Thursday, August 21, 2008

A day of dismay

We left Kasama in my Volkswagen at about 8 PM on that Friday after the Regional Science Fair in Kasama. We were on our way to Luwingu, about 100 miles away on the Kasama-Fort Rosebury road. There were five of us in the car, Lasford, Smarts, Abraham and Joseph, students of Luwingu Secondary School, and I, their science club advisor. It was after a very hectic and colourful day at the Regional Science Fair and we were on the top of the world. The Luwingu science club had scooped four out of the six first prizes and two second prizes in the competitions. In addition, we were declared the over-all winners and Abraham, one of our junior students was given the title of the "most promising young scientist of the region". The students were having their trophies and certificates with them. They were discussing among themselves how glad everyone at the school would be and also about the oncoming National Fair in Lusaka in which all the first-prize winners would be participating, all expenses paid. I concentrated on my driving.

The Kasama-Fort Rosebury road was a gravel road all the way along. As there were many places of loose gravel on the road-surface, a car could skid easily if you were not very careful. There had been many accidents on the Zambian gravel roads resulting in to loss of lives. However, I was very confident and did not have any qualms about driving on these roads even during night. Moreover, I too shared the enthusiasm of the students and was eager to get home. That was why we even declined the invitation of a friend to stay over-night at Kasama and to proceed to Luwingu next morning.

There was good reason for our high spirits. As a matter of fact we did not have great expectations of attaining any remarkable achievements in the fair. Ours was a fairly new science club and we had no previous experience of taking part in any science fairs. However our students were very enthusiastic and they lacked no imagination. The projects were of their own creation. During the prize-giving ceremony, the leader of the judges mentioned that they were very impressed by the originality of the Luwingu projects and that had been a very important factor in deciding the first prize winners.

Once on the main road, I maintained a steady speed of 50 mph or about, as the road was fairly straight and not having a lot of "corrugations". The twin beams of my headlights cut a silver path through the sheer darkness that surrounded us. There was not even a glimmer of light in the darkness that stretched on both sides of the road. The road was completely devoid of any vehicular traffic or other movements as far as we could see. In fact, there was no sign of human habitation, but as it was not an uncommon phenomenon in rural Zambia, we were not bothered. The blue light on the instrument panel gave a soothing glow and the steady drone of the air-cooled engine was quite reassuring.

All of a sudden, I felt a tug on the steering wheel to the left. I tried to correct it by turning the wheel to the right. In a moment I realized that the car was out of control as it skidded and careered off the road, running on two wheels. There was nothing I could do, but to cling on to the steering wheel as the car rolled over its side two or three times before it came to rest on all four wheels. We felt being thrown about within the car, hitting here and there until all movements stopped. The engine had stalled and there was utter silence. The headlights continued to project their light, but on a very uneven terrain with many trees and shrubs in it.

I called out the name of each of my students and heard the answering "yes" . I was greatly relieved to find out that they all were there and none was hurt seriously. However, when we tried to open the doors we found that the doors were jammed and we could not open them. We thought we were trapped.

It was Smarts who discovered that the wind-screen as a whole, had come off leaving a large opening in its place. We extricated ourselves through that opening and stood on solid ground. It was then one of the students fainted to the apprehension of all of us, but the cool air revived him soon and we all found ourselves in reasonably good health.

After the initial excitements, we tried to assess our present situation. As the headlights were pointing in the wrong direction, we could not see much. However we realized that unless we get outside help, we would not be able to manage ourselves. One look at the car was sufficient to tell us that it would not be running for a long time to come. We noticed that we were at the bottom of a large ditch and the road was somewhere high up. We had to climb up a steep slope in order to reach the road. As we tried to climb, we found the loose soil underfoot giving way making us to slip down every now and then. By the time we climbed up and reached the road, we all were utterly exhausted.

We looked eagerly up and down the road for any sign of movement. Even though we could not see much in the pitch black darkness around us, we could make out the faint outline of the road stretching back and forth. It was totally deserted. The glowing dial of my watch showed the time as close to 9 pm. There was nothing we could do except to wait for some vehicle that may come along. We all knew fully well that we may have to wait until the next morning and anything could happen to us in the meantime.

By 10 pm we were feeling very tired. The initial numbness had gone and each person was feeling some aches and pains from the hither to unnoticed cuts and bruises that we received during the fall. The night air made us to shiver even though not violently at first. The night was turning much colder than I expected. We had no warm clothing. I yearned for a cup of hot coffee and a warm bed but our personal safety from wild animals and other hostile beings was my main concern.

Time passed on. It must have been past 11 pm when we heard the distant rumbling of some heavy motor. After a while we saw a certain part of the night sky getting paler at a distance. Soon it was apparent that some huge vehicle was approaching from the direction of Luwingu as powerful beams of light cut their way through the surrounding darkness.

Soon we could see the bright twin beams that were approaching fast. We knew well that no vehicles would stop in such a desolate place during night-time for fear of robbers, especially dissidents from neighbouring countries who encroached to Zambia to kill and plunder but we had no option other than trying to wave down the oncoming vehicle. We stood in the middle of the road for the driver to see us clearly and waved frantically. The vehicle kept on coming at us like a huge monster with two glaring eyes while the driver gave a mighty blast on his airhorn that sent us scampering out of his way for dear lives. However, before our shout of dismay died down fully, we heard the hissing of the hydraulic brakes as they were applied and saw the bright brakelights blooming out of the darkness. Sure enough, the vehicle was stopping. It came to a standstill some fifty yards from where we were standing initially and we ran up to it.

It was a massive trailer truck, the type which is commonly known as the "road-train". There were two people in the cabin, the driver and another person, probably the mate. They glared as if real mad at us and the driver asked furiously whether we wanted to commit suicide. However, he cooled down when he saw a foreigner among the "locals" and asked us what our problem was. I explained to him what happened and requested for a lift to Kasama where they were going. At first he hesitated saying it was company orders not to give lifts to hitch-hikers, but later relented and said he would take the "usungu"(foreigner) with him. I pleaded with him to take Smarts as I preferred to stay with the rest of the gang. I gave him directions to reach the house of one of my friends in Kasama by name Santhan Pillay and to seek his help. Smarts hopped into the truck and they left.

It was well after midnight that we saw a car approaching from the direction of Kasama. It stopped near our little group and Smarts and my friend Santhan Pillay got out. No vehicle had passed in either direction during our long vigil and we were much relieved to see them. We all piled up in to Santhan Pillay's car and went back to Kasama, leaving the wrecked car and other articles behind as nothing else could be done until day-break.

Even after many years, it is with gratitude I remember those good people who came to our rescue, especially the unknown Zambian truck driver who stopped his trailer truck for us. Perhaps it was his action that saved our lives that night from whatever perils awaited us on that desolate stretch of road. Who knows?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Chambeshi River Incident

There were five of us in the "Moonraker" which was a 30 ft. cabin cruiser belonging to the "Bwangwelu Water transport Corporation". The people on board were the district secretary of Luwingu, his orderly, the skipper of the boat and his assistant, in addition to me. The boat was on lease by the Department of Census & Statistics for their operations in the district in connection with the oncoming National Census. Being the senior census officer of the district, it was my duty to visit various parts of the district and inspect the arrangements made so far.

The Moonraker was a fairly new boat fitted with a 300 hp. Perkins diesel engine. Its blue and white paintwork gleamed in the bright African sun as the boat glided effortlessly through the dark blue waters of the Bwangwelu lake. However it took more than three hours to traverse a distance of forty-five miles from the port of Nsombo on the mainland to the port of Santa Maria in Chilubi island.

By the time we reached the island, it was late afternoon. The sky was overcast and the skipper insisted that we should spend the night at Santa Maria and continue our journey at daybreak. We moored the boat and settled down within the boat for the night. Even though the place was swarming with mosquitoes, the nets fitted on to the cabin windows gave us adequate protection. We all got up at daybreak, but it was almost 8 am by the time we pushed off from the island.

Soon we left the broad expanse of water which was part of the lake and entered the river Chambeshi. The boat slowed down as we travelled upstream. The river snaked its way through the infamous "Bwangwelu swamps". Crocodiles by the dozen basking in the sun on the river banks were seen jumping into the water as the boat came around each bend of the river.

While we sat on deck chairs and chatted on, the sights and sounds of the river and its banks warmed our hearts and we felt relaxed. I might have dozed off on my deck chair lulled by the cold wind from the river and the drone of the engine. I woke up with a start at some grating noise . I felt the boat shuddering and inching backwards. Soon I realized that the boat was stuck in shallow waters and the boat crew was trying to pull it out backwards into the main stream.

The time was about 2.30 pm. We were supposed to have reached our destination before noon. Soon it became obvious that the skipper had taken the wrong turn into one of the many canals connected to the river and we were lost in the seemingly endless swamps.

Once in the main stream, we moved forward with increased speed until we came to another turn-off. But before we travelled a few hundred yards along this new canal, we got stuck again.

We looked around as far as eye-sight would permit but could not see a single human being throughout the length and breadth of the swamps. Now we were quite certain that we were lost and our escape would not be an easy one.

We backed out into the main stream once again, but not without great difficulty this time. The boat increased speed and we proceeded further until we found ourselves in a certain part of the river where the water appeared quite still. We noticed many trees with thick foliage on both sides of the river as if we were in the middle of some forest area. There was an eerie silence that prevailed all around us, and darkness as if it was going to rain. Even the birds, if there were any, kept unusually quiet.

Suddenly it came to our attention that there was absolute silence prevailing in the boat also. The engine had stopped without any apparent reason. Even though it was cranked several times, it failed to start making all of us very apprehensive. A cold shiver ran down my spine and I could see that everyone was under the grip of some unknown fear.

It was then that we saw a boat at a little distance upstream. We all saw it together as it was not there one minute ago, but it was there now. It was a canoe with a lone paddler standing upright with a half-raised paddle in his hand. The canoe was coming towards us at a terrific speed. The paddler appeared motionless and his paddle never touched the water. Even though we hailed, he neither looked in our direction nor uttered a single word. The canoe slid past us at a distance of barely ten feet with hardly any ripple and we saw the paddler distinctly. He stared ahead with yellow eyes and his face was expressionless as that of a corpse. The canoe went on as if gliding on the surface of the water and disappeared from sight while we all stood transfixed as if under the spell of a terrible nightmare.

We do not know how long we stood like that. Suddenly we realized that it became very dark all around us. The boat was made fast on a tree trunk and all the port holes were closed.
We turned in for the night. None of us could sleep that night. The fear of the unknown had gripped our hearts and the hours of darkness dragged on.

At daybreak the skipper got up to work on the engine and to the surprise of us all, it started at the first cranking. Rays of sunlight filtered in through the foliage and we heard the cheerful cackle of the birds. It was the start of another day and we continued on our journey looking out for the right canal that would lead us to our destination.

(Note: We reached our destination late that evening with the help of two friendly fishermen who gave us proper directions and one of them accompanied us all along the way).