I got as close as I dared and worked out what had happened. A lorry had been crossing the bridge and had overloaded what was now apparently a much weakened structure. At a point as far away from the supporting columns as possible the weight of the lorry had made the bridge literally snap and it had plunged into the river, the far part of the bridge had dropped into the river too pulling the south end upwards, and at the same time it had dragged a portion of the north side of the bridge down too. The force of the break had twisted the girders, wrenched out the pins and snapped the weldings. Peering down into the fast flowing river I could just make out the cab of a modern lorry. No-one could tell me whether the driver had survived the traumatic plunge or subsequent immersion.
Not point in dwelling too long on this disaster. The villagers of the settlement on the far side were an industrious lot, had set up a regular ferry service and were doing a brisk trade.
The narrative of this disaster was typical of Sierra Leone. Years of neglect and lack of maintenance meant what minimal infrastructure the country had was deteriorating. Out of the fragments of an emergency, though, there was a spirit of entrepreneurialism, and a solution could be found. If only that spirit could be tapped and more widely fostered the country would become a powerhouse in the region.
How to tap that spirit and who should lead were questions left dangling with me. Any person who had obtained power may give a perception of some benevolence to those who they guarded, but in reality most of the their time was spent finding ways to further themselves and their immediate circle. And so many basic problems in Sierra Leone seemed never to be solved.
The bridge down
no way across for miles
locals resorting to water taxis to ferry back and forth
Another half hour passed and Haba was looking pissed – he had to get back to Madina Oula. The afternoon was well advanced when this guy came back. He never gave us a full explanation of what he had been doing, but claimed that he had been waiting in another place and didn’t know we had arrived. We didn’t argue for long, we needed to keep him sweet enough to get us back to Freetown. This time we did not have the security net of the convoy, we were travelling through the bush all alone. We said our farewells to Haba who was also in a hurry to get back across the border.
At least we knew the road this time, so we could gauge our progress, but the weather closed in hard on us for the first hour or so. At times the driver could barely make out the road ahead through the windscreen even with the wipers on max. He hissed and sighed a good deal, especially when he went through a pothole too fast. Most of the people were under cover as we passed through, but a few were still out carrying wood on their heads, trying to stay away from our splashes as best they could. With all this rain, the one place I was really concerned about was the ropey wooden bridge near Sumata. With the rain pouring the gully might be filled, and the slopes would definitely be slippy.
We could spot the bridge from about a 100m away, and decided to risk the gully route over the rotted planks one. Going down into the gully was no problem; the slope was gentle and although muddy still firm enough to get a grip and the gully itself was fortunately not yet in flood. The up side was mostly rocky outcrop and much steeper and the rain had made it incredibly slippy. Our driver took the best run he could at it, but his wheels spun and we went sideways, almost at one stage going dangerously parallel to the slope. We slid back down to the bottom. He got out in the rain and reccied the road ahead; it was difficult to see whether one patch was more favourable than another. He took another stab, and amidst a lot of smoke, wheelspin and engine noise, we reached the top. We gave him a lot of credit for this. It was already dusk, made darker by the heavy clouds, but we only had a few more kilometres to get to Sumata then another hour to Fintonia and our stop for the night. The relief amongst all four of us was palpable.
No way through
About five minutes later we were passing through a dense piece of forest, the rain still lashing down and the light fading fast. We were chatting quite freely after the tense moments at the bridge. We drove round a corner to find our way completely blocked. The rain had brought down a tree, about 15m high – right across the track and into the herbaceous scrub to our left. We got out the car and took a look – it was far too large for us to bodily move it, the roots on one side, the shrubbery on the other too thick to divert around it, and even if we tried, who knew how soft the ground was there and whether we could get back on the track again.
The road dropped onto a long straight concrete bridge which traversed the myriad of channels and grasses below us. After a couple of miles we reached the main channel of the Luapula River itself and stopped to take a look. The day was still. A hot sun was beating down and only the faintest of breezes was cooling us. There was barely a cloud in the sky and below us this vast body of water was flowing fast but unfussily below us. At first sight it looked as still as a lake, but on closer inspection you could see rapid movements – the swaying of the grasses almost tugged from their roots, small items of debris twisting and turning in eddies but still heading remorselessly downstream. The water itself was reflecting blue but when you looked straight down it was a deep brown; not from sediment but just so deep and rich that light had trouble penetrating more than a few centimetres. A glimpse of a large fish or a shoal of smaller ones was occasionally retrieved. At one stage I looked into the water and watched a crocodile ; its head still but its body gently swaying back and forth to one side of the main channel. I almost shrieked out to the others. They started over to where I was standing and I looked back to check it was still above water. As I looked harder I realised it was not a crocodile at all, but a formation of weeds tangled around the long grass reaching for the river’s surface that all but gave the impression of a resting croc. But by now it was too late; Ian, Mainza and Chris had all gathered on the parapet and were wondering where I was looking. Red faced I confessed, but I did force them to look and admit it could be mistaken for a reptile.
What we did see were hundreds of birds – smaller ones flying in amongst the reeds, a few treading carefully across the hummocks of grass floating on the river, a few herons motionless close to the smaller pools. But overall there was a sense of quiet gravity. Apart from the mass of water moving through the bridge, around was mostly stillness. Even on the road we saw but two cars in ten minutes. And they passed as unspectacularly as they could muster so as not to disturb the solemnity of the scene.
I marvelled one last time at the long grass, its roots thrusting up from the deeps into sunlight to the floating mass of whips and blades. How does such a plant manage in this environment; more than manage, thrive. It must grow at an astonishing rate to stop from being lost in the dark as the river floods every year.
The long straight highway
On the bridge
Reluctantly we got back in our vehicle, which turned around and headed back to Mansa.
More interesting for me was to go on one of the guided tours of the ship. There was always a bridge tour at some point and we were asked to cluster up on the top deck at the appointed time and the Assistant purser would take us in. We were introduced to the first or second officer who conducted the tour. I was surprised at how spacious the bridge was. A series of instruments were spread out across what looked no more than a glorified dashboard. This effect was enhanced by the fact that the device by which the RMS was steered had come off a Ford Escort. We were shown both the old chart table and all the modern equipment. I call it modern but it already had a clunky feel about it even in the early 2000’s. The computers were huge and sat within massive casings, the screens did one thing and one thing alone. Nowadays I am sure you could just plug in a standard laptop and it would have calculated all the ships movements and locations and operations in one go. They did have a small museum of old equipment and they showed us one of the sextants that the first office claimed they still had to use from time to time.
On the Bridge
Glimpse into the control room
So much seemed to be automatic – once the course was set the ship just rolled on for day after day. Only when you got to port was there a lot of activity and even there you got a pilot to guide you in. But out on the open seas there were plenty of hazards. The weather was constantly changing and although this section of the passage was relatively benign there could still be swells. I was told the trip was much more uncomfortable south of St Helena as the effects of the Southern Ocean made it a real roller coaster ride.