Conversation stopped. The road engulfed us all. We held our breath, scanning for the pavement to re-appear in vain. I could not help, but glance out the window watching for remnants of other vehicles that perhaps did not fare as well on this stretch of road. I did not want to see fallen remains, but my brain refused to forget the stories of rain drenched tracks that sucked overland trucks and transports deep into the mire. I could not stop replaying tales of vehicles colliding when there was no other path to avoid it. There was no where to look to avoid the images.
The ruts in the road got steadily deeper. We began to hear a scraping noise as we rolled forward over the broken terrain. My heart beat a little harder, even as my breath slipped from me in whispers. The minutes turned into hours and still the road before us lay as a scathing reminder of a country nowhere near healed from the gaping wounds forced upon it. I was horrified at the appalling state of something that I took for granted back home; a simple roadway to take me from point A to point B. This thoroughfare was the main artery to get goods from the capitol and its harbor to the rest of the country. This road linked the two biggest cities in Mozambique. This road was broken beyond any reasonable expectation of repair and yet it was still imperative and utilized. I sat in shock, unable to truly comprehend this failure of a system. The needle on our gas gauge slowly inched its way away from the large F, as the miles dragged behind us at a painstakingly slow pace.
When we could avoid it no longer, Arnie was gently eased to a halt. Normally one would stop a vehicle, turn it off, open the gas cap, refuel, replace the gas cap, pay for the fuel, then restart the vehicle and be on your merry little way. We had a couple of very distinct issues with normal on that day. For one, Arnie pretty much refused to start by the simple action of turning the key in the ignition. No, in general our vehicle relied heavily on good old muscle power to give it a big push to get it on its way again. With enough momentum built up, Arnie’s engine would fire to life. Stopped in the still muddy rut from a rain storm that was another’s memory, we pondered what to do. We could not hope or dream of pushing a kombi on the unforgiving path. Should we then leave the van running, so that we would not be stuck, but perhaps tempt the fates by fueling a running vehicle? Driver’s ed from years ago told me “no, no!” at the thought of this tactic, but our choices were slim. We might not even be able to get moving again regardless of whether the engine was running or not. The choice was made to avoid what seemed to be the worse fate and we poured in half of our precious petrol to the still running van. No pushing was required at this pit stop, but further down the road we would not be so lucky.
Yes, the road was not kind to our van or our spirits. We clung to our prayers that our lowly van would stick to the road. At points our prayers were answered and we were required to jump out and push Arnie back into motion again. With mud-splattered clothes, we climbed back into our caked kombi and continued our journey of hell. Another road side fill-up became imminent, but again the fates were tempted and we won. And still the trek pushed on.
With the last of our jerry can emptied into Arnie’s hold, we began to search for a break in the tire tracks of mud with earnest. The light of the day was waning and we wondered if perhaps we had pushed our luck too far this day. I forced myself to not think about what would happen if we ran out of fuel in these road ruts. It just could not happen. My hands throbbed as I clenched them ever tighter. The needle on the gas gauge bobbed closer to E. Panic pushed us as a tailwind. As unspoken dread seemed to mount beyond reasonable bounds, someone noticed something. The incessant scraping noise became quieter, then finally stopped. The ruts were getting shallower. Before we could even throw out a hope, we scraped heavily on a lip of asphalt and were suddenly back on solid land. A cheer erupted from us all, as though we had beaten a fearsome dragon. It was quickly countered by another glance at the gas gauge though. We were not out of the woods yet. We knew we had to reach the T-junction. We had been told that there was a gas station there. Speed was of the essence now and we raced towards the finish line. Would we make it in time? Adrenaline gave us the lift that we hoped we be our saving grace. The needle inched ever closer to E.
There was no denying it. E was for empty and that was where the needle sat. Not certain how long we could fly on fumes, we began to glide down hills that we came upon. Tears almost sprang to my eyes, as a little village hove into site. Again we praised aloud the end of our flight, as we pulled up to the stop sign. Too soon we realized that with salvation at hand, we were still lost. Should we turn left or right? No gas stations were in sight and no signs pointed in the direction that would get us to the closest fill up. Could we make it. A light began to slowly seep red on the dash. Right would take us towards Beira, left the border. Our discussions decided right, but after a scant few miles we suspected our error. We did a wide U-turn and raced back West again. We coasted down hills and leaned forward bodily when mounting the next. Perspiration won as stress levels reached insurmountable heights inside our battered van. With a red light blazing on the dash, we ascended another hill and were met with the beautiful sight of a neon sign announcing GAS. Luck finally smiled upon us, as the station was still open when we drifted onto its beautiful lot. We laughed, hugged and hooted in a crazy celebration of triumph. We had battled and won the challenge of the worst road in Africa.