The banana leaves wilted in the noon sun and assumed the features of the faces that they covered. Temporary shrouds offering a hint of dignity to the row of corpses that lay by the roadside. A crushed survivor is hauled on top of others in the back of a rusty pick-up, the dark blood on his black skin glistening in the light. An oppressive atmosphere hangs over the crash site as hundreds of villagers gather in shock and morbid fascination.
Luckily I had missed the bus that morning. Seat number two was now buried in the wreckage wrapped around the diesel locomotive that had been derailed by the impact; two vehicles that became a single mass of distorted metal on the level crossing. The engine block lay across the line, ripped from the chassis, as if the heart of the beast had been torn from the body.
The later bus I have caught is halted again as anxious passengers are keen for information at Korogwe Hospital. The date plaque reads 1952 and red brick walls and a concrete floor set the standard instead of the polish and hygiene that I might expect. A surgeon leans against the wall in a blood stained apron taking a break from his work and lights a thin roll up. He is weary with age as much as the horror that has been thrust upon him today.
Hours pass and I fear I have missed my connection but the bus for the Usambara Mountains, that departs once a day, has not left due to the crash. I buy a meager sustenance of biscuits from a tiny shack clad with beaten flat oil drums and admire the re-use of materials as I shelter from the afternoon down pour. The dust is suppressed and the smell of damp foliage presides.
The click-click of shillings shaken in the bus conductor’s hand catch my attention and he shouts in Swahili for final passengers to board. The vehicle is full and departure is imminent. My rusk-sac is hauled onto the roof and tied down among assorted goods and belongings perched on the rickety roof rack. I assume a hard seat with little knee room and try to keep my head clear of the man in the aisle who smells of the day’s labours.
The recent deluge has left deep puddles on the dirt track. The water whooshes in the wheel arches and spray leaves ochre rivulets on the windows. We climb into the foothills and the track narrows into a mere notch on the mountainside where only feet touched the earth before the tea plantations arrived.
The bus lurches on bad cambers and slips at each corner due to the mud. The cliff edge is close but the driver does not flinch, perhaps due to the cheek full of chat that he chews. My fellow passengers are holding on tight. We reach Din Dera village just before dark and nearly everyone alights into a melee of traders as the goods are untied and handed down from the roof. The small crowd has dispersed by the time the ill-fitting door has slammed on its knackered hinges.
Another hour into the darkness with the sepia lights in the bus preventing me from seeing what is outside, but I know it is thick forest. Am I heading into danger rather than to my destination? I feel vulnerable with the bus crew and the three other men that remain. I can’t determine their mood but it feels tense. I try to ascertain how much further but they speak little English and ignore my limited Swahili.
Suddenly there are shouts of disagreement among the men. The bus suddenly halts and they point for me to get off. Is this my end or the end of the journey? My eyes have not adjusted to the dark as I try to understand what they are saying and their gesticulations. I hear something heavy land next to me as they climb aboard and the door slams once again.
Silence and blackness that one seldom knows. No moon, no stars and no lights. Nothing until a barking dog alerts my senses. I make out my ruck-sac lying at my feet and a side turning. I have arrived. I had nothing to fear.