In remote Africa no road can ever be taken for granted. We got over this, but with a lot of work and nail biting.
If one ventures into really remote Africa, roads take on a whole new meaning. They bring that kind of exciting uncertainty that one feels when one is unsure of what to expect in the next few moments. Those that are shown as major routes on touring maps usually actually 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 shown on touring maps as secondary and smaller roads often do not exist on the ground; the ones actually on the ground may not be on the maps. Their state is typically near impassable. Surfaces are commonly badly rutted and pockmarked with potholes, in places several metres in diameter and deep enough to be major water obstacles when filled with rain water. Sometimes they simply run out without warning, or (even on main ones), one must be prepared to do impromptu repairs – sometimes to vehicles blocking the road with no way around!
The picture is of a remote river crossing in Zambezia Province, Mozambique. The bridge seemed like it was hanging onto the edges of the ravine like someone who had had a last-minute re-think about a suicide jump. Its steel deck was twisted like a scrap of paper, overwhelmed by some ominous collusion of gargatuan proportions. Judging from their turn-round tracks, the bridge was clearly considered unstable by the few vehicles that had attempted to use the road before us.
The banks of the ravine were a shear drop of some thirty metres. Searching for a suitable alternative place and trying to hack a crossing out of there would have taken days. However, careful inspection of the bridgeheads told me that maybe, just maybe, we could make it across. So, watched in incredulous silence by a few locals, we lugged rocks and stones from the area around and built a rough ramp so that the vehicle could mount onto the deck. Then we took it on, as smoothly as our jumpy nerves allowed. There was some ominous shuddering and trembling and hastily muttered prayers and a few nervous swearwords, but we made it!
Away from secondary roads and onto tracks, one has to be prepared to do a lot of work to earn passage. Large trees pushed over by elephant often forces one off the tracks. Banks of ravines are typically washed away at the bottom and one has to try and fill them with rocks or logs, or chop away some of the steepness. In the rainy season in tropical and even sub-tropical areas, tracks are best contemplated from the comfort of your favourite armchair.
The thing to avoid if at all possible, is getting stuck. At the very least it could take a lot of time and sweat to get out; at the worst it could mean a very long walk. So rather avoid bad spots and if you absolutely can’t, try make them less bad before you drive into them.