A Bull and a China Shop

Some creatures make a big impression, some leave no trace of themselves at all

“You gave us the wrong fingerprints,” the baffling woman repeated. “You must do them again.” I had come to pick up my driver’s licence from the Sabie Traffic Department. She had said it would take six weeks. Pointlessly, I had given her a precautionary three months.

She was unbending in the face of my explanation that – maybe rather foolishly – I had brought the same fingers with me this time as the last. I must reapply using whatever fingerprints I had to hand.

Bowing to her superior understanding of bureaucracy, I was resigned to the fact that I must take my next road trip through a bunch of countries renowned for traffic police more awkward than ours, carrying a temporary licence and somebody else’s fingerprints which I had always taken to be my own.

We counted the road blocks – seven in Mozambique, six in Malawi, 14 in Zambia and 21 in a four hundred kilometre stretch of Zimbabwe. Not one of them was fazed. In fact, with its parchment shape, its dazzling crimson stripe and its ridiculously handsome photograph, I think the temporary version may have looked more official than the permanent.

There were hold-ups of a different kind to beef about en route, though.

We wove a wary path between the potholes to Beira. They say that if you see a pair of ears sticking out of an indent in a Mozambiquan highway, it signals not a rabbit but a giraffe. My bakkie swerved in and out, throwing itself at Africa with its customary fearless abandon.

Unable to find a campsite in grimy Tete, we settled instead on a roadside motel for the night. One uncomfortable bed was evidently stuffed with concrete and the other with popcorn; squadrons of bat-sized mosquitoes circled ominously under the dysfunctional fan. There was no door on the bathroom and the TV channels ranged from Islamic prayer to fishing on the Yangtze with no option of news or movies. We beat it to the bar for a 2M beer and some supper, bombarded by a video of Velvet Revolver playing a tuneless composition entitled Train Sucking Blues.

A more musical metal-rending crash then broke the dusty darkness followed by a deep and lengthy groan and cursing in Portuguese. Perhaps someone had sucked up a train outside the hotel? No.

Although the dying groans of a truck-bashed bull seemed perversely to improve the music, the staff disappeared to witness its pain first-hand and the service came to a standstill for 15 minutes.

We survived the night and my companion’s disagreement with his curry, which rendered the lack of a bathroom door all the more unfortunate, and awoke with the dawn. The dead animal was still lying on the roadside, minus a couple of rump steaks, as we escaped in the direction of Zuma’s empty Malawian thoroughfares.

Zambia’s road blocks were for the most part elephantine and Zimbabwe’s merely a demonstration of paranoia so it wasn’t until we got back to Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, that we saw a lurching Ni-Da piling into another bull, believe it or not, just outside the China Shop. The imprint on this unfortunate beast was deeper and with more immediate effect.

Far, far deeper than the imprint of my finger which was never found. I eventually got my new licence and, in place of my isithupha, appear the words “No Print”. I look forward to that discussion with a traffic cop if ever I strike an itinerant steer. “Why don’t you have any fingerprints?”

“I just can’t seem to make a good impression,” I shall say. No bull, my china.