Boats Part I

Model of the Cecil Rhodes.

Reading this week:

  • The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (I thought it would be like Journey to Lhasa but it is much different)
  • Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis

This past weekend I went to go look at some boats, the SS Cecil Rhodes and the Dame des Isles. These boats were both in Mpulungu and so I decided to bike on down there to check them out.

First off, Mpulungu is always farther away than I think it is. In absolute terms, it is 40km from Mbala, and I usually describe it as “all downhill.” This is in fact a lie, as it is only mostly downhill, and man riding downhill 40km still is somehow exhausting. Plus you are losing a lot of altitude, and it is rainy season, so in the first part I was pretty cold but by the time I got to Mpulungu it was very, very hot. Good think I brought like 4L of water on this trek. I set off at about 0700 to try to beat the heat and get as much time in Mpulungu as possible, and made it there at a little before 1100.

First things first was lunch, which was lovely actually, thank you for asking, and then to find these boats. The Dames des Isles I found out about from my most frequented Facebook page, Mbala / Abercorn. The page didn’t list the location, and I didn’t think to ask before setting off. So I biked the waterfront, even stopping by the Mpulungu Harbor Authority where security told me to come back on Monday. I looked around at what I thought would be likely locations in Mpulungu before setting off for the SS Cecil Rhodes, the location of which I knew (mostly). I did take a second to ask the page, however, where exactly the Dame des Isles was.

The Cecil Rhodes is not nearly as intact as the Dame des Isles. This thread is where I got all of my information (I found it looking for SS Good News information). The Cecil Rhodes was another early steamer on the lake (I think the second, actually) but failed to find much fame or fortune after the death of its namesake. It rested in the bay west of Mpulungu until the opening days of WWI, when the Germans towed her out into the lake and sunk her. The Germans were trying to prevent her from being armed and entering the Battle for Lake Tang. The Cecil Rhodes by this point was laid up and had her engine out, and maybe wouldn’t have been a threat, but I guess Germans are thorough. Lucky for me though, her engine being, as discussed, out, has laid in the same spot for the past 100 years, ready to be found by your intreprid correspondant.

As you can see from the thread, a previous team had gone out and located the thing, pinpointing the location on a map. I had been meaning to go for a while but never got around to it. Since it was pinpointed, the only thing to do is to go out and look at it, but this is much easier said than done. Mpulungu is hot, and the road to the village, though not too far on the satellite map, is improbably steep and occurs, you know, about 52km into my bike riding. At a particular corner in the road, I tied up my bike and set off into the village.

Walking through strange villages is always fraught. As a white person, when I walk through a village I am usually The Most Exciting Thing To Have Ever Happened Ever. For the record, I humbly disagree with this assessment, but the kids don’t. You start walking through a village, and if you’re lucky people don’t notice. But before long the kids notice, and immediately scream MUZUNGU PELE! MUZUNGU PELE! as loud as they can. I don’t know why they do this. There is one kid in my village that screams my name at me every time I pass. Like, I know kid, calm down. But so now the heralds have sounded in this strange village. At first the kids just stare. This is usually alright, I am used to it. But before long, one kid becomes brave enough and starts to follow me. As soon as one kid does it, then the other kids aren’t scared any more, and the crowd grows. Children come out of the woodwork, out of the trees, out of the water, out of some strange pocket dimension and begin to amass. I always try to hurry lest we form a critical mass and collapse into a singularity, or something. At any rate, they’re really loud and get way too close.

Adults are also very friendly, but tend to want you to stop and talk. They’ll grab your arm in a friendly way and want to greet you. Cool, but these conversations are always them welcoming me to Zambia and being surprised I know how to speak a little Mambwe. I can never quite convince anyone I live here. And none of this helps find the Cecil Rhodes. The trick with adults is to immediately ask for directions. That distracts them and they point you on your way before they can think to ask where you are from. If you don’t employ this method, then before long adults are handing you their naked babies so they can take a picture of their naked baby with the white person, and then you’re just fending off naked babies left and right.

I can employ all these strategies for a bit, but at some point I was gonna have to ask someone about the boiler. Villages are twisty and turny and convoluted and the boiler was half-buried in the ground somewhere. Luckily, I had a picture I downloaded off of that thread, and so I could show people my phone and ask if they had seen it. The first kid I asked knew immediately what it was and pointed me down a path. I walked a bit down that path when I got stopped by a guy who wanted to know where I was going. I showed him a picture of the boiler, and then the only really twisty part of this narrative happened.

Upon seeing this picture of a boiler, he apparently immediately concluded I wanted to go to a lodge. When I showed him the picture he said he could show me and then started walking me down a path. People kept asking him about me (I’m right here, people) and eventually I actually listened and figured out that he was taking me to a lodge. And I was apparently going to pay him 100 kwatcha for this service. This sort of thing has happened to me before, and I always wonder what goes through people’s minds. I know random white guys don’t wander through the village every day, but given that I am, and I speak at least some Mambwe, why is the next conclusion that I want to go to a lodge? After showing you a picture of a hunk of metal in the ground? And the people I specifically ask to walk me somewhere never think I am going to pay them, it is only the people that just start doing it without asking that think they’ll get money out of me? Anyways.

So I figure out we’re going to a lodge, and so I say I don’t want to go to a lodge, and show him the picture again. I figure out he hasn’t spotted the boiler, and has only spotted the lake in the background (we are in sight of the lake this whole time), and at least one of us is very confused as to why I need directions to the lake (it’s very big and hard to miss). Realizing this, I point to the boiler in the picture, which he now notices. He asks what it is, but I had forgotten to look up the Mambwe for “it’s a 100 year old boiler from a ship the Germans sunk,” and when he suggests it is a water pipe, I say yes, because a boiler is kinda sorta a water pipe. So now he tries to take me to a water pipe. Then I try to explain it is a boat engine, but worry that won’t help because it doesn’t look anything like the outboard motor the canoes on the lake use. He is confused; I am confused. I try to show him my Google Maps with my pinpoint and how we have been walking away, but my limited Mambwe also doesn’t cover Google Maps. Eventually he takes me to his brother, who speaks English. I show the brother the picture, he immediately recognizes it, and takes me right to the spot, which was about 20 feet from where I met brother #1. For the record, brother #1 was trying very hard to help and I appreciate it and I really should have learned Mambwe better.

The boiler, hidden in its pumpkin patch.

The boiler, and many children’s feet.

But aha! Success! The boiler! It is currently in the midst of a maize and pumpkin patch. Some vines are cleared away, and I manage to take a few pictures of the boiler along with the feet of the small children who can never be scooted away effectively. Meanwhile the owner of the maize patch explains to me that it is a boat engine (his exact words, so I don’t know how to feel about calling it a boat engine myself and worrying that wouldn’t be clear) while trying to explain and sell to me the maize and pumpkin he is growing in this patch. Pictures taken, boiler touched, history interacted with, it was time to bolt, and I head out of the village and back to Mpulungu, sucking down a lot of water because have I mentioned it was hot?

Join me next week for the exciting conclusion, “Boats Part II!”