Into the Jungle – When the wheel comes off

By now the rhythm of the day had settled down.  The novelty of travel had already gone, the thought of the miles to go put to the back of one’s mind.  I had the front seat of our vehicle and we were at the back of the convoy at present.  Haba had disappeared into the far distance.  Both his speedy driving and Stephanie’s sense of urgency to get us to our destination by nightfall spurring them on.  I was taking occasional perusals at my soggy map and looking out of the window.  The light was glary up ahead and I had put down the visor which contained a small vanity mirror.  The road was generally smooth but we would go over rough parts or bounce on a small pothole.  So I was not particularly bothered when I felt a large jolt and I merely glanced up and, through the vanity mirror, caught sight of one of our wheels bouncing away on the road behind us.  I turned and looked at our driver who had a look of focused terror on his face.  But he kept his nerve, and instead of the natural reaction of braking hard, he saw the road ahead was clear and he gently glided us along the road naturally slowing against the tarmac.  We could feel it was the front left tyre that had escaped as the vehicle gradually leaned down to that corner, and when he was only going about 30kmh-1 , we could hear the brake discs grinding along the road surface.

And then we stopped.

And then the car’s occupants all looked at each other and said – “what just happened?”  I glanced again in the mirror and saw the wheel bounce off the road on a slight curve, barely missing two children in the village we had just passed through.

The two other rental cars had not noticed immediately that we had stopped, and of course Stephanie and the STEWARD vehicle were down the road.  I tried to ring Stephanie on the local mobile phone I had.  My first words to here were “We’ve had a crash” but almost immediately was thoughtful enough to add “but no-one was hurt”.

Indeed it was a miracle that all four of us stepped away from the car without a scratch on us.  The car was leant over at a 30 degree angle and was resting on the now slightly buckled brake disc.  The driver had walked down the road to retrieve the wheel from the field behind us.  The rental cars had now noticed we were not following and had returned.  Hugo warned us how dangerous it was on these roads – as we knew already that we had been travelling at very fast speeds; almost anything coming along the road might not have time to stop.  We were lucky that we were out in the open so only the most foolish drivers would not notice something was problematic up a long way ahead of time. He cut a big pile of brush from the side of the road and laid it down in both directions – a common way that road accidents and blockages are marked on African roads.

About ten minutes later the STEWARD vehicle returned.  We were still assessing the damage and trying to see if there was already damage to the wheel that had caused it to fall off, or whether something on the road had made us lose the wheel.  I still go for bad maintenance on the vehicle being the prime problem.  The road was not that bad, and it was more the cumulative effect of hundreds of shakes and bangs all morning that had caused the bolt holding the wheel in place to the axle to sheer, ripping off the rest of the bolts and allowing the wheel to come loose from the vehicle.

Looking back along the road, you could see the white scratch that the brake disc had made as it ground along the ground.

The axle was damaged; no spare wheel was going to safely be attached to it just now.  Stephanie was aware that we were now an hour and a half behind schedule.  This was not just some time and motion issue.  It was essential we reached Kabba before 6 pm where we had to cross a wide river and the only way across was by ferry hand pulled by villagers.  They knocked off at that time and it would cost a lot more money to get them from their bars or beds to come and take us across.  And we still had a meeting in Makeni to have, plus lunch, before we reached the ferry.

As far as you can go – First introductions

We came out of the shed and past a few barriers to where a hundred or so people were waiting.  In amongst the parked cars there were smiles and looks of surprise.  Families coming down specifically to pick up one or two passengers would recognize old friends coming ashore.  You never get that at an airport.  One saint had come back for a surprise visit to St Helena as his mother was having a landmark 70th birthday.  He was working as a merchant seaman and had got dressed up in his best uniform to doorstep her later that day.  My first contact on St Helena was Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, an English lady who had conducted environmental research down on the island, fallen in love with a saint and now was a permanent resident.

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Meeting and greeting

She handed me a set of keys and showed me the car she had hired for my stay on St Helena, an old blue escort.  I loaded up my case and then looked out for her small truck to go in convoy to my accommodation.  With some apprehension, I started the engine.  Already overwhelmed by the change of pace from the ship, I was now, in my woozy state, being asked to drive the precarious roads.  There was a lot of busy activity down here on the wharf as gradually the passengers were taken away by their hosts, and some of the retailers and business owners of the island were eagerly getting their hands on long awaited perishable goods to whisk them off to their freezers and storehouses.

I negotiated the narrow gateway into the town, passed the main square and then almost immediately parked up in the centre of main street.  Rebecca wanted to introduce me to the office I was to use as my base.  She worked part time for the National Trust of St Helena, and they had a lovely old building in the centre of the main street.  In a high ceilinged room there were a couple of desks and a large round table.  I was introduced to the darling Phyllis, who was the administrator for the trust, and a statuesque English lady called Cathy.  They knew all about people coming off the ship and kept the introductions to a minimum – they could see I was a bit shell shocked.  We then popped over the road to a small supermarket and I bought a couple of essentials to get me through the next day or two, and then Rebecca led me out of town to my accommodation for the next three weeks.

 Our route took us up one of the two main ways out of Jamestown.  Called Side Path, it zigzags up the ridge on the east side of Jamestown, the views becoming more and more spectacular as you ascend.   But I kept my eyes firmly on the road ahead and where Rebecca was heading.   While the cliff faces around Jamestown were almost bare, I saw that up on the ridge there was a scrubby vegetation, and as we went higher it got greener.  By the time we reached the scattered houses which make up a district called Alarm Forest, I was driving through thick woodland and open green pastures.  We turned off the main road and skirted a small valley before rising to another ridge.  Where the road turned at right angles, Rebecca turned off to the right and we descended a well made gravel track, a little overgrown but firm and with few potholes.  It hairpinned left and dropped steeply into an open pine woodland and stopped in an open car park beneath a substantial house frontage.