Ain’t your normal road trip

Let me just say, for the record, that I’m no stranger to road trips.

I’ve done my fair share in different continents.

So I’m used to the long, never-ending roads between highlights, that mix tape you’ve listened to for the 17th time, the junk food subsistence diet and the occasional mishap along the way that you tell yourself you can tell the grandkids about.

Well – my current road trip in South Sudan sets new precedents.

Near nocturnal misses with an LRA detachment, broken bridges and broken legs, and mass mud-induced roadblocks.

An experience it has been.

I’m accompanying some of The New Nation staff as they travel around the states of Central and Western Equatoria, and Western Bahr-El-Ghazar.

We’d eschewed the option of UN flights for travel by 4×4.

That choice for the first few hours seemed to be rewarded. Mile after mile of lush bush and red-tinged roads, small rustic tukuls or hamlets, and children waving and yelling “khawaja!”.

That was before the roads started to deteriorate. Even in our 4×4 we struggled to traverse the flooded roads, peppered with pot-holes that could swallow a small child.

Worse though was the mud that seemed to be a living entity. A siren of the road.

We soon lost count of the number of trucks that had fallen victim to the quagmire – whipped up into a frenzy by the latest dump of rain in this, the rainy season.

At the worst spot near Yambio, three trucks were stuck in a row. The middle one had capsized sideways.

Some impatient drivers tried driving around, only to get stuck themselves. They had to pay local children to help dig them out.

We were stranded for three hours while we helped pull out a number of trucks and cars to help clear the road for ourselves.

But my thoughts are with the poor truck drivers. You couldn’t pay me to do their job.

Some had been waiting for help for 2 weeks – one driver said he’d been there for two months.

These drivers had to sleep in their cabins. Other industrious truckers had set up camp, complete with mosquito nets and sleeping bags.

We were on our way to Wau to meet some of the local ministers to plug the new newspaper.

Three-quarters of our way there we came upon another mishap.

The last bridge before Wau had been swept away by flood water.

The locals were starting to build a new temporary bridge using boulders but we didn’t fancy it’d be finished before the day was out.

This meant backtracking and what would turn out to be a three-day detour via Maridi.

To cap off that day of broken bridges and mudslicks – we were stopped by a number of armed men as we sped through the night to get back to a hotel in the nearest town.

Turned out they were a local militia group. They were on patrol after some locals had apparently seen LRA soldiers doing reconnaissance that afternoon.

The men warned us about travelling further – although they wouldn’t stop us from doing so.

We debated what to do for an hour.

Go back all the way we’d come, sleep in the car in the boonies, or take the plunge and drive pell-mell through a potential roadblock.

We finally decided to go for it, and found another vehicle which decided to form a convoy with us.

After reading about the LRA for the last six months and having spoken to many women who have experienced LRA ambushes, this was the first time I experienced the fear that they must have felt.

For half an hour our two vehicles sped down bush lanes, all eyes on the sides of the road scouring for armed men.

That was just 30 minutes of fear and uncertainty. Many people in northern Uganda have experienced that feeling, but for 20 years.

I’m writing this so needless to say we made it in one piece.

I’m not sure if we were lucky or the sighting was just bogus.

Before arriving at Wau, we also served as ambulance for a man who’d been hit in a hit and run.

The guy had an open leg fracture and had been given no anesthetic in the under stocked field hospital.

He was amazingly stoical as we rode over the bumpy roads for an hour to reach the nearest health centre.

We left him with a few Sudanese pounds to buy some food and drink with.

We finally reached the hustle and bustle of Wau with its seething souks, oppressive heat, mixture of mosques and churches.

Street children filled the store verandas at night, exhausted after a day of collecting plastic bottles, selling watermelon wedges and begging.

Quite the trip so far.

Now we just have to get back to Juba.