It’s been a helluva day – 14 hours to do just 158Km on one of the worst potholed roads yet, lurching and swaying along, sometimes at slower than walking pace. Old broken tar, made worse by lorries that in the rainy season, had been carrying food aid up to the border. So it’s not surprising that tonight around the campfire, we get to recounting the story of the African Pothole.
The French have their Eiffel Tower and champagne, the Dutch their tulips and cheese, the Irish their Guinness the Cubans their cigars, the Spanish their bull fighting and the British their tea. We in Africa have the Pothole and no adventure is complete without the persistent hiss of escaping air from a slit tyre, or worse still – a burst tyre rifle shot-like explosion that, if it happens in a war torn area, has the passengers all ducking for cover! For us in Africa potholes are part of life.
You can be purring along in top gear, not a roadblock or pothole in sight, listening to Johnny Clegg – tailwind behind you, dreaming about the joys of tonight’s campfire and renoster koffie – and picking up speed on a long downhill into the dip, when without warning, hidden in the shade of a great Acacia Robusta and too late for the shout of “Watch out! Potholes!” from a wide-eyed passenger – you suddenly run into an entire pothole family. You swing hard to the left and then dangerously right, nearly rolling the overloaded Landy to avoid the baby potholes before a mother of a pothole with a hard edge catches your left back tyre with a sickening sharp bone-jarring thud. The camp kettle, flying forward like a missile, comes at you as you stand on the brakes locking all four wheels to avoid writing off your bloody suspension as you slide into Big Daddy who’s stretched himself right across the road, cleverly hidden by his late afternoon shade tree. Now in first gear and acting all nonchalant like nothing unusual happened, your start slowly accelerating as you go through the gears, zigzagging this way and that to avoid the pothole grandparents, uncles, cousins and aunties – and that’s always when you get that embarrassing two way radio call from the expedition Landy behind you. They’ve had the advantage of slowing down as they saw your Defender’s brake lights glow red as you nearly rolled. “Jeez! Pops – that was close,” comes your son’s voice over the air. “Didn’t you see them?” So at the thought of all the pothole relatives ahead you answer, “Won’t you drive in front – your eyes are sharper than mine?” And so their Landy of grinning faces comes shooting past, leaving you to wobble foolishly along behind, your hands shaking on the steering wheel – a sure sign of the wheel balance having been knocked out by a dented rim!
Like people, potholes have their very own characters: the deep mud-filled variety are quite hazardous – on impact, they throw a whoosh of thick red-brown watery mud onto your windscreen, instantly obliterating any forward view and leaving you sufficiently blind so that by the time the windscreen wipers have fought to clear the mess, you have already collided with an entire pothole family – OUCH! Worst still is if in the old Landy, you’ve left the below-the-windscreen ventilation flaps open, allowing a torrent of the red-brown whoosh to flood over the bonnet and into the cab, so drowning the well-thumbed Bird Book and binoculars, which are conveniently place on her lap, so eliciting the sharp-tongued reaction from your mud-covered wife of “Are you trying to bloody well kill me?” The obvious response from the driver being, “What happened? I thought you were supposed to be POTHOLE WATCHING?”
The ditch-type pothole is a real bastard: no room to manoeuvre and all 4 wheels taking it on the chin! The broken-tar-sharp-edge ‘I’ll smash your suspension’ variety are really nasty characters – especially the deep ones that swallow the entire tyre. But as an old pothole warrior you’re bound to learn a few tricks: like spotting a spurt of dust or splash of water from the vehicle in front of you as they score a direct hit, or also by being able to detect the tell-tale tracks veering off the road to avoid a ‘Big Daddy’; seeing a vehicle zigzagging crazily towards you at high speed doesn’t necessarily mean the driver’s pissed – he’s just another pothole dodger.
Check out a dusty 4×4 parked outside a remote pub and you’ll soon see if he’s a pothole warrior or not – bodywork scratches, dents and wobbly rear view mirrors generally indicate that he’s shot off the road to avoid the ‘buggers’ and got into a scrape with the surrounding bush. Numerous gooey tubeless repair plugs sticking out from the tyre walls like war medals are sure signs of a true pothole warrior, as are dented rims, sidewall bulges, gaiters, goitres and even hernias where the tube’s popped out from the tyre wall like a small balloon.
A lot of African villages live off potholes; the local headman has his field of potholes which he controls and it can be quite lucrative. At the sound of approaching vehicles, kids race out from the village and in a flurry, go through the motion of filling up the potholes – for which service you are expected to part with some coins. Sometimes these unofficial pothole menders will even resort to a Pothole Roadblock: pay and you can proceed. Potholes can be nomadic; three years ago, you’d marked ‘WATCH OUT! Bad Potholes’ on a section of your map – only to find that Chinese road builders have smoothed it all out for you. Down goes the right foot and the mood improves at the thought of still getting to your chosen destination before nightfall. Forget it! Just as you least expect it, there they are again, ready to greet you with a welcoming screech of brakes and an almighty suspension walloping bang! It tires you out, especially late afternoon, visor down into the sun – pothole dodging.
But when is a pothole not a pothole? Well I suppose when it’s a sinkhole, deep enough to swallow an entire Land Rover, or a wash-away – where the whole road in front of you is gone; or where – like in the Congo, what began as a pothole is now so bloody deep and mud filled that when you get stuck, for fear of drowning, you climb out of your window onto the roof rack and step out onto dry land.
Isn’t it a bloody killer when, day after day, you only average around 12 – 16kms per hour, speeding up between tow-hitch catching potholes, clutch in – clutch out, constantly changing gears trying to build up a rhythm – 1st, 2nd, 3rd then back down again into low ratio first, rocking and rolling, the tired passengers knocking their bloody heads together whilst a man on a bicycle carrying a colourful, speckled goat and a bunch of green bananas gives you a big toothy grin as he effortlessly overtakes you on his big wheeled made-in-India bicycle.
“Watch out! Slow down. Bad potholes ahead on the left,” comes a crackly voice over the radio. You hit the brakes and there they are… lying ‘n waiting. So are potholes part of living in Africa? Will our grandchildren get to know them as well as we’ve done? Somehow I think so!