In and Out of Africa
From subversives to Ambulance Driver
The Malawi border post was small, tidy and efficient. They did indeed search our library looking for communist literature, girlie magazines and 'Africa on a Shoestring'. Our copy of 'The Africans' By Ali A Mazrui drew some attention, possibly because of it's red cover. We showed them the pictures of various African countries and they seemed happy. Fortunately they didn't see the photo of Julius Nyerere with Fidel Castro or we could have been in trouble. The local truck with the Kiwi girls, Julie and Charlene, finally arrived at the border and we offered them a lift to Karonga. We dropped them off at the Hotel before heading off to 'Club Marina', which was basically a bar next to a beach where you can camp. Lake Malawi is one of the larger of the Rift Valley lakes and is about 500 km long by about 80 km wide. This means that you can't see the other side. We shared the campsite with a tour truck and a couple of other tourist vehicles. They were all quiet and relaxed, it was hard not to be. A gentle surf lapped against the golden sandy beach and the moon rose softly over the calm waters of the lake.
We were now locked strongly into a 'natural' rhythm of waking just before dawn. This morning was no exception and we awoke to the first pinking of the dawn. Long pink tendrils stretched out from a suffusion of orange on the horizon. Swords of light cutting mortal wounds deep into the night. The central pink glow became swollen orange/red with the blood of the night and the swords of pink grew shorter as it retreated in shame. Then the sun rose over the lake, a shining path leading its way across the water as it rose through the sky and its colourful herald began to fade. I walked across the beach. A lady from the tour truck was starting to cook breakfast for 15. "Did you see...", I said, unable to find words. "Yes" she said quietly, staring out over the lake. An Australian guy crawled out of his tent. "Gidday, What are you talking about?" he asked. "The sunrise" we replied. He looked briefly at the fading colours. "Not bad, it'll be better in a minute", he said, and wandered off to the toilet. We looked at each other in despair and shook our heads. If there are some people who always manage to miss the point he was one of they.
The long pink tendrils reaching out into the sky were the silhouettes of the valleys and peaks of the rift valley cliffs just above the horizon on the other side of the lake. The fluffy orange/pink glow was caused by low cloud sitting on the edge of the cliffs and the depth of the colour, we would learn later, could be attributed to a volcano in the Philippines ejecting fine particles into the atmosphere. Knowing all this didn't take anything from the beauty of the moment, rather it makes it seem all the more rare and precious. Each sunrise is unique, but some are more unique than others. This was one of those sunrises which redefines the concept of a beautiful sunrise for ever.
We met the girls again in town at the bank. Then we set off together to the Heart Hotel in Nkhata bay, which was highly recommended. En route we travelled the long windy unsealed road up the rift valley escarpment to Livingstonia, a colonial style town billed as having the best view in Africa. We reached the top of the escarpment with great expectations. After all this effort it must be good. As we drove through the unremarkable village we couldn't help feeling disappointed. The guest house, which supposedly sold excellent pancakes, didn't look worth the drive and the waterfall was picturesque but not outstandingly so. The view was good, although it didn't come close to the view across the Rift Valley from Iten or the view across the Tassili from the end of the Arak Gorge. It was also indistinguishable from the view over lake Malawi on the main road from the border or the view a few kilometres later, also on the main road. All in all this was considered a wasted detour. Our minds were becoming travel-numbed and complacent. It was just another beautiful view, one of many. Sitting here writing this, in the middle of a wet winters evening in the city I would gladly walk up the Rift Valley Escarpment for a glimpse of that view we so casually disregarded.
At Nkhata bay we stayed at the 'Heart Hotel'. It was fairly easy to distinguish from the other buildings in the town as it had "Heart Hotel" written in large multi coloured letters above "World Famous Pancakes" and other pieces of blatant self propaganda. Well, we had come here specifically for the pancakes, which are mentioned in 'Shoestring', so 'World Famous' is perhaps not such an idle boast.
Julie decided that the place looked like a hippy commune, with various articles of clothing out to dry and young people with Indian print skirts and intense looks on their faces smoking marijuana in front of the hotel. Our fellow travellers here seemed to have been in Africa for about a week, most of which had been spent at Livingstonia, which they had enjoyed very much. Hungrily we ordered our pancakes. They were very nice pancakes. Probably not worth waiting for two hours listening to stoned, bright young travellers gushing about their week in Africa though.
Julie and Charlene stayed in one of the hotel 'rooms' which had several bunks per room. We parked in the campsite part of the hotel grounds where we had our own 'guardian'. He was very efficient and certainly appeared to remain awake all night, which was a great improvement on the 'guardians' in other campsites.
After breakfast (toast, fruit, tea and 'fresh' fruit juice), which was included in the price for the night, we all set off for Senga Bay. The girls were hoping to meet up with two friends they had been travelling with. They had got separated after a heavy nights drinking when Julie and Charlene didn't manage to get up in time to catch a boat. On the way we passed the market at Nhakotoata, supposedly the oldest market town in Africa and once the centre of the slave trade. The market these days is unremarkable and the generations of trade, human and otherwise, have left no historical impression.
Senga Bay is a small village near the Lake with a couple of hotels by the water. We stopped at the small artisans market and the hawkers were all vying for our trade. "Good price for you", "I give you good price", "Best price in Africa". Ten minutes of this were more than enough although we had both spotted a wooden tripod, carved from a single piece of wood, which is a local speciality. We decided to go back tomorrow and start bargaining.
The campsite was a small stretch of beach next to the hotel. The gentle surf lapping against the sand and the shady trees gave it a tropical island feeling. There was a perfect Landrover sized spot near the water between two trees where the girls could also put up their tent. I started to drive across the sand. It felt suspiciously soft under the wheels. By now I knew which levers to push and did so. I drove carefully through the soft sand to the waters edge leaving deep tracks behind.
Then we investigated the Hotel which was quite luxurious in a sparse sort of way. The menu offered several interesting looking options for later but burger and chips were available at any time. Now seemed like a good time for a burger washed down with a Carlsberg Special Brew. In a moment of remarkable foresight as to the direction this evening was heading we decided to go and put the girls' tent up. As the evening wore on and more burgers and special brews were consumed we began to realise how fortuitous this decision had been! By the end of the evening we had discussed the problems of African travel, toilet maintenance in the third world, the New Zealand education system and the varying strength of Carlsberg beer between different countries. Eventually a rather tired and drunken quartet left the bar and walked back to the tents where we discovered that the other two Kiwis had just arrived.
Just as we were about to crawl into bed an Indian came over. "Have you got any rope", he asked. "Er, what for", I slurred in reply. "Well, we are stuck in the sand and someone has offered to pull us out if we can find a rope. We saw your vehicle and thought you would have some". "Well, we've got a winch cable". Fortunately by this time we knew exactly where all the equipment was kept and could find the winch with a minimum of fuss even while considerably drunk. We wandered over to the VW van which was well and truly stuck. "Why did you try and drive through that soft sand?", I asked. "We thought it looked too soft, but then we saw some tracks going through it so we decided it must be OK", he replied. "Ah", I said, "Those would have been our tracks". A South African in a Toyota Landcruiser had offered to tow them out and had now reversed into position. I attached the winch and took up the slack. The South African started his engine and began to pull. The rear wheels began to spin and sink deep into the sand. Someone suggested he try four wheel drive. I could see him press some buttons in the cab. Now when he revved the engine nothing happened at all, none of the wheels even span round. His girlfriend (who actually owned the vehicle) said "I think you have to do something to the front hubs". In typical fashion he ignored her and tried revving the engine once more to no avail. He got out of the cab to survey the situation. I had a vision of me, the tough experienced off-roader, leaping into the unfamiliar vehicle, engaging the correct gear and driving off with ease while the onlookers cheered. I looked into the cab and was faced with a mass of bright lights with blurry labels, some of which where flashing, and a tangle of levers. Drunken stupidity can be self limiting and I had reached one of those limits. Fiona was giving me her "I know what you are thinking but it would be foolish, wouldn't it" look. After one last glance at the throbbing lights I walked back to the rear of the Toyota. "It looks like we've got a rather effective ground anchor here, why don't we just winch the Volkswagen out and you might be able to drive the Landcruiser out on its own", I said. The South African gave me a funny look which I was too drunk to understand. A few pulls on the winch handle and the VW was on hard sand and could, very carefully, drive away to the left. The South African tried once more to drive out to no avail. "Oh well, there's only one thing for it", I said and walked back to the truck, loosely closed the tent and got in the Landrover cab. No flashing lights and forest of knobs here, just the familiar two levers, already set for soft sand. I weaved carefully between the tents and cars to the Landcruiser listening for Fiona who was walking alongside looking for any obstacles likely to be missed by my alcohol impaired vision. We then hooked on to the Landcruiser and towed it out of the sand with ease. Once more I weaved my way through the tents and the sea of sand which had caused so much trouble before reversing into our spot again.
The next morning was heralded by another beautiful sunrise, although without the same pink fingers reaching into the sky. The visual splendour of the sunrise was too much for my senses which were fighting a losing battle against the after effects of too many bottles of Carlsberg Special Brew. My father is blessed with an amazing constitution and claims never to have had a hangover in his life. Unfortunately, the hangover free gene didn't get passed on to me. None of our party got much further than the beach directly in front of our tents. I spent most of the day in the tent attempting to fight off bouts of nausea and failing miserably. Fortunately the toilets were of the clean ceramic type, which are marginally nicer to throw up in than a hole in the ground. The drawback is that the seats never stay up and tend to come slamming down at inopportune moments. After one of these moments, in which I came off worse than the toilet, I decided to spend the rest of the day in the safety of the tent.
The next day we were all feeling a lot better and drove off to explore the area. We stopped at the market where they were selling the intricately carved tripods, made from a single piece of wood. The bargaining opened in local currency, at a lower price than they had asked two days earlier. By walking away and waiting we had already halved the starting price. The negotiations continued with the vendor asking a high price in local currency and we offering a much lower price. Just as we thought a price had been agreed the trader suddenly switched currency to US dollars. We did a quick calculation and realised that, remarkably, the price had lowered once again. Eventually the price came down to $10 US. The work that had gone into the tripod was far more than 10 dollars worth and to drive the price lower just for the challenge would have brought us no pleasure in the long run.
Lake Malawi, is a beautiful and relaxing place in the centre of Africa. It also spreads beauty and relaxation throughout the world in the form of its most frequently seen export item. The vast majority of the worlds freshwater tropical fish come from here. Near to Senga bay was a small aquarium where the fish are caught and bred for export. The owners were only too happy to show us around and this gave us a unique opportunity to see the variety of lake fish. Most of the fish in the lake are closely related but have diversified into many different shapes and colours, although blue seemed very popular. A chart on the wall showed the current orders from all around the world, Paris, London, New York all soon to receive fish from here. Some of the holding tanks weren't very clean and the fish would probably be glad to be transported to other, cleaner, tanks halfway across the world.
We investigated some of the other local campsites and found a small bar on a jetty overlooking the lake. While we were enjoying a drink and the view a party of tourists on a tour truck driving north to Europe came into the bar. I overheard one couple discussing the possible methods of African travel. Perhaps they had seen our Landrover parked outside "Do you think it is possible to drive something like a Landrover all the way through Africa on your own?", one asked. "No, I think it is completely impossible", the other said decisively. I just didn't have the heart to tell them...
Senga Bay was certainly relaxing and it would have been almost too easy to stay there for a few weeks. The inertia which had been driving us took over again, we realised that it was possible now to be in South Africa in two weeks. Suddenly we felt very weary of travelling and the prospect of South Africa, old friends and a settling down for a few months was very appealing. We would only be about three months early for the wedding and would be able to get the brakes fixed at last. We had a quiet farewell drink with Julie, Gavin, Charlene and Heather and went to bed early ready for an early start the next morning.
The next stop was Lilongwe, where Fiona could get her South African visa. The road started off as a reasonable tar sealed road with only a few huge potholes. It wasn't far before it became what they euphemistically describe as a 'strip' road. This was originally a single lane of tar seal with a wide shoulder on either side so that vehicles had somewhere to pass. This may have been a good idea in the 1940's when the roads were originally built but now, with large potholes in the tar and shoulders which hadn't seen a grader in decades, it was just another new type of road hazard to cope with. This is the kind of road they use to demonstrate how BMW traction control and anti-lock brakes still work with each wheel on a different surface. Except that the demonstration roads are usually a lot smoother and wider and don't have animals and people running across them or vehicles coming the other way. This was definitely not a road for the unwary.
After less than a kilometre along the strip road we turned a corner and were confronted by a man in the middle of the road waving for us to stop. In the ditch there was an overturned Toyota Landcruiser and from out of the undergrowth curious Africans were beginning to appear. I looked around for another vehicle but could only see one. We stopped and Fiona went to check on the injured while I got the first aid kit from the back of the truck. We knew what to do at traffic accidents having both learned first aid in the past and automatic reactions were calling from the back of our minds. Reactions based on modern communications and trained help being available within minutes. Be careful not to move anyone with possible spinal injuries, try and stop any severe bleeding, keep shock victims warm, find a telephone and call for an ambulance. Wait a minute, telephone, ambulance, we're in the middle of Africa here. Three months in Africa had not been enough to alter our reactions. The man who had been waving said. "We must get to the Hospital". "Hospital?", I said incredulously, "where's that". "Salima", he replied. Salima was less than 6 km away, visions of clean sheets and trained personnel began to return. There had been three Indian couples in the Landcruiser. One man had a seriously broken ankle, the kind of break which was obvious from the other side of the road, his foot at an impossible angle and bone poking out. Two of the women were also bleeding badly. This was a situation Fiona was far more capable of dealing with and I almost welcomed the chance to drive back to Salima and get the ambulance. I started to get back in the truck when the man shouted. "You must take the women with you". Something in the back of my mind was saying 'don't move them until the ambulance gets here'. Too late, some Africans were carrying the women towards the Landrover. "Shouldn't we wait...", I started to say. They were at the tail gate now and I found there was no choice. We unrolled the mattress and laid the girls out on the boxes in the back. "How will I find the Hospital?", I asked. One of the locals replied, "I will come with you". With a certain amount of apprehension and guilt I left Fiona behind to care for the man with the broken ankle and to cope with whatever might happen next.
The hospital in Salima was very new and the paint looked barely dry. We pulled up to the front and jumped out of the truck trying desperately to get some attention. At hospitals the world over medical staff never seem to be in any real hurry. This is probably because I always view the scene either as a helpless party near panic and running on adrenalin or through a sea of pain. The trained medical staff on the other hand are calmly going about their profession and know when to rush. Here events seemed to be moving at a peculiarly African pace, as though time itself was a thing of the future and not to be worried about now. The doctors and nurses seemed to be standing around with the same blank African expression as all the other bystanders. Nothing seemed to happen for several minutes and one of the women was starting to shake violently. "Do something someone, she's going into shock". I said. I may even have used some bad words. No one moved. Then a gleaming bright stainless steel trolley appeared and the woman who was in shock was taken inside, the doctor following slowly behind. While this was going on our local guide had been explaining the situation to some of the hospital staff. "We will go and get the others", He said. The trolley came back for the other woman. I turned around to see the local drive off in the 'Ambulance', a small blue pickup truck driven by another local.
Fiona was busy with the others. The man with the injured foot was also going into shock and according to our normal wisdom needed to be kept warm. Much to the amazement of the locals she unfolded the aluminium emergency blanket from the first aid kit and wrapped him in it. He was quiet but his wounds were hurting badly. "It will be alright", she said, "The ambulance will be here soon, they'll give you something for the pain". A local Landrover arrives, she decides to wait for the ambulance before moving the man with the injured foot so they take the other two to the hospital. Fiona is beginning to feel very uneasy here alone with a wounded man, surrounded by locals who can't speak English and a pile of expensive luggage. No one moves, they just stand and stare, watching and waiting.
The blue pickup arrives. 'Which one is the doctor?" thought Fiona. As she realised that this really was the ambulance she quietly closed her eyes and shuddered in horror. The locals didn't seem to expect anything else and once again the set of values we had brought with us held no meaning. The locals began to lift him onto the truck, "His foot!", cried Fiona, "Someone hold the foot!". They smiled and laughed out of embarrassment. They gently lifted him again. This time with someone holding his foot. Fiona looked at the pile of luggage on the ground and the local faces, waiting and watching. If she left now how much would be left in ten minutes. As she watched the old beaten up pickup drove away to the hospital carrying a man wrapped in a modern high-tech blanket she felt completely alone.
The doctors were attending the women when the truck returned. The man with the injured foot, in his aluminium cloak, was carefully lifted from the back onto the shiny stainless steel trolley. There was no sign of Fiona. I decided to go back and find her. As I was leaving some hospital officials called me into an office. One of the officials was talking rapidly on the phone in some local language. He offered me the phone. "You must tell the police what happened", he said. "Can he speak English?", I asked. "I don't think so", the official replied. International sign language works very poorly on the phone and I could feel the situation rapidly getting beyond my control. "Look. I didn't see that accident, I don't know the name of the road it's on and can't speak the local language. Even if I could there is nothing that I can tell them that you don't already know. You'll have to sort it out yourself". He looked surprised and disappointed, as though dealing with officialdom, especially the police, was the province of a white person and that I was that person. The only thing to do was leave. "You must..." the official called out as I got into the Landrover and drove off.
It seemed a long way back to the accident site. Fiona was sitting next to a pile of luggage and surrounded by bemused Africans. Using international sign language she had organised them to collect the luggage into a big pile. They didn't seem to think it at all strange that this white woman, unconnected to the people in the Landcruiser, was collecting up their luggage. No one had uttered a word as she had searched the luggage for something warm to wrap the injured in. It seemed perfectly acceptable to them when we proceeded to pack all the luggage into the back of the Landrover and drive off. Perhaps we just had honest faces. If they had wanted to take the luggage there would have been nothing she could have done about it. She was completely out numbered. If this had been the Africa we hear of in the news, the Africa of desperate bandits and murderers, I would never have seen her again. Fortunately we were in the real Africa and once again reality bore no relation to the popular fictions of the west. If Fiona hadn't been there the luggage would certainly have instantly disappeared. If a truck full of Reebok running shoes or Levi Jeans overturned in a quiet street in suburban Los Angeles or South London the goods would not have lasted very much longer. I doubt that a lone woman would have made any difference there though.
Among the luggage we found a pair of large freshly caught fish. Remarkably they were almost completely undamaged and we gave them to the village headman in return for looking after the Landcruiser until the police arrived. Not that it was going to drive anywhere in a hurry. It was lying on its back like a dead animal, its body a tangled mess of mangled metal. The bull bars were bent like cardboard and the metal chassis was torn in four places. The clutch plate, which should have been with the engine, was twenty metres away. The rear tyres were completely bald, the last pretence of tread having eroded away many kilometres before. With tyres like this an accident was almost inevitable. Especially if they had been travelling at speed. In fact they had been travelling at less than 60 km/h when the driver tried to avoid a pothole. I was very glad we had four strong tyres with plenty of tread.
We return to the hospital. Yussuf, the man who waved us down, seems completely unharmed and is calm and under control. He had held tightly to the seat in front of him and hadn't been thrown from the vehicle like the others. The driver also seems unharmed although dazed and confused. Abdulla, man with the injured foot, is semi conscious and in a bad situation. Two of the women appear only shocked but the third is bleeding from the mouth and nose and may be the most seriously injured of them all. The hospital staff were, in fact, quite competent. The clinic was clean, the equipment all looked new and the needles came from fresh packets. There was even an X-ray machine. They treated the Indians very well, even giving them a meal. Which is special treatment indeed in Africa where meals for patients are usually provided by members of the family. However they had very limited facilities and could do little to help the two worst injured people. It was decided that they should be moved to the main hospital in Lilongwe, 66 km away. The real ambulance, a converted Nissan Patrol, had now arrived. Even with the seats removed it could only take one stretcher. They decide to take Naziha, the most seriously injured woman, first. Yussuf, her husband, was able to travel in the front of the Nissan as he was uninjured. The round trip to Lilongwe will be nearly three hours and the man with the broken foot also needed urgent attention. Well, we were going to Lilongwe anyway so I offered to take them if a member of the hospital staff came along in case of emergencies. A few minutes later we took some of the loose equipment out of the back, slid in a borrowed mattress and converted the Landrover into an instant ambulance. Fiona decided to stay behind and look after the remaining two patients while I took the man with the broken foot and his wife to Lilongwe. We set off behind the ambulance. The ambulance driver knew the road and, siren wailing and lights flashing, soon left us behind. "Do you like working at the hospital?", I asked the trained male nurse, resplendent in his white uniform. "Yes, I like it very much". "How long have you worked there?"
When we reached the Hospital Yussuf had already begun to organise his friends in the local Indian Muslim population. Some friends with a van had already left for Salima to pick up the other two Indians, Fiona and the luggage (which was now locked in a room in the hospital). Someone came out with a stretcher trolley, not as clean or new as the one at Salima and loaded Abdulla and his broken foot onto it. The 'nurse' who had come with me had disappeared to find the Salima ambulance. As Ayesha was lifted off the mattress onto the trolley, the nurse from Salima and the ambulance driver took the mattress out of the truck and took it away. They then followed Ayesha and Abdulla waiting for the first opportunity to recover the blankets they were wrapped in. Obviously they were under very strict orders not to leave anything behind. Once they had recovered the Salima clinic linen and seeing as they were now in the city they wandered off to visit friends leaving Salima to rely on a blue pickup truck in lieu of an ambulance for a few more hours.
The hospital in Lilongwe was a stark contrast to the clinic in Salima. The place was crowded with people milling about. The very few doctors were swamped with patients. The X-ray machine was broken and one of the Indians had to be taken across town to another clinic for an X-ray. There was a small courtyard crowded with people, all around there were washing lines with bed linen drying. There were also washing lines with disposable surgical gloves hanging up to dry.
Finally, about four hours after the accident, the injured are being examined by doctors. Yussuf and I stand out side and wait with an Indian friend of his from Lilongwe. "I could do with a cigarette, have you got some?", he asked. "No, I don't smoke", I replied automatically. "Wait here, there are some in the truck", I said. The truck was outside the hospital and there was a guard on the door. "How will I get back in?", I asked. "Just walk to the door and walk straight through. You're white so they'll think you're a doctor!". I collected the cigarettes and walked back to the door where the guard was stopping about twenty locals from going inside to visit friends and relatives. I looked down at my shabby 'T' shirt and trousers, still bearing signs of Zaire mud and didn't believe for a moment I could be mistaken for a doctor. I walked straight towards the door more than half expecting to be stopped. As I approached the locals stepped back and the guard politely opened the door for me.
I handed Yussuf the packet of cigarettes. He took one and handed the packet back. "No, keep it.", I said, "They were brought to give away and you look like you need them". We started to make conversation. The three couples were from Johannesburg and regularly come to Malawi for their holidays. Malawi has always had a close relationship with South Africa and was one of the few places South Africans could visit. One of the couples had only just got married and were on their honeymoon. "What do you do for a living?", I asked. "I am a computer programmer".
As always time spent in hospitals seems to be all waiting time. Abdulla and his injured foot finally went into emergency surgery and Fiona and the others eventually arrived about mid afternoon. Not long after I had left her the driver of the Landcruiser had finally succumbed to shock and collapsed. When the other Indians arrived from Lilongwe to collect them they found that the remaining woman couldn't lie comfortably in the minibus. She seemed to be in pain and was perhaps more seriously injured than had been first thought. Several Indians from the local Muslim community arrived as a kind of support group. They eyed Fiona and I with some suspicion at first. Who were these rather scruffy white people and what was their interest in their friends. When they heard the story of the day they soon warmed to us and offered us amazingly nice tasting cakes, which seemed to be in endless supply. It was only now we realised neither of us had eaten since morning. There were now plenty of people around to take care of the situation and we could finally go about our own business. Yussuf thanked us for everything we had done. We insisted that it was really the least we could have done. If this had happened at home we would have stopped just the same but our limit of usefulness and possibly interest would have ended when the ambulance had arrived. Here it had taken the best part of the day but then, this is Africa.
We eventually settled down for a cold and troubled nights sleep. Our slumber was disturbed partly by worry about the Indians and partly by a new phenomena which we had been largely spared so far in Africa. The ignorant tourist. Sometime in the middle of the night, well maybe 23:30, some people drove into the campsite, turned their car radios on and started shouting. Like ourselves most of the people at the campsite were on an African traveller's sleep cycle involving bed before 20:00 and up at 05:30. This behaviour prompted much loud and angry abuse from the campsite, not least from our tent. This achieved causing the ignorant little tourists to rev their engines through their non existent mufflers, squeal their tyres and drive to the other side of the campsite where they turned up the radios even louder still. Unfortunately this kind of behaviour was to become more frequent in coming weeks. It seemed that the closer we got to civilisation the less civilised people became.
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