‘s defines “insouciant” as: “Blithely indifferent; carefree.” It aptly describes the irrational idea to drive down one of the worst roads in Africa
in the middle of the rainy season. It was an idea that could only have been conceived with the slightly insane self-confidence
of youthful minds. It would be exciting and romantic to honeymoon at the remote Mozambique beachfront town, Inhassoro, where
we had met just over a year ago. We didn’t care that that had been in the winter, when it didn’t rain. We brushed
aside the warnings with derision...
We were excited and
filled with confidence that balmy summer morning, the first day or our new life together. David, my new husband, whistled
as he maneuvered the Jeep deftly around the steep curves that would lead us down to Forbes Border Post and into Mozambique.
The freshness from the previous afternoon’s thunderstorm lingered and perfumed the air with its fragrance, but the scream
of cicadas was a sure sign that it would be hot later.
There was very little
traffic and we made good time despite the rutted surface of the Beira road. The midday sun blazed overhead when we stopped
in the village of Theca, where we wandered unhurriedly around the zoo, hand-in-hand, while waiting for our meal of peri-peri
prawns. The earthy aroma of the thick coastal jungle conjured up memories of previous journeys and hinted that soon we would
be at the sea.
Soon after lunch, we
turned off the main road and headed for the small town of Buzi, where the paved road ended. We had to cross the Buzi River
on a pontoon, since there was no bridge. The noise of the vintage diesel engine shattered the silence of the African bush
as it painfully winched the pontoon across the muddy waterway.
On the other side, in the small settlement, the storekeeper cheerfully
informed us in Portuguese that he had “no gasolina”. Rivers of sweat trickled into the folds of fat on his bare
torso. His eyes rolled southward, he scratched the stubble on his chin, then raised his hands, palms-upward, and shrugged.
It wasn’t his fault. This was the rainy season and no tankers had been able to reach him on the flooded road.
He had ice-cold beers,
though. They were blood warm in our hands before we had time to finish them as we foolishly headed into the uninhabited coastal
plain on an impassable, muddy road with insufficient gas.
To say the heat was
suffocating would be an understatement. The warm beer tasted metallic. Cicadas screamed. The open windows were our only form
of air conditioning and Tsetse flies followed the vehicle in swarms. Our attempts to swat them away were mostly unsuccessful
and their stings were painful.
Sweat poured off us
in the stifling heat as the road deteriorated into two meandering pathways dotted with potholes in the thick, black mud. The
tracks divided into three then four separate trails with no indication of their ultimate destination. Unconcerned, we sang
to relieve the monotony, “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…”
above the deeply rutted tire marks, we had to skirt a gas-tanker buried to its stomach in the mire. We stopped and I jumped
into a pothole that reached almost over my head.
The deserted town of Joao Belo sprawled into view and we pondered the reason
for its demise as we randomly selected our route from the myriad of tracks that circumnavigated a broken bridge. The Jeep’s
engine growled monotonously for what seemed like hours and hours.
When darkness fell
with the rapidity of the tropics, It bought only slight relief from the heat. The whine of mosquitoes replaced the buzz of
the tsetse flies as we churned on through the endless, restless mud until a flooding stream forced us to stop. A sign, incongruous in this lonely place, told us it was the Gorongoze River. The bridge had disappeared
under the rushing water.
A lion moaned mournfully
in the thick undergrowth as we tried to decide whether to press on or wait until morning. I held my breath as we eased forward,
wondering briefly at our sanity when the headlights sank under the water and it lapped at the doors. Something grated against
A Land Rover materialized
in the opaque beams of the headlights as we fought our way up the steep, slippery bank on the other side. The dejected demeanor
of the three men standing in the darkness told the story. An unknown object under the water had smashed their vehicle’s
differential. But, they had gas and we were almost on empty, so we agreed to tow them.
It turned out that
a can of gas was a small price to pay for the xenophobic experience that followed. The old and tattered rope broke constantly
as one or both vehicles was dragged down by the sucking slime. Each time, they had to get out and re-join it, and we would
massive pile of steaming dung in the middle of the road announced the presence of elephants ahead. Flies buzzed around it and its unmistakable manure smell suffused the night air. Urgent blasts on the horn
of the vehicle sounded behind us and David stopped to investigate. The three men begged us to abandon them before we
got too close to the elephants. They were afraid of an attack, as they would be helpless with their disabled vehicle. We promised
to send help.
The relief of travelling
without the incessant jolting added to our excitement when we reached the banks of the Rio Save. (The Save River).The old
bridge was buried beneath the flooding water, but the chain blocking the entrance to the new high-level bridge was easy to
remove. Layers of spattered mud dulled the headlights, making it impossible to determine the cause of the intermittent bumps
in the gloom. Finally, we stopped to investigate.
The icy grip of fear
clawed at me when I looked down through a gap in the road to see the silver, moon-washed water rushing past far, far below.
We were on the center of the longest suspension bridge in Southern Africa, and the massive concrete slabs suspended from the arches
above had not yet been joined.
There was no going
back. Time stood still as, with the heavy helplessness of a nightmare, we crept forward for an agonizing lifetime-long period.
Fear gave way to sighs of relief that were short-lived when we reached the southern end of the bridge. In place of a chain,
a massive construction vehicle blocked the exit.
We had come too far.
Nothing could force us to turn around. We plunged down the almost vertical bank of loose earth, not daring to breathe until
we felt the firm bite of asphalt under the wheels and we knew we had made it to civilization and paved roads.
We grinned at the Tsetse
Control official. The whites of his wide eyes gleamed in the moonlight as he sprayed the vehicle mechanically, probably wondering
if we were real or just ghosts in the night. I looked at my watch. It was three thirty in the morning. It had taken us thirteen
hours to drive a hundred and seventy miles.
The insouciance of
youth prevailed, and as we roared triumphantly onto the illusive paved road we had no misgivings about the return journey.