We rose like champions at four o’clock, before the crack of dawn; we had a slow motion rally to drive in order to get to the border.
We watched the sun rise between the vertical columns of granite that rose from the ground as we cruised across Mozambique. We were flying. Flying with a squeak; at that rate we’d have been at the border by three, at that rate we’d have been dining in Malawi; sleeping in an Anglophone country with full bellies.
“STOP, STOP, THE HAND– ... SMOKING... STOP THE CAR!” An alarmed Somers wasn’t happy.
I was driving and hadn’t yet noticed the black smoke seeping from the handbrake and into the driver’s foot well. Somers had, hence the outcry.
We pulled over and I got under the car. The handbrake drum was warm but not hot. The smoke had come from the handle itself; logically our search had to start there. With the cover off we could see that the handbrake cable had melted. That was convenient given our proximity to nowhere of any use. We disengaged the cable and decided to drive a bit more and see what happened. Two kilometres down the road we stopped to have another look. The brake drum was hot enough to fry an egg on. The handbrake shoes must have been stuck to the drum. Super. The toolbox came out and then the tarpaulin was spread beneath the hulk of Redvers, the t-shirt came off, (they are all becoming oil stained,) and I got underneath, Somers remained above as tool assistant and chief of security. The back prop came off before we started a protracted fight trying to remove the hand brake drum whilst the brakes were still holding it in place. Sweat and swearing, grunting and harrumphing, all whilst lying on my back and thinking of England. Eventually, finally, after two hours, the drum was off, the shoes came off but I was unable to remove the handbrake cable, and so the snips came out and I removed it on a more permanent basis.
By this point the school that we’d happened to park outside had been on lunch break for over an hour. We had developed a crowd of fifty or sixty kids looking on and laughing and playing. The occasional motorbike would pass breaking the steady flow of cyclists and pedestrians. Somers entertained the crowds with a combination of photography and questions all whilst passing tools galore beneath the car.
The brake drum was replaced and the prop shaft reinstalled and we clambered back in and started him up. Onwards Christian soldiers! Onwards you squeaky soldiers, the brake drum squeak was gone, but there were still two other squeaks. The UJ bird was back, without the bird. That accounted for one noise, but what of the other? Brake drum? Gears? Transfer box? Wheel bearings? We’re not mechanics, we didn’t know and that was the most frustrating part of it all. We had to carry on driving but we had no idea what, if any, damage we were doing. Redvers must be protected at all costs. We were graunching him into a premature scrap yard. Bollocks to Land Rovers. Always sick but never dead. Always sick.
We were three hours behind schedule. Our hard driving for the past 48 hours had given us time though. We could still make the border before six, its closing time, and get through. We had a plan, we had maps, we had daylight and we had lunch on the move. Peanut butter sandwiches again. This had become an evacuation. We needed out of Mozambique and we needed a city, we needed the refuge of Lilongwe, its access to car parts, its access to a backpackers where we could park for a few days and get Redvers ship shape again.
The sun was setting as we motored along; this was going to be tight. If we were late, we’d have to strike camp in the dark at Entre Lagos, defending a perimeter, fending off money changers and the ne’er-do-wells of the border. The timing was a matter of minutes when Laura noticed that I’d missed the turning, the main road had carried straight on, the sat nav had requested a right turn. We spun around and went back. The suggested turn led to a road whose condition didn’t look great, the border was twenty kilometres along it. The alternative route was forty kilometres, a route that almost certainly meant no border crossing that evening.
We stopped; local intelligence was required. Our man on the ground, (a random guy at a stall,) spoke no English. But in hindsight the conversation probably sounded like this,
“Does that road lead to the border crossing?”
“Yes but it’s full of water and precariously muddy, I wouldn’t use it, you’ll either become entrenched in its rutted and pot holed surface or you’ll lose traction and your coefficient of friction will drop sufficiently to allow you to slide to a somewhat premature conclusion,” he gestured pointing first down the watery way and secondly down the good road. “I’d far rather recommend that you make use of that thoroughfare instead.”
At this point, the one word we’d heard was ‘Agua.’ A word that isn’t difficult to translate, a word we’d used repeatedly over the last three weeks, an unmistakable word. Unmistakable, as long as you haven’t been driving for three days straight, the culmination of which is a foolishly urgent desire to make the border today and complete a mission objective created days ago. Like the pull of a magnet, the pull of that bloody border felt stronger the closer to it we got. All day, I’d been repeating mental calculations: average speed, ground covered, ground to cover; an extra twenty minutes simply didn’t fit into the plans. That is probably why I decided that ‘agua’ sounded like ‘aga’ or ‘aka’ or anything that wasn’t water. I told Somers that it must mean ‘either.’ He had pointed at both roads when he’d spoken after all and I’d heard exactly what I wanted to. ‘What do you reckon?’ I asked Somers. ‘Yeah,’ came the reply. We’d lost five minutes but now we were back on the move with new intelligence. Intelligence that when interpreted in a certain light, (rose tints,) suggested we could still make it to the border.
And then, less than fifty metres down the road, disaster struck. We weren’t moving very quickly but all of a sudden we were losing grip, edging crab-like towards the edge of the road. We couldn’t correct out of it, we’d lose grip, we couldn’t correct into it else we we’d compound the situation. We were doomed. Braking wouldn’t stop us in time. We were going down. Twenty kilometres from mission accomplished and we were going down. The slippery mud slid Redvers to his right, slowly, steadily; the mud tyres did not help, the sheer bulk of a three tonne Redvers under gravity’s pull and frictions’ near absence guided us down and into the swamp that ran alongside us. Fuck it.
We had gone down in hostile territory. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Already, locals were running over to see the once mighty motor, stranded in the swamp. Having covered one thousand kilometres we were inches from sanctuary, immobilised and being closed down. We had an hour of daylight left. If we didn’t get out of this bog we’d have to spend the night guarding the car. A car at an angle that precluded a good nights sleep. The car was our everything, the car contained all that was important, the car was our escape route. That route was now closed.
Into low ratio, into diff lock, reverse, twelve inches backwards and then spinning. Into first, twelve inches forward and spinning. And sinking. Reverse. Spinning. And sinking. Stop, get out, make a plan. Think. ‘Shit, shit, shit.’ There are a dozen people surrounding us and we could see more running behind them. Redvers is leaning, precariously; and still slowly sinking. His left hand side is in a foot of brown water and at least six inches more of gloopy mud. What’s around us, what have we got, what can we use? Make a plan. Stay calm. Work it out. More people are arriving. They’re a crowd now. A laughing, ‘Mazungu’-ing, claustrophobia-inducing crowd. There are thirty of them at least. They are all so close. Their breath and their eyes are all over us. More have stopped on the railway line twenty metres away. And they’re laughing and shouting too. And still they’re pouring towards us from the town.
Two tow ropes, one recovery rope (elasticated), four d-shackles and a high lift jack. How can I slow my mind down? Shit. Concentrate. Portuguese is being fired at us. ‘Five thousand and we’ll get you out,’ says one slick rick. I’d have administered a ‘fuck off’ to him if I hadn’t been in a state of urgent semi panic. And scared. There were more than sixty people surrounding us, laughing. I looked around, there was a tree. I could use the ropes to get around it, I could use the jack as a winch and stretch the recovery rope, four feet at a time; maybe it would give us that pull we needed, maybe the sand mats would give us that grip we needed. I began stringing the ropes out, one guy joined in holding the ropes whilst I forced my way through the crowd, unwilling to budge, unwilling to give up their imposing front row positions. One guy out of what was now near a hundred people. One helper. For fuck’s sake, why are you all watching, laughing, not helping. My eyes pleaded. Their eyes were indifferent.
Bollocks, how do I make the jack work like a winch again? I’ve forgotten. And still the crowds, and still the laughing, and still the ‘Mazungu’s.’ Every time the car door opens it’s a battle to keep their eyes out. Somers is on guard duty again. Unlock, open, search through curtain to find manual, search for recovery options. Shit, shit shit. How did I put the car in the water? There it is. Shoe to car, end to anchor. That’s it, that’ll work. The rope is around the car, the hi-lift is attached to the rope and another rope comes from the hi-lift to the tree but the d-shackle won’t fit around the end of the hi-lift. The shackle is too wide. The hole’s too small. Make a plan. Shit. Make a plan. ‘Five thousand and we’ll get you out.’ Will. You. Just. Fuck. Off. Stay calm, ignore him. Nuts and bolts. They’re in the back, they’ll help. The back door unlocks, it’s more difficult to lift as, with the angle of the car, it’s now as much of a hatch as it is a door. Laura’s wash bag spills out and everything inside it finds a spot on the floor. Deodorants, pill-packs, toothbrush and creams, floating in the muddy water. Someone shouts “condoms” and the place erupts. Now people start to help to try and pick the pieces up, but we don’t want that sort of help, not for these bits. We’re trying to pick it all up but the door is heavy and folding down on us and there are people everywhere. There are eighty litres of diesel lying at a forty five degree angle in the back of the car. Extra weight that shouldn’t be in the car for this, but we can hardly unload our vehicle here; two pairs of eyes watching one hundred pairs of hands whilst trying to free the car. A potential catch twenty two that plays on our deepest insecurities. People are everywhere; close, all around and everywhere.
Nuts and bolts in my nuts and bolts box. I find one that’ll fit, but its only eight millimetres in diameter. Will that hold three tonnes? Probably not but I hope so. And the force will be more than three tonnes. It almost certainly won’t hold, but what else can we do? There are enough people to lift the bloody car out by hand but when we suggest that they laugh, no fala bloody portuguesa, no fala. I perform charades for pushing Redvers. Poor Redvers. Charades equals laughter. The ropes are attached, the set is rigged. But the hi-lift has seized, my rig is useless. Oh-dear-fucking-God.
Visions of a dazed me with a concussed and bruised head flash through my mind. Muddied and holding my skull as blood trickles down my face and, through the disappearing light of dusk, I watch people unloading Redvers and walking off with our stuff into the dark. That’s the movies. That’s not here, not now. We’ll get out; make another plan. I start trying to fix the jack, but it’s seized properly. And then one guy steps forward and he’s ‘charading’ something and saying ‘tabla.’ Table, under wheel, driving. “Show me.” I say. Maybe he is the key; maybe we’ll get out of this intact. My solution isn’t solving the problem. Another five minutes of fiddling with the hi-lift and our potential saviour returns with a huge round wooden table top. He’s going to use it as a sand track for grip under the submersed right rear wheel.
He is the key. We’ve reached a turning point. His enthusiasm to help solve the problem is infectious. He rolls his trousers up and steps into the quagmire. His smart, padded, yellow shooting jacket with its sleeves now rolled up seems improper attire for this situation. But that doesn’t matter. The laughter from the crowd subdued as he stepped into the mud and now young men are stepping forward. Bravado has become the flavour of the evening. One guy steps in to the mud and holding onto the bull bars he starts to lift Redvers, he has no chance but he’s not actually trying to move it alone, he’s showing it can be done. The crowd splits into those that want to help and those who don’t or won’t or can’t be arsed. Those who do are in the water and there must be around sixty of them. And I’m in the driver’s seat, and Somers is at the end of the road; waiting to try and flag down a 4x4 that might be able to pull us out. The guy in the yellow coat is in charge he’s instructing the crowd. There are hands all over Redvers, I start him up and try and explain that we need to move forward and backwards repeatedly to get enough momentum to jump onto the table. The crowd doesn’t understand my charades but when I enact them they soon learn.
There are now people pushing people who are pushing Redvers. And then on the fourth time of forwards-backwards, Redvers gets a wheel onto the table, we move back four feet across and off the table. The process continues with the deep tread of our tyres trying desperately to find purchase on the muddy, greasy banks. “Una, dos, tres, urgggghhh,” the final noise drowned out by Redvers’ grunt. As we finally summit our two foot peak the crowd roars. I roar back out of the window. “Woooooooooooo!” They roar back even louder. Fear has morphed into relief. Adrenaline fuelled, heart pumping, exasperated and energetic relief. I feel like I could run a hundred metres in eight seconds if the ground wasn’t so bloody slippery. I reverse to a safe spot, all the while battling the mud and gravity. And then we stop.
In my hysteria I empty our fridge of cokes to try and say thank you. I don’t realise what I’m doing. Like a modern Jesus I’m trying to hand out six cokes to a hundred people. But I am definitely not Jesus and they start fighting for them. One coke is held by seven or eight hands. Hands that are coming from in front, between the car and the door frame, through the window and through the gap of the door itself. The people that didn’t help are snatching and fighting too. The one guy I actually want to reward can’t be seen; the guy in the yellow jacket. I want to give him money, I want to reinforce that helping people is good, but the crowd have their hands out and they’re getting raucous to the point of boiling over. This is dangerous. The situation has flipped back again and we no longer feel safe.
“Somers!” I scream. “Get here. Quickly. It’s time to go. Guard the car. I’m getting the ropes.” I hand her the keys and turn to find a man presenting all our equipment to me. This is bitter sweet. I thank him profusely but no one wants sentiment; they want something palpable, edible, valuable. We bundle everything into the back and slam the door and lock it. We’re forcing our way through people just to get back to the front doors. People are shouting, people are trying to stretch out their hands through the self imposed crowd. We don’t stop saying thank you but our eyes are panicked and our minds concentrated, it is definitely time to get out. We’re in the car and locking the doors as we close them. The engine rumbles and the car starts making its own way through the crowd. We were frighteningly close to something, and this end was anything but entirely satisfactory. But it was time to fly. We still weren’t breathing deeply as we drove out of town. Holy-mother-of-all-that-is-fucked up. What the hell had just happened?
It was nearly seven. Somers had been told that the border closed at ten. She had almost been run over attempting to stop a Hilux that accelerated when she made to try and stop it in order to ask for help. We had forty kilometres to go; an hour and a half if the roads weren’t too shabby. Maybe, just maybe...
In the dark, we pulled into the ghost town of Entre Lagos. The Mozambican border post with Malawi. It was dark, only the street lights lit the buildings. The border was closed; though we couldn’t actually see it. We found some street urchin types who showed us the customs’ office. We met a customs’ official who first told us that the office was closed and then asked us for some money. And then the urchins told us about a place we could stay for ten dollars each. A pensao.
We arrived and drove through the large corrugated iron gates into a courtyard that was to be our fortress. We were shown to our room, despite having drawn pictures of our car with a tent on its roof and us sleeping. The ‘suite’ on offer had a living area; concrete walls and floor, cobweb rafters and dirt with three wooden chairs lined in the middle of the room to face a bare wall. The bedroom had an old double bed with clean sheets on a filthy mattress. A mosquito net with big holes in it was suspended from the ceiling and an old rug looked to have been hugging the concrete floor for most of its long lived existence. The bathroom was dark and smelt of stale piss and shit, in reverse order. Somers noticed a cockroach on the floor but didn’t realise there were six more on the wall behind her. There was a bucket and a scoop for showering that doubled as the method of flushing the toilet. The place was foul.
Ten minutes later we’d ‘spoken’ charades to explain we’d be sleeping in our tent and agreed a price of six dollars for the privilege. The big urchin wanted to wash the car. We told him no. The dirtier Redvers looked the less valuable he looked and the less attention we’d get. Each of the three urchins received the equivalent of a pound. That was a lot of money, but they’d been a big help and we quite wanted them to sod off.
The tent was erected as the onlookers videoed it on their phones. We washed with the ‘roaches and clambered into our tent. We were at the border. Our day had been incredible. We’d cross tomorrow morning.