When wheels fall off and boats chug on

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines
Where I stayed

Flag of Zambia  ,
Sunday, May 23, 2010

I did not see that! I did not want to see that!

Every scrap of the visual process screeches denial: It is not, should not be possible.

Then the sound totally debunks the belief system.

Sitting in the rear of the bus, just above the right axle, bounding along from hard mud rut to rut, a flicker out of extreme left attracts a millisecond of attention. Just enough time to see two large wheels hurtling past the window, swiftly overtaking the 70km/h transport.

Momentum carries the rear left of the vehicle though the air for maybe a second, in a slow arc downwards, ending with an almighty crunch, grind, steel, tin, chassis, body tearing apart along the gently cambered road. Sounds that do not exist in the dictionary. Vibrations drill up through the soles, up through the thinly padded seat.

Shit, the wheels have come off!

Curiously quiet, without squall nor yelp, the passengers sit, mildly stunned, those toward the front perhaps not fully comprehending that the ride has terminally terminated. That this 400km, barren stretch of road between the bottom end of Lake Tanganyika and Mbeya, near Tanzania's southern border with Malawi, is going to play host until a solution unfolds.

The bus settles, tips softly sideways without toppling over. The passenger mass slowly unpeels itself from the bunked benches they had hunkered down in, wedged themselves into for the past four hours. Bunching in the aisle, murmuring for those in the front to get a move-on through the narrow doorway, all wanting to know what the hell is going on.

Minutes later, the shoulders and heads of the driver and his handyman float over the tops of the long grass, moving slowly back to the bus, bursting through the spindly stems pushing a pair of wheels attached by an axle, a metre of which sticks out sideways, the jagged end of the tortured driving shaft twisted, wrenched, silver blue, snapped, sheared.

Ten days earlier, the so-called wheels had also fallen off the Lake Tanganyika ferry, the MV Liembe, delaying its departure to southern Tanzania and Zambia for a week while a replacement alternator was bused in from central Tanzania.

A week in Kigoma could and should be fine meditative therapy.

Unless your wheels come off as well.

Chills and sweats raise their beady little heads. It can’t be malaria, as am now taking anti-malarials, post a Mali bout.

Surely just the heat of the tropics. But lassitude sets in, a slivery sheen of cooling body fluid at the slightest effort.

Laugh it off, hold it back.

Tricky questions play out. Can one survive for four days to the next town, is it better to beat a one day retreat to a central Tanzanian town with possibly, probably better medical care?

Having had a full dose of innoculations about a year ago, the only possibility may be typhoid. But the alimentary symptoms do not match up.

To take the malaria cure again or not? One does not want to burn one’s powder before you are sure of the battle and enemy.

Pop into a pharmacy to procure the typhoid cure, honest antibiotics. Nothing to lose, everything to gain.

A kind face watching quietly from a dispensing table asks how I am. Normally the course of greeting requires a response along the lines of "very well thanks, all good, how are you".

Reality and honesty force themselves through my politeness, and I proffer that I am “not too hot”. But the regular malaria symptoms are not there. No loss of appetite, no metal taste, no deliriums.

“Pop around the corner and have a test for both,” he sagely recommends.

Boat is leaving in two hours, drip sweat down a thin back alley and find the Tulashase Diagnostic Health Laboratory, big words for a room with a nurse and a microscope technician.


He writes my Christian name down on a little piece of paper, ticking off typhoid and malaria tests.

Jab, suck blood, a litmus typhoid test … come back in 45 minutes.

Yes, you have malaria. Fek!!! Again. Those little buggers must love me.

Buy another dose, drag the bags, board the fine ship Liembe, crack the wrapper and drop the cure.

Wobbly wheels.

Check into a little cabin, stow the bags, suck up as much water as the body can take, and wait for departure. ETD of 4pm is just that: 'estimated’!

The flock and flood arrive, pouring into the lower deck, a dribble of humanity that slowly becomes a stream and gush.

The throng is burdened by the world, including a kitchen sink or two. Double foam mattresses, folded, folded, disassembled plank bed frames, large pots and pans normally associated with commercial cooking facilities. Bicycles, boxes and boxes of all colour and shape tied with the full array of scrounged scrap string and lace.

Tanzania Gucci bag after bag - those long-lasting woven-plastic holdalls so dearly  beloved across Asia as well, aka Manila Gucci, Chinese Gucci, Indonesian Gucci …

The foredeck is soon covered with the flotsam of life and a second layer begins, around 400 yellow plastic 20l containers, torn plastic ‘washers’ sticking out below their hard-turned caps. Cooking oil, diesel, petrol. Dozens of 2m x 1m dried-fish baskets, taking up metres and metres of empty space. A pile of 500 large pineapples lies stacked next to the ladder from the deck up to midships. A pineapple peeler/slicer man uses a small machete to skillfully flick the skins of the fruit over the side, rolling the large juicy ball round and round as he does so, before splicing it into eight equal elongated segments.

Mums and dads and kids and uncles all pile aboard, togas, robes, dresses and wraps mingling with jeans, men’s Muslim caps, cheap Chinese baseball peaks.

As they board, most opt to sleep, or to pay to sleep on the open deck, and make a beeline for a nook, or cranny, for the prized spot, or 10th or 35th prized spot, anything soft to sit and lie on, anything with a backrest to lean against, anything that might shield the cool eve breeze of the journey that will take two nights and a day. Piled on to the littered mattresses, on huge curls and swathes of ropes, between and under the anchor chains, backs against the large curves of now-silent winches from an earlier era in the life of this 97-year-old ship.

400, 500, 600 pour on, with the twang-twang of some local favourite blaring from the speakers keeping mood and spirits light.

The motley crowd and goods gives a cheap impression of a refugee ship, but it is a false appraisal. This is the bus, the taxi, and it only goes once a week. All aboard!

The mass spills upwards towards the upper deck housing the crew, a few cabins, the steerage house, a saloon, open chairs, funnels, lifeboats.

The horn honks out loud and proud marking 10 bells, and that all is well, and that lovely, deep rumble of big diesels rolls through the ship. With an inaudible, contented sigh she seems to settle into the water comfortably as her screws slowly take hold.

The horn, too, raises the ticket inspector. Tickets please, and the inhabitants of the lower decks are shuffled down stairwells.

The chug begins south, Congo far off to the right, the wild hills of Tanzania to the left, silhouetted only beneath a bright moon.

A few hours into the night, and the siren calls, revolutions drop, and the ship drifts to a halt. A few fairy-like lights flicker along the shoreline. We are outside a village, without a quay to dock by.

Some of the lights dance, grow brighter, a little flotilla of low-slung glitterings emerges out of Africa’s gloom, long wooden, powered row-boats throw up now-shiny bow thrusts and wakes.

Bedlam, shouts, instructions, yells fly up from the water. The hulls, laden, laden with people, bags, baggage and long, phallic-looking, tightly packed 100kg bags of dried fish, the staple protein of the area.

Ropes are frantically thrown from the half-dozen bobbing boats alongside. Dark, human forms launch themselves at the side of the Liembe, leaping the gap, braving the lurch, clambering up the outside of the hull using rungs and portholes as footing and purchase.

Hands reach out to flying cord, lashing the tenders to railings. Some ropes fall short, the Liembe gives a burst on her engine to procure better position, perhaps not broadside to the breeze. Great, powerful dollops of froth and foam erupt from beneath her, shoving and listing the little boats, the surge of water like a wave threatening to roll them over as their passengers scramble to balance keels being inexorably forced sideways, keenly aware that when the surge passes, the boats will dangerously, quickly roll back to the gunwale side the passengers are all huddled over, threatening capsize again.

A hatch in the Liembe’s hull, just above her waterline, clangs open.

Ropes are secured, and passenger and bundle transfer, from one small boat to the next, three or four lashed alongside each other, bobbing up and down like the splines of a drunken concertina. Some landings are misjudged, bodies roll down into the ribbed scuppers; the boat alongside the big ironsides scrapes up and down the hull, making the passing of babies from water level up into the belly of the beast a tricky proposal. Wind and swell-loosened hawsers precariously jerk everything and everybody each time the roll pulls them up tight.

The 4m-long bags of fish are connected to a deck hoist, lifted and carefully carried over the heads of passengers that throng the Liembe’s deck – there is nowhere else for them to go – before being deposited down into the gaping mouth of the mid-deck hold.

Shouts and bounce and lurch and hullos and goodbyes fill the senses. The shriek of the siren sounding ‘hurry up, let’s go’ adds to the cacophony. Organised chaos at its best. Transfer complete.

Three hours later, the same game is played out, and three hours later … into the magnificent sunrise, village after village.

People do not like being photographed. They are more than just camera-shy. Some of the transfer tenders are rowed out, with long paddles and extra-long blades, that dip deep, biting long into the water. I take picture after picture. Arms gesticulate, angry faces are upturned, one rower aims his paddle at me like a spear, half throwing. Angry. I smile politely, retreat.

This is no-man’s land. Much like Kassala, on Sudan’s northeast border with Eritrea. No border posts, wars, people living anywhere they can, dispossessed by conflict, without document or permission of passage.

Rwanda and Burundi to the north, Congo alongside. French is spoken among some of the passengers. This is Tanzanian waters. There are no immigration authorities for hundreds of kilometers. Doubtless some of the throng are illegals trying to stay out of the spotlight, under the radar, and very definitely as far from a camera’s flash or lens as possible.

Most of the outboard engines on the small runabouts have long lost their original pull cords and are driven with their cowls off. Restart time, wrap a loose rope or string around the top once or twice and pull, again, again ….

There are no ‘proper’ boat petrol tanks. Garden hoses taped to the engine are connected to a litany of tins, cans and bottles lashed to the side of the boat or up against the stern. There are no ‘no-smoking’ signs.

The fresh water of the lake is astonishingly clear. From above the white plume issuing from the propeller is brilliantly defined. The blades of the paddles, dipping down at least 2m look as if they are not in the water at all.

The gents and ladies on the upper deck, cruising between business points in Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi, repose in the saloon, enjoying long beer sessions between bouts of good food, egg and sausage for breakfast, maize and fried fish and veggies for lunch, and rice, potato, veggie, chappati, fish or beef for dinner. The well-stocked bar, as always keeps the well-heeled well-oiled.

Other, paler travelers include a Royal Marine wannabe, using his African adventure as a warm-up for cultural immersion exercises that he says awaits him.

An American son of a preacher man, child of missionary parents, is on his way to visit them where they have spent the past 30 years dispensing Christianity on Zambia’s north-western border with the Congo.

Three Peace Corps (USA volunteer organisation) women are coming to the end of their 2-year tenures. They all speak Swahili fairly fluently, and after living as lone foreigners in remote villages reveal a well-honed adeptness at humorously brushing off the many flirtations, professions of love and requests of marriage that come their way.

Two arrived under ‘health’ category programmes. “Go and teach people, and make it up as you go along,” they were told.

Easiest thing is to go down the HIV/abstinence route. So they carry a box of condoms and a few bottles and hold classes about safe sex, how to use precautionary measures, and offer information on the seriously prevalent disease.

Misinformation, it would seem, is rife. They are constantly told “Westerners put Aids inside the condoms to make us sick. We don’t want to use them.” Or “the West has the cure for HIV, but they won’t give it to us”.

I warm to the lone women, battling it out in frontier situations, and reconsider my antipathy to the colonial nuances and uncomfortable profiteering of many volunteer organisations.

A buzz, drone, a throttled hum whines out of the dark. Instinctively I know that sound: a high-powered outboard engine at high revs. Odd. No village, no stopping.

The whine turns into a discordant howl. There is more than one engine, for the single unit normally hums with beautiful thrumming precision.

The ship is traveling at around nine knots, out of the rear gloom roar two 10m longboats, only hulls filled with people, racing each other for pole position alongside the steaming ship, jockeying with each other, daring one another to cross paths and wakes.

One finds the inside lane, at around 30km/h. The scream of the engines are exacerbated by their lack of cowls on the 75hp Yamaha outboards. The ‘winner’ lines up alongside, throttles back to the same speed as the ship. Two men forrard and aft leap at the sides of the ship, clamber and scamper upwards, to the upper deck in three or four seconds and bounds, hurtle over the railings and a moment later are holding lines thrown from accomplices on the raider’s stern and prow. Lash down, tighten up, lock. Thirty passengers are ready to board.

That’s how easy the Somali pirates can do it. It was about a half-minute exercise, from first howl, to man aboard. These are friendlies, but as a local fisherman puts it “there are pirates on the lake, everyday when we are on the water we fear these Congolese pirates. Some of them take body parts of us to use for witchcraft”.

A Swiss acquaintance deeply embedded in a west Tanzanian jungle recently told of a grain bag of dried hands and feet that were being sold in her village. A shipload …. !

The old tub is a gem of history, factually being one of the real inspirations for CS Forester’s The African Queen. But her future is in doubt. It seems the Germans, who scuttled her in 1917, want her back. Word has it Germany would like to dismantle her, crate her up and ship her home to display the ship in a nautical, or historical museum. In return Tanzania would receive two ‘other’ ferry boats in return.

One can just imagine two 1960s East German Soviet bloc style slab functionals being send to plod up and down the lake.

Tanzania, it seems, is somewhat rightfully not in too much of a hurry to relinquish such a delicious piece of history. The ship’s engineer says Germany has apparently also offered to completely refit the ship so she may sail for another 100 years. But one might bet that two boats on the lake are better than one that needs constant, costly, loving care.

Arrive safely in port, disembark and load aboard the back of a truck filled with bags of charcoal. Perfectly uncomfortable seats.

On to the sing-song town of Sumbawanga, owned and run by a local family of Omani Arabs. It’s the breadbasket of Tanzania, but the strip of bars, lounges, restaurants and the first-world stock of a wine saloon hints at more wealth that can be generated by avocados and bananas. Congo’s mineral riches are nearby.

On to one of the little empire’s buses, of the Sumry stable, for a 400km jolt-upon-jolt ride.

The wheels come off.

All off. And lo, the three Peace Corps women – with whom we have spent days drinking, carousing, chatting – are scuttling. Without ne’er a ‘how’s your father’ or ‘fare thee well’ they’re humping it up the hill, towards the point of origin, in an attempt to procure the first vehicle that passes, before it should reach the rest of the passengers.

Tony, a Tanzanian hospital-equipment salesman, looks wryly up the road, and mutters: “Looks like the group has split up. We in Africa would never do a thing like that.” And he had not even noticed the rudeness of the departure.

The lessons the outsider can bring: listen to me, for I know better, but when the chips are down, it’s each man for himself.

Seven hours later the replacement bus arrives. All laugh, sigh and trundle along.

Last stop in Tanzania before Malawi. Bus station buskers find me just the ticket I want – direct to Nkhata Bay, on the famous lake. No jumping off and on a range of vehicles, only a switch at the border. A bit pricier than normal, but an answer to a longing for efficiency over.parsimony.

That evening over a cup of local Konyagi fake gin, something rankles. Pinpricks of suspicion concerning booking foreign bus seats without computer or phone call. Next morning, the bells ring. Across the border there is nothing. The sting burns the pride more than the pocket. Shoulda known, shoulda known!!

Travelling with a tramp steamer and truck-ride rumpled Spaniard. Ten minutes into Malawi, a police road block. The two foreigners are asked to step out of the ‘shared taxi’.

“Come sit with me under the tree,” requests a cheaply suave plain-clothed policeman in overtight black T-shirt. “Where you going? Why?” And to Spanish Albert: “Why don’t you wash your clothes? Why are you so dirty? Why don’t you clean yourself before you travel?”

It has been raining. Backpacks inevitably pick up mud, and walking for a kilometer from bus stop to the Tanzanian border in sweltering rain, heat, mud is not a cleansing experience.

My companion is stunned, stuck for words.

Twenty minutes further down the road, another road block. Fat camouflage man with swagger stick asks for my passport. “This is a fake passport. You are from Pakistan.”

“No, I am not, look at my passport.”

“Why is there a Pakistan stamp here? You know what we do to Pakistanis,” he asserts, crossing his wrists in handcuff fashion. “We lock them up and send them home.”

I laugh, and repeat my belief that I am South African. “Don’t laugh at me,” I am the boss here, and you will kow-tow. “Yes baas.”

He returns the passport, peering with not little malice. “Cut that beard.” Twenty years after previous president Banda’s infamous edicts that all men entering Malawi had to have haircuts at the border to ‘above collar’ length, and women were forbidden to wear jeans.

Fifty more kilometers, two more road blocks, two more passport checks. The highest police profile since China.

Everything is orderly, regular folk are regular, nobody speaks nor steps out of line. Not difficult to understand why.

Betsy, the long-serving backpack, who has been the hump on my back for nearly 30 years, reveals some distress, and requires a stitch job, having long been promised that this will be her last ride. She’s a 1981 Karrimore Jaguar Mk IV, who has been across every continent with me, with a tally of tales one hopes are never revealed.

Msuzu, town of guesthouse Mzoozoozoo, where South Africa begins to creep into my world again. Swiss hostelier Gerard, of 12 years in Africa says he has never been to South Africa, and never will. “That’s where people love to hate each other.”.

Nkata Bay, chill spot on Lake Malawi, intrusion again. Brandy boy tells my “I grew up in the Northern Transvaal (conservative South Africa province), Eugene Terreblanche was my uncle, if you know what I mean”. Reflections on the recent murder of South Africa’s arch-typical racist.

Onwards, down Lake Malawi in the Ilala, the ‘sleeping ship’ or perhaps ‘ship of comfort’. Somewhat more genteel than her Tanganyikan colleague. Again two nights and nearly two days. It bounces off west Mozambique. Four travelers disembark, and are promptly thrown back on by immigration authorities. “Go and get your visas first.”

A slow ride south, a bicycle taxi, a squat ride between baskets of tomatoes, and Zambia beckons, the doorstep to home, the beginning of the end of an odyssey.
Slideshow Report as Spam
  • Your comment has been posted. Click here or reload this page to see it below.

  • Please enter a comment.
  • Please provide your name.
  • Please avoid using symbols in your name.
  • This name is a bit long. Please shorten it, or avoid special characters.
  • Please enter your email address to receive notification
  • Please enter a valid email address


katherine-anne on

lancy! how do you do it? i loved, loved, loved every minute, was actually holding my breath.
get home safe, me marra, not too soon, write, write - and take good care of betsy, i'd like to have a word with her:) k

Kitty on

Time traveling or very strong muti? Or maybe I'm also missing a month.... what happened to April? And those enormous fish "parcels", sculptures to die for... new SA artists eat your hearts out! Thanks for these stories and images.

Steve Cray on

Great writing, as ever, Lance, and top photos too - that Nikon still holding up? There's definitely a book in this odyssey . . . and I'll buy a copy. Give my love to Zambia (especially Lusaka if you pass through). I was nine years there on and off. I worked with and occasionally for The Post (based in Lusaka) and its editor Fred M'membe is a personal friend. Looking forward to the next episode mate!

the-rambler on

yo steevo
praise indeed from the master lensman himself. ... this happy hacker's not too unhappy with some of the effort. that nikon is quite a robust bugger, even tho a coupla bugs crept into one lens. ... lusaka was wooshed thru....the book? yep, the next toil

steve cray on

Are you going through Zim? If so, that should make an interesting episode

the-rambler on

will definitely not be going through zim. i believe it is morally reprehensible to travel there at present ... and 10 days on a pirogue across the okavango delta outweighs the zim option even if nelson mandela were her pres.

Crystal on

Hey Lance... wow I must say, I dont quite know anyone else who can recount stories in such depth, passion and perspective. You really really have to write a book!!! make that books hehehehe.

Looking forward to seeing you one of these days
Love Crystal

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: