Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Adventure in Tanzania, 40 years ago today

Everyone who has lived and worked in Africa has wonderful tales of adventure to tell over the dinner table. Barbara and I lived in Chingola, Zambia, for 4 years, and my dinner party story is of an eventful six days in Tanzania, which began exactly 40 years ago today.

Barbara and the Bryants, somewhere in Tanzania
We were on safari in East Africa, having driven from Chingola into Tanzania, with fellow metallurgist Vic Bryant, his wife Jo, and young son Andrew. The first 10 days had been relatively uneventful, apart from many punctures and minor repairs to the cars, due to the atrocious roads. We had visited Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, and on Monday 28th June 1971 left our camp site in the Serengeti to head for Uganda on little used roads.

Stuck in a rut!!
The first part of the journey was a 275 km drive through a rarely visited stretch of the Serengeti and turned out to be the most perilous part of the whole journey. The first section was on an almost impassable, heavily-rutted track, in parts almost covered by the dense grass of the savannah. It was obvious that this road was suited only to 4-wheel drives, had not been used for some time, and a breakdown here would leave us in a very serious situation. We had seen many lions, some even crossing our path, and the reason why soon became apparent, with the awesome spectacle of huge herds of migrating wildebeest, the weak and sickly providing easy pickings for the prowling carnivores. We felt particularly exposed and vulnerable when my car became stuck in the ruts, and Vic and I had to fit a tow rope between the cars to haul me out.

To our immense relief, after 135 km the track opened up into a very respectable dirt road, and, apart from a further puncture, we arrived in Mwanza in the early afternoon, and spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening on the shores of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, the source of the fabled White Nile. It was time to really relax now. The awful Tanzanian roads were behind us, and we could look forward to next day’s serene ferry trip across the lake, which would take us to Bukoba, and then Uganda beckoned. We sipped our gin and tonics on the terrace of the Lake Hotel, watched the sun go down over the lake, and proposed toasts to the success of the next part of our journey, the easy part.

The cars were loaded onto the large ferry the following morning, and we eventually left Mwanza at midday for the scheduled 7 hour crossing to Bukoba. When we eventually left the ferry, however, it was past 10pm, as the local police had come on board to search the boat for an escaped prisoner. It was much too late to pitch camp, so we set off along a good tarred road hoping to find a local hotel. The road seemed very remote and deserted and was completely devoid of lighting. Not for long though; suddenly there was light everywhere, and in the harsh glare of floodlights we were surrounded by soldiers waving assault rifles in a very threatening way.

In true Hollywood fashion, Vic and I left the cars with hands held aloft and a feeling of complete impotence in the presence of these increasingly agitated soldiers barking commands in Swahili. I am not sure what would have happened to us if our plight had been ignored by a local man, a friendly Sikh, who had been following us at a discreet distance. He acted as interpreter and explained that we had strayed into a prohibited area, although there had been no warnings or barriers. After some discussion, we were informed that we must report to immigration the following day, and he then kindly escorted us to the Coffee Tree Inn, where we spent a restless night in very poor accommodation.

Early next morning we presented ourselves at immigration, and after seemingly endless checking of passports we were told that we must report to the local police station. Here we had to complete lengthy statements of our life history from birth but after nearly five hours we were finally allowed to leave.

Our friendly Samaritan had advised us the previous evening that there was much tension on the nearby border due to the seizing of control of Uganda only a few months earlier by General Idi Amin. He intimated that it was probably unwise to cross the border at this time, so abandoning our plans to visit Murchison Falls and the Ruwenzori mountains we headed back to Mwanza, setting off southwards along the western bank of the lake, on the all too-familiar rutted dirt roads.

We had covered over 160 km when a dark object became visible on the road ahead. As we approached it became evident that this was a stationary police Land Rover, headlights full on, straddling the centre of the road, with two uniformed policemen ominously waving us down. They escorted us to the police station at nearby Biharamulo where we were told that they had been notified by radio of our ‘escape’ from Bukoba, and that, as we were under suspicion of spying for Uganda, must return under guard. It was with very low spirits that we made the return trip, the bumpy road seeming much more treacherous this time by the presence of a gun-toting policeman in the back seat of each car.

We eventually reached Bukoba late evening, and, after waking up our two sleeping escorts, reported once more to the local C.I.D. Thankfully Barbara, Jo and Andrew were allowed to leave for a local hotel, while Vic and I were detained for further questioning. We were searched, our shoes and socks removed, and then we spent a very cold night, wearing only shorts and tee-shirts, in a small, filthy cell, swarming with mosquitoes and small lake flies.

We spent the whole of the next morning in the cell, with no food or water. Shortly after midday we left for further questioning and more written statements, which included meaningless questions such as ‘who do you know?’, ‘who knows you?’ and ‘how many bicycles do you own?’ The cars were thoroughly searched for firearms and eventually, in late afternoon, they were satisfied that we hadn’t been engaged in nefarious activities, and we were released. After long hot baths, we spent a pleasant evening with the friendly Sikh and learned that he, and the equally friendly Lake Hotel staff, had helped Barbara and Jo contact the British Consul in Dar es Salaam, who had played a critical role in our early release.

The next morning it was back on the dusty 420 km road to Mwanza again. As we left Biharamulo behind, the feeling of relief was palpable, but unfortunately it was short-lived. Before the days of fuel-injection, cars were sometimes prone to vapour-locks at high speeds and temperatures, when the petrol changes from liquid to gas while still in the fuel delivery system. My Ford Corsair was particularly susceptible, and had been intermittently causing problems since leaving Chingola. Somewhere between Biharamulo and Mwanza it became more serious, and the engine cut out altogether. We knew that if we waited an hour or so the engine would cool, and would start again, but we were eager to reach Mwanza before dark, so agreed that Vic should provide a tow for a few miles.

To be towed at 70 km/h on a good tarmac road is a stressful and unpleasant experience, but on a deeply rutted dirt road it is a nightmare. Within seconds of setting off it became apparent that this was a futile exercise; Vic’s car, and the road immediately ahead, became shrouded in a pall of red dust and all attempts to alert him by headlights and horn were to no avail. I glanced over at Barbara, who was looking pale, and to my horror saw another face staring at me from the side window. It was only there for a moment, but was instantly recognisable as an equally horror-struck Vic! In a sudden blur the car lurched to the left, there were sounds of metal on metal, and both cars ended up locked together in the shallow ditch bordering the road! Obviously Vic had heeded my signal and had slowed down. Unaware of this I had somehow overtaken him until the tow-rope caught in my front nearside wheel and caused the coming together.

Fortunately no one was hurt, and the damage to the cars was confined only to the bodywork. We managed to manoeuvre Vic’s car back onto the road, and then towing my car this time at a gentle crawl we reached a small car ferry which took us across a narrow southern creek of the lake, and eventually arrived in Mwanza late evening.

Once again we sat on the terrace of the Lake Hotel, where we had proposed toasts to our journey only four nights previously, although it seemed a lifetime ago. Covered in mosquito and tsetse fly bites we weakly raised our glasses to the next day’s drive to Kenya and pondered on what could go wrong next!

The Kenyan border was 300 km away, and we left Mwanza in the early afternoon, after repairs to my car’s fuel system and battery. The road to the border was on the familiar road surface, which we were well used to by now, and, apart from two punctures and a couple of stops due to vapour locks, we arrived without incident as the sun was setting in our rear mirrors. We were dismayed to hear that the Kenyan immigration officer had already left for the day, but the friendly man in charge telephoned him, and the official graciously agreed to return and look after us. Eventually a car appeared in the distance, followed by a huge cloud of red dust. We watched it climb the winding road towards the border post and then suddenly, to our horror, it rolled and somersaulted in a mass of dust and the driver staggered out of his vehicle. He then nonchalantly walked up to the border post, displaying a very badly injured left ear, introduced himself as the immigration officer, stamped our passports and wished us a safe journey!

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