The African Pothole, by Kingsley Holgate

“OH $#!^!” came the driver’s expletive as with a bang the GPS lost its mounting to dangle from its wire and the tattered expedition journal jumped from the dashboard to end up in a dust cloud on the floor between the clutch and brake peddles. “Bloody potholes – why can’t they fix the f….. road.” And so after years of travel I decided to scribble a story called The African Pothole.

“No adventure is complete without them”

Sure! The French have their Eiffel Tower and champagne, the Dutch their tulips and cheese, the Irish their Guinness the Cubans their cigars, the Spanish their bull fighting and the British their tea. But, hey! We in Africa have the “Pothole” and no adventure is complete without the persistent hiss of escaping air from a slit tyre or worse still a burst tyre rifle shot-like explosion that if it happens in a war torn area has the passengers all ducking for bloody cover! – For us in Africa potholes are part of life.

Whole families of them

Have you noticed how African potholes like living in families, much like villages that after miles of absolutely no habitation and only when you desperately need to pull over at a private place to urgently ablute after too much dodgy goat stew do a dozen excited kids suddenly pop up, screeching ‘Mzungu Mzungu’ whilst you squat embarrassingly behind an ant heap with your rods around your knees, the wind tugging at the flapping toilet paper roll that fly’s like a pennant from the spade handle.

African Potholes are like that! You can be purring along in top gear, not a roadblock or pothole in sight, listening to Johnny Clegg – tailwind behind you, dreaming about the joys of tonight’s campfire and Rhenoster koffie – picking up speed on a long downhill into the dip, when without warning, hidden in the shade of a great Acacia Robusta and too late for the shout of “Watch out! Potholes!” from a wide eyed passenger – you suddenly run into an entire pothole family – you swing hard to the left and then dangerously right, nearly rolling the overloaded Landy to avoid the baby potholes before a mother of a pothole with a hard edge catches your left back tyre with a sickening sharp bone jarring thud, The camp kettle flying forward like a missile comes at you as you stand on the brakes locking all four wheels to avoid writing off your bloody suspension as you slide into Big Daddy whose stretched himself right across the road, cleverly hidden by his late afternoon shade tree. Now in first gear and acting all nonchalant like nothing unusual happened, your start slowly accelerating as you go through the gears, zigzagging this way and that to avoid the pothole grandparents, uncles, cousins and aunties – and that’s always when you get that embarrassing two way radio call from the expedition Landy behind you. They’ve had the advantage of slowing down as they saw your Defenders brake lights glow red as you nearly rolled – “Jeez! Pops – that was close” comes your sons’ voice over the air – “didn’t you see them?” – So at the thought of all the pothole relatives ahead you answer – “Won’t you drive in front – your eyes are sharper than mine”. And so their Landy of grinning faces comes shooting past leaving you to wobble foolishly along behind, your hand shaking on the steering wheel a sure sign of the wheel balance having been knocked out by a dented rim!

Different Characters

Like people potholes have their very own characters – The deep mud-filled variety are quite hazardous – on impact they throw a whoosh of thick red-brown watery mud onto your windscreen, instantly obliterating any forward view and leaving you sufficiently blind so that by the time the windscreen wipers have fought to clear the mess you have already collided with an entire pothole family – OUCH! Worst still is if in the old Landy you’ve left the below the windscreen ventilation flaps open, allowing a torrent of the red-brown woosh to flood over the bonnet and into the cab so drowning the …………. Bird Book and binoculars which are conveniently place on her lap so eliciting the sharp tongued reaction from your mud covered wife of “Are you trying to bloody well kill me”, with the obvious response from the driver of “what happened? I thought you were supposed to be POTHOLE WATCHING.”

The ditch type pothole is a real bastard – no room to maneuver and all 4 wheels taking it on the chin! The broken tar sharp edge ‘I’ll smash your suspension” variety are really nasty characters especially the deep ones that swallow the entire tyre. But as an old pothole warrior you’re bound to learn a few tricks, like spotting a spurt of dust or splash of water from the vehicle in front of you as they score a direct hit, also by being able to detect the “tell tale” tracks veering off the road to avoid a ‘Big Daddy” – Seeing a vehicle zigzagging crazily towards you at high speed doesn’t necessarily mean the drivers pissed – he’s just another pothole dodger.

Pothole Warriors

Check out a dusty 4×4 parked outside a remote pub and you’ll soon see if he’s a pothole warrior or not – bodywork scratches, dents and wobbly rear view mirrors generally indicate that he’s shot off the road to avoid the “buggers” and got into a scrape with the surrounding bush. Numerous gooey tubeless repair plugs sticking out from the tyre walls like war medals are sure signs of a true pothole warrior as are dented rims, sidewall bulges, gaiters, goitres and even hernia’s where the tube’s popped out from the tyre wall like a small balloon.

The Pothole Industry

A lot of African villages live off potholes, the local headman has his field of potholes which he controls and it can be quite lucrative. At the sound of approaching vehicles kids race our from the village and in a flurry go through the motion of filling up the potholes for which service you are expected to part with some coins – sometimes these unofficial pothole menders will even resort to a pothole roadblock – Pay and you can proceed, – I was once told a story about the road north of the Rio Save in Mozambique where at one time the potholes, were so deep that one had to drop down to a snails pace – and that was when the pothole bandits would attack you at night – it got so bad that the soldiers set up camps alongside the road to stop the practice.

Be careful!

Potholes can be nomadic – Three years ago you’d marked WATCH OUT! bad potholes on a section of your map now only to find that Chinese road builders have smoothed it all out for you. Down goes the right foot and the mood improves at the thought of still getting to your chosen destination before nightfall – Forget it! Just as you least expect it there they are again ready to greet you with a welcoming screech of brakes and an almighty suspension walloping bang! It tires you out, especially late afternoon, vizor down into the sun pothole dodging.

They grow in size

But when is a pothole not a pothole? Well I suppose when it’s a sinkhole, deep enough to swallow an entire Land Rover or a wash away where the whole road in front of you is gone or where like in the Congo what began as a pothole is now so bloody deep and mud filled that when you get stuck, for fear of drowning, you climb out of your window – onto the roof rack and step out onto dry land.

The Future of potholes

Isn’t it a bloody killer when for day after day you only average around 12 – 16kms per hour speeding up between tow-hitch catching potholes, clutch in clutch out constantly changing gears trying to build up a rhythm, 1st, 2nd, 3rd then back down again into low ratio first, rocking and rolling the tired passengers knocking their bloody heads together whilst a man on a bicycle carrying a colourful, speckled goat and a bunch of green bananas gives you a big toothy grin as he effortlessly overtakes you on his big wheeled made in India bicycle – I suppose the danger in governments not fixing the potholes is they then might not receive donor money for a new road. The Chinese would have nothing to repair, the Jua kali welding stalls in each village would go out of business, as would Africa’s fix anything tyre repair men, the village pothole menders, the slowdown for pothole roadside cold drink and roast mealie vendors, the stop for potholes before a bridge fish traders and, the fowls held up by the legs, wave you down before the pothole, poultry merchants.

Watch out! Slow down. Bad potholes ahead on the left comes a crackly voice over the radio! You hit the brakes and there they are “lying ‘n waiting”… So are potholes part of living in Africa? Will our grandchildren get to know them as well as we’ve done. – Somehow I think so……

Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.