Lessons in bush travel

07/04/2014 11:12

Written by Chris McIntyre

In early November 2002, two German visitors borrowed a brand-new 4x4 to explore the South Luangwa. The car was a small, low-slung saloon, one of the latest models and very much state-of-the-art. It had on-board computers to control much of the vehicle, from the engine to the suspension.

Coming from Mpika, they entered the Luangwa Valley by the tricky ‘corridor’ road, successfully reaching the remote Chifungwe game scouts’ camp. They planned to take the road known locally as the ‘05’, which passes near the old site of Zebra Pans Bushcamp, before eventually reaching a crossroads near Nsolo Bushcamp, and then the heart of the Mfuwe area. It’s a dead straight road (with a bearing of about 5°), mostly through thick bush. It’s used very little, and was sure to be very quiet then as all the valley’s bushcamps close at the end of October.

All went smoothly until they were crossing the Mupamadzi River, about 3km after the scouts’ camp. Halfway across, they got stuck. Then the driver realised that he hadn’t locked his hubs (some 4x4 vehicles require one to physically turn a switch on the wheels), so he got out in the river and turned the hubs. Surprisingly, they managed to drive to the other side.

All seemed well and the pair continued south, but 25km further along the road, the car died. Water had got into the wiring; the car’s computer had shut down and with it the engine. If the car had broken down in the river, the two men would have been only 3km from the scouts’ camp. Now they were 28km away. As is normally wise, they decided to wait with their car for a passing vehicle to summon help. Unfortunately, 24 hours later, not one vehicle had passed by. The

‘05’ is one of many bush roads in Africa which may see only a handful of vehicles per year; just because it’s marked on the maps, it is a mistake to assume that it’s used frequently!

The men were starting to feel desperate. They had told nobody local what their plans were; nobody was expecting them anywhere. Nobody would raise an alarm. All they had with them was some fruit juice, water, butter and cheese, and the water was running out fast. They decided to walk to find help – southwards towards Mfuwe. After 25km, the elder of the two men, sore and tired, could walk no further. They agreed that he should stop there, whilst the younger, fitter man would continue. Then their fortunes turned: it rained. The older man, who had been sitting in temperatures of 43°C during the day, took off his clothes and lay on the ground to soak up the water. At 16.00 the next day, he was discovered at the side of the road by a scout patrol. He was naked and approaching delirium; the scouts estimated that he was about three to four hours from death.

Meanwhile, the younger man had continued walking through the night, but lost the main road whilst avoiding a small herd of elephants. Miraculously, in the morning he stumbled across Nsolo Bushcamp. Being November, everything had just closed down for the rains, but a rummage through the bins uncovered tin cans, while the dry river nearby yielded water where the elephants had dug up the bed with their tusks. Boiling the water in the cans on an open fire, the man felt better. The next morning, the scout patrol who had found his friend followed his tracks to Nsolo, and found him there. He was relatively well, although concerned by the two lionesses who had been watching him closely.

Both men were very lucky and now safe – but what of the car? It took nine hours to tow it northwards and back across the river. Then it rained for two days, and the river flooded – making the road impassable. Anyone who knows the area would have told them that November was a crazy time to drive across that river.

Meanwhile, a mechanic flew up to attempt repairs. Plugging his laptop into the car, he restarted its computer and had it working in minutes. Apparently it just needed resetting! Later the men learnt that it would have been possible to shut down the computer entirely.

There are many lessons to draw from this, but the big picture is clear. Unless you’re an experienced old Africa hand with a good network of local contacts, unless you take good advice, and drive a vehicle that you know, then driving yourself around the more remote corners of Zambia is asking for trouble. Just because this book indicates GPS positions and bush tracks, it does not mean that these routes are suitable for drivers who aren’t experienced in remote African travel.

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