Some of you may remember that last year I ventured on a motorcycle expedition through Southern Africa. I began to write about it on the other place, but when it all went pear shaped I sort of gave up the exercise.
On the 14th of August my little adventure took a turn for the worse. This is a sanitised account of what I wrote to family and friends at the time. It is quite long I am sorry to say, but that is just the way it is.
A while back I announced that I was planning a motorbike trip through several African countries. It took a long time for me to actually get going, but eventually I set out from Cape Town at the end of July. My plan was to ride up through Namibia, along the Caprivi Strip into Zambia, north to Tanzania, down into Malawi, along the lake through Mozambique, into Zimbabwe and back to SA. I would be travelling alone, camping or staying with friends depending on where I was. Everything had been going well and I had been having a lot of fun by the time I arrived at the home of some friends on the outskirts of Lusaka.
The next morning, I set out for town to do some shopping. It was about 10.00 and a beautiful sunny day. I was in no particular hurry and set off at a leisurely pace along the approx 12 km of dirt road from my friends’ home towards the Airport Road that eventually leads to town. In fact the final 2km are tarred but potholed, as is the case with most Zambian roads that have not been rebuilt by foreign aid. It was along this final stretch that I saw a vehicle coming towards me. Between him and me was a pedestrian, walking in the middle of the road. As the car approached the pedestrian moved to the side of the road. However, once the vehicle had passed an event occurred which, considering the number of years I have spent in Africa I should have anticipated, to wit, the pedestrian walked right back into the middle of the road, with nary a glance behind him. Motorbikes are not renowned for being particularly quiet modes of transport and while my Suzuki does not possess the macho rumble of a Harley Davidson or the high-pitched whine of an adolescent-sounding two-stroke, it does produce a sound that is audible to most. That the pedestrian was not completely deaf was apparent by the fact that when I hooted, he darted to the left, a course of action that would have avoided disaster. But then, as if fulfilling some primeval urge to wreak havoc wherever and in whatever way possible, he darted to his right, into the rapidly approaching front wheel of my motorbike. Just to put this into perspective, it is a proper road probably 10 metres wide; not some rural track allowing the passage of a single vehicle. The ‘tar’ section allows for two vehicles to pass without either having to move on to the gravel verge where, in any case, there is ample, perfectly adequate space for pedestrians and slow moving traffic. There was no advantage that I could see to his walking in the middle of the road. But the mind of the indigenous African is as yet, to the best of my knowledge, unexplored territory, wherein, no doubt lie many mysteries that may at some point be revealed to an increasingly puzzled world.
I soon found myself lying a yard or two away from my motorbike and a further yard away from a curiously groaning gentleman of about 60. No innocent young child was he. Automobiles cannot have been completely novel to someone of his age even in Zambia. I use the word curious because I did indeed find it curious that he should sound indignant at the injury that had befallen him. My fist reaction was to question, in a mildly irritated tone, as to why he felt it necessary to occupy that part of the carriageway that was generally reserved for faster moving traffic. My inquiry was largely rhetorical as I recognised that no cogent response could possible be forthcoming. I then attempted to get to my feet but immediately realized that my leg was broken. That fact sobered me up somewhat, not that I was intoxicated, I hasten to add. Whereas my initial concern had been for the expense and inconvenience that would be incurred in repairing my bike I was now at considerable risk of being butchered in some AIDS infested clinic by a manic sangoma with an online degree from the ‘Witchdoctors R Us University’ of Luangwa Valley East.
Call me heartless, but I have to confess I was not overly concerned by the welfare of my opponent. That he was alive and unlikely to shed his immoral coil in the next week or two was obvious by the noise and movements he was making. Selfishly perhaps, my own situation was of far more concern to me. Luckily, I had my phone to hand and luckily, there was a signal. I tried calling my hostess, D, but was unable to contact her. I remembered that a good friend of mine M, was passing though Lusaka from the north east, Mkushi, on his way south west to Choma where he was to spend the weekend. I called him and he answered in his perennially cheerful tone. I explained the situation. After a few unnecessarily mild expletives, he promised to be with me in 10 minutes. He was in fact nearby at the dentist with two of his children. M, a childhood friend of mine from Zimbabwe had had his farm stolen from him by Mugabe’s thugs back in 2002 and he had been forced to start again from scratch in Zambia.
In the meantime, a crowd had begun to gather round; most of them mindless, gawping onlookers, but there were two or three with an ounce of common sense distributed evenly between them. The police were summoned from the roadblock a km up the road. Presently (no one uses ‘presently’ anymore, I wonder why) a policewoman alighted from the back of a commandeered bakkie (pickup truck) and ordered the onlookers to pick up the pedestrian and shove him in the back. I watched with detached horror the lack of care with which the wretch was manhandled and was adamant that I would not suffer the same fate. The policewoman then turned her malevolent gaze on me and gestured to the crowd that I should receive the same cavalier treatment. Waving my phone as a token of immunity I protested that I had already arranged help and that I was not to be touched. Fortunately, she relented and the bakkie disappeared, at speed along the potholed road in the direction of the above described clinic. An iota of sympathy for the victim, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, did creep into my consciousness.
By this time a chap pulled up in a Toyota Landcruiser. He announced himself as C and asked me if help was on its way, I explained that a friend would be arriving shortly. C had me lifted gently into his vehicle and arranged one of his employees to push my motorbike to his workshop, which was a couple of hundred metres up the road, eventually to be handed over to the police until matters had been resolved. He explained to me that if I was not careful, I would be blackmailed; either pay a bribe or face the majesty of the Zambian Law and all the horrors that might entail. Luckily, though, he said it appeared that the other party was one of his employees and he could probably forestall any potential shenanigans.
M soon arrived and I was transferred to his vehicle. It was not just a relief, but also a great pleasure to see him. He took me to a private hospital and I was soon being offloaded onto a wheelchair and steered in the direction of the casualty ward. Anticipating a potential problem with the financing of any treatment that might be required, M very, and I mean very, generously went and wrote a cheque to cover any potential expenses that might arise. After a couple of trips to the X-ray department it was determined by the surgeon, a Russian woman, that my right leg was broken just above the ankle and just below the knee. She said that she could probably fix the ankle, but the knee would need to be operated on in South Africa.
You may be beginning to wonder what sort of insurance I had. I am a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, so lets just say that in this case I was bloody lucky. I have what is known as a Hospital Plan which pays for treatment only if I am admitted to hospital in South Africa. Treatment in Zambia would be at my expense as would travel. There was no way that I was going to fork out for medical evacuation, so it was going to have to be a commercial flight. My doctor was very concerned about my taking such a trip especially as I would be travelling alone. She said that I would have to have my leg raised during the flight to avoid DVT. I insisted that I was extremely rugged and that I could withstand the torture and that I was sure that I would manage keep my leg raised. She tried to insist that I buy at least two seats on the plane. Hmph! My arse does not squeak for nothing. In any event she stabilised my leg in plaster of paris and was adamant that I spend at least one night in hospital in Lusaka so that I could be monitored.
While I was waiting to be sent to a ward, another friend arrived, a chap I had been to school with. He owns a motorbike dealership, kindly agreed to assist me with the bike. He took care of all my possessions and said he would try to contact my medical aid company in South Africa. It was great to have a friend and a local to chat to during this increasingly anxious time.
After I had been settled in a ward and a few pain killers administered, D came to see me, bringing me some clean clothes and some goodies to eat. She had heard of my accident via the CB radio network that operates there. I told her that I would have to fly to SA and she said that she would get onto the case. Through her travel company, she was able to organise a discounted flight (US$125) to Johannesburg, on a rather dodgy sounding airline, Zambezi Airlines who said there were plenty of available seats. I do dodgy big time. Up until this point, I had elected to inform people on a ‘need to know basis’ about my predicament. The truth is, I felt a bit of a prat. Many had predicted such an outcome to my adventure and to have it end so ignominiously was difficult for me to swallow. I did not want any of my family worrying needlessly and I did not want any of my friends laughing heartlessly; or should that be the other way round? In the end however, I notified a couple of people and the word spread rapidly. I was greatly touched to receive numerous messages of sympathy and offers of help.
The following morning, M, called to say that the pedestrian had been released from hospital the same day and therefore the police were happy to let us have the bike. This was a great relief. The doctor came round for a final check up before releasing me. She was very sweet and appeared genuinely concerned for my welfare, though you can never tell with these Russians. Prior to checking out, I was presented with the bill which, once I had managed to divide by 5,000 to arrive at a US$ figure I was happy to be able to inform M was actually quite manageable. D arrived to pick me up and I was able to check out and return home.
After a reasonably comfortable night, free of pain killers!!! D took me to the airport early on Sunday morning. There I bumped into two couples; both displaced farming families from Zimbabwe and old friends.
The airline staff were fantastic and I was well looked after at every step of the way, even being given three seats to myself on the plane, so being able to keep leg raised.
In Joburg, I was met by a friend R, a physician at the hospital where I was to undergo the operation. I had called him earlier and he had arranged for me to be admitted the following day, Monday. In the meantime he took me home to his family and administered a pain killer, the first I had received in 24 hours. Actually, throughout the whole saga, I had been somewhat surprised by the relative lack of pain. When I first realised the leg was broken, I expected it to be gob-smackingly sore, but in reality it had not been that bad.
They were expecting me at hospital the next morning and once they had taken down my insurance details and obtained authorization, I was admitted to the orthopaedic ward. From there I went to see the surgeon, who me sent for X-rays and a CT scan. Later he came to see me to tell me that the break to my knee was not very pleasant and that I would need screws, plates and some bone grafting. It would cause me problems in the future and that I would eventually need a replacement knee. Bugger! An hour or so later I was wheeled off to the butcher’s block and before I knew it, I was back in the ward.
Later in the day the surgeon came to see me, He told me that the op had gone well and that he was pleased with the results. However, I would be on crutches for a few months and that no pressure could be applied to my leg for at least 8 weeks. The next morning the physio expressed satisfaction with my mobility and presented me with a new pair of crutches, which she assured would be covered by the insurance company. Later that day two gentlemen arrived looking for all the world like the deceitful tailors in the fairy story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. They took out their tape measures and oohed and aahed as they went about measuring the dimensions of my leg. Then with satisfied smirks they disappeared down the corridor. The following morning they reappeared triumphantly with a plastic cast which they strapped to my leg using Velcro straps. Given that beside myself, there were three other motorcycle victims who passed through the ward during my time there, I imagine that they are onto a good thing.
On the Friday morning I was released from hospital into the hands of my friends who took me home. A couple of weeks later, I flew to Cape Town where I am now.
The whole experience has been extraordinary. On one hand I count myself deeply unlucky to have had my trip cut short in such a manner. On the other, when I think of how different things could have been, had an accident occurred somewhere along the Caprivi Strip, miles from anywhere I recognize just how fortunate I have been. For the record, on that stretch of road I did in fact hit a goat that behaved in a startlingly similar fashion to the pedestrian, but was lucky enough to survive that encounter. Africa is remarkable. Here you have a continent populated by imbeciles wandering around the middle of the road oblivious to traffic, the sort of behaviour that can drive one demented, but at the same time one can have a network of the most amazingly generous and enterprising friends who are able to salvage a potentially disastrous situation and turn it into an almost pleasant experience. Ok, pleasant is pushing it, but I really am so grateful to C, MM, MC, D, K, R and everybody else who has looked after me. It is going to be a while before I can drive again, let alone ride my motorbike. I am not sure how or when I will be able to fetch it, but I will worry about that later.
So for the past year, I have been recovering from a broken leg. In April, I felt well enough to fly to Lusaka and recover the bike, which I did successfully and had great fun doing so. However, all the metal work in my ankle and knee has been causing me discomfort, so today I am going to have it removed. I may be in hospital overnight, but possibly not.