A couple of weeks ago, I went on a week long flight, traveling with two men from an NGO (non government organization) around the Luapula Province in Zambia. Their goal was to make connections with the local leaders in five different spots in this part of Zambia for the sanitation project they are working on in rural villages and towns. They are working with other organizations to make this happen, but are very committed to also working with the local leaders and making it a community project. The purpose of this trip specifically was to meet with these local leaders, build relationships, and get support for the project. We set off early Monday morning and flew to the first location, Mansa, which has a very nice tarmac runway, the meetings went well, and we were transported by road to the next town called Samfya. Samfya is on the shores of Lake Bangweulu, a large freshwater lake that is quite beautiful, and not far from the spot where David Livingstone died. The meetings also went well in Samfya and the next morning we headed back to the airport. After sitting in the airplane for a bit over an hour awaiting a thunderstorm moving through, we set off and picked our way under clouds and around bad weather up along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and made it to Nchelenge. This was our third of five locations, but the last one that the airplane could go to. The next two towns used to have airstrips, but they have not been maintained and so unfortunately aren’t usable. We didn’t think this would be a big deal as we had flown the majority of the distance and we had a few days to do the rest. After the meetings in Nchelenge, the NGO workers set out to find transportation to the next town, emails had been sent in advance to try to secure it, but unfortunately no one had responded to them. I was supposed to stay in Nchelenge with the airplane and await my partners return a few days later, but unfortunately the only guesthouse with vacancies had very intermittent power and almost no water, and no kitchen; it wasn’t a viable option for me to stay there, so I went along with the guys for the ride.
The only vehicle they managed to find, was a mid 90’s toyota corolla that had been imported into Zambia a while ago, but was never registered. Our driver assured us this wouldn’t be a problem, that the vehicle could take the rough dirt road and that he had talked to the police officers at the post so they wouldn’t give us a hard time. So the next morning we set off! Out of Nchelenge and into the countryside. Unfortunately, our taxi driver had only talked to the police at the second post we had to drive through. The police at the first post decided to throw the book at him for driving with an unregistered vehicle, using it as a taxi, and not having a commercial (taxi) driving license. After what seemed like more then 30 mins of somewhat heated discussion (we just sat in the car and watched) he was able to negotiate a fine and we were allowed to continue. Slowly we made our way, the corolla bottoming out at every bump, and rarely reaching a speed of 25 MPH, after a few hours and with no problem at the second police post, we had traveled the 60 miles and arrived in Chiengi. Our driver dropped us and headed back. We were able to find a decent guesthouse on the shores of Lake Mweru, which has a lovely view of the beautiful hills of the DRC. They guys had their meetings and were also able to find transportation for the next leg of our journey.
This time we had secured a mini-van, it was much higher off the ground then the Corolla and would have much more room inside as well, we thought this leg was going to be better. When the driver arrived the next morning to pick us up, he had along with him his wife and young son along with three of her closest friends, who had decided they all needed to come along. So the four of them along with the child were packed in the back row of the van dressed to the tilt in their Sunday best. This leg of the journey would be shorter about 50 miles, and we set off at about 9 AM. Again it was a slow trip on a rough dirt road, running right along the border of the DRC. As the sun rose higher, it began to get hotter and the 9 of us warmed the mini-van quickly, unfortunately the air conditioning didn’t work, so we relied on the windows. Our driver was very cautious, and the going was slow which didn’t make for much fresh air, but the scenery was gorgeous. Beautiful lush green rolling hills contrasted against the dirt in the road and the blue in the sky, and mud brick, thatched houses dotting the hillsides. We had been on the road for about an hour and gone about 12 or so miles, when all the sudden after hitting a rock we heard a hiss coming from the front right tire. The driver stopped and got out to investigate. It was a slow leak emanating from the center of the tire tread with no apparent puncture. It was just that the tire tread was so worn that it simply didn’t have enough material to withstand the pressure that was inside the tire. Not good news. But the driver wasn’t worried, he had a spare. Everybody piled out and went to the back and removed all our bags to find the tire. As they removed the “spare” from the trunk it became quickly apparent to me that it was actually one of the normal tires, and the spare was already on the vehicle. In fact the spare was the one currently hissing air on the drivers side front. The tire in the back had already been removed for some other unknown reason and didn’t have any air in it, but the driver was sure if we could get a pump we could pump it back up and use it. He set out down the road to find a pump at one of the nearby huts. As it happened, we secured a pump from a passerby on a bike, before the driver could return with one. So they set out to pump up the tire with a bicycle pump. As this was happening one of the guys got back into the vehicle to sit in the shade and just as soon as he sat down inside, we heard a POP and then hiss. This time it was the back left tire and it went flat a whole lot faster then the front one. Hmmm… what to do. We now had more flat tires then inflated tires with the vehicle; I did a quick visual inspection of the two tires that still had air in them, and determined that one of them looked like it also would blow at any moment. At this point it became apparent to me that we needed to do something else, because this situation wasn’t going to get resolved very quickly or easily. Unfortunately, we had stopped in a valley and there was no cell reception, so we couldn’t call anyone. So one of the other guys and I started off up the road to get to the top of a hill in the hopes of getting reception. After walking for about a mile we made it to the top of the hill, and began checking the 4 phones we had brought along. They began picking up signals, but still wouldn’t make calls, what we realized is that they were picking up the signal from the DRC, but wouldn’t pick up a signal from any Zambian towers, but we didn’t have enough money on them to make the roaming call on a DRC tower. After trying for a while we gave up and headed back down the hill. Meanwhile, the guys hadn’t made any progress on the tires, they had found some rubber gasket sealant which they were liberally putting around the bead of the tire, but still it wouldn’t hold air pressure. But we did find out that some of the neighbors had arranged for two motorbikes to come pick us up. They were suggesting the three of us and our 5 bags go on the back of these two 125CC (about 10 HP) bikes while the two owners of the bikes drove us the remaining way. While I am pretty adventurous, and very willing to drive myself through the bush on a motorbike, I was not willing to be on the back of an overloaded bike with two others on a bumpy dirt road, while having no idea the skill level or experience of the driver, my other two partners were in agreement with me, so we looked at other options. The best thing that we could come up with was to send the two motorbikes back to Chiengi (where we started from that morning.) One with the driver and flat tires, and the other with one of our guys who would try to secure a different mode of transportation for us for the remainder of the trip. So off they went.
It was about 12 PM by this time, and two of us stayed with the vehicle, while the ladies and the little boy went into one of the neighboring villages to wait. So we waited… and waited… The guy I was with had his computer and we ended up watching episodes of “The Office” for a while. It crossed my mind how ironic is was to be so far from civilization yet sitting in a minivan being entertained my mainstream media. After we finished an episode, we looked around and saw that about 15 boys of various ages had appeared from nowhere and where also enjoying the show. And then we waited, I tried my hand at communicating with the gawking boys, which was comical, but not much was understood on either end. I read a book, and waited some more. Then I went for a walk, and then I waited even longer. Just after 6 PM the sun was getting ready to set and I was beginning to think we were going to spend the night in a mini-van in the bush. Unfortunately the driver had taken the keys and some of the windows were down and we couldn’t roll them up. Just as we were about to give up hope of being rescued during daylight, we heard a vehicle in the distance. Praise the Lord!!! It was a Land Cruiser and it had come to rescue us! It wasn’t going to take us to the next town, but the driver was willing to take us back to where we had started that morning. We piled in and headed back. The driver of the mini-van had also been able to “fix” (what he really needed was new tires!!!) his tires and headed back a bit later. So it was about 7pm and dark when we finally made it back to where we had started 10 hours earlier. And I was exhausted! The whole time I was thinking to myself, that would have been a 30 minute flight in the airplane. We do the best we can to keep track of airstrips and their usability, but if there isn’t someone on the ground that will keep it in good condition, there’s not to much we can do.
The next morning one of the guys was able to take a motorbike by himself and make it to the final village and have the meetings he needed to. And thankfully we got a ride in a truck back to the town the airplane was in and were able to head back to Lusaka the next morning. What a week, we got accomplished what we needed to, but it was a whole lot harder then it needed to be. After this week, I have an even more personal understanding of how an airplane helps with bush ministries, and how it can save time, stress, and even lives. I’m thankful that where there are airstrips, we can be the difference with the airplane that allows missionaries, doctors, and aid workers to do the job they need to do without being delayed and stressed by transportation issues. I hope you have enjoyed my little story. And the next time you get a flat tire, just be glad you don’t have 3! 🙂