I am fortunate enough to have spent 6 years living in South Central Africa, Zambia for much of it. I’m also lucky to have road-tripped throughout Southern & Eastern Africa too. Damn lucky. I have learnt, over time, how to dissuade baboons from tap-dancing on my roof, encourage elephant to defecate in places other than my lawn & leave my Cana Lilies alone (usually highly unsuccessfully to be honest) and how to remove snakes from my bedroom, kitchen cabinets, and bags. Living out in Africa, bush or city, is a daily learning curve and one that can teach you wonders if you just take the time to attend the lessons!
I once found myself broken down in the Grumeti region of the Serengeti National Park, it was during just the wet enough part of dry season that the grasses were still flowing high like golden seaweeds – buffeted by the currents of air blowing off Lake Victoria in the distance. High enough that should anyone, say golden in colour or well camouflaged with rosettes or spots and about human hip height, just happen to be wandering by, well, they would probably need an entire brass band fanfare to announce their arrival. Now, while this is absolutely fantastic for the felids and those others wishing to remain anonymous, it is not that great for the ungainly ‘Mzungu’ or foreigner, on her back trying to remove the back brake cover that has, rather selfishly, partly sheered causing intermittent jolting from the overactive ‘I’m a 4×4 not designed to ever actually go in the bush’ ABS and a hideous screeching noise. Anyone having driven a Land Rover Puma in Africa will immediately feel my pain at this juncture.
I have broken down a lot in Africa, sometimes even in a Toyota if you can believe it, and this was the very first and, in fact until fairly recently, only time, that help has not appeared, miraculously, out of the bush. I once got a round of applause, a stiff drink and cigarette lit for me when my hands shook too much after a 360° spin outside a shebeen on Nakatindi Rd – three years of driving that same route back and forth each day and there had never been a train on the crossing, NEVER. On that particular day, ‘surprise’! When my old Landy gave up the ghost and set itself on fire mid-journey, flames lapping at my naked toes through the un-bunged pedal cable holes in the floor, a little man, at least a hundred or so and seriously doddery, appeared mirage like (possibly something to do with the heat from the rapidly burning engine) from nowhere and threw his blanket and handfuls of sand onto the blaze. Upon having a nasty blow out at 2am in the Mosi Oa Tunya National Park on my way home a ZAWA official teleported to my rescue, gave me his cellphone to call a friend and slept in the cab of my lob-sided Toyota with his AK47 to stop thieves pilfering my kit whilst it lay vulnerable overnight. For all the wild stories, the scary stories, the tales of thievery, pillaging & aggression, Africa and her Africans have looked after and protected me in a way that the first world never could, because the first world is too busy to bother. I’d never had to worry about breaking-down, accidents & alike before, because in the past it had just been OK, something had happened, a plan had been made, a helper, rescuer, pusher, puller, man with a rope, hammer, temporary fan-belt, had just appeared. Just like that. It had always been the way, in Zambia anyway…
So, as no helpful, mechanically minded, apparition appeared within a few minutes of us coming to a halt in the Serengeti, I began to suspect that something was afoot. I had pushed my luck beyond the protective bubble of Zambia, and, where my Chinyanja was, at the time, passable, my Kiswahili was virtually non-existent. Even a beamed-in helper might have struggled to understand my wild gesticulations. We were on our own. In order to get out of the National Park before the gates shut one needs a fully functioning vehicle but we, as previously mentioned, are in a Land Rover, so we will settle for one that moves forwards & backwards and will travel at over 15km an hour. In order to get our vehicle into such a state one needs to disconnect the ABS (easy) and remove the ‘buggered’ brake cover. In order to remove the brake cover one needs to lie partially hidden underneath the vehicle with ones little white chicken flavoured (I’m guessing of-course, after all I am a vegetarian!) legs dangling out like an Angler Fish’s bait, though in this case there is certainly no trap set. I’m not actually intent on attracting biters. Removing the brake housing is easy too, if you have not buried the tool kit at the very bottom of the Tardis that is the back of the Land Rover, if you are not in possession of a small countries worth of katundu (we named one of my bags ‘Brazil’ due to it’s size…), when you are, in fact, only two reasonably normal sized people. To unpack, excavate the archaeological dig that was the back of the car would take hours, possibly days… What to do?
Our plan, if it can be called that, was for my travelling companion to climb atop the roof and scan for tails swimming Jaws-fin like through the vast sea of grasses, to check for advancing herds of anything four legged and to warn me, in plenty of time, of the arrival of any other motorised traffic on this rather narrow gravel road lest my legs get in the way. My job was to laboriously clip away at the broken brake housing with the only thing we can find, what can only be described as a dwarfs pair of snipe nosed pliers, fairy pliers, the smallest sodding pliers I have ever seen and ones that my ‘man-hands’ struggled to deftly manoeuvre. Luckily, knowing that this vehicle would be covering uneven terrain & loose gravel, it has been fitted with thickened, strengthened brake covers. Oh joy. After about ten minutes, of literally snipping a millimetre at a time, both of my hands are cut to ribbons and at this point my ‘cannot see what is out there, lying on my back as vulnerable as can be’ paranoia reaches new heights and I wonder how far away lion need be to smell blood? Are the vultures circling already in anticipation of a meal and letting every other meat-eating creature out there know about this new snack in the Grumeti? Is my fear, mixing with the scent of fresh blood and creating a pheromone that basically says ‘I’m dying, it’s a sure thing, come finish me off’? Almost definitely not, of course, but that is not the point, I still imagine a Velociraptor style three pronged attack at any given moment and have the Jaws theme-tune on playback in my head. My more pressing concern, however, and the new fear on the horizon, is that the handbrake might fail and, while my travelling companion dances some sort of bloody Irish jig on the roof – loosening the notches with every high kick – the car will roll back and trap me, squash me, hold me steady for the hyaena nibbles. This is not how one plans to spend ones afternoon on safari. Not at all!
As it happens my over-active imagination, dehydration and the approaching ‘sundowner o clock without a G&T’ scenario are perhaps causing me to put monsters into the cellar that really are not there. Brake cover removed, ABS disconnected, being eaten alive/squashed under a car averted, we pack away the ‘tool-kit’ and continue on through the Grumeti Corridor towards the park gate.
This part of the park is wonderfully deserted, the main road so horrifically corrugated and terribly cambered that probably most people stay off it if they can. Peppered with many little sandy off-shoots & winding tracks it is lovely little corner to explore, if you are not out of time having broken down of course… The golden grass at this time of year really gives the effect of being at sea, on the sand tracks it feels as though you are sailing through the Serengeti and giraffe become ‘Loch Neck Monsters’ partially hidden, legless, floating by. As we drive through we feel as though we have the park to ourselves, it is all but deserted and even the animals are few and far between, perhaps due to shifters & poachers operating nearby, perhaps the time of year or perhaps they are there, somewhere, in hiding, camouflaged, doing what they do best, and we just can’t see them. I like to think it’s the latter. At least I hope it is.
The park fees in the Serengeti are charged per 24hrs and strictly enforced, we are over two hours late for our allotted 24hr period, this is a potential $150 for the two of us and the car, the cherry on the inedible cake for today most certainly – only narrowly avoid death (perhaps a slight exaggeration) and you get to pay handsomely for it too. Fortunately, after some negotiation and showing off of my shredded hands, some raised eyebrows, some going through every detail of our cause of delay and some typically, agonisingly long pauses, we are allowed to leave without paying any extra. It is a tiny triumph over bureaucracy and every small win counts.
We wave goodbye to our last day in the Serengeti and put the poorly Land Rover back onto the tar, where somewhat ironically it is happier. It’s forbearers would be turning in their junk-yard graves, or perhaps not, for most probably their forbearers, the earlier models, the ones without the brains and the computers and the ABS, are still driving around somewhere in Africa, stoically just getting on with it without the slightest hint of a flashing light or a warning beep. The moral of this story? The lesson learned? – ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ – not so much a moral as a note to Land Rover developers world-wide and ‘Always keep your tool-kit where you can see it’, preferably next to the beer fridge (all good safari vehicles have two fridges so as not to contaminate the alcohol with food) so that you don’t miss out on your sundowners when you break down….Oh, and finally, never watch Jaws ever again… sharks are everywhere, even in the Serengeti!