The three passengers stayed out of the car to lighten the load. The driver walked over the bridge and located the dodgiest of the planks. They were almost all loose, and some had cracks in them that went from one side to the other. While some planks had been laid along the length of the bridge to act as guides for vehicles wheels, these were missing in one place. It was going to be an interesting test, but it had to happen.
The driver headed back up the north bank and turned the car onto the bridge. He wanted enough momentum to get across (and get out of difficulty if something went wrong) but he needed to go slowly enough to avoid making misjudgements and not to shake the bridge to bits.
He gently manoeuvred the car onto the guiding planks and apart from some wobbling as the cross planks bowed under the weight, he made good progress. But then came the part to the left side where there was no guide and I watched in horror as the front left wheel dipped down below the bridge level. But he kept moving and it reappeared within a second and with much relief he got over the bridge and back on to terra firma. At what expense to the bridge’s infrastructure was up to the next vehicle to determine.
Will it get across?
We got back in the car and headed back to Fintonia. We had a celebration last bottle of wine from Gray’s stash with dinner that night and started to pack up. We were heading back to Freetown the next day. We only had to have a final farewell meeting with the Paramount Chief to thank him and the villagers for their tolerance of our work, and to our trainees and set out the plan for Kofi to return to continue the work soon.
I always have mixed feelings moving on from a location like this. I always like moving around and seeing new places so travelling excites me. And I wanted to go to a location where I could use bathrooms like I am used to. Unfortunately some of the mosquito bites had become infected, swollen up badly and had built up pus and I wanted to get some proper treatment. But I could not help but feel humbled by being allowed to stay in this village, to share some times with such friendly people. They may not have the trappings of comfortable life and they obviously strive for something better, but they are by no means foolish or coveting and appreciate and work with what they have. They know they can live here in the wet and dry season, they have water, they look after the immediate forest, they hedge their bets and farm in different places around the village to get optimal yields and protect their crops from disease and pests. And they are hugely sociable with each other. It was such a privilege to get a brief insight into this life.
Joining up with Kofi and our driver in Moria, we drove back to our guest house in Fintonia. Once we joined the main road we came across some familiar places. The previous year Kofi, Matt Cushing (Gray’s colleague) and I had come back from Guinea this route in torrential rain. There was a dodgy bridge along the way that had been worn away by the many trucks and termites. Although the supports were solid concrete, and two metal railings crossed the gap, they were lined with planks of wood which had seen better days. Uncertain whether the bridge could support the 4WD’s weight, we had used an alternative route with dipped down into the stream then up a steep slope the far side. Going north was no problem; you dropped down the steep side and go back up on a much shallower gradient to rejoin the road, but going south you had to face this steep rock face. In the rain I had been terrified we would not make it and be stuck on the river bed with the water levels rising fast, but with much slipping and sliding we had made it up and continued on our way. of course the upshot of that had been that as we were congratulating ourselves at our good fortune, we came round a bend to discover the tree across the road which made us overnight in school storeroom.
In the dry season again we had had no problem that morning going north, and I thought being dry season the vehicle would grip up the rock face and get back on the road more easily than in the wet. Nope. Maybe the power of the engine was less, maybe the tyres were more worn, or maybe the rock surface was too shiny and smoothed by all the vehicles that had already passed over it, but no way could we get up the bank. The car would hover on the rocks while the engine overheated and whined at us, and the driver had to abort and gently slip us back onto the riverbed. We tried a couple of times but the car was seriously heating up. We looked at the bridge. Maybe we just had to take a chance at crossing it, but the contemplation of what would happen if the planks failed was daunting. I did not want to see our transport fall headlong onto the river bed some 7m below, and I feared for the driver who could get seriously injured in the fall. But there appeared to be no alternative. This was the only road south to north for miles around. I mean miles. The next road west was near the coast, the one east was in Guinea heading into even more impenetrable forest. Any diversion would take hours.
Stuck in the valley
Of course despite this final adventure, we were a long way from Freetown. It took another hour or so to reach Fintonia, where we caught sight of Momoh on his veranda. He was surprised to see us – he thought that because we had not turned up for lodgings the night before that we had pressed on southwards. We did not delay now, we had a quiet recrossing of the Kaba River and then settled down to the four hours of bumpy road to Makeni again. Once on the main road our driver was going a little stir crazy from all the forest driving and events and put his foot down. We had to remind him to calm down a little and get us back to Freetown alive, as he overtook another cavalcade of lorries and just managed to get back on his own side of the road before being hit by one in the return direction. He just wanted to come home. But he made the mistake of taking the main Kissy Road back into the city and we were another hour before I was dropped off at the STEWARD Guest House, to tell tales of daring do and hardship….. and get the laundry done and nurse the mosquito bites.
Back over the ferry
However it was time to get back on the road and away from this little oasis. We thanked our guides and drove out on the road. Lunch was La Vache Qui Rit on crackers en route; not my favourite food but so enthused on by Jean Luc that I could not refuse. We still headed westwards and apart from one town where a market had spilled out so far in to the road (to allow maximum hawking for any passing vehicles) we made reasonable progress. But dark clouds were gathering on the mountains to the south and the heat started to go out of the day.
We were due to meet the chairman of a local fisherfolk organisation on the main road but was having difficulty locating him. Our government guides kept phoning him and he would tell us that he was standing by a tree. Since there were hundreds of trees along the road side this did not help. Eventually we worked out that we had gone past the spot and had to retrace our steps. Eventually this small man emerged from the side of the road and flagged us down. He climbed in to our already crowded 4×4 and we set off down a track between some smallholdings. We met a couple of other villagers who followed us down the hill and out onto an open plain, grazed heavily by horses. A few elegant trees gave this the appearance of a landscaped parkland, but this gave way to a rather muddy volcanic soil intermittently covered in grass.
We got out the vehicles and looked across marshy vegetation at a huge open lake, black under the clouds, and behind the wall of mountain that was its catchment. We could not see the whole lake from where we were and the plan was to take some small pirogues or small open boats out onto the water to inspect the cages.
Our work done for the day we wanted to head back to Monza as soon as possible. One of the fisheries officers advised us that if we followed the tarmac road out of Namwala all the way to the main Livingstone to Lusaka road, we would be faster than tackling the graded road we had come along that morning. Without thinking we trusted his judgement and drove fast and straight along this main route. We certainly made fast progress but after an hour of driving along this road we realised that we were heading a long way south and still had not reached the main road that would take us back to Monza. When we finally turned we were at a town called Choma – still almost 100 km from our hotel. The sky was a glowing red when we reached back to the hotel – second night in a row we were late for dinner.
We packed up from the hotel the next morning ready to head back to Lusaka, but we still had one more meeting with fisherfolk to go. Just west of the town of Kafue, we headed off the main road past the large aluminium smelting plant. Although their office was only a few kilometres away in Chilanga, the Fisheries officers had trouble locating the road down to the village we were to meet, and I had visions of another small cluster of buildings like the ferry from the previous day. I could not have been more wrong.
With our faulty vehicle, we struggled back to Golden Pillow as best we could. We had our own problems with our mobile phones. As mentioned before, the hotel restaurant had a very slow service. Since it was already dark as we left the Chief’s Palace, and we knew it was another 90 minutes before we got back to the town, we decided to phone through our dinner orders. Problem was we also had no signal on our phones. Alphart driving, Ian and I kept our phones out and tried in vain to get a signal. Every time we got to a hilltop we would pause to see if a signal came. Eventually I got a couple of bars and we were able to order through, although it took some time to explain to the hotel just what we wanted, and that we were legitimate guests at the hotel and would be back in time. As it happened it was still a good half hour after we got in that the food arrived at our table.
Early Start from Monza, Not!
We had a busy day of meetings the following day, so Alphart put in a request from the car rental company to replace our vehicle. As ever in Africa, time is a flexible concept, and it was late morning before we were able to leave the hotel. We had a long drive ahead of us, to Namwala in the west.
Fortunately the road out west was much better than the narrow winding track to the national park and we flew along at a pace. The countryside here was like so much of southern Africa, a rich tapestry of farm land and villages punctuated by small woodlands or solid stands of gigantic trees, and the occasional river valley marked out by thick dense vegetation.
We had one scheduled stop along the way, to meet another chief. Before we got to his palace, we were approaching one of these river valleys and spotted a lot of commotion around the concrete bridge. We pulled up our vehicle just short of the bridge and Ian, Alphart and I got out to investigate.
Lusaka’s traffic had been a bugbear most of the week as we went from meetings in the centre of the city; along the optimistically called Cairo Rd, the departments in the leafy eastern suburbs of the city and Chilanga. But we had a good run down the wide main road that leads to Harare, Victoria Falls and the rest of Southern Africa. We drove up through Chilanga. It is a curious place, dominated by the huge white chimney of a cement works, several quarries and roads for large trucks ferrying raw materials around. Once past these works the village itself is in amongst a wooded hilltop; on the left the Fisheries department, and on the right a zoo. Every day as we drove past we had strained our necks to see if the lions were out in their enclosure; today nothing was stirring.
You take your life in your hands crossing the main road
Beyond Chilanga the scenery changed as we gently descended into the Kafue River basin proper for the first time. The town of Kafue itself is largely industrial dominated as it is by a hefty aluminium smelting plant to the west of the residential area. After the town we curved right and onto a large low bridge where we stopped and took a first look at the Kafue River.
The narrowest part of the swamp
Floating night club
Kafue Bridge – a link between Harare and Lusaka
It was soon after the end of the wet season and the river was in full flood; its deep, dark waters reflecting the bubbling clouds above, the long lush green grass waving in the current. On the north bank a series of small restaurants clung to the water’s edge, indeed a couple were situated on rather ungainly looking party boats. This was the very bottom of the floodplain – east of here the river floods through the Kafue gorge and then through a series of cataracts down the gorge that splits this part of the northern Zambezi Escarpment. We turned off the main Harare road and instead went south westwards along one of Zambia’s longest thoroughfares to the southern city of Livingstone and the Victoria Falls. We passed the sugar cane fields of a commercial farm and headed up on to a steadily rising ridge between the escarpment and Kafue Flats. After another couple of hours we arrived in the town of Monze but before we were deep into the town Alphart turned off into a large gravelly car park and we were at our hotel for the next few nights – the Golden Pillow Lodge.
So to date, apart from a few visits around Maseru’s hotels and restaurants, including a rather dodgy Chinese restaurant near the bypass, that had been my experience of Lesotho. So I was looking forward to at least traversing through the more populated regions before heading out to Clarens in Free State.
Our car was a little bright orange Kia, we packed our overnight bags in and drove round to pick up Becky’s friend, Christine. She was another peace corps volunteer working out at an orphanage in Peka but had been down in Maseru for meetings during the week. We planned to take her north to Clarens then drop her off back home on the way back. It was nice to be out with Becky away from the office and we began to talk less about our work and more about life in general and life in Lesotho in particular. Christine was great company too and we loved the road trip up north.
The route is one of the busiest roads in Lesotho, connecting half a dozen of the biggest towns in the country. It was easy to tell that we were travelling through the most fertile and forgiving part of the country, and ominously standing over us to the east was the massif of the really high snow-capped mountains where life was immeasurably more harsh. In the big scheme of African Roads it was generally well maintained although there were a couple of chaotic road works where you ended up deep in hardened ruts made by hundreds of lorries which had already passed by. There were the potholes, and the tarmac did flake away at the sides in many areas but compared to most African roads, it was serviceable and we made fast progress.
Hope he has good suspension – in Leribe
It being the weekend the commercial traffic was lighter than normal, and most of the larger vehicles seemed to be pickups taking football teams to matches, or minibuses containing church group outings. Black smoke belched out of the local and intercity buses ato nd the odd four wheel drive (many with South African plates on) would roar and try overtake. Considering this was one of the main roads in the whole country, I was taken aback at how quiet it was.