It was dry when Mike came to Malakal. The rains had ceased a few weeks before but the land was still tall and green with grasses and it was overgrown with bush. The bushfires would come soon but not yet. This would happen when the tall grasses were no longer green and had lost their resistance. Then the villagers would burn the grasses so that they would not burn when the cattle were grazing in the fields.
Then, when there was the burning, the air would smell thickly of the smoke and the ash. The ash was like a powder, thick and hazy, heavy in the air. It would carry on the wind in fibrous strands. The ash that you did not breathe you wore on your skin and on your clothes. The ash that did not fall on you fell scattered upon the ground and collected along edges like hair clippings. If you stood in it for only a few minutes you would smell of it and, when you came out of it, you would still smell it. It would be so thick and so constant that you might think the whole country was covered in it.
But it was not the time of the bushfires yet. When Mike came the grasses were still tall and green and well fed. Mike was a soldier and then a security contractor and now an aid worker. When he was young he rode two-stroke motorcycles. He talks of hard rides and bad falls and near misses along beaten trails through the backcountry of Alabama. Now, in older life, he still loves bikes and talking of them and he rides them plenty good enough. Some boys never grow up, they only grow older.
At the field office we have six Honda 125cc off-road motorbikes. They ride well when they are maintained and to maintain them takes very little effort. On the day he came we had a lunch of chapati and beef at the restaurant that the Deputy Governor owns. Once fed, we drove fast and far to the outskirts of the township where the canal separates the village from the grazing lands. We followed the canal south, passing groups of children and young women that bathed in the muddy water that was left from before the dry season returned. After a few kilometers the trail diverged from the canal and disappears into tall grasses and thorny bushes.
The town and its surroundings was once a battlefield and for a long time it was besieged. The de-miners work slowly - as you would work if you were a de-miner - and they have so much ground to cover. The safe trails are the ones where you find tire tracks or people. If you don’t see soldiers in high boots and poorly fitting uniforms or women carrying water and firewood or young boys pulling toy cars on a tether, then you know you are where you should not be. Where the villagers fear to tread, you should also.
This trail was overgrown on either side with tall grass and bush but there were clear tire tracks and the growth between them was stunted where the underbellies of the lorries had cut them before full height.
We drove fast, Mike pulling up ahead and leaving everything behind and me shifting into a higher gear. The rode was mostly smooth because the earth had hardened in the sun after the rains and before the punishment of the lorries. But this motorbike is not a Road King and this trail is not a paved highway. These small Hondas are like big bicycles with fine shocks and little side mirrors and a gutsy four stroke motor. They ride easily but the ride is very different than you might be accustomed to.
They ride lightly and jauntily but they feel everything and they feel it completely. They feel every pebble and every patch of gravel they tread upon. They feel so much and they pass all that feeling on to you so that it is like you are feeling it directly. The trail is good in many places and you are practiced and surefooted. But on the trail there is no perfection and if something happens it will probably and hopefully happen first to your front tire. If it does, the tire will skid or it might kick out but you won’t worry much about it. You will feel and measure every bit of it and you will know that it is your front tire, which is only a placeholder. If you are good and confident and if what’s happening is not too bad, you can keep it in your front tire and you’ll ride through it. It is the back tire that steadies you because it is wider and heavier and has the torque of the motor behind it. It is what you rely on and you know it will be good to you if are in the right gear and if you give it extra throttle when it needs it.
Eventually the bush opened to junction with a wide road. It was dusty and gravel-strewn but smooth and very well graded. It was the Chinese road that goes south to Panyikang.
'That was fun,' Mike said when I pulled beside him. It was almost the only thing we said on that ride and it was probably too much because there was no need to say it.
‘A good ride,’ I said.
We shifted into gear, turned, and took the good, new road all the way back.