When it rains it pours…
Sitting on the side of the road only metres away from the dead body strewn across the road I could only shake nervously and light up another cigarette. I hardly thought about my car which was still perched precariously on a very steep embankment on the side of the road. I have seen dead bodies before but have never felt partly responsible for someone’s death. It had been an accident and in all fairness hadn’t really been my fault – but I still couldn’t help feeling guilty. I had been nervous driving again on this stretch of scenic coastal road near Mombasa. It was a few clicks from the very spot I was sitting now that on 1st January 2006 I had crashed and rolled my last Land Rover.
Driving back late at night to Mombasa after an enjoyable Christmas day with my ex and her family a truck had managed to crash and block the entire narrow road. There was a line of cars waiting to get past. Not wanting to be stuck til morning (for there is no real breakdown service in Kenya esp at midnight on Christmas day) I decided to assess whether it was possible to get my car past on the side of the road. The road itself was on a steep embankment but after careful assessment I thought it was possible to go off-road and drive the 100m or so past the lorry and back on to the road again. The only problem was that the way down to the off-road track was a bit steep and not wanting to risk toppling the car over, I decided to take a safer route down about 20m back. Unfortunately – from this spot – after descending down the hill, I realised I wasn’t able to pass and had to turn around. Getting stuck on the last bit of the steep embankment back up a small lorry offered to tow me the last few metres back on to the road. I insisted a few times on putting the tow rope around the O-ring attached to the chassis at the front of the car – but after a few attempts where they were not able to do so, the people towing me out decided – in all their great wisdom – to stick the tow cable around the bull bars. I insisted this was not practical – but being late and being on my own – I didn’t insist too much and was too easily convinced that the few metres necessary to lift the car back on the road wouldn’t require too much of a pull. Of course – the bull bar snapped and flung part of it across the road smashing a guy on the back of the head and instantly killing him.
It was relatively straight forward dealing with the police but to be honest it knocked the wind out of me for a while.
I had already been assessing the type of photography I do. I have wanted to move away from the news-focused photography I normally do and focus more on long-term documentary type photographic projects. I had been half-hearted about running to DRC already before I came down ill for a month that made a trip to Ug and South Sudan as well impossible to undertake. I also began having misgivings about the car. A few things had started to play up and I wasn’t convinced I could take her on my own into remote places. I knew I would have to undertake the trip back home to SA but the roads down south are far better and thought I could do this relatively easily with no complications.
After spending the festive period in Mombasa shooting on a council estate for a long-term project I am undertaking partly for my Masterclass, I left myself with little time to get back to SA to catch a flight to Holland from Joburg for the masterclass a week later and I needed a few days in CT as well to sort myself out. I headed on down at breakneck speed to SA making it to Malawi via Tanzania in a couple of days. I was even thanking my lucky stars that after a 2 and a half hour queue at a petrol station in Lilongwe in Malawi I was able to get diesel fuel which was scarce in the entire country due to lack of forex in the country’s coffers. I drove into Mozambique and the roads were surprisingly good. Feeling lucky I decided to keep driving into the night on to Maputo.
‘It’s only 900 clicks from here. Sure I can make that by first light.’
There is a game I like to play on my long drives that I call ‘famous last words’ where I catalogue all the things I think or say that with hindsight can only be described as complete idiocy bordering on lunacy.
The above thought has been neatly catalogued into the ‘classics’ section.
About a couple of hours down the road my battery light started flickering on and off. I had just had the alternator replaced in Nairobi and it looked like the job hadn’t been done properly and either the alternator had packed in again or the bearings holding it in place had come loose going over the potholes in Mozambique, or the split charge system was at fault (turned out to be the bearings holding the alternator in place).
Having just started a night drive and needing lights it was a risk travelling with a battery that couldn’t charge up. To be honest – there was nowhere to go back to anyway and the only option was to keep on going down the road. At about 3am in the morning my battery finally gave up. I had to crawl into the next town using a torch that I held out of the driver’s side window. The car just made it into the next petrol station which was shut til morn before the car completely gave up. With only the most superficial assurances for my safety from the guard there I slept in the cramped front compartment of my landie acting out my very own impression of the littlest hobo.
I must have dreamt I was back in my house in Cape Town because when I woke I had no idea what the guard with the dumb apologetic grin on his face lightly tapping on my window wanted – or where the hell I was or what I was doing for that matter. It took me a few seconds to somewhat depressingly realise that I was actually sleeping in a broken car about 200km outside Maputo in a petrol station. After getting a half hour charge on my battery from a pick-up, I was back on the road. I had to use as little battery as possible or I would lose the charge again. Of course – on cue and heaven-sent – it began to pour down in a relentless and almost Biblical fashion. I have never driven in rain like that before and of course sod’s law it happened the 1 time I couldn’t really use my wipers, or any lights…. and it didn’t let up until I got to 100 clicks from Durban in SA.
I got used to driving with as little lights and wipers as possible (which on African roads is a bit like playing Russian roulette with I guess a small element of skill involved. You get to make out the blobs and vague lines after a while). Even with minimum battery usage, I crawled into Maputo even though the battery cut twice again. In the end, I chucked the secondary battery as the main (which still had charge) – something which I really didn’t want to do before I was well into South Africa as it was my last good battery and I really didn’t want to breakdown in the middle of nowhere in SA with a car full of expensive camera equipment – something that as anyone who lives in South Africa knows is far more likely to lead to problems than driving without wipers in Mozambique.
I made it to my friends’ farm just south of Durban though but took me a good 3 days to do a journey that should of taken me one. Car is being fixed now and should be back in CT by end week.
It’s been a really eventful last couple of months. But happy to be back in SA and looking forward to settling back down in CT for a while. I don’t foresee doing another trip for a good while. It looks likely I’ll be undertaking my first major video project which is all exciting and should keep me preoccupied in CT for the foreseeable future…but – knowing myself – I’m sure I’ll get the bug again soon and be back on the road not before too long!