To add to our tension, we had been told that close to the border were still uncleared mines. But we were also told that there was a fence that marked where the mines started, so we didn’t worry about this too much.
We headed towards the border down one of these roads and came to a clear T-junction. We turned right along the road parallel to the border. Obviously at one time this was how the Rhodesian army patrolled the border with Mozambique, checking for rebels. We stopped for a survey point and headed to the left, towards the border, which was still some 5 km away from this road on the MukumburaRiver.
Next to the road were some patches of grass and we stepped carefully through these. Grass in Zimbabwe is worse than nettles in the UK. They scratch you, stick seeds in your sock and generally irritate you for days on end. I’ve still got grass seeds in my walking socks I got from my trip to Zimbabwe in ‘93. Beyond the roadside scrub were a few juvenile trees, then a wide avenue parallel to the road. This was curious and we stepped on to reach the pristine mopane woodland on the other side. Once in the woodland, we were away from the metal of the road, and our boots sank gently into the clay with every stride. I set about with my survey, Bob saw a few trees and said “more or less 100% mopane”. Joe said it was clay but he might as well get some samples, so he dug in vigorously with his pick and started turning the panned earth over.
I spent a couple of minutes sizing up the area. It was dead flat. This area and many areas around were almost identical. Apart from the noise of Joe digging away, there was no sound whatsoever. That open strip of land parallel to the road still worried me. Where had I seen similar things before. I remembered, it was where people had cleared an area for some purpose, perhaps to get ready to lay telegraph wires. But no-one would have had telegraph wires out here. Perhaps to build a fence. I’d seen many fences in the bush, cattle or game fences, and the area around had been cleared for its construction. The gap could be so large that you could detect it on our satellite imagery. So a fence. Suddenly the horrific reality dawned. We had strayed across the old fence that was supposed to mark where mines had been laid. I whispered (why I don’t know) to Jo toe stop digging. Then I calmly explained my conclusions. I didn’t move because I supposed there might be mines anywhere. On reflection this was probably baloney, but you wouldn’t know where they might be ,and maybe close by the road was the most obvious place. Carefully we stepped back along the tracks we had taken into the area. They were clearly marked by the depression of the soft clay, and its continued give scared us half to death as we wondered what we were placing our feet on. I was never so relieved as to when we reached the road. I stopped at the cleared line and saw on the ground, the remains of fence posts chewed away by termites and rotting in the clay. I wondered when the last time anyone else had travelled this area.
Knowing that the mines would only have been laid on the north side, we continued down the military road and surveyed the south. We were now about 40 miles from the nearest hut let alone settlement. Here Judith struck again. We surveyed another site and got back in the van. No response came from the ignition. Try again. Still no response. It was at this point that we surveyed the road. It was dead flat in front of us for ½ a kilometre until a bend. Behind was the same. I was stuck with a man who was slightly less strong than I am (that is not saying much) and an old age pensioner. 40 miles from help. There was nothing for it but to try and push the vehicle along the flat road and try and build up enough speed to jump it into life. Bob and Joe pushed from the rear, I tried to push from the side, then jumped in, tried to start; failure. Try again. No luck, and my two other pushers were already decidedly worse for wear. After all it was extremely hot and dry. Ice Cold In Alex sprung to mind.
I decided to take a look along the road to see whether there was any chance of jump-starting down a slope. I walked the half-mile to the next corner, and saw what I already knew from looking at the map. Three more miles of dead straight, dead flat road, and there wasn’t even a gutter here to chance an off-road jump. We certainly weren’t going to chance the van in the potential minefield on the left. I came back and told them the news. There was nothing for it but to start pushing again. We called out to each other as we started pushing. I could hear Bob and Jo puffing behind me as the wheels started to turn. They shouted now, and I belted the clutch out. Judith coughed and spluttered and the ignition droned on for a few seconds as I tried to suck any juice I could into the engine. It was all in vain and the Land Rover glided to a halt ten yards in front of Joe and Bob. A small tick was heard as the roof expanded again in the heat, and then utter silence. The afternoon was wearing on. A night out here would be difficult.
Bob and Joe caught up with me. In desperation, I turned the ignition for one final time, and Judith roared back into life. I looked amazed at Bob who leapt in , with Joe lurching into the back seat and on we went.
The puzzle of Judith’s erratic start was finally solved about two weeks later on our way to an equally remote area called Busi Valley, and you can read about it there. But although Judith had all these quirks, she was a wonderful vehicle. She got us around northern Zimbabwe. She got us through the wilds of Mukumbura, Chizarira, and Busi Valley. And she became a home for us for five weeks. We were sorry to give her up when I drove her into the TTCB compound in Harare that last day.
A small postscript to what Judith taught me. About three weeks after I returned to the UK, I was in a car park in Rainham, Kent, with my land lady, who left her lights on while we went into a club. When we got in, no battery. I was a changed person. Two months earlier I would have said ring the AA, but no, I just asked for a little push, had the car in second gear and – bump- off it went.