A broken neck in a war zone, saved by the Cuban Revolution and four bouts of Malaria. A love Story.
In 1989 a distant cousin of mine from Ireland turned up in N.Z. with her Kiwi husband, on holiday from their jobs in Mozambique. Maureen was a mid-wife who had spent the previous 10yrs of her life teaching African women to be mid-wives. You couldn’t count the number of lives she would have saved, by imparting that knowledge, in some of the poorest countries on the planet.
Ian her husband was an engineer, who, whilst re-habilitating the water supply in Beira, Mozambique had come up with an amazing idea how to save thousands of lives in the barrios surrounding the city.
What used to happen when the rains came was the ground water would become polluted with faeces from the appalling sanitation conditions the people lived in. As a result everyone would soon come down with dysentery and a huge proportion of them would simply die, especially the new born, elderly and infants, predominantly from diarrhoea and dehydration.
Ian went into the barrios with a dumpy level and ‘shot levels’ to find where all the ‘High’ ground was and then appropriated (misappropriated!!!) the company digger and sunk deep latrine holes to act as long drop toilets. The idea was when the rains came the faeces weren’t washed into the water supplies and the level of contamination and therefore illness and death were heavily reduced.
This simple solution saved thousands of lives.
These two people quickly became my heroes.
Ian was now working on the re-construction of the main port in Beira on a European Community Development Project. When he heard I was an Electrician and that I had High Voltage experience and qualifications from the London Electricity Board he offered me a job building the port Sub-Stations and installing the container cranes used for loading and unloading the ships.
This sounded like an amazing opportunity. As a result of being hired to go to Mozambique to work on the re-construction of the Port in Beira, Ulli and I began to organize our departure from Germany, said good bye to our friends and her family and set off first for Paris then to London. Our mission was to reconstruct the port so that the “Front Line States” could export via Mozambique rather than being held to ransom by the apartheid state to the south. We vowed to not enter South Africa until they had a black president.
Our good friend, Lucy was due to have a baby in London and we decided to be with her for the birth and then to fly to Africa. All our friends in Germany, collected baby clothes for her and one friend said she had a “Perambulator” and did we want to take it to Lucy ? Now, I was expecting some kind of fold up pram but when she arrived, she genuinely had a perambulator.
It was a classic piece of German engineering and design. Beautiful ‘White Wall’ tires. ‘Leaf ‘suspension, for a typically smooth German driving experience. A gorgeous ‘wicker basket’ type bassinet, which could be removed and used as a separate crib for a new-born.
It was simply gorgeous BUT bloody enormous. How the freakin’ hell were we going to get this bloody thing ‘overland’ to London and the only answer was, push it.
We trained to Frankfurt from Aschaffenburg where we had been living. From the Train Station to the adjoining bus station we simply piled our backpacks into the pram and pushed. We got some seriously weird looks, with some people craning their necks to see if there was a baby underneath it all. At one point I lifted the back packs from the pram and exclaimed “The baby, the baby, we’ve lost the baby”, Ulli shook her head sarcastically !
Eventually we made it to Lucy’s home in Brixton, London where we presented her with a mountain of baby clothes and the single flashiest perambulator in the whole of the U.K.
We hung out with Lucy for a week waiting for ‘Scarlet’ to arrive, but to no avail. She was going to come in her own good time and we were booked to fly to Africa the day before the war started.
George Bush snr had organized a war with Saddam Hussein for the 17 of January 1991. How bizarre was that.
Ring, Ring. “Hullo, Saddam here, how can I help you?”
‘Yeah, Hi Saddam, George Bush here, waddup?’ ‘Feel like a bit of a ‘set to’, old ex mate?’ ‘How are you placed for the 17th?’
‘ Yeah, why not’ says Saddam,’ we’ll give you the Mother of all Wars and seeing as though we’ve both got god on our sides, why don’t we call him the umpire?’
‘Righto, I.C.B.M.’s at dawn it is. Stay in touch, don’t be a stranger. GB
‘Hi to wee George!’ SH
So, seeing as though the war had a fixed start date, ( I am not kidding, Google it) We decided we would fly over the Middle East the day before to avoid any misguided, guided missiles or the odd justifiably irate Islamic jihadist. We said our goodbyes to Lucy and the unborn Scarlett and headed for Heathrow. After wading through the interminable queues, taxis and the tube and just before we were about to board the plane, I spent the last of our local coins on a final call to Lucy, to hear that her waters had broken and she was waiting for a taxi to the hospital. Scarlett was arriving to bear witness to the war.
Our ticket was to Nairobi, Kenya. We flew in and booked into the crummiest backpackers in Kenya and I high tailed it into town on the hunt for a T.V. with C.N.N. which, as a general rule, tended to have ‘great’ imperialist war coverage, being a war mongering propaganda station!
I proceeded to sit captivated, in front of that T.V. for three solid days watching Bagdad being carpet bombed until Ulli dragged me kicking and screaming into Africa on the threat of her leaving without me if I didn’t come.
One of the first things we saw when we arrived at this derelict backpackers (everything in Nairobi was pretty derelict) was this amazing overland Truck, which looked like a huge loaf of bread on giant wheels. Sitting under it with room above her head, was this little blond German woman carrying out repairs. This view was to become a recurring theme on our trip.
We headed north through Kenya, risking our lives on a daily basis on the incredibly dangerous roads littered with the corpses of motor vehicles whose luck had run out. Mostly, we travelled in decrepit Japanese mini-vans or Peugeot 404 station wagons, poorly maintained, overloaded and at death defying speeds.
We stopped long enough in Arusha for me to go to the local police with a traumatized African Woman to get our bus driver arrested for the single most dangerous piece of driving I have ever witnessed. He was drunk and stoned on Kif, a mild narcotic leaf chewed in the rift Valley as an appetite suppressant.
He had been racing another bus, two abreast on the main highway, driving around blind bends on the wrong side of the road at 100km’s / hr. This is an unheard of speed in those days and on those decrepit roads, every one on the bus was screaming with fear. An older African woman asked me for help to stop the driver from killing us all. I intervened.
After dealing with the cops, whilst we were waiting at the Arusha bus station, we heard a huge kafuffle, people yelling “Thief” and saw some young guy running thru the enormous crowd with everyone having a swing at him. Eventually he tripped and went down and the mob pounced on him and was in the process of kicking him to death before some army troops who just happened to be in the station, waded in to his rescue. They beat everyone off him and then dragged his bloodied mess of a body into the Station police office where They started beating ‘the living daylights ‘out of him. We couldn’t bear to watch and left while he was still alive and have no idea what happened to him.
I wouldn’t fancy his chances as it doesn’t pay to get caught if you’re a pick pocket in Kenya.
We bussed across the border into Uganda crossing the source of the Nile at the junction of Lake Victoria.
We became instant millionaires. We changed about $100U.S. and received a brick of Ugandan money which was seriously embarrassing and a little intimidating to be carrying around, even though it had so little relative value.
We loved Uganda. The people were beautiful, traumatized and sad but mysteriously it was a wonderful place. Kampala was fantastic. Teeming with people with nothing to do and everywhere we went we saw these enormous crane birds, the size of an Albatross sitting on roof tops and the defunct street lights. I asked people about Idi Amin and the consensus was Milton Obote was worse!!!
We looped around the Ruwenzori Mountains where the last mountain gorillas eke out a precarious existence, sandwiched between interminable civil wars. We were very close to their last remaining habitat and decided the best thing we could do for them was leave them alone so we never saw them.
We skirted poor old Rwanda, just a few short years before the genocide that was to soon decimate their nation and slipped back into Kenya to try our luck again in the Kenyan traffic all the way down to Mombasa.
We had heard that you could take a dhow along the coast to Pemba and on to Zanzibar. Sounds exotic right?
We found the port and located a dhow that was heading down the coast. We negotiated a deal with the captain and he then took us to the local port authority and Customs post, where we were made to sign a disclaimer that pretty well said “We acknowledge, we are both stupid and stark raving mad but are still going to take the dhow down the coast.”
By the time we arrived back at the boat there were another 20 passengers on board and approximately 5 tonnes of grain in sacks. The dhow had about six inches of freeboard and not a square inch of free space for the fare paying mzungus ( Europeans). We climbed up onto the coach roof of the steering station with everyone asking me, the experienced sailor, if this was safe. “Yeah, yeah I said, it’s just a coastal trip.” There was no life rafts or life jackets for the 20 passengers or crew.
We set off hours later than we had planned and it was soon getting both dark and windy. The longer we were at sea, the windier it became, until by midnight we were in a full on gale with mountainous seas and this overloaded tub rolling from gunnel to wave washed gunnel.
Now, we were on the coach roof where the hideous pitching of the vessel was accentuated and we were literally holding on for grim death. The mzungus’ repeatedly asked me, ’is this safe?’ I continued to reassure everyone that we were and the boat would not founder as long as the engine kept running, but I was literally crapping myself. In the early part of the evening we could see lights on the coast but as the night wore on I realized we were out of site of land and only found out later that we were 80miles offshore. Some coastal trip.
Somehow we survived the night and late the next day we arrived in Pemba, exhausted both physically and emotionally.
Back in Mombasa we had seen another dhow loading for the same trip and they had left around the same time. She foundered with the loss of 81 lives with only one survivor, a German woman who swam and swam for her life until being rescued mid-ocean.
We paid for what passed for a decent room in Pemba and slept the sleep of the traumatized and abandoned the thought of continuing in a dhow and waited for the arrival of an impending coastal trader. We secured tickets on her for the second leg to Zanzibar.
That trip was pretty uneventful until we approached the main Port in Zanzibar. We approached the wharf at an angle of about 25degrees which would be pretty standard for a yacht but for a 200ft, 5,000 tonne, coastal trader would be pretty acute, as they don’t alter course quickly but my main concern was we were doing about 5knts.
5knts and 5,000 tonnes, you do the math. When we were about 100m out I said to Ulli. ‘This guy is pretty confident’.
When we were about 20m out I said to Ulli and the other passengers, ‘Brace For Impact’.
Man, we smacked that wharf with mind numbing force. It had obviously just been re-built with huge 500mmX 500mm ‘Whalers’. Massive, square, machined, whole tree trunks for precisely this purpose. To protect the concrete wharf from destruction.
It was appalling, everyone on the boat, bar Ulli and myself, were knocked down with the shock of the impact. When the bow made contact, these massive hardwood ‘Whalers’ splintered and fired spears straight thru the welcoming party and straight thru the corrugated iron walls of the adjoining packing shed. We bounced down the wharf destroying the new protective ‘whalers’ eventually, coming to a shuddering halt. Even the people on the concrete wharf had been knocked off their feet. Miraculously, no one had been impaled.
After a moment or two of chaos, everyone on land and ship picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and those on the ship casually prepared to disembark and face the next adventure in their lives. African people, man are they resilient.
After disembarking, I walked around to the front of the ship to inspect the damage and there was about a cubic metre of hardwood compressed onto the bow of the ship!
We were now in the exotic, former slave trading capital, Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is a beautiful Island city with an immeasurably tragic history. The last place millions of African people saw of their wonderful, tragic home before beginning a voyage of death, humiliation and subjugation and the biggest slur on western culture to date. Zanzibar was a focal point of the Slave Trade. You could cut the air with a knife. In my country we would describe it as being “Tapu”.
We were pretty stuffed after this adventure and headed out to the coast to rest and recover. We camped at this amazing village adjacent to the lagoon where the local women farmed and harvested sea weed for export to Japan and the men fished for beautiful reef fish, lobster and octopus.
It was a pretty cool place and I learnt a local song that I would sing to the women working the sea weed farm as I waded out to the reef for a dive.
The chorus was Hakuna, Hakuna matata, hakuna matata. (Hakuna matata means No Problem; they are a bloody philosophical lot, Africans!). They seriously loved me singing to them and it got them laughing from the souls of their feet. It was nice for all of us.
We hung out in Zanzibar for a while and then headed for Dar Es Salam, the capital of Tanzania and the home and possibly the birth place of Pan Africanism. The University of Dar Es Salam was a hot bed of Pan Africanism. Many of Southern Africa’s independence leaders were educated and cut their teeth intellectually here and you didn’t have to look hard for a debate on Colonialism or Apartheid. I was in my political element.
Whenever I was asked what I thought of the apartheid state and what should be done to the regimes leadership, my standard reply was that they all deserved a “Soweto necklace”. It was a great ice breaker.
We decided to head for the Serengeti and Ngorongoro National Park. You’re not allowed to travel add hock through the park but we skipped off a bus at the first village, thinking that hitching would be more fun. It was my idea, not Ulli’s !!!
We would have been ‘takeaways’ for all the animals that were lurking just outside the villages, had the sun gone down before we were picked up.
We arrived in Ngorongoro village on the edge of the crater hoping to check into the local camping ground (even though we didn’t have a tent). We were disappointed to find out that the camp had been recently closed because a family of leopards living in a nearby copse of trees had developed a taste for tourists and had started plucking the odd one out of the camping ground and it was thought that it might be bad for the tourist industry feeding naïve backpackers to the local wildlife.
He gave us a ride down a long twisting gravel road, about five miles out of town to the Lodge. He dropped us off at the door and waved us goodbye.
We went to check in and I went ballistic. This place was little more than a glorified backpackers but they wanted US$55/ night. The secret to nuclear fusion is try to charge me ten times more than something is worth. You could have bolted a gas turbine on to me and generated electricity
I absolutely went thermal and refused to pay. Ulli operated the pressure relief valve on me ( she stood back and waited), then pointed out that we were in the middle of the jungle, miles from even the most primitive of villages and it was dinner time and she didn’t mean ours.
Ulli and I haggled for about 15 minutes with each other, and then she exercised her veto and said “you always get your way, but not this time.’ ‘We are not going to be some predators dinner’. On that note, I sulked my way into the most expensive hotel room I’d ever had at that stage of my life and had a shower and went off hunting for a compensatory beer. That was the first time Ulli saved my life in Africa.
We were sitting on the deck of the lodge, me sulking and a couple came out, getting ready to drive somewhere. I asked where they were going and they said to one of the other Lodges which had a magnificent view down into the crater and asked if we would like to come. We had successfully ‘bludged’ a lift.
As we were driving out of the car park, the woman in the passenger seat turned to us in the back and said. ‘If we’re lucky, we might see a leopard on the way’.
Ulli is now looking disdainfully at me. We drive about 50 meters from the inner gate up the driveway and the husband stops and turns the Range Rover off.
Coming down the Driveway!!! are a pack of hyenas, 6 of them and they are about twice the size I thought they were, with the biggest heads I have ever seen. They walked down the side of the Range Rover with their heads just outside the window eyeballing us. I have by now, shrunk to the size of a 3yr old and am trying to squeeze down the back of the seats. It turns out, that was the best argument I ever lost in my life. Go Ulli, saved again !
We hitched a ride out of there on the back of a flat deck truck with our back packs at our feet. It was brilliant crossing the Serengeti like that and really gave us a taste for having our own transport which we were able to satiate later on in the adventure.
At one stage we were driving down a long straight and in the distance was a copse of trees. As we approached half of the trees simply walked away. They were giraffes, it was magic. HTF could any low life shoot these harmless animals?
We headed down to the border with Malawi.
Now Malawi was ruled by this crackpot called President Bandra. He had been installed by the Brits in 1970’s and had clung to power with ever declining sanity and increasing senility.
One of his inspired dictates, to lift his country out of abject poverty, corruption and nepotism was to ban women from wearing trousers or shorts. Radical shit eh? That was bound to work! Why hadn’t someone thought of that before?
So, we’re at the border crossing and Ulli has to wear a sarong over her trousers to gain entry into the country. I couldn’t take it seriously and drifted off on one of my surreal tangents and wrote on my immigration papers, under “Occupation”, that I was a Brain Surgeon. I started walking around the customs post with my hands turned up like a doctor doing scrubs. It left a few people perplexed and Ulli mortified. She said ‘what if someone is sick and they want you to operate’ ?
It took ages to clear through into Malawi, until we realized that ‘unofficial’ customs fees were due and the longer you haggled the longer you waited. One thing we had on our side was time and we waited for their shift to nearly finish when the crossing rate plummeted; we handed over some shrapnel and crossed over.
Because the sun was setting we had to sleep in the local school class room. It was just as you would imagine. No windows, cute little wooden chairs connected to little desks, dirt floor. Homemade blackboard, stubs of chalk.
The next morning we headed for Nakata Bay on the edge of Lake Nyasa. We bussed into town and were dropped off in the main square which was surrounded by older woman selling vegetables under banyan trees. Quintessential Africa.
We were approached by a group of young men who offered us accommodation at a number of lodgings. We picked one, just out of town adjacent to a small stream.
Being a world class eater, I struck up a great friendship with the cook and knowing that his survival was intrinsically linked to my appetite, I endeavoured to guarantee his employment by supporting the kitchen. It helped that he was a great cook.
We dumped our gear and headed down to the local beach and low and behold what is the first thing we see when we navigate our way down the precarious dirt track to the beach but our much admired Bread Loaf overland truck and Axel and Christa. We had said hullo to these two folks a couple of times previously and had had brief conversations about each of our travels and it was good to catch up again.
We hung out together, went swimming, lazed around under the trees and continued eating.
As we left, later in the day, I asked if there was anything I could bring back the next day from the market. Fresh bread? An avocado?
So began a small ritual, each day we would arrive from the village with fresh goodies and have breakfast together. Ulli loves coffee and so did these folk. We were collectively making brunch one day and I went to empty out the espresso machine and dump the old coffee grains and Christa said ‘keep those ‘. They used to mix the coffee grains with washing powder as a hand cleaning agent for when they had been working on the truck. It was soapy and abrasive and cleaned like grease lightning. Try it.
One day I was strolling round the village and saw a couple of blokes working under a large Fiat Ducato van and we said ‘hi’ as I walked by. The next day they were still there under the vehicle and I asked them what they were doing. They said that the clutch had jammed and they couldn’t operate the van, they had limited tools and little idea of how to fix the problem. And money ? forget it.
I suggested we borrow tools from the Bread loaf and we pull the gearbox out together to have a look at the problem.
Axel loaned us all the tools we needed and in a few hours, the three of us had the drive shaft off, the gearbox out, unjammed the clutch, re-adjusted it, chucked the gearbox back in and Max and Kazim were up and running again. They were ecstatic. That night we went to one of the bars for a beer. These guys were great people but were pretty uncertain about Axel, Christa, Ulli and myself. Four blond Europeans, the personification of everything evil that had happened on their continent.
The relationship between black and white people globally has been compromised by the events of history and in Africa, it can be toxic. They hadn’t had a relationship with white people before on this level. It started with the three of us climbing under the van together with little idea of what we were doing, working together and achieving a result collectively, equally covered in grease, dirt and each others sweat.
I’m lucky enough to come from a multi cultural society where we treat each other with (a growing level) of respect but Africa is way different. It’s fair to say they were a little intrigued by us.
Not long after, the rains came and disaster struck. We woke up in the night and the heavens had opened and the building we were staying in was dissolving. I kid you not.
It looked like a sturdy building made of solid, plastered and painted walls but when that torrential rain got into it, it literally dissolved.
As we were lying in bed, we started to hear the leaks. Then with our torch, we saw water running down the walls, then next thing you know, there was a big plop on the bed beside me and I found a large piece of plaster which had de-laminated from the wall and fallen off in one piece.
We stayed awake, the whole night, literally watching the place dissolve. We actually couldn’t stop laughing. It turns out the place was just a mud hut that had had a cosmetic makeover to make it look like a cottage.
Next morning I went outside to go to the long drop toilet and it was on a slight lean. Ulli watched me going in and said, ‘I wouldn’t go in there if I was you’, but I confidently laughed off her concerns.
Now I’m a firm believer that Number 2’s should not be rushed and I’m known for taking my time but as I’m sitting there, the bloody lean becomes more pronounced and I could literally feel the ground moving beneath my feet and outside Ulli’s protestations are becoming more and more strident.
I abruptly finished my deliberations and just got out by the skin of my teeth. I had barely exited the door, taken a few paces to where Ulli was standing with a look of horror on her face and turned around to witness the entire Khazi drop on a 45degree angle into the stinking cess pit that it straddled. Had I not left when I did, I’d have been up to my neck in Shit ! That was the second time she saved me.
This all appeared highly amusing at first, until the level of destruction that was unfolding around us became apparent.
Our guest house was near, but above the stream. We looked down and through the trees and couldn’t believe our eyes. That little stream that had been as small as 1m and as large as 5m wide was now a raging torrent in some places 200m wide. Large trees, wrecked homes and debris was racing by in the dirty, muddy water. The scariest thing was where there had previously been flat land between the stream and the cliff, there was now only water and the edges of the cliffs had been scoured away as had the shacks located there!.
Then, the dawning of the terrible tragedy that had unfolded, whilst we had been sitting up all night, laughing at the crumbling plaster. Hundreds of simple mud and straw huts had disappeared. Not only people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods but the people themselves.
That night, within hundreds of meters of where we had slept, officially, 17 people had been washed to their deaths. The real number was probably many, many more, possibly hundreds. We woke to a village grieving, we grieved together, our tears mixed on the muddy ground as we hugged and cried together as we did what little we could.
We gingerly made our way into town around the souls of people gone. The place was a disaster and people were walking around pretty shell shocked. Apparently the town of Nakata Bay was cut off from outside help. We walked past the end of the town, down the main incoming road to find a massive slip where thousands of tons of hill side had simply slipped away and there was a yawning chasm possibly 75m wide dropping down a ravine more than a 100m. They weren’t gonna fix that in a hurry.
The only other way out of town was now cut off by a raging, swollen river. We weren’t going anywhere.
We were simply boxed in with no chance of moving. Our friends in the Bread loaf truck were on the other side of that torrent, at the bottom of the cliff and we had no idea what their predicament was. There was no way we could cross and we were seriously worried about them.
As the days went by, we helped with the clean up and waited for external assistance, it never arrived. It didn’t come but we did see the occasional military helicopter fly by with people in it surveying the damage. Probably 2 or 3 days after the arrival of the rain, people began to drop like flies. But the problem wasn’t flies, the problem was mosquitoes.
With the rainy season comes mosquitos. With mosquitoes comes Malaria.
There were a quite a few mzungu’s in the town staying at various places and we had seen each other around. When we heard one of the English women had gone down with malaria, Ulli and I went up to the local hospital to check on her. It was about a one km walk. She seemed reasonably ok and soon bounced back and I got talking to the lab’ tech who said that there was a shortage of blood in their blood bank and that African people didn’t as a rule donate blood except in an emergency and then only for their own families. We decided to canvas all the tourists to get them all to donate. I put up hand written notices for backpackers to donate blood, a large number did.
The river slowly subsided and we were able, after a week or so to ford it and walk to where the Bread loaf was parked. The rough, winding track that they had driven down was gone. It was now simply a cliff. When we got to the bottom of it Axel and Christa were ok but their truck was now parked at the bottom of said cliff.
Naturally they were pretty disheartened and at a loss what to do. My suggestion was that we cut a new track and as no one could leave town we weren’t really being held up.
I went to the local council building and borrowed picks and shovels and the three of us started digging. At the end of the day I struggled home exhausted and covered in mud and Max and Kasim spotted me. ‘Waddup?
I told them what had happened and now we were five. When I got back to our guest house there was a written message from Ulli. ‘Sick, probably Malaria, gone to the hospital’.
I ran up to the hospital and the love of my life is flat on her back, pale, feverish and yep, she’s got Malaria. I promptly went to the Lab’ technician to warn him that the blood he had from Ulli was probably infected with Malaria. He was unconcerned. He said that if the person was sick enough to need a transfusion he would give it to them and treat the malaria later!
Ulli progressively got better as the medication kicked in and I got her home to the guest house ( with a functioning shower and toilet, unlike the hospital ) and her temperature started to drop as the Chloro- Quinine started to take effect. When she was on the road to recovery, I went back to road building with Kasim, Christa, Max and Axel.
Meter by meter we carved out a track. After 4 or 5 days we had a passable track and decided to have a go at driving the truck out. Poor old Christa simply couldn’t bear to watch.
I instructed Axel to keep the driver’s door open just in case he needed to jump if the truck was to slip back down the cliff. Axel was pretty experienced and worked his way up the hill pretty well but at about the ¾ mark, the truck lost traction and with all four wheels driving forward, the truck came to a halt, held, and then began to slide, both backwards and off our track. As it began to gain momentum, the left rear wheel hit a boulder and there was a loud smashing sound as the truck came to an abrupt bone jarring halt. The smashing sound wasn’t the impact of the truck hitting the boulder but of the rear axle exploding.
Now we were stuck, ¾ of the way up the cliff with a broken axel. We had a brief cry, then anchored the truck with strops to stop it going anywhere, had another cry and went home to rest and regroup. I hated leaving Christa and Axel alone that night as they were completely demoralized. Two freakin broken “Axels’.
Ulli was regaining her strength bit by bit and was aghast at how the three of us looked each day when we came home. Kasim and Max insisted on checking on Ulli each night before they went back to their van to sleep. As a general rule we were filthy, sweaty, and exhausted.
The next day we rendezvoused at the bread loaf to decide our next move. I said, ‘we need to remove the axel to see if it can be fixed’.
Axel climbed up on the roof of the truck, opened a large wooden box and triumphantly held up a spare axel that he had wrapped in grease proof paper. Freakin Germans, how the hell they lost the war to the Brits, I do not know!
Sweet, easy, out with the old and in with the new!
We jacked the truck up precariously on the cliff face, pulled the large, nobly, wheel off. Removed the outer hub and bolted on the ‘gear puller’ that the ‘bloody think of everything German’ had. We started cranking on the pressure and banging the end of the shaft with a hammer to ‘Break the hold’.
We got so much strain on the gear puller we couldn’t turn the bolt another millimetre. This bloody shaft had been in there since the day it was built in 1962 and after 37 yrs of hard work it had no intention of being extracted.
We left it overnight on load, came back the next day, tried again, borrowed a gas torch and heated it all up, bashed, swore, cried, added a pipe to the socket bar for leverage and preceded to break the gear puller.
Found another gear puller, broke that, and can’t be sure but probably cried again.
We hunted down the gas welding set again and Axel welded a steel plate on the end of a nut screwed it back onto the shaft and the four of us lay on the ground alternating with two sledge hammers banging away at the plate and after an interminable number of crazed and obsessive strokes the freakin’ thing ‘popped’ and then came free. Try using a sledge hammer when lying down on the ground, on a cliff, with the truck jacked up above you!
It had taken three days to remove the broken axel and it took us one hour to install the new one.
Since the road had been washed out, very few provisions had been able to get into the town and the one that was running out the fastest was beer. There were about a dozen small bars in the town and one by one they had to close as they ran out of anything to sell. Each evening after working on first the track and after, the truck, we would adjourn to whichever establishment was still functioning to hear what were the latest developments in the repairs to the roads and retell of our own progress with the truck which had become a cause célèbre in the village.
Prudence and time to gather our thoughts dictated that we found a tractor with a long strop and pulled and drove the truck, at the same time, the final 50m or so to the top of the cliff. It had taken over a week from go to wo.
We were completely elated and physically and emotionally fucked. We had sweated, cursed , cried and cajoled both ourselves and each other for a week and all this with a daily growing audience intrigued by this multi-cultural team ‘slaving’ ( is that an appropriate term ? ) away together, drinking from the same water bottle, eating the same food, debating solutions equally. I didn’t fully realize it at the time but apparently it was unique.
Once we had the truck safe and sound and had stopped jumping round, dancing as only Africans and mad mzungu’s can and kissing each other and all the bystanders, Axel and Christa pulled me aside and said ’We want to ask you one last favour? We want to swap our truck for your and Ulli’s backpacks. What do you think?’
But that I was so exhausted, I would have taken their temperatures, thinking that they too had come down with Malaria!
I said ’You can’t be serious. Chill, relax, you’ll feel better tomorrow.’
But they explained to me that they had had enough of such dramas over the last 17months they had been on the road and for the sake of their marriage they believed that they needed to get away from the truck.
I was completely stuffed, my girl was at home sick in bed and I couldn’t in any way get my head around this incredible offer and I said I’d go home and we’d talk about it the next day.
Like any marathon you run, you ration your reserves until the finish and then you are spent.
I went back to the guest house, told a resurgent Ulli that we had recovered the truck and the amazing offer that Axel and Christa had made to me and then crashed and slept the sleep of the dead.
I woke up the next day with no real plan or obligations. We slowly got it together and with increasing reserves of energy, Ulli and I made our way up the road to see Christa and Axel.
Their position had not only not changed, but had solidified. They were adamant and they explained themselves to us in both English and German.
They had lived cheek to jowl in that small truck, experiencing adventures and challenges for one and a half years and they were completely over it.
The offer was one Overland truck, complete with every spare part you could imagine, stereo, tools, futon, ‘Carnet de Passage’, the works, in exchange for two backpacks.
It was a great deal.
Ulli and I deliberated, but also knew it was too good an offer to refuse but it was also too generous, so we came up with a counter offer.
We proposed we would give them, the two backpacks, a U.S. $1000 that we had on us in cash and one day we would come to Berlin and take them out to dinner!
Deal? Deal done !
After showing me all I needed to know about the truck, Axel and Christa jumped on a ferry that was doing relief supply runs down the lake whilst the road was out and literally sailed away with our backpacks. The last thing Axel said to me was he was sad he couldn’t keep his personal tools.
We drove the truck down into the village and parked it under one of the banyan trees and considered our new found circumstances.
Not long after I fell ill. In my experience of contracting malaria, after you fall ill, you remember that in the hours preceding there was a very low level headache. Then it just hits like a brick.
We had anti–malarial medication and I immediately began taking a course of Chloro-Quinine. Malaria feels like a massive dose of flu. High temperature, sweats, fever, vomiting, the shakes and the single most massive headache I have ever experienced.
Fortunately, Ulli had by now recovered and she was able to look after me. At first it appeared that I was getting better, then I had a terrible night of all of the above symptoms and then I started to struggle to breathe. I simply couldn’t get air into my lungs and I started to deteriorate. Fortunately, the local cop dropped in to see how we were and the moment he saw me, he piled us into the back of his Landover and raced us up to the hospital.
The hospital was run by a Finnish doctor and I was taken directly into his office, rather than the ward. He was pretty laid back! He lay me down on a bench in the office, took my temperature and listened to my lungs. By this time I was pretty unresponsive, couldn’t sit or stand and was finding it difficult to respond to questions and was progressively slipping from consciousness. The remarkable thing was, I could understand everything that was being said and could process the information but just couldn’t contact the other people in the room. I was literally drifting away.
He put me on a drip of saline and injected quinine into the solution
The doctor said very calmly to Ulli that I was very, very sick and needed to be admitted. He opened a draw in his desk and pulled out some medication and put it on the table.
He said ‘I keep this drug for people who are very sick’ ‘It is called Fansadar, it has been banned and removed from the market because of its possible side effects. I keep them for people who are about to die. I think your boyfriend should take them’ !
Ulli asked what the side effects were. He replied ‘Heart failure, liver function failure, kidney failure’. I don’t remember him saying etc etc but the way his voice trailed off you couldn’t be sure he was finished but he had probably covered off the main points. As I said, by now, I was little more than a catatonic spectator and Ulli was left to make the decision on her own. It was a very lonely decision to have to make but she didn’t hesitate and said ‘If you think he should take them, then let’s do it’. Life saving decision !
They wacked a Fansadar into me and then carted me off to the ward.
I am sure I won’t be able to paint the picture of what a ward in a hospital in a small village in Malawi looks like but I’ll give it a go.
I was put in intensive care which was characterized in its difference from the other wards by a sign on the door saying “Intensive Care”. The windows were broken, the plaster was cracked and the paint flaking. The cistern didn’t work in the toilets and they were abominable. The beds were old metal spring bases dating from the 60’s. Only some of the rooms, had doors.
Whilst I was in my catatonic stage I would watch, as a rats’ head would poke through the ceiling where the steam vent pipe from the sterilizer went through the roof. He would stick his head out, survey the scene, casually descend the pipe, and walk across the lid of the sterilizer (I kid you not) and climb down on to the floor. He then proceeded to wander around all the bodies of the people sleeping on the floor looking for grains of rice dropped by my roommates. For every person in a bed, there were probably two or three people sleeping on the floor.
Around this time, I hit a hospital all time record by recording a temperature of 41.4 degrees C. Technically impossible to come back from. They were wacking continuous drips into me, dosed with quinine and fansadar. I completely ballooned up with fluid retention.
I started to realize how sick I had become when Max and Kasim came up to the hospital to see me. I was still at the catatonic phase and couldn’t respond to any one. The two of them came gingerly into the room, took one look at me and without saying a word, turned around and left with a look of horror on their faces. I took that as an extremely bad sign. In four or five days, I’d gone from a fit 29yr old to Michelin man, burning up with fever and looking down the barrel of death.
It was impossible for me to eat and if I had have been able to would have vomited it up immediately. Ulli was continuously pouring fluids into me and I just puked them up immediately. It is one of the problems people have with taking oral medication for malaria as, because of the nausea and vomiting, a lot of the medication is thrown up before the body can absorb it, thus under dosing the patient. One thing you don’t want to do with malaria is under dose yourself as you can knock it back but if you don’t knock it out it just re-gathers strength and comes again.
There were a number of reasons why I survived this bout of malaria. The great Finnish doctor and his banned drugs. W.H.O. saline and quinine, a reasonably robust constitution, but undoubtedly the love and care afforded me by Ulli, was the single most important contribution to my survival. She literally bathed me continually for four days. I’m sure this dropped my temperature that critical fraction between life and death. This was the second time in as many months that she had saved my life. Thanks Bella.
It must have been a seriously crap time for her knowing that I was probably going to die. The body language from the staff was pretty grim and their ability to influence events beyond what they were already doing was nil. They had seen a lot of death and I was just another person in a long line.
Whilst I lay there boiling, with a truly thumping headache and completely unable to communicate I remember thinking, ‘Shit, what a bastard, I’m gonna die here and Ulli is going to have to ring and tell my mother and father, that is so not fair to her.’ I was completely ambivalent about dying. I wasn’t scared, fretful, none of the things you’d expect. From that time to this I have had not a fear of dying, for better or worse.
Finally, we got on top of the fever and I pulled back from the brink. My temperature began to drop, I regained my faculties. I could speak, couldn’t really eat but could drink soft drinks which had sugar in them and I began to get some strength back.
After a day or two more the Doctor said I could leave and stay at the guest house, where there was a functioning toilet and shower. He said to me and Ulli, ‘You both did well, there is no one who has walked out of this hospital who had been as sick as you’.
At first I could stand up but not walk, then slowly I would be able to take a few steps but I was so frail that my energy would die immediately and it was weeks before I fully recovered my strength.
I had gone 11 days without food and my weight had dropped from 69kg’s to about 60kg’s. I was ……..skinny!
I started to regain my strength with the help of the great food cooked for us at the guest house and I started putting on weight.
Now there is a product that Malawi is famous for and that is Pot, It is sometimes described and sold as a ‘cob’. The pot is dried and compressed and wrapped in the husks of maize. We’d heard lots about the amazing Malawi cobs and we were keen to try one. I asked around a bit and were shown a few miserable looking things and bought one. The pot was truly good but the cob didn’t live up to the visual spectacle I’d been told about. We mentioned this to our cook and he said ‘I’ll fix that’.
Next day he came to our room with a sack and inside was half a dozen of the biggest ‘Corn Cobs’ I have ever seen. They were massive and the quality of the pot was diabolical. We’d stumbled on El Dorado. I can’t remember how much they cost but somewhere in the region of a few dollars each, it was ridiculous.
By the time all our health dramas were concluding the roads had reopened and we were able to plan to leave. We arranged to drive in tandem with Kasim and Max down to Lilongwe, the capital and major city in the south of Malawi. Kasim and Max’s boss wanted to meet and thank us for the help with the truck and frankly we weren’t sure if the clutch was truly repaired so a convoy seemed a good idea.
As we drove to Lilongwe we stopped frequently on the side of the road to buy vegetables. We would be cruising along and we’d see maybe five tomatoes piled up on the side of the road in a small pyramid, or a cucumber sitting alone on a banana leaf, maybe a few spuds, mushrooms or a cabbage. We’d stop the truck, wait and soon some woman would come rushing from the bush after hearing the truck stop and sell us her excess produce for just a few cents.
A huge percentile of Africans, don’t live in the cash economy and selling anything to generate money is imperative if you want to buy sugar, cooking oil etc. I will never forget the taste of those tomatoes. One of my most entrenched memories was the amazing taste of those home grown African tomatoes.
We hit the big smoke of Lilongwe and were welcomed into the homes of Kasim, Max and there extended families. Everyone was interested to hear of our adventures. We made some great friends.
I can remember going to the bus station for fried potatoes. They had these 1 meter round, steel plates slightly conical with boiling cooking oil in the middle fired by a gas burner located underneath and large chunks of potatoes or pieces of meat being deep fried. When the spuds were cooked they would just drag them out of the oil higher up the plate and away from the heat to drain. Then they would serve them with salt, pepper and a Cajun type seasoning. It was beautiful, filling and cheap.
It was time to keep moving and we said our goodbyes to the Max and Kazim, dumped our remaining ‘cobs’ and headed for the border with Zambia.
We crossed over with a couple of young English girls and headed for Lusaka. As evening fell, we pulled into a clearing on the side of the road and proceeded to set up camp. We got our little stools out, tuned my little broadband radio to the BBC, set up the gas cooker and rustled us up some food.
African people would always be intrigued by the mzungus’ in the ‘Bread loaf’ and would shyly peek inside and marvel at the luxury. We often invited people for a cup of tea and this day was no exception. We were in the middle of nowhere but out of the trees came a mix of people. Young, old, shy and the kids invariably inquisitive. One guy came up to me carrying a sack and a bucket and asked if I wanted to buy some tobacco. I declined saying I didn’t smoke but offered him a cuppa. He sat down and we had a drink and a chat when it dawned on me I hadn’t see ‘raw’ tobacco before so asked to have a look in the sack.
He cracks it open and low and behold the bloody thing is full of Pot. I’d nearly missed it. I said ‘This tobacco, I smoke’. He had a 1ltr bucket and we agreed on a price for a bucket of pot. It was completely stupid of me as we were only planning to stay in Zambia for a week or two and a cup would have been tons. I paid a coupla bucks for the lot and had to give the bulk of it away not long after. Duh!
To be honest I think I just liked the idea of buying my pot by the bucket full!
Later a tourist overland truck arrived in our clearing and swept into action like a whirlwind. Tables and trestles were set up, tents pitched, food cooked, sleeping partners decided on, beer drunk, consciousness lost and when the new day dawned the reverse and they were off. Man it was slick.
We didn’t hang around long in Zambia and soon crossed into Zimbabwe. In those days Zimbabwe was positively modern. Good roads, Robots, as traffic lights are beautifully named, lots of modern consumer goods and a modern efficient private sector. We found this great backpackers called Sable lodge, where we parked the truck in the drive way and headed into town for luxuries like Pizza, Mexican food, movies and bars. It was pretty refreshing.
I found an engineering shop to repair the broken axel and turned up with the two pieces. The Zimbabwean owner said yes he could weld it but a better idea was to make a new one. They had exactly the right grade of steel and a brilliant engineering workshop. I came back 3 days later and there was an exact copy and a spare, beautifully made. I pulled out my Vernier to measure the diameters and spec’s on the spline etc to check that it would fit and it was exact and the price? $66U.S., a fraction of a new one or the cost to make one at home. Brilliant. These people are prepared for the coming collapse because they either live it or have recovered from one.
Shortly after we had a slow leak on one of the tires on the truck and I said to Ulli one morning after breakfast, ‘you do the dishes and I will remove the tire and repair the tube’. The wheels were a design called ‘split rims’, where the two sides of the wheel are bolted together, so to remove the tube or replace the tire you simply un- bolted the two halves. A simple and low effort project.
I started working and shortly after, Ulli came out and found me slumped over the tire.
Malaria Case #2.
It’s amazing it just hits me like a bolt of lightning.
We reacted pretty quickly and Ulli got me into a taxi and down to a local doctor. He asked me what was wrong and I stupidly said ‘I think I’ve got Malaria’ to which he hit the roof, saying ‘how would you know. I’m the doctor, I’ll decide, tell me your symptoms’. Grumpy old white bastard that he was.
Surprise, surprise, yep I’ve got malaria. Now I’m not purporting to be an expert but I’d had recent experience and I thought his reaction was a little over the top.
This bout was pretty straight forward. We were careful with the doses and I wasn’t particularly ill. Compared with the first dose it was a breeze.
We made friends with the guy running the lodge and located, in Zimbabwe, something akin to Malawi Cobs. Our van became a focal point of stoners hanging out, drinking a few beers and having a smoke. It was very salubrious.
The next leg of the journey was to our destination, Mozambique. We drove to Mutare which is a hill station town located on the range that separates Zimbabwe from Mozambique.
We stood at a lookout gazing across the frontier with trepidation into Mozambique. We needed to get from Mutare to Beira. It was a straight forward trip except that there was a civil war raging on both sides of the road. We took a deep breath and set off.
The drive was surreal. The road was deserted except for the odd Military truck patrolling along it and occasional groups of refugees who looked completely traumatized.
One of the first things that were suggested to me, once we arrived in Beira, was to get armed. There was a thriving market for weapons and buying one was simply about deciding what you wanted. You could buy literally anything, an A.K.47 was standard issue, a Walther PPK as made famous by ‘Bond, James Bond’ all available. I wasn’t really into the idea but did see the need to have a weapon, so settled on an 11shot, 9mm semi-automatic Markov, an East European pistol. It cost me U.S. $40 and fortunately we never had to fire it in anger.
My work colleague who organised the pistol suggested he borrow a couple of Mauser sniper rifles from the local military commander and we go into the bush in our truck to shoot game for the local soldiers to eat, the officer commanding was prepared to give us a platoon of soldiers to guard us in exchange for the use of my truck. I replied “You can’t be serious, there’s a war going on out there”. He replied, “Common, we might even get to shoot a Rhinoceros” ! I replied “WTF, there might only be one left”, his retort was “Someone’s got to get it” !!! I knew immediately that the species was doomed.
We had a wonderful work supplied home adjacent to the Indian Ocean. I had recovered some weight in this picture !
These are some of my work colleagues, old blurry photo but you get the ‘drift’;
I dropped with another bout of malaria whilst working in Beira but it too passed without much ado. Hard to believe you could become passé about malaria but none of the subsequent bouts ever amounted to anything like the debut episode.
Whilst installing the control equipment above, working side by side with my team I had a fall and broke my neck, C3 to be exact.
I fell and when I regained consciousness my white shirt was red and pink half way down my chest from blood seeping from a head wound.
My colleagues carried me to a work truck and rushed me over a pothole covered road to the Beira Hospital which was overrun with victims of the civil war raging in the country that was funded and armed via the apartheid state. No neck brace through all of this!
When we arrived at the hospital a Cuban trained doctor from Sierra Leone preceded to stem the bleeding and take x-rays of my head and shoulders. There was a clear split in the third cervical vertebrae. Whilst the two pieces of the vertebrae hadn’t moved, I was developing pins and needles in my feet and hands indicating some spinal damage !
The doctor preceded to cut the top of a cardboard box, wrap it in cotton wool, wrapped it around my broken neck and then set my head, shoulders and torso in ‘Plaster of Paris’. Her advice to Ulli and me was; “You both need to get out of this country asap, there are no treatment facilities for your injury in this country.”
The reality is I would not be here today were it not for Ulli and the Cuban trained doctor who saved my mobility and no doubt my life. The medical profession in Africa is dominated by Cuban trained doctors.
My employers hired a twin engine Cessna from South Africa to come to medivac me out of the war zone, problematic in itself. In my ‘Plaster of Paris’ cast, I started arguing about our destination. Ulli and I had made a pact to never go to South Africa until the apartheid regime had been overthrown, after much debate we agreed on a medivac to Harare in Zimbabwe instead. Neither the pilot nor my employers were happy with our decision.
The plane arrived and I was carted out to the airfield with the long suffering Ulli supervising and we boarded the old hulk.
The pilot started the planes two engines and their was a flashing red light on the dashboard that read “Engine #2 Generator Failure”. The pilot banged on the dashboard a few times then said “It will be ok” and began taxiing down the runway !
I started complaining and said “What if the Engine #1 Generator Fails” and the pilot admitted that could be a problem ! I pointed out I already had a broken neck and an emergency crash landing in a war zone was somewhat ‘problematic’ for me.
Ulli’s eyes rolling in her head !!
I refused to fly until it had been repaired and I was unceremoniously removed from the plane.
I pointed out to the pilot that I was an electrician and wouldn’t be boarding the plane until the repair was completed, he was somewhat disgruntled with me!
The problem was fixed, I made the pilot prove that he hadn’t simply removed the bulb and we flew out of Beira airport and flew across the beautiful, war ravaged countryside.
We arrived safely in Harare where I went into rehab for a while as the injury stabilised and they carried out tests to decide on my fate. I refused surgery and requested medevac’ing back to Aotearoa NZ.
This is a photo of me recovering in Harare with my new, ‘flash’ neck apparatus;
When we were in Zimbabwe we met two kiwis who wanted to buy the truck. I asked them what they thought it was worth and they said US$10k. I explained to them that I had been given the truck for free and if they paid me half of that figure then we would all benefit equally. I said I couldn’t sell them Axels’ tools and I DHL’d them from Harare to Berlin !
They jumped at the chance and paid us $5k. After arriving in N.Z we sent a letter to the Max and Kasim enclosing $250 each with instructions to confirm that they had received the dosh. When we received that, we sent them another $250 each. Both of them set up businesses with that money which was a considerable amount of seed capital relatively speaking where they lived. Our chance meeting was life changing for us all.
We were repatriated back to Aotearoa NZ where I sought specialist treatment and was told the injury was healing brilliantly and surgery wasn’t necessary.
About three months after we returned to N.Z. I began working as a contract electrician and was rushing one day to finish a job so I wouldn’t have to return for just a few hours the next day. The moment I was finished and began to relax in the packing up stage, it hit me again. I was walking to the van and wham and I lay down on the grass and waited.
Soon enough the owner of the house came looking for me and was disconcerted to find his electrician lying on the ground like a stunned mullet. He wanted to call an ambulance but I stupidly said “Na, just call my girlfriend and my boss.” John sent one of the boys around to recover the van and Ulli turned up, shaking her head. She was a bit over malaria by this stage. Ulli drove us to a medical centre and we sort help. I was a little reluctant to tell the quack what was wrong with me after getting a bollocking the last time from the arsehole doctor in Zimbabwe.
After he had examined me and was obviously perplexed, I ventured, that I had a suspicion it was malaria. When he heard that I’d been in Africa and had three previous bouts of the bloody thing he started beaming. He couldn’t believe his luck and started taking blood samples for testing. Vial after vial after vial. I said wow, Christ, leave me some. If I hadn’t stopped him he’d a drained me dry. He had called the Lab’ to get an urgent test and they had said, “Get as much as you can and we’ll send it to the University so the students could have a look at the pathogens in his blood.”
But having said that, the head of the tropical diseases unit at Auckland put me on a course of drugs that seems to have cured me and 31 yrs later I haven’t had a recurrence.
When we said our goodbyes to Kasim and Max we said that when we sold the truck we would send them some money as we believed they should be rewarded for their work at the cliff face.
Two years later we turned up in Berlin and settled the contract with Axel and Christa. Axel said one of the most amazing aspects of the story for him was answering the door bell and being greeted by a DHL courier holding his tool box.
That was our adventure in Africa, it was a love story. I dedicate this tale to Ulli Eisert. Without her care and love I would not be here today to tell the tale.