Sunday, 26 June 2011

A Tale of Authentic Africa

Two years ago today, we’d just returned from a once-in-lifetime trip to Zambia, visiting our son, who was teaching in Lusaka, and his wife.  I’d intended to document the trip, but for one reason or another I lost the energy for writing.  I kept a few notes in my journal though, particularly of one eventful day...

It had been a near perfect trip so far – upgrades at all three safari camps we’d visited, plenty of wildlife photos; even the couple of thousand kilometres travelled by  4 x 4 had given a fascinating insight into life in rural Zambia.  Admittedly though, we were experiencing Africa mostly from a  distance, viewed through the car window or from the safety of a safari vehicle or camp.  We were getting used to it, accustomed to it – a warm and friendly place, it seemed.  There had been a little edginess in Chipata, perhaps – in an exclusively black town with not a European face in sight we felt very much the outsiders; the kids outside the supermarket were more aggressively acquisitive than any we’d encountered elsewhere, demanding anything they could see through the car windows, departing with a casual “fuck you” when we ignored them.  All the same, elsewhere, the sight of schoolkids immaculately turned out, besuited men on bicycles, huge numbers of churches, made Africa seem a friendly and welcoming place.  Although in the south of the country, in the villages towards the Zambezi, we’d seen kids standing by the dirt road with arms outstretched, palms upwards and sullen faces - a gesture of demand, not of begging – those occasions were easily outnumbered by images of children smiling and waving.  But the edginess is there all the same; mostly harmless as Douglas Adams put it in “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, but not completely so.

Our Africa experience became a little more authentic on the way back from Livingstone to Lusaka.  When travelling these roads, forewarned is forearmed – it’s best to leave time for “eventualities” and  set out before dawn, arriving in the early afternoon - better to arrive early and kick your heels for 3 hours at the far end, than have an incident and still be travelling after dark.  Suppose an overturned lorry blocked the entire road – cliff on one side, ravine on the other? It could easily happen; it nearly did on our way down.  The road was unusually wide at that point; had it been narrower, there would have been no way round, and we’d simply have had to wait until it could be cleared.  Fortune smiled on us on that occasion, but it might not next time.

So ideally you build in several hours contingency, and if events eat into that contingency, the risk and the sense of unease start to build.  Plan A was to spend 2 nights in Livingstone, enjoying a touch of luxury; tasting, for a moment, life as the other half live.  We’d arrive at mid-day, go for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi, then on the following morning visit Victoria falls and the craft market for souvenir shopping, take tea at the Royal Livingstone Hotel in the afternoon, and return the following day.  Still under canvas, mind – a touch of luxury, yes, but only a touch all the same.

We didn’t get our now-customary upgrade this time; perhaps we should have taken that as an indication that our fortunes were changing.  Just a standard safari-style tent with typical campsite communal washing facilities.  Then, on the cruise, Rachel almost passed out, and spent a sizeable part of the time on her back on the floor, head on a cushion, feet propped up in classic recovering-from-fainting pose.  Thankfully she soon recovered, but she was ill again during the night, and that same night my wife also succumbed to the African equivalent of Delhi-belly, on this one occasion when our safari tent didn’t come with en-suite facilities.  (Yes, there is such a thing as a tent with en-suite facilities!)  An already unpleasant situation wasn’t helped by the need to take multiple trips to the shared ablution facilities on a very cold night.  Cream teas and mountains of cake seemed a risky indulgence for two dodgy tummies, so we decided to cut our losses and return to Lusaka after an early (and very cold) visit to the falls.  Still, we should get back to Lusaka by sunset, all being well. 

All being well; but we’d already used up every minute of our contingency time.  We were doing fine until just outside Mazabuka, having covered 350 of the 480km total distance.  I’d been taking a turn at the wheel; we stopped for Paul to take over and he immediately noticed something amiss with the brakes – far too much travel in the brake pedal.  Not being used to the vehicle, and not needing the brakes much anyway, I hadn’t noticed.  We checked the brake fluid – the reservoir was almost empty.  Lying on the road and peering under the car, the first wheel I looked at showed the problem all too clearly – brake fluid sprayed all over the front suspension and inside face of the tyre.  I got Paul to press the brake pedal – a tiny jet of fluid shot out from a pinprick hole in the flexible rubber pipe.  Bad new; very bad news.  Still 2 hours driving to go, not long until it became dark, and no brakes to speak of.  Paul was adamant there was no chance of getting it fixed in Mazabuka “This is Africa; everything takes three times as long.  They’ll say they can fix it, then find they can’t and they wont be able to do anything until tomorrow.  “But we can pay them plenty of dollars”, I say, naively  thinking the prospect of dollars would magically open doors.  “You don’t understand, that’s not how it works here; this is Africa”.

But we had to try.  Now, if you’re going to break down, a couple of km outside the second largest town in Zambia is about the best place to do it, although the timing wasn’t ideal – after 4pm, and everything shuts at 5.  We limped into town, keeping a long way back from any vehicles in front and keeping a wary eye out for street traders with their barrows who seemed oblivious to the traffic, darting from side to side as though it was they who clearly had the right of way, not us.  Maybe according to local custom they had.  I don’t suppose Zambia has a Highway Code, and even if it does, I can’t imagine anyone reads it.  There’s certainly no-one in evidence to enforce it.

We passed a run-down looking shack with “brakes and clutches” painted in black on its once-white walls.  Buildings in Zambia seem to receive one coat of paint in their lifetime; as the building ages, so does the paint.  Most of it is chipped, peeling, faded and dirty, giving the town a well-worn, seen-better-days look.  Outside, a group of men were fitting tyres that looked almost-but-not-quite completely bald onto rusty looking truck wheels, working by hand with hammers and tyre levers.  Probably just as well the proprietor couldn’t help us – I don’t think I’d want to drive a vehicle whose brakes had been on the receiving end of their style of mechanical attention.  He directed us across town to Autoworld.

They had no spare brake pipe, but we bought a couple of bottles of brake fluid, optimistic that we’d somehow get to the point where we could use it.  Next door to Autoworld was a very up-market looking (for Mazabuka) workshop.  Very new, with pristine paintwork, fitted with several ramps and modern tyre fitting gear – it wouldn’t have looked out of place back home; indeed, it would have put many such UK enterprises to shame.  We spoke to the mechanic working under a car raised up on ramps.  He called over a colleague, a young, burly cheerful looking Zambian; we explained our predicament, he took a look, saw the problem and wheeled over a trolley jack to take a closer look.  Easy to see the problem; harder to fix.  Not only had they no spare pipe, but after half an hour of struggle he couldn’t get the old pipe off.  At least if he could have done that, he could plug the end and we could drive with brakes on 3 out of 4 wheels.  Illegal in the UK of course, and maybe here too, but with no spares in town, what else can you do?  Anyway, this is Africa...

But as I say, he couldn’t get the old pipe off.  5 o’clock, and everywhere around was shutting down; shutters coming down, people packing up and walking home, and the sun edging ever closer to the horizon.  An unexpected overnight stay was looking more and more likely.  So this is the real Africa -  a fatalistic, shoulder-shrugging  approach to life.  Shit happens, and you just have to deal with it.  Vehicle breakdowns, no spare part – what choice is there but to wait as long as it takes until a bodged repair can be effected?  Broken down buses and lorries by the roadside had been a standard feature of our travels; several times we’d passed a bus - the ubiquitous sky-blue Toyota HiAce - at the roadside, passengers disembarked and wandering around or sitting on a pile of luggage whilst the driver had his head under the bonnet or was jacking up a wheel.  Goodness knows how they manage to make repairs, but evidently they do, otherwise the roadsides would be littered with abandoned buses.

This is in the centre of Lusaka – the only photo I have of these buses.

My mind wandered over the possibilities as the mechanic struggled to undo the recalcitrant nut. (To his credit, he obviously knew that to round off the flats on the pipe fixing nut would be disastrous and must be avoided at all costs).  The best outcome – a full repair – was already off the table.  Next best would be successfully to plug the end of the pipe and proceed with 3 brakes – but would it be better to travel to Lusaka in the dark, or to find lodgings overnight and wait until morning?  Then there was the worst case scenario – “Sorry, I can’t do anything” – and we’d be stranded.  No RAC, no friend to call, or none less than 2 hours drive away, a vehicle that couldn’t even be moved, and a big question mark over the  forthcoming trip through Namibia to the coast for Paul, Rachel and two friends who were due to arrive on the plane we’d be flying out in.

The sun dropped, the mechanic struggled, and I fretted.  So, this is the real Africa.  I joked to Paul that his African adventure wouldn’t be complete without this, but he wasn’t amused.  At that moment we’d both happily have swapped African adventure for European security and predictability.

But perseverance paid off – the offending nut finally gave in to dogged attempts to release it and now the way was clear to patching us up enough to limp back to Lusaka.  The mechanic called over  an older, wiry looking African in grease-stained jacket and trousers rather than overalls, who I took to be the boss.  He paid little attention to us, but sat on the ground, one leg either side of the wheel hub as he devised a way of inserting a plug inside the junction between the fixed and flexible parts of the brake pipe.  For all the fact that the repair was clearly a bodge, he gave the impression of having many years of successful bodging behind him, with an intuitive understanding of how to keep old vehicles functioning, if not exactly roadworthy.  I trusted him; but after all, we had little choice.

I wasn’t altogether convinced though at this point that continuing our journey was the wisest choice; wouldn’t it have been safer to stop overnight – the Brandt guide identified a lodge with en suite facilities just a few hundred yards away – and finish the journey in daylight?  But the prospect of another night in a strange bed and with unknown sanitary arrangements was distinctly unappealing to my wife, whose tummy was still feeling distinctly fragile, so we settled up - K100,000, about £12 for well over an hour’s work  - and set out.

Paul gingerly tested the brakes, not too sure what to expect.  Not so hard as to be too severe a test for the temporary repair, but hard enough to be sure that they worked.  Of course, with only one front wheel having a working brake, the car pulled strongly to one side under braking, and the heavier the braking, the more violent the pull.  The trouble was, it was the left hand brake that wasn’t working, which meant that an emergency stop would send us veering violently over to the right – straight into the path of any oncoming traffic.  It was manageable to a degree, by remembering to steer hard left when braking, but when you’re tired and driving by instinct, who’s to say you’ll remember and react in time?  We set a speed of a steady 60kph.  Half what we might do in daylight and with four good brakes, but anything faster seemed pushing our already stretched luck too far.

The reason most Europeans avoid driving at night in Zambia soon became apparent.  Most of the traffic at night is juggernauts travelling to and from South Africa and few bother to dip their headlights as they approach.  Night driving becomes a game of Russian roulette; all you can see ahead is two blinding lights surrounded by darkness; all you can do is steer, hopefully, to the left of the lights, praying that there is indeed vacant tarmac in the blackness ahead of your wheels; praying that the driver is actually awake and on his own side of the road.  The roads are unlit, there are no white lines or cats-eyes at the centre or the verges, just a strip of grey tarmac with indistinct edges merging into the bush.  The  Nissan Patrol, for all its strengths, has abysmal lights that barely seem better than a pocket torch.  Not only do you hope there are no vehicles hidden by the glare of oncoming lights, there could be travellers on foot or bicycle who have chosen the tarmac for their bed.  The nights are chilly, and tarmac stays warm from the sun’s daytime heat long after night has fallen.

Imagine this scene at night, blinded by the undipped lights of the oncoming truck; 
imagine the reason for those wavy skid-marks.

We nearly came a cropper once when we encountered a small truck, full beam blazing, parked facing us on our side of the road.  Had we steered to the left of that one, we’d have ploughed into the group of passengers who were milling around at the side of the road.  Just as well there was nothing coming as we swerved over to the other side of the road to avoid them.

Bus breakdowns are no respecters of daylight hours either.  We passed a group sitting around a fire they’d lit beside their immobile bus; just another feature of everyday life in Africa.  Presumably they’d be spending the night there.  Fears of the night started to creep in.  Suppose the worst wasn’t yet over?  Suppose the bodge failed and we were left without brakes altogether?  Suppose we were marooned in the middle of the bush, at night, with no source of aid, limited water supplies and no means to carry out repairs; suppose we misjudged one of those gambles with the blinding headlights?  It wasn’t a comfortable journey; I counted down the minutes – we’d be maintaining this level of stress for another 3 hours yet.

Amazingly, in spite of the woeful  inadequacy of the Nissan’s lights, we managed to avoid the pot-holes which litter these roads.  Now another problem loomed – fuel was running low.  Normally we’d be carrying a couple of large jerrycans, but the trip from Lusaka to Livingstone can be made on one tankful, and in any case garages are more frequent on this stretch of road than most – it is the main route in from South Africa.  Frequency is relative though – in this case, it means three or four petrol stations over the 500km of the trip – an average of 100km between each.  We should have had enough, but we’d been using the aircon during the day since one of the window winders had broken and the window couldn’t be wound down, plus the 60kph crawl was in 4th gear, not 5th,  increasing our fuel consumption.  Running out of fuel would not be good.

Our experience of Zambian people had been good thus far – friendly people, smiling faces, smartly dressed eager schoolchildren.  But now we saw another face.  Perhaps it was just the ancient fear of the night, the strain of the journey, our tiredness.   The petrol station forecourt now seemed a threatening place, at least to our eyes.  Small groups milled around, their purpose unknown.  Those children who looked so appealing in daylight now crowded round, surrounding the car, knocking on windows, trying to sell us nuts or smoked fish.  Their faces were no longer smiling.  Older people hovered behind them in the shadows.  Just as you’d choose to keep a safe distance from the youths who congregate at night in places like bus stations in the UK, so we felt a similar sense of threat from these who chose to spend their evening on this forecourt, for reasons unknown.

In reality of course we probably had nothing to fear; those same faces in daylight would have carried no menace, just a minor annoyance.  All the same, we were mightily relieved to have filled up and be on our way.  Just 95km to go now.

We’d taken the opportunity to have the windscreen cleaned too, and the scatter of light from the oncoming headlights wasn’t as bad as before.  The remainder of the journey passed without incident; the closer we got to Lusaka, the safer we felt.  Only when familiar sights came in view did we feel we could finally relax.  We unloaded the car whilst Paul went straight for the whisky, poured himself a very large – and well-deserved -  glass, and collapsed, eyes glazed, into a chair.

I started by saying that our fortunes had seemed to take a turn for the worse, but in hindsight good fortune had still followed us.  The problem with the brakes had revealed itself without scaring us shitless in a moment of hard braking panic; we’d driven straight up to a place capable of giving us a temporary fix on the spot, they’d even been prepared to stay an hour later than usual in order to do so; the seized nut had unseized at just the right vital moment; a fuel station was open just when we needed it.  So maybe our luck did hold out after all.  Or maybe those prayers I had no right to offer, but did so anyway, were answered.

And we did have a truly authentic African experience.

More photos from the trip can be seen here:


  1. Phew. You lived to tell the tale. Amazing story well told. That lion photo made me gasp.

  2. Thanks for dropping by Lucy. It must be the wonders of RSS - I post nothing nothing for months, and within minutes of putting up a new post, you arrive. Good to know I have friends out there :)

  3. Brilliant story and very well written! Gotta love Africa, please don't make it a once in a lifetime expedition, there's still so much to see :) Maybe something a little calmer this time, like South Africa or Namibia.

  4. Thanks Jess- I totally fell in love with Africa, would love to go back some day. No plans yet, but who knows...