Another peril of the road: flat tires

Photo courtesy Polly Crawford Driver Ali holds one of our flat tires while he takes off on a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) to get the tire fixed in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

Editor’s note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote “Perils of Polly.” She also has written a series of “Peril” columns about Australia, Asia, Central and South America. Her perils continue in Africa.


I felt great relief once gorilla tracking was over. I had a lot of fear over my ability to do it, and even though I look back and realize I was crazy, I’m glad I did it. The rest of the trip would just be driving around seeing animals. I could relax, right?

Mary Green and I had our driver, Ali, spray the car for roaches again, and then headed north to Queen Elizabeth National Park. We had allowed 10 days for touring Uganda, and now only had six left. We looked at a map. “We’re going to have to skip the tree climbing lions in Ishasha,” I said, “if we’re going to make it all the way up to Murchison Falls.” Both of us were looking forward to a boat cruise on the Nile River. We’d already nixed whitewater rafting on the Nile at Jinja because we heard the class 5 rapids almost guaranteed flipping. With my hip issues, I didn’t want them banging around against rocks! Plus time was against us.

“Ali, can we make it to Mweya Peninsula for the night?” Before he could respond, I heard a clunk, clunk accompany the overheated air blowing in my window. “Uh, Ali, I think we need to stop. I think we have a flat tire.”

Yep. Truly flat. We got out. I grinned at Mary. Another good reason to have hired a driver! He gets to change the tire! What we didn’t know was that this was just the first of five flat tires!

We piled back in the car and I cautioned Ali, “You’re going to have to drive slower on these rocks. We no longer have a spare.” He laughed, and I realized I might as well have been talking to the wind. We had noticed he drove significantly faster on the rocky roads than he did on pavement. I never could figure out why, and no matter what we said, he kept up his high speed.

He took a rocky curve at a particularly high speed, and I quietly cautioned again, “Ali, these tires are not very good. You need to slow down. We don’t have a spare!”

Less than an hour later, the familiar “clunk clunk” infiltrated my ear drums. The spare was flat. Ali looked at us and shrugged. “We’re going to have to drive on it. There’s nothing here. I can’t leave you and the car here.”

“It’ll tear it to shreds.”

He shrugged.

“OK, we’ll have to buy another tire. Just drive SLOWLY so we don’t wreck the rim.”

Soon the tire was smoking. He jumped out to check. It was shredded, but the rim looked OK. “Please drive SLOWLY!”

More smoke, more checking. We drove for about an hour until we finally came across a road crew. He discovered we were only a couple miles from the intersection which housed a tire shop. He called a boda boda, took the “good” flat tire, climbed on the back of the motorcycle and was off, leaving Mary and me with the road crew. They shut down and a man sat across the road and watched us. “Why is that man over there watching us?” Mary whispered.

“I don’t know. I have to pee. I wish he weren’t here so I could.”

We looked around and had to climb down into a ditch and behind some weeds so we could get out of his sight. Within an hour Ali returned with a fixed tire and replaced the shredded one. The man watching us came over with his hand out. He wanted Ali to pay him for babysitting us! And Ali did!

Still without a spare, we continued our journey to Mweya. We set up our pup tent in the national park campground which was a hippo grazing area. Hippos have the reputation for being Africa’s most dangerous animal in terms of killing people. I asked the ranger about it and he said all would be fine as long as we stayed in the tent at night.

We ate dinner in a nearby café and noticed thunderclouds building. Ali started to get nervous, so we headed back to camp. By the time we got there, the lightning was so near and frequent, it blinded us. “I’m not getting out of the car,” I announced. “I’m safer in here.” Our little tents were on the top of a knoll, just begging for a lightning strike.

First came the wind and finally the rain. During the lightning flashes, we could see if our tents were still standing. “Oh no,” Ali moaned, watching his tent lay almost flat. Our tent seemed to be holding up well, so we repositioned the car as a wind block for his. Then the wind changed direction. So did we.

After about an hour, the storm let up, and we ventured outside, shining our flashlights all around looking for hippos. Ali discovered his tent was flooded and his sleeping bag soaked, so he would be sleeping in the car. Our tent was dry, so we climbed in, laid sideways on the single air mattress that was provided, and tried to sleep. All night long we heard the grunting and snorting of warthogs and hippos, along with the whooping of hyenas and the roar of a lion. We didn’t sleep much.

Heat with the morning sun drove us out of the tent. Today, our focus would be on finding a tire. The national park headquarters told us that the only boat ride available on the Kazinga Channel would be at 2 p.m. and that we should take a game drive first. Unfortunately, there were no nearby places to buy a tire and Ali was not comfortable driving any longer without a spare. Imagine that!

So we had to skip both the boat ride and the game drive and head to the nearest city, which was Kasese. We bought a used tired for $26 plus about $2 for labor to put it on the rim. Mary and I got to know quite a few of the local tire shops on this trip as we would have three more flats before the trip was over. For now, we had to figure out where we were going to spend the night.

Look in next week’s Clarion for more of Polly’s perils.