"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginning of the world, where vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest, the air was warm, thick, sluggish. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness." Joseph Conrad - The Heart of Darkness
From the Dragoman trip evaluation sheet I filled out in Nairobi:
What part of the trip did you enjoy the most? Zaire
What part of the trip did you enjoy the least? Zaire
The questionnaire covered the central African portion of my overland trip from Ghana to Kenya. And believe it or not, Zaire represented the best and worst - the high and the low - of my passage through the Heart of Darkness.
My Dragoman companions and I drove over 2000 km on unbelievably muddy, pot-holed roads crossing log bridges I was nervous about even walking across. Aside from the usual bastards at the border, we encountered corrupt, gun-toting officials in every single town along the way.
On a good day we covered 100 or more kilometers. On a bad day 10 or 20 kilometers was the best we could achieve. The pot holes, or bog holes as the Brits call them, were so huge a large truck could be swallowed up. One could walk from one side of the bog hole to the other by stepping across the roof of the truck!
Zaire normally has wet and dry seasons. This year nature forgot the dry one. We arrived at the start of the second wet season and required 33 days to reach the Ugandan border. During that time I did not shower; I did not change clothes.
At one point I lost all control over my bowels (correction to the above - I did change underwear once). The Spousal Unit came with a whisker of breaking her ankle on the first damn day.
And bugs? In the jungle? Let me quote Mary Kingsley, an intrepid Englishwoman who ventured deep into the African bush around the turn of the century.
"I should say, looking back calmly upon the matter, that 75 percent of West African insects sting, 5 percent bite, and the rest are either permanently or temporarily parasitic on the human race. And undoubtedly one of the many worst things you can do in West Africa is to take any notice of an insect. If you see a thing that looks like a cross between a flying lobster and the figure of Abraxis on a Gnostic gem, do not pay it the least attention, never mind where it is; just keep quiet and hope it will go away - for that's your best chance; you have none in a stand-up fight with a good thorough-going African insect."
To help you get a feel for this big, devilish country, here are a few tidbits of background information selectively culled from the Lonely Plant Guide for Central Africa (January, 1994 edition):
GENERAL: "The former Belgian Congo is to Africa what the forests of Brazil are to South America. Many would think you are out of your mind to travel overland. Going from one end of the country to the other can take a month. The road system is probably Africa's worst. ... You'll pass through some of the thickest rain-forests in Africa. Fortunately, the famous Primus beer seems to make its way into every nook and cranny of the country. Traveling overland is not for everyone by a long shot. Those that do won't have any trouble coming up with stories for their grandchildren, including hunting with the Pygmies."
HISTORY: King Leopold II of Belgium was the first European exploiter of the Congo. "A booming demand for rubber, following the development of rubber tires, saved him from going broke. The only problem was that the operations needed labor. Tribespeople who did not fulfill their quota of rubber for the bosses were maimed by the king's men. To prove that they had exacted the punishment, the gang bosses presented baskets of smoke cured human hands for inspection to their bosses. Such practices inspired Kurtz, the central figure in Joseph Conrad's short story 'Heart of Darkness', which was set in Zaire, to exclaim: 'The horror! The horror!'"
GOVERNMENT: Belgium did little to develop the Congo and absolutely nothing to prepare it for independence in 1960. The inevitable civil wars produced an inept, totally corrupt leader, Joseph Mobutu - the Big Man, whose sole aim is the megalomaniacal pursuit of wealth and power. The resulting economic chaos, government excesses and human rights abuses have created the scenes the West commonly sees in the media. An example:
"...in September 1991, all hell broke loose in Kinshasa [the capital of Zaire]. Army troops, once the bedrock of Mobutu's support, finally rebelled after many months of unpaid work. Rampaging and looting, they were soon joined by ordinary citizens, touching off the worst rioting in the city's history. Hundreds of major commercial establishments were stripped and destroyed. The attack on the General Motors assembly plant was typical of the catastrophic damage. As reported in the International Herald Tribune:"
"'The first wave, a Zairian military unit based at the nearby airport, stole all the plant's vehicles. A second wave of rioters took all the assembly-line equipment and everything else that wasn't welded down. There wasn't much left for the third wave of looters, so they took the walls and the roof.'"
ECONOMY: Does this sound like a place you would want to live? "On the economic front, per-capita incomes stand at US$180 (eighth-lowest in the world), continue to plummet while Mobutu's personal wealth, now an estimated US$6 billion, and the country's foreign debt, up to US$12.5 billion continue to grow.
Meanwhile, on the surface life in the cities looks fairly normal most of the time - hotels and restaurants open for business, taxis plough the streets, planes take off, market vendors sell food. But in reality, the chaos continues. The banks have virtually no money and doctors and teachers are on strike, so the capital's state-run hospitals and most schools, from first grade through to university level, are closed. With virtually no customs dues coming in, the government pays its bills by printing money. The notes are printed in Germany, then flown to Kinshasa and whisked away by helicopter to the yacht on the Zaire River that has become Mobutu's refuge. He than dispenses all cash as he sees fit, making sure he meets the monthly payrolls of this key military units.
Mobutu's extravagances continue. As he has done since the early 1980s, he continues to have his European hair stylist flown in every two weeks to cut his hair, at an estimated cost of US$5000 each trip - a total of more than US$1 million by early 1993.
For the common person, life remains at the brink. A typical government worker's salary, if he or she receives it, barely amounts to the equivalent of US$30 to US$40 a month, or roughly the price of two sacks of cassava, the amount to feed a family of four for a month. How do people make ends meet? Police at roadblocks collect matabiches (bribes) from motorists. Telephone operators at the post office must be tipped, otherwise your call will never be made. If you send out international mail, postal workers are liable to remove and resell the stamps. Any foreigners walking down the streets of Kinshasa in broad daylight, even if they are not wearing a watch or jewelry, are likely to be robbed, possibly mugged as well."
ROUTE: Due to the unusually wet conditions most of the interior roads really were impassable. We could not follow the traditional overland route diagonally across NE Zaire via Kisangani. Reports of stranded truck drivers starving to death when their vehicles became hopelessly mired in the mud were not encouraging.
Faxes from the Dragoman office in London directed us to the only route still open in northern Zaire. It entailed entering Zaire from Bangassou in C.A.R., heading southeast to Buta, and then going east and south following the Zairian border until a safe place to cross into Uganda can be found.
According to Lonely Planet: "The third route from Bangui to Kisangani is via Bangassoou and Buta. This used to be the most popular route but is now the least traveled due to its terrible condition. For those with vehicles, the ferry at Bangassou is very unreliable and usually not operating. Since this route does not pass along the Zaire River at any point, it also means your missing out on the possibility of taking the riverboat to Kisangani, which is why I don't recommend it even for hitchhikers."
Our drivers were not familiar with this route which whetted their appetites and excited the rest of us. The truth is we were quite relieved. As we passed through West Africa, Dave had been receiving faxes that some critical ferry had run aground and would not be freed until the next wet season. This meant we would have to overfly Zaire and miss the jungle experience.
Once again, from Lonely Planet: "Here's what one traveler, John Kelly, had to say about it [overland travel in Zaire] 'From Kisangani we headed to Bukavu via Lubutu, It was mid-March, a distance of 1200 km and it took us 10 days putting in at least 10 hours every day. Any further into the wet season and we would have been stuck in Zaire for some time.
It rates as the most desperate piece of road I've ever encountered. It should not be attempted by people not willing or equipped to dig themselves out of bogs above their wheel-arches up to five or six times a day. There are log bridges that will need rebuilding and a well-directed prayer before you can cross. A good winch would be your single most valuable possession, and even in the dry season if you need parts or service on your vehicle, it's going to take several weeks to get to either and back. We spent five days in the middle without seeing another vehicle. Even when perfectly dry it would be a bloody horrible road because it is cut up so much. It was quite an achievement to get through it and is amongst my most vivid memories of Africa."
DANGERS & ANNOYANCES: Security is a major problem in most of Zaire but since we had trained in C.A.R., we were ready. Plus we were avoiding major cities like Kinshasa, the capital, where foreigners are reputedly fair game, day or night. With our capable leaders, we were only moderately intimidated by obnoxious military, dishonest officials and black market petrol sellers. Of much greater concern was the possibility of a medical emergency when we were mired in the middle of nowhere.
Photography, my Achilles' heel on this trip, offered the usual potential for trouble. Permits were required, sometimes different ones for different parts of the country.
"Even with a permit you must be extremely cautious in photographing anything in the cities as police are sure to question you and are likely to fabricate some rule you've violated. Moreover, taking photos of dams, government buildings airports, bridges, ports (i.e. anything of military importance) and personnel is forbidden. Police have nabbed travelers for taking snapshots at markets, so be very careful."
MONEY: Zaire is one of the few countries in the world where you can use their bank notes as toilet paper and not jeopardize your travel budget.
"The unit of currency is the Zaire (Z). Inflation is high; in late 1989 one US dollar was worth Z441, but by mid-1992 the rate had soared to Z265,000. Real prices, however, are fairly constant because the Zaire is constantly being devalued. The black-market rate is usually in the range of 15 to 60% better, depending on how recently the last devaluation occurred, and it usually improves the further you go from Kinshasa. The variation is incredible. One group of travelers reported receiving Z185,000 for US$1 in Zongo, Z350,000 in Kisangani and close to Z480,000 in Goma!"
Since there is nothing to buy in the jungle, we have hidden most of the cash away. If crooked officials ever saw currency declarations listing thousands of dollars and pounds, they would find a way to partake. This way all they can steal is traveler's checks which are not of much value in the grass hut world. Of course, we must be absolutely certain no vehicle search ever reveals a windfall of undeclared (and confiscatable) currency. On the trillion to one odds that a Zairian might read this Klimagram, I must keep the hiding place secret to protect future Dragoman trips. Of course, this assumes the Zairian in question a) has a computer with Internet access, b) has electricity to run the computer, c) can read. We did, whoever, save tin cans and bottles to barter for food in the villages.
FINAL THOUGHT: One might ask: why the heck are we so keen to traverse Zaire? Why doesn't Dragoman, like some other overland companies, overfly it and avoid the hassles? The answer is obvious to me - because it is there, because it will be a challenge, because it will be an awful and wonderful experience, because it is Africa - the untamed Africa of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Shame on you for asking!
Subsequent Klimagrams about my Zairian journal will regurgitate entries from my personal diary. Please excuse the excessive references to bathing (not), bowels and bugs. If you want greater authenticity, roll around in deep mud every day for a couple weeks of hot, sticky weather. Then sleep, unwashed, in a tent under a sprinkler at night. To go all the way, arm your neighborhood delinquents with AK-47s and somehow lure half the bugs in North America to your backyard and feed them steroids. Then read slowly.
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved.
At lunch on the bank of the Oubangui River we stare across at the lush, green world that awaits us on the other side - Zaire. This is the country overlanders love or hate but always respect. "You've done Zaire, eh?"
We are filled with excitement and foreboding. Once we cross the river, there is no turning back. We must find a way through the jungle to Uganda or return home defeated. Even with the SuperBitch, as Claudia , our truck, is affectionately called, our leaders, Dave and Helen, cannot do it alone. Overlanding can be pretty physical at times and it will take a concerted effort by all to achieve success.
Dave gave us quite a pep talk last night after dinner. "A wet season passage will be bloody difficult - physically demanding, more on some of you than others. Not everyone will be able to contribute equally but each should pitch in to the best of his or her ability. Everyone would have good and bad moments. We would need to reconcile our differences when opinions disagreed or tempers flared. What one took away from the experience would be proportional to what one put in. When this trip is over and you have time to look back, you will invariably say that crossing Zaire was the highlight, the most unforgettable part, of your overland trip."
"And don't forget that Zaire is the big time for corruption and bribes, far beyond the nuisances of Nigeria. Previous Dragoman trucks have coughed up from $200 to $2000 during the transit of Zaire. Don't screw up! Once we get in that jungle, they've [corrupt officials] got us."
The ferry on the Oubangui River was a remarkable example of backyard engineering using materials that had already served one or two lifetimes somewhere else. Three separate hulls, each resembling a giant row boat, were held together by large sheets of steel lying across their beams. At the rear of the center hull stood the pilot house. You really had to see it to believe what people can do with a pile of rusty metal and greasy chains. In a vague way it resembled a tiny aircraft carrier on a trimaran hull.
The craft was hopelessly underpowered which probably increased the proficiency of the crew. Recovering from navigational errors took a lot of time and precious fuel (which, of course, was supplied by the vehicle being ferried). Extending beyond the steel plates making up the deck were narrow ramps for loading and unloading. The pilot would parallel the shoreline and maneuver to within a couple meters of the bank. A cable was anchored on-shore to hold the ferry steady while you drove on, straddling all three hulls. The ferry could just barely accommodate a single large truck!
Overlanders don't usually enter Zaire at Bangassou so the ferry boys were not familiar with a truck as big as Claudia. The passengers stood on a steep bank amid a crowd of locals and watched as Dave slowly descended with air brakes hissing. As the front wheels hit the ramps, the ferry pulled away by loosening its anchor cable attached to a stake on shore. People rushed to hold the stake in the ground but they were no match for a 16 ton truck. Dave moved the truck forward but the ferry drifted even further. Then everything stopped as the truck's rear wheels began spinning.
Hot damn, our first disaster and we weren't even on Zairian soil yet! The front wheels of the truck were halfway up the flimsy loading ramps. The rear wheels were in the water but had lost traction because the rear bumper was stuck on the shore. The wheel-base of the truck was too long for the steep angle of the bank. The truck could go neither forward nor backward. We all wondered - could Claudia float?
Pandemonium ensued among the Drago people, the ferry crew and the crowd of onlookers. We re-anchored the ferry and broke out pickaxes and shovels to dig away the bank. Then we shoved heavy wooden planks behind the rear wheels. They still spun. We waded out to the ferry to push and tried again to back the truck up. No luck!
In a bold move, Dave gunned the truck forward. The rear wheels had inched backward just enough to get a smidgen of traction on the wooden planks. As a result, when Dave gambled on going forward, he was able to drag the tailgate free and surge up onto the ferry. There was very little room to spare. For a man who loves "a bit of drama", Dave looked mighty relieved as we sailed toward the canopy of tall trees on the opposite shore.
In retrospect the incident probably doesn't warrant a disaster rating. We were in a town with other vehicles. If the anchor had pulled loose again, the truck would have come to a halt in deeper water. Since the river was quite broad, one can presume there was not a steep drop-off and certainly Dave can swim. So the only unpleasantness would have been unloading the cooking and camping gear to spend the night while a rescue vehicle with a winch was located. Then again, if I was driving and responsible for the pride of the Dragoman fleet, I might carry a different view. Actually I think Dave was more nervous about shoehorning Claudia on to the ferry's deck. Imagine roaring aboard under the circumstances I have described above and stopping precisely with only a couple feet to spare on either end!
After landing, we drove a few hundred yards and set up camp under several large trees filled with yellow weaver birds and their unusual hanging nests. The sun set nicely through the trees as we listened to the jungle for the first time. It was a pleasant night until it began raining. Hello Zaire!
By morning our smooth earthen camp site in front of the immigration office in Ngu was a sea of mud from a night of rain. We mounted the heavy chains on the front wheels as well as the outside wheels on both rear axles. Then we sat around staring at our first pygmy. Meanwhile our leaders negotiated entry fees with Zairian customs. The final tab came to $750: $15 per person, $10 per camera and a bunch extra for the truck.
By noon we rolled out of town on a skinny dirt road which I was astonished to see was no more than a rutted track into the rain forest. The foliage was so thick we had to leave the windows up because branches kept poking inside. In reminded me of being in a car wash with green brushes scouring the windows.
Going up a small hill the truck got stuck for the first time. We broke out our heavy planks - eight feet long, a foot wide and four inches thick. They go under the wheels, usually front and rear, to provide traction. First, however, a foot or two of mud must be removed from in front of the wheels. The mud was heavy, red clay. Shovels and feet became mired in it - the only effective way to get at it was on hands and knees.
Thus began the laborious process of creeping along in bursts similar to the way we used to mat our way through sand. Dig out the wheels, position the planks, drive forward, unearth the planks and do it again. The work is hard and dirty but our gang has plenty of energetic, young lads whose c is infectious.
At one point the Unit stepped from the tilted truck, slipped and took a bad fall. It was just one of those stupid little accidents like what happened with me and my laptop. But everyone was very concerned because we all heard a muffled crack when she toppled. Injuries may be inevitable with such physical activity under adverse conditions but a broken ankle in the central African rain forest was very uncool - convalescing as we struggle across the most difficult part of our overland journey is not a pleasant prospect for patient or pseudo-nurse (me).
After consulting our real nurse, Martin, we moved her to the rear of the truck, elevated and wrapped her ankle, and prayed. By nightfall we reached the top of the hill and set up the tents in the road. Presumably there was no traffic at night. The unit was able to hobble around a bit so maybe the break was not severe - a trip stopper, assuming we could find a way to evacuate her from the jungle. I say again - Hello Zaire!
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All right reserved.
To put some closure on the Dragoman passage through Zaire, here's a bit of poetry from one of the survivors, an Australian who should now be residing on a kibbutz in Israel. (Note: Trevor refers to any native African)
The Rhyme of the Ancient Overlander
by Michael Bryne
We dine on wine and caviar
by the river at Bangassou.
Our high spirits, they are tempered
by the ferry and the view.
Across the water is our mission,
twelve hundred miles are lurking there.
A shiver goes down each one's back
as we recognize Zaire.
Trev and his uncle are on the ferry.
I think Trevor is his name.
The captain he is Trevor,
and his brother is the same.
As the chain comes loose and the truck slides off,
no one seems to care.
I guess they did their training
'cross the river in Zaire.
Trevor calls to his nephew
but Trevor thinks he means his brother.
So Trevor yells out to Trevor,
but Trevor want the other.
Are they stupid or retarded?
Are they amateurs? Au contraire!
Forget the real world, buddy,
we are entering Zaire.
Day by day and mile by mile
the work begins to take its toll,
as we inch around each fallen tree,
as we survive each muddy hole.
There are massive strips of chewed up road
that give us quite a scare.
But we ride with the Valkyries,
ride right across Zaire.
The snakes all run the other way
the hornets aren't so kind.
While we're watching out for spiders,
the ants sneak up behind.
There are paw prints in the mud
and pterodactyls in the air.
"Jurassic Part" I think was filmed
on location in Zaire.
Pineapple and banana
become our staple food.
Each meal is dog or kidney beans,
but each meal is mighty good.
The talk revolves 'round steak and cheese.
Our dreams? Chocolate eclair.
It's not rude, when I stare at your legs,
I'm sick of dehyd. in Zaire.
Then one day we stop in Buta
for an unexpected break.
'Cause you can give your pens to locals
but bureaucrats are on the take.
I recognize the insignia
on the badges that they wear.
It's the Bribe Extraction Unit,
Transport Section, of Zaire
In Africa, it's nice to know,
you can pay off your road tax
in corned beef and bottles of whiskey,
cans of sardines and biscuit packs.
I hope, one day, I'll read about
what they'll dub the Walkman Affair"
of some little official being shot
down at Buta, in Zaire.
Before I traveled on this trip
I used to eat alone.
It doesn't matter when you spill your food
if you're eating on your own.
It's not my truck mates who make me eat slowly
but the locals who stand and stare.
One slip of your fork and 60 Trevs laugh.
When you're eating in Zaire.
When we come across a log bridge
we measure and we test.
We put planks on every second one
and across on the rest.
Though he's careful, Dave's still crossing
on two diff. locks and a prayer.
But he could drive across a rope bridge
if we found one in Zaire.
Sometimes, when we stop and set
our camp up for the night,
we leave the truck lights burning
as Trevs and tigers hate the light.
In the rain you just can't see
what it is that moves out there.
It's no fun giving up two hours sleep
on guard duty in Zaire.
Then - my God! The fan belt's leaking!
or - the flaget's out of sync!
Lets jack the cabin up again
'cause the turbo's on the blink.
Every strange noise that the truck makes
fills me with despair.
It's a long way from a service station
in the middle of Zaire.
I understand that Eskimos
have 15 words for ice.
Well I have 16 words for bog hole,
and none of them are nice.
There are lots of thrilling fun park rides
more chilling than I can bear,
but the scariest roller coaster
is the "Super Dip" Zaire.
My bowels, they are a tyrant,
unforgiving and unkind.
Any meal that I enjoy
is enjoyed more by my behind.
I've developed callused hands
from all those holes for my derriere.
Yes, there's a place forever England
in some corner of Zaire.
If you paint a scene of Zaire,
there's one color you will use.
Forget about you color chart,
you won't need no pastel hues.
It's brown you'll want, because this place
is one long mud nightmare.
And paint it thick - that's all I recall
of my sojourn in Zaire.
All my clothes have gotten dirty.
God, they're muddy to the core.
I've got skidmarks on some clothing
I've not had skidmarks on before.
There's one complete soil sample
smeared across all that I wear.
Each t-shirt's now a souvenir
of my four weeks in Zaire.
The days drag on. We drag ourselves
'cross the progress chart, inch by inch.
And to think, when I read the trip notes,
three weeks sounded like a cinch.
My grandfather fought in World War One
through mud and trench warfare.
Well, pop, I know why was is hell
I dug a trench across Zaire.
And Zaire's a jealous mistress
possessive till the end.
Almost at the border - a combination
bog and bend. We work for hour on hour.
Now, did we pack a flare?
It just shows you don't relax
till you actually leave Zaire
Some people climb up Everest.
I don't think that's so hard.
A solo sail around the globe?
It's like a stroll in my backyard.
So you've trekked in the Antarctic?
Well boast then, if you date!
I'm not easy to impress my friend
cause I made it across Zaire
Thank you Michael for showing us how many words rhyme with Zaire. Now here are a couple final observations of my own, images culled from that memorable day when we rolled out of Zaire.
The first is a young, robust-looking African woman bent double under the weight of a huge, white sack of goods - at least four feet long and half that amount wide. What does it contain? Charcoal? Yams? It lies across her shoulders like the cross piece in a crucifix. The woman wears cheap plastic sandals on her feet and a sheet of brightly-colored cotton around her body. Her hips are wide and her legs look very strong. She leans far forward to balance the load on her shoulders and back, holding it in place with a tump line stretched taut across her forehead. Riding on top of the sack and straddling her neck is a little boy who is laughing and enjoying his vantage point immensely.
The woman is breathing hard and sweating heavily but when she trudges past on the opposite side of the road and spots the big Dragoman truck, she stops and slowly surveys it from one end to the other. Eventually her gaze returns to the open window through which I am looking. Even though her head is tilted down from the strain of her load, our eyes meet. Her face breaks into one of those incomparable, broad African smiles with gleaming white teeth set against an ebony background.
I smile back and gesture that I would like to take her photograph. To me, she seems to epitomize the fate of most women in Africa: hard manual labor and child rearing. The woman giggles and resumes shuffling down the street past a large group of men sitting in the shade playing cards. For a long time I try to imagine why she appears satisfied with the present and what her hopes for the future might be. It is a futile effort because, although I have been working my way across the Dark Continent for over four months, I know little about the personal lives of its inhabitants.
The second image is equally striking and provocative: the truck is cruising down a dirt road approaching the Ugandan border when we spot a local bus coming towards us. It is a typical representation of the decrepit mass transport one sees in the third world. The bus is stuffed with passengers, their belongings and all sorts of freight. You wonder how everything can fit until you have ridden on one. People and goods are packed on in an incremental fashion so that a little more can always be added - the bus is never considered "full". Roped to the roof of this bus are all manner and shape of personal possessions: baskets of chickens, large stalks of plantains, stacks of foam mattresses and clusters of plastic oil containers. Sitting above all that are the roof passengers, hanging on for dear life as the bus lurches to and fro.
But what distinguishes this bus, its utterly unforgettable feature, is its front windshield. It is divided into two halves. The left side is glass but the right side contains a sheet of plastic. The glass on the left side has three bullet holes right in the center, cracks radiating outward concentrically from each. The plastic sheet on the other side is very dirty. To see through it, the driver has cut an opening, maybe a foot square in the middle. We can see him peering out to watch the road ahead.
For this image it takes little imagination to speculate about what circumstances might have led to the windshield's demise - a ghastly night time ambush by bandits, a bloody attach by undisciplined insurgents or, perhaps, a violent confrontation with rioting soldiers - not uncommon occurrences in this part of the world. It really doesn't matter what. The bus had been patched up and now continues to ply its routes across the vast, green landscape. If only some of the African tribes and nations could forget past injustices and tragedies and move similarly onward.
As the bus squeezes past us, its passengers wave and shout - fellow travelers in a difficult land for travel. At the back of the roof, lying on a pile of cushions, is a scruffy-looking white man. He looks across at me sitting high over the cab of the Dragoman truck and slowly gives a cocky smile. I grin back and we salute each other's adventure. Then we are each off in opposite directions, probably seeking the same things.
The Dragoman Western Trans Africa trip crossed the border into Uganda at 3 PM of June 19 with much cheering and 51 tins of dog meat (corned beef) left. It had taken us 33 days to cross 2009 km of Zaire - an average of 60 km or 38 miles per day. We covered 200 km in each of the first two weeks and then 1000 km during the third week when we left the jungle for the Savannah along the northern border.
Everybody's clothes are ragged, torn and filthy. No one has had a decent wash since Bangui, thirty-five days ago. The truck is caked with mud and laden with the accouterments of rough travel: wooden planks, steel mats and bundles of logs. The neat and tidy, English-speaking Ugandans stare at us. They know where we have been. In turn we goggle at the shiny new cars, huge produce stands, well-provisioned shops, herds of dairy cows and rolling hills with tea plantations. Hey Mabutu, look at this - civilization!
The group is elated and feeling victorious. Zaire is unquestionably the most challenging travel experience I have ever faced. I am honored to have shared it with a very hard-working, selfless group of fellow adventurers.
We bought supplies for a celebratory meal of stuff-in-a-pot and chocolate cake and headed down the PAVED road. In Queen Victoria Game Park we saw our first big game, herds of Ugandan bok and a few elephants, among the flat-topped acacia trees. Later we stopped at the equator and several men proved it is possible to pee in the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. I don't know what the women did on their side of the road.
Dave found a marvelous hilltop overlooking the game park on which to camp. The mood was buoyant - no more stifling humidity, sticky mud or obnoxious bugs. Instead we sat on soft grass basking in the cool, dry air of East Africa.
If there ever was a time for a party, this was it. The festive mood was guaranteed by the bar boys who priced drinks at 70 cents a shot, 90 cents a double and one dollar for a triple. It was a riotous night of gin and tonics, tequila sunrises and green lagoons. The next morning my picture appeared on the 'Wall of Shame' as the week's Happy Hour Legend for allegedly declaring "I'm not copulating amongst all these damn people" as the Unit and I stumbled off to bed.
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved
Following are diary entries from our first, eye-opening week in Zaire. They are representative of the day-to-day challenges we faced.
Sunday, May 19 - bushcamp in the road (53 km today)
The truck is full of mud and our clothes are not far behind. In the aisle and under the seats are muddy planks and tools (shovels, pickaxes, sledge hammers, machetes and saws), bags of tin cans, cases of beer and soda, jerry cans for the chains and fifteen pairs of boots which seem to have doubled in size from dried mud. The overhead webbing is festooned with clothing and other mud-free possessions.
After a breakfast of porridge we stack the tents on the roof and continue down the rutted trail Zaire calls a road. It is so primitive it wouldn't qualify as a 4WD road back home. Lucky for us Claudia has a very high clearance and the eight big tires (waist high on me) on the rear axles are merciless on the muddy ruts, especially with the heavy duty chains (I can just barely lift one chain!).
It is obvious from the obstacles we encounter, fallen trees and branches, that no other vehicles have used the road recently. The group splits into red and blue teams who alternate leaping forward to clear the road. Low hanging bamboo is the worst because it breaks funny, leaving very sharp edges. We now know why Dragoman insisted we bring heavy gardening gloves. Twice we have to use a heavy steel cable to pull away fallen trees from the road.
The bog holes are a bear! Each time we come to one, Dave and Helen carefully examine it in their bare feet to decide whether to charge through or do a bit of construction depending on the quantity and consistency of the mud, the depths of the parallel ruts in the bog hole itself and the angle of the entrance and exit ramps. Remember we are talking about BIG bog holes, tens of meters long and up to ten feet deep, often filled with a meter of water and horrendously torn up from the passage of previous trucks in near death struggles to get out.
When all is ready, Claudia is eased ever so gently down into the hole to make sure the tail gate doesn't get hung up like it did back on the Oubangui River. Once in, she then roars through, fishtailing between the banks of the bog hole, sometimes tilted at dangerous angles by the uneven ruts. It is awesome to watch and not unlike a roller coaster ride if you elect to ride inside.
Late today the truck got mired in a nasty bog hole. It was a little sucker with steep sides of very slippery mud. Excavating the tires and laying down planks didn't work. We had to drain the bog hole using plastic bowls and then scrape away the soft, oozy mud by hand. Ugh!
Despite the work it is a great day - we marvel at the lush greenery, the gorgeous butterflies and scattered clusters of mud and thatch huts. The natives come running out when we rumble by to barter fruit for tin cans. The Unit is limping around with a cane, much to my intense relief. The group is responding well to totally uncomfortable surroundings. I am impressed!
Monday, May 20 - bushcamp in the road (28 km)
Last night we cracked open the chicken eggs we have been acquiring one or two at a time. Apparently the locals were snatching eggs from under the hens because six of the eight contained embryos in development. One was even moving after we emptied the shell! Everyone lost their appetite for eggs - no brownies for desert.
Rain poured down last night so everything is wet as well as muddy. When I was hacking out tent space I toppled a termite mound but luckily the insects did not seek revenge. With the truck half full of food and gear, personal space is extremely limited, especially when rain forces everyone inside or under the awning we use for cooking. The tent is our only refuge and we treasure its dryness.
Last night we heard the screams of a tree hyrax for the first time. It is a most blood-curdling sound and quite unsettling when you are standing (or squatting) in the blackness (starlight and moonlight often don't penetrate the canopy overhead) during a midnight toilet run. Even without the screaming it is a scary feeling to switch off the torch and let your imagination of nocturnal activity run wild.
At Momo we lunch on the grounds of a mission. Food is more on everyone's mind because there is no 'supplemental' food to buy. Even onions, which I loath and, are looking less objectionable. The new cooking strategy is to make a huge dinner and eat the leftovers cold for the next day's lunch, hopefully between two slices of bread if the previous night's bakers were successful. Sustaining oneself solely on the truck's supplies for the next month is quite a question to ponder.
Nighttime - we stop at dusk just short of a deep water crossing and set up in the road. As usual, we are an obstacle for locals on their bicycles laden with cooking oil, live chickens, enormous sacks of snails and ancient shotguns. The ants are bad (the truck is full of them from plowing through the foliage) but at least it is not raining. I am exhausted from pick axing hard soil, chopping trees and dragging heavy planks about. When the sun is out, the hard labor produces sweat in epic quantities, exponentially raising my body odor. To think I was bored sitting on the bus all day as we rolled through Cameroon and C.A.R.!
Tuesday, May 21 - Pango Pango Village (18 km today)
Tough day for bridges! The log bridges were originally quite well built - massive logs laid across a stream, shaved flat on their topside, and covered with planks. Usually they are small, only one or two truck lengths. Nowadays all the planks are gone and the logs themselves tend to be rotted or collapsed. Each time our leaders carefully evaluate the integrity of the logs that remain.
So far we have been fortunate in that the distance between the front wheels usually has matched the width between two remaining logs. When it doesn't, we scrounge logs and use our planks to fill the gaps. If the logs don't look strong enough, we wade into the stream and put braces underneath. The truck carries long, heavy jacks (acros) for this very purpose.
The first bridge this morning was so broken down we had to use a muddy bypass right through the stream itself. Fortunately three feet of water doesn't bother Claudia. Later we had another bridge with logs barely wider than the front tires. Precision driving by Dave and pinpoint guiding from Helen got the truck over but not before we put planks down to catch the front axle if a wheel slid off the log. You should have seen the rear wheels- twin duals - straddling the log which was quivering under the weight of the truck!
Later we ferried across another river. Of course the ferry was on the opposite bank when we arrived. We sat in the sun admiring the butterflies fluttering through the truck. We were hoping for a rainless day or at least a dry evening for cooking and baking. My pastel yellow shirt is truly skanky (another new English word) - stiff with dried perspiration and now reddish-brown in color. Clean, white soft clothing is only a dream!
Eventually a pirogue came across the river, carrying two men on bicycles loaded with dead monkeys. Dave went back across with a couple gallons of diesel - legal tender here in the jungle and necessary to get the ferry started. The ferry was another rickety contraption with a noisy, sputtering engine. There was a minor problem - the ferry was rated for 12 tons and the truck weighed 16 (empty). No problem - we removed our personal gear and rode across separately.
The red and blue teams are refining their lumberjack skills but at the end of the day they met their match - a monstrous old growth tree, at least a meter in diameter, lying across the road. It stretched a couple hundred feet back into the forest. The locals were cutting off the bottom part to use in a bridge. Claudia and her steel cable rotated the massive log 90 degrees so it was parallel to the road. Then, much to the joy of the locals, we dragged it down the road as far as we could. That log would have been a challenge for a logging truck. God knows how the natives will move it several kilometers to the bridge site!
We are camped on the smooth, dry, hardpacked ground of a Dragoman-friendly village, Pango Pango, tonight. We can photograph to our hearts content - a rare treat. The boys break out the soccer ball and challenge all the kids. The Unit and I go at bread making in earnest. We set up our little folding chairs in a semicircle around the fire and celebrate over 100 km so far in Zaire and 100 days since we left Dover. What a relief to be off that wet, muddy, rutted road!
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved.
Wednesday, May 22 - Bushcamp in the road (22 km today)
Arggh! My stomach has revolted from the chili con carne from last night. Cramps and foul gas put me on the DL (disabled list) all day. Fortunately the truck stopped frequently to deal with obstacles so I had no problem getting out when I needed to. The big excitement today was dislodging a bees' nest as we pushed through the foliage. During the mad scramble to close the windows, many people got stung, including the Unit just below her eye.
Another challenging bridge today - the boys spent hours in a murky, slow-moving stream placing reinforcing rods under a weak log. They later developed a strange rash on their legs. The steel rods held as the truck passed over, then immediately collapsed.
Dave's bag of tricks for getting our behemoth across questionable bridges is impressive. He always takes plenty of time to carefully examine each situation and then tells us what we need to do. This is where the prudent judgment of an experienced overland driver is crucial. But in the end it is just an educated guess. There is no way to guarantee the integrity of a bridge.
Each time we all watch with bated breath (and cameras ready) as Dave inches out, listening for telltale noises, eyes glued on Helen standing in front of him on the bridge. At the first inkling of trouble, he backs up quickly. As long as the rear wheels are on solid ground, there are no big worries. Most scary are the longer bridges where the logs must bear the entire weight of the truck. Keeping the tires centered on smooth logs is not easy and Helen sweats bullets as she directs Dave across. Once the front wheels are halfway across, Dave usually revs the engine and moves rapidly to the other side. Needless to say, all the passengers, even the Unit with her bad foot, evacuate the truck during these moments of drama.
Thursday, May 23 - Bush camp in the road (23 km today)
We are all getting used to large bugs sharing our space. It's the little ones that bite or sting that are a pain (spiders excluded - everybody hates them). It can be uncomfortable, however, when a big one lands on you. This morning our pet praying mantis, all five inches of it, jumped on my head. We keep it around because it eats other bugs. Once in a while we find hand-sized moths stuck on the ceiling in the morning but they are quite benign and too big to disturb anyway.
Bugs falling off branches slapping against the windows are a constant problem. Claudia must be bigger than most trucks because the vegetation, especially the enormous clumps of bamboo, frequently rakes the sides, front and top of the truck. The front windshield is already cracked in a couple places. Speaking of other vehicles, we saw one today, the first in the five days we have been in Zaire.
Last night was a bad night for my bowels. Although I poured plenty of water into my body, it was a losing battle - waves of cramps would be followed by the immediate urge to expel. It rained most of the night which exasperated the problem. The cramps would give me 15 - 30 seconds of warning during which time I had to locate flashlight, loo paper and shovel, pull on my jacket and sandals and fumble my way out of the tent in the darkness. The Unit was able to contain her mirth during this frantic activity because she was sharing the tent and knew the consequences of failure. It was a grim night - I had basically lost control over my bowels. Even worse, during one of my escapes, I lost one of the precious shovels in the dark - a capitol crime in the eyes of our drivers.
While I recuperated in the bus today, the rest of the group carried out our daily routine: clearing branches from the road, re-building bridges and shoveling mud out of bog holes. Minor injuries are accumulating - cuts, bruises, sprains and burns - from camping chores and manhandling heavy stuff. That, coupled with a debilitating illness or two like mine keep a couple people on the DL at any point in time.
Friday, May 24 - camping on the grounds of a mission near Bonda
Today we set the record for log bridges, crossing 18, yes eighteen of them. Only one needed major work so we were able to cover 48 km in spite of them.
Forests of bamboo continue to predominate this part of the jungle. We dislike it because the big stalks break unexpectedly when we bend it, are tricky to saw or chop, and split hazardously when we do cut it. Chris cut his finger to the bone today when his machete sprang back on him.
Spiders were our nemesis today. One fell through the rear roof seat, causing panic in the rear of the bus (oops, sorry Dave, I meant Truck) until Mike killed it with a rubber mallet. Then two hand-sized monsters were discovered in the mission's loo. It was a real bummer because the loo had a sit down toilet which we were all enjoying. Fortified by their ration of Carling Black Label beer, several of the braver lads assaulted the loo, killing one spider and maiming the other. The latter escaped, preventing anyone from using the loo for fear of reprisals. The Unit and I were lucky - we had used the facilities just before the brutes were uncovered. We had forgotten to bring a flashlight which, in hindsight, was a rather fortuitous memory lapse.
Saturday, May 25 - bushcamp somewhere
Dave has installed a dangle-o-meter for our entertainment when the ride gets rough. It consists of a plumb line (a bolt tied to a length of string) and a graduated scale that looks like an upside down protractor. When the truck is on level ground, the bolt hangs straight down at the zero degree mark. If the ground is uneven causing the truck to tilt, the dangle-o-meter indicates the angle at which the truck is tilted. It is not unusual to see it oscillate between -20 and +20 degrees as we lurch through a badly-rutted stretch of road. Seeing a 10 meter long, 3.9 meter high truck careen along makes you wish you had a video camera. Being inside the truck watching the dangle-o-meter makes you wish other people would use their seat belts so you could too. I won't mention what happens if the dangle-o-meter hits 45 degrees.
We stopped in the town of Bondo to buy diesel and admire the huge, abandoned church buildings left behind by the colonials. They are all falling apart because the Africans have no use for them, preferring their straw huts. The exchange rate is 30,000 to 1 but there is nothing to buy except cigarettes. All the cash is hidden away. Our exchange rate in the villages is one beer bottle for a few eggs, a couple tin cans for a pineapple and a large tin or plastic bottle for a clump of bananas.
Afterward we endured a long wait in the sun for another ferry crossing. The fees are increasing: twenty liters of diesel, four liters of oil, ten dollars and use of the truck's battery to start the ferry's engine. Thank heavens the ferries back home in Puget Sound don't operate this way!
Time lost doing things the African way is frustrating. It has taken us a week to cover 200 km in Zaire. Our entire journey in Zaire will be over 2000 km. How the hell are we going to accomplish that, visit the mountain gorillas in Uganda and tour the Serengeti in Tanzania before July 1, our expected arrival date in Nairobi?
Meanwhile back in the world of truck chores, Dave wants to protect the ropes securing two long planks (and our supply of firewood) to the rear of the truck. Much of the equipment the truck carries, even shovels or ropes, is simple irreplaceable in this part of Africa. If we lose something, we will have to do without. When the truck rumbles through villages or stops at obstacles, the locals chase after us, often eager to snitch anything that is not locked up or guarded. The truck has no rear windows, leaving us with a blind spot.
The solution is to put someone up in the rear roof seat watching backwards. However, this exposes that person to branches raking across the top of the truck. So a second person is needed inside the truck looking forward so he or she can warn the person on the top when to duck and when to re-emerge. Coordinating this behavior as we plow through the vegetation is tricky. Dave acknowledges that it is somewhat dangerous but it must be done and it is up to us passengers to figure out how to do it.
During the couple days I was laid up with gut problems, I observed people in the rear roof seat repeatedly get pummeled by branches and showered with bugs. The communication system for warnings was rarely foolproof. It was, as Martin put it, a perfect opportunity for self-flagellation. I decided getting an eye poked out by a branch, catching a face full of thorns or getting my skull cracked by heavy bamboo wasn't worth a piece of rope. So the Unit and I volunteered for other chores rather than jeopardize the post-Dragoman half of our trip.
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved.
You may want to whistle "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" as you read this. I've forgotten the name of the river but I will never forget crossing it. River X is broad, rain-swollen and swift. The only way across was a old railroad bridge, maybe 100 meters in length. Graffiti decorated its girders, indicating how long other overland trucks had taken to cross. The quickest was twenty minutes; we took 4 1/2 hours. My favorite bit of graffiti was: "Hey Mabutu, you lazy bastard! Sell a yacht and fix this bridge."
The bridge was constructed of iron girders in three sections resting on two concrete pilings in the river. The girders were very rusty but appeared sound. The railroad, however, had been abandoned long ago so the rails were a bit decrepit - twisted, hanging loose and occasionally missing. The original "road bed" was long gone with a hodgepodge of logs now lying across the remaining rails and the side girders. Some logs were long enough to span the width of the bridge, others were only a meter or two in length. Some logs were up to a foot in diameter, others only a few inches. Some logs felt quite sturdy, others were broken, rotten or slippery. Every ten meters or so there was a metal cross girder supported by wooden beams.
In short, the bridge was a nightmare of disrepair. To walk across, you had to step carefully over the frequent gaps and gingerly test logs that might have nothing beneath them for support. Taking a 16 ton truck across was tricky and dangerous, requiring many critical guesses about the trustworthiness of the logs about to be driven upon. Lucky we had professionals like Dave and Helen to sweat over them. In reality it was not that simple - our leaders may bear the responsibility but if we screw up badly (e.g. the truck goes in the drink), our trip will end abruptly, much to everyone's extreme disappointment. And, of course, each individual is responsible for not doing something stupid like falling off the bridge, getting drowned or devoured by crocodiles.
To move the truck across, we had to steal logs from one part of the roadway to plug gaps and reinforce the part immediately in front of the truck. We also unloaded our heavy, bog hole planks to use shoring up weak spots. Once a truck length or two appeared safe, Dave would slowly drive forward until he reached the next section.
The shuffling of logs got more difficult as we moved further out on the bridge. River X defined the boundary between two native tribes. Bridge ownership was split between them. This meant that the logs on one half belonged to one tribe and could not be moved to the other side and vice versa. Therefore, we had to salvage materials from behind the truck and pass them forward to strengthen the next section of bridge. The work was hard and punishing not to mention a tad hazardous. Carrying heavy planks, squeezing past the truck on the treacherous footing at the edge of the bridge required great care. Just walking about on the rough logs looking at the swollen river 20 feet below was unnerving. Only one person broke through but he caught himself in time. It was no place for someone who suffers from vertigo.
The sun was very hot and progress was painstakingly slow. If we made a mistake and a set of wheels broke through it was going to require a lot of ingenuity to rig a jack for raising them. At the middle of the bridge, we switched to 'borrowing forward' again to retrieve logs from the far side of the bridge. Then Dave would inch forward amid the usual creaking noises until the axles rested on cross girders. Afterward he would roll a cigarette and slowly smoke it sitting in the cab. Then he would emerge, pale and nervous, to direct us as we tore up the logs and planks he had just driven over, threaded them forward past the truck while clinging to the diagonal cross supports, and reinforce the weak spots and gaps in the next section of the bridge.
Later that day a native truck going the opposite direction did break through. Luckily there was another overland truck nearby with a chain saw. It took them until 11 PM to free the truck. In the jungle you help your follow traveler, especially when he is blocking your way, because there usually is no one else to help.
Getting Claudia across the bridge over River X was a remarkable experience which, thanks to the local gendarmes, I was not able to photograph. I hope these words create an adequate picture. Is this adventure or what?
Speaking of the police, they were, as usual, waiting for us in the village beyond the bridge.
Job Description: Village Policeman in Zaire
Duties: extorting bribes from foreigners, lording authority over the locals and enforcing whatever laws you deign to make up
Uniform: camouflage hat with Fidelity Extermination Co. logo, US Army fatigue shirt with the name Smith over one breast, turquoise-colored track suit pants, rubber flip flops and aviator sunglasses with mirrored lenses
Demeanor: sullen, strutting, swaggering, belligerent, arrogant and rude
Weapon: automatic rifle with second magazine taped to the bottom of the first
Education: none - just have to be a member of the right tribe
Favorite Expressions: Give me..... or You pay.......
Behavioral Case Study: the local police demanded money when we arrived at their road block. We said we had none. After a few more denied requests, the police realized they were not going to get anything and became angry. They threatened to shoot a wasp nest hanging over the truck. Why they would do that when we were enclosed in the truck and they were standing out in the open must be a reflection of the dubious standards for law enforcement in some parts of Africa
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved
Admittedly this is probably Dragoman's most hard-core trip but if you find this kind of adventure appealing and want more information, contact the following. Don't forget to tell them I sent you. Thanks. JimBo
You are in the central African jungle. Your memory is haunted by childhood movies of Africa showing unlucky natives being attacked (and presumably devoured) by all forms of wildlife from lions to boa constrictors. You fear and loath most reptiles, snakes worst of all. Then you arrive in a region the local people call the Forest of Snakes. Your mission is to gather firewood but there is none along the road - the natives pick the roadside clean. You must go foraging in the rain forest. What would you do?
The Spousal Unit and I changed jobs a couple days ago. I am now the wood wallah responsible for gathering firewood and she is the fire wallah responsible for burning up everything I find. Since I am a born hoarder, our new roles give us a splendid opportunity to bicker. Fear of wet weather sharpens my hoarding tendencies much to the chagrin of the passengers who must now contend with piles of sticks and logs under their seats and in the aisle.
The change seemed like a good idea since we have a lot of camping experience. Finding decent wood and suitable kindling in the jungle has been a problem. We have a lot of competition - all the locals cook over wood fires as well. The truck carries three big gas bottles but once they are depleted, there will be no more until East Africa. Since no one can predict how long it will take us to cross Zaire (3 or 6 weeks), Dave wants to conserve the gas. Now whenever the truck stops, I jump off, saw in hand, and scour the trail for dead-fall which is not waterlogged, rotten or still green.
Building and maintaining cook fires is a much better chore for the Unit who can only hobble around and is tired of being coddled. Cooking for 17 requires large, sustained fires because there are often several big pots going at once. Typically it takes three hours of more to cook dinner, heat up water for tea (the Brits gotta have it) and dish washing and baking the next day's bread. Having a human bellows around helps considerable. The only difficulty is the Unit's extreme reluctance to get up ahead of everyone else in the morning to start the breakfast fire. You know who gets stuck with that chore!
Getting into the forest to find wood is not so easy - the foliage is very dense and God knows what you might be stepping on - a column of fire ants is the most feared. The easiest entry is adjacent to the thick stands of bamboo which seem to predominate in the Forest of Snakes. Unfortunately, the hollow sections of fallen bamboo is where, I am told, the snakes like to hide. I carry a sharp machete in one hand, a long pole in the other, and make a helluva lot of noise.
Bog holes also force us into the bamboo because we use it in the ruts to give the truck traction. It was under those circumstances where I had a close encounter with a blue-gray snake about a meter long. It was coiled on the top of a leafy plant. I was reaching for some fallen bamboo and did not notice it until my hand was only a couple feet away. The snake was not interested - it had a large bulge in its mid-section from a recent meal. I cut down a longer poking stick.
Speaking of those bloody bog holes, they are getting bigger the farther south we go in Zaire. Today we all awoke hot, sticky and dirty from the preceding day's struggles. Another bog hole waited around the bend so everyone picked up the tools after breakfast and went to work. The process is becoming routine: 1) form bucket brigades to empty the murky water, odious slime and slippery mud, 2) use pickaxes and shovels to re-grade the approaches, 3) insert wooden planks to shore up holes in the ruts (i.e. pot holes in the bog hole), 4) layer bamboo in the ruts for added traction, 5) cheer Dave onward as the truck churns through and 6) repeat 1-5 as necessary if the truck does not make it.
Nobody objects when Dave mandates advance preparation because it is vastly easier than extricating the truck when it becomes deeply mired. He has vowed that Claudia will cross Zaire solely under her own power. We will not accept a tow or a push no matter how badly we are stuck. (one is rarely available when you need it anyway). On a previous trip in the same terrain, Dave's truck spent three days in the same bog hole. His shortest daily distance on that trip was sixty meters. Lordy!
I regret belaboring the subject of bog holes but you can't imagine the challenge they presented given their immense size. In my world a pot hole is maybe a couple feet in diameter and a foot deep - enough to bottom out a shock absorber. In Zaire a bog hole can be far longer than the distance I can throw a baseball and when I am down inside, I cannot see over the banks.
While the troops were working on the first bog hole of the day, the Unit and I put the oven on the fire and attempted to make kolaches, a Czech pastry with jam filling. Everyone has been craving sweets and the truck's supplies are limited to custards. Much to our surprise our efforts were reasonably successful.
After crossing the bog hole, the truck pulled over to let another vehicle squeeze past. The second vehicle knocked a hornet's nest loose, sending everyone racing back to where we were baking. The offending truck moved on leaving the wasps swarming around Claudia. The wasps are very small but tenacious, preferring to crawl around in your hair or under your clothes before they sting. Dave went back to check the truck and came running back shrieking, the only time I ever was him lose his cool, with twelve stings on this body. Eventually we all had to run past them which was quite a feat for the Unit with her cracked ankle. I offered to transport her using a "fireman's carry" that I learned in the Marines but she said she preferred to keep her breakfast in her stomach. Ridding the truck of the angry wasps won many new friends for my fly swatter.
As the day went on we found more bog holes. It can be disheartening to work on one and see another down the road waiting. However, our drivers are becoming more familiar with Claudia's dual rear axles and how to use them to power through a bog hole to the roaring accompaniment of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries". Today they whipped a bog hole at least 100 meters long. The truck lurched to and fro in a meter of water as it banged off the sides of the hole.
Everyone's clothes are mud brown - the coating on one's arms and legs makes good insect protection. Biting and stinging insects are the bane of our existence. Mosquitoes are mysteriously absent at night - maybe it is to cool during the wet season.
Some people go barefoot in the slop (until foot lacerations put them on the DL); others wear their sodden boots despite the weight added by huge globs of sucking mud. The swampy odor of rotting vegetation and stagnant water is becoming commonplace. Unless we camp next to a stream, washing up is only done to cleanse wounds or handle cookware. My clothing is atrocious but being able to dry out the sweat is a major advantage of sharing a tent with the fire wallah.
Tonight we managed to find an abandoned homestead on which to camp. The open space feels good after being wedged between the ruts in the road. The Unit and I perform our new chores: cutting and splitting the firewood and then fanning it to death to keep it burning hotly.
A fuzzy moon eventually clears the canopy of trees but I am too weary to welcome its appearance. Another day in the Forest of Snakes ends with the sad observation that the Unit has burned my entire supply of wood.
Oh well, at least the jungle environment is fascinating to see and walk through. Today I saw a most extraordinary butterfly. Although it was milky white in color, when sunlight struck its fluttering wings, the coloring changed to iridescent lavender. It is the most beautiful butterfly I have ever seen. There was only one among the many clustered around puddles and fresh scat. Wings outstretched, it was the size of the Unit's hand.
As the tree hyrax scream in the distance, I fall asleep plotting anti-snake tactics for tomorrow.
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved.
Saturday, June 1: Camped in the middle of Buta
We wait in the rain for some official to appear and bless our passage through his grubby little town. The truck windows leak slightly, elevating the humidity beyond 100 percent. My precious supply of firewood stacked out side on the spare tires is getting soaked.
After a couple weeks in the jungle we were excited to reach a town, even one which has nothing to but except cigarettes and soap. Buta also has a reputation for ripping off overlanders. The official does not appear by dinner time so we set up camp right in the middle of town.
The moon should be full but we can only sense its glow through the overcast sky which has drizzled on us all evening. The sodden tents are scattered about the front yard of a run-down villa. Luckily it was raining during setup so everyone got situated on high ground two inches above the pools of rain water.
The villa is probably a remnant of the colonial era when Zaire was known as the Belgian Congo. Although well-constructed of brick, it has fallen into complete disrepair. The Africans, who seem to only live for the present (perhaps out of economic necessity), don't care much for maintaining property out here in the boondocks.
The Unit and I pull the 3-5AM guard shift, giving us the dubious honor of patrolling the tents in the dark, in the rain, and in the mud. Buta has an unsavory reputation when it comes to private property so around-the-clock vigilance is necessary. Everyone has seen us come and not go.
The only entertainment is a group of the loudest frogs I have ever heard, croaking in the ponds growing in front of the villa's porch. The porch provided a welcome dry spot for cooking but everyone's enthusiasm for it as a place to hang out diminished when a small viper popped out of a pile of bricks. The snake was immediately terminated.
Sunday, June 2: Still camped in Buta
The immigration officials are upon us in the morning and they prove to be thieving bastards! We have little recourse since they hold our passports as well as the truck's documents. Why have an immigration post 400km from the border?
The officials dress African: surplus, second-hand Western street clothes. Their office is a single room with a beat-up wooden table, a bench and a couple chairs. There are no papers, books or any other accouterments of government to be seen.
Each Dragoman passenger is trotted in to show the currently he or she has meticulously counted and declared. This includes each person's growing collection of miscellaneous foreign coins. Any discrepancy will cause a big fine. All cameras and binoculars are also checked. You can say good-bye if the serial number doesn't exactly match the declaration form
English-speaking souvenir vendors loiter about, making us wary that they are spies hoping to overhear any discussion of money. Accordingly, mention of our hidden stash of cash is verboten.
The Unit has a minute error in her currency declaration - couple extra Moroccan dirhams that she miscounted. A fine of US$78 is declared. Imagine if U.S. Customs soaked you with a hundred dollar fine for inadvertently transporting an undeclared peso coin back from a Mexican vacation!
Next the bastards searched the truck for undeclared items. Inside the Units tampon bag, they find her Walkman tape recorder and confiscate it since it was not declared beforehand. Unit is incensed - nobody said anything about tape players. Several other people had tape players which were not touched. Clearly she was being singled out because she is American (i.e. rich and careless with money). The officials are corrupt, possibly driven that way by the lack of pay from Mobutu, and simple want an excuse to fleece tourists. Of course, we refuse to pay and demand the return of the Walkman. A stalemate ensues and we settle in for another night in Buta.
Monday, June 3: Bush camp 50km from Buta
Everyone is paying the price for last night's dog burgers (corned beef and red beans). Apparently the cooks forgot to wash or cook the beans before grinding them up to add to the corned beef. All night long the tent zippers went up and down. This morning all five shovels are in heavy use. Flatulence on the bus keeps most of the windows wide open. To everyone's dismay tonight's cooking crew is soaking another kettle of RED BEANS for dinner.
Negotiations with the immigration people continued well into the evening last night but failed to reduce a settlement. We have two minor errors on our currency declarations. Besides the Unit's infraction, Dave's kitty accounting was off the 18,000 central African Francs because of "Fees" that he paid at the last immigration post.
The tape player remains an obstacle because the usually easygoing Unit puts her foot down (not the broken one) and demands its return. It would be easier to let them have it and buy another but the woman turns self-righteous, a common fault of Americans, and defends her principles: "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's Walkman."
The officials want $78 for each currency violation but the truck only has enough cash for one. The problem is finding equivalent goods. Dave had a deal for the truck's binoculars but the bastards reneged at the last moment. It appears to be a classic case of corrupt petty official run amok with imaginary power.
At last, around 8:30 in the morning, we win the waiting game and are freed. A bottle of whiskey, a couple tins of corned beef and a canister of powdered milk did the trick. The immigration jerk was getting desperate because the abandoned villa we were camping on turned out to be the local tourism office. I should've guessed because there was a table and chair in the one room that still had glass in the windows. When the tourism guys arrived at their "office" they were none too pleased to see a large group of foreigners unable to clear customs and relentlessly defiling their property via mass diarrhea. As we drove away, Dave hands the Unit her tape player. What a guy! Another victory for truth, justice and the American way.
We roll to the edge of town where we are stopped by a road barrier. The barking official claims we paid "road tax" to Kisangani, not Isiro where we want to go. So we sit in the middle of the road, waiting once again. [How can these clowns charge a road tax for maintaining these roads when it is obvious not one red cent has been spent on them in the last twenty years? We all know where the money goes.]
Rehash: when we first arrived in Buta, we were stopped at a roadblock where Dave was forced to spend ten dollars for a road use permit. It was supposed to be good for all of Zaire. Going through town we came to a second roadblock where it was noted that our paperwork had not been stamped by immigration. Hence we were escorted back to meet the bastards of Buta.
Now we are back at the second roadblock where some guy sitting at a small desk under a tree wants more money for a road permit to Isiro. His form is identical to the one we already have. He has no uniform or identification. Dave asks that the police be summoned to mediate the dispute.
An hour goes by with no police. Dave notes that our "official" and his cronies have no weapons. We decide to dismantle the roadblock and proceed. If these guys are legitimate, they will have no trouble finding us - there are no side roads in the jungle. Good-bye Buta!
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved.
One aspect of my trip through Zaire that never ceased to amaze me was the ability to cook, even bake, under adverse conditions. I am no stranger to dining in the wilderness but in Zaire just getting clean enough to handle food was a problem.
Typically the truck stopped during the five minutes of twilight that separates daylight from nighttime in the tropics. Our drivers would park the truck to one side of the road so we could set up the cooking tables in the rut on the other side. Boxes of food and utensils went in the weeds. The fluorescent lights on the truck drew bugs for miles. The cookfire was squeezed in wherever it would fit without setting anything important on fire. If we were lucky, there might be a trailhead or small clearing to give us more room. If we were unlucky, rain would pour down, compressing the entire operation under an awning attached to the side of the truck. We never found enough flat ground to put up the kitchen tent. We avoided native settlements for security reasons.
Seventeen hard working people require a lot of fuel. As I have noted, only fruit was available locally. We had to rely on Dragoman's judicious stock of concentrated soups, dehydrated mixes, cases of tinned or powdered everything and boxes of porridge, rice and pasta. Plus we had our bulk supplies from Bangui: 50 kg of potatoes, 50 kg of four, 30 kg of red beans, 5 kg of garlic and way too many onions.
Given the varied background of the group, there were many great meals, some highly imaginative ones and a few clunkers. Quality might be variable but the quantity usually was not. Remember the cooks always ate last.
Knowing there were no outside sources of sustenance available added a bit more pressure for the cooks and a bit more anxiety for the Hungry Ones. On the other hand, we were all learning as we went - adventure travel, right? On the whole, I must say that we ate quite will. I do not believe anyone suffered any appreciable weight loss or gain.
In some ways it was easier to cook because you didn't get stymied by food kitty constraints and the lack of ingredients in the local markets. All we really lacked were fresh meat, eggs and bread. You'd be amazed at what the British will put in a tin! To satisfy the carnivores we entered Zaire with 144 tins of corned beef (immediately christened Dog) and a large quantity of tuna and sardines, even wieners in tins as well.
As for bread, the great filler that sustained us across West Africa, we had to bake it every night. We could not take the time to cook during the middle of the day so the preferred lunch was sandwiches made from leftovers of deliberately cooked the preceding night. The practice led to some pretty bizarre sandwiches but then you could always fall back on the huge supply of peanut better and jam.
New the Unit and I have been baking bread for years, albeit with a fancy, computerized machine, so we quickly volunteered. But mastering the process in an unpredictable environment was quite a feat. Here are a few lessons we learned by trail and error.
1. Always sift the four beforehand if you do not have a taste for weevils and their larva in your bread.
2. Mix the yeast and flour with just the right temperature of water (just between warm and hot).
3. Find a warm, mellow, draft-free place for the dough to rise. This is critical if you want a loaf of bread larger than a hot-dog bun. I tried warming the oven slightly and letting the dough rise inside. But then it would collapse after I took it out to crank the over up to baking temperatures. The secluded roof seats worked well if the roof covers were in place. Just putting a pan of dough in the truck was not good enough because conditions were so crowded you never knew if someone might step on it or put something heavy and dirty on top of it.
4. Cover the dough with a thin cloth while it is rising. This keeps the bugs and dirt off it.
5. Keep the fire hot but not too hot so that the over has a faint chance of maintaining a consistent temperature which of course we had no way to measure short of sticking your hand in. Our baking times varied from seven minutes to an hour.
6. Remember that hungry people in the middle of the central African jungle become less finicky with each passing day.
Not all my baking efforts turned out as hoped. The jungle simply offered too many opportunities for miscalculations. Luckily the other members of the group quickly learned the techniques and produced outstanding loaves.
Here are a few of my own debacles.
The cooking crew and assorted Volunteers unleaded the cooking gear and the evening's food and begin work. Tonight's menu features spaghetti with a beef and fresh coconut curry sauce with tinned carrots and peas added - not something you will ever order in a restaurant. Conditions are crowded so the cooks make it worse by frying up 50 chappatis for tomorrow's breakfast.
I decided to make peanut butter bread. I had considered using Marmite, a wretched English concoction that tastes like cod liver jam, but then I would be unable to eat the bread. I do not believe in cooking dished I do not like.
A great cloud of Mayflies descended upon our lights, creating an enormous nuisance of themselves. At one point I accidentally kneaded a large one into the dough. No problem - the peanut butter is crunchy. When the dough was ready I reached for my greased baking pan and found it covered with mayflies stuck to the butter. Nevertheless I produced 18 golden brown mini-loaves that everyone thought were unusually tasty, especially when used for spaghetti sandwiches the next day.
Cinnamon Rolls, Roast Panties and Elephant Stew
Today we ripped off 202 km to reach the town of Isiro so we could camp behind a hotel there. A bar in the hotel serving the legendary Primus beer was the big motivator. The bar committee immediately re-stocked at $36 a case ($16 for a dozen beers and $20 for the bottles themselves). Zaire cannot manufacture glass bottles so the bottle is worth more than the beer inside of it.
Meanwhile the BARF (Bad American Retro Food) cooking team perused the Dragoman cookbook for something special and found the following:
1 medium sized elephant (Loxodontus Africana)
20 bags salt
500 kg peppercorns
750 bushels potatoes
125 bushels carrots
2000 sprigs parsley
1 rabbit plus onions
1. Cut elephant into bite-sized chunks. This will take about six weeks.
2. Chop vegetables into cubes (another four weeks).
3. Place meat in jumbo-sized missionary pot. Pump in 5000 liters of elephant gravy and simmer for 28 days.
4. Shovel in salt and pepper to taste.
5. When meat is tender, add vegetables. To speed up matters, it is recommended you use a steam shovel.
6. Simmer slowly for another week, then garnish with parsley.
Serves approximately 3000 people.
7. If more guests are expected, add the rabbit. However, this is not really recommended because very few people like hare in their stew.
Lacking the primary ingredient for elephant stew, the BARF team fell back of sloppy dogs (more corned beef) and potato salad.
The next morning we got up early to bake cinnamon rolls. It was easy - knead the dough, roll it flat using one of those precious Primus bottles, smear on butter cinnamon and raisins, roll it back up and slice off individual rolls. Although we usually don't have time to bake in the morning, it is easier than in the evening because as the day warms up, the yeast gets more cooperative. Don't forget - all our cooking is done outdoors.
This morning a major truck cleaning is scheduled so we had plenty of time as long as we could keep the beggars at bay. They are not really beggars just local people, men, women and children, who constantly ask and occasionally demand cigarettes, food and so forth. They are apparently very accustomed to handouts and not the least bit inhibited about wanting the shirt and shoes that I am wearing. If given the opportunity, they will steal anything they can get their hand on, even a broken bungee cord of a discarded piece of wood. Tony, whose job it is to bury our garbage everyday, always has trouble with the villagers immediately digging up our trash to scavenge from it.
Production of the cinnamon rolls went very well until I fanned the fire under the over zealously. Unbeknownst to me, the Unit's freshly-washed panties were hanging from a chair behind the oven. Being made of a synthetic material, they immediately scorched like toast.
As I as duly informed, panties were irreplaceable in the jungles of Zaire. Therefore , my sin was unpardonable unless we went souvenir shopping and I paid. I needed some souvenir Zairian currency so I quickly acceded. However, the only time that captured our interest was a bolt of Mobutu cloth - bright colors with a large picture of the Big Man himself in the middle - should make a great shirt!
Last night was a terrible night for baking. We set up in the dark after a tricky bog hole extraction. We were leaving the jungle so I wanted to show off my bread making expertise one last time by baking some specialty loaves. A triple batch seemed viable since I was now an experienced jungle baker. So I bustled around chopping wood, kneading dough and annoying anyone who got in my way.
I warmed the oven and slid the first batch in to rise. A second batch went into a quiet recess of the truck. While I waited for them to rise, I kneaded a batch of small raisin buns. However, much to my surprise, the dough did nothing. No matter how I cursed it, the smooth round lumps just sat there, completely inert.
To make an ugly story short, the breads never rose. I moved them close to the fire but succeeded only is setting my baking cloth on fore. Nevertheless I baked them anyway, burning myself several times and dropping all the loaves on the ground at one point.
As I waited for the last batch around midnight, it suddenly dawned on me - I had left out the yeast, THREE CONSECUTIVE TIMES! I had become so harried during the evening that I had forgotten the most important ingredient. If I had let others help me (as the offered), the yeast would probably not have been omitted. But no, I foolishly wanted to do everything myself to prove what I was doing my share of the work. Keeping up with the Energetic Ones was hard so I wanted to contribute in a way everyone would appreciate. Pride is a silly thing you have to suppress a bit if you really want to be an effective member of a group.
The big loaves proved too gummy to eat. The boys practiced their discus throw with them. The little raisin buns were marginally palatable although people did refer to them as rock scones. Lucky for me the Energetic Ones would eat almost anything. Dave made one bun into a tent mallet and threatened to use others as wheel chocks. This was the last time I baked in Zaire.
P.S. To those of you who are familiar with the reputation of the Pie Dude, my baking alter ego, no, I did not attempt to bake any pies in Zaire - too many mouths and too few ingredients.
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All Rights Reserved
Mud: "wet, soft, sticky earth" - so the paperback version of Webster's New World Dictionary says. Humph - that man has never driven through central Africa during the wet season. In this part of the world a much more detailed explanation is necessary to describe the different mixtures of dirt, water and whatever else is in there.
In Zaire four kinds of mud prevail. Note that this is not to be confused with muck which is mud with rotting vegetation in it or as Mr. Webster says "black earth with decaying matter, used as manure."
(1) SLIME: a very shiny, runny type that has the consistency of melted chocolate ice cream. It is usually found in fresh tire tracks. When splashed on your arms and legs, it leaves a fine reddish film which functions quite well as insect repellent.
(2) SLOPPY: a thicker, non-shiny mud with the consistency of thick stew or gravy. It frequently appears solid but when you step on it, your boot is immediately submerged instead of making a small indentation as expected.
(3) SUCKING: a still thicker version with a gooey consistency that acts like sticky paste. It clings to your boots in great oozing clumps, doubling or trebling their weight. If you remain stationary in it, the mud turns your boots into big suction cups which can be a real struggle to break loose.
(4) SLIPPERY: created when two or more of muds 1 through 3 combine to create a substance on which you could skate or at least break your neck. This type of mud has no predictable physical characteristics so you never know when you are about to tread upon it.
We are working our way south on our last leg of difficult road, the 125 km from Komande to Beni in eastern Zaire. The bog holes are monstrous, swallowing the entire truck at times. Even though the truck is 3.9 meters high (almost 13 feet), I photographed Dave with one foot on the truck and the other on the side of the bog hole.
The weather has been good, leaving the road surface between bog holes dry. The countryside remains hilly but open. The bog holes hide in the low spots of the gentle valleys, lurking in pockets of dense foliage so you can't drive around them.
A major impediment to our progress in the stream of cargo trucks going the opposite direction. Our road is the only one open in this half of Zaire at present so all freight inbound from Uganda must travel on it. If a vehicle gets stuck, blocking the road, you must get involved or settle down for what could be a long wait - manpower is limited on the native lorries.
For example, at one bog hole we faced three local trucks on the far side. In the middle of the bog hole a fourth truck spun its wheels hopelessly. We pulled the first one out whereupon number two proceeded into the same predicament. Rather than go on Africa time we quickly offered the truck's steel cable. Despite our frustration, a party atmosphere prevailed as everyone pitched in to help the needy. We had to pull all four through before our turn came. Then Claudia blasted through without any difficulty.
A short while later we encountered the ugliest bog hole of them all. From the diary...
There are two routs: the original and a bypass, both containing tremendous bog holes. The original is at least 100 meters long and filled with deep water. It does not look like anyone has used it recently. The bypass route curves around the original. It is not as severe but in atrocious condition from all the heavy traffic. The ruts are deep, uneven, twisting and pot-holed. All four mud types are present in abundance. We settle down to plot tactics while the crews from two double tractor-trailer trucks, which are currently stuck in the bypass, dig their vehicles out.
We launch into the bypass, all ten wheels locked in the deep ruts left by our predecessors. The truck bounces, jerks and slides, causing the dangle-o-meter to swing wildly from side to side. After completing the semi-circular detour we find ourselves poised on a precipice where the bypass rejoins the road. At the bottom of the drop a bog hole maybe ten feet deep curves to the right. Damn, this is better than a roller coaster!
Dave spots a log down in the bog hole and shouts that we should move it first. Helen begins to hop out of the cab but then the truck begins to slide downward - the victim of #4 mud. Helen leaps clear as Dave tries to control the truck's descent. Unfortunately the curve in the bog hole requires a 45 degree turn which proves to be Claudia's undoing. With her twin rear axles and long chassis she cannot turn as tightly as the native trucks who have carved out the turn. The truck becomes wedged with its side and rear corner buried in the muddy banks. Meanwhile, Helen has become mired in red sucking mud up to her behind. (Sorry, H., I've got it on film!)
It is 5:30 in the afternoon and the truck is completely bogged down. Claudia can only spin her wheels, even with the heavy chains on them. Dave tries repeatedly to rock the truck loose while the rest of us get dressed for dirty work by putting on our gloves. No luck - the call comes for shovelers and the Energetic Ones go forth. As Helen discovered, the banks of the bog hole are impassable, being an exceptionally deep form of #3 sucking mud. This means everyone has to slip and slide through the freshly-churned ruts filled with #1 slimy and #2 sloppy muds.
As evening falls, progress is measured in inches. Climbing the incline is impossible even with four wheel, rear wheel drive. Wooden plans under the wheels don't help - too much slippery mud has formed. There is no room to back up. Luckily there is no standing water in the bog hole. Complicating everything is the fat that Claudia can't quite make the turn in the narrow canyon of mud. The high banks of #3 sucking mud, which loves to avalanche, must be trimmed back.
Up in front of the truck we use pickaxes to break up the hard ground underneath the mud on the lip of the bog hole hoping to lessen the angle of the incline. Then we claw at the debris with bare hands. (The sucking mud has rendered our gloves useless by turning them into baseball catcher's mitts, each weighing five pounds). By flashlight the diggers work in teams, frequently rotating the hardest jobs, getting totally dirty from head to toe and everywhere in between. Dave and Helen, who have been slithering back and forth under the truck supervising our efforts, are completely brown - you can't tell what's skin and what's clothing.
Dave decides dinner would be a good idea. Food supplies and cooking equipment are removed from their lockers and passed up to the road. Since the shoulders of the road are off limits, being mostly deep sucking mud, a table is set up in the middle of the road which is covered by 6-8 inches of #2 sloppy mud with #1 slimy mud in the tire tracks.
Dehydrated been bolognaise with rice is on the menu. The cooks quickly rig up lights and get water boiling on the gas stove, not the least bit intimidated by their surroundings. For example, a clear cellophane bag of white rice slides off the table and almost disappears in the sloppy mud below. The retrieve the bag carefully, cut a hole in the clear corner and pour the rice into the boiling water.
I questioned the wisdom of cooking dinner under the circumstances but when it is ready I realize Dave was right. Steaming bowls of rice and stew rejuvenates everyone. Cleaning off your hands is no small challenge oven with bowls of wash water that immediately turns brown. I cleverly used the inside of my trousers as a wash rag. While everyone consumes seconds or thirds, the only sounds besides the scraping of utensils on plates are the loud sucking noises made by people walking about with boots the size of basketballs.
By 10 PM Claudia can only move about a foot but we are not discouraged. We must get out of the bog hole and Dave's intention to cross Zaire without assistance has everyone motivated. We don't really have a choice - there aren't any other trucks around to help and the location is too messy to setup camp.
The situation becomes a trifle more desperate when the drivers notice that the truck's alternator appears to not be working. Dave must now leave the engine running because he doesn't know if there is enough juice left in the battery to turn the starter motor. The diggers at the rear of the truck gag on the exhaust. Other diggers continue their assault on the banks of the bog hole. I work in front on the hard roadbed.
We clear away the debris and Dave rocks the truck back and forth, gaining momentum. Each time Claudia roars up to the lip but then stalls unable to get over it, causing much frustration. The incline is just too steep so the diggers persevere. Claudia has been good to us and we must not let her down. We attack the edge of the bog hole like madmen with pickaxes and shovels after each failed escape attempt.
Finally around 1 AM, the truck surges upward in the new ruts we have carved in the roadbed and hangs again. Seventeen minds will the wheels to move. Al last, they do, creeping over the edge to much cheering and elation.
By 2 AM we are sitting on a dry patch of road in the dark drinking large bottles of Primus. The beer is pretty damn cold because the refrigerator ran the entire time Dave was afraid to switch off the engine. Claudia and her band of fools have triumphed! Once again we have conquered the slimy, sloppy, sucking and slippery muds of Zaire. Supreme accolades are due the Energetic Ones who know who they are.
P.S. You will read no more about bog holes. The one described above was the last obstacle we faced in Zaire.
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City Jimbo. All rights reserved.