Challenges on the way to the hinterlands

Making it through the Middle World often presents unique challenges.

For one, “road” may mean something quite different from our usual understanding. Those that are shown as major routes on touring maps usually do exist, but they may turn out to be tortuous to navigate. Tar surfaces are often so badly potholed that it makes more sense to drive along the shoulders. Problem is of course, all travellers tend to have the same idea, and road shoulders quickly deteriorate to the point of impassability too.

Those roads shown on touring maps as secondary and smaller, often do not exist on the ground. The ones that do, may not be on the maps. Some simply run out without warning. Their state is typically near impassable – surfaces badly rutted and potholed, some holes several metres in diameter and deep enough to drown a vehicle; one must be prepared to do impromptu road repairs, or even repairs to vehicles blocking your way.

Some calamitous happening had befallen this steel bridge over a deep river gorge – months, possibly years back. The bridge deck was twisted up at a sharp angle diagonally across, and the near right-hand edge was bent up by about half a metre above the road surface, leaving a horizontal gap of about the same size between the deck and the landing.  

I had been wondering, as we approached along the road, about the grass growing through cracks in the tar and the leaves and lose soil blown over the surface that showed no sign of vehicle tracks; only human and bicycle. Now it was clear. The road was considered closed by all – no sign at the turn-off almost a day back though.

We stood perplexed. Turning back would mean two more days of road torture. It was worth seeing if there wasn’t some way… I climbed down the side of the ravine so I could take a look from underneath. The twist and sag of the deck had caused it to slip back from its near-side concrete base. It was barely still catching on its edge. However, we only needed one pass and our vehicle, although loaded for a four-week expedition, wasn’t all that heavy. It was unlikely that the bridge would sag further under our weight – not by enough to cause it to slip completely from its concrete base. It was worth a try, I told myself, but without any degree of confidence.

We were on the shoulder of a hill and loose rocks of various sizes had rolled down over the millennia and come to rest against the slopes, conveniently close to the road. Watched incredulously by a few locals, we started lugging them up. We wedged the bigger ones into the gap between the steel deck and the edge of the landing. Then we used smaller ones to build a rough ramp from the road surface to the level of the deck. It was hard work and it took hours, but in the end it looked reasonable. The question was, would the deck carry our weight without sagging so much that it slipped over the edge of the base, and launch us at the bottom of the ravine?

It was a tense moment. I decided to test it a bit first. I carefully drove the vehicle forward to the point where the front wheels were on the steel deck and the rear ones just about to mount it. It seemed stable up to that point, but there was no guarantee. It was one of those moments in life that pivoted on a single simple decision – go, or do not go; life, or death.

It seemed so unremarkable. Just a surface of chequered steel plate that dipped sharply with the twisted deck, then levelled to the opposite landing. I glanced in the side mirror. Phillip, my brother, who had accompanied me on this expedition, stood a little back. There was no sense in getting us both killed. He stood motionless, his hands on his hips, one leg cocked tensely. But he made no sign.

Back to the chequered plate. It seemed best to take it as fast as possible. If the deck did slip off, I might still have enough momentum to get me over the edge and onto the landing on the opposite side? Not sure. I took a deep breath and with, I guess, a mixture of stupidity and fatalism, gunned the engine. Under the bellow of the big six there was some creaking, and I could feel ominous shuddering and trembling but I made it – good luck to the next damn fool!

 

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