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Thursday, 5 August 2010

Cameroon - Part 2: Just outside Garoua - The infamous, all-time worst truck mishap for Mark.

Within less than 30 minutes of leaving the camp at the river bank we came across a massive truck that had jack-knifed and turned on its side in the road. We waited around for about 15 minutes as a crane started trying to pull the truck back into position or at least give us room to manoeuvre around it but when progress looked slow we took up the invitation from the two truck drivers in front of us who were also losing their patience with waiting. They knew a 'short-cut' along a less travelled dirt track that took us around the back of a cluster of villages...

God-damned over-turned truck getting in our way.

All seemed good with us pilgrims wobbling about in the back (like we'd grown used to doing) as Marjane negotiated Ruby's way over bumps, under cables and low-hanging branches and between tight spots were poor old Ruby was a bit too portly to squeeze between trees on either side of the track. As well as an ace chef, accomplished mechanic, humble guide and skilled driver, Marjane proved to be a generous gardener, offering a complementary pruning service to the local villages as we rolled through. (Laraldo and I were mere apprentices, collecting the off-cuts through the open tarp along the way...Lara resigned her post after seeing a large, bright green spider creep out of the recently torn branches and into Dave's rucksack right in front of her.)

Norm's Free Gardening Services


AK, not amused with dealing with the off-cuts.
As the track opened up a bit we thought we were 'out of the woods' (so to speak) when disaster struck: Ruby dropped her back right tyre without warning, catapulting us guys in the back from our seats. Nobody was harmed but Ruby came to a standstill. From our recent run-in with the mud in Waza National Park, we all knew what had to be done. The shovels and mud-mats came out faster than Robbie Williams (still waiting) and us travellers-turned-road-crew got busy digging. Ruby's tyre was in pretty deep in fact that the entire right side of the 17.5 tonne truck was near enough 45 degrees from the ground - a pedestrian could easily just reach in through the side openings (normally about 9ft of the ground) and grab something of the passenger seats in the back. To make matters worse, as The Nutty Professor (Neal) and I "dug out" the wet mud from around the tyre, we realised that the ground was getting WETTER as we dug rather than drier. This is when the brown stuff (mud in this case) really hit the fan. 

Ruby's right flank was well and truly stuck.

The entire right side of the 17.5 tonne truck was near enough 45 degrees from the ground - a pedestrian could have easily reached in through the side opening.
Everybody started getting stuck in before we realised the full scale of our predicament.

Even Squirty Dobkins got involved (that's right, an 11yr old digging under a precariously balanced 17.5 tonne truck.)

Kay over-seeing things from the shaded sidelines.
Karen digging in vain. Neal & I were nearby to offer encouragement. (!)
Get in there Karen! Like Sonya, another true to form industrious Kiwi.
Oh dear.

We asked Norm how this fared amongst his All-time Top 10 Truck mishaps...he wrote his answer in the dirt on the side of Ruby.
As the local villagers started gathering around in droves to see some stoopid white folk, we began to realise that we had in fact fallen into a subterranean spring and, given the rain we'd been seeing in previous weeks, we could be spending more time there than we'd planned. As we continued to dig in vain the other truck drivers that had led us astray came to our help and suggested we piled rocks up in the ever-growing puddle of mud(d) so Rube's could get some traction. As we did so, Marjane (now often referred to as Norman/Norm/Normski for reasons only former passenger Zah can explain) was at the front helping the Cameroonian truck drivers tie a cable to Ruby's face (I think I caught him cooing in Ruby's right wing-mirror so as to keep her from going into shock). Satisfied with our work at the front and back with mud mats and rocks in place, Norm jumped in the cab and began revving and turning as the local Samaritan's started their engines and began pulling. Nothing. We tried again. Still nothing. Then the first (heavier truck) tied itself to the second one and they both started pulling...but maybe a bit too hard too soon: Ruby's nose (tow-bar) came clean off in a way not even MJ could have foreseen ("sha-mon!").

Our first effort with the tow-rope and one truck.
Attempt No. 2 - this time with two trucks pulling.
Several hours had passed with no resolve. It was approaching mid-day and the sweltering sun was almost overhead. As the heat drove us whiteys into the shade of nearby trees, more and more local villagers came out to see what all the commotion was about. Luckily one of the other trucks had a small crane on the back of it so they reversed it back down the track to maybe see if we could lift Ruby back up to normal level. (Ironically, that's exactly the same thing we'd seen being done to the over-turned truck that had blocked our path that morning.) With the winch hook in place the truck started lifting but rather than bringing Ruby up, the crane-bearing truck began to topple. At this point the local truckers said they'd leave us for about half an hour so they could fill their truck up with gravel thus making it a heavier counter-balance for their next attempt at Ruby. As they left in a cloud of dust I took my hat off to 'Boiler-Suit Guy #1 who had worked relentlessly on our behalf all morning.

So we waited.

...And waited.

...and waited.

Trying a different tack, this time with a crane.

Our misfortune provided an afternoon of entertainment for these lil' fellas.
It wasn't just the villagers that came out to see what all of the commotion was about. (Pygmy chameleon.)
Two hours passed before we gave up thinking the truckers had been estimating half an hour in 'African time' and came around to the fact that they'd just abandoned us. A few of us picked up the shovels again in vain but this time, we knew it was in vain. Devoid of ideas, sunburnt, sweaty, frustrated, covered in mud and hungry we took time out in the shade of a big tree and sipped hot drinks provided by Kay and ate a bean stew with bread that Son and Lara had miraculously concocted out of the stark supplies they had access to via the truck's side lockers that weren't sunk in mud.

As we finished the grub we proposed the idea that I head into the nearest town on the back of a moped, armed only with my memory of GCSE French, explained the ordeal and sought help. We approached the onlooking villagers (now numbered in their hundreds by my reckoning) and asked if one of them could give me a lift to the nearby town. The seemingly self-appointed leader shouted orders to his underlings and one moped owner smiled and obliged us our request - only after going into his hut to retrieve his official taxi driver vest (as the local moped taxi drivers wore). In other words, this was no favour - he wanted payment. As we laughed amongst ourselves at our predicament I explained to the leader (known from now on as "Red Hat Guy") exactly what we wanted to do. He thought about it, gathered up his people once more and came back to me saying, in essence "Screw getting outside help. If the rains come you are fookayed and might be here for weeks. Me and four of my homies will get you out of here before the day is done for..." (cue a group huddle) "...50,000 CIFA. 10,000 per man".

Nice. These guys had watched us struggle all morning and been somewhat entertained by our plight and only now they were offering to help but only if we crossed their palms with silver. 50,000 CIFA was the equivalent of about 50 dollars - probably more than a month's wages for these guys. This time it was our turn to confer, and on the realisation that it would probably cost more than that to get a large truck or some kind of professional outfit out in the Styx (quite a cool term to use in this example) to help us out we figured we'd give it a go...but there was one condition: they had to get us out that day and by now it was about 2pm. Done deal.

So we made ourselves comfy as it was our turn to watch them. Despite the frustrating situation, morale was still pretty high and there were no hard feelings towards the locals - we somewhat admired their business prowess. It was now our turn as onlookers and from the shade of said large tree, the villagers began to work their arses off. We were only paying five of them but men and boys of all ages came out of the woodwork to help - presumably because they had little better to do and after all, there was entertainment value in all of this: by late afternoon, Ruby's 17.5 tonne bulk was balanced precariously on a jack, on a log, on a boulder, on another boulder, on another log, on top of a tyre which sat in mud that formed a rustic bridge over a subterranean stream. As if that weren't enough, endless bodies piled underneath her to dig out mud and lay a bed of rocks. As the guys worked, Dave, Norm and I stayed close by, partly for security and partly out of morbid curiosity: the objects the truck was propped up on gave way at least twice which was shit scarey to say the least - we were close enough to get crushed whilst the girls who were at a safe distance, thought we had been! 

Dave aka Berbs stands lends a helping a hand whilst keeping a watchful eye.
More and more villagers came to help.

Unscathed, the villagers resolved to get a bigger jack (as opposed to using two small ones in increments and sliding them out to replace them with boulders and logs and start the jacking again from a higher level!). Red Hat Guy went off on a moped and again we waited (and waited). An hour and a half (or more) later he was back but with no jack as he didn't have the money (5,000 CIFA) needed as a deposit at whatever garage it came from. Armed with money and another fella to help, Red Hat set off again and was back in about an hour (we could see the moped come a mile away as now three fully-grown men were on it and battling to balance their weight along with that of the jack on the puny wee bike).

As they pulled up, our hopes faded with the daylight and the task in hand just got a little bit more dangerous.The guys got to work again but this time is seemed futile. Even if we'd have wanted to, we couldn't see Jack Shizzle in this light and not wanting to crush a whole village for the sake of 50 dollars we asked them to stop working...but Red Hat refused and his people listened to him. He explained again how if it rained we'd be stuck for weeks and even a small amount of rain overnight would undo their hard work. So under the spotlight of every torch we could possibly find, they continued; some men digging under the truck and laying a makeshift road of stone and others (including Red Hat) working on the jack to get the truck elevated enough to get more rocks underneath it. 

Safety first (?) as Red Hat gets stuck in with the big jack now in place (still balanced precariously).
At this point, I should mention 'Goliath'. He was one of the original 5 guys appointed by Red Hat and for good reason: the guy was about 6ft 7, probably only about 19, and built like a B.S-H (well-made toilet...if you know what I mean?) During the whole afternoon he barely relented and when we'd used up all roadside rocks to form the traction bed under the truck, they sent Goliath into the mountains (literally) and he'd come running back minutes later holding boulders with his arms outstretched above his head. I actually thought he'd gone and plucked the moon from the sky. At one point in the afternoon, I mocked him that he could just pull the truck out on his own or use his hands to chop down some trees to help bridge the muddy riverbed. Everybody laughed. He got his own back several hours later when I was throwing some logs up to Norm to put in the wood locker at the top of the truck: with a cheeky smile he just picked them up and put them in the locker himself - no throwing, jumping or assistance needed. Everybody laughed again, but this time at my short-assed expense.

Goliath: it looked like he'd plucked the moon from the sky. (We couldn't even lift this boulder.)
Another funny moment occurred when the locals caught Norm, Dave and I covering our legs in mud from toe to thigh - it was dusk and it was too dangerous to go on the truck to get mozzy repellent. I'm sure I'd seen Bear Grylls keep mozzies at bay this way before. Needless to say, the locals were in hysterics.

At about 10pm, after 12 hours and numerous attempts to get Ruby free, an entire village's men and a truck full of whiteys were ready to for the day's last effort. The jacks were up as high as they could go and a new road that even the Romans would have been proud of had been laid as a stream trickled on indifferently beneath it. The villagers were telling Norm to just start her up and go but we explained that a drop from such a height as we'd raised her to on the jacks and props, would do Ruby's delicate frame no good. We had to bring the jacks down and remove the props incrementally in the same painstaking process as we'd got her up. After a bit of protestation the locals saw sense and took our advice. In the words of Harold Shipman, "we needed more patience'.

After they removed the third of half a dozen rocks and thick logs (flat surfaced and solid enough to support a jack. Norm had cut them from a nearby fallen tree with his chainy - much to the villagers excitement) the worst happened, the tower of props fell (and I suppressed my instinct to call 'JENGA!') and the truck came crashing down with it. Again the girls thought we'd been crushed and again we escaped but thought Red Hat and his honchos might not have. Fortunately, everybody was fine but we'd done exactly what Norm was trying to avoid and even though the muddy track was no longer an issue, we might not have been able to get Ruby going again properly if her under-carriage was damaged.

With mud-mats in place, fingers and toes crossed and prayers said to Allah and Jesus, Norm revved and turned like he had done numerous times already that day. In a cloud of mud and exhaust fumes and to the sound of the stones crunching underneath, Ruby was rescued from the mud. The whole day, we'd been like Atreyu rescuing Artax from the swamp, but in this case, it was a story with a happy ending, not a never-ending one. We all whooped and cheered and clapped and I can honestly say I don't think I'd felt so elated before. It was a truly awesome experience and we'd all done it together. Goliath, Red Hat and the boys were beaming as we all shook hands and congratulated each other. Norm paid up pronto and the guys made one request that we helped them fill in the massive trench we'd dug in their road the next morning.

The trench the truck left after we got it out. (Note the truck tyre that had been at the bottom of the tower of props under the jacks.)

As the euphoria subsided, Neal, Karen and Squirt got stuck right in with cooking and we had a late spag bol dinner before retiring to our tents. The next morning I got up late (not on purpose, I promise)  to see that Dave and Mark had already helped the locals fill in the trench, the only problem was the surface of the dirt road was now extremely uneven. Norm and I joked with Red Hat and the boys that we should reverse the truck back over to flatten the surface. Whilst Ruby went down THE well, this joke didn't go down TOO well...

We finally said our goodbyes to all of the villagers that had helped but not before Red Hat and his homies had scoped the bookshelf on the truck and asked for a few books as a leaving present. We duly obliged and saw it as appropriate that Goliath was given Muhammed Ali's biography - you should have seen the smile on his face!

As we rode out of the village I plugged my iPod into the truck's stereo and we blasted out The Animals - "We gotta get out of this place".

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