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The Scrivener: Breakdown

After the engine of Brian Barratt’s little two-stroke motor-bike conked out while he was on a solo 2,000 mile trip in southern Africa he came upon words powerful and poetic which have stayed with him: ‘On every mountain height is rest.’

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Fat dominating baobab trees filled the flat dry landscape. The nearest towns, if you could dignify them by that description, were over fifty miles away. Silence hung about this place. A hot, sticky, silence. Such is the seemingly endless valley of the great green greasy Limpopo river.

Things had been going well for the first 650 km (about 400 miles). The little motor-bike had behaved impeccably. Given that it was a small two-stroke, albeit with two cylinders, it had not rebelled against the hard labour it was expected to undertake. But here, at this spot, it stopped. Breakdown in the back of beyond.

There probably weren't any lions or hippos within growling distance, but that's what came to mind at the time. Not panic, but apprehension. This was in 1959, by the way, when I did a 3,400 km (about 2,000 miles) trip round part of southern Africa. Solo, too. A daft venture, OK, but that's what 23-year-olds do, isn't it? It was probably my sole physical feat in three-score years and ten (so far).

Discretion being the better part of valour, I dismounted, left the bike standing, and stood for about ten minutes in the shady sadness of the vale, hoping for some guardian angel to arrive. He or she didn't arrive, so I simply kicked the bike, sat on it, turned the key, stamped on the starter pedal, and the engine started. Relief!

The next part of the journey was the steepest, with the road rising from pretty well below sea level to the top of the escarpment, about 2,000 metres. Ten miles of that, with an engine which had just seized up, was the most harrowing journey I've ever taken. At Louis Trichardt, Black Mountain Inn was full so I booked into Punch Bowl Inn. And there I found words poetic and powerful which have stayed with me for nearly half a century.

The hotel had its own crockery with one of those well-known traditional blue and white patterns. Each piece also bore the motto 'On every mountain height is rest'. The bill for dinner, bed and breakfast came to a mere 23/6d (one pound, three shillings, and sixpence). That's about three dollars in modern money.

When I eventually reached Durban, in South Africa, repairs to the bike cost me 16/7d (sixteen shillings and sevenpence). That included 'General check, adjust rear brake, adjust chain, clean air filter, drain gear box and refill. Labour 1 hour'. And, yes, the engine had seized up during the trip.

These memories emerged from the cerebral database the other day when I chatted to a fellow who had a magnificent motor-bike. It was one of those mighty 650cc V-twin monsters with all mod cons, costing as much as a small car. The largest bikes I drove in my heyday were a 250cc shaft-drive BMW (a dream), a 650cc BSA (which set the standard) and a 500cc Norton (pure bliss). I wouldn't even sit on one of these huge modern machines which I admire so much, let alone attempt to drive one.

On the other hand, there have been a few engine seizures over the years. Things are humming along nicely but something happens, either suddenly or slowly, and you're alone. Sometimes you understand what it is; other times you don't. These are the times when everything stops and you can't face what lies ahead. You might even wonder if it's worth continuing the journey. The brain just can't cope.

Depression, anxiety and stress can be overwhelming. The Limpopo Valley has its mental counterpart in the Slough of Despond. No lions, no hippos, but Black Dog lurks behind the darkness. There's no easy fix, with or without a change of engine oil. You just have to keep going. The cost is more than a couple of pounds but something remains the same, learned from experience: 'On every mountain height is rest'.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2007


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