This is Africa: Getting Stuck in the Mountains and the Mud
On only our second night of our Africa Oasis Overland trip, our group found ourselves at a Tanzanian campsite called Meserani Snake Park. We were pleased to hear it is named after the caged snakes that are kept there, not roaming wild ones, but even more pleased to hear it had a bar. Not just any bar, but one of the most unique bars I’ve ever seen.
Meet “Ma”: The Heart of Snake Park
The owner, whom is affectionately known simply as “Ma”, was probably the most interesting African I’ve chatted with so far. She emigrated from South Africa to Tanzania years ago to start this campsite and snake park, and has watched it grow exponentially. The proceeds made in the bar fund their new clinic that provides free health care to nearby villagers for free (read about the clinic here). Not to say Ma’s personal story isn’t interesting in itself, but the most interesting part about talking with her are the endless number of stories she has about the thousands of ‘overlanders’ who have passed through her campsite over the years. After pouring a few glasses of her signature shot called “Ma’s Revenge”, she heads my way and talks to me about travel and Africa with a passion few like her still have. She tells the stories to me with an exciting energy, and makes me feel like I’m the first person she’s ever told this story to.
Scattered throughout the bar are t-shirts, hats, socks, rugby jerseys, footballs, and more, all left behind by travelers who have been lucky enough to spend time here and meet Ma. My favorite wall decoration is the hundreds of photos hanging all over the bar. Each photo depicts an overland truck that has been stuck somewhere in Africa. Some are minor flat tires, some are trucks tipped over in a ditch. Some are fading and from the 80’s, some are shiny and look like they were printed yesterday.
This is where I begin to feel just a bit nervous. I ask our driver Mick, “Just how common is it to be stuck on the roads in Africa?”. Without saying a word, his smile somehow conveys two answers at once. “Very common.” and “You’re in good hands. If we get stuck, we’ll figure it out.” Ma, sensing my uneasiness, breaks the silence by simply saying: “T.I.A., This is Africa”.
One Month Later: Ma was right
That conversation I had with Ma, including the silent smiling Mick, happened four weeks ago. Since then, it is clear Ma knows what she’s talking about. Here are two quick stories I wrote on my iPad while being stuck in transit on African roads:
Malawi Roadblock: “Don’t Worry, I’ll Just Go Around You”
After a two nights at a beach campsite right on Lake Malawi, our group is attempting to drive six hours south, through mountain roads, to another beachside campsite in Kande Beach, Malawi. We’re awake at 5:30 am for breakfast, and we’re on the road by 6:30am.
We’ve made it an hour and a half until we come across truck after truck, stopped on the side of the road. They seem like they’ve been stopped for a couple of hours, and soon we find our own space and pull over to the side as well. A walk up the mountain road and around the corner about 100 meters reveals to us why everyone has stopped. In the middle of the night, a flat-bed semi truck had tipped over on the road, spilling hundreds of bags of cement and completely blocking the road.
Our group heads back to the truck, and we pass the time with optimistic conversations about how the overturned truck looks like it will be moved soon. Sure enough, an hour later, there is a commotion from down the road, and we begin seeing a few trucks coming from the other direction. A clear sign the blocked road has been cleared. Crisis averted right? Wrong.
Only minutes after starting the truck and putting it into gear, Mick suddenly shuts it back off. We haven’t moved an inch. Mick has noticed the flow of trucks coming the other way has stopped. Not a good sign. We decide to take another walk up the hill and discover yet another roadblock.
This time, a truck that had been waiting all night for the blockage to be cleared has been unable to restart his engine. But a truck coming the other way decided he would try and snake around the broken-down truck. No patience here! While attempting to go around, he managed to wedge his truck in between the stuck truck and the mountain road’s rail. Leaving the road again blocked, but this time by two trucks. One that has no working engine and another who’s driver managed to get so stuck that he can’t even back up. Now the only solution to clear the road is to fix the broken truck. We head back to our truck as we hear that the wait will be at least two more hours.
It’s funny how when we were driving along the day before at 10 am, nobody was hungry. Yet here we are on the road, again at 10am, but because we are stopped everyone is suddenly hungry. I decide to to save the day by offering to cook up some American-style movie popcorn. Joe breaks out the propane burners and 20 minutes later, we are all feasting on fistfuls of buttery, salty, fatty, goodness. As we are eating, Mick heads up to check on the progress of the truck. He comes back with bad news. The truck isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Joe lets us know that we can only wait another hour or so before being forced to turn around and head back to where we started. Our group decides to eat lunch here on the side of the road and if the truck isn’t cleared by the time we’re done, we’ll head back.
After lunch, we head back to the road block and see that no progress has been made. Mostly just shouting. We pack up our lunch and head back to our starting point, hoping the road will be clear by tomorrow morning. It turns out to be a good plan, as the next morning, we drive through the same road without one delay. TIA!
Mozambique Mudslide: “Flip-flops or boots? Neither.”
Our time in Mozambique is short. Only two scheduled transit days. It’s not that Mozambique isn’t a good tourism destination. The photo to right speaks for itself! The issue for us is that we are on the far west border of the country, and Mozambique’s best destinations are a couple of days drive away on the African East coast beaches. So all we need to do in Mozambique is two full days of driving to get into Zimbabwe. No problem right? Wrong.
The rain started the minute we crossed the border from Malawi into Mozambique yesterday, and it hasn’t stopped. When we put our tents up last night, we did it quickly, and we were lucky enough to have it lighten up enough to even do that. It rained all night, and by morning it was pouring. Mick decides to delay our departure by a couple of hours, hoping the rain will lighten up. The road we need to travel down is about 3 km long, full of huge holes, is not paved, and features a couple of hill climbs. Hill climbs which will now be “muddy hill climbs”.
After two hours, it is apparent that this rain will not be letting up anytime soon. We begin taking the tents down one by one, moving one under the canopy to take it down without getting the inside wet, then repeating that process 10 times. Finally, we are ready to go. With nerves of steel, Mick is in the drivers seat and pulls the truck forward to a turn-around point 50 meters away. He turns us around and heads back past where we had just taken down the tents. Before we can pass the site, we are stopped. We back up a few feet, move forward again, but are quickly stopped again. Next thing we know, our tour leader Joe is coming around the back of the truck and asking us to get off. His exact quote: “Hey guys, welcome to your campsite for the night!”
Here is what we see when we get off the truck:
Our driver and tour leader are always emphasizing the importance of leaving on time in the mornings and covering as much ground as we can. In two months, we need to cover over 10,000 kilometers. Today is off to a rough start. We’ve been awake since 6am, and it is now 9am. In those three precious morning driving hours, we have managed to move our truck backwards five meters. So instead of being +100 km’s today, we are -.0005 km.
No one in the group appears to be worried. That is probably due to the fact that neither Mick or Joe seems phased about the fact that our 15+ ton truck has one of it’s front wheels half-way buried in the mud. If they aren’t worried, why should we be?
It is also hard to not enjoy watching Mick and Joe shoveling mud and carrying heavy sand mats around, all while wearing flip-flops. I would offer to help, but someone has to take pictures and film this, right? The situation doesn’t progress very well. The hole they have dug under the tire has now been filled with water. The truck happens to be stuck at the bottom of a drainage ditch, which also explains why it was so muddy in this spot to begin with.
We are soon joined by 10 or so members of the campsite staff. We are relieved to hear that they have a tractor on site and that it is on it’s way over to us. After placing sand mats below each tire, Mick jumps in the driver’s seat, and with the tractor’s help attempts to back the truck back up onto drier land. The attempt fails. The truck moves a bit, but it seems too much of the truck’s weight is leaning onto the right side, taking away a lot of its power. Now, the whole group gets involved. We all line up on the right side of the truck and together push on the truck as Mick and the tractor again try to back up.
Attempt number two also fails. Mick now decides the best way out of the pit will be to go forwards. It’s not ideal, since even if the front tire gets out, he will have to then drive the two back tires through the mud. However, at this point, it’s our only option. The tractor comes around to the front, and after a little more digging, Mick is back in the cab and ready to go. This time, it’s a success, and the entire group breaks into a combo of applause and high-fives.
Although we now have the truck back on “dry” ground, it is still pouring. If anything, it seems to be coming down even harder. We are also told by a local that a bridge on the road we need to take is two meters under water. T.I.A. We will now have to stay the night. There is a silver lining though. Two of them actually.
1. We decide to upgrade to the campsite’s cabins for the night, which includes our own bathroom and a nice double bed. A treat after two weeks of sleeping in tents.
2. Alissa and her cook team cook up an amazing dish of fried rice using all the left-over veggies we have on board the truck. One of the best meals so far!
We made sure to take plenty of pictures of both ordeals so that Joe can print them and place them where they belong… On Ma’s wall at the Snake Park bar.