Crossing the river

The boredom of riding in a truck endlessly, without a single thing to see, was about to be relieved. We had been following the White Nile, all the way from Juba, but now it seemed we were on the wrong bank.

To continue as we were would get us to Khartoum eventually. But if we could cross the river, we stood a much better chance of getting there in time to catch our flight. However there was no bridge, and no ferry.

Heated arguments ensued and speed prevailed over safety. Taff was dispatched to locate a boat with a willing owner.

If you ever saw the film “The African Queen”, you will have a good image of our improvised ferry.

Our leader, Jack, negotiated with the owner who agreed to take us all, and the truck, across the Nile.

We watched with interest as Taff edged our truck slowly down the river bank and onto a makeshift boarding ramp that allowed about a half inch for error on either side.

With the vehicle safely (I use the word loosely) aboard, like an elephant in a rowing boat, we scampered on after it.

So far, so good, until we realized that the boat driver had no particular destination in mind. There was no official landing place for a truck anywhere in this stretch of the river.

We had to cruise along the bank, searching for a place where we could be safely put ashore. It became obvious that both Taff and Jack were a tad anxious, and our group watched silently, without comment.

Some distance downstream, we came upon a grassy area that was at least fairly flat, and this was chosen for our disembarkation. Jack hopped into the water and helped us across the plank he had extended to shore. Then we stood looking on, as Taff inched the truck off the boat.

A Bedford truck weighs something like 8 tons, and our diminutive ferry was a tiny wooden affair with an equally tiny motor. The front wheels moved off the back of the boat but could not gain traction, and the enormous weight came down on the back wheels which began to roll, pushing the boat out into the river.

Possibly the boat owner contributed to this by revving his engine, but if he did, one could hardly blame him, as the alternative would likely have sunk the boat as well as the truck.

Now here was a how-do-you-do. Suddenly a flock of people arrived from a nearby village to watch the latest entertainment laid on by foolish foreigners. We must have really made their day.

The men in our group began immediately throwing about ideas for our rescue. Doom became animated for the first time since his gloomy proclamation at Khartoum Airport. He offered to run to the village for help, but then realized this was probably pointless, there being no other truck available to pull the Bedford out.

And in any case, the whole village was already at the river, watching.

The British contingent, true to form, decided to make tea and we sat contemplating the men digging in the mud. Even Graham pitched in with his one arm. Thinking back, I wonder what, if anything, I or any of the other women could have done to help, but there really wasn’t room for all of us to dig.

The village elders came to sit nearby and sat commenting on the proceedings. Of course we could not understand, but I doubt they were very complimentary.

We wondered for a while if we should ever get under way again, or if search parties would be dispatched to find us when we failed to turn up at work. But, with a lot of pushing and shoving and pulling, our Bedford emerged finally from the murky depths and rolled up onto the shore.

Whereupon we prepared lunch, as the men scraped mud from their bodies and somehow cleaned up. “Preparing lunch” is a slight exaggeration, as all we did was pull the tops of sardine cans and hand them out.

I remember this particular lunch, because as we finished our sardines, we tossed the cans down, temporarily, intending to collect all our rubbish before moving on.

In the event, we didn’t have to collect up the empty cans, as the village kids swooped down to claim them, grasping them tightly in their hands, which made us gasp, though we saw no blood.

In rural Africa, any container is a treasure, as we realized, but sardine cans? The children were apparently delighted, so obviously they had some useful function. Everything can be re-purposed, it seems.

It emphasized to me just how very little so many of the World’s people have, and I re-evaluated my current uncomfortable situation.

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