I got to know this area well because this is where we had one of the scariest times with our dodgy Land Rover. Let me tell you about the darling vehicle that we had. We christened her Judith, after my boss who was in charge of the project, but who wasn’t coming with us into the bush. It gave us the sense that she was still around.
We should be very grateful to Tsetse Control for giving us a vehicle to do our fieldwork. In fact in six weeks we covered over 5000 miles. But it did cause us some problems. First thing we noticed was that it was not very secure. Now Harare is a wonderful city, I fell in love with it the first time I went there. But you do not leave your vehicle unlocked there, or else it, or at least its contents, will not be around when you get back. One of our first jobs once we got the van was to go shopping for our first three-week trek. We went to the fashionable Avondale in the north of the city and got out at the large car park there. The usual orange sellers were on to us in a minute. Good oranges too. But we were struggling to try to lock the van. We eventually discovered that the only way to secure the van was to lock the right hand side by pulling down into the plastic cover and pushing the wire lock downwards. Then you scramble out of the passenger’s side and lock from the outside. The back, well we didn’t discover its secrets till later. We then went and loaded up two huge trolleys with stuff – scaring some white Zimbabweans into thinking we were panic buying to avoid another embargo that was about to hit their country.
We travelled northwards and all was fine on the wonderful tarmacced trunk roads of the high veldt. We cruised through the Great Dyke and the relative prosperity around Guruve. Into Bakasa, the last Communal Land before the ridge. And even there, you started to get the feeling that you were on the edge of the world, and it was all about to give way. The road takes a few turns, trying to keep to the high ground, then drops away sharply in a series of hair-raising hairpins.
Then you reach Mahuwe, and its tsetse gate and babump off the tarmac road, you go onto the wide dust tracks of the ZambeziValley. And this is where we discovered the next wonderful part of the vehicle. The seal on the back door was not exactly tight. In fact it was nearer non-existent. Every time we went on dust roads, air was sucked in through the back door and with it half the contents of the road. The air would drift around the back seat, and anyone sitting in the back soon got coated in a red film. Benjamin, a Zimbabwean from Africa University, joined us later in the trip when we surveyed the Kariyangwe area, and he often sat in the back, wearing his sun hat. He was only around thirty or so, but when he would get out of the vehicle at a survey point, it was like an old man had appeared. Reddish white dust clung to his thin beard and eyebrows; he’d take off his hat and deposit half the contents of the last twenty miles on to the ground. We would come back from the field every evening covered in this film of dust, and it was a great relief to get into the shower and try to clean some of it away.
Judith gave us more treats. We were driving along one day, along the main road that runs parallel to the escarpment between Mahuwe and Muzurabani, when the brake light came on. When we tried to stop so we could look at it, we found there was no pressure in the brakes, and we just had to skid along the surface to a halt. Fortunately, there were no killer buses around. We had to limp along to the small village of Muzurabani, taking it steady on the bends and avoiding any oncoming vehicles as best we could. At Muzurabani, the state owned farm (called an ADA or Agricultural Development Agency farm) had a fairly well stocked garage, and we bought a large can of brake oil. It went straight in. We bought another and hoped to top up the reservoir on the way around. We gave the brakes a test. Joe put his foot down on the brakes; a squirt of the new brake oil came flying out onto the sand. We realised this wasn’t going to last long, so we tried to avoid using the brakes for the rest of the day. It was quite easy. You can’t really use brakes on most of the dust roads without skidding horrendously, and when we were coming to a survey point, we just took the foot off the accelerator and gently rolled to a halt. We were lucky to have a great camp warden at the tsetse camp who could fix these things, and he bound up the leak that night.
Judith was the bottom of the pile when it came to the Tsetse vehicles. It was a 15 year old diesel Land Rover, that had been round the clock a couple of times (and for Land Rovers, they are bigger clocks than for other vehicles). But it was a bit rich of the tsetse control people to put some lousy tyres on. We had to fight to persuade them to give us two spare tyres, and realise that this was not a lot of use. The one on the bonnet was old and worn, and that was the good one. Regrettably, the ones actually on the wheels were not too good either. Having said that, apart from one rather exciting blow out on the same road from Mahuwe to Muzurabani, most of the punctures were due to extraneous objects in our way and no amount of tread would have stopped them. Perversely, it wasn’t the Acacia thorns or stumps we were warned about, but nails dropped by careless villagers that were our downfall. I became a dab hand at changing tyres, something I wasn’t really used to beforehand. I would always call the AA if that situation occurred. I couldn’t even change my bicycle tyre before this trip. Not any more.
Unfortunately, the tsetse control hadn’t really set us up very well. They reluctantly supplied us with a Land Rover jack. This has three parts, a flat stand, the jack itself, with an inner and outer thread. Then there is the pump handle which fits into the thread and you waggle it up and down about a hundred times, and hey presto, the Land Rover is off the ground. In theory. It never really worked more than once for us in practice. This is because the second time we tried it, we were happily pumping away at the handle, the wheel was already loose and we were going into mid air as per instructions. Then all of a sudden there was wrench and the Land Rover dropped back to planet earth. The jack was still in place as it was at the start, but the thread had been stripped bare by the weight of the Land Rover falling. By the impact, the only spanner we had was also bent out of shape and useless. There was no chance of us getting the van raised to change another wheel. Which still left us with the problem that we had to fix this wheel. We limped about three hundred yards up to a store in Judith, this was at Msungezi Mission in the north of the region. The stores in this area doubled as the local bar, as it was the only place you could get Castle, or worse, Lion Beer. Or Scud. I’ll tell you about Scud later. At two o’clock in the afternoon, this place was full of drunks who were drunks when they arrived and drunker when they left. The decent hard working labourers and farmers were all out being decent and labouring or farming. We knew this was going to be tough.