"...posted to Mongu." Such was the tail-end of a telegram we received at
Cape Town on our return from home leave many years ago.
On arrival at Lusaka, we learnt, not without some surprise, that a road
had been cut through to Mongu and we were to make use of it. A large car,
complete with driver was put at our disposal and we left for Barotseland
on a bright and sparkling morning at the end of September.
The first part of the run was easy and we lunched with some good friends
of ours at Mumbwa where we collected the auditor whose duties led him to
Trundling some miles behind us was a weary old lorry with all our
equipment and we only hoped that it would catch up with us that night as we
had barely anything in the car with us.
Shortly before dark, we reached the Kafue -- a grand sight after the heat
of the day and, to our astonishment, we found a young cadet camped there.
He had been, as far as I could remember, only three weeks in the country and
had been sent out on tour almost immediately after his arrival.
He proved a delightful creature and his camp appeared to us the acme of
comfort. Longingly we looked down the road for any signs of our lumbering
old follower but the night air was not broken by any sound of a mechanical
nature. So it came about that our friend proved host and served a most
excellent dinner which we ate under the stars. After dinner we sat over the
fire for a while until the time arrived for my young daughter to go to bed.
The snag was that there wasn't any bed to which she could go. Our young
host, however, insisted that we take over his tent for the night, so we wrapped the
child in a rug and put her on the floor of the tent and told her to go to sleep.
This she had little difficulty in achieving -- it had been a hot and tiring day.
Still no sign of our lorry. We gossiped for another hour or so with one
ear cocked into the night. There were lots of noises, certainly -- quite a
symphonic night -- but none the one for which we sought. We were camped in
the middle of a big game reserve and the auditor remarked that there was known
to be a large herd of elephant in the vicinity and that, possibly may have
accounted for the non-arrival of our trailer. My husband and I couldn't
help feeling that the fault was much more likely to lie within the bowels of
the lorry itself. Subsequent events proved us right.
The time came when sleep was essential so we set about fixing ourselves up
for the night with what spare equipment the cadet could lend us. The auditor,
a smallish man, purloined the canvas bath which he filled with grass and
snuggled down into it like a small bird in its nest. He declared that he had
never been more comfortable. Everyone behaved very nicely and said nothing
about straws in his hair.
In due course we all settled down though I confess to a feeling of disquiet
when I heard a lion roaring in the distance. All I hoped was that it would
keep its distance. Despite these feelings, it was not long before I was well
asleep. Some time later, I wakened with a start and lay rigid listening to a
scuffling noise all round the tent. With some excuse, perhaps, my mind
immediately leapt to the larger carnivora and it was some time before I
mustered sufficient courage to switch on a torch. I almost laughed aloud at what
its beam revealed.
There was my young daughter -- the latter half of her still wrapped in
the rug -- crawling round and round the bare earth looking for a softer resting
spot. "I feel so cold and uncomfortable", she complained. The matter was
In the early hours of the morning, the crippled old lorry snorted into
camp and Africans tumbled off her in all directions. Why or how they came to
be there was something which was never explained satisfactorily. The driver
of the dilapidated old vehicle muttered things about the differential and we
promised that it should receive attention in the morning.
It had necessarily to be a makeshift job as we were pressed for time the
next day. The crossing of the pontoon (with no guide rope) was something
which had to be accomplished as early as possible -- before the rising of the wind
which made it dangerous. After a hasty breakfast, the packing-up business
was soon completed and our car was run on to the pontoon.
A slight mist lay over the river and the occasional hippo puffed up to
blow it away. We pursued a somewhat circuitous course and the crossing took
the best part of half an hour. From the other bank we watched the paddlers
steer the clumsy craft back for the lorry. By that time, little fingers of wind
were scraping the surface of the water.
The lorry was run, loaded, on to the pontoon and, from where we were
standing, looked most precarious. The superstructure, formed mostly of our
kit, was out of all proportion to the vehicle itself and it still had its human
cargo clinging to it like flies. By the time it was getting towards mid-stream, the
wind had risen in earnest and we watched the canting over of the whole outfit with
Steering obviously became an impossibility. Riding at a sharp angle, the
pontoon with its big burden was being pushed steadily up river and we despaired
of ever seeing our belongings again. However, our driver assured us that they
would make land higher up and paddle down to the bank where we were. Such,
fortunately proved to be the case though there were times when it seemed an
impossibility and in defiance of all the accepted laws of gravity.
It was hot when we started on our way again hoping - against all
advice - to make Mongu that night. We took the bare essentials from the lorry
knowing that it would have to take the trip very slowly while we decided to
push straight through that night.
The run to Mankoya was a relatively easy one and we reached there in
time for lunch. Our hosts almost implored us to stay over for the night
but we pushed doggedly on. The next ninety odd miles were heartbreaking.
The "road" was a mere track hewn from the bush and not properly stumped.
The soil was pure sand and necessitated travelling in second gear for the
most part. It would have been suicidal to stop where the sand was particularly
deep or we should never have got going again. So on we ran through the baking
afternoon. Bush fires were the order of the day; frequently _ we found a
smouldering tree lying across our path. The driver would then swing out of the
sandy rut and go snaking through the bush, missing trees by inches while I
closed my eyes waiting for a rending sound.
Quite early on, we had found that some enterprising African had at
some time during our journey, made off with our water sacks. A bitter
Our thirst was terrific. Fortunately we were carrying a drum of water for the
car and a single flask of drinking water for our little girl. We had to ration her
with this as we were not too keen on her drinking the other which was both dirty
and oily. The car's thirst was prodiguous and, whenever we struck a piece of
hardish ground, we stopped and filled her up. It was a gruelling trip for any car.
The driver assured us that there would be a water hole at Luampa so our minds
busied themselves with this pleasant thought as we swung from side to side
in our seats while the car waggled her way through the sand.
Alas! When we reached the much-vaunted water hole, it was dry. Three
eland gazed at us speculatively as much as to say: "You've been had too."
It was then that we broached the drum for our own thirsts. Our lips had
cracked, our tongues doubled in size and felt like a thick pile carpet stuck
to the roofs of our mouths. That drink was one of the best I remember.
As dusk fell, so some of the stinging heat of the day was left behind but we
still had a good way to go. With headlamps picking out all the eccentricities of the
road, we roared on through the night and then -- what we had dreaded for
so long, happened. We stuck. Well and truly.
We all got out of the car and dragged branches from the trees to push
under the wheels. Fortunately, we were by that time on the outskirts of Mongu
and evidently within hearing range of an African village as various leaping,
shouting people came speeding through the night and we soon had a willing
band of helpers.
Those wheels seemed insatiable. We piled leaves and branches under them
and every time we tried the car, the foliage was pulverised, while the smell of
burning rubber from the whizzing tyres filled the air. So we continued to
scrape and dig and fill up until finally there appeared to be a reasonable
chance of getting going again. The driver levered himself into his seat and
started the engine.
Rocket-like the car shot into the night with a roar and, as she fled her
long resting place, various bodies jumped the running boards. In the soft moonlight.
I noticed a white shirt on the far side and thought it was my husband.
The driver we learnt later, had spotted a white shirt on my side and had
thought the same thing. We didn't dare stop in that treacherous place so
flew on to Mongu.
On arrival, we found that my husband was not of our party!
Consternation sat heavily on the driver's face. "I can't go back , he said,
"not tonight. I'd stick as soon as I stopped."
"Quite," I said, not very helpfully.
"Do you think your husband could walk in?"
"Of course", I replied airily as though walking through the bush with a
nice sandy bottom was one of his favourite occupations late at night. The driver
was afraid that he would prove somewhat irascible on arrival but I assured
him, not without some misgivings, that he would be certain to understand. I only
hoped that I had not over-estimated the big-heartedness of my husband's nature.
Fortunately, by the time he did turn up, he had walked off any spleen he
might have felt and there was nothing but a happy reunion.
Our hosts had not thought it possible for us to be there for at least
another two days and they were reaching the tail-end of a dinner party -- the
men all dinner-jacketed, the women in flowing gowns.
We were offered whiskies and the faces of the guests were a study when we
asked for a water sack. As it was so late, we were asked to join them at table
there and then. I squeezed in between two immaculately clad men. One turned to
make a remark to me and I saw his nose ruffle up in disgust as I swung round
suddenly and sprayed him with a shower of dust from my hair. I could
not have cared less.
We had arrived.