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The Bus to Renk: Through Sudan Without a Gear Stick

 

In this excerpt from his acclaimed book, The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World’s Longest River, journalist Dan Morrison chronicles a bus ride across southern Sudan. It is part of his journey along the world’s longest river, from Uganda to Egypt.

In the morning I carried my bags across the road to the Melut souk and bought a ticket for the bus to Renk, the last city in southern Sudan. Through the window of a small wooden shack the ticketmaster took my money and printed D-A-N on the narrow-ruled lines of a dessicated ledger. He tore a square printed receipt from a tissue-thin sheet and handed me the chit in his open palm. “Can I sit in the front?” I asked. “With the driver?” He nodded. “With the driver, I mean. Up front?” He nodded again, slowly this time, as if to a moron, and scribbled a word or two more in Arabic next to my name. “Shukran, ya hadritak,” I said in lousy Arabic – Thank you, O Sir.

I loaded up on bottled water and bought a chrome flashlight at a nearby stall: Tiger Head brand, made in China, it had an LED bulb and ran on D-size batteries that so closely bordered the artisinal I could almost make out the impressions of the little pubescent fingers that had rolled the bare lead cells into their shiny paper sheaths.

The bus was facing south on a slight incline near the roadside. Painted a happy blue, it was a hybrid creature, a 50-foot wooden-slatted passenger compartment of small, high-backed seats bolted onto the back of an old Smith’s diesel lorry, a truck so antique that the grille boasted a vestigal slot, like an inverted keyhole, for an old-fashioned crank-starter. To say the truck was a Smith’s was but to guess based on the faint lettering on two dials embedded in the dashboard, one of them upside-down. These gauges indicated nothing besides the possibility that someone had once aspired to measure the truck’s amperage and oil pressure. Outside, I stepped onto the bumper and peered into the engine compartment while a crew of boys topped off the water and oil. The motor was clean, and had the simple look that old motors do – a radiator the size of a Times atlas, a battery the size of a milk carton and the valve cover with a cream enameled look to it, like an old crock pot. There were no markings on the engine, not even faint ones, that could whisper its original make or model.

Bernard, the Belgian peacekeeper who’d given me shelter, drove by as I was hoisting my rucksack to the roof to tell me that more prisoners from Paloich were being kept at the nearby school. “You didn’t have to risk yourself going to the place of the riot,” he said. “The rioters have come to you.” But it was too late for new interviews with these new wretches – my bus was about to leave. The passengers – some of the men in jallabiyas, others in shirts and slacks, a half-dozen wearing fatigues and carrying AK’s; the women in batik-style wraps of violet, brown and blue, almost all of them wearing plastic slippers and flip-flops – were gently pushing onto the bus, their luggage lashed up top, and I climbed into the front seat, followed by two of the bus’ five-man crew.

With passengers on, the cargo loaded and the engine at the ready, the driver now got in and said hello with a quick jut of his chin. He had short graying hair and big square teeth framed by a beard and oversized aviator sunglasses, all set around the faint horizontal scarring on his brow. There was competence and humor in his face; he gave the impression of one who had been plying the roads of Upper Nile since before there were roads. He pulled the choke knob and then reached under the dash to a jumble of faded red wires and thumbed their exposed ends into a ball. Then he let out the clutch and we rolled forward a few feet before he popped it into low gear and the engine growled to steady if geriatric life. I smiled and wanted to laugh as I squinted through the smoky windshield at the road ahead. . .

* * * *

We drove through the late morning and early afternoon until, about two hours outside Renk, the trusty Smithy cleared its throat, went quiet and we coasted six feet to a stop. We had run out of fuel. The passengers filed off without complaint as the driver and his crew took turns peering into the empty tank under the chassis. They squatted on the road and didn’t say much. The empty steel tank didn’t say much either. I sat with several men and boys – Arab, Dinka, Shilluk, Nuer – in a two-feet-wide band of shade on the right side of the bus. As the sun kept moving, our band of shade narrowed and this sun, today, really did burn.

Long-haul trucks passed in ones and twos carrying loads of steel and pipe on their flatbeds; none stopped. After about 45 idle minutes a southbound bus pulled over and offered fuel. A search began for a hose to siphon diesel from their tank into a jerrican and after fifteen minutes of watching the crew rummage in their various kit bags I almost offered them a rubber tube from my water filter. (Sanity for once intervened to keep my mouth shut and I would like to thank it, again.) In time they found a hose and someone drew the short straw and was sent to suck a few liters from the other tank. They crossed the road and poured it into ours but still the engine still wouldn’t turn over when we tried a groaning push start. The boys popped the hood again and the driver removed each of six small bolts sitting under the cylinders until diesel bled from each. Then we all gathered around, me near the front, and pushed, digging into the sandy berm until the machine rolled, caught, sputtered and failed. Three more tries and we were back under the power of internal combustion. The driver put the truck in neutral, the gang added more water to the radiator, this time from a black goatskin, and we were away, slowing every now and again to dodge herds of goats and cattle being driven across the road.

Photo © by Dan Morrison

 

The landscape was one of desert floor and low trees, many of which appeared to have been burned for charcoal. These small dead trees were set in the earth as far as I could see in any direction. I gathered we were about an hour away from Renk when, as the driver moved to shift from third to fourth, the unthinkable happened: the gear stick broke off in his hand with a quiet snap, right at its base. He looked at me through his plus-size aviators and I looked back and shrugged. “Wasn’t me, man.” He looked down at the top of the gear box, over to my boots and back to my face and I shrugged again. He gave a small shake to his head, corrected course like a schooner captain and stuck the gearshift out the window for the crew up top to gape at. Then he reached across me to his number two, asleep against the door, and tapped him awake.

Now when we encountered the herds, the driver would put in the clutch, rev the engine – both to keep the rpms up and to alarm the livestock – and pilot a course between the dumb and the not as dumb. (In addition to air bags and a Bose entertainment system, the bus also lacked a horn.) The skinny herdsmen and herdsboys, wrapped in white muslin shawls and carrying long walking sticks, would, at the approach of the bus, turn towards us with a hospitable smile, as if welcoming friendly aliens, slowing the dolorous progress of their mute meat across the road. Our last such crossing of the animal shoals was, if not a display of artistry, at the very least one of professionalism. A pretty, russet-colored veal stopped dead center in the road and our man had to brake, keep the rpms high, cut hard to the right and again to the left, bring the clutch out slow and still keep us moving. I slapped the driver’s arm in congratulations and he grinned, eyes fixed on the road.

The herds couldn’t stop us, but the heat could. With Renk almost in sight the driver put in the clutch and coasted us to a stop so the mobile pit crew could refill the radiator. We’d been in third since the stick broke; it would be impossible to get moving again in so high a gear. I pointed at the four bolts that secured the top of the gearbox and the driver nodded. He called out to the crew and a quarter-inch wrench was handed down through the passenger side window. The engine still idling, his foot still on the clutch, the driver leaned, pulled up two thick black rubber mats and passed them to the roof, revealing a floor of ancient wood and steel. The nub of the broken gearshift jutted out of a square black metal cover. He unbolted the cover and pulled it off. Inside, two opposing steel brackets sat almost floating in a tight square pool of sputtering oil. The driver again called out and a ten-inch slotted screwdriver appeared at his window. Bending at the waist, foot still on the clutch, he pried the left-hand bracket forward, putting us in neutral. He took his foot off the clutch, wiped his face with a washcloth, depressed the high clutch again and then pried and ground us into first gear.

And so we moved. After dropping the washcloth over the gearbox to suppress the hot oil splattering on our legs, he let out the clutch and we rolled back onto the road, slowly gaining speed. Soon enough it was time for second gear, and he bent down again, brushed aside the washcloth, and pushed and grunted us there while I held the wide bucking steering wheel close to steady.

He kept it in second the rest of the way, crawling along the jellied asphalt, dodging animals and their companions until, hours later, still in second gear, we coasted down into the sprawling bus depot outside Renk. The passengers spilled out and, once their luggage was freed from the roof, disappeared into the teem of minibuses, tea stalls and donkey carts. I waited for my bag, thanked the driver and grabbed an autorickshaw into town with the first mate, who was taking the broken gearshift to be welded back onto its stem. He jumped out in front of an open-air metal shop and I continued into the town to find lodging.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE BLACK NILE by Dan Morrison.  Copyright © 2010 by Dan Morrison.

Dan Morrison is the author of The Black Nile, which will be published in paperback July 26, 2011. He writes at danmorrison.net, and tweets at @dmsouthasia and @theblacknile.

The video below is about his book:

Comments

  1. [...] took me through territory where military intelligence had just the day before tried to arrest me [a lighter moment in that bus ride is recounted here] and was searching for lodging. It was already dark, and some soldiers suggested I speak to a local [...]

  2. [...] * Cruising on jellied asphalt through the northern badlands of South Sudan when the unthinkable happens. An excerpt from The Black Nile on NationalGeographic.com [...]