I don’t usually mind getting lost.
The aimless meandering that often results from a misstep is soothing, as far as travel goes. Without a destination, time, too, slips away.
Unless you happen to get lost in a minefield.
In that case, time tightens and every second lengthens into a long minute, one you desperately long to escape.
The day had started rather promisingly on a visit to what used to be Mozambique’s premier national park, Gorongosa. A decade and a half of war had felled the trees, burned the bushes, and chased the wildlife to other regions or to local dinner plates.
Instead of wildlife the park was populated with landmines, laid by both warring factions, government and rebel, in Mozambique’s 16-year civil war.
With peace in the early 1990s came journalists (like myself) and de-mining – almost.
Our open-air overland vehicle slammed to a halt so abruptly I grabbed a safety bar to avoid being catapulted out.
My ranger escort wiped his forehead.
We’re lost, he told me, in a gravelly voice of fear.
He pointed to a tree.
“We passed that tree before. Twice.”
We were lost in a minefield, that’s what. The road had been de-mined, but not the riverbed into which we had drifted.
It was nearly 20 years ago and I still taste the sour scratch of panic at the back of my throat. I recall falling out of the vehicle and throwing up, my bowels emptying themselves for what might be the last time. If terror had a smell, I would be it.
I heaved and finally dared to look around. Trees, trees, trees. Palms – tall, leafy and identical.
Earlier I had glanced with casual disinterest at the rusty, twisted metal littering the roadside, leftovers of vehicles unfortunate enough to roll over a landmine. But that was war, and war was over. So was the danger.
Yet here we were, well in line for rusty twisted hulk duty. That could be us if we didn’t find our way soon.
Sighting a slightly twisted tree we rushed towards it, only to notice the mark we had left on its trunk last time we passed by.
Until… yes, surely, yes! Looking over the vehicle’s side I could discern a few pale blades of flattened grass and some grooved grit, probably faint tread marks. We were back on track and so ended half an hour that felt like a year during which I couldn’t wipe this image from my mind: that of being exploded into the sky and falling back as bits and pieces of unrecognizable metal and flesh.
I knew we were finally safe when the ranger made a strange sobbing sound. His face broke into a slow smile, his own despair sliding off like a cloak. Reverse bravado. Post-facto levity. His instant lightheartedness belied the terror that had preceded it, his still-white knuckles evidence.
My fear took a bit longer to dissipate, alternating between wanting to kiss the ground and wanting to throw up again.
The next day we would journey again except this time, I’d be accompanied by a large-ish group of armed, uniformed men, soldiers sent out to track poachers still nibbling at the park’s edges while the government sought desperately to repopulate the forests.
We would stick to the de-mined roads but as is the case in any war-torn nation, getting rid of risk isn’t an overnight job. The roads were cleared, but eliminating mines from the rest of the land was still two decades away.
That night, we sat around the campfire, sleeping in bags strewn around a former army base. A mined army base. To relieve myself I would cautiously place my feet into the muddy footprints left by earlier soldiers on a similar mission. If they hadn’t been blown up, chances are I’d be fine if I stuck to their footsteps.
We ate quietly, each our own food. Most men carried a local mealie, cassava or the like, while I dipped a spoon into my peanut butter jar, now dangerously low.
We spent several days ‘out’ and hurried back to the park’s headquarters when the rains threatened. We had seen no poachers – they knew better than to face several dozen armed men.
We didn’t beat the rains and our last few hours were spent skidding through the mud, an anxious few hours because we all knew nearby landmines were ready to surface when dislodged by the rain. What was a de-mined road today might well carry a scattered mine or two tomorrow.
That familiar stomach tightening reappeared for a moment. What a shame it would be to have cheated death so roundly a few days ago, only to greet her again today.
In September 2015, Mozambique finally announced it was mine-free, opening up the country to more farming, roads and railways. The courageous men and women who made it so, not only saved lives, they gave rebirth to a country.
Around the world, far too many people are still maimed or die because of landmines, but each year, the number drops. Perhaps someday it will disappear altogether.
Photo: Gorongosa National Park - Wikimedia Commons/Brian Dell