Friday, December 4, 2009

I drove the President today...

Wheels spinning, engine racing - we’ve stopped sliding backwards but that’s not a good thing. The VX has gotten crossed up in the ruts and now we’re sliding sideways down the steep and muddy hillside. “Not good, not good” I’m thinking, as the top heavy, 2 tonne vehicle hooks a wheel in another deep hole. It half bounces, half slides out of it but we’re still sliding, sliding, sliding…

Earlier that day, I’d been driving the President of Tanzania in glorious sunshine. We were still bouncing through the ruts on a tiny track but were travelling forwards at the time (as one should by rights be doing). In the rear view mirror he could be seen sitting in statesmanlike grandeur in the back of the VX Landcruiser. The rest of us in the car form his close personal protection (CPP) team of bodyguards. He’s in the back seat flanked by two burly security officers, with a mzungu security professional driving and the security team leader in the passenger seat.

At least that’s the impression we give for about 3 seconds before we burst into laughter again. In fact, the man in the back is Valerian, our senior technician. Our VX is identical to the Tanzanian Presidents vehicle and some kids along the track call out jokingly “The Presidents car”. Valerian translates the joke for me and looking in the mirror I see him wedged between two burly security guards so I come back with “then that would make you Mr President…”. Immediately the five of us puff out chests out to look suitably professional before we burst out laughing after a few seconds. For those few seconds we could have been mistaken us for a Presidential party but right now we look like a load of giggling loons.

We don’t normally travel with a phalanx of security guards. The place isn’t so dangerous that we need CPP team with us. It just happens that we’re transporting our three security guards to Mwese so that they can catch a bus home. They’ve been at camp for about 4 months now and keen to see their families, not to mention to see a change of scenery. The Mzungus and field crews get out and about regularly but the security team spend 99% of their time in camp so the place must feel like Groundhog Day for them. Even the three day bus ride to Mwanza will make for a welcome change.

We’re making good time on the drive today. The rains have softened the roads and made the ride smoother so sections of the road can be travelled at speed. There are boggy bits and potholes that would swallow a wilderbeest where we have to drop back to walking speed but on the good sections we rocket along at up to 70km/h.

Coming in to Mwese in mid afternoon it looks about as busy as it ever does. That is to say not at all. Mwese is a collection of about 100 huts and houses. Its heyday was in the late 90’s when there were about 10,000 Rwandan refugees living there. Now there are only about 11 Rwandan families left with about 1,000 Bantu locals in the area. We’ve nicknamed the random gathering of mudbrick buildings that constitute the town centre ‘Wall Street’. Just behind Wall Street is the central market comprising courtyard of wooden tables and some small shops.

The bus from Mwese to Mpanda takes 12 hours to do what we would normally drive in three hours so it leaves first thing each morning and hence the lucky lads get to spend a night in town. We buy some bus tickets on Wall Street then go looking for accommodation for the guys. The first place we try is full - go figure, must be a convention in town? In the end we find a place which is 400m from wall street. I might add, that I’ve discovered there are at least 3 guesthouses, 3 restaurants, a pharmacy and 2 pubs in Mwese. (I’m using these terms in their broadest possible sense you understand.) None of them would I ever have picked from the outside as being what they turn out to be. The buildings are mudbrick (with a tin roof if the owner is wealthy) and have no signs to identify what they are. It’s all based on local knowledge. And I guess, why not when you’re at the end of the bus line and there is next to zip non-local traffic. At the same time, you have to wonder how a guesthouse makes a living if only the locals know it’s a guesthouse?  The only markings on this one suggested a hairdresser.

Sadly for the boys, the local pubs are out of beer so they’ll have to wait for another town to have a drink. In the dry season, trucks run supplies out to Mwese but in the wet, it is only the busses that come through and they are owned by Muslims, who choose to not transport alcohol. That’s their prerogative of course but as you can imagine, it doesn’t endear them to those folk in Mwese who appreciate the odd cleansing ale. Hopefully the guys will have more luck on their 2 overnight stopovers en route to Mwanza. Sooner them than me on that 3 day I’d have to say. Not only are they uncomfortably crowded and missing windows but the safety record for busses here is about as bad as it could be. Makarani is still bears huge scars on his face and head from a bus accident years ago that put him out of action for about four months. Trains run in other parts of the country and are more reliable but bring extra food – they have been known to break down in the middle of nowhere for up to 3 days at a time.

We drop the guys off at their accommodation then head off as we need to get back before dark, at which point the roads become an order of magnitude more difficult. The drive there and back in one day feels like a long drive but it’s a lot of fun if you like big views, amazing sights and 4WD’ing. Much though I enjoy it, I let Valerian drive on the way back though. We don’t have any passengers and the practice will be good for him before his four week drivers course next month. He’s 29 years old but has only been driving for 2 months and all of it out here. As the wet season comes on, it’s getting trickier and trickier. Fortunately his driving is improving daily but going down ‘Z Hill’ I’m shall we say, focused? I’m ready at any moment to jump in with advice (orders really) if he (i.e. we) look like getting into trouble as sliding off some of one of those edges could be bad for the roof of the vehicle.

Valerian does a good job of Z Hill though and we survive unscathed with all going well till we hit the Lubalisi River crossing. The river is up and it’s had a bit of rain on the track which makes the exit slippery and his inexperience shows. I have to ask him to stop as he’s about to enter the river and ask him gently whether he thinks low range would be a good idea? On reflection, he thinks it would be a good idea and changes down. We get across OK but he just hasn’t enough momentum on the way out of the creek and we start to slide on the steep and slippery exit. He slows. I say (loudly) “keep going, don’t stop, just let the tyres bite in” but it’s too late and all momentum is lost. We’re halfway up the bank with the brakes on and he has a couple more goes at getting out but unfortunately hasn’t any experience with hill starts and we end up sideways. The back end of the VX is pointing at an angle to the causeway out to a deep part of the river and it’s clear we’ve only got one more chance to get it right. One more slide backwards and we’re stuck in the river with nothing handy to winch off. I for one don’t feel like digging in the spare tyre for a winching point if I don’t have to. With regret at having to do it to him, I explain we’ve only got one last shot and ask if he’d mind if I have a go. Turns out he’s relieved to let me have a go and almost forgets to put the handbrake on as he just about leaps out of the drivers seat. It takes a bit of doing but I straighten it up and reverse onto the causeway to get a run up. Up on flat ground again I give the drivers seat back to him – but a little prematurely as it turns out…

About 5 minutes down the track and only 5 minutes from camp, we come to ‘the obstacle’. A muddy, slippery, clay, rutted grooved and rather steep hill which in the dry even the worst bit takes perhaps 10 seconds to drive up. Today that section took us and extra 39 minutes and 50 seconds.

Anyone who has been in the same predicament will agree that sliding backwards and/or sideways down a muddy rutted hillside with four wheels spinning is a disconcerting experience. At least it was for me. Even more so when it’s on a tiny track in the middle of the African jungle on sunset. More underwhelming still, when you’re in the passenger seat of a rookie driver. Walking the final 5 km was starting to look like a real option. Rolling onto our roof was equally looking like an option and my suggestions to “keep the revs up” and “steer into it” seemed hilariously doomed to provoke the opposite response from the big Tutsi.

After the river crossing Valerian was obviously feeling cautious and had taken it nice and slow approaching the hill. Too slow. Once into the ruts and with the fresh rain, there is just no traction to be had. I’m pleased to say that we eventually came to rest upright but wedged firmly between the banks on either side of the track. Despite valiant efforts consisting of much engine revving, it was beyond either of us to drive it out. Perhaps I was a bit optimistic letting Valerian drive this section but looking on the bright side, at least he got some great winching experience.

Whether it was a spot of intuition or maybe our military training, Pete and I had tested all the vehicle winches the previous week which was just as well as the winch on this vehicle had been installed incorrectly from new. The plastic wrap was still on the cable drum and it looked just great. Brand spanking new on the outside but as it turned out the electrical contacts hadn’t been connected and clearly no one had thought to test it in the past 2 years. In the end, it took us 4 lengths of cable, 40 minutes and lots of jokes at our own expense as we slipped and tripped in the mud but we got in to Mibango on sunset – just in time to tell our story over the dinner table.

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