Medical Zambia

Stick in the Mud Saturday

In a small pond by Mopani Spur, in South Luangwa National Park, there are some lesser moorhens. They are reclusive and very difficult to spot, never mind to photograph. Just as I picked up my camera, my phone rang. I am on call 24/7 and have to be available, within an hour of the National Park gate at any time. I answered the call and made an emergency visit to a lodge within the Park.

I thought this was a lesser moorhen, but it is an immature Allen’s Gallinule

It took a while to sort out the problem, so it was after 10am when I left. Instead of driving out of the park, directly to the village, where I had other patients to review, I decided to take a short detour around Mbomboza lagoon and onto River Side Drive. It had been raining when I drove into the park at 7am, but the roads were passable.

The reason for the detour was that I knew the approximate location of a special bird’s nest. Pel’s Fishing Owl is very rare and I wanted to see it on its nest with fledglings. River Side Drive has deteriorated since we had floods last month. Parts of the road are compacted grit and laterite, easy to drive on even when they are underwater. Other stretches are muddy and potholed, and these require more attention and driving skill.

Up ahead I could see two huge potholes across the road. I thought I could put my passenger side wheels between the potholes, and my driver side wheels on the edge of the road. Bad move. My vehicle skidded off the road into thick, sticky mud.  The black cotton soil is notorious for trapping cars.

I engaged four wheel drive, low range and tried to drive forward, but this just pushed a heap of mud ahead of my front wheel. I tried reversing and the back wheel dug down deeper into the mud. I was well and truly stuck. I looked around carefully for wild animals. There are often elephants and hippos in this area, and occasionally lions and leopards. I tried to open the driver’s side door, but I was in too deep. I got out the passenger side and assessed the situation.

There were no lappet-faced vultures soaring above my stranded vehicle

I thought that if I drove back and forward repeatedly with the wheels straight, I could make a firmer base for the tyres. I dug out lots of thick sludge behind both wheels with my hands and got back into the vehicle. The passenger side wheels were not getting much traction. Eventually I managed to get enough momentum to reverse out of the ditch I had created, back onto the road. I was really lucky. It would have been very embarrassing to have to call for help from other lodges.

I was rather rattled when I got to the corner where the nest of Pel’s Fishing Owl was located. The road was flooded. I stayed for a few minutes waiting for the classic call, but heard nothing. I drove out of the park and went to an NGO office to wash off some of the mud.

After doing some shopping for medication, sorting out a clinical problem and buying a data bundle for internet access, I drove home. I spotted a new red warning light on the dashboard. What have I done now? The handbrake was not jammed on, but I could see some brake fluid leaking from the rear driver’s side wheel.

I parked up and a mechanic removed the wheel. The problem was a worn out brake pad and something wrong with the piston which applies the brake. “Did I do this?” I asked him. “No, doc, this wasn’t your fault,” the mechanic replied. I sighed with relief. The wheel had been squeaking for the past six weeks and it had been dismissed as unimportant. It turns out that the safari vehicles get so much mud and crud in the brakes that they need new brake pads every few months.

Spot the skink

So I was off the road for a day and a half until they fitted “modified” brake pads. If there had been an emergency, the lodges would have provided transport for me to get to the patients. And I spent most of that time in bed ill with man flu.