Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What we will do for the love of the oceans...

(Hood mounted Landie Cam captures the moment)

Paul and I decided to head to Mozambique for a few weeks to accomplish two tasks: 1) see for ourselves the state of sharks and finning operations having received many reports that Southern Africa and in specific, Mozambique, is under attack, and 2) to see the whale sharks and manta rays that Tofu is famous for ourselves – craving a bit of live (rather than dead) elasmobranch action. So we packed up my new car with everything including the kitchen sink and the freezer and the table and the cupboard contents and the… well, you get the picture… and headed out. Note to self: do not travel to Mozambique with an old map and no GPS.

I have always been a two-seater, convertible, [German] sports car driver, but when I made the leap and bought a car in South Africa, I knew I needed something a little more practical. I seem to have spanned to the other end of the spectrum, perhaps remembering the childhood toy I cherished – a miniature camper caravan with a pop up tent, bunk beds, and a full kitchen. Everything you needed to go anywhere in the backyard. I now own that vehicle – in the form of a dark blue Land Rover Defender, complete with a tent on the roof, an ammunition safe, drawers and drawers of tools, a spare water tank, a solar shower, an ax, a spade and a bajillion other things that basically makes my vehicle a home on wheels. Second note to self: do not, under any circumstances, allow Paul to be responsible for deciding what is a necessity and what is not. The man would travel with only the clothes on his back, a machette and a bag of biltong for a week in the bush. Oh and a high-lift Jack which somehow we forgot this time and whose omission we nearly paid a very dear price for.

(My new "little girl" the day I bought her in Capetown.)

I quickly learned that in Africa, the journey is a large (VERY LARGE) part of the adventure. And, plans, routes, destinations, heck, even road signs are really not necessary parts of the equation – because anything can happen in Africa, and now I have been here long enough to say, and it usually does.

After we left the highways a few hours away from the border of Mozambique, the travel became slow-going due to the fact the road was literally just a series of potholes laced together with small patches of asphalt. But, the bigger problem was avoiding hitting anything. You see, the roads in South Africa attract a variety of life ranging from chickens, to cows to humans. We quickly engaged in our favorite game to pass the time: “goat, cow, dog, chicken or pig”. Basically, you chose which animal you are going to see next on the side of the road (WITHOUT a fence between you and it) and the winner gets a point if they call the animal correctly (pigs and chickens count for 5 and donkeys, 10.) Every few hundred meters you are sure to run into something. This time I stuck with goats and won – 28 to 12.

(Another game called "Dodge the potential Road Kill")

It wasn’t until we crossed the border though, that the true excitement began. It was getting late in the afternoon, and we were hours off of our schedule – mostly due to the slow roads we hadn’t predicted, a crisis that necessitated I send an email, and my last minute trip to acquire a new Malaria prevention drug as I was already growing tired of the Lariam induced spider nightmares – but that is a different story.

As soon as we passed border control, it was like we had entered some strange “Land of the Lost” set. Seriously, the roads and all forms of humanity simply disappeared. We were presented with a series of treacherous sand paths that snaked through valleys and dunes, precariously up steep inclines and around sharp bends, with no signs, only our instinct to determine which one might lead us to Maputo. Adding to the stress was the fact that the sun was starting to set, our car was so top heavy that we were ready to tip over at any moment, it was threatening rain…

Before leaving South Africa, Paul wanted to be sure to fill the two “Jerry Cans” on our roof full of diesel. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but only learned of it while the plan was in action, so couldn’t have too much of an opinion. However, when the car started to smell like diesel – Paul told me “no biggie”. It wasn’t until diesel was literally pouring into our open windows that he realized both of our fuel cans were leaking. Severely. Our only option was to take the precious water jugs I had purchased in South Africa not wanting to repeat a Burma incident (small boat with one bathroom and rancid water which caused violent illness amongst my whole family), and use all 6 of them, ugh, to wash the now looming fire hazard on wheels. There I was, middle of nowhere, standing on the car roof soaping it up with dish detergent by hand and then dribbling water down it trying to keep my solid footing as the car became increasingly slippery…

Stinking of diesel, we continued the journey driving for hours on random paths using random logic to indicate to ourselves we must be on the right path. “Well, I see an abandoned stump that might have been used to sell tourist trinkets. This must be the right path.” Suddenly, we were spit out on a dirt road that had potholes filled with water so deep, a few of them might have had their own names as lakes. And now it was dark. I would scream the location of the pit and Paul would attempt to slow down enough to not leave a wheel behind. We slipped and slid over the mud attempting to make progress. There was one enjoyable moment as we left a brand new Jeep Cherokee in our mud trail as the driver struggled to keep his pseudo-off road vehicle on the road. “Shoulda bought a Landie” Paul sang out with glee. Another note to self: never be too smug about someone else having problems with their car. Karma always has a way of sorting you out.

After three hours, we came to a barricade and police officers. Relieved, I knew that we could at least ask directions. Paul went to get out of the car, and that is when I noticed the bugs. Millions and millions of flying ants on steroids. In a scene straight from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, the one spotlight shining on the road illuminated a gruesome site. The sky was alive with them. They began to stack up on the windshield – six ants deep. I could see Paul and the policeman were covered with them, both acting as non-chalant as possible as ants the size of Pez dispensers crawled down their backs. After ten minutes in the bugs, Paul came back to the car complete with directions and hundreds of stragglers. I had no choice but to let him in after he tried to brush them off as best he could.

He was full of information. Yes we are on the right path, but the policeman gave us a detour, as the roads we were traveling on got way worse past the barricade. Seriously, I thought? What is worse than this??? Oh, and the ants? They come out when it rains. We are about to get drenched, he said. I figured that would be a good thing. Um… no.

If we thought the roads were treacherous before, we were now traveling in a torrential downpour as thick mud coated our car. We had been driving for 12 hours now, and most of it a challenge. I was so happy to reach the outskirts of Maputo… until Paul asked me what the little red light on the dashboard meant. A quick check of the manual indicated the transmission was “wound up” due to the use of the differential lock system. The diff lock system was apparently stuck on (though after much arguing I realized Paul was not to blame as he hadn’t turned it on), and no matter how much reverse driving we did (seriously, the Land Rover manual TOLD us to), it wouldn’t come off. Here we were, in the middle of a dodgy town on the outskirts of Maputo, not a chance of a repairman, tow truck and certainly not a Land Rover dealer for miles – if not countries – and our car was essentially, according to the manual, undrive-able. I started seeing days and days spent in this dank, seedy port town – without a single hotel or restaurant - unfold in front of me waiting for some obscure part and spending thousands of dollars as the corrupt repair people held us hostage…

But, in a moment worthy of an iPhone commercial, I suddenly realized we had hope… thanks to Steven Jobs. Yes, I managed to procure my iPhone after removing it from bags deep within the mud-crusted bush vehicle, wedged in next to the ax and the spare coils. I brushed off the thick layer of dust and turned it on. IT WORKED! And what’s more, we found a 24 hour Land Rover help hotline to call. Here we were, literally in the middle of nowhere, a million miles away from any form of support, a few lights on generators the highest tech thing around us, on the phone with a cheery chap named Bill who helped us troubleshoot the car. His advice? Ignore it if the car still turns in a tight circle, which it did. And, then hope for the best. It is either a) nothing or b) a huge issue that will incapacitate the car possibly in an even more desolate location. Did I mention that Mozambique is infamous for its “gypsies” who are really land pirates looting unsuspecting tourists?

We gave ourselves the 30 minute ferry ride to Maputo to figure out our plan. Do we risk it or play it safe? It was now midnight and we were in a city that I imagine looks a lot like war-torn Beiruit complete with a self-mandated curfew (to ensure one’s safety) with few, if any, prospects. I was supposed to wake up in a hut on the beach ready for snorkeling with at least 10 whale sharks who were undoubtedly playing with 50 mantas, and now, instead, I had to chose whether I wanted to drive BACK to South Africa, camping out at the border until it was open, or just cross my fingers and hope for the best trying not to have a panic attack from all the stress of being absolutely certain the car was going to lose its drive train at the most inopportune time and place – like say, near a camp full of bandits. I mean, wasn’t this why I bought such a solid car? So this didn’t happen?!? And what about the drawers full of spare parts and tools? Why wouldn’t any of those help us now?

Though I dive with sharks on a regular basis, I am certainly not a risk taker. So Paul and I decided that we must turn around and head for the border so we could drive the 600 kms to the nearest Land Rover dealer to ensure our problem was not compounding. Crestfallen, we started heading out of the country only to have the light turn off, by itself, after going two hours in the opposite direction. Yes, that’s right. It was nothing.

Exhausted and defeated, we crashed in a nearby gas station, terrified to pull off the road due to the gypsies. I slept perched on top of the scuba gear in the back piling my wetsuits on top of me to avoid being bitten by malaria-carrying mosquitos, Paul in his seat holding a Machette in one hand and a huge two foot maglight in the other (the perfect weapon he says… you bash a guy with one end of it, then turn it around in one elegant swoop to see if he is lying on the ground.) When we awoke bleary-eyed for another full day of driving on roads even worse than what we had experienced, I figured nothing could phase me now. That was until the brand-new rear shock literally broke in half and we drove 30 km off-road through sand dunes with craters that could consume trucks in them – with only three zip ties holding the car together.

You gotta love Land Rovers. And the adventure that is Africa.

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