I grew up accustomed to a certain cycle of seasons: winter is followed by spring which is followed by summer which is followed by fall which is followed by winter etc. Then I went to Africa and everything changed. Here in Burkina Faso there are only three seasons: hot and dry season, very very hot and dry season, and rainy season. Right now we’re on the cusp of the hot and dry season. It only rains once a week as opposed to daily, the wind picks up, and the sun beams out of a cloudless sky every day.
Two weeks ago I was out at the mining camp, and I decided to take advantage of my half-day off to drive to the nearest town to have a look around. There is a long spine of bizarre rock formations there that look like they were poured onto the earth from great height. Big boulders are perched on narrow towers of sandstone and the wind whistles as it rips through the narrow canyons. If you climb up into the cliffs you can find shards of pottery from civilizations that took refuge in this natural fortress hundreds of years ago. The sedimentary rocks are a reminder of a time when Burkina Faso was beachfront property, and it’s a strange and interesting day trip.
The town is about 15 miles from the camp, which means it’s an hour away if all goes well. The Burkina countryside resists road construction the way a wild horse resists being saddled for the first time. The place is geographically challenging. Surveyors come out to from the capital to try and plan roads along a route that may have knotty granite outcroppings at one point and then marshy rice fields a few miles later. In Western Burkina Faso there are riverbeds everywhere which swell and recede depending on the season and even the time of day, so a stream that washes away a car in the morning may find women washing laundry in that same spot in the afternoon. Roads are built to connect towns, obviously, and a lot of these communities were established back when footpaths and donkey bridges were the only transportation network out there. Typically the government will build roads that run right through streams and rivers. They pour a concrete base in the riiverbed, and then you just shift to four-wheel-drive and hope that your truck lumbers out on the other side. I’ve been driving out there and traversed streams that flow across the road from left to right, and then in a few miles you’ll pass a stream that flows right to left. It’s tricky countryside.
I set out to look at the rocks with a colleague from the camp. It had rained the night before and the road was a bit sporty, but I was driving a 4X4 pickup and I thought we could make it. The first miles were slow. The ground was saturated and the dirt roads were slick, and in some areas water had just flowed along the hard-packed laterite. The shocks thumped over riffles where the water had run and the truck lurched over gouges in the road where the boreen had washed away. After 45 minutes of careful progress we were within a few miles of the town when we hit the mudfields.
The road ran between rice fields on either side, which made the ground marshy. This was a low area with no drainage, so even when the rest of the countryside dried between storms this area was still soaked. Massive trucks had churned through the mud leaving furrows, and as I sat in the truck thinking about crossing a motorcycle arrived at the other side and decided to try his luck. The engine whined as his rear wheel fishtailed under him, and the tire spun up a roostertail of black clods. He managed to battle the machine across. I decided to try as well.
I shifted into low four-wheel drive and began to steam across the mud patch. The truck swayed a bit from side to side but was firmly aligned in the ruts of the trucks that had gone before. I glanced in the rearview mirror and the pickup was actually leaving a wake behind it; the mud rippled and flowed to fill the tracks of our passage. Two-thirds of the way through the mud patch I felt the wheels lose traction, and our mission ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
I got out and sank up to my shins. We hadn’t bottomed out, we hadn’t snagged anything, we were just stuck. I tried everything. Put the floor mats under the tires and then tried logs when that didn’t work, lowered the air pressure in the tires, rocked the truck back and forth, nothing. There was no winch. Like many outdoor enthusiasts have before me, I reflected on the fact that four-wheel drive doesn’t prevent you from getting stuck, it just allows you to get stuck deeper in more remote places. I got back in the cab to see if time had solidified the muck or perhaps a friendly sorcerer had taken an interest in my predicament, but the vehicle was becalmed on a sea of black mud. It was like trying to ice skate across a swimming pool filled with marshmallows.
Then Salvation chundered over the horizon. A little Nissan minibus spluttered down the hill, daring to take on a mud patch that had snared a 4X4. The driver stopped at the edge of the patch and gazed at it as if wondering what fresh hell this could be. Then he clapped his hands three times and ordered everyone out of the bus. It was a fourteen seater machine that had been retired from Europe or Asia when it began to fail emissions tests or be deemed a safety hazard, and now at least 30 people unfolded themselves from the inside of the bus. The men stretched, lit cigarettes, looked at us with no particular surprise, and began rolling up their pant legs. It was a practiced gesture. 20 men waded into the mud, lifted the pickup from the ground, and shifted it to a solid position I could drive it from. I had had enough shenanigans, and I reversed until I was on the side of the mud patch that led to the camp. Then the driver got back in his bus and arranged the cohort of men around him. He popped it into first gear and then charged into the muck. The bus tires were totally bald and the clearance was half as high as the pickup truck, and because it was high and motos and baggage were strapped to the roof, it swayed alarmingly. The engine groaned and spewed black smoke and all of the men pulled and pushed, at times digging under the sides to lift the bus bodily and lighten the load a bit. It cleft the mud like a boat, and the mud oozed easily over the tracks it left behind.
On the other side the pushers suddenly relaxed and broke into grins and laughter. People lit their other cigarette, washed their legs, and rolled their pants down. One man had lost a shoe in the mud, never to be seen again. A woman took advantage to sell him a pair of flip flops from a bag she carried on her head. People compressed themselves into the bus again and it roared on to the next mud patch. The truck was fine, and I got back to camp with no problems.