First Rains’ First Victims
I was hitching a ride back from Kauda to Kadugli. If I thought the journey to Kauda was arduous, the return would raise things up a notch.
Already, I was a day later than I had hoped. As a storm pitched its lightening into the earth the previous day, any chance to travel was dead. I woke hoping for a reprieve.
We were the first vehicle out that day, attempting the journey to Kadugli, separated by 115km of roads untouched by man’s concrete conquest. As we started out, the mud was already thick, nourished by the previous night’s storm. Every now and then, we were forced to stop to inspect its depth, ahead, before continuing.
At one of the early river crossings, we soon ran into trouble. Wading out into the middle of the thigh-deep waters, the silt did not inspire confidence, and so the decision was made to try a different crossing point. Dropping down to the river bank, the vehicle soon became entrenched in the river sand. We were axle deep, the chassis resting on the sand, the wheels just spinning.
At one point, I was under the vehicle as far as my waist, scooping out wet sand with my hands, trying to free the suspension. Drift wood was collected to jam under the wheels to provide some traction. We were in a sorry state.
After an hour or so, the vehicle was moving. But it was towards the river that our calamitous driver was headed, and as soon as he hit the water, the Land Cruiser was sunk unto the axles — there would be no digging our way out this time.
One of our party had already gone to a nearby village in search of a tractor, but the driver—and the keys—were not there. We waited in the unforgiving sun. We could see a slow stream of vehicles approaching the crossing that we had avoided, some making it through. Others, on foot, ventured towards us, following our ruinous tracks, a tragic look on their faces as they raised their hands to their heads wondering what fate was upon our vehicle. Local boys stood around, stripping the orange flesh from freshly fallen fruit, bemused at our plight.
Some hours later, the sound of an agricultural engine filled my heart with hope. The tractor driver appeared, his shirt stained with blood and the hairs of a freshly hunted deer dotting his face. He had taken one shot with his AK-47 to win his prize.
We placed more wood under the wheels, attached the frayed steel cabling, and were knee deep in the river as we pushed the vehicle, the tractor being pulled onto its rear wheels as it heaved. It took several attempts, but we were finally free, ready to face the crossing we had initially eschewed.
The scene before us was ominous. Two vehicles were already stuck in the river, and the churned banks made each crossing increasingly precarious. NGO vehicles also plying the route dotted the scene, with one preparing to tow out a decrepit pick-up. The UN vehicle would soon take its turn in helping the community.
Passenger vehicles would arrive, their passengers alighting before the vehicle tried its luck. For those in the pick-ups, their journey was a dirty one. The local children looked on.
We forced our way across, and were soon negotiating the muddy road ahead, hoping to make Kadugli before sun-down. Our greatest challenge lay ahead.
A flash flood at Omsurtiba had wiped out the crossing, as well as some of the neighbouring buildings. One vehicle stood stranded in the river, having attempted the crossing. This would soon be commonplace as tens of people hauled on tow-ropes, heaving them to shore.
An SPLM pick-up arrived, and soon the assembled crowd was intermingled with armed men, benignly watching the scene unfold. In reflection, I am surprised at how unperturbed I have become to the presence of AK-47s, somewhat accustomed and desensitised to these objects of death.
For our vehicle, this was the end of the road. Those that did manage to cross exited the other side with water draining from the doors. My compadres were heading back to Kauda. For me, I had to press on. Staying longer in Kauda was not an option, and I felt close to Kadugli, and thus the route home to Khartoum the following day.
So I crossed the river by foot, the late afternoon sun casting an orange light on the djellaba-clad men who did likewise. Facing us on the opposite bank was a line of vehicles stood contemplating the crossing, headed for Kauda. I hoped that amongst them there would lie those who had not the heart for the crossing, and so were heading back to Kadugli, whence they came.
And so we were eight to cram into the boot of a Land Cruiser, myself and other nomads, sitting atop each other as the vehicle bounced over ruts and rocks. My whole body went numb as night set in, violent forks of lightening illuminating the plains that surrounded Kadugli. We would soon be home.
» See all the images here.