Zambia '95 - 2000
The river as a highway, rather than a barrier. The vision.
Heat and altitude the barrier. The struggle.
Struggle we share. Perhaps an instant technological
answer would have been no real answer at all in face of the real problem?
and we need to enter into the way of life of Africa.
The craft fails to perform consistently compared with use in temperate climes. A series of modifications over several years does not reliably lift the performance to an acceptable level. She is just too heavy under these conditions to take a reasonable load
or to be sure of getting back from a sortie with adequate fuel if the wind springs up averse or even if the day wears
on too hot, but we meet some lovely people who are more than willing to test the craft's strength in other ways!
She doesn't damage easily! ... but she couldn't hover with this lot on board!
We are often told while conducting these tests that the place where they could really do with a craft like this is further up the river, where people and communities are cut off from the rest of Zambia for months at a time .. so we take her there to see. What they say is true but at the greater altitude the craft performs even less well. She skims properly only against fast flowing water. A character of these craft is that they always seem to work best in conditions which would be very difficult or impossible for other boats ... but then struggle sometimes where hull displacement vessels would have little problem!
Floods at low altitude and interesting terrain prove the concept and inspire for change.
The world's focus is concentrated on Mozambique as the floods extend far further and more fatally than usual.
Our only craft in the area is committed to help. In spite of the conditions she performs well enough at near sea level and is able to provide some assistance as the country's recovery begins. Valuable lessons are learned, limitations and risks revealed.
The dangers of working in remote places and the robustness of craft and concept are confirmed, and give further pointers for modifications to make her safer and more usable, even (we hope) in the thin upriver air. Strong inshore winds in the late afternoon can still make return to base a problem on occasion!
Further flood testing - and failure
The next year Malawi bears the brunt of the flooding and we go there to try to help, but modifications aimed at improving engine cooling fail catastrophically, damaging her beyond immediate repair. What a blessing on that day that we were heading back towards the launch site when things went so badly wrong, with not too far to limp ... and that the gathering darkness, and most vicious insect attack ..(!) did not quite prevent recovery of the craft.
A further encouragement to improve things ... !
The Barotse Plain remains our target. Why are we taking so long to establish effective operation there?
1. The physics of the technology. I sometimes think that the laws of physics work differently in Africa. ... . It can't be ... can it?! We have operated in hot countries before. We have coped with much greater altitude (albeit with snow and ice). But never before heat and height together, each making their contribution to the thinning of the air, the very life breath and blood of a hovercraft's workings. ... And I haven't even mentioned the sand, fine, abrasive (Kalahari?) sand, which can reduce the working life of a new smart four wheel drive to but a few years, and chewed into our fancy pulleys and shafts, producing wear in a few months which should not have occurred in a lifetime, or the diesel filtration and engine cooling problems which have kept us from thinking that we've ever got anything fully sorted!
2. Our attitudes? We have tried to be sensitive and appropriate at every step, but we are doubtless, blundering western (well, northern anyway) foreigners with a technocracy which does not actually provide all the answers in the real world - and never will. The nearest we can maybe get to an answer is to have the privilege of struggling alongside, of learning and of sharing; each enriching the other. We need to be changed at least as much as the machinery does, to fit in and to be of any use at all. This takes time, care and research too, and runs in parallel with our attempts to make the vehicles work better.
3. Other things which have taken much time and effort ...
and might be seen as distractions.
• Responding to the floods in Mozambique and Malawi has really chewed into time and resources and mental energy, but without those challenges valuable lessons may not have been learned and contacts would not have been made ... .
• Facing each our own challenges in our family and personal lives hopefully makes us more ready ... for anything!
• The pace of Africa. Some things change fast, others slow. We want to be in the right place at the right time. Our impatience will clog the wheels .. but so will our sloth.
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