Adventures with the Gas Man and the Siberian
In the back of an old travel journal I once listed the names of the trucks I travelled on in Africa: “No Hurry in Life”, “Rome was not Built in a Day”, “Better Late than The Late”, “You Too Can Try”, “Homme des Etoiles”, each slogan painted in riotous colours across their windscreens. The slogans serve both as advertising and as underlying themes for overland journeys that are often more adventure than transport.
One trip took me from Mopti to Gao in northern Mali, before the days of Boko Haram, with “Le bebe elephant de l'homme de gaz” and “Le Trans Siberie”.
Mamadou was the “homme de gaz”, a kind of local legend for his uncanny way of securing scarce diesel fuel in the bush. He travelled in convoy with another Malian driving “Le Trans Siberie”, a converted Russian half track of indeterminate vintage and questionable suspension, as it turned out. My travelling buddy Dominic and I joined about 30 others wedged amongst sacks of rice and luggage on top of Mamadou's truck, a large Mercedes with seemingly infinite cargo capacity. This offered the benefits of a regal perspective and a welcome cushion for the bumpy track ahead.
Mamadou may have been the “l'homme de gaz” but he was manifestly not the “homme de pneu” as it turned out - his tires went flat with alarming regularity. Barely outside the city and through our third police checkpoint we all dismounted for the first time so he and his crew could “repair” the tire. In fact, that particular tire went flat seven times, twice while we were standing still: two and a half days later we were still barely half way to Gao.
The Siberian was no better: the suspension of the “Trans Siberie” was apparently not up to the task of negotiating Mali's rough roads. We began to doubt if it had ever, in fact, crossed Siberia as advertised. We watched incredulously as the crew cut blocks of wood to jam into the broken suspension leaves to keep the thing from toppling over. The Siberian's dodgy suspension caused him to seek out softer paths off the beaten track. Several times we would see him tearing across the Sahel in a cloud of dust, his load of passengers thrown to and fro until, inevitably, he became “ensablee”. Off came the passengers and out came the sandtracks until he was free again to bushwack his way to Gao.
Bouncing along on top of the truck we all shared around what food we had - some dates, figs, smashed mangoes, crackers – not exactly a balanced diet. Child vendors would reach up to sell us drinks, oranges, skewers of meat or fried locusts (crunchy, chewy and great with a little salt). At one checkpoint the locals slaughtered and roasted a goat round the back of the customs office to feed us as we waited on yet another tire repair.
Waiting on yet another flat repair, I suggested to Dominic that we check out an abandoned hillside Dogon village nearby. He pleaded a weak stomach but waved for me to go ahead. It was hot, dry and dusty and a longer hike up than I expected. But fascinating – a small cluster of squat little huts and abandoned granaries wearing the characteristic conical Dogon roofs like little hats. Feeling the call I found a bush for a wiz, casually admiring the view across the valley and the dust cloud of the moving truck. My truck. Setting off without me.
Fear is a great motivator. The thought of wandering alone, without food or water in the bleak Sahel miles from anywhere had me zipping, running and leaping down the hill in no time. The truck was about 750 metres away and gaining speed as I raced across the valley floor toward the receding dust cloud. I was already planning how and where I would spend the night when the “bebe elephant” stopped. I arrived gasping and heaving, drenched with sweat and dust, pulled up top by my fellow passengers, all having a good laugh at my expense. Dominic shrugged and acknowledged that he might have “accidentally” bet a fiver with the driver that I would catch up if he took off while I was up the hill. Apparently the fall back was the Siberian's truck approaching in the distance, which, as it turned out, brought a much needed new tire for the “bebe elephant”. All good, plenty of laughs over a beer in Gao and a trip I have never forgotten.
© Jonathan Spencer, 2014
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