The Insanity of Almost Dying
There were two busses to choose from; each equally clapped out and brimming with luggage and livestock. At the last minute we had a change of heart, and a grass is greener (aka other bus looks better) moment.
We squeezed our way out, past a mass of flat-packed sweaty bodies and managed to wrangle a seat on the other bus.
After the requisite delay, we eventually left the dust and mango sellers of Malawi and commenced our too many hours to comment journey to Harare.
By this stage, many weeks into our African adventures we were well versed in the process of long bus journeys. We had books, snacks and cards at the ready… And water, but only for sparing, intermittent sips… Long bus journeys necessitate a temporary dehydration of the body in order to avoid the hell of a full bladder and infrequent stops.
After hour upon hour of travel, darkness descending, finally we stopped; seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We’d clipped the top of Mozambique and were now apparently in the shoulder of Zimbabwe. In the dark all we could be sure of was a crusty old service station and diner.
I can’t remember if we bought anything. Most likely some bananas (there were always bananas), and a bottle of coke - an addictive luxury in the midst of months of shoestring travel. Those scratched, old-style glass bottles had clearly traversed the consumer circuit many times. Oh so good, like an exclamation mark at the end of a long day.
Both busses had stopped and their passengers had spilled out into the dark and the dirt. Bladders emptied, we got back on our bus and waited, as there was some commotion happening between the drivers.
When we eventually started moving again it became clear the reason for the delay… No headlights. We craned our heads into the aisle to watch incredulously as the bus moved forward into the dense blanket of African night without illumination.
By way of compensation, like a backyard rubber band and mousetrap solution, we followed in the paltry light of the preceding buss’s taillights.
Africa as a continent moves and hums to an entirely different beat to the west, and it’s not just about having better rhythm… Human life, safety, sanitation and a legal system meld into the social hot pot in an entirely different way. Whereas safety might be an essential ingredient like salt to the west, in Africa it’s more like saffron… Great if you can get it but not essential.
Whilst back home in Australia… 1. The bus would not have departed without functioning headlights; and 2. If for some freakish reason it had, we would not have stayed on the bus. All very well and good in retrospect, especially considering what was coming next.
So, although we felt slightly uneasy, it blended seamlessly with the overall feel of independent African travel - often hard, surprising, uncomfortable; always an adventure. So, like our other swag of misadventures thus far, we went with it.
A few kilometres down the road, things apparently progressing ok, I tucked myself up into my usual bus-sleeping pose… Low slouch, knees pushed into the seat in front, backpack as a pillow between my head and the window.
I’d not long shimmied down into my foetal travel repose when everyone on the bus started yelling loudly… As the driver was looking down, wrestling with his gearstick, the bus slowed, we lost sight of the other bus and in the faint moonlight we could see the silvery outline of the road veering off to the side.
The yelling around us intensified, we joined the screaming, as if somehow we could avert the impending disaster with our words.
After that, time stood still. It’s tricky to recall, to put words to. It was like being in between worlds, time slowed, thoughts slowed, emotions and body separated. Looking back on it now, the memory is of being underwater, the sound of a symphony playing somewhere in the distance, or perhaps another time and place.
It was the place before death. Not extreme fear or pain. Just slow motion and withdrawal, the body’s natural defence against the mammoth task of emotionally processing pain, terror and possible death.
There must have been noise, a lot of noise, and movement, and limbs hitting up against metal, home-cooked meals flying, chooks flapping, glass breaking, screaming… But I don’t recall any of that.
I came to upside-down, lying on the back of my neck with my legs flipped over my head. The first thing I heard was my boyfriend asking if I was ok. And as for me, what was the first thought in my mind after almost dying?
“Where are my shoes?” Not proud of it, but there you go.
The whole bus was upside down. My senses returned and the cocoon of silence was invaded by the sound of a bus in panic. There were voices everywhere and movement all around us. People scrambling to get out amidst the dark and the broken glass.
Unlike me, in my semi-useless state my boyfriend was in super-efficient mode. The sort of person you’d want around in a crisis. “Let’s stay here and wait for the panic to die down.”
Our window was squashed beside us, but I could still see out a sliver and slapped my eyes on liquid gushing out beside us… “Do you think that might be fuel?” I asked idly.
“Shit, yeah we better get out.”
I was still fixated on our possessions. I’m ashamed to admit that they seemed more important than our wellbeing during those moments, so whilst he grabbed my hand and lead me out at a crawl, I was feeling around for our backpacks. In the melee, people pushed past us and we were separated.
The way he retells this story is of being outside the bus and realising I am no longer with him. He’s shouting my name, watching as person after person crawls out, getting more and more worried… Then he sees our bags tossed out and then me.
After that, pretty much all I did was stand on the side of the bank observing the damaged bus, the motley array of people and cold, feeling really cold… Shock I guess. I put my thermals on right there on the bank.
Extreme experiences show you what you’re made of… Evidently I am made of lime jelly. Don’t call me if you have a crisis, I will be completely useless. But this was a few years ago, so maybe now I am made of something a little more helpful, like maybe a blanket and a torch at least… Speaking of which…
Whilst I may have been helpful to no-one, shivering there on the verge – both literally and metaphorically, I had found our backpacks, and inside we had torches, which my boyfriend was using to help others. After freeing a couple of trapped passengers he was called over to a stuck woman.
He went over, shone a trail of torchlight up the length of her body to the place where her head should have been. The roof of the bus had been partially squashed and very sadly her head with it.
The driver was alive but hysterical, crying and crazy. It was a strange night.
The other bus circled back and all injured were instructed to get on that bus… We were battered and bruised but effectively OK, so we stayed… In the middle of somewhere, nowhere.
A semi-trailer pulled over to assess the spectacle. I vividly remember the words on the side of the rig… “What God do these people serve.” It was incongruous and yet so apt in an abstract, canny kind of a way.
We managed to hitch a ride along with a couple of Kiwi guys… We were the only four westerners amongst two busloads of locals. The four of us perched up on the sleeper behind the seats, between the driver – a big, happy African guy called ‘Sam’ and ‘Dreds’ his little rasta sidekick.
From here the night just go weirder. Sam smelt a lot like beer, which did not make me feel very comfortable. After the bus, it felt like jumping out of the pot and into the fire. But he drove very slowly the whole way to Harare and proved to be a charming, friendly, wonderful sort of a person.
Part way through the journey he pulled over and instructed Dreds to get beer. "After an experience like that you need a beer," declared Sam. Dreds was like an eager little terrier… He sprang out into the night (pouring with rain by this stage) only to return ten minutes later, to ask Sam what type of beer he wanted. It was comic relief. It seemed ridiculous. I felt the laughter bubble up inside, a release of emotion from the crazy night.
This was an intense and very scary travel experience. But it was also wonderful. It's etched in my memory for evermore. I've tried to write it a few times and frustratingly the retelling never seems to quite capture the intensity or significance of the experience. I'm in no rush to have death knocking on my door again anytime soon, but it sure is fascinating observing the craziness of sanity when mortality is staring you in the face.