We tried to ask whether anyone had a jack. Then we realised that there were probably only two vehicles in the village; one a bus which was heading back from Harare, the other a van which hadn’t moved from its bricks in ten years. This did not stop the ensemble from having a vast debate over what was going on. Two or three of them would break away from this group occasionally, look at us and the Land Rover, and burst out laughing. Then another guy would stagger across, and mumble something incomprehensibly on the lines of “if this had happened at Mushumbi Pools, you could ask the garage owner”. He seemed not to realise that Mushumbi Pools was over 60 miles drive from Msungezi Mission, but never mind, he was only trying to be of help.
It emerged after about quarter of an hour that one of the drunks had a friend who had an adjustable spanner. This was to be our saviour, I was told, although I looked at Judith, sized up her weight again and thought; I’m never leaving this place.
I went with the guy who had his adjustable friend. We walked up from the store through some low mopane scrub, past a playing field to a set of huts on a ridge top. He went inside and emerged with another guy who came over to me, smiling happily. I tried to explain to him in a voice that was sounding more exasperated in the burning sun that we had burst a tyre and our jack didn’t work and could he help. He laughed. This was not what I wanted, but you learn patience when you are in the middle of the bush.
He said, yes, he had a spanner. He went back in his hut. I heard a bit of shuffling and some high pitched Shona from his wife which I took as “what the hell are you doing”. There was some lower mumbling, then out he came, still smiling and held up a small, but yeah, an adjustable spanner. I started sizing up one of the huts as a place to sleep that night.
We half ran back to the store. Judith looked particularly forlorn as she leant over on one corner outside the store surrounded by the drunks. A little piece of western technology that was now at the mercy of African mentality.
We did rebuild her. Joe took the spanner and loosened the nuts. Five of the drunks and I went one-two-three lift and up we went Judith. The wheel came shooting off and the new one was fixed on in less than thirty seconds, and then down it went. Then came the real ordeal. I knew that these guys were not good Samaritans. They wanted Scud money. So I had to dig deep into project resources. Zim $2
for each of the lifters. $5 for the guy with the adjustable spanner. I was about to get into the vehicle and leave, when a small fight broke out. Apparently, I had done wrong. The one who had led me to the adjustable spanner thought he deserved the five dollars, as after all, I would never had found him if I hadn’t gone along with him. This developed quickly into a full scale discussion. Reluctantly, I decided that this guy should have five dollars. This did not satisfy the adjustable spanner guy. Surely it was the spanner that was the most important thing, and so the owner of the spanner had to get the most. No, said the gopher, it was him that brokered the deal between injured white guy and spanner owner. Eventually we compromised and the gopher got another $2.
All was smiles as we drove off. Next time we had a flat, I decided, we would make sure we fixed it ourselves.
We didn’t have too long to wait. The following day, still with no jack but with a spare spanner they had found at the camp, we travelled down to the Hoya River, across the ford that had replaced a bombed out bridge and sssssssssssssss, we had another flat. We were too far to limp back to any human habitation without the wheel becoming bent, so we had to think of ways to repair the vehicle ourselves.
Without a jack (the camp had radioed to Harare to ask for a new one to be sent down the next time someone came to the Valley), we had to think long and hard of how to solve our problem. In the end we decided to prop the Land Rover up on some stones, dig around the wheel to free it and then replace the wheel and release the stones. The first part of the plan was OK. We searched around a nearby river bed and managed to find a whole load of stable, flat sand stone slabs which we placed under the axle. We then carefully freed the wheel from its nuts. Then we began to dig. This was difficult as we were actually on an old military road, which had been very well built to allow tanks access to the border with Mozambique. In one way this was a godsend, because it gave us a firm surface to rest the stones and vehicle on. But it was right bugger to dig down through the metalled surface. It didn’t help that all we had to dig with was Joe’s camping pick and shovel, a sort of two piece he had picked up from a hardware store in Borrowdale, Harare. After about twenty minutes, the wheel was spinning freely and we managed to get the wheel off carefully, trying not to disturb the rather precarious pile of stones under the axle. Then we replaced the wheel and tightened the bolts as best as possible. Then we had to get her onto the ground again, but most of the weight of the Land Rover was now on the stones, and they had become firmly wedged between axle and ground.
This is the moment where most people break down and sob into a Dichrostachys bush. That is, if one is handy. We thought staring at Judith would do the trick, but two minutes of this proved no more successful. So we tried having two of us lift the vehicle while the third kicked the stones out. It didn’t budge. Finally, the only way we could do anything was pick away at the smallest of the stones with Joe’s multi purpose prospecting tool, for several moments, before the whole pile gave way and Judith came bouncing back down onto four wheels. The wheel changing became routine. We sent out for another jack that lasted us the rest of the trip and never came quite so close to being stranded by a burst tyre again.
Judith had one other failing which caused us worse problems. She would take it upon herself not to start. During our three weeks in Muzurabani and surrounds, we never really got to the bottom of it. We would stop to survey a point, and spend twenty minutes catching our soil samples, identifying species of trees and drawing maps of the slope, cultivation and satellite interpretation. Then we would all get in the vehicle, turn the ignition on and ….. nothing. Not even a cough. Try again, nothing. So many times we had to get out, try and push the vehicle and jump start in second gear. This wasn’t something I was well versed in, not having a car at home at the time, but I soon learnt the skills involved at having the ignition in a certain position, the clutch down, the car in 2nd and then release the whole lot at once and it would roar into life. Or not as it sometimes proved. The perplexing thing was that sometimes Judith would start no problem. We suspected the battery was not well charged, so we took to hooking it up to the generator at the camp at night. It seemed not to make any difference.
In Muzurabani it caused us no end of problems. We took to trying to park on a slope and then start. One place we surveyed was a narrow river valley. I was intent on getting a characteristic riverine woodland, so we stopped at this particular small river. The single lane track curved around the back of some lush undergrowth, dropped steeply into the gully where the river bed was then up as sharply to a lip about thirty feet above the riverbed. Even in the best of conditions this was not the place to be riding around. With Judith playing up all the time, we made sure we left her at the very lip of the gully. Sure enough, when we tried to start her after finishing our surveying, there was no response. I was priding myself on being able to time the release of the clutch perfectly with the speed from the push to get her started. Jo and Bob rolled her off the lip, down we went, I kick started the clutch and Judith roared into life. Bob and Jo were cheering at the top of the hill. And I reached the bottom of the gully, where foolishly I took my foot of the throttle and she died on me. Right at the bottom of a river valley with thirty feet of 1 in 3 on either side. Bob, even though he was an old man, came running down. The look on his face told me that despite being a peace loving man, I was the one person in Zimbabwe that he wanted to throttle at that moment. I turned the ignition key. Judith burst back into life. I kept my foot on the floor while Bob and Jo leapt in and I roared up the other bank and out of harms way. I giggled nervously at both of them saying how lucky we were. They both stared at me, disbelieving our good fortune, particularly mine as I was due to be murdered by them if we hadn’t started immediately.
That was not the end of our troubles that day. We were heading for the largest wilderness area in that part of the country. This was this huge area of cathedral mopane in the drylands of Northern Mukumbura. It runs along the Mozambique border, and, if people had ever lived there, it had been completely cleared during the war. Well-maintained flat military roads had been cut through the tall mopane, often raised on 10ft embankments, and dead straight. Even now, fifteen years after the war, although some growth had occurred in a few places, these were still some of the finest roads. For dust tracks, we were reaching unknown speeds – 100kmh-1. And there was nothing else around. We’d stop at a survey point and go off into the tall mopane, our boots sinking in the soft clay that deadened the noise of our tread. There was no human activity here, no mammals, only the occasional pigeon or eagle high in the sky above us. It was eerie. You looked down this long straight road for several kilometres in either direction and saw…nothing. Nothing but road and mopane and the sporadic lizard.
And we were driving into this now with dogdy Judith.