During my self-imposed ‘stay at home’ stint (good job, too, as the old knees have been giving me gyp today!!), I wrote a while back that I’d put here an ‘odd’ chapter or two of a book that IS written, but, as I’ve explained, I don’t feel the freedom to publish it….even though one of the biggest publishers wants it. Guess I’m quite unusual for them, really, as most writers are desperate to publish!
In the middle of all the glorious miracles that I’ve had the privilege of seeing God do, I also learn some pretty big lessons, sometimes the hard way (i.e. God beating me over the head!), sometimes willingly, and other times, through experience. The piece below is one of the latter – for me, very, very funny from a ‘hindsight’ perspective, at the time though, as scary as anything! The blog title is explained at the end! I was going to call it ‘Good game, Good game’, but Sir Brucie stopped doing the game shows where that his punchline, in order to try and concentrate on the autocue for ‘Strictly Come Dancing’…..
MUD, MUD, GLORIOUS MUD….
DO NOT, FOR ANY REASON, LEAVE YOUR VEHICLE, AND KEEP ALL WINDOWS AND DOORS CLOSED. IN EMERGENCY, SOUND HORN AND REMAIN IN YOUR CAR.
That’s the gist of the signs at the entrance to any wild GamePark in Africa.
A fine sentiment, and quite right, too, with all those wild and vicious creatures around. One that I would adhere to with great conviction. Normally. I mean, who in their right mind would drive into a place filled with rhinoceros, wild cats (pretty big ones, at that), buffalo, snakes, alligators, crocodiles, and more – and get out for a stroll around? Maybe someone with a death wish, or someone who likes to live far closer to the danger line than I do.
But perfect theories don’t always make for perfect practice. Ideal rules don’t always translate as workable into some, er, emergency situations.
See, much as I like to think that I have become somewhat ‘Africanised’, and though some Africans love to tell me that I’m quite Ghanaian, or Zimbabwean, or whatever, there are occasions when I realise that I haven’t really any idea how Africans think, or the decisions they’d make. I’ve been going there for almost three decades, quite a few times a year, too, and yet still I don’t think African. And that can make life quite interesting, at times.
My little team were in Zimbabwe. We had returned from an aborted to trip to Mozambique, because of the rain. Our stroll back through the no-man’s land to Zimbabwe was with some relief, and we made our way into Mutare, a nice little city close to the border, to work out how to get back to Harare. In Harare, we had meetings arranged – with Youth with a Mission, I was speaking for the week to the Discipleship Training School, and we were going to be doing some church meetings, too. Our premature exit from Mozambique meant that we would have a little time on our hands in Harare, which was good, as the others had never been there, so old African head here could show them around. I knew the city reasonably well.
We had a ride into Mutare from the border. That was a major relief, because we had a load of luggage, including a portable P.A. system for drama stuff, though not of African church proportions. And it was still raining. Hard.
Zimbabwe is great, because much of it is so 1950’s. I would say 1950’s British, but I’m none too sure I’m in the least proud of the legacies that we’ve left in some countries. Mutare is no exception: the streets are very wide, supposedly wide enough to turn a carriage and horses around without doing three point turns. Three point turns are quite difficult with horses, anyhow, when they’re pushing something backwards. Harare is pretty similar, and Bulawayo seems to have even bigger streets. Lots of the shops have big overhangs at the front, so that you can window shop and keep the sun – or, in our case, rain – from getting at you.
This was some relief for us, as we stood, surrounded by bags and equipment, and puddles. The decision was taken that, with all the gear, neither the bus nor the train would be ideal, and we didn’t know when they left for Harare anyway. So we needed to hire a car.
I’d been here before, and I knew the exact location of the Hertz car rental office. I even knew Stella, who ran Hertz in Mutare, as I’d had to hire cars here before. So, gallantly, and without an umbrella, I volunteered to go and find our way out of here, and pick the others up. They stayed outside this large store, looking somewhat bedraggled, expecting my return fairly quickly. Striding confidently towards the office, it didn’t take long for me to realise it had moved.
Why do people have to move things? Why is it that you just get to know where everything is in a supermarket, and they change all the shelves around? You think you know how to get to somewhere, and discover a whole batch of new roads that take you in a wide detour of where you actually want to be. I set off in Stella’s direction. I walked. And walked. And walked. Where Hertz should have been, it no longer was. I’ve also discovered that in many places, you can ask directions to a place, and people will direct you in totally different directions. I even asked a policeman where Hertz was. He looked at me as though I was mad.
Finally, after walking interminably, I found the AA of Zimbabwe. No, not alcoholics anonymous, but the other one. It even had the same Automobile Association badge outside that my dad used to have on his car in the 50’s and 60’s. They’d know. And they did. Hertz was now at the brand new Holiday Inn Hotel – in a completely different direction again.
When I made it, I looked like a drowned rat, totally out of place wandering into the foyer of what is a smart hotel. Of course, the Hertz office just had to be at the furthest point from the front door, so I traipsed through reception, attracting some pretty disdainful looks. But Stella, bless her, greeted me like a long lost friend – our friendship had been cemented when I had previously rented a car from her, a car that had ended up a totally different shape to the one I’d hired. That’s another story in itself.
Hiring again? No problem. A Mazda 323? No problem. Pretty soon, I was headed back into town, with relief and jubilation that I hadn’t got to walk any further. My team had attracted a fair bit of attention, two fair-haired white people sitting in the middle of the town on all the luggage, for what seemed like an eternity. One had even been propositioned.
Their relief at seeing me was as great and intense as mine when I’d got the car keys. We piled everything in, and set off. The road between Mutare and Harare is not bad, pretty uneventful, and the journey passed without major incident.
There is something else it might help you to know about countries where there’s a rainy season, if you haven’t been. You see, it doesn’t rain all the time. It’s just that when it does rain, it rains extremely hard. Unlike Britain, when it rains, it’s grey – and tends to stay pretty grey for quite a while. In Africa, it rains – thunderously rains – and then the sun comes out, and the sky turns blue. It can be curiously misleading – unless you think African. Then, you know that, though the sun is out now, in five minutes time the sky can go black, and a waterfall is cascading from heaven.
We had some nice weather when we got back to Harare. Clear, blue skies, bright sun: and a bit of spare time. Close to the city, there’s a small wild GamePark. Game Parks can be one of two things: wonderful, because you see so many animals in the wild that you’d only ever see in zoos in cages. And boring, because you can spend hours watching and waiting for some rare creature to appear, and you see nothing at all. But as we had a few hours, it was a great opportunity for us all to get a taste of Africa in the wild.
With the freedom of a car, and with a beautiful afternoon, it was a great plan. We pulled up to the gates, and paid our entrance money. It wasn’t until much later that I recalled, with my tremendous gift hindsight – it’s one of my greatest gifts – a wry grin on the face of the guy at the gate who relieved us of our cash.
Roads in a GamePark tend to be dirt, not tarred. They are also well marked, and sign-posted, and you can generally follow them right through a park and out the other end. They’re pretty well maintained, too, and wouldn’t, in normal circumstances, present a problem to anyone driving a small, low ground-clearance, front-wheel drive car. We were fine. We passed some fascinating creatures, some quite ordinary ones, and we were enjoying time out away from rain, somewhere a little out of the ordinary.
By now, we were about an hour into the park, and following signs for ‘Crocodile Creek’. We’d come out of a forested area and into quite a broad plain, with a fork in the road some distance ahead, one taking us to the crocs, the other round the rest of the park, including the lions, and back to the gate.
At that moment, it suddenly went from blue sky and bright sun, to extremely dark, and the heavens emptied a great deluge of rain. The road, a moment or so ago perfectly passable, was now a sea of mud. Huge pools developed, and what had been a flat surface now seemed to be rutted and pot-holed. At the fork in the road, it now didn’t seem quite such a good plan to go to ‘Crocodile Creek’ at all. Chances are, there was so much water around so quickly, that they’d be making their way up the road towards us. But the option of following the ‘main’ road was also non-existent, now, as it was completely flooded. And we were in the most un-ideal vehicle imaginable to be in GamePark. We needed a big four-wheel drive, not a front wheel drive midget car like a Mazda 323!
Swerving away from the main road at the last minute (towards the lions, I hasten to add!), we headed, against our better judgement and with no choice in the matter, towards the crocodiles. The car took on a whole mind of its own as far as steering was concerned, and we went into this wonderful slide. Fine if you’re on a controlled skidpan, but not so fine across a wild game reserve.
Serenely, noiselessly, but rapidly, we moved forward, until coming to an ungainly halt in some deep ruts. The front of the car was tipped forward and over to the left, with the back wheels well out of contact with the ground. The rain thundered down. It was deafening on the roof of the car. It was getting darker by the minute. Even worse, soon it would be night. There is little dusk in Africa, generally about 30 minutes from bright sun to darkness, so night would come quickly in about an hour or so. If we didn’t know anything else at that moment, we DID know that we didn’t want to spend the night in a wild game park. To the average rhino, with a built in can-opener, we’d be like tinned food.
So we did what all good Brits would do in a crisis. I hit the horn on the car with all my strength. Continually. Problem was, you couldn’t even hear it out of the car window because the rain was so hard, let alone at the Warden’s Lodge, or the main gate a mile or so away. Some minutes of hooting gave way to shouting, with me leaning out of the window, bellowing at the top of my voice. I couldn’t even hear myself over the rain.
I guess we’d all have to admit, that, at this point, a measure – no, a bucket load, of fear emptied itself into the car. Much irrational thought, plus some logical stuff to do with fierce creatures, took place. No one was going to come and rescue us. The man at the gate’s grin returned to me at this point. A grin that doubtless said silently to itself, ‘‘What are these stupid brunis (white people) doing, going into the park in the rainy season in one of those, just before dark….” – a thought that by now had also crossed my mind a few hundred times, too. I wasn’t even sure a four-wheel drive car would have been much use in these conditions though, especially with wheels not on the ground.
The rain came down, and the floods came up, and the car in the ruts stood firm. By now, the muddy water was beginning to come into the car through the bottom of the doors – fast. We piled everything into the back, and I was getting a running commentary that I didn’t need from my passengers about the rising swamp inside the car.
Valour now became the greater part of discretion, and, despite the signs at the gate, I confidently announced that we were going to have to get out and push the car.
Roger, one of my passengers, was not normally lost for words.
Silence hit the car that was deafening. Then he answered what only a true Brit would answer in a crisis like this.
“But I’ve got my best shoes on.”
“Shoes? Shoes? You don’t think you’re going to keep your shoes on, do you? Or your socks? Or your trousers?” The heavy silence deepened as those words hit Roger like a thunderbolt. “We’re going to be up to our thighs in mud when we get out of the car,” I said to him. It took some seconds for the words to sink in, for them to become a reality. Recognising that this really was the only way forward, he finally acknowledged that he was going to have to go walkabout in the Game Park in his underwear. I thought it imprudent to mention that, being a wild game park, it wouldn’t ONLY be mud…..
Off came most of the garments on the lower halves of our bodies. Opening the door was a major mental decision, and stepping out on to the sticky mud was an unreal moment.
They have snakes in Zimbabwe. Lots of them. In fact, quite close to the GamePark are two other parks – the Lion and Cheetah Reserve, and the SnakePark. I had made the mistake of going to them on a previous visit – at least, now, it seemed like a mistake, if not for the LionPark, certainly the SnakePark. They have some mean snakes – ones that swallow you, squeeze you, some that poison you in seconds. It was not an appealing prospect.
And, of course, because lots of wild animals roamed around the park – they were quite entitled to do so – what we stepped into was not just mud. Soft brown goo squeezed between our toes, and it was extremely slippery and smelled delightful. We stood in front of the car, in our underwear, in the thundering rain, trying to work out what to do.
Neither of the front wheels was touching anything solid. They just spun round in pools of brown liquid. The sump of the car was firmly embedded in the mud, wedging the vehicle at an angle of about thirty degrees. We knew that pushing was useless, but we had to do it. So push we did: slithering everywhere, and making absolutely no impact on the cars’ position at all.
We were now soaked to the skin, covered in mud and stuff, with night getting ever nearer. There were trees in either direction, and I suggested that Roger go one way, and I’d go the other, to look for some branches or stones that we could put under the front wheels to give them something to grip on.
I could tell from Roger’s face that he was not in the least happy with this proposition. Seconds later he was on his way back to the car, saying “If you think I’m walking across a GamePark in only my underwear, with bare legs, and wild animals around, you must be kidding!” I have to say I was quite relieved, too, not to go gallivanting dressed like that in that environment.
It was at that moment that my other passenger calmly suggested, “Have you thought about praying?” It hadn’t even crossed my mind. Seemed like quite a good suggestion, in the light of our predicament. So, great man of God that I am(?), I put my hand on the car, and shouted, “God, HELP!!” I know that many millions the world over, and throughout history, have discovered that to be one of the most effective prayers in Christian history: it sure beats lots of fancy words when you’re in a major league predicament. And, sure enough, God DID help.
The rain eased, then stopped. The sky became lighter. And Roger – an engineer by training – began to think in engineer-style thoughts. Let’s look in the boot, he suggested. Nothing there, except for the nice flimsy piece of hardboard that covers the spare wheel that would bend and dissolve in the wet in moments, the spare wheel, and a jack. Nothing earth moving, or even car-moving. Except… that Roger realised the jack was actually the wrong one for the car. What we should have had was one of those little bottle jacks that go into a notch in the side of the car. What we had was a scissor jack, with one of those long handles that you wind up often with some degree of difficulty. His mind was now racing, trying to work out how James Bond would utilise such a jack to effect a great escape and save his life.
He did it. He worked out that if the two of us knelt down in front of the car, and dug away at the mud and, er, other stuff, with our hands, we could slide the jack in under the sump, wind it up, raise the car a bit, and then push it back off the jack, until the wheels had something to grip on. Meantime, our colleague could be revving the car in reverse in case there was some grip. Ingenious!
So, we’re now almost waist deep in brown goo, digging like fury. The mud was everywhere. But we did it. We lifted the car a few inches, the jack was completely out of sight under the mud, and the car wheels revved at great sped, in reverse. Of course, as it was a front wheel drive car, the wheels spun towards us, and we were kneeling in front of them. So we got totally submerged in a shower of mud, covered from head to foot. It was in in our eyes, ears, between our teeth, in every nook and cranny of our bodies. BUT – we’d moved the car a bit. Still no grip for the wheels, but we saw light at the end of the tunnel – even if through mud-filled eyes. Twelve times we did it – we were shattered. The twelfth time, though, suddenly, the tyres finally gripped, and the car was reversed it out of its prison, and into freedom!
There’s still a God! Two mud-soaked white boys, not looking so white any more, in the middle of a GamePark, in their underwear, were dancing and shouting at the tops of their voices! We do have pictures, but thought they’d better not go in a Christian publication. God answered our prayer. We were free! No tinned meals for the rhinos here. No snacks for the snakes now.
We got back into the car. Now we only had the minor problem of which way to go back to the gate. The way ahead was out of the question, so we thought we’d try the way we came. Still covered in mud, and without most clothes, we began to make our way back. Just past the trees I would have walked to, and no more than two hundred yards from where we’d been standing, were three of the most enormous white rhinoceros (the most dangerous of the species, who will attack, unprovoked, for no reason, I’m told) that I have ever seen. They hadn’t been there – or at least, we hadn’t seen them – when we went the other way. If they had, we’d never have got out of the car. We were so euphoric, though, that I even stopped to take a photograph of them…
When we made it back to the gate, the same man was there who had taken our money. He looked at the car, covered in mud, and still had the same grin on his face as when we’d entered.
The car carpet looked a bit sad, but soon dried out, if a slightly different colour…. And so did Roger and I. We did have a minor problem when driving back towards Harare, as we still were minus certain clothes, and our hair was matted to our heads. As we had ‘mud’ up our noses, in our ears, in every nook and cranny in fact, it was quite hard to wriggle back into clothes. The mud took some time to finally extricate from every orifice, including from our toenails. It isn’t uncommon to have the police just pull you over for a roadside check, and it did occur to me that to have two half-dressed men, covered in mud, might cause them to ask some questions. We could have argued that we were professional mud wrestlers, but I doubt it would have cut much ice with them.
For me, it was no problem – wearing baggy cotton trousers, ideal in African sort of climates, putting them back on was easy. But for poor old Roger, watching him struggle to get his denim jeans over his wet mud clad legs was very funny. For us.
So, what did we learn? Well, not to go into Game Parks in front wheel drive rental cars, in the rainy season, for a start. That I wasn’t as ‘African’ then as I might like to have believed.
There was a major spiritual learning curve as well, though. We were in a certain place in rather unusual conditions, and, to get us through and out of the situation, we thought we needed a specific intervention by God, or people, or something miraculous to happen that was beyond our control and ability to achieve.
What we realised was that, all along, we had everything we needed in what we already had. The intuition, the means, the equipment, the strength, the determination. Everything we needed was either in the car, or in us. So often, as Christians, we wait around for something ‘more’ from God: more ‘power’, another miracle, greater provision, more teaching. How many times do we use that last one as an excuse not to do something? “I need more teaching…” – most people in western culture churches have been taught until it’s coming out of their ears. We don’t need more – we just need to use what we have. Then we’ll get more. Jesus talked in Matthew 17 about the faith the size of the mustard seed, the smallest seed known. It’s ALL you need. What you need is what you have, and what you have is all He is.
The Bible never talks about getting more than you need. It talks a lot, however, about using what you have – talents, gifts, natural skills, God-given abilities.
We learned something very significant that day in the GamePark – what is now, after the event – very funny. At the time, it wasn’t funny at all: we were pretty scared. But we HAD what we needed. No more, no less. And the answer to prayer was already in our hands, long before we prayed it.
That great American preacher, T. D. Jakes – a preaching hero of mine – talks about the ‘Rhoda’ spirit that is in the church. When the believers were together in Acts 12, praying for the release of Peter from prison, Peter was already knocking at the door. Rhoda heard him, knew his voice, but still didn’t let him in. Meanwhile, the apostles ‘wrote her off’ as being an emotional woman who was hearing things, and they kept praying. But the answer to their prayer was there all the time.
Prayer is vital. Teaching is vital. But so often, both can be used as valid ‘reasons’ – or excuses – not to act, because it’s more comfortable to wait for God to come and intervene another way. It’s rare that He will do that, if He’s already provided the answer.
What we had was what we needed. It was the means of our ‘deliverance’ from the mud and danger of the GamePark, and God answered our prayer, even if it wasn’t in the way we expected. How often is THAT the story of Christian experience?