We’re on the kind of track we’re used to, here in Zambia – just about a vehicle’s width and peppered with rocks. Thing is, we’re usually here in the southern hemisphere winter – our summer. Then, it’s dry as a bone and rust-coloured dust trails follow wherever we go, you watch for big rocks or holes in the track and drive round them.
But now it’s been raining for weeks, the grass is a vivid, lush green – and we’re heading for the swamps. So, when anthro-man swerves to avoid . . .
We’re up to our axles in soft, soft mud.
A little girl with big eyes appears outside my open window. She reaches in and touches my new necklace. Then she reaches up and touches my hair, shrieks and runs away. Maybe it was the green eyes.
Hooray for Marjorie. She recruits a local man who brings branches and sacks – and digs like a demon. He’s a teacher and his English is terrific.
Two hours later we’re back on track but running very late. A little haste seemed called for, but after we hit a massive hole – and nearly knock poor Marjorie out as she bounces off the roof – we take it a bit more steadily. After all, it’s only about a 60 kilometre drive. Three hours should do it, surely?
A couple of those three hours later – in the middle of the afternoon – we drop Marjorie at her village. The light’s already going.
I get out, shake various hands, say goodbye, then shove hard as the wheels spin. One foot sinks into mud, well over my ankle. Never mind. It doesn’t smell. Well, maybe just a bit – of fish.
Marjorie’s family said we should make it to the ‘island’ in two or three more hours. Neither of us wants to talk about it. But now the light is nearly gone.
‘Is it left here, do you think?’
‘Um, would you say this is “shortly after the settlement”?’
‘Depends where you think the settlement ends.’
‘If that was the settlement then I guess it’s – well, what do you think?’
Anthro-man hesitates but doesn’t stop.
‘It looks rather overgrown, doesn’t it?’
Now, back home in England, if you take a turn down a cul-de-sac in some strange industrial estate, in the dark, (I’m not saying I have, just imagining) you might feel a bit irate, a bit lost. A bit anxious, even. But if you stop to turn round you’re unlikely to sink into mud and be unable to get going again. It adds a certain tension to the experience. That and the lack of light.
So, I’m gripping the piece of paper with our directions as if my life depends on them. And the torch. And the guide book. As if that’s any use.
I’ve even stopped noticing the fishy-smelling mud.
We make a cautious turn, drive back at snail’s pace through what might just be the ‘settlement’ – a strip of forlorn-looking thatched mud-huts that are oddly empty.
We don’t see a single person.
Another slow turn. We start again, end up at the same place, drive further, turn round, come back.
So then – we take the left turn.
I shine my torch on the directions and screw up my courage – what little is left of it – to make a suggestion. One which turns out to be as useless as it is brave (given I’m a great big cissy coward.)
‘It says here there’s “a very basic community camp site”. Why don’t we sleep in the vehicle and wait till morning.’
He says nothing, just hunches further over the steering wheel.
‘We’re not even at the flood plain yet,’ I say in a feeble voice, not really wanting to be heard, ‘and you really don’t want to know what it says about driving across it.’
I realise I’m holding my breath . . .
Next time: never trust a guide book (especially when it’s 3 years old)