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TRAVEL – Overland Africa Part 2: Zambia to Rwanda

Four guys live the overland dream when they rebuild a 1969 Land Rover Forward Control and head north through Africa, taking the slow road to Rwanda. Mitchell Sohn picks up the second part of their story, just as the group leap into Zambia, having survived a road not driven in many years…

Nobody said overlanding is for sissies, and our exit route from Angola was a stern test of this. It took three days to cover 160km of the worst road we had ever seen, as we plunged from one giant puddle to the next, each one threatening to tip Agnes onto her side. The final stretch to the Zambian border was the worst we had seen, and our racing engine warned the border official at the Jimbe gate, who raised the boom as we just made it to solid ground. Our passports were stamped at what was possibly the least frequented border in Zambia after the date stamp was moved from its position quite some years back. As we moved on to clear the vehicle through customs, raggedy hand-drawn signs led us to a dilapidated building. We walked in to find a Zambian customs official wearing the full Rambo kit – a bulletproof vest, army boots, AK-47, pistol, two grenades, ankle knife, thigh knife, forearm knife, camo pants, sunglasses, and a beret.

Not a good omen. He remained friendly and when he peered inside the vehicle, said, “You know… usually we search the whole car. It can take a very long time. We may even search it from the up… to the down!” He was clearly fishing for a bribe. “No problem! We can read,” Harry said, as he lay down on his bunk with a book. The officer dressed for all-out war muttered something under his breath and, after some silence, we were sent on the road again. Our brakes had deteriorated after the challenging road through Angola. We now had to pump them three to four times before they began to work. Mac, a mechanic in Chingola that Tuscan had previously met, runs ‘Macanics’, a workshop in the industrial area. He took to helping us immediately. Removing the brake drums for inspection revealed leaking seals on the wheel cylinders (brake pistons), likely due to the amount of mud we had been through. He took us to a local guy who whipped up some new seals on a home-made electric lathe, using discarded tractor tyre rubber.

We watched in amazement as he produced perfectly-fitting seals in his badly-lit, back-alley workshop. Later that day, Mac offered to let us stay in Agnes at his house, so, to celebrate, we all went for beers and burgers together and postponed the work until the following day. By the time Mac had finished, Agnes had also been fitted with new leaf spring bushings and had been given a good wash. While looking for some fried chicken in a mall (a luxury we had been denied during our very rural route through Angola), a bunch of the local street youths offered to sell us two guinea pigs. We obliged by picking the healthierlooking one and named him ‘Zambezi’. Quick to adapt, he made Agnes his home, hiding in difficult-to-reach places and sometimes gapping it under the car when we let him graze – often delaying our departure as all four of us scrambled underneath the car to retrieve him. We also picked up an American, named Nolan, who was travelling by public transport through Africa. After a drive in Agnes to locate an ATM and some dinner, he flipped a coin and, when it landed on heads, changed his direction of travel completely to join us on the journey to Lake Malawi.
We couldn’t pass judgement on Zambia, because other than a few days in a workshop we motored through the country at a fast pace, determined to meet friends who were flying in to join us in Malawi.

Malawi

We arrived at Lilongwe airport to collect two more friends, which would make Agnes the most laden she had ever been – seven passengers and a guinea pig. Senga Bay and Cape Maclear proved to be beautiful spots on Lake Malawi. We indulged in good beer, curries, and tasty local food. We even arranged a trip by boat to a small island where we bought live chickens at a market and cooked up a tasty potjie feast along with pot bread. Agnes had, meanwhile, sprung a leak in her roof. We had been aware of the problem for a week or two due to the torrential rains of the wet season, so we set to removing the corrugated roof sheeting to locate the problem. We found several obvious holes right through the roof, which had been drilled but not filled by the previous owner. To be sure we didn’t have any further leaks, we searched for a permanent solution. No decent waterproofing material like Sikaflex could be found, so we spoke to local boat builders to find out where we could find bitumen. They looked perplexed and when we pointed at the bitumen they were using, they said “Ah! Maline Grue!” So we asked local stores for ‘Maline Grue’ and they all immediately understood, sending us in the direction of a nearby shipyard. When we referred to it as ‘Marine Glue’ we were met with blank stares of confusion.

After a full day’s work melting bitumen on a camping stove in the hot sun and applying it with paintbrushes and scrapers, we deserved even more beer for our hard work. We reassembled the roof sheeting the following day, with a hangover, and left Cape Maclear to continue up the lake and bound for Tanzania. Our first night of heavy rain along the lake revealed the soul-crushing reality that we still had roof leaks. Mitch and Harry woke at sunrise to paddle out to photograph the fishermen out of Nkhata Bay. One fisherman in a dugout canoe had three tin buckets, the rim lined with carefully prepared and baited hooks all attached to one long line. Mitch followed him, struggling to keep up as he took long, powerful strokes, occasionally un-snagging hooks with ease. After he had finished his first bucket, he began preparing the next, still heading away from shore. Mitch turned around and, after an hour of hard paddling, arrived at the shore. The same fisherman was now a dot on the horizon, still setting his line by hand. We had put in some long shifts, alternating between driving, sleeping in our bunks, and eating cereal (our staple diet when covering long distances). Tuscan and Nolan had ended their trip and it had been just three of us for the previous week. With only 50km to the border of Tanzania, we pulled over and slept, ready for a new country the following day.

Tanzania

wed to a grinding halt in what had looked like a shallow one. Mitch climbed out the driver’s seat and his legs sunk waist-deep into a slosh of black mud. It was nearly midnight and the diffs were resting in the mud, with Agnes canted over to the driver’s side. The next two hours were spent using all our recovery equipment. A sand ladder was used to provide a base for the high-lift jack, which would otherwise have sunk waist-deep. We used the Tirfor hand winch to pull forward, and another sand ladder to wedge under the wheel once it lifted. The process was repeated often, fishing in the mud each time for the jack and sand ladder – which required two people to lift from deep in the ‘sinking sand’ bog, as we later referred to it. Once unstuck, we cheered in victory, but there was only one way off the road: back the way we had come. Now came the decision: turn around in the morning and risk repeating the process or turn around now while still muddy to the hips. We turned around at 02:00, and with all the speed we could muster, tackled the same daunting thick bogs, slowing again almost to a halt for a terrifying eternity. The screaming engine only just kept its momentum and we arrived back on a solid section of road relieved and with trembling hands. At 03:00 we parked on an abandoned football field and at 07:00 heard “Good morning Mzungu! How are you?” Local village kids scattered when we opened the door, laughing as we rose from our beds groggy-eyed. Arriving in Dar es Salaam, we checked into an Airbnb apartment and sprawled out all the contents of Agnes on every surface for a thorough clean-out. Next, we removed the roof sheets again, cursing at the 400 hundred rivets. The silver lining this time being that professional waterproofers had been contracted to do the job, using Sikaflex products imported from South Africa. We geared up for Christmas, decorating a tree in the apartment and celebrating our arrival on the east coast of Africa. Lounging in the air-conditioned apartment in pyjamas until late morning, coffee in hand, while the waterproofers worked on Agnes, this was a feeling we all savoured. Parts were due to arrive from South Africa via air freight.

We had ordered a new stub axle and side shaft to replace the spares we had used, a new brake master and wheel cylinders to give us good brakes again, and spares for our water pump. A week after the spares were due to arrive, the package was still ‘missing’. And, with it being the holidays, nobody in any South African Airways office seemed to be working. We decided to investigate ferrying Agnes to Zanzibar Island (Unguja) for the New Year’s celebrations. The shipping agent quoted us the equivalent of $6 000 (R84 000) each way. When we picked our jaws up off the ground to decline his offer, he said, “Okay, how much you pay?” Agnes remained in Dar es Salaam while we took a passenger ferry to Zanzibar. Our Uber arrived with a flat tyre and the driver signalled for us to wait. We would be late for the ferry at the pace he began, so we helped him change the tyre, putting all our practice over the trip to use. We made the ferry just in time. Our friend Reggie had had his own face printed on T-shirts for us as Christmas gifts and we decided to all wear them at the party. It felt like a bachelor’s party, so we went along with it, saying we were celebrating the prime of Reggie as a bachelor. The stars aligned and, on the 5th of January, our package suddenly appeared along with a customs fee double the value of the parts themselves. Sorting it out was an expensive and frustrating procedure we will never repeat. We decided to move on towards Rwanda, relieved to be free of the chaos of Dar es Salaam.

We camped on the grassy shoreline of a small lake. Locals were unbothered by our presence and unobtrusive, going about their day. We watched a man paddle across the lake in a boat riddled with holes, bailing water out between each stroke. Late at night another man arrived, drunk as a skunk, and paddled his canoe into the darkness to his home across the lake. Cattle carts waded waist-deep into the lake to wash and drink. At 03:00 we were woken by loud claps of thunder, which became louder as the storm neared. The claps began vibrating the air around us, as the storm loomed overhead and synced with bright bolts of lightning. We whispered of the possibilities of being struck and a deafening clap ran through the vehicle as a bolt of lightning struck within spitting distance, blinding the interior in a flash of white. We all yelped in terror and excitement. We waited, anticipating another, but it struck across the lake next and within minutes there were several seconds between thunder and lightning. Sleep slowly overtook our elevated heart rates.

Rwanda

The most efficient border crossing of the trip brought us into Rwanda. Even at the border post, the change was apparent; Rwanda proved to be clean and completely free of any visible litter. Rolling hills and winding, good tar roads brought us into Kigali where one can get a taxi scooter to anywhere in the city for under R15 – the city’s most prevalent public transport system. The country has a strong police and army presence and feels very safe.

We spent a day installing new parts on Agnes, in the parking lot of a hostel; by early evening we had good brakes for the first time in 10 000km. A concert was being held at the hostel and hundreds of people had passed Agnes, chatting and asking questions. Once finished, we went straight to the concert, still in our greasy clothes from the day’s work. Harry and Jon-Jon had a week left before they had to return to jobs and reality, so we headed for Nyungwe National Park and Lake Kivu, Rwanda’s main attractions. More twisting, welltarred roads brought us into a thick canopied forest where soldiers were stationed on every other corner, standing alone in heavy camo raincoats, holding automatic rifles in the rain. It was an ominous feeling, seeing them blend into their surroundings. We discovered that they are stationed there to monitor and prevent illegal activity within the forest. We exited the forest into a landscape of soft, rolling tea plantations perfectly-cultivated in neat rows as high as the often steep slopes would allow. It is illegal to remove a tea plant in Rwanda once planted. Doing so can result in imprisonment.

Once back in Kigali, we got back into a brief routine of good coffee and food, enjoying the last few days of Harry and Jon-Jon’s company. They were due back in South Africa, and it was decided Mitch would drive Agnes back along with his dad who was flying in a week later. The three of us – Mitch, Jon-Jon and Harry – had become close over the three-month trip and we reminisced during our last few days with Agnes, about how we had crammed so much into the action-packed adventure which we knew would still be a talking point late into our lives. The fact of having done it in such a unique 50-year-old vehicle gave the trip an edge in memory. Agnes inspired all kinds of different reactions from people. Police officers often stopped us, apparently just genuinely curious and waved us on after asking us about our trip and the vehicle. Other locals looked at Agnes with furrowed brows and flared nostrils in confusion or huge smiles, whistling and laughing as we drove by. In some smaller villages, some ran in fear! Sometimes crowds would gather around Agnes, pondering over the route on our map or our ‘voodoo doll’ on the bumper.

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