Heaving a bicycle over a saddle between two hills was not the best part of the day so far, but once I got to the top, the view was phenomenal. Fort Elwes sits right on the border of Zambia and Congo, along the Irumi hill range. In the not so far distance, I could see mount Mumpu, but this time, she was not the destination of this expedition.
Two groups of students were completing their Duke of Edinburgh Silver award, and my job was to get to the checkpoint at the fort and wait for them there. I had left my work mate, Dan at the first checkpoint, and he was going to follow the groups to me, and then each of us would trail a team to camp. Simple and straightforward, they said.
Getting here had been easy enough. I was told to follow a path through the bush that would lead me straight to the fort on the hill, and then it would continue on the other side and lead us straight to camp. At first, I had struggled to find it. But once I did, as promised, the path took me to the fort. And I had no qualms about it leading us to the Changwena camp later on.
Granted, my imagination had got a little carried away and I had imagined myself running into rebels in the forest and getting captured. Far fetched I know, but I was a female, alone. With patchy cell reception and prone to minor panic attacks. But hey, I had made it. So for now I was content to lie back, take in the view and wait.
It was the second day of the expedition, and for some reason, we were so rushed in the morning that we had forgotten to get the main half of our packed lunches from the cooler box. So all I had with me was a banana, a packet of crisps, two energy bars and a small pack of peanuts. But I knew I would survive till I got to camp, so I wasn’t too bothered. I also had 1 and a half bottles of water so I was very chilled. 😉 Also, because my supervisor, Abe was going to backtrack and use the route through town, We had asked him to get a box of Hug in a Mug for all of us to share and some cold drinks. Mine; a stoney, and so I was really looking forward to having those.
About an hour later, around 12:30 pm, I heard someone calling my name. It was Dan, he was just ahead of the first group, and said the second was about 30 minutes behind them. When he got to me, he had no water left and so I offered him my half bottle, and I kept the full one for myself. By now, my lunch was done. But I had kept one energy bar for later. By the time the group got to us and were ready to move on, it was around 1pm. Dan said he wanted to trail the first group and so I said I was okay to wait for the others, who really, should have been there by then.
The clock struck 2, and there was still no sign of them. I had been back and forth, and again I decided to go back to the base to lookout for them. Thankfully, I heard them coming. They were so relieved and happy…apparently they thought they were lost for a long time, and had just happened to find me.
The time was now 3pm. And they were finally ready to proceed to camp. I told them they really had to push on as they only had two hours to cover the 7km to camp. It seemed doable, considering the path was meant to go straight to it. Right?
I rode ahead of them several hundred metres and waited for them to catch up to me, as I wanted to be sure we were following the right path. It worked the first time, but the next couple of times I had to go back as they had slowed down. The time also seemed to be flying, it was now 4pm. And so I thought, let me try that one more time. The path was beginning to look sketchy, and so I figured if I could get way ahead, they would catch up and we would be a lot closer to camp.
So I rode for about 20 mins, and suddenly, the unimaginable happened. The path disappeared completely. I tried to look in all directions to no avail. So I waited and hoped they would get to me soon enough. It was the middle of June, which meant the sun set a lot faster. And already the sunlight was dancing on the treetops.
I then decided to go back and push them on. But in my wanting to hurry, I must have followed a false trail, because I landed in a huge clearing I knew I hadn’t seen before. Panic started to set in, and I started to shout the kids names. Nothing.
“Oh God!” I cried aloud, have I lost them? Where am I?
The sun was disappearing behind the trees and I was now ugly crying…Oh God, Oh God! It took everything within me to compose myself. Just in case they were right around the corner you know? I had to be the adult here…and so I frantically dragged my bike as I backtracked, looking for anything familiar.
By some miracle, I eventually got back to the point where the path had vanished. I looked at the sand to see if there were any footprints other than my own but I couldn’t tell. And because I had taken a wrong turn, I didn’t know if they had actually passed that point yet, or they were still yet to get there. I kept shouting …and I kept getting silence in response.
It was now 10 past 5. 10 minutes past the official check in time. They were supposed to have used their emergency phone to call us by now, but it was impossible as there was no cell reception at all on this side. It took me 20 minutes longer of waiting and calling, before I made the desperate decision to keep going. If I could get to camp and the group wasn’t ahead of me, at least I could get Abe and Dan to come and help me find them.
The skyline was turning blue. I had lost the group, I was lost myself. And I was losing hope. I had half a bottle of water, a bike and a map. But I couldn’t make out my location. Everything around me looked the same. All I knew is that from the fort, camp was in a general Westward direction. So I desperately pushed onward. Into the sunset.
As there was no path, I now had to push my bike. I kept taking out the map to try to match the features, and just before it got completely dark, I realised I was going downhill, And I figured I knew which hill it was on the map. With much gusto I stomped on down. Stepping blindly because the only light I had, was from the super dim torch on my emergency phone. My own phone battery, dead.
I was walking through really dense bush. And occasionally I tripped up over a log, or stepped into a hole. A few times I almost hit my head into a low hanging branch and I already had a few scratches on me from walking into thorn bushes. I still marvel at the fact that I had worn leggings and carried a sweater. This was so out of character for me, as I generally don’t like to get too hot when I’m riding or hiking. I was so grateful for them though, as it was a chilly night. My water supply was running really low, and for the first time in my life, my mouth was filled with the bitter taste of bile. I kept stopping and leaning on my bike to try to catch my breath and calm myself down. A few times I just sat down, and it took so much effort to get back up again. One time I actually said out loud, “You know what God, You better show me that path because I can’t do this blind wandering any longer!” I don’t know who I thought I was, but God surely has a sense of humour because I sidestepped around a tree and stepped right into the path. I was so amazed but so excited that I practically ran.
Right before I got to what I thought was the bottom of the hill, my bike wheel got caught in a vine, and I practically cursed it as I struggled to yank it free, unbeknownst to me that it was actually a blessing. You see, I was actually heading straight down the bank of a dried up riverbed. And the point I was heading to, was really deep and filled with large, twisting roots. If I had taken another step, I would probably have fallen straight into it and broken a limb or worse. Just one of the many miracles of that night.
It took a lot of time and effort to climb back up the steep bank, but once I did, I was met with another marvel. The moon had risen, and it was big and bright and full. It was also directly behind me which meant my way was completely illuminated. God. My tiny torchlight had nothing on it. And though I was still lost, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of peace.
I looked at the map and figured out where I was supposedly, as that was the only river around here. If I kept following it, it should lead me to camp…but the river too, disappeared. And once again, I was left to navigating by the moonlight. Only correcting my path by re-positioning the moon directly behind me whenever I started to go too far left or right.
Eventually, I found myself in a dambo …a clear area with no trees and lots of grass. I was so tired, and I sat down. Thinking I should just stay there and lie down till morning. It was now 8:30pm and I only had a couple of sips of water left. I sat there for about 15 minutes. Drafting messages in my phone to all my friends, in case I didn’t make it. I think the initial shock of being lost and the adrenaline was wearing off. And I was really starting to think I was going to die here. Alone in the forest.
But something told me again to look at the map. And I saw that between the river and camp, there were only two dambos. If I went to the bottom of it, I would either find the path or the river again, which would tell me which one I was in. I got up and went to have a look. Lo and behold… the path. Again I was energised, and I tried to trail it. But it disappeared…again. It was now 5 minutes to 9, and I said you know what…I’ll keep walking, and if I don’t find anything by 9, I’m going to stop wherever I am and sleep.
It didn’t take 5 minutes though, it only took 5 steps. And I found myself standing on the double-track road to camp. It was the most unbelievable feeling. I won’t even try to describe it. But as I tried to get on to my bike, I discovered one tyre was completely flat. And so I had to push it instead. I didn’t mind though. I was power walking, uphill, but confident because I was finally on the only definite feature I knew. However, it was only 3 hours later that I eventually got there, just before midnight. And only after being met by another test.
You see, about 20 minutes from camp, there was a fork in the road. And in no part of my memory could I remember which way to take. I knew like the earlier times that night, I had to actually, literally, depend on God to direct my steps. So I said,
“Ok God, left or right?”
Of course, I heard no audible answer, and so I veered to the left and kept going. But 5 minutes later, I was feeling uneasy, and something in me telling me that I was supposed to have gone right. So I walked back, and took the right. Arriving at camp, I was so relieved I had gone back…But it was only later as i recounted the story, that my workmates told me that had I kept going left, I would have ended up at a lumberers camp, where a few miners had been murdered not that long ago. God guys.
At camp I quickly realised much to my dismay, that only one team had made it. It was extremely quiet, and I could see just a few glowing coals where the campfire had been. Abe had put up all our tents thankfully, and I admit, I was quite upset that they would all be asleep while we were still lost out there. I immediately located a container, and proceeded to gulp down some water. This was excruciatingly painful as I quickly discovered I was dehydrated and my throat was actually blistered. So I made myself a cup of sweet black tea which I tried to sip slowly. It was too sore to eat.
I didn’t want to disturb anyone, so I thought, if I just set my alarm for 5am when it’s starting to get light, I can wake them up then and we can go looking. So I peeled off my sweat-drenched clothes and scrubbed myself with baby wipes before crawling into my tent. It was a very restless night, and I woke up at 3am to someone calling my name. I was so confused, but it turns out when we didn’t turn up… Abe and Dan had gone looking for us. (I blame my being lightheaded for thinking otherwise!) They had gone all the way back to the fort, then turned around to trail us back towards camp. God bless them! They somehow stumbled upon the missing group who had set up camp when it got dark (clever clogs!). Not finding me with them, they had hoped I had made it here, and they had come back with them. We all exchanged our stories, so thankful that we all made it.
I don’t think I have ever felt happier than when I went outside and found the kids smiling and safe. The guilt of leaving them had been weighing me down, but thankfully God saw us all through safely in our night in the North Swaka Forest reserve. The entire experience was extremely humbling. All the times that I have ever had the slightest idea that I could make it without God! He truly does direct our steps. I owe my whole life to Him and everyday it’s my obligation to say,
“Here’s my life God, do with it what You will”.