Don’t be a “Stick in the Mud”

February 17, 2006

Map to Jungle JunctionI met Gremlin at breakfast in the backpacker hostel we were staying at in Livingstone. He explained that he ran Jungle Junction, a jungle camp on an island in the middle of the Zambezi river. We chatted about how he ended up in Zambia and how long he had been running the place. Eventually I asked him to pitch me on why I might want to go.

“Why the hell would you want to stay in the hot, noisy city with people hassling you to buy crap all day when you could be in the jungle?”, he practically yelled at me.

I pointed out that there were some lovely falls near by. He snorted, “Fifteen minutes, how pretty, now what?”
Without accepting his summary of the magnificent Victoria Falls, the chance to escape the heat and hassle of the city did seem appealing. Gremlin eventually offered a few more details about how I might spend my time on the island. I could visit a local village where there were few tourists and nobody would ask me for money. (This is more unusual in Zambia than you might imagine.) I could hike, learn African drumming, take a sunset cruise or simply read from “the best English language library in Zambia.”

A view of the Zambezi from our room
We decided to head to the booking office and see we what could learn. We met a friendly older American couple that had run schools in Switzerland for twenty years. After selling the schools, they had come to Zambia to visit their son, a doctor working in Zambia, and decided to stay and open a school for expat children.

They had just returned from three days at Jungle Junction and they had loved it. They seemed quite respectable and discerning. This provided the necessary reassurance to venture to a place in the jungle whose flier featured a crocodile lying in a hammock smoking a joint.

We signed up to head there the next day. They were to pick us up at our hostel at 2 pm. When nobody had arrived by 3pm I wandered to the office to see what was up. I found Gremlin covered from head to toe in mud. He explained that the truck had gotten stuck on the way out because of all the recent rain. They’d be by to get us in just a minute, but he was headed home to Scotland for a visit, so I’d meet his partner, Brett.

Dugout canoesBrett picked us up in a Land Cruiser pickup truck that had another couple sitting in the back with the luggage, so Soyan and I shared the tiny cab with Brett. We made one more stop to pick up food and supplies for the camp as well as Lulu the manager. All this was piled in the back with the luggage and the other guests as we hit the road.

We left the tar road after 20 minutes for the 10 kilometers of dirt track that would get us to the Zambezi. It was a muddy and bumpy ride, but Brett drove like a champ. After just twenty more minutes we arrived at the shore and climbed in to a pair of dug out canoes. A pair of paddlers took us a short way downstream to camp.

Camp was a primitive paradise! There were central bathrooms and showers up to western standards but open to the air in pole and reed huts. Our huge airy room had an ample porch with a fantastic view of the Zambezi. A pair of oil lanterns provided light at night and under our mosquito net and duvet we felt and safe and snug as at any Four Seasons.

Soyan readingThe only electricity came from solar power and it was dedicated to the stereo in the bar. Our excellent meals were all prepared over wood fires and lit by candles. The library did not rival any of the 11 University of Chicago libraries, but was indeed the best we had seen in Zambia. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s thin African Diary and we borrowed the Southern Africa Lonely Planet to do some planning.

Lizazi Village, a sister makes breakfast for her brother.The next morning we went on a village walk and got a feel for the local village. It is a subsistence community of farming and fishing. We met the village head man and a few locals. We met a young girl cooking impossibly small fish for breakfast for her and her brother. We saw the crops, the church and the homes of both of our guide’s wives. It was a fascinating peek in to local life.

Brett and Evelyn in funny hats.Most of the remainder of our time at Jungle Junction it was raining, but we could not have cared less. We loved the jungle scenery, the cool (if somewhat humid) weather for sleeping, and the chance to read and relax. Our evenings were spent hanging out in the bar chatting with the handful of other guests, that quickly became like family as we all shared a small island. Brett told me about the struggle of running the business and Evelyn, his botanist girlfriend kissed me when I shared our red wine. We all wore funny hats from the large collection behind the bar and felt like we were in a special place.

A dugout canoe on the ZambeziWhen it was time to leave, we loaded all our gear back in to shallow dug out canoes and crossed back to the main land with only a little fear that if the crocs came after us we’d probably get away with the loss of only one limb, but that the luggage would be lost forever. We piled back in to the Land Cruiser, and this time we decided to take the back, sharing it with Evelyn and leaving the other couple in the cab. The extra room and air more than made up for the lack of a seat, and the sun was finally shining after the almost unending rain.

Almost as soon as we left camp I realized that all that rain meant mud, and not a little bit either. This was the most rain Livingstone had gotten in at least a decade. We were about to see just what a four wheel drive vehicle was capable of… and what would stop it in its tracks.

View of the mudNot even 300 meters from camp we came to a long muddy stretch and eased up to the edge. Our driver paused and performed a careful study like a kayaker picking his line. He then backed up and prepared to enter the mud with the benefit of substantial speed. As soon as we hit the mud I realized that the comparison to a kayaker would prove to be a more apt than I had imagined. With the engine gunning we took the bumps and dips just like we were running rapids and with a remarkably similar amount of splashing. Our driver was once again masterful in his ability to keep the Land Cruiser moving, but eventually the mud sucked us down like a mammoth in a tar pit.

After a few minutes of gunning the engine and trying to rock ourselves free, the driver walked back to camp to summon a Grant, a guest who had arrived in his own four wheel drive vehicle, hoping he could pull us out of the muck. We waited patiently in the back of the truck, but of course we were not alone.

Our audienceOne funny thing about Africa is that, despite having a much lower population density than the the US, you are never alone when your car gets stuck. It doesn’t matter if you have been driving through the bush for two hours without having seen a soul. If your car breaks down or gets stuck in the mud, a village emissary, generally an 11 year old boy with no shoes, will appear almost instantly. This happens so quickly you are force to wonder if he has been following you the whole drive, knowing this would happen. Like an army sentinel, his job is to summon as many other people (almost always more little boys) that will form the audience for the show you are about to put on. Without television, a car stuck in the mud gets excellent ratings.

Grant with his truck and a boy dragging a branch
Of course the upside to an audience in Africa is that when things get complicated, there is usually some audience participation. Grant arrived and tied his truck to ours. Several of the nearby children helped to haul branches to stick behind the wheels to provide traction. We watched all this comfortably from the back of the truck and never even needed to get out. After a few minutes we were back where we started ready to take another run at the river, err road. This time we made it!

We were on the road again only 40 minutes behind schedule, but now the sun that had been such a blessing was getting warm so I wasn’t so excited when we got stuck again 2 kilometers later. This time we’d be on our own because Grant could not risk driving through the mud to help lest he get stuck too. After a 15 minutes of vain stuffing grass near the wheels and gunning the engine nothing the car no longer moved at all. The car was in exactly the same position if the pedal was to the floor or if the car was off. Now this is stuck!

Land Cruiser on a jack in the mudThis was my first lesson in what it really takes to drive in the mud in Africa. What it takes is a willingness to get muddy, a big block of wood, an enormous jack, and the nerve to stuff branches under one tire at a time while the car is jacked up two feet in the air on top of mud. This time we would definitely be getting out of the truck. After about an hour we were finally free and hoping once again to avoid the mud. Thankfully we manged to make it through the remaining mud without getting stuck again. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we got back to the tar road.

It took almost three hours to go 10 kilometers, but I was so relaxed after my time at Jungle Junction, I hardly cared. After all, 3 hours is not a long delay in Africa.

1 Comment »

  1. Even with T.V. i think a car stuck in the mud can get fair ratings. And who said cars are evil. It seemed to have brought you a lot closer to unforseen local mixers. Jungle Junction sounds like a great destination.

    Comment by chi hung — February 28, 2006 @ 4:55 am

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