Monday, June 7, 2010

Herding Cats...

Two trucks, 4 Landcruisers, 10 Tanzanians and 1 Talbot notionally in charge of this rock show of a 6 day convoy across Tanzanian. Breakdowns, bribes, bad fuel, bad food, bad police, bad roads and big fun… But first before we get to that I’ve been a bit tardy with my blog entries but I’m happy to report that is isn’t lack of adventures to write about. On the contrary, it’s due to being too busy doing stuff worth blogging about to have time to actually blog it but here are a few highlights of a :
  • A month in Cambodia catching up with good friends including a few who dropped in from Australia including few days in Siem Reap and wandering (also wondering) about Angkor Wat. It’s an enormous, enormous complex that had a million residents when London was a town of 50,000. Mind bogglingly big and fascinating to visit
  • Also had a pleasant few days in Sihanoukville on the coast and got out to my favourite beach resort to laze in hammocks and swim on a private beach of an island paradise
  • Shopping and driving the length of the UK to visit relatives in Somerset, dropping into Surrey to start a company in Gibraltar and picnicking at sunset at Lands End
  • Seven days hiking the Rob Roy Way in Scotland. The original plan was to give a presentation at a conference in Lisbon then hike a few days on the coast of Portugal but the volcanic ash cloud put paid to that idea. RRW was a great alternative though. Stayed at pubs and B&B’s along the way and Scottish pubs would have to be some of the best in the world
As for Tanzania and the convoy to Mibango… Frankly it was like herding cats most days. Sometimes very frustrating but a wonderful adventure. You do your best to make things work out and the military experience definitely helped but most of the time you just have to keep your cool and roll with the punches. Valerian had the quotable quote of the journey when we were chatting about the lack of progress in yet another long queue for yet another accident when he said “If you want progress in Tanzania – you’ll just get hypertension...” So true. After 6 days on the road I’ve learned all sorts of things about myself, life, Tanzania and things that I’d do differently (mostly send someone else lol – just kidding). Long, long days though with 16, 11, 15, 12, 11 and 6 hours on the road respectively including driving through till midnight a couple of times. Not that we’d planned to drive after dark – just the opposite. The first day took till 4pm to get a truck loaded and then 8 hours to cover 200km (don’t ask – the blog isn’t long enough to cover the events and laughs of that day but trust me - if you don’t own a large chunk of patience you’ll find one or burst in Tanzania lol).

And as for the roads… They just got worse & worse every day. Starting with Dar traffic (diabolical) at 15km/h average and ending with 4WD tracks (bone jarring but fun) at 15km/h average speed… In between, Tanzanian roads are dangerous places and especially so at night. Overtaking on blind corners is the standard practice and every km or so there is a pushbike or vehicle without lights popping up out of the darkness as yet another semi-trailer speeds towards you with lights on high beam. In the first 15 hours we saw the remains of 7 truck accidents that wer so recent the wreckage was still fresh. The first was typical - 2 large trucks, 1 car: 5 fatalities. Very messy. It had happened only a minute or two before we arrived on the scene and we waited for 3 hours before we finally drove out past the oncoming queue which was over 10km long and occupying both lanes of a 2 lane highway. It’s a crazy place. Tanzanian traffic is crazy dangerous. Not as chaotic as Cambodia but far more dangerous. I drove the entire 6 days as I trust my driving above most others but it absolutely pays to keep your wits about you. Absolutely. The highways are good in eastern Tanzania but life is cheap and driver training obviously expensive.

Our truck drivers were a law unto themselves - or at least so they thought. A complete pain in the arse frankly. We hired two trucks to transport 5,000 litres of fuel plus startup supplies for the season. One driver in particular always whinging for more money. Too many tales of woe from that eedyit to bore you but no matter how generous we were with him he still wanted more... And more... And more... Trucks were also slow and police cash-points (they call them ‘check points’ - aye... Checking your wallet!) were ridiculously common. Had problems with fuel from Franko the friendly Oilcom man again in Mpanda. I shouldn’t have been surprised really - 3 out of last 3 refuels there have been contaminated, hence why we brought in 5,000 litres of diesel and petrol all the way from Dar. On top of flat tyres, recalcitrant truck drivers, corrupt police and accidents, after filling up on Franko’s fuel, we had to stop every 30 minutes to clean out blocked fuel filters which meant that it took us 9 hours (instead of the usual 3) to drive from Mpanda to Mwese.

We arrived at sunset in time to spend 2 hours unloading which made us waaaaay too late to drive the 4WD tracks to Mibango. They are tough in the daylight but in the dark – not even worth thinking about. Valerian pulled some rabbits out of hats though and we were all housed and fed by 930 that night. Mwese is up high at 1,400m ASL and the skies are crystal clear. So many stars that I was transfixed looking at them. If it wouldn’t have given offence to the homeowner who had generously offered a bedroom, I would have slept outside under their canopy in the cool clear air.

I bought myself an XR400R (dirtbike) from a mate in northern Tanzania and we travelled with it on the back of a pickup for 5 days as far as Mwese. At Mwese we’d already been on dirt roads for 2 days but the track gets even worse so we happily waved goodbye to our whinging truck drivers and their helpers (albeit with their usual demands for more money). We took the bike off the pickup and loaded stuff from one of the trucks in it’s place as well as onto the back of another landcruiser pickup that met us from camp. Making room on the truck was my justification to ride the last 53km through some great tracks with all sorts of terrain. Hills, rocks, mud, ruts, sand, river crossing and fast open sections – you name it, our main supply route has all of it. Took it slowly (at least relatively so) as I wasn’t wearing any armor or bike boots plus had to keep stopping for the convoy and have a 14 minute nap on the track every 15 minutes while waiting for the convoy to catch up lol. We’d already had lots of work done on the tracks so they were in much better condition than the last time I drove them in the wet season but it still took an hour longer than the usual 3 hours it takes.

I had a hoot on the bike though. Took it through one river which was up to the tank and we handled it fine. The last river just a few km from our camp was chest deep though and in full flood. Normally it’s knee deep and placid but at the tall end of the wet season – not so. Hence we loaded the bike onto the local ferry (a dugout canoe) but after 10 minutes of trying to balance it across the canoe, the whole thing looked likely to end in tears if the canoe actually left the bank. Eventually we decided the smart move was to unload a pickup at camp and send it back to ferry the bike across the river on the back of the 4WD. About 10 of the locals & staff came back from camp with the pickup to say hi and to watch the spectacle - and to help, so it turned into the usual gaggle of good clean fun. I rode the last 5km to camp from the river and gave it a good fang which was fun, fun, fun :-) Took it for another wee blat the following day to check the airstrip and am loving every minute on it. I’ll find an excuse every day to get on it including mapping some tracks and doing my visits to the flycamps.

Last Sunday I took the bike down to Lake Tanganyika (about 25km away). Some of the guys wanted to go down to pick up some fresh fish so we had 2 4WD’s and the new expat geo came along on the camp’s XL125. He’d just spent a year motorbiking India so was good company for a fellow bike nut and we had a ball. There was even actually a work related reason for the trip. We went down to buy some fish for the camp, check and the repair the track and do some driver training as well as area familiarization for our newcomers. Lokoma is out nearest point on Lake Tanganyika and is a stopping point for the MV Liembe ferry which is (among other places) the quickest way to Kigoma, the capital of our district. The catch is that the ferry only runs once per fortnight and is often chartered for weeks at a time by the UN to run refugees across the lake from whichever neighbouring country is most in need. Apparently it’s a great trip to do and in a past life it was a World War I German warship. The Germans carted it in pieces, rebuilt it and then sunk it at the end the war. The British refloated it and it’s been basically in service ever since. Michael Palin reckoned it was a highlight so that’s good enough for me even if I don’t have a film crew to carry my bags lol.
We’ve decided that every second Sunday will be ‘adventurous training’ as a kind of ‘day off’ but also to practice casevac, winching, mapping, driving, etc, etc. Us expats are gradually learning Swahili as well and basically living the dream in boys own adventure land :-)

Just as an aside, after I bought the bike I got our local fix-it man in Dar to transfer the rego but the hilarious part is that the Tanzanian Revenue Authority need me to have 3 names. I only have two. So Gerald took the initiative and gave them three names for their records. The bike is now registered in the name of “Julian Talbot Tim” lol lol. Just gotta laugh sometimes.

Picking the bike up from the truck that brought it down to Dar was also another great yarn. The nearest that the semi trailer could get to our offices was a few km away so I had to go collect it from a service station at an interchange. John, the guy who escorted it down for my mate almost wiped out a crowd of bystanders in spectacular fashion that morning before I’d even ridden it. It’s probably not really funny but no one got hurt and I’m still cracking myself laughing at the memory of it. I brought our medic with me to drive the car back from Ubungo but he seemed a bit averse to driving and said he’d prefer to ride the bike so I thought to myself “why not?” When he got on the bike though and had to say “so this is the clutch?” and “is this the brake?” the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. Bear in mind that the XR400 is an absolute beast of an enduro bike. Big, powerful and fast. When Bernard had stalled it 3 times just trying to get 20m to the fuel bowser I decided that I’d be riding the bike and he’d be driving no matter how he felt nor how bad he was at driving. Meanwhile John had jumped on to restart the bike and decided to ride it over to the bowser. Well....... He let the clutch out with a bang and promptly endo’d the bike in spectacular fashion, landed it upside down, clipping a couple of the bystanders who’d gathered to watch the mzungu and 2 locals faffing with the bike. Another 15 of us leapt for our lives as he managed to keep hold of the handlebars and with it still running, bounced the back tyre off a huge metal sign which sent a few more people flying for cover as he did a perfect 360 donut before he pulled the clutch in and brought it to a halt. Quite spectacular really and very impressive if he’d meant to do it. Lol lol. Anyway, no-one was hurt and the bike is fine. I think he was a bit shaken but kept it together well. The crowd loved it anyway.

Meanwhile we're sitting in the senior mess as I write this. We've just finished dinner and I’m writing this as the sounds of the night and the quiet hum of the generator provide background to animated discussion at the table. I’m being rude and finishing this blog so my colleague Tim Sharp (senior geo)  piped up that I should write that he “thinks MapInfo is a piece of shit and is about to put a geologists hammer through his laptop” so just for you Tim – as requested. Tim’s actually a pretty placid guy and he said it with a laugh. Just one more thing that takes longer than you’d otherwise expect. TIA (This Is Africa) after all. Tim is typically more interested in looking at rocks of sampling fine red wine than messing with IT stuff but he’s spent the afternoon wrestling with a (still unresolved) ‘undocumented feature’ of MapInfo so perhaps some residual frustration from the day on the computer showing through. Good glass of red cured that pretty quick though.

Matthias who was our cook last year is now a geo-technician this season so we’ve got a new cook (Laurencia) who used to cook at Mahale National Park and she’s a fundi for cooking mzungu food. Peter the new geo is expecting an email from his mother any day now with her best banana cake recipe so the great food is probably only going to get better. Pete is a pom (a good bloke though so we don’t hold that against him) and has been going crazy this afternoon trying to set up the pay-for-view satellite television system so that we (he especially) can watch the World Cup when it starts tomorrow – but it’s no simple task and I could write a blog entry about his escapades today alone. Hilarious and frustrating. A comedy of errors and his ‘helpers’ have been helping him to make the job harder lol.
Setting up the camp has been an all consuming task for most of us and 5 of us have been down with malaria this week, myself included. It’s no fun but luckily 3 days of tablets and some long nights sleep has sorted it out. We’ve also been doing lots of training including first aid and driver training especially. I’ve been labelled a fundi camba (rope expert) for my knot tying lessons just for showing the guys the figure 8 and truckies knot. Basic stuff but lots of fun. They freaked out at first when I got them to tie the knots blindfold but we had a good laugh and everyone managed to do them blindfold – just as well coz late at night in the African bush on the side of a hill having to tighten down a loose load without a torch is not that far fetched a scenario. Doing river crossings and handbrake starts on a steep hill near camp was another fun day so despite the long hours and challenging training we’re having fun.

We’re off on Tuesday to scout out some flycamp locations nearby which will mean a night out camping in the scrub which we’re all looking forward to. Fireside chats and jaffles for dinner after a long day hiking up and down hills ‘kicking rocks’ (a technical term for what geologists do), scouting tracks and picking a location for a 2 month flycamp base for soil sampling later this month. Should be another fun day out…

Lot’s more to write in due course but I have to save some stuff to write for later.