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The First Seventy Years: 43 – Finding a Gem

...As I came up to the mini-summit I caught a glimpse of a large hole just over the brow. Although I quickly applied my brakes it was too late. One of the front wheels went straight into it, causing the car to be brought to a sudden halt. We all shot forward in our seats causing a few collective bruises and bumps. The heavily laden roof-rack took off like a jet propelled missile, landing several metres in front of the car...

Eric Biddulph encounters disaster on the road to and from a holiday in Zambia.

To read earlier chapters of Eric’s story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_first_seventy_years/

The long vacation of July/August arrived. Zambia was to be our chosen destination. Setting off northwards to Lilongwe, we then headed due west to the border at Chitipa. One of the great game parks of Africa and one which had not become heavily commercialised then as now, owing to its relative isolation, was the Luanga Valley in south eastern Zambia. There was a one hundred and fifty kilometre drive to the park.

Although it was not a tarred road, the surface was reasonably smooth. I was driving at around sixty kilometres an hour when I suddenly came upon a short rise. As I came up to the mini-summit I caught a glimpse of a large hole just over the brow. Although I quickly applied my brakes it was too late. One of the front wheels went straight into it, causing the car to be brought to a sudden halt. We all shot forward in our seats causing a few collective bruises and bumps. The heavily laden roof-rack took off like a jet propelled missile, landing several metres in front of the car.

Local youngsters appeared within seconds. Had the hole been 'arranged'? I shall never know, but they did earn a few kwacha for helping to get us on the move.

Fate had delivered another blow. The impact had bent one of the steering rods. It was only possible to have one of the front wheels rolling in a straight line; the other had to be content with being dragged along at a 20 degree angle. Fortunately we were only a short distance from accommodation. No one there could fix it for us. We were advised to return to Chitipa to have it repaired. There was no possibility of being able to use the car to travel round the game park to view the wildlife.

A Swedish diplomat working in Lusaka was on holiday in the reserve. He agreed to accompany us on the drive back the next morning. This was a slow and traumatic experience, continually changing the steering to allow first one and then the other wheel to run in a straight line. Inevitably both tyres were quickly stripped of all their tread and became overheated. This necessitated regular halts to allow them to cool down. I began to doubt if I would be able to reach Chitipa as witnessed the rapid disappearance of the rubber and the emergence of the canvas casing. Luckily they held out.

I was then faced with finding a hotel for the night whilst the rod was repaired and new tyres fitted. A 500 kilometre drive took us to the capital, Lusaka. Staying with a British expatriate family we had met in Rhodesia the previous year, we were able to experience some of the sights with the help of our knowledgeable guides.

The Victoria Falls is one of the natural wonders of the world. Lying a further 500 kilometres to the south west of Lusaka on the border with Rhodesia, we heard the sound of the Falls whilst several kilometres away. Although it was the dry season, the mighty Zambezi falls in a continuous sheet of water over a two hundred metre drop caused by a shift of the land which created the Rift Valley some two thousand kilometres in length reaching up into East Africa. The scale of the Falls, at some two kilometres in width, makes them perhaps the most spectacular in the world.

Although relations between Zambia and Rhodesia were at a low ebb, the Zambians had not sought to close the border. The railway link between Lusaka and the South African ports was vital for Zambia's economy. In addition, tourists wanted to cross over into Rhodesia for 24 hours to visit the whole of the Victoria Falls. This provided a valuable source of foreign currency.
The Kariba Dam had been constructed during the 1950s to provide hydroelectricity for both countries by harnessing the power of the Zambezi.

We decided to do a detour on our return journey to Lusaka. Leaving the main highway I soon hit an unsurfaced road. It was only a matter of minutes before I heard a loud bang and felt the car struggle to continue its forward movement. An inspection revealed that despite extra suspension one of the rear leaf springs had suffered a clean break. The weight of the passengers and luggage, together with the constant bouncing, had caused the wheel arch to collapse on to one of the rear wheels.

I managed to limp back to the road linking Victoria Falls with Lusaka. Flagging down an articulated lorry, I persuaded the driver to let me offload my luggage on to his vehicle and take Mary and the children to Lusaka. The car, now relieved of heavy weight, was able to rise sufficiently to clear the rear wheel arch. I spent the next few hours tailing the lorry. Yet another major repair bill.

It was with much relief that I arrived back in Blantyre; a disastrous odyssey.

Seeking to fulfil my ambition to see as much of Africa as possible, July 1972 saw me and the family heading northwards through the Northern Region of Malawi into Tanzania. A change of car had become inevitable given the series of catastrophes experienced with the Cortina Estate, which was totally unsuitable for Africa's roads. I received word from a contact within United Transport that a Fort Escort was being traded in, having recorded its contractual 18,000 miles. It was reported to be an absolute 'gem'.

I went straight to the motor dealer and quoted its registration number. After a short test drive I bought it there and then. It stayed in the family until the end of the 1970s. Reliability was its watchword despite being driven in some of the most extreme conditions that a car can be expected to endure whether in Africa or Asia.

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