[Please note, the images in this package of old posts were not taken with a digital camera… yes, a mere 13 years ago]
1 Up and over: South Luangwa to Kasama
[aka Harrison fording in Zambia. Archaeologists head north, the hard way]
Wet vehicle batteries aren’t good news. As any fule kno. But it’s not always easy to keep them dry. When crossing a river, for example, at a little too fast a pace.
It’s our first river – unless you count the sandy one. The one where our wheels kept spinning, propelling us deeper into the sand instead of up onto the bank. Where we laid down cardboard and twigs and branches while feeding the tsetse flies on our sweet, red blood.
Even a devout Jain would have wished them dead. No, really. I still have tsetse fly bites that itch years later. Honest.
But back to this river. It’s wet – and it was meant to be the easy one.
Vehicle two is sitting in the middle.
After a bit of paddling and towing – and poking and prodding by people who seem to know what they’re doing – it’s sorted.
We drive on.
It’s warm. Hot, in fact. And we’re crammed – with loads of buckets and shovels and tents – into two vehicles crossing Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. Heading for the Muchinga escarpment, up which we are planning to drive.
(Sorry, that sounds like a translation, I was trying to be grammatically correct.)
But there’s another river in the way. And this one’s a tad more challenging.
A group of local workmen happens to be here, working on a dead bridge (now that would’ve been useful). A reassuring presence – added strength, if push comes to shove. Or wet comes to pull, more accurately. The crossing’s not straight across – and dragging a vehicle out would be a teensy bit more tricky than last time.
We go first, following the waving-arm directions of the workmen rather than the channel markers. It’s a gamble, but they know they’ll have to help us if we get stuck, have a vested interest in us making it across.
The short drive feels like a rally, but it’s quickly done, destination achieved for vehicle one.
After much nail biting, hesitation and a change of driver for good measure, the second makes it across, battery dry and engine still running.
Now the ‘road’ starts climbing upwards. There’s a pause for the checkpoint – and for Rosie to hand out balloons to the inquisitive children who surround us the instant we stop.
Then begins the ascent.
Anthro-man’s driving the lead vehicle. I’m gripping the dashboard, orange with dust, leaving grey patches washed clean by sweat when finally I let go.
I imagine this is what rock climbing’s like. Never done it myself, what with being paralysed by heights and generally cowardly in the face of danger.
The wheels move at a sloth’s pace, but with much more noise. I worry with each lurch forward that we’re going to slip back down – and down – and down.
The slope feels almost vertical and turning the tight rocky bends – imagine driving up a barber’s pole – is excruciating, because then I can see the drop falling away below us.
But the engine grinds on.
And it’s hot. So hot.
We stop, briefly, perched at an angle on a corner of jutting stones. I hold my breath as we start up again and it seems as if we’re stuck. I lean forward as if I can drag the poor, struggling machine over each boulder.
We edge on. And up. And on. And up. Until, oh joy, we reach the top.
The reward is a panorama glimpsed through the lush, leafy miombo woodland that clothes the plateau.
But there’s no time for mere tourism. We’re working to a schedule.
Our next goal’s a real, metalled road: the Great North, my favourite Zambian point-of-the-compass road. The further north it goes the better I like it – and this trip we’re going as far as it can take us. All the way to the Tanzanian border.
Today’s just stage one.
We’re aiming for Kasama, capital of the Northern Province.
There we’ll try and have a good night’s rest.
There we’ll check out the rock art.
There – we’ll go shopping. My job. Serious shopping, for our week-long camping trip to Kalambo Falls, natural wonder – and site of Anthro-man’s next excavation.
We drive on.
It feels further than it is. Tired, dusty, weary, we arrive at Kasama. Check into ‘Thorn Tree,’ a lodge, in town. A pre-tent treat for us all.
It makes a big impression on me, Thorn Tree, largely because of the pet lamb – Lamb Chop by name. Unaware it’s soon to be eponymous, it clatters down the corridor, skittering around on the hard floor, baa-ing outside our room – and peeing in the bar.
We’re only here for one night. Tomorrow we change our accommodation for something more holy.
But for now, it’s food, drink, shower – and sleep.
Damn that lamb.
2 Rock art, welding, a mission – and Old Trafford
He’s looking worried.
It was meant to be an overnight stop – but there’s no way we’ll fit everything in and reach Kalambo in time to pitch camp by daylight.
We have to stay another night, but not at Thorn Tree. They have no room.
Plan B was always my favourite. There’s something reassuring about the Catholic Mission outside town. With its grand old gardens and its fecund farm it exudes an air of calm that I suppose comes from the holy brothers. Though I’ve never actually seen any.
Our first stay there was ‘interesting’. Our twin-single-bedded room looked as if it had just been vacated by a teenage boy. In a chunky bungalow, a former family house, it led off a huge sitting room, complete with sofa, armchairs – and a congealed-blood-coloured floor.
We shared a bathroom with a couple intent on making as much recreational use of the bed as possible. He must have had bronchitis, or been drinking while (euphemism alert) gasping for breath the amount of coughing he did.
And when I say ‘shared’ a bathroom, it was accessible from both our rooms but each of us could lock the other out. They did.
But the meals were good and there was beer available to order – always a bonus.
That was a few years ago – and now here we are again. Eight of us.
We check in and divvy up the rooms.
This time we have a shower to ourselves. The shower head hangs forlorn, mended with rags. Water trickles down the wall instead of spraying. But it’s clean. Unless you count the fact that it’s come through those rags. No, don’t go there.
The day turns hot as we pick up our new colleague Victor from National Heritage. He volunteers to guide our shopping and we wander down to the centre of town, to a market of sorts. Buzzing with life, with colours and smells and sounds, it bakes in the full glare of the mid-morning sun.
We ponder our pan requirements as bright sparks fly from a welder and the clang of metal on metal reverberates through the dusty air. We’ll have to come back later – they’re being welded for us to our chosen size.
Never had pans made for me before – I have to assume Victor knows what he’s doing.
I’m on more comfortable ground with tin plates and cheap cutlery. Plastic bins for storage. Loo rolls. Soap. Tea towels. Scrubbing pads for dishes. A kettle.
A water barrel that doesn’t smell too bad – and has a lid.
The list of ‘might needs’ keeps on growing.
Four more people are joining us at the Falls. I have to feed 12 people for seven days. Cooking over an open fire, or with charcoal on an mbaula. (Note to self: add one – no two – to the list.)
With no running water.
When you’re nearly three hours’ drive from the nearest town you don’t want to have to slip back for a few things you’ve forgotten. Like matches. Especially matches.
The supermarket’s a great big Shoprite, impressively well stocked. I decide to leave the 12 (or so) loaves till the next day, so it’s fresh, but stock up on tins of tomatoes and beans, bags of dried soya chunks, rice, candles, UHT milk. Lentils. Paraffin lamps.
I buy matches, many matches. And a plastic box to put them in. You never know.
It’s been a while since I did this campsite cooking lark and I’m anxious. Want to buy the vegetables now but everyone agrees – there will be roadside markets on the way. Cheaper. Fresher.
We pick up our pans and head back to the mission, drop them and the water barrel off for a good wash. One of the pans has a very odd blackness across its base, as if it was engraved. I try not to think about what it might have been in another life.
At least the barrel’s not bad. The last one we had never lost its taste of oil – mechanical oil.
A quick (Zambian quick) sandwich and we’re on the road again, off to see the rock art.
Our caravanserai slows to a stop by a small road near some big, rocky hills.
The Pied Piper would be redundant here – all you need is white folks and the children come running, materialise from seemingly nowhere. Rosie dispenses more balloons, I hand over sweets. Fruit sweets – that makes it all right, doesn’t it?
A young man arrives, also seemingly from nowhere. Turns out he’s a guide, an official guide.
Zambian rock art can be disappointing if you go expecting deep caves adorned with cavorting, Lascaux-style animals. A lot of it’s geometric – lines, circles, dots and so on.
Think Bridget Riley but (mostly) red.
Here at Kasama, though, the hills are rich with art and one of the most celebrated pieces is a leopard. There are even some stick people. (Not to Lowry’s standard IMHO. But then, I do love Lowry – and I suppose there’s never been much call for bowler hats round here.)
It seems Kasama has its own Banksy, too. Graffiti with a message. A religious one. If you know Handel’s Messiah well enough you’ll recognise the words from Isaiah painted expertly on the rock next to Tim. (Not by Tim, I hasten to add.)
We’re all impressed – with the art, not the biblical verse – if a bit tired, what with all the clambering.
On the way back we manage a diversion via an old friend, Victor’s boss, then on to Victor’s. We meet his family, drink a welcome glass of Mazoe – the odd, slightly bitter and strangely addictive orange squash (that’s a dilutable drink, dear Americans, not a vegetable) that’s the staple ‘orange juice’ around rural parts.
Over dinner it turns out the mission’s supplies of alcohol have run out and in the absence of a miracle we resort to the box of red wine we’d stashed for our trip.
Several thirsty souls deplete it significantly. But we can buy some more tomorrow.
Except the shop’s not open.
It’s a national holiday.
But as we queue to take out cash from the one cash machine in town (a wonder it hasn’t run out already) something wonderful happens – Shoprite opens. Just later than usual.
Soon we have 11 loaves of fresh, warm sliced bread stored in our plastic bin where they’re sweating nicely in the warmth.
And we have a new – smaller – box of wine.
I feel a mixture of emotions – but mostly fear. Have I got enough food? Will the site be OK? Will there be drunken partying locals with boom boxes there like there were last time? Where will we pee?
What if …
But there’s nothing I can do about it now. Just hope.
3 An historic surrender, the last flushing loo
and Custard with charcoal
November 1918. The end of the war to end all wars.
Would that it had been so.
We’re heading to Mbala.
In 1918 Mbala was called Abercorn.
The town was – is – close to the border between Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and German East Africa (now Tanzania).
Livingstone was the first white man in town, in the 1860s, but Abercorn quickly became a strategic outpost for imperial Britain, sitting as it did on the northern edge of her southern African territories.
The Great War, the first to be named a World War, was fought even in remotest Africa. But news travelled less quickly in 1918.
The Armistice in Germany was signed on the eleventh day at the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, a time remembered in silence still today.
German forces near Abercorn, though, remained undefeated – and unaware.
By November 25th the news had arrived. The colonial Germans dutifully surrendered, in Abercorn. There’s a small memorial – and a gun (well, something military) on a roundabout.
Modern Mbala’s an odd place. Quiet, despite its proximity to international borders – not just along the road, but across Lake Tanganyika, where ferries sail to the Congo from the port of Mpulungu.
Today, on this national holiday, there’s not a drop of paraffin to be bought in Mbala.
What’s more, there’s been no charcoal for sale on the road into town – and that’s a mite concerning.
Because here charcoal’s not just a ‘let’s have a barbie’ luxury, it’s essential for everyday cooking. It’s a vital rural resource – and one reason so many trees are vanishing from the landscape.
The Great North Road is usually dotted with stands of huge sacks, chock-full with black chunks, waiting to be bought.
Men wobble around bearing perilous loads on the back of their sturdy bikes.
Today we kept on driving, waiting to buy till we were nearer our destination.
So now we’re charcoal-less.
And we’re onion-, pumpkin-, orange- and cabbage-less.
Because we haven’t passed a single stall selling vegetables.
Not even tomatoes.
With relief we discover Mbala’s market, a few hardy traders braving this serious holiday.
There’s an unusual selection of produce, including pears. And carrots.
But no pumpkins.
So I won’t be cooking slices wrapped in foil, with tomato and a bit of butter, on the ashes of our fire.
Even if we find wood.
Even if we buy charcoal.
The paraffin situation could have been serious too, but – hooray – an Indian grocery is open on the main street.
There we stock up on candles.
And, on reflection, more candles. Pale Chinese candles that will sputter and drip by night and bend in the heat of the day. Looking flaccid and somewhat obscene. Sorry, but they do.
And finally, for now, something so essential we can’t go without it.
At a communal tap we fill our barrel to the brim. Heave it into the back of the least full of our three vehicles.
I lapse into a worried silence as we bump and jolt our way past the jail, along the track to Moto Moto Museum.
Sandwiches, if the worst comes to the worst, that’s what we’ll have tonight.
The prison’s a dire warning to the lawless. In a bare compound surrounded by barbed wire, each convict has the equivalent of a small, corrugated metal garden hut. Baking by day, freezing by night.
Curly-tailed dogs follow our dust to the museum – a white-painted gem, founded by a Jesuit. Inside is a full scale village scene, artefacts from Kalambo, pickled snakes, a treasure trove of a gift shop – and the flushing loo.
We’re greeted by an old friend, Nkole. He’s had stools made for us to sit around our camp fire. But, it’s the wrong kind of wood, he’s sending them back.
What’s that? You’re wondering why we can’t sit on the ground?
It’s no fun, at night, trust me – never mind the discomfort, think scorpions and other nasty nippers.
Anyway, we’re offered two benches from the museum. These we strap to the vehicle roofs, alongside the jerry cans of diesel. There are still four more members of the team to arrive so we’ll have to come back for the new stools later.
Nkole assures us there’ll be charcoal nearer the site. I hope he’s right.
All too soon it’s time to depart. To pour water from the museum’s barrel into the loo cistern, flush it one last time. Who knows what our toilet arrangement will be at the Falls.
But – we have water, pears, carrots, candles. And the promise of charcoal.
The turning’s not too far out of town, past a lake, just where the tarmac gives way to dirt. Yes, that’s the main road into Tanzania.
We leave it and head down.
There are things you can trust guide books for, things you can’t. Trouble is, you don’t know which is which till you’ve tried it. Fortunately we’ve been here before.
The Bradt guide book says you don’t need a four by four. I beg to differ.
The water barrel sloshes, tips ominously as the vehicle jolts down each precipice of rock.
It’s as we reach a relatively smooth stretch of sandy ground that we spot the charcoal.
Anthro-man turns to me and mutters, ‘You’re in charge, go on, buy some’.
‘I don’t speak the language!’
Collins (who’s now the esteemed Director of the National Heritage Conservation Commission) jumps down to help.
It’s not his tribal area, but among the 70-odd languages of Zambia several are understood almost everywhere.
This area is Mambwe. I quickly learn the greeting.
‘Muli wuli’ I repeat.
‘Indiningo’ responds my teacher, with a laugh at my accent.
I ask him his name.
I wonder who chose that one? Did they mean to name him Custer? Ah well, it’s memorable.
Custard’s happy to sell us charcoal, but wants to put more in the bag. Collins agrees we’ll come back later and we settle on a price.
I’m about to open the passenger door but … it’s the weekend. Before I have a chance to re-embark the regulation drunk arrives. A friendly, inquisitive chap, he shakes my hand for an age.
When, finally, he lets go, I climb back on board with a sense of achievement.
Tonight we’ll have hot food.
After we set camp, that is. And that’s the next challenge.
Last time we came there were no facilities. Do we camp in the field near the river and sites? Dig pit latrines? Whose permission will we need?
But as we drive into the parking area by the falls we see them – ‘his’n’hers’ long drop loos.
We have a camp site.
No showers or running water, of course.
My reluctant, vertiginously handicapped knees soon discover where we’ll be bathing.
Down many, many steep steps.
An infinity pool of sorts. Especially if you slip.
It’s going to be a long week.
4 Naked bathers, stone tools, the eleventh tuna sandwich and the last straw
Rising with the sun I slide out of our tent feet first, past the sailcloth ‘Ratbags’ containing all our (present) worldly goods.
At the far end of the campsite stand three women, calling at us.
They lapse into silence and stare at me. I’m tired, stressed (I know, I should try yoga) and – I’m sorry to say – irritated. I wish they’d go and look at something – or someone – else.
I’m stomping around thinking how best to get breakfast started when Collins tells me what the women want.
Had I noticed they were carrying pumpkins on their heads?
Um, sort of.
They’re for sale. If we buy one or more it’ll save them carrying them down to the harbour on Lake Tanganyika, some distance away.
Shame on me. I buy them all. The delighted women leave, laughing like the three little maids from school.
Things are perking up.
We rekindle the fire from last night’s smoking embers. I take the pan I’ve put on the lid of the water barrel for scooping out water, pour some into the new kettle-cum-teapot and set it to boil.
A nice Japanese woman, who’s doing something scientific that involves grains of quartz and light (thermo-luminescence dating) asks how many teabags I want taking out of the box. She thinks, rightly, they should be rationed.
‘Ten or so?’
She looks surprised.
A while later, when the porridge is ready, I go to make myself a cup of tea.
Tabs from ten teabags dangle from the kettle.
No wonder she looked surprised. She thought we were making it in the pot.
It’s a strong brew, worthy of Yorkshire.
The coffee drinkers shrug and take their coffee with added tea this once.
Dishes done, the gang troops through the burnt grass (it promotes new spring growth) to the nearest village.
We start by visiting the head man. He emerges from his grass and mud hut, chickens running around his legs. Thin, wiry, wearing a stripy t-shirt and ragged trousers, his smile is welcoming. We offer a few small gifts and make for the river.
A giggle of children dances behind us as we follow the riverbank to the location Anthro-man has pinpointed for excavation.
People making bricks, piling them to dry in the sun, look up, curious, but don’t stop.
In the river, semi-naked women are washing clothes – and themselves – totally unperturbed by our presence.
I wait a while, watching, till they’ve started preparing the ground, but then it’s time for me to head back. Lunch to prepare.
The caretaker’s still at the site and it’s not till after lunch that I realise I’m going to be stuck here, day in, day out. Because he leaves. Leaves all our tents, all our belongings, our vehicles, unattended.
I am shackled to the site.
It gives me time to think what to make for dinner, to check my stocks and arrange a ‘kitchen’ in the back of the most accessible vehicle.
By mid afternoon I discover the first flaw in my planning.
I’d intended to use the lid of the plastic bin as chopping board. It’s concave when it’s on the bin. I turn it the other way up, chop my onions on the inside and turn to find the garlic. Ping! It pops back into shape. Onion shards everywhere.
As the diggers return it’s time to get the mbaula going. Anthro-man lights it and I stand swinging it – until it cracks my shin and showers me with charcoal embers when I stop paying attention.
It’s turning into that kind of day.
I serve up macaroni cheese, and tomatoes. It seems to go down well, but I can see our Zambian colleagues aren’t too impressed.
Next day they hatch a plan to give us all chicken and nsima for lunch. We’ve brought a big bag of maize meal to make it, a big pan and a big wooden implement for stirring it.
The deal was that the Zambian men would cook their own nsima – it’s not something I can do. But they don’t. The caretaker is going to do it – or I think that’s what’s happening.
Nothing is clear to me.
By the time they’re due back from the site I’m still not sure what’s happening or when – and make sandwiches anyway.
The nsima and chicken are ready, it seems. It goes down so-so. I pick at a wing with next to no meat on it.
It feels like rivalry on the kitchen front – and I can’t work out how to deal with it.
But it’s more than that – something’s going wrong.
Another day and the rest of the team has arrived, the stools have arrived. But the atmosphere hasn’t improved.
Three people who were students together are forming a close clique.
The two Zambians are heads-together talking politics – always fascinating, but I haven’t the time or energy to try and join in.
Three of the experts on the team put themselves out to help me – but one is downright rude and another simply unaware.
Things begin to fray.
Not everyone likes everything.
And no-one likes me doling out the food.
Next day Rude One pushes me to the end of my tether.
I’m carefully apportioning the canned tuna that I’ve eked out with other things to make 11 sandwiches (our one vegetarian’s having peanut butter.) Rude One watches me spoon it out. As I’m about to put on the second slices of precious bread, he speaks.
‘I’d rather have peanut butter, I’ll make my own.’
That night portion control becomes an issue. People want to serve themselves.
I put the two pans of sweet potato, coconut and soya chunk (it has the texture of chicken) stew by the pile of tin plates and leave them to it.
I hold back till last, along with Anthro-Man and an expert from Aberystwyth.
Everyone else is sitting around the fire eating. In their cliques.
And they’ve eaten it all. Sauce is all that’s left.
Fuming, weary, close to tears, I raid the precious bread supply.
The others see us, dart pointed looks at me, but I don’t care. No bread for them – they’ve already eaten.
I sit down on my three-legged stool and it tips me backwards, onto the ground. Someone starts to laugh. I start to cry and bend my head to hide it. Only Anthro-man and the other bread-winner notice.
I’m not enjoying this.
5 In which bravery is rewarded with a carrot,
but not a pear
It rained in the night.
What is it about us?
This is August, the southern hemisphere’s winter, the dry season.
It seems wherever we venture in the Northern Province we act as rain-bringers. Last time it was at a rock shelter with painted walls. We went in, came out, it rained. It was, we learned later, a traditional rain-making site.
Here, there are no rock shelters, just dry, leafy ground and a few trees.
Our tent is pitched on a small incline, heads up, feet down – and a stream flowed under us last night. Our trusty, carry-all ‘Ratbags’ were sitting under the flap at the front. On the ground. The wet ground. Now we have damp sailcloth – and damp clothes.
I turn the bags upside down and leave them in the weak early sun to dry as the day grows warm.
When I go to make tea I see we’re running out of water. What with cooking, dish-washing and diluting our orange Mazoe – plus everyone using it, of course, to fill their water bottles.
Rude Man, naturally, balks at using the pan to fill his drinking container. Perhaps he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t just dip the bottle – hell, why not his hand? – in the water.
I say nothing, just watch.
But what to do about the water?
Fill the barrel from the river, add nasty water purifying tablets, hope for the best?
No, not yet that desperate.
Our two Zambian colleagues volunteer to go to town to fill the barrel from the communal tap. They’ll buy more charcoal too. But their vehicle just happens to be the one I’m using as my kitchen.
Everyone else heads off to dig, or sample, or survey – or whatever activity his or her particular expertise demands.
I set my body-motor to resigned/automatic. Trudge to and fro with tins, plates, cutlery, tea bags, onions, coffee, oranges, potatoes and so on – and so on.
I stack them on the ‘table’ in the thatched shelter.
Then I decide to bathe.
There’ve been complaints about me going down to do my ablutions with Anthro-man at the end of the digging day. They think I should be going with the other two women, to save daylight-bathing time.
So I’m taking my vertigo in both hands, forcing myself to go it alone – while they’re gone and the caretaker’s watching the camp.
I tread carefully, one step at a time, down to the waterfall’s lip. Edge nervously along the bit nearest the fall itself, where the water swirls with that enticing ‘follow me’ rhythm.
I strip off, dip into the pool of cold water, dunk my head beneath the surface, lift it in a panic. Last night the soap floated away, right over the falls. It’s not a good thought.
By the time I return the caretaker’s gone. And the first children are arriving.
How do they know I’m here and alone?
I slide into our tent, stow my night clothes under the sleeping bag and crawl out again with my notebook.
A small crowd’s gathering by the replacement kitchen. A bench outside is already full of little boys.
A man and woman, she with breasts uncovered, peer at our provisions. Inquisitive, their hands reach into the shady thatched shelter. I realise I’m going to have to sit there.
I drag myself over, perch on the one empty, hard bench, against the wall, inside, out of the warming sun. The day starts cool here – and my hair’s wet.
The woman’s red-rimmed eyes are a blurry grey where they should be white. I take the charitable view that she’s not well, but he has definitely been at the beer this morning. I’m guessing it’s Saturday, given the presence of so many school-age children.
It’s like a weird reality show. I’m sitting in a box, a rather dishevelled presenter, but it’s three dimensional. I’m on view all round.
The couple’s still here, grinning.
They ask for water, I refuse. Part of me doesn’t want to leave my sanctuary. Part of me’s worried about when we’ll have more water. Part of me just doesn’t want to encourage them – or the others. I know, it’s awful, I‘m ashamed.
Eventually some of the spectators weary of my inactivity and leave.
A few boys remain – and soon become bolder, braver.
Little faces appear at the gaps in the walls and stare at me.
They’re so cute I can’t help but smile. They scurry back to their bench.
It’s not long before they return.
One of the taller ones reaches over and points.
‘What is this?’
‘Ah, you speak English?’
He nods a shy nod.
‘It’s a carrot.’
It’s as if I’ve performed a miracle. An excited chatter ripples around the little gang. Their eyes light up. They stare at me with something less like fear and more like wonder.
‘Can I take this carrottee to show my teacher?’ asks my little friend.
Of course he can.
They go back to sit on the bench, swinging their legs, murmuring, passing the carrot around. Eyeing me most of the time, as if by keeping an eye on me they will stop me from biting.
The head-boy comes back and points at a pear.
Not such an ‘ooh’ this time, but still the fascination.
I let him hold the pear, but take it back.
We only have four and fruit is precious. I know – precious for a bunch of healthy, ungrateful westerners?
But at least he’s seen a pear. That boy is going places. I talk to him as much as I can – his English isn’t bad but he’s young, his vocabulary limited. He tries to tell me more, frustrated I don’t understand his language.
As morning wears on I’d like to pee but can’t leave my post – or feel I can’t.
Just as I’m worrying about lunch, about opening the vehicle with the bread in the back, a man on a bike rides up, wearing Dunlops (Wellingtons to us Brits).
‘Abram!’ I greet the deputy caretaker with relief.
On the back of his bike is a yellow container of water. He offers me some. I drink it neat.
Have you heard songs of sweet water?
Believe me, they’re true. I’ve never tasted such water.
It comes from a spring. Abram says he’ll fetch more if we need it.
He looks around, asks where the caretaker is. I shrug.
He’s angry, the caretaker left me here alone. But I’m no longer worried.
Abram is here.
Praise the Lord.
I have been released.
6 An un-diplomatic incident, a dead motor
& a perilously pregnant woman
The men who go for water don’t make it back till after dark.
My ‘kitchen’ – the back of their vehicle – is covered in bits of charcoal and running with water. But never mind. I rustle up another macaroni cheese and no-one complains.
But the wine that’s been flowing from the box all week, keeping the frail social bonds tolerable, is in danger of running dry. With excellent timing Rosie and I just happen to have a mission to accomplish at the museum next day. We make a plan – we’ll go exploratory shopping.
Bars in Mbala sell odd things – like frozen Russian sausage. And beer, of course. But there’s not a drop of red wine in town.
It feels like a punishment for mocking the late Betty Clark, archaeological illustrator and wife of celebrated archaeologist Desmond Clark who first excavated the Kalambo Falls site in the 1950s. She famously complained that she wasn’t able to obtain the right kind of white wine locally.
Now we’re moaning because we can’t find a box – or a bottle – of red. Any red would do. My, how standards have slipped!
Rosie goes back to dig after lunch, I wash the dishes and start preparing dinner.
I stop my chopping when I hear the sound of a vehicle approaching. The first I’ve heard all week.
Germans. They park where I cook with the mbaula. Pitch a large tent slap bang in front of our view of the gorge.
I rush to make the fire, just in case they colonise that area too.
[Beach towels and package holidays spring to mind.]
Deputy caretaker, Abram, approaches to tell them about the site and take the camping fee. I see him filling in the form with registration details.
He returns, sits on one of our benches looking dejected.
I get on with my cooking. The semi-frozen sausage (yes we bought some) takes forever to cook on the dying embers of the mbaula. I cook cabbage, make a spicy tomato sauce for the potatoes – a bodged patatas bravas.
A kind student tells me he’d have paid good money for it. A compliment at last.
We all turn in very early. The wine has now completely petered out – and with it the pretence of conviviality.
Next morning, after the Germans leave, I notice the caretaker, deputy caretaker and our two Zambian colleagues are sitting in a grim-faced huddle.
Turns out the man – a diplomat at the German embassy in Dar es Salaam, refused to pay the fee.
Five dollars a head.
Said the facilities weren’t good enough.
Here, miles from anywhere, where there’s no electricity and no plumbing.
I’m angry on Abram’s behalf – he‘s recorded the visitors, there will be queries about where the money’s gone.
We can sort that out, have spare dollars, but – well I’m just angry.
As it’s the last day I head for the site after breakfast, snap some pictures. The river’s looking beautiful, the kids as noisy and playful as ever.
But then there’s one last meal to cook.
I’ve kept a treat in reserve. Tins of condensed milk, boiled for an age to make dulce de leche, accompanied by baked bananas.
The treat meets a rather subdued reception – but I’m used to that now.
Not much longer.
On our last morning I pack up while Anthro-man makes eggy bread with the last of the eggs and bread.
Everyone compliments him on a wonderful breakfast.
Nah. Resigned. No, honestly.
But it’s been a disappointment, I must admit. Usually on digs, after a day or so of ups and downs, camaraderie kicks in. Something, this time, just hasn’t gelled. And I blame myself – naturally.
But it’s nearly over.
The experts in the leather-upholstered white vehicle make to leave first, but their engine’s flat. Could it be that sitting in it every night reading and writing notes (and shaving) has drained the battery?
It’s an automatic, won’t respond to a hill start. Frowns break out. The mechanically minded manage to swap in a battery from one of the older vehicles. It works. So now there’s just the old one to start.
Aberystwyth man (a skilled washer of dishes and all-round helpful type) is confident. The strongest push the heavy vehicle up our little hill and he lifts the clutch as it rolls down.
Ka-chug. With a cough it starts. And keeps on going.
But a man’s in our way, waving distractedly. He points to a figure squatting on a rock in the bushes. A woman, whose baby is showing signs of popping out any minute, must get to the hospital.
We leave. Bump our slow way up the path.
I wave goodbye to Custard, resplendent in yellow overalls, digging beside the track.
Despite the lurching and swaying of the vehicle, the woman makes it to the hospital.
And we make it to the Great – never so welcome – North Road.
Hours later we arrive at Mutinondo Wilderness and sleep wherever we can find space.
In the morning I’m looking forward to waving the crew goodbye and being alone at last when the Japanese woman shows me her spots. She’s unwell, really unwell. Lari, co-owner of Mutinondo, tells the driver of her vehicle where the mission hospitals are en route and we send her off with a last consignment of anxiety.
Dragging a chair out onto the sunny rocks I prepare to lounge.
That’s when I see the snake.
You know, I just want to go home.