Monday, 8 February 2010

The Road Via Hell

It was very hot.  I was very tired and hungry when I reach Mpanda Ndogo Mpanda, a small remote town situated in Western Tanzania.  But food and drink were the last things on my mind.  Something else was ― the topbox.

 The Top Box Carrier After Fixing it
I saw man on Honda 125cc, who said he was a mechanic; we rode to his workshop, well, under a tree where there were many other mechanics.  They all shared the same tools.  Meanwhile, about thirty people mostly young adults had gathered and remained around until my departure.  When I bought Scorpion, the topbox rack had only two plates holding her in place instead of the recommended six.  This oversight was the cause of my misery and twice, nearly brought my life to an abrupt end.  I removed the top box and explained that I wanted two extra sets of plates, nuts and bolts made to hold the topbox rack in place.  For the next two and half hours, he was in and out of the workshop.  Finally he had the plates fixed; he panel beat the Trax, cleaned and lubricated the chain.  As I waited, I ate a plateful of beans, meat and rice. I also recharged my camera and phone batteries.  For all his work the mechanic charged me about 10$.  He accompanied me to the Petrol station, where I filled up and departed for Uvinza. It was about 2:30 O’clock. 

As Mpanda disappeared behind me, the road began to travel through dense Miombo woodland.  I did not know what to expect but somehow I knew that I would finish what I had started.  The road was sandy, it herald difficult riding conditions.  For the first time on this odyssey, I rode to reach a destination: It was a drudgery and humdrum affair in which I settled.  As the day wore on, I covered more ground.  But the further I went, the denser and lonelier the forest became.  It was like I was being swallowed by an abyss.  And so, every time I reach a curve, I began to wish that the end was near but a little out of sight.  My mind also began playing games on me.  I was imagining things like fearsome creature peering through the woods and plotting all kinds of schemes to make a meal of me.  I was not really afraid but I could not help imagining these weird thoughts.  Flying insects added to my misery and above all the whining of a mosquito!  If one entered your helmet, it was a horrendous and unpleasant encounter when buzzed around the ear in its high pitch drone trying to find its way out.  There was only one way to deal with it ― remove the helmet and find it.

The sand grew increasingly thick.  At times the sand was more than a foot thick.  In these conditions, it was no wonder that by this time I had tumbled eight more times. If I were to detail each one of them, I’d need more space than I have in these narratives.   I will spare you the details but to say that I soon lost count.  I just wanted to reach Uvinza.  It was still raining sometimes just a drizzle and other times pouring heavily: I was wet, muddy and in very low spirits. 

My Zumo did not help matters very much, it had again given up its ghost.  So I could neither tell how far I still had to travel nor determine how far I had come.  It felt like navigating a craft without instruments except the road. 

Sometime during the cruise, I came across a Land Cruiser (it’s one vehicle you will find in no go places); I guess the driver stopped me more out of curiosity than any other reason.  I was glad at least someone cared and was interested in me.  He wanted to know where I had come from and where I was going.  I answered all his questions in a monotonous voice.  They’re very few things that can dampen my spirit, this road and rain had astoundingly succeeded.  When I asked about the road ahead, his answer was vague and not helpful at all.  It was the only vehicle I met this afternoon going the opposite direction. After the encounter, about 5 o’clock, I reached a T-junction (more like a Y-Junction) and took a wrong turn ― I could not decide which way to go.  Fortunately, after 5kms, I came across a group of boys who advised me to take the other road.  They were the first humans I had met in a while.

The ride was sometimes uphill and other times downhill.  I reached a place where the bridge had been wash away.  I did what all the other vehicles did ― I went round the obstacle.  It was a mistake that nearly cost me a night in the forest.  I got bogged.  I pulled, I pushed I did everything; Scorpion was so heavy that she just sank deeper into the mud.  After a period which seemed like an eternity, I heard voices behind the trees.  I said in the loudest of voices in Kiswahili:

“You people see I need your help, and yet you are hiding.  If you don’t come out, I will come and fetch you”   And sure enough the voices replied

“We are coming” the voices said. 

“But what is taking you so long?” I said impatiently.

“We are waiting for our friend”

They were teenagers when they finally emerged.  With a big thank you, in five minutes I was on my way.  I had lost about 45 minutes here.  Although I was exhausted, I was not going to spend the night in this forest.  My speed was reduced to 30kms per hour.  That is the way it was for the rest of the journey.  I reached another section of the road which was completely submerged in a pool of mud.  It was very slippery and twice I slid into the mud and went down.  I had long stopped counting the tumbles. 
This is the place I called the young man to help

Falling was no longer an issue; raising Scorpion was ― I came to dread lifting her more than tumbling.  She was draining too much of my energy lifting her up.  It was now raining heavily and pitch dark.  Fortunately Scorpion has some of the best headlights on bikes: I could see far and wide.  At my speed, I was not the slowest vehicle on the road.  I soon came across a truck that was travelling in my direction. For over 10kms, I was stuck behind this truck, even when I succeeded in passing it, it was a long long time before I finally saw lights signalling habitation.  The forest extended up to the edge of the town to which I came across rather abruptly. This was the slipperiest road I had ever ridden on but I managed to stay upright.

In the pitch blackness of the night, I came across a man who claimed he was a guard.  I asked him for the nearest lodgings.  I followed his directions.  This was not a well light town with hardly any street lights, but it was not a problem finding the lodge.  In my sodden condition, I needed two things: a hot bath and a bed.  I found both.  I lay on the bed knowing I had survived whatever was thrown at me.  If I had come this far and ridden this sordid portion of the trip, I could survive further assault.  For now sleep was beckoning.  I just wanted to sleep, sleep away all the tiredness.  It was the most peaceful sleep of the entire trip. I don’t even remember turning.

The Road Via Hell

Bogged Down 45 minutes extricating Scorpion

I lifted Scorpion onto her feet. There were no damages this time given that I was riding below 40Km per hour. I mounted her and road like nothing had happened. I had no cares whatsoever in the world but at this rate, this strip of the odyssey was in for a long haul. I submitted to my mundane fate; it was better for the health of my mind.

I need to emphasise that I experienced different weather patterns on this day. I started the journey with the day promising to be a great Mediterranean sunny day. But on entering the forest, the sun disappeared, which was replaced by sporadic rain. This dual-dance between rain and sunshine persisted for most of the morning and early afternoon. Thereafter until I reached my destination Uvinza some time at 10:17 East African Time, it was rain ― sometimes in buckets and sometimes just a drizzle.

One of my major losses the previous evening some place between Simbawanga and Mitumba, my Assault rain suit fell off the bike. It was the first thing I lost on this trip. Yet in spite of this set back, my Firstgear suit was quite adequate in protecting me against the elements.

By this hour, I was riding in Katavi National Park. The rain had stopped. This portion of the road was firm with neither sand nor mud. I was in a sanguine mood and adjusted my speed to 90kms. I recall this because I glanced at the instruments and the needle on the odometer looked like it was stuck on the digits 90. I burst into a clearing where the trees were more or less 100m from the road. I came round a fairly steep bend, and then hell simply broke loose. First it was the yoyo motion of Scorpion, and then she was galloping away, or shall I say she went berserk. I remember crying “dear Lord what is going on!” I was both surprised and very frightened. My heart was racing away too. There were times I was literally airborne: the bike jump to the right side of the road and then to the left, I had throttled down but was terrified to use the brakes given the slipperiness of the road left behind. I applied all my energies in controlling the direction of Scorpion; I wanted her to remain on the road. She swung back to the right into a trench. I succeeded to I wrestle her back onto the road and lo and behold I saw myself acrobatically airborne flying over the handle bars. I don’t know how long it took but I felt my head connect with the ground. I don’t know how many times I rolled; however gravity did not give me the luxury to roll forever. I finally came to a stop. Just when I thought it was over, in a fraction of a second, I saw Scorpion flying as if she had decided to somersault over me; but how? I closed my eyes. At that moment when I should have moved, I didn’t. I was frozen to the spot by what I had seen. I thought it was over. But only God knew the ending. Sometimes you do your best; other times you let the Higher powers take over. It seemed like an eternity before I heard the crush, away from me. How Scorpion’s 250kgs missed me, is something I ponder every day.

I lay there; how long I cannot tell. I knew I was crying because I could feel the warm tears flow over the side of my face. Slowly I sat up feeling my legs, my arms, my spine; I couldn’t be sure but it seemed okay in the interim. Then I just let go. Whoever said men don’t cry. I let them tears wash my cheeks. Well, I had the comfort of knowing I was alone. I did not know why I was cry; but it felt good to cry. I cried even more. But then something was burning; I quickly turned my head and saw smoke at the rear side of Scorpion. I climbed onto my feet so fast that I nearly toppled. My mattress had ‘untethered’ and come in contact with the exhaust pipe; it was that part that was burning.
It was not always easy.  Some of the toughest roads here.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the topbox was flung out of sight. The mirrors were broken, the right indicator was severely cracked, the right hand-guard had snapped off the handlebars, and the panniers had taken much more beating this time acquiring almost a new shape. An accident may seem a long time in happening but it actually happens in nano seconds. The realisation that I was in a forested game park, got me working quickly. It was about late morning ― three tumbles in a row were a painful torture to say the least. This state was exacerbated by the loneliness I was experiencing. Indeed, this was a very lonely road. Since morning, I had come across one truck going the opposite direction and none my way. There were no human beings in sight for miles. I was also feeling very tired, not just physical tiredness but that of these tumbles. I was quite certain that this last one was not my fault. There are things you can be dead sure of in life; this was one of them. A form of depression was creeping over me like a bad spirit was taking over my life. Understandably, after these morning events, every stimulus was surely in place to send me into a severe depression. But with sheer will power I refused to go that route. I was thinking about resuming my journey. But first I had to raise Scorpion.

She was loaded slightly more than 250kgs dead weight. Raising her each time was a pain and at feat: the former because I dreaded it, the latter because I looked forward to advancing the odyssey. I check her for further serious damages; there were none. The crush bars and the panniers had absorbed most of the shock. This was by far the hardest fall I had experienced. It was now that I removed my Arai helmet. It had quite gash on the rear side. It must have been a stone since this part of the road was littered with them. The helmet would simply have to be replaced. And where was my topbox? It was twenty meters behind a bush. I do not doubt that for the second time the topbox nearly killed me. It was time to give it a permanent solution in the next town.

An hour went by before I had everything secured onto Scorpion. I hit the start button and again, she yielded. I shouted “Scorpion” in absolute joy like a ten year old boy. I was still smiling when I pulled away. I was very grateful to God that I was shielded from ending the Odyssey prematurely and unceremoniously. In a pensive mood, I rode on for another 30kms before reaching Mpanda Ndogo Mpanda still shaking, dusty, hungry but alive and well. It was a very close call.

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