Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Very Dusty Home-coming

We were on the last leg of our journey, returning from a five-day trip to Chilubi Island and Bwangwelu swamps in the Northern Province in connection with the National Census in Zambia. During our voyage from the Island port of Santa Maria to the mainland port of Nsombo, we ran into bad weather and the waves were so high that we thought we were going to capsize. However, now that we were nearing the mainland, the surface of the lake became as smooth as glass and the boat raced evenly like an arrow released from the bowstring. The mid-morning sun cast its bright light on the lake and the port of Nsombo emerged out of the horizon.

However, a great disappointment was awaiting us at Nsombo. There was no government transport available to take us back the sixty kilometers to Luwingu. At the sub Boma they told us that the government “Land-rover” from Luwingu had been coming for us every day for the last three days and returning empty. The vehicle had come this morning also, but went back earlier than usual, i.e. just a few minutes before our arrival. The telephone system was out of order and there was no means in Nsombo to contact Luwingu. This was certainly not one of our lucky days!

We could see the ferry from where we were standing. The Moonraker, the boat in which we had come, was pulling out slowly from the jetty into the great expanse of water. The crew members were on their way to their base at Samfya, after accomplishing their mission. The blue lake, the bright sun and the gleaming white boat made a pretty picture before our eyes, but we were not in a mood to enjoy the scenery. We stood there racking our brains to find a way to reach our final destination.

Perhaps most of my readers may not be able to understand the seriousness of the situation. Like many other remote parts of Africa, Nsombo was a place where the only motorized transport that you could see was a government Land-rover or truck that would appear once in a blue moon on official business. The villagers in those parts never travelled far. The only places they frequented were the fishing areas of the lake and the “bush” from where they collected firewood. No one in a radius of fifty kilometres would have owned a motor vehicle, let alone a bicycle. We were in a ‘fix’ as some people would say.

I don’t remember how long we stood there, contemplating our next move. I thought Mr. Sichangwa, the District Secretary of Luwingu who was the leader of our party would figure out a way, but I could see helplessness written all over his face.

Even before we heard the laboured rumbling of an old motor, we saw a moving cloud of dust at some distance on the winding dirt road. We craned our neck to see what was happening, but could not see anything except a belt of trees on the road side and the dust cloud. Then we saw it, a box-like contraption, moving in our direction. When it came closer, we could distinguish it as what was left of a Land-rover, without any top or sides, a rusty chassis mounted on four wheels with some kind of a platform fixed on it and the engine sounding as if the whole thing would break loose at any moment. There were no seats inside. The driver was perching precariously on the metal skeleton of something which used to be the framework of a seat a few decades ago. But if I say our hearts lifted at the very sight of this moving monstrosity, you can just imagine how desperate our predicament was. The vehicle, if I can call it so, sped up to the jetty and stopped abruptly as the road ended there. The driver wanted to take the vehicle back. While he was making a number of unsuccessful attempts to throw the gears into reverse, Mr. Sichangwa approached the driver and introduced himself as the District Secretary of Luwingu before asking him anything about the vehicle. We learnt that the vehicle belonged to the Department of Agriculture and had been involved in a serious accident sometime back. The wreck was bought in an auction sale after many years by the present owner who was a former mechanic in the Ministry of Works. He rebuilt the vehicle to its present state by improvising the necessary parts from here and there. It was still in a very early stage for making a trial run on the public road, but he was taking a chance as the roads were fairly deserted most of the time. The DS asked him whether he could take the three of us to Luwingu in his vehicle to which he replied with an emphatic “No”. In the first place his vehicle had no road tax or fitness certificate. Then there were other reasons too, he may not have enough fuel in the tank, the engine was misfiring every now and then, the indicators and the hooter were not working, there were no seats and he was afraid that it would break down before reaching its destination. The DS told him that he would give him thirty minutes to adjust the carburetor and check the brakes. He added that he should not worry about the road tax or fitness at the moment as we were on national duty and it was an emergency. He said that he would make sure that the police would not bother him. As for the seats, he told him to organize some mattresses from his home to put inside the vehicle and we would take a chance with the other things such as a possible break-down or running out of fuel. He also promised to pay for his services as soon as we reached Luwingu and also to provide him with sufficient fuel for his return trip. After coaxing him for another fifteen minutes, he agreed finally but with a warning that no blame should be put on him in case the vehicle had a break-down on the way. Then he departed to make the vehicle ready for the trip.

He returned with the vehicle after about an hour and we set off sitting on a couple of old mattresses from which a very unpleasant odor was emanating and with a lot of unfamiliar noises coming from the engine and other parts of the vehicle. As there was no roof or canopy to protect us from wind and sun, we sat there in the scorching heat of the sun, clutching firmly on some part of the bodywork lest we should be thrown out by the repeated jolts or blown apart by the wind. Within a short while we noticed that a lot of red dust was settling over us, but could not do anything about it. The journey was pure torture by the combined effects of heat, wind and jolts. The many bumps and ditches on the road as well as the twists and turns of the road were all taken at such a high speed that we thought we could hear the rattling of our bones within the body. The driver did not utter a single word throughout the journey that appeared to go on for ever and he totally ignored our plea to reduce the speed. However, the vehicle did neither break down nor run out of fuel until we reached Luwingu late in the afternoon, tired and hungry, aching in all the joints and completely covered from head to foot in red dust so that we all looked like creatures from another planet and beyond recognition even by our own mothers. The Land-rover dropped me at my home and I could see by the expression on my wife’s face that she was panic-stricken on the very sight of this apparition before recognizing me as her beloved husband and the vehicle as the moving wreck of an old Land-rover. It was of great consolation to me to know that I was just in time to stop my wife from going to the police to file a complaint about her missing husband who left home five days ago on national duty. Some of the neighbours who looked up at the high-pitched whining sound of the vehicle and witnessed my home-coming expressed later their delight in seeing me back in ‘one piece’ even though in a very shabby and unrecognizable state.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Neither Too Early Nor Too Late

We were on our way back to Luwingu from the remote village of Fube (pronounced "foobey") after an operation in connection with the National Census in Zambia. There were five of us in the boat, including the district secretary(D.S) of Luwingu and me, the senior census officer for the district. The Moonraker, a 30 ft. cabin cruiser which could do upto 35 knots in the open sea was now making about 6 to 8 knots in the treacherous Bangwelu swamps.

It was Thursday afternoon. In fact, we should have been back home by Tuesday evening. The reason for the delay was due to the fact that our skipper who boasted at the commencement of our journey that he knew the waterways of the swamps as good as the lines on the palm of his hands, lost his way miserably and got us all stranded, but for the help of some local fishermen. It goes without saying that we lost a lot of precious time, effort and fuel as a result. However, we accomplished our mission and were on our way back. Our going was very slow because of the many sand bars in the canal and also due to the presence of under-water weeds that kept on getting entangled on the propellers. Even though we were very anxious to reach home, we knew that we would have to spend the night at the island port of Santa Maria and resume our journey early next morning.

We were sitting on deck chairs and chatting. The D.S casually asked the skipper how long it would take to reach Santa Maria. He hesitated before answering and then said "may be two hours unless our tanks run dry".

We were startled. We never knew we were on the brink of running short of fuel. "What about the reserve tank?" the D.S asked. "We are almost at its bottom. May be another ten km" was the reply.

The D.S and I looked at each other. We were given to understand at the start of the trip that we had more than enough diesel. The boat had an extra fuel tank for surplus fuel and the skipper had been instructed to ensure that both tanks were filled up before commencing our journey.

Apart from losing our way in the swamps, we had another misfortune. The skipper's assistant who was new, fiddled with the boat's wireless set and made it inoperative soon after we started on our voyage. As a result we had no means of communication at present. There were no passenger boats operating through the swamps. Our food supply also was running very short and each one of us was longing to reach home and have a decent meal and proper sleep.

We travelled for another thirty minutes or so, and found ourselves at the mouth of the canal leading from the river. It was good that we were at last out of the swamps, but still we had to go far. Even though we were nowhere near the passenger-boat service lane, if someone came along in a canoe, the skipper's mate could go to Santa Maria and send a wireless message to Bwangwelu Water transport company in Samfya which owned the boat to arrange for some fuel. Even then it would take several hours before we could get out of this jam.

Now that we were in river Chambeshi, the skipper could have opened up the throttle and sent the boat at full speed. But as the tank would run dry at any moment, he kept the boat moving under minimum acceleration. As we cleared the turn-off, a lone bottle store from where we bought soft drinks two days ago came into sight. We decided to stop there and explore the possibilities of communicating with the outside world.

The bottle-store appeared empty and forlorn. It was nearly 2 PM. As there were no people around at this time of the day, our arrival did not create any excitement. While the skipper's mate made the boat fast to the railing of the rickety jetty, we noticed a 200 litre drum like the ones they use to transport petroleum products lying on the river bank, a little distance away from the jetty. It was rusty and appeared as if abandoned by someone a long time back. However, the skipper went and examined it. It was either stuck fast in the mud or filled with something, as it would not move easily. He went and made enquiries at the bottle-store. The man at the store told him that the drum contained some diesel that was dropped there at lunch time by a passenger boat from Santa Maria. The boat crew had instructed to give the diesel to one of their charter boats by name “Moonraker” which had gone to the swamps a few days ago as it would have exhausted its stock of fuel by this time. He showed us a written message scrawled on a piece of paper. It simply read "Diesel for Moonraker".

We did not know whether to laugh or cry for joy. There was no difficulty in convincing the store-keeper that we were from the Moonraker as the name was written clearly on the side of our boat. The man at the store came out to assist us in siphoning the diesel into the boat’s tanks and we proceeded on our way after thanking him profusely. We also felt so grateful to someone at Bwangwelu Corporation in Samfya who was thoughtful enough to visualize our predicament and ordered one of their passenger boats to deviate from its normal route and make a side trip of more than thirty kilometres to assist us even before receiving any message for help from us. Above all, we thanked God for sending this timely help that came neither too early nor too late.