Six months into the second leg of our journey, after more than 18 months on the road, everything is slowly but surely falling apart. Big Reg sat through two rainy seasons during his sojourn in Liberia; as a result of all that mould, rust and corrosion, Sampson is forever stripping down and bodging things back together: the gas cooker in Kendeja, a new sink-holder in Robertsport, the cutlery drawer in Guinea, the fridge in Guinea-Bissau, a leaking shower pipe in the Gambia…
Parking on slopes means that washing-up water constantly runs over the side of the worktop in the kitchen and the drips are slowly warping the wood of the cupboard doors below. Plastic crockery is cracking, and the foam in mattresses and seat cushions has ceased to be springy. The tabletop made so lovingly by Groundswell wooden surfboards has split with the pressure of being swung up and down every day when it is turned into a bed. We are having to jam wood chips under control switches on the cooker to keep the hobs lit. Most terrifying of all, the toilet pump keeps sticking, threatening to break down once and for all.
On the way to the Gambia Coral Beach Hotel one day, Sampson accidentally knocked a switch that stopped the vegetable oil returning from the engine to the tank and broke two of the four solenoids. During the hour-long meeting I had on Skype he replaced one and stripped and replaced the other with a kit. I’m very proud of my no-mechanical-skills-whatsoever-when-we-set-out husband. But now we have no spares left, which is a bit worrying.
Leaving the Gambia, it felt like Big Reg was on his last legs: the tyres were all shot, the exhaust brake kept sticking, and the jumping-out of second gear, which was happening occasionally in Liberia, was now constant. We were limping towards Dakar and the specialist Mercedes garage highly recommended by our saviours Tractafric, just praying we could make it.
The crossing of the border from the Gambia back into Senegal was very smooth, probably because so many people are doing it all the time. But it was still weird to drive just a few metres forward and find everyone suddenly speaking French again. African borders imposed as a result of squabbles between colonial powers seem more artificial here than anywhere. The ongoing tensions between the nations created as a result bear witness to their illogicality.
It was notable for the fact that Senegal is the only country so far where narcotics officers have come to check inside the truck, possibly because of the amount of cocaine coming up this way from Guinea-Bissau – it first happened when we entered Casamance, and again here in Karang. We didn’t know if the cats counted as contraband so stuck them in the food storage cupboard with the tins to be on the safe side. We needn’t have worried: when he saw our picture of Madiba, the gentleman checking was too overcome to search for anything, just put his hand on his heart and told us Mandela was also his president.
We followed the hot and bumpy road north through the Siné-Saloum delta region to yet another ferry at Foundiougne. It only took 13 vehicles at a time, so we worked out we had two more to wait for. We were sat in the sweaty queue in direct sun and were talking about making lunch when “PFFFFfffffffffffffffffttttttttttttsssssssssssss”…
I thought that the coach next to us had its air brakes stuck but realised the noise was coming from underneath me. I opened the side door and looked down – eeeek – the tyre below me was subsiding, tipping us towards the ground at a rapid rate.
So, breakdown no. 13. Sampson was notably cool: he knew what to do about this one. I asked a motorbike taxi man to go fetch the nearest mechanic and soon Yancoba was back and fetching blocks of wood to jack the truck up with.
In a few hours Yancoba and his crew took the back wheel off, put the spare back on and skipped off with time to get ready for their Saturday night out, all for R300. We decided against making the crossing in the dark, and spent the night on the dockside.
Officials punished our reluctance the night before by making us wait for the second ferry in the morning, after the buses delivering people to work had crossed. Sampson was a bit peeved, but I was in no hurry – the delay gave me time to take some spectacular pictures. I felt the calm and dignity of Senegal reasserting itself over the scramble of the Gambia to pander to tourists.
According to Wikipedia, the Serer kingdoms of Sine and Saloum are two of few pre-colonial African Kingdoms whose royal dynasty survived up to the 20th century.
I had a chat with M. Tejan, a man of about 30, who was unloading several cartfuls of bags of straw which were to be transported out to the forty or so Iles du Saloum as animal feed. He was very interested in our journey and our family, and quizzed me closely about Zola’s adoption. Finally he seemed satisfied with my explanations that, due to the prevalence of HIV, there are many babies needing to be adopted in South Africa and not enough Africans keen to adopt; especially as I had committed to bringing my son up to be conversant in the language and culture of his Xhosa forebears, and both my children as proud Africans, knowledgeable about their continent.
It cost Big Reg 7500FCA (R150) to cross the Saloum; we were surprised to find nothing on the other side, no town or even food stalls just a giant empty building with a brand new carpark as yet unused and a queue of traffic waiting to board. Thank goodness Sampson had bought their tapalapa baguettes that morning already.
We drove straight out onto the salt pans and soon pulled over for breakfast and to check how the new wheel was running. Sampson’s face was pale when he looked up. Bad news: the holes in the wheel hub made wobbly in Angola were starting to shear the bolts off. It would be dangerous to go any further.
It was Sunday and we hadn’t seen a single car pass us since we left the ferry. The peace and tranquility of the Siné-Saloum suddenly felt very ominous.
Sampson went straight into cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof mode. He ignored all my appeals to Eat Breakfast First before trying to decide what to do, and started stalking up and down outside in the heat without a hat or sunscreen. It upsets me very much when he deliberately goes deaf and won’t listen to reason like this. Many times, in calmer moments, we have spoken of the wisdom of his Dad Reg’s mantra “Panic slowly”; many times he’s promised to try an implement it when the shit hits the fan, for the benefit of the kids if not himself. I was honestly more worried about the future of our relationship than the future of the wheel when he flagged down the next car and we were blessed to have Mamadou Sarr delivered to our door.
In my diary, I described him as “the cheeriest man in Senegal” and my first instincts were so right. We’ve known Mamadou for a while now, and I have never seen him in anything less than ebullient mood. His optimism is infectious and his good humour restored Sampson to his better self within minutes.
Mamadou jumped out, grinned and introduced his companion, a mountain of a man called Abdul Aziz, who turned out to be a mechanic he’d brought from Dakar to fix his Land Rover, which had broken down this side of the ferry. Abdul had sorted out the problem earlier than they’d thought, so now Mamadou was quite willing to take a three hour detour to help us.
Abdul got the punctured tyre wheel off the back (a job that had required three men in Foundiougne) but while trying to lift it into the jeep, realised it wasn’t going to fit. “We need a bakkie” said Sampson, and at that very moment, I kid you not, one arrived, driven nogal by a Senator of Mamadou’s acquaintance with his industrial tycoon party-funder in the passenger seat. They slung the wheel in the back, Sampson jumped in with Mamadou and off they went in convoy to the town of Fatick 9km away.
Zola had mild food poisoning, possibly from drinking an iced baobab/orange juice Ruby had ill-advisedly bought them in a market the day before, although she was unaffected. I set to making the most of our Gambian supermarket goodies and fried up a pile of French toast (corn cakes dipped in egg) with Marmite to tempt him to eat. We demolished an entire packet between us, listened to Cabin Pressure and played with kittens…
It was staggering how much hotter it was inland. The temperature gauge I bought for my birthday was reading 38˚C by the time they got back at 2pm. They’d got the inner tube puncture fixed and came back with the wheel strapped on the roof. But even the mighty Aziz couldn’t get the former spare wheel off because the bolts were so embedded, so Big Reg had to limp on into town, escorted by Mamadou.
In this couple of hours, Mamadou and Sampson had bonded fast friends. In between making each other laugh, Mamadou told him that, where he comes from in Joal, if someone travels north or south to the next province, they will be cared for, and given free accommodation and food. As far as he knew, this reciprocal arrangement between Serer people and their Fula and Diola neighbours has been in place forever. What a brilliant idea – like a free AirB’n’B!
Fatick is the birthplace of Senegalese President Macky Sall and it seems he’s been investing heavily in vanity projects in his hometown. We drove along a huge empty boulevard past a vast Hôtel de Ville to a deserted grandstand. The scale of them seemed wildly optimistic for such a one horse town. I’m afraid I didn’t take any pics as I was too hot and distracted at the time looking for the garage.
Once we found M. Koumar, we let Mamadou and Abdul go – Mamadou had already paid 7000FCA for parts but refused to take a refund. “I’ll sponsor you” he said, so we passed a large note on to Abdul for his efforts. I want to thank Mamadou from the bottom of my heart, not just for what he gave us of his time and resources, but for the gracious and open-hearted way he did it. He is such an ambassador for the spirit of Dakar, he made us even more eager to get there. We pray we may be there to help Mamadou the next time he breaks down on Chapman’s Peak Drive…
M. Koumar and his team got stuck in. Metalworker André cut off the stuck bolt and made three washers for the duff remainders, while Sampson went looking fruitlessly for new ones. He did a fair bit of magic to entertain hangers-on and I did a lot of explaining of our mission in basic French (which is all we all had) while they got the dodgy wheel off and the repaired punctured one back on.
As dusk fell, we said goodbye and set off again into the tranquil bush. The cold shower that night was bliss. My feet had gone through so much sweat and dust that day, by the end of it I felt like I was paddling in mud inside my sandals. I was increasingly aware of the encroaching dryness of the Sahel – the inside of my nose was sore and we all had cracked lips.
With such a dodgy spare, we were really flying by the seat of our pants to Dakar now. But Sampson was high on the human interaction of today and revelling in the rewarding outcome of the challenge he’d been thrown. With him back feeling positive, anything was possible.