We arrived in Mwanza as the sun was setting. Tired from a slightly nerve racking, twelve hour bus trip, we pitched our tent on the edge of Lake Victoria, stood back and breathed a sigh of relief. This would be our little home for the next three nights, right on the water’s edge in the Capri Point area of Tanzania’s second largest city.
After twelve hours of unsatisfactory grazing on popcorn, samosas and chocolate creams that tasted distinctly of paraffin, the first thing on our minds was a cold beer and a plateful of food. Our campsite at the Mwanza Yacht Club could not have been better suited to our desires. Within minutes we found ourselves seated in front of a frosty bottle of Safari, devouring massive plates of chili prawns, and gazing out over the vast lake as the evening faded into night.
Our stamina surprised us that night. Casual mention of how lovely it would be to get out on the lake on a boat turned into a conversation with the neighbouring table, which happened to be hosted by the commodore of the Yacht Club himself. His offer to take us on his private boat the following day led to another round of drinks for all, and soon enough, he was seated at the head of our own table, regaling us with endless, riveting stories of his life in Kenya, and now in Tanzania; of business in Africa; of youth and adventure.
Some people have a real gift for storytelling. I lost track of the details of all the stories the commodore told that night, for the beer was flowing freely, but I remember distinctly the feeling of hanging on his every word. When we finally teetered back to our little canvas home to retire for the night, our heads full of ideas and wonder, and we had made a new friend who was eager to show us around.
Having told the commodore that night of my interest in horses, and my plans to travel to Malaysia to teach riding, he had offered to drive me out to see some horses he was looking after the following day. When I woke up, I vaguely recalled the story he had told of two South African long-riders who had set out on a journey through Africa on horseback.
On our way out to the small farm where the horses were living, he filled in some of the gaps. The two riders had set out on a journey from the northernmost point in Africa to its southernmost tip, riding their horses Chami and Ennahali. They had faced unthinkable challenges and setbacks along the way: being held up by the Libyan government while their freedom to enter Egypt was contemplated; a thousand mile swamp crossing aboard a barge, riders eating fish and horses papyrus leaves from the banks of the Nile; political turmoil and suspicions that they were spies or gun runners in war-torn Southern Sudan; typhoid, malaria and tick bite fever, to name a few.
After passing the halfway mark, and Billy having struggled severely with his health through Southern Sudan, he sought medical help in Kampala, and was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia and returned to South Africa to seek medical care. But even this didn’t stop the intrepid duo: sixteen months later, they returned to Uganda to retrieve the horses and continue their journey.
On the 28th of January this year, having overcome what seemed like all the hardships the world could throw at them, the travellers suffered the most heartbreaking tragedy. On their route alongside the road outside a small village in northern Tanzania, surrounded by a crowd of happy villagers cheering them on, they were struck by a bus that had swerved out of control whilst passing a truck on the road. The collision killed Christy and 25 of the bystanders. Chami managed to narrowly avoid the impact, but both Nali and Billy came away with badly broken legs.
The horses were taken in by the commodore and his friends, and against the advice of every vet they consulted, they nursed Nali and tended to his broken leg. These were the horses we were going to see.
As we neared the little farm on the edge of the lake, we slowed to a halt beside a small store, and the commodore wound down the passenger window. No words were exchanged. A woman scuttled into the store and returned with a handful of carrots. The commodore greeted and thanked her as he payed for his purchase. She waved as we drove off.
The horses will remain on the small farm in Mwanza under the care of the commodore and his friends until Billy is in a position to decide whether he wants to continue and complete the journey alone, in memory of Christy. Should he persevere, Nali will be unable to continue as his mount, his leg having been too badly damaged to carry weight. But Billy may choose to have him stay abreast of the journey in a trailer, symbolically keeping the travelling team together as they press on to their final destination, carrying Christy in their hearts.
As I petted Nali and Chami and listened to the commodore’s stories of their recovery, I was moved by the sheer generosity of horses, their willingness to obey their masters, allowing us to condition their bodies and minds to perform great feats of physical precision and brilliance; to carry us on long journeys; or to victory in bizarre competitions. And here were two such generous beasts, travelled from Tunisia all the way to Tanzania with their riders through harsh and unforgiving Africa, only to be unceremoniously taken down by a reckless bus on the side of the road in Isela.
I hope Billy decides to continue the journey to Cape Agulhas, and if he does, I would like to be there to shake his hand and to welcome him and his phenomenal horses home. I have been deeply moved and inspired by their epic journey through Africa. I feel privileged to have crossed paths with Chami and Nali in Mwanza, and to have heard just a little part of their incredible story.