South Africa’s famous bearded explorer and philanthropist Kingsley Holgate writes about some of the stories behind the stories on his many adventures across the African continent. This month he focuses on the indigenous African Pothole…
It’s been a helluva day – 14 hours to do just 158km on one of the worst potholed roads yet, lurching and swaying along, sometimes at slower than walking pace. Old broken tar, made worse by lorries carrying food aid up to the border. So it isn’t surprising that tonight around the campfire, we get to recount the story of the African Pothole.
The French have the Eiffel Tower and champagne, the Dutch their tulips and cheese, the Irish their Guinness, the Cubans their cigars and the British their tea. We in Africa have the Pothole and no adventure is complete without the persistent hiss of escaping air from a cut tyre, or worse still… a burst tyre with accompanying rifle shot-like explosion that, if it happens in a war-torn area, has the passengers all ducking for cover! Here in Africa, potholes are part of life.
You can be purring along in top gear, not a roadblock in sight, when without warning, hidden in the shade and too late for the shout of “Watch out! Potholes!” from a wide-eyed passenger – you suddenly run into an entire pothole family.
You swing hard to the left, then dangerously right, nearly rolling the Landy to avoid the baby potholes before a mother of a pothole with a hard edge catches your left back tyre with a sickening, bone-jarring thud.
The camp kettle, flying forward like a missile, comes at you as you stand on the brakes, locking the wheels to avoid writing off your suspension as you slide into Big Daddy who has stretched himself right across the road, cleverly hidden by his late afternoon shade tree.
Now in first gear, you slowly accelerate through the gears, zigzagging this way and that to avoid the pothole grandparents, uncles, cousins and aunties.
Like people, potholes have their very own characters: the deep mud-filled variety are quite hazardous – on impact, they throw a whoosh of thick red-brown watery mud onto your windscreen, instantly obliterating any forward view and leaving you blind so that by the time the windscreen wipers have fought to clear the mess, you’ve already collided with an entire pothole family – ouch!
Worst still is if in the old Landy, you’ve left the below-the-windscreen ventilation flaps open, allowing a torrent of the red-brown whoosh to flood over the bonnet and into the cab, drowning the well-thumbed bird book and binoculars, conveniently placed on the lap of the wife, thus eliciting the sharp-tongued reaction of “Are you trying to bloody kill me?”
The ditch-type pothole is a real bastard: no room to manoeuvre and all four wheels taking it on the chin.
The broken-tar-sharp-edge ‘I’ll smash your suspension’ variety are really nasty characters, especially the deep ones that swallow the entire tyre. But as an old pothole warrior you’re bound to learn a few tricks: like spotting a spurt of dust or splash of water from the vehicle in front of you as they score a direct hit, or also by being able to detect the telltale tracks veering off the road to avoid a ‘Big Daddy’.
Check out a dusty 4×4 parked outside a remote pub and you’ll soon see if he’s a pothole warrior or not – bodywork scratches, dents and wobbly rear view mirrors generally indicate that he’s shot off the road to avoid the ‘buggers’ and got into a scrape with the surrounding bush.
Gooey tubeless repair plugs sticking out from the tyre walls like war medals are sure signs, as are dented rims, sidewall bulges, gaiters, goitres and even hernias where the tube’s popped out from the tyre wall like a small balloon.
A lot of African villages live off potholes; the local headman has his field of potholes which he controls and it can be quite lucrative. At the sound of approaching vehicles, kids race out from the village and in a flurry, go through the motion of filling up the potholes, a service for which you are expected to part with some coins. Sometimes these unofficial pothole menders will resort to a Pothole Roadblock: pay and you can proceed.
Potholes can be nomadic; three years ago, you’d marked ‘WATCH OUT! Bad Potholes’ on a section of your map, only to find that Chinese road builders have smoothed them all out.
Down goes the right foot and the mood improves at the thought of getting to your chosen destination before nightfall. Forget it! When you least expect it, there they are again, ready to greet you with a welcoming screech of brakes and an almighty suspension-walloping bang!
But when is a pothole not a pothole? Well I suppose when it’s a sinkhole, deep enough to swallow an entire Land Rover, or a washaway, where the whole road in front of you is gone; or where, like in the Congo, what began as a pothole is now so bloody deep and mud filled that when you get stuck, for fear of drowning, you climb out of your window onto the roof rack and step out onto dry land.
Isn’t it a bloody killer when, day after day, you only average around 12 to 16km per hour, speeding up between tow-hitch catching potholes, clutch in, clutch out, constantly changing gears trying to build up a rhythm, 1st, 2nd, 3rd then back down again while a man on a bicycle carrying a colourful, speckled goat and a bunch of green bananas gives you a big toothy grin as he effortlessly overtakes you on his bicycle.
“Watch out! Slow down. Bad potholes ahead on the left,” shouts a passenger. You hit the brakes and there they are… lying in wait. Are potholes part and parcel of living in Africa? Will our grandchildren get to know them as well as we’ve done? I reckon so…