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august/september 2018 travel news 29
For an astonished moment we looked at each other. Then, totally instinctively, we reacted
in our separate ways. His trunk went up, his ears went out, his tusks came down, he
gave a little squeal and started to slither down the bank straight at me. Assuming I was
in trouble, my foot went down hard on the accelerator, the front wheels stuck in the
sand, the rear wheels, still on the road, shot in front of them and I went down the slope
in a series of spins, totally out of control, like a Catherine wheel gone berserk. It was
the second time that day I’d been scared but it was the biggest scare of all. This time
three things terrified me, the elephant, the spin and the tank. By sheer chance I stopped
spinning at the bottom of the hill facing the streambed. This had a strip of concrete in
the bottom. Praying I still had some petrol and not daring to look back, I bottomed the
accelerator, the wheels gripped on the concrete and I shot across the ford, round the
bend and up the hill on the other side still accelerating, and reached 90-mph before I
decided I’d better nurse my tank again.
Far enough away from the elephant, I stopped, crawled in the dust under the car and
gently fondled the tank not, as you might think, to soothe it but to find the leaks. There
weren’t any. The relief was quite indescribable. I began to breathe again and set out on
my way; confident, proud of my engineering and reckoning I might at least get home
Moonlight on the high plains of Africa is special. The silhouetted trees, the changing
aspects of the winding road, the pairs of unknown eyes occasionally caught in the
headlight beam, the sinister shadows, the myriads of watching stars above, pinpricks of
light, the call of the hyenas, the mystery of it all. The reaction was setting in. I was tired
and getting poetic, thinking of home, sleep and a bath.
Before the shakes had completely disappeared my headlights picked out, far away, what
appeared to be another obstruction across the road. The shakes revived. Not again.
I approached slowly. The road narrowed between two low banks and sure enough
there was something across it, right across it. But it wasn’t a repeat elephant, it was
an enormous American Chevy, down at the front, slewed across the road, completely
blocking it. The two occupants explained that they’d been running fast over corrugations,
had hit a hole, and the front suspension had collapsed. They couldn’t think of anything
to do except wait for somebody to come along and keep them company. They were
scared, hungry and thirsty and hoped I had some water.
In everyday emergencies the thing is to keep cool and think. I stopped quaking and
thought. Our only hope was Sultan Hamud. If there was a phone there we could call
Nairobi for a rescue vehicle, if there wasn’t they could come to Nairobi with me. Easy.
All we had to do was get my car round their wreck. How? Piece of cake. We’d build a
road around it. They seemed a little startled at this proposition. Obviously city types. I
did a recce, then from my boot took a shovel, a panga (machete) and two tyre levers.
The bank on one side was about two feet high, more on the other side. I gave the
healthiest looking of my new acquaintances the shovel and asked him to grade the
lower bank so that I could get my car up the slope. Pretty hands! The ground was hard
as iron. He was soon asweat and shifted the shovel to his friend.
I attacked the bushes with the panga, using the tyre levers to heave up some of the
roots. Finally, we graded the bank on the other side of the Chevy to allow my car back
on the road. It was hard work and took over two dark hours. We were too puffed and
had too many blisters for other than essential conversation and profanity. Then with
the two guys pushing to keep up momentum, I managed to drive my car on my new
highway around the obstruction. It was a great moment.
Another crawl beneath to fondle the tank, still operational, a transfer of baggage and
we were away. We reached Sultan Hamud in the early hours. It was in total darkness,
but screaming and shouting aroused the alarmed shop and petrol proprietor. Yes, he
had a phone which could be used in the morning and the two opportunists could sleep
in the shed ‘til then. It was already close to dawn, they wouldn’t have much sleep. He’d
send out a truck at first light to pull the Chevy round and make the road passable. A
tow-truck would have to come from Nairobi.
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