The totally expected transport-arrangement debacle took place and the expedition finally got away just on dark, instead of the planned 6.00am departure.
I had a 500-kilometre/12 hour journey in front of me, from Ujung Pandung (the old city of Makassar) to the INCO nickel mine at Soroako in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
There were 5 of us in the ubiquitous Toyota, 3rd world station wagon, the “Kijang”. As the short tropical twilight faded it became obvious that this was going to be an interesting trip. The main highway was a thin, two-lane strip of bitumen winding its way across paddy fields and through patches of jungle and it was immediately apparent that only the hardiest 98.5% of the population used the road at night.
The heavy flow of vehicles, travelling in both directions, occupied only half the road – a quarter each side of the white line. It was not because they are bad drivers (which they are) that this continuous game of chicken took place, it was because the outer half of each lane was occupied.
Moving in an endless, unlit stream were throngs of pedestrians, bicycles, motor scooters, food vendors pushing their makan (muck-arn) carts and pedal taxis. Occupying the limited space remaining between humans and the spectacular variety of minor transport, were representatives of every species known to the animal kingdom.
These travellers either stood idly gazing at the passing panorama while firmly positioned on the carriageway or trotted purposefully along on a mission known only unto God and themselves.
While all this was happening the main game was unfolding in the centre of the road. The rules of the game are thus:-
At a distance of half a kilometre each vehicle centres itself on the white line. At this time, both drivers commence continuous beeping of the horn. At night their dexterity is such that they synchronise the horn blowing with continuous flashing headlights.
At a distance of 100 metres they take their hand off the wheel to wave the other driver over (simultaneously loudly casting doubt on the other fellow’s parentage). As soon as the wave is completed, the beeping horn becomes a continuous blast as both vehicles move across just enough the give 10 centimetres clearance while passing. Experienced players gain extra points by retaining possession of the white line throughout the entire manoeuvre.
The horn beeping continues for approximately 5 seconds after the vehicles have passed for, by this time, a new challenger has probably entered the lists and the succeeding joust commences.
In the unlikely event the road ahead is clear, the driver randomly toots the horn at 20-second intervals just to make sure it is on its toes for the appearance of the next opponent. Likewise, occupation of the white line is studiously practised even on those short stretches where no other traffic exists.
All this begs the question “What happens when the distance between oncoming vehicles is too short to carry out standard jousting procedure?”
It soon became apparent to me that the majority of points are gained in the final standoff and passing manoeuvre. In the case of heavy traffic, the driver leaves his hand continuously on the horn (in accordance with the “Under 100 metre rule”). He dispenses with the wave and replaces the verbal abuse by reacting to the moving game with short exclamations appropriate to his fear level.
The white line must be reoccupied immediately upon passing, regardless of how close the next oncoming vehicle is.
The result of this behaviour, in a long stream of traffic, is a majestic synchronised slalom effect rippling down the line like a suicidal Mexican Wave. There are even a few hardy souls on motor scooters who participate but they are not taken seriously by the professionals. During the night we regularly came upon the result of a B-grade player trying his hand in the big league and zigging when he should have zagged.
These incidents ranged from the standard deceased pedestrian to a finely executed head-on collision between two trucks.
Adding to the flavour of the evening was the selection of broken down vehicles – at least one for every kilometre of the whole journey! Breakdowns also have a compulsory set of rules as follows:-
Immediately the engine ceases to run you must make no attempt to vacate the centre of the road as you roll to a stop. Immediately turn all lights (if any) off. Have your passengers instantly disembark on the road side of the vehicle and mill around across the whole carriageway. All passengers should preferably be dressed in dark clothing, deaf and blind (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).
Take some of the strongest passengers from the milling mob and drag a large log across the road at least 2 metres behind the vehicle to give early warning to following traffic. Should no log be available, a row of rocks no smaller than a basketball, will suffice. In the unlikely event cleaning the windscreen or gathering everybody to stand motionless staring into the engine bay gets the vehicle going, under no circumstances should you remove your warning log or boulders from the road before driving off.
The assumption that the above broken down vehicle would have lights to turn off brings me to the next point. So rare was it to have an oncoming vehicle with two headlights that it caused a short comment from the boys. To discover a vehicle in front of you actually carrying two working tail lights was a source of a couple of minutes delighted discussion among my fellow travellers.
The exceptions to this rule were the numerous trucks. These knights of the road are very keen to see ahead and like truck drivers all over the world, are slaves to fashion. Spotlights are all the rage in downtown Sulawesi trucking circles. They must, of course, be incapable of being extinguished and be as multitudinous as the driver’s pecuniary situation allows.
At a refuelling stop I counted on the front of one truck, no fewer that 26 spotlights! We passed a number of others carrying even more. No doubt this driver charged through the night incinerating small roadside mammals, starting grass fires and using enough power to run a city only slightly smaller than New York. Need I add, his tail lights were completely inoperative?
The lack of tail lights spilled over into the passenger-carrying arena. I did notice that some of the drivers of these small 20-seat busses had their 50 passengers’ safety in mind. A few had gone to the expense of screwing as many as three 50 cent reflectors to the back of the bus on the optimistic assumption they would warn an overtaking vehicle (without head-lights?) that they had no tail-lights.
By the time I had made sufficient observations to formulate the above theories, death had its hand firmly upon my shoulder. So, after wiping out two dogs, sideswiping a makan cart and running authoritatively up the arse of an unlit truck, I called a halt to proceedings. We spent the rest of the night in ½ star luxury in Palopo.
In the warm light of day the following morning the remaining four hours to Soroako went smoothly and without incident – except for the cyclist.
We were sailing along minding our own business, occupying the white line, when I heard a light thump on the side of the car.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a cyclist launching over the handlebars into a full pike with tuck and twist (degree of difficulty 4.5). He actually had passed from my sight before the twist but he had sufficient altitude and, had completed the first part of the manoeuvre so well, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
There was only one small thing that slightly took the edge off the fun of the journey. For the entire 12 hours, the fellow in the seat behind me had been continuously clearing his throat and every 5 minutes spraying the back of my neck with a violent hacking cough.
The boys casually let drop a couple of days later the fact the poor fellow was suffering from advanced TB.