The Burning Bush
12.08.2009 29 °C
So we finally managed to drag ourselves away from Livingstone. You know you've stayed too long when the grass under your tent is yellow! Cliff the Cowboy escorted us out of the town in style and we headed off into the empty bush pleased to be cycling once more.
Forewarned that the main road was being reconstructed we braced ourselves for the bumpy detour. However to our delight we found a big enough gap in the barrier for our bikes to slip through.
Road closed – but not to cyclists!!!
The result was traffic free cycling on clay as smooth as glass.
The first day took us through miles of beautiful, sparsely populated bush. We were quite surprised at the lack of construction activity going on given it was mid week. The only people we came across were the teams of obligatory “flag wavers” we've become so used to during our time in Africa. We still don't know whether the red flag they frantically wave is a signal to stop or to go. We just smile and wave as we cycle on by. Their role on a closed road is even less clear especially when we later learnt that it was a day off for the road building team!
Late afternoon we passed the construction teams camp and had a nice chat with a chap sitting on a digger who turned out to be the guard. He kindly refilled our water bottles and waved us on our way. We soon found a perfect spot to camp a few kilometers on before we got too close to a nearby village.
The camping spot - Pol is also in this picture somewhere!!
The grass was quite long so while I went off to collect firewood Rob prepared to clear an area for the tent and campfire..............
I hadn't been gone long – there was plenty of wood around and I managed to find some nice, big, thick branches. I made my way back with them to the bikes and found Rob - surrounded by fire, LOTS of fire. With no rain for months and a strong wind the flames were rapidly growing. I dropped the wood and we started beating at the flames with some branches. Just as we got one part under control the flames would surge somewhere else before re-igniting the patch we'd just contained. We rushed around trying our best to get a grip on the fire. A couple of times we had to rescue our kit– including a canister of petrol – as the fire was spreading fast in all directions. We alternated between manicly hitting at the flames and standing back in disbelief gazing at the chaos we had unleashed.
From the flat the flames raced towards a nearby hillock topped with a tree. They hit the bank and roared up, doubling, tripling in size, licking hungrily at the branches of the tree above. The sky was filling with smoke and disorientated birds flayed their roosts squawking coarsely. We had definitely lost control.
My mind darted to the signs we saw so often in South Africa depicting a bewildered buck with the caption below: “Fire stops with you!! Call 0027”.
Fire starts with us.
We needed a new plan. Rob would stay and fight the flames and I would go for help. I pedalled away as fast as I could passing a pair of lilac breasted rollers sitting haplessly on a log beyond the blaze. The guard had said there were 300 men at the construction camp – I figured 10 Zambian guys with bush-fire know how would do the trick.
It wasn't long before I saw a lone figure approaching in the distance. I quickened my pace and slammed to a halt in front of what turned out to be the guard who had filled our water bottles earlier. Brushing aside his inquiries concerning my well-being in an attempt to instill some urgency I tried to explain what had happened. He gathered I needed some help and in the next instance I was pedalling furiously back to the fire – local fire expert loaded on the pannier rack.
We reached the fire and the guard leapt to action seeing instantly the nature of help required. Shouting to Rob I spun the bike round and headed once more towards the camp to get more men!!
As I beat at one edge of the fire with a stick and my feet the leading edge of the fire raced away from me faster than I was extinguishing the leeward edge... I started to pray.. “Dear God.. put this fire out!.. make it go towards the road... help me put it out..” as I prayed I seemed to make some headway.. slowly catching up the leading edge.. as my confidence grew in my ability the flames hit another thick patch of dry grass and flared away.
Then Pol arrived back with the guard from the camp.. like our guardian angel he ran in, broke of a big branch with leaves on (mine was leafless) and started putting out the fire left right and centre.. he knew which bits we could ignore and which needed urgent attention - within 30mins it was out.. The guard stated triumphantly... “30minutes.. all out.. knock off now.. I very strong at putting out fire!” I wanted to hug him but thought it inappropriate - so gave him a firm handshake. I explained to him.. “I prayed , you came, we put the fire out”. “Yes” he said, “Jesus is real!”
I thought it would be simple. 10 men, a backie, 4-5km back to the fire – it shouldn't take long. I was wrong. I hadn't factored in the multiple language barriers I would have to break through first!! The Chinese have the contract for building the roads. They oversee the Zambian workers and call all the shots in very ropey English.
Eventually a rather stern, poker faced Chinese man grasped the levity of the situation and took control. A crowd of Zambian men gathered, recalled from their various quarters where they were enjoying a rare day off. The Chinese man barked at a frightening volume and the men started piling in the back of a big truck.
“You. In front. Show us where.” I hauled myself up into the front of the truck and we headed off into the night.
I was feeling uneasy. It was a while now since I left the guard with Rob so I knew one of two things had happened – either the fire was raging out of control, or it was simply out. I had lent hard on the Chinese overseers to persuade them to help. I had a truck full of about 20 workers wrenched from their rest and I was scanning the bush for the fire. It would be hard to say whether I would have preferred the fire at that point to be out or out of control!
The truck hurtled down the road. I saw a light up ahead – that could be Rob. I strained my eyes. No, it was 2 black guys. With a headtorch? We passed them by. It was Rob and the guard.
I shouted. “Stop!”. The truck stopped and we reversed. The Chinese guy wound down his window and Rob grinned up at us. “It's out. It's all ok!”. A mixture of relief and embarrassment flooded through me. I climbed out the truck and thanked the scary Chinese man. The guard hopped into the back of the truck and the other Zambian guys handed me down my bike. I thanked them and apologised for the false alarm. They couldn't have been kinder – not a flicker of reproachment.
That night we didn't really feel like cooking! After a tin of cold baked beans we crawled exhausted into the tent and slept very soundly.