THE LOLIONDO STEAMER
I sidled up front and sat down. The chair had a plain wooden seat and back and was fairly uncomfortable. Before me was an expanse of windscreen through which I would inevitably pitch in the event of a crash. A few yellow plastic jerrycans and old cooking oil containers were strewn on the floor at my feet. The conductor, who may have doubted that I'd call his bluff, now took my money and gave me a ticket. The engine started with a spasm that set the bus rocking, while the driver began hooting the horn. We were about to set off.
I was separated from our 'pilot', as the conductor referred to him, by the hump of the cowling that covered the engine and gearbox, which was surrounded by a railing. On my side of the cowling was an inspection flap, which swung loosely. The pilot put the engine through its full range of revs to give it a good blow through before we moved anywhere. Behind me most of the passengers were in their seats, so surely we couldn't be waiting for latecomers. The pilot put his foot to the floor again. Any minute now we'd start grinding forward.
The turnboy appeared. He was the person who packed the luggage under the coach, did odd-jobs and acted as the pilot's batman. He was a sturdy youth dressed in an overall which had been dark blue but was now grey and black with grease, still shiny where the most recent deposits hadn't quite dried. He was probably the source of the smutty handmarks on the sides of the coach. He had a brace of yellow jerrycans to add the pile in front of me. Since they were filled with water, he stood them up. He grabbed some empties, brushing past in the confined space, vaulted down the steps and returned with more full containers which he plonked down on the floor in front of me. This went on until he had loaded the last cans and squeezed beside me, perched on the rail around the engine cover. We were ready to roll.
My feet were hemmed in by a tight huddle of oily plastic drums, and I reflected that I was inappropriately dressed. For meeting Sandy Evans I had put on my best trousers and a decent shirt. The strides were the white chinos that are de rigeur in tropical climes and advertising agencies. I hadn't bothered to change for the journey and now it was too late. I was surrounded by greasy jerrycans and rubbing shoulders with a youth wearing a suit of oily rags. I had already accumulated a couple of streaks.
Engine revs rose to a crescendo and we set off, lurching and swaying, out of the bus park. A little water slopped out and dribbled in beads down the sides of the uncapped jerrycans. It was nothing to worry about and I concentrated on looking out of the window and enjoying the scenery. Here we go...! We promptly stopped to fill up with diesel. Then we were off again, this time in earnest.
It soon became clear what the water was for, why the inspection flap was open on the engine cowling and why the turnboy was hovering around here and not skulking in the stairwell as turnboys ought. He had work to do. The radiator was leaking so he had to keep it topped up with water by opening the flap and pouring in water. There was no cap on the radiator because that would exacerbate the leak and produce a risk of scalding. When the pilot shouted that things were getting hot the turnboy had to crouch down in front of me, grab a container of water, and use a rubber tube poked through the inspection flap to add water into the radiator. He was using a siphoning technique. First he poked the pipe into a jerrycan, which he then balanced on the railing. Next he crouched, keeping a firm grip with one hand on the jerrycan to stop it slipping off the thin rail, and to keep the tube in position. Finally he would suck the water down the tube before poking the end through the flap and into the top of the radiator.
Inevitably water splashed about as the plastic can bounced on the railing, but once he was sure water was flowing down the tube he could stand again and hold the container in place. To boost the pressure and to send water more quickly into the radiator, he had developed a special method, clamping his mouth over the opening of the jerrycan, and blowing as hard as he could to force the water down the pipe.
He did a fair impression of Dizzy Gillespie as he huffed and puffed, and I was impressed by his efforts to keep us rolling without destroying the engine. But it was taking a toll on my poncey white trousers. Water splashed from the bouncing containers. Unavoidably, as the turnboy bent to pick up the cans, crouched to arrange the tubing and nearly burst a blood vessel blowing with all his might to accelerate the water flow, he was bumping me and nudging empty cans up against my legs. Hyper-sensitive, I squirmed and cringed at each contact. Just trying to hold the closest jerrycans at bay made my hands grimy. The sun was blasting through the windscreen and I belatedly realised that reflexively mopping my brow would plaster my face with the grease. As we steamed along, literally, judging by the amount of water being poured, I wondered how long this was going to take.
Twenty-six hours later I stumbled out of the Mnazi Mmoja ('one coconut tree') bus park in Dar es Salaam. The trip had been a surreal nightmare. The pilot and his sidekick had done their best to keep the charabang going, and I'd contributed to the spirit of things by not complaining about my blackened keks, which eventually rivalled the turnboy's overalls for greasiness, but it was all to no avail. We broke down somewhere along the way, not because of overheating, but with a wheel-bearing problem. It may have been caused by the weight of all the water on board. It took hours to fix.
I knew that the Kilimanjaro was the best hotel in town and tumbled into a taxi. I didn't have enough cash for a room at the Kilimanjaro, but they took credit cards and I checked in for a day, feeling I deserved it. Inside the doorway of my room, I was astonished at the reflection in the full-length mirror of some lunatic explorer, smeared with grease and dust, a thousand yard stare in a stubbled, copper face seared by the wind, hair crazed, clothes filthy. It was amazing that whoever it was in the mirror had been allowed to set foot in the hotel.
I would try to see the Wildlife Division Director, tomorrow. My only change of clothes was shorts, so I should try to clean up the chinos. The challenge was handed to room service before I settled down for a bath and a sleep.
Text and images copyright Simon Jennings 1997; 2006. The moral right of the author has been asserted.