Have you ever arrived at work and realised you can’t remember a thing about the journey? It’s as though you have been on “autopilot”, with the route etched in your cerebral cortex. For the first few weeks in Mfuwe, I spent most of the drive to work looking for (and attempting to avoid) potholes. There are also some curious dips across the road, a bit like the M6 just west of Coventry. I have gradually built up a mental road map of the journey from the lodge to Kakumbi rural health centre, which is about five miles. The driving part of the journey has become normalised. I know the best route through the potholes, I know when to brake before the dips, I know the best place for getting onto the bridges and I know the best line to take in the rollercoaster dirt road through the village.
This means I can spend more time scanning for wildlife. Check the power lines, are there any raptors or bee-eaters? Look in the trees for signs of a leopard kill hanging from a branch, check the edges of muddy pools to see if any animals have come to drink, check in the shade of bushes for sleeping lions, listen for baboon alarm calls, for the screech of a fish eagle or the grunt of a hippo. It is not unusual for me to see a dozen different types of wild animal on my way to work.
Animals have right of way. Last week, I was held up by a group of giraffes on the laterite road, an elephant on the dirt track leading out of the lodge, a horde of baboons on the tarmac outside the park and a bewildered hippo caught in my headlights inside the park. Giraffes might look cute and gangly, but their back legs can deliver a fatal kick to your radiator. Angry baboons can snap off your windscreen wipers. Elephants have the power to lift up your vehicle with their tusks. You just have to sit back and wait.
A flock of guinea fowl in the road scatters in panic at the last minute. Impala often congregate on the road early and late in the day, but they trot away calmly when you approach. I have learned that when one animal crosses the road in front of you, it is likely that more will follow. And never rule out a rogue beast which decides to cross in the opposite direction, as well.
There is a 40kph speed limit in the Park. Unless you are a rally driver, it is quite difficult to exceed this and drive safely. You never know what is around the next bend. I have been surprised by a hippo on the road, and I meet elephants coming towards me on a narrow road a couple of times a week. I give them a wide berth.
The laterite roads in the Park have old-fashioned road signs, reminiscent of Britain in the 1960s. Black and white striped poles, with a red-edged triangle on top, saying “Warning, tight curve ahead”.
Outside the park, the villagers place leafy branches in the road to indicate that someone has died and a funeral is taking place. Out of respect, vehicles slow down to first gear and flash their hazard warning lights.
Most of the local people get around by walking or bicycle. Each Sunday morning there are families walking to church in their best clothes, occasionally carrying their Bible on top of their heads. I try to give bicycles a wide berth as they usually don’t have any brakes. When they want to stop, the riders apply their bare heels either side of the front tyre. “Wasn’t this risky?” I asked Chanda, the health centre odd job man/health care assistant/volunteer. “Yes, my heels heat up, even the hard skin. And if I miss the tyre, my heels touch the rim or the spokes and that is more painful,” he replied.
The road edges are uneven and steep, so when bicycles move off the tarmac to avoid motor vehicles, the riders often lose control. As the cyclists are usually carrying a passenger or two, perched on the crossbar or the rack over the rear wheel, this is even more dangerous. They carry wide baskets, filled with produce to take to market. Sometimes they have a load of branches for firewood attached to the rear rack, or bamboo mats. I have seen a sofa being carried by bicycle, although it was not being ridden. And there is a photograph published on the internet of a man cycling with a live cow draped over the handlebars.