Sometimes there are simply no bridges…

Save River in Mozambique


Crossing the Save in Mozambique on the way northwards

I knew of this crossing over the Save River in Mozambique only by rumour, picked up on past wanderings further to the east. As it turned out, using it brought its own mix of idiosyncrasies and challenges, not least of which was that I only vaguely knew its location, could not find any indication of roads or tracks that might lead there on any map or even Google Earth, and, I had no idea of its condition. But, it would let me avoid the cesspool off petty crime and corruption and incompetence that was the border posts at Beit Bridge and Mutare, and that alone was worth the risks and some extra travel time. There was of course also something alluring about the uncertainties associated with finding and successfully fording it…

In the event it took time and some faith to find it. The one or two lost souls I encountered after I had forded the Limpopo at Mapai did not know of it, or could not understand me. By some incredible stroke of luck, driving along a track I thought was leading more or less in the right direction, I came across a guy laboriously pushing his bicycle through the deep sand. He could understand me and, he knew where the crossing was.  What was more, he claimed that he was actually a guide to take vehicles across, and he was on his way there!

We loaded his bicycle onto the back and he joined me in the cab. My guide turned out to be quite talkative, supplementing his vocabulary with sign language so capacious that the cab seemed almost too small for it – where he lived, what he did (he ran a little shop in his village), what grade he had made at school (grade eight), what stock he was planning on keeping in his shop, and lots of other detail that I paid little attention to.

He also said that my vehicle would not be able to cross the river unassisted, but, fortuitously, he knew a man living on the northern side of the river that offered a team of oxen, or, at a slightly elevated fee, no doubt, a tractor, to assist vehicles to get through.

I quietly thought, even if Mobility Wizard could be found immediately, the oxen would be out foraging somewhere in the vast bush, and would have to be fetched, then inspanned and brought to the crossing. It could take many hours, even days. As for the tractor, it was highly unlikely that it would be in running order. I would more likely have to fix it first before it would be of any use to get me across. Both options could bring lots of frustration, and potentially fail anyway.

My guide had me follow various little tracks that eventually brought us to the ford. It would have been pure luck if I had found it on my own, so Guide had already had his benefits. From the safety of a shady tree on the bank I gazed out over the expanse of loose white sand, some four hundred metres wide, about half of which was taken up by the shallow stream.

I would have to walk it to get an idea of whether I could take it on by myself. From where we stood I could see a light truck about halfway through, dug into the sand to its chassis. I went down the river bank and walked towards it. The sand was fairly coarse and probably quite navigable, but there were several half-metre high banks of loose material thrown up by the water when the river came down in flood. They would be real bastards to get over when your approach is already encumbered. But, I thought, with a bit of luck and some skill, I could get the Old Man through.

The light truck turned out to belong to a local trader. He and his associates stood around with remarkable resignation. They had tried everything, including carrying arms-full of foliage from the banks across some hundred meters of lose sand to pack under the wheels for some traction. How long had they been there? Since early that morning. Did they know of Mobility Wizard? Yes. Had they sent for him? Yes, but he hadn’t arrived yet. I chuckled.

To my guide’s horror I informed him that I would be taking on the crossing unassisted. He tried stern warnings, then protestations, then pitying head shakes, but finally he collusively asked if he could have a lift to the little village on the north bank where he lived. I guess he felt he had nothing to lose and some to gain now. I had to smile. This was Africa.

I have to admit that I was nervous as I knelt down beside each tyre to let it down. If we got stuck, it could mean at least half a day of bother – probably longer. At the lip of the river I engaged first gear, high range, and eased the vehicle down the steep bank, trying to build some speed without losing control. I was going to need it in the sand ahead – that’s the thing with sand; momentum, and enough reserve power when you need it.

At one or two of the banks it was touch and go, but we got over, Guide on the edge of his seat, hanging onto the steel safety handle on the dashboard and muttering over and over, “Ei, this car very strong.” Once on top of the northern bank, I thanked him for his services and, to the amusement of the trading contingent, handed his fee (for the privilege of his company and for carrying him and his bicycle some twenty kilometres to the crossing) to the trader. He was to receive it as soon as he brought Mr Mobility Wizard to the scene. There was unfortunately not much more I could do for the poor trader. It is fatal to stop in loose sand, and even more fatal to try re-starting with a loaded and dug-in vehicle in tow. That evening I wrote in my diary:  Journeys into the African hinterlands are like a series of ever deeper, but uncertain thrusts. It is never quite clear how far one would get on any given day. A chosen road may suddenly just end, or a bridge may have been washed away, or the next re-fuel point may be dry, of have been abandoned, and the three hundred litre stock of petrol may not be enough…

Yes, a series of uncertain thrusts.

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