Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
42Trip End Nov 17, 2005
While he says it's not that far there's something about the Director's tone that might have warned us. But I'm on a mission; to photograph a suspension bridge just outside Jimbe, on the Zambia-Angola border near the source of great Zambezi river, for a calendar my father's advertising agency is producing.
By head-office's calculations the side-trip should take an afternoon out of our schedule, and a few kilometres out of town, off the tar road, we plunge into the bush
In Zambia at this time of year the sun sets early, and at 4:30 in the afternoon we were already running out of light. In less than an hour and half it would be dark, and we faced the sinking realization, as the road stretched on ahead of us, that we're not going to make it. We stop to consult a middle-aged villager.
The good news: there's a guesthouse Ikelenge, a town near Jimbe. The bad news: we still have a long way to go, and there's no electricity where we're headed. What my dad and his deputy, Mr. Chipalo, thought would be a quick job was turning out quite differently.
Geographically this is one of the most remote places I've ever travelled to. The only electric lights we see, coming from a small school, are powered by solar panels. Bwalya says this area is due to be connected in the next 3 months or so, but with the exception of a few conveniences--portable radios, pre-packaged food--it's hard to imagine that this area has changed much in a hundred years.
Ikelenge is pitch black, the only light coming from candles lit in homes or small stores on the main street
Despite its remoteness the school bell--a rusted wheel rim--still tolls, and the next morning, a Monday, kids from around Ikelenge are on their way to class. The school is a stones-throw from the guesthouse, a half-dozen buildings arranged round a central courtyard. Some classes have already begun, and I pass a classroom where 4 or 5 high-school students are learning advanced chemistry. It's 7 o'clock in the morning.
Back on the road, our first false start takes us down the second of three roads leading out of Ikelenge, but about 30 minutes in the road disintegrates to little more than a footpath. A villager tells us we're about a dozen kilometres away from driving into the Congo, definitely not where we want to go. I look at the road dwindling into the bush ahead and wonder about that dark and troubled country.
Retracing our steps, we take the only other road we haven't tried, a long, often rough and dusty route, through forests, pineapple groves and open savanna
A hundred metres later we pass small cinder block buildings and houses on our left, and a huge building to our right turns out to be an airplane hanger, complete with a twin engine Cessna. From the hangar the hospital complex of Kilene opened up like some rural African Oz. We'd passed the wizard--the flying doctor--on our way in.
After a day of driving past modest mud huts and small ragged villages Kilene was an enchanting, active place, neatly arranged and shaded by massive trees. At the central roundabout we pick up a couple boys to act as guides, and begin our second false start.
Somewhere in the muddle of translation between local dialect and nyanja the boys haven't clearly understood our purpose, and half an hour later we're in an area posted with ominous Danger! Explosive Charges signs. We pass unquestioned through a gate marked No Unauthorized Personnel and end up at a hydro-electric project on the Zambezi. Hundreds of people labour around us, constructing with stones and cement the sluice-way and turbine section that, once the river is redirected, will bring power to the region.
It's an impressive sight but not what we've come for. After more muddled translation, we're back on the road once again retracing our steps. It's midday and the prospects for success are looking grim. Now in our third attempt we hit the roughest stretches of road so far, and after a few dozen kilometres we reach the end
Not that the road doesn't continue. Between a line of trees a stream flows a foot deep over the road, and while the truck might get through, the area ahead clearly impassable. Patched with logs before the last rainy season, the road has shrunk beneath the ash-white dust, the gnarled and blackened wood poking through like the ribs of a sunken ship.
Villagers passing from the opposite direction on foot tell us we're only a dozen kilometres from Jimbe, but the mission is over. Not only is the road impossible but the border with Angola is manned by military on both sides. Even if we'd reached Jimbe it's unlikely that I would have been allowed to take pictures.
Still I take some photos for posterity and Bwalya turns the truck around. Once again we retrace our movements, drop the boys off at Kilene and resolve to make up the time somehow.
Back at Ikelenge we stop for supplies and are mobbed by villagers seeking transport. With hasty excuses--going to a funeral is a common, and suspect, line--they pile into the back of the truck. Away from the convenience of intercity minibuses it can take days for people to travel even the shortest distances. Of the four or five other vehicles we pass on the road only one other is ferrying hitchhikers.
Still, it hasn't been simple for us either. The office in Lusaka thought we could clear up the bridge assignment in an afternoon. When we finally return to Mwinilunga we've been in the bush 22 hours, with little to show but the story and some photographs. The side-trip has taken a day out of our 8-day schedule. Relieved to finally be back on a tarred road, we speed along to our next assignment.