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Annual migration

Every year we embark on our annual migration that covers three continents: Africa, Europe and South America. We find this ideal. Not only we avoid the bulk of the rainy season in Zimbabwe but we also get to Uruguay and Argentina to take advantage of the summer time there. After our sojourn in the Americas we avoid the winter and return to Zimbabwe with a summer stop in Europe to visit our children.

This year things changed as our son moved to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and we decided to spend the end of the year holidays there. We traveled there via Rome to spend a few days with our daughter and friends prior to our trip to Tenerife. This, unfortunately, was not the best move as we picked up severe flus that matured on arrival to the Canary Islands and kept us homebound for several days, some of them spent in bed!

Despite this, the fact that the family was together offset our sicknesses and, fortunately guided by our son we had some good time touring Tenerife and have a look at its attractions although planned trips other islands and visit to friends were cancelled.

After this, already recovered, we traveled to Uruguay where we spent a few days in the company of relatives and childhood friends. It was summer time and we enjoyed the warm weather that sometimes turned rather too hot but always preferable to the cold and wet winters that Uruguay can also deliver.

It was soon time to travel to Northern Argentina, a long but interesting journey that would take us to our farm in Salta “La Linda” (the beautiful) as it is known in this latitude.

After a few years of traveling this route we have decided to divided into three legs of about 600km each. The first takes us to Mercedes in Corrientes, the second ends in Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña and the final one -slighty longer- takes us to our final destination in Salta. This time, because of a basketball tournament there was no hotels in Mercedes so we booked a place in Curuzú Cuatiá, a few km nearer to Carmelo.

The weather during the journey was expected to be stormy but, despite some rains on the way, we had no difficulties. After driving about 600km? we reached Curuzú Cuatiá, a small town whose name comes from cross (curuzú) as it is placed at an important crossroads with traffic to and from several important Provinces in Argentina and Buenos Aires. The Jesuits had marked this place with a large wooden cross but the local Guaraní already had a name for the place: Curuzú Cuatiá.

After a good night rest we continued North, this time under heavy rain until, …km later and driving through the Iberá wetlands, we crossed the Paraná River at Corrientes through the large bridge that joins the Provinces of Corrientes with the Chaco. This time, the waters of this wide river showed a ribbon of clear water on the side of Corrientes (the waters from the high Paraná) and a wide brown area occupying more than half of the river course on the Chaco side. The latter indicated that the Paraguay River, that joins the Paraná a few km upstream, was in flood. The view reminded me to that seen at Khartoum with the Blue and White Nile running in parallel.

A couple of hundred km after crossing the river we arrived at our destination for the day: Presidencia Roque Sanz Peña. The reader may ask why we stopping in such an unsung place. As I mentioned, we needed a stopover that would be located about two thirds of the way to Salta and, after trying a few options Presidencia (for short) was chosen. It is the second city in importance in the Chaco Province after Resistencia, its capital. Luckily we discovered that it has a comfortable hotel with a sauna, adjacent to a thermal water spa. Just a short walk away there is also a good BBQ place where a large display of various meats allows for the choice of dinner to be made. A great desert of cheese and papaya in syrup is usually tasted after a good portion of “asado” (barbecued meat).

The final leg is the harder as it is a bit further and the road offers some “challenges”! Hence we departed as early as possible stocked with plenty of water. The straight road took us across what was a vast expanse of forest known as “El Impenetrable”. The straight road traverses the Chaco and Santiago del Estero provinces before getting to Salta. It passes through places with dramatic and even scary names, some of which are worth mentioning.

The first location we find is Avia Terai, (originally “Aviauck Tadaek” meaning large or thick forest in the Toba Qom language). Unfortunately, only isolated clumps of forest remain this day although, because of its woodlands of white and red quebrachos (Schinopsis spp) a very hard (density 0.9–1.3) wood tree species whose name means “axe-breaker”; algarrobo (Ceratonia siliqua) and guayaibí (Patagonula americana) was once known as the “Fortress of the woods”. Charcoal burning, the extraction of the hard woods and the clearing of lands for cultivation (mainly soybean) have taken their toll throughout the region nowadays

You then reach Concepción del Bermejo, a rather symbolic village that evokes an earlier settlement known as Concepción de la Buena Esperanza. This early attempt at colonizing effort was founded in 1585. Although it was the most effective Spanish occupation of the Chaco Province, it came to grief in 1631 when a tribal coalition destroyed it and forced the survivors to migrate all the way to Corrientes (240km), luckily ignored by the attackers!

The string of dramatic names starts with the next settlement called Pampa del Infierno (Hell’s Pampas) that clearly illustrates the feeling of the early settlers that chose the name when confronted with the intense heat and humidity that prevailed there. The next town, Los Frentones, is another small enclave that remembers the indigenous nation of that name that roamed this area. They used to shave their heads half way up their skull appearing to have a wide forehead (frente) hence their name that means “large fronted”.

Río Muerto’s (Dead River) is the next place we crossed. Its rather gloomy name comes from a dead “cauce” associated with the Bermejo River that apparently was blocked during the Chaco conquest through which the Argentinian Government conquered the aborigines. Pampa de los Guanacos is the next town name as a herd of these ruminants? were seen in the area at some stage. The place is home to a Mennonite colony? that came from Paraguay over thirty years ago. They live their rather isolated lives working the land and producing excellent cheese that is very sought after in the area!

We then came to Los Tigres (The Tigers) where probably jaguars once lived but no longer. Here the asphalt road deteriorates taking a rather “political” characteristic that also makes it interesting. It runs smoothly through the Chaco until you enter Santiago del Estero where the potholes become more frequent until it becomes a totally broken road. If your car survives the knocks, you emerge triumphantly back in the Chaco at Taco Pozo (hole of the tree or hole of the the algarrobo in Quechua) about 70km later after having driven through Monte Quemado (Burnt Forest).

Happy that we made it through this bad stretch, we decided to stop to regain our breath and recover some of the energy spent.

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Preparing a coffee and snacks.

Aware that, after spending time negotiating the bad road drivers tend to go really fast we drove off the road down a gentle slope a few metres towards the railway track that runs parallel to the road most of the way and enjoyed our food while discovering a few interesting inhabitants.

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See if you can spot one of the locals… The answer is at the bottom of the post!

When the time to go came we were surprised that the car did not move although the engine was making an effort to go! We got out and discovered that one back wheel was spinning in the hitherto undetected red mud. I engaged 4WD and tried again with no difference. Well, there was a difference as a wheel at the front also buried. Used to these situations, I stopped the car and proceeded to inspect the situation learning that the grass upon which our left wheels were it was very soft and the wheels were deeply set. We were well stuck!

Luckily we carry a few tools for these occasions and the spade came very useful to dig in front of the wheels to enable them to move as their thread was totally filled with sticky mud that did not allow any grip. To make matters more sticky, raindrops were falling and it was imperative that we dug fast. We had about two attempts at going but our rather optimistic digging did not work. Eventually, after quite an effort the car move about one metre. That was all we needed and I rocked it back and forth until it gain some motion forward and, with the engine screaming, Mabel pushing and spreading mud all over, the car moved and I did not stop until I was on high and firm ground. It was a relief as we had lost about two hours between the picnic and the mud!

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With the car back on the tarmac, we took a picture of the trench we made!

From then on we had no other difficulties and we soon caught sight of the hazy mountains in the distance that are always welcome as they are the sign that we are getting close to the Andean mountains and our destination: Salta La Linda from where I will be writing for the next three to four months.

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An immature mantis waiting for the right prey to pass by!

The Kombi falls

I will be unfair if I would not say a few words about our VW Kombi. It seems that these days these vehicles still attract quite a lot of attention among car lovers. Although I never saw it in this light at the time we had it, they dominated the minibus market and most of the Kenya safari companies used them. Then VW came up with a new model that was not as good for rough roads as their back doors became undone and needed to be welded to keep them shut! Very soon afterwards the Japanese minibuses replaced them.

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A young-looking Bushsnob posing with the kombi after driving through a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The Kombi had, like any vehicle, good and bad features. My first concern was safety, as I had never driven a car with the engine at the back and I felt rather vulnerable in case of an accident, particularly the way driving in Kenya was in those days! I also needed to fit seat belts, surprisingly absent in a UN vehicle! Its lack of 4WD was another rather serious drawback and I recall several instances of getting stuck in places that a 4WD would not even have skidded!

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My wife (red shirt) and our friend Aurora resting after pushing the kombi out of the sand at Naivasha. July 1982.

One particularly bad instance was at Amboseli National Park when, trying to approach the swamp to get a better view of an elephant, we ended up into soft black cotton soil. This kind of mud sticks to your wheels filling their threads so your tyres soon become smooth! Fed-up of fruitlessly attempting to get the car unstuck I placed our BBQ grid under one of the wheels to see if I could get some better grip. It was good and bad. We got out of the spot but the grid got somehow ejected with such force into the thicket surrounding the swamp that we never found it again and had to cook our chicken on a stick that night!

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Stuck again! This time on a rainy day at Tsavo West National Park. My wife -with the raincoat- and Paul lifting and digging to place the spare under the wheel to get some grip.

It also had the rare ability of losing traction and stopping while driving slowly over a gully or when crossing a culvert diagonally as its chassis somehow would get twisted leaving one wheel in the air spinning hopelessly! In order for the car to move again it needed the assistance of one passenger to stand on the back fender and sometimes to jump in order for the offending wheel to grip and the car to move. While this was not a great problem, imagine doing it on a ditch full of muddy water!

Snapping the clutch cable was another “Kombi special”. As you can imagine, this cable needed to transmit my left foot’s instructions for quite a distance before it reached its destination so it was a weak feature and one that left us stranded. Luckily only once. Eventually, apart from learning to fit a new cable and carrying a spare, I learnt to operate without the clutch thanks to Joseph, one of the Muguga herdsmen that taught me how to start it and drive it without a clutch! I would engage second gear and then start the engine. The car will shudder, shake and jump forward until it got going. After a while you could change gears upwards if you knew the right speed. Changing downwards was not easy so stalling at stop signs was unavoidable! Although not a long-term solution, it would get you back home or to the mechanic.

On the side of its virtues, it had great ground clearance, a reliable engine that never had a problem despite its mileage and, being two of us, it also had lots of space to carry supplies and materials for my work as well as to take all of our gear on safari (and that is a lot and increasing!). Removing the second seat we could sleep inside if the circumstances so demanded. Its sliding door made for great game watching; particularly driving around lakes (with the door facing the lakeshore, of course) enabled superb birding.

I drove the car intensely between Tigoni, Nairobi and Muguga during the week and all over Kenya during the weekends. That particular morning I had come to Ranjini´s house to bring her some vegetables that I got for her in the Limuru market, close to Tigoni. The clutch cable had snapped while entering her house but then there was worse to come…

Ranjini worked as a scientist with the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development of the British Government attached to the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) in Muguga where she also lived. We had met while sharing accommodation at Muguga House, KARI´s visitors hostel [1].

“Clutchless” I crawled into her garden and did a jerk-stop. Although I carried a spare cable and I woud have been able to fix it then, it was not a short exercise as its calibration took a while and I needed to get back home. Further, we had plans to travel far in a couple of days so it needed proper fixing. So, having given Ranjini her shopping I assured her that I would be fine and left her rather worried by means of another jerk-start departure.

With my mind focussed on keeping the car going I forgot to fasten my seatbelt, an essential precaution when driving in Kenya. I was going very slowly down Ranjini’ s driveway when I decided to buckle up. I had never noticed that particular pine tree but I am sure that it had been there for many years and not moved much so it was not the guilty party! Neither had I seen its protuberant roots reaching towards the driveway. I still did not that day, I only felt them!

Everybody know that buckling up in movement is not recommended. It requires a few seconds of focusing your mind on the belt as well as some handless driving. A lot can happen over those few seconds. I remember feeling the left wheel rising over the roots and, as I tried to break, the car shuddered, stalled and stopped. However, in a bewildering feat, it gradually started to tilt towards mi side. My surprise quickly turned to panic and then resignation: the car was falling on me in slow motion.

My immediate thought was to try to stop it by sticking my hands through the window but -luckily for me- events happened faster than my thoughts and a thump followed by a shower of spanners, driving licence, car book, nuts and bolts and all things that one carries in a car’s shelf fell on me! The Kombi was now securely resting on its right side and only the door separated me from the ground that I could touch as my window was down.

It was an upset Bushsnob that emerged through the passenger’s window! Once outside I could contemplate my sublimely stupid achievement and promised myself never to try the seat belt trick while driving again. To say that I was also embarrassed when I walked back to Ranjini’s house is an understatement. She had just sent me off and closed the front door and I there I was again! I am sure that she thought I had forgotten something. When I told her what had happened, her expression changed dramatically! “Are you all right?” she asked with genuine concern. I told her that I was fine and invited her to come and have a look at my masterpiece!

We walked to the beginning of the driveway and we had a clear vision of the Kombi peacefully resting on its side! She gasped and while she recovered, I asked her if Njuguna, her gardener, was around. She immediately called him. He came and joined the unbelieving crowd expressing his regrets.

“Njuguna, please give me a hand to put it up again” I said estimating that most of the weight should be on the underside and therefore not too difficult to bring the car back to its normal position. Looking somehow doubtful he came along. Although I did not look at Ranjini, I am sure that her expression had changed to amusement! I could not blame her.

The effort required to put the car upright again was easier than I thought and the car bounced on its wheels as it got upright again. Apart from a broken side mirror and a few small dents and scratches on the side, the car was in good condition and driveable. I thanked Njuguna, said farewell to Ranjini, buckled-up, jerk-started it and drove off, still upset at my stupidity.

It was only weeks after the event, after I had replaced the mirror and got the dents painted that I could see the funny side of this rather freakish accident that even today I find rather incredible. I regret not having a picture of the car and the faces of my rescuers when they saw it to show it to you. It was all memorable and -in retrospect- quite funny!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/