car. The closest thing to the cicada noise I could find in the manual was “loud whirring”. “It might be the gear box,” I said, “maybe we’re low on fluid.”
“Oh no.” Scott said from beneath the car. “We lost the plug, the bolt that holds the fluid in. It must have been ejected on that really bad pothole back there.”
“Which pothole? The first one, or one of the 193 after?”
We searched through our collection of jiggled off nuts, bolts and screws in the toolbox trying to find a close match. No luck. So we began looking for a bolt we could steal from somewhere else on the vehicle. The ones connecting the bumper were too small. The high lift jack bolt was almost the right size but when Scott tried it, it wouldn’t catch the threads. A while later, two men came along. Once we explained/pantomimed the problem, they wanted to help. At first they just got under the car with Scott and watched what he did. Then they joined me topside in looking for a bolt to poach from somewhere else on the car. They didn’t speak English but hearing Scott ask me for various tools and watching him they quickly saw the advantages of our equipment and they began requesting “vice grip”, “spanner”, and “wrench” as if they were medics on the TV series M.A.S.H. demanding sutures or a scalpel STAT!

Dennis unscrewed the bolt holding the bumper. “See? Too small,” Scott repeated showing them the size we needed. 
Meanwhile three more men toting hoes and machetes came along the road. When Dennis saw them he quickly covered the tools and toolbox with our small tarp and communicated with “no no” hands and a low voice that it wouldn’t be a good idea for these men to see our valuables. But the men stopped and soon Dennis’ desire to find a bolt that would match won out over his concern so the tools came out and the bolt from the high lift jack came off again. I remarked to one of the recent arrivals that I liked his unbelievably shiny lilac colored shoes with a silver orb and cross buckle. Immediately they looked at my shoes, an old pair of Keens. I could tell they were discussing the merits of owning such a pair of shoes. Often Africans we meet ask us to give them our shoes. They all stared at my feet and I knew they would have asked for them if they knew the words. I could tell that one of them said, “Eee! But her feet are too big anyway!” because they all laughed and went back to watching Scott or unscrewing bolts on the car. Scott found a likely replacement in at the bottom of his toolbox but it was too thick and far too long so he got out the saw and began cutting through the metal by hand. Only a man would think of this. He put one foot on top of the bumper, placed the too long bolt under his left foot and sawed. Sweat dripped from his face and his blue t-shirt, covered with red earth from lying under the car became damp. Dennis took over sawing and after ten more minutes we had a shorter length of threads. “Everybody, pray!” I said. But it was too big so out came the saw again to slice a channel at the top. “Maybe I can squeeze it in,” Scott hoped. 
But it was still too big. In the end, he used the bolt off the high lift jack, which was too small, but he fashioned a sleeve from a piece of spare gas hose that gave the bolt enough bite to hold. Meanwhile I had been looking through the manuals for the location of where to add gearbox fluid (miraculously, we had an almost full, never used, jug of gearbox fluid with us). “OK, ‘the filter plug is located at the rear of the transfer box’,” I said reading from the manual, item 37-2.
I dug out the little funnel we use to fill our water bottles and Dennis and the four other men made one end of the gas hose fit into the funnel neck by slicing away the plastic sheath using Scott’s Leatherman knife. There was discussion about the odd looking tool, the knife and it’s sharpness. They poured the really stinky fluid in to the funnel while Scott, under the car again, held the low end of the gas hose to the fill plug opening. 
It took ages for two liters to find it’s way to the gearbox and when the funnel was empty for the last time, Dennis even put his lips on the hose and blew the last dregs of oil down the tube. “Uh, that stuff is toxic,” I said while bent over and fake puking. “It’ll make you sick.” Dennis wiped his lips and another of the men brought me the dust filled top end of a small water bottle, cap in place and asked for a little oil. “Bicycle,” he said. He used his shirt to wipe out the dust but you couldn’t tell afterwards because his shirt, like the shirts of all the men, had long ago took on the rusty red color of the roads of Zambia’s rainy season. Two and a half hours had passed.

“Zicomo! Thank you!" we said. A little money and a box of Eet Sum More biscuits was appreciated, but they squealed with enthusiasm when I said I would take their photo in front of the Landy. 

Off we went, stopping every 5 then 10 then 40 kilometers to make sure the McGiver-ed bolt was holding. “I’ve been waiting for the third bad thing to happen today and now it has,” said Scott.
“Three? I can only think of two, the broken spring and now the gearbox. What’s the third thing?”I asked.
“When I sneeze-farted,” he said.
“Oh, you’re right. That’s the turd thing.”
The road only became worse. Our final destination kept changing, as the day grew longer.
We hoped to make it to the town of Mporokosa, a large, dusty, out in the middle of nowhere town, before dark, and we did. We stopped at the only accommodation listed in our GPS, The Holiday Rest House. It was Friday night and eight men sat on the porch of the hotel drinking beer. The place had a weird vibe but beggars can’t be choosy so Scott went inside to inquire if we could camp there. Meanwhile, I watched the men on the porch and the few women lingering around the men. I began to sense that the Holiday Rest House wasn’t what it seemed. Yep, we had pulled in to the “No-tell Motel.” We had camped on the grounds of a brothel in Addis Ababa Ethiopia once and I wasn’t excited about a repeat. As Scott walked back over to the car, a heavily intoxicated man, with the most blood shot eyes I’ve ever seen, met him at my window and, with all the concentration he could muster said, “I would advise you not to stay here tonight.”
“Oh. Really? Why?”  
“I am a teacher by profession and I have to advise you that it would be better if you do not stay here tonight. It's” he said coming up with the best word he could think of to convince us to leave and making him our second Good Samaritan of the day. We drove away knowing that now we would have to bush camp. 
At 5:30 we began looking for a good bush camp – secluded, off the road, not close to a village. But we discovered that while there was plenty of seclusion – the bush was like a jungle – the earth was so sticky from the rains that we were sure to get bogged once we pulled off the road. Driving after dark in Africa is never the best idea but we hadn’t seen any wildlife and the route was not heavily populated by people so we were unlikely to hit anything, and in 10 hours we had seen only 5 other vehicle so risk of a head on was minimal, so we kept driving. The road continued to be a backbreaking chain of rusty red lagoon sized potholes inexplicably interspersed with short sections of brand new tarmac. Every time we found ourselves on tarmac our sails filled with wind again and we’d say, “If it’s like this, we might as well drive all the way to Kasama!” Then we would suddenly be on a road so deeply potholed that we felt like a ship being tossed side to side by stormy seas.
  At 10PM, after 15 hours on the road, the thing we have most worried about the entire trip happened. The road suddenly became a ravine that was narrowing to a chasm. The driver side wheels dropped into the abyss and N’doto heaved heavily to the right. “Nooooo! Hang on, we’re going over!” Scott said struggling with the steering wheel and willing N’doto to take flight. I held tight to the window frame and braced my feet against the floor. Just as we could feel the momentum of no return, THUD!, the front right wheel sank deeply into a hole and we came to an abrupt, 30-degree angle, stop. We sat in silence. Scott was trapped, his door up against the ravine wall.  It was decide that I would climb out to see the damage. The tire was stuck in deep. There was no way we were driving forward. “Maybe we can back up.” But the car wouldn’t start. Then, a miracle. After only ten minutes we could see headlights coming towards us. I’m ashamed to say that my first thought was “Will they help us, or hurt us.” Soon a van stopped above us. Four well-dressed Good Samaritan Zambians came over. “We’re stuck,” I said. Scott called, “Hello!” from inside the car and crawled out the passenger side door. One of the men suggested we push the car backwards. I got behind the steering wheel but the the car wouldn’t budge. We were bogged in tight and the angle wasn’t helping any either. “How about a jack?” another man asked. One bolt shy from our earlier repair, it was easy to detach the high lift jack from the rear of the car. Three women appeared from the van and began collecting stones to place under the front wheel. The jack was released and after 10 minutes the car finally started. I put it in reverse and drove backwards along the narrow valley trying to keep the wheels from sliding back down while the driver of the van directed, “Now turn your wheels like this,” he said using his hands. “Now go straight back!” When it felt like N’doto was going over again I whimpered and Mulunga pointed at Scott and said, “Now I think he should drive.” Once Scott was behind the wheel it was decided that climbing the bank and going forward might be better than reversing. I held my breath as Scott revved the engine and the Landy labored up the bank. While Scott drove onto flat road I thanked Mulunga for stopping. “I’m a nurse”, he said, “I had to stop. Your vehicle was at such an angle I thought someone might be hurt.” (We’re completely fine, only had to change our undies.)

Two hours later, around midnight, after 16 hours on the road, exhaust pipe growling, cracked spring leaf shuddering, gearbox kaput, we bush camped just outside the one traffic light size town of Kasama. “Without days like this, it wouldn’t be a true Africa overland adventure,” said Scott with a smile as we climbed into our rooftop tent.
As uncomfortable and sometimes scary the day had been we felt strangely satisfied with the way things had worked out. We had kept our cool, problem solved nicely (I just kept asking myself, What would Martha O’Kane do?), and met a lot of nice people who didn’t ask us for anything. A lot more good than bad had come from the experience. It still is a Safari Jema. And the next morning serendipity – always a theme in our travels – struck big. The one auto shop in town is owned and run by Michael a Zambian who drove, built, owned, and maintained several old Landys just like ours over the years. “I can rebuild a gearbox blindfolded!” he said. He’s a great guy and the parts and labor are more than reasonable so we took a room at the Kasama Lodge (where all the other guests are Zambian Government officials) and we’re getting a laundry list of repairs and delayed maintenance done on the car over the next few days before heading into Tanzania and Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. South Sudan, the newest country in the world, is on the list of “want to go” but we’ll decide that after we get information on the condition of the one road in the entire country. It wouldn’t be hard to get lost but we’re not excited about subjecting the Landy to any more part breaking roads than we have to.


Scott and Tris
Kasama, Zambia

1 comment:

  1. Teresa and Scott, What a crazy, wonderful adventure! So glad Landy is getting a well deserved spa treatment.