Zambia: The Hell Run

There is only one certainty about economic blockades: they bring out blockade busters. Britain’s embargo on oil to Rhodesia is a case in point: it simply does not work. The reason, Britain charged last week, is that South Africa, despite strong British protests, is shuttling enough fuel into Rhodesia to keep the country running indefinitely. Rhodesians know how frustrated Britain feels.

Rhodesia has been equally ineffective in keeping oil from its black northern neighbor, Zambia, which until December had been totally dependent on Rhodesian Railways to haul its petroleum supplies from Mozambique ports.

In two short months, Zambia has found eleven routes around the block ade, which Rhodesia started as retaliation against Britain. British, American and Canadian airlifts are bringing in oil from ports on both the Atlantic and Indian oceans, while trains, trucks, lake boats and barges are hauling it in from as far away as Dar es Salaam (transportation costs run as high as $3.50 per gallon). Last week negotiations were under way for yet another airlift—this one from Mozambique, whose Portuguese rulers may sympathize with Prime Minister Ian Smith and his white rebels but who long ago learned to cover their bets. Said an official of the last major colonialist power in Africa: “Portugal will pursue her policy of cooperation with her African neighbors as long as those countries refrain from adopting a policy hostile to Portugal.”

Lions in the Sun. For all the intricate international involvements, Zambia’s single most important source of oil is “the Great North Road” that connects it—sort of—with Tanzania. Winding for more than 1,000 miles through rain forests, game plains and mountain ranges, the road may well be the world’s worst international highway. Its dizzy hairpin turns were scraped out and leveled (often with dragged thornbushes) by African tribesmen working off their tax debts. Along its flat stretches, the road is little more than a trail of treacherous sand or soap-slick mud. Black, blinding rains and eerie mists make it all but impassable from October to May, and the right-of-way is often usurped by two-ton rhinos, herds of elephant and lions basking in the sun.

Yet more than 10,000 tons of oil careered over the Great North Road last month, trucked in at flank speed by hastily assembled fleets of bruised Bedfords and long-haul Leylands with 25-ton trailers. The sides of the trucks are painted with such slogans as “Zambia Forever” and “Death to Ian Smith.”

The drivers are mostly private contractors, some of them whites. Though the government calls the oil run “Operation Octane,” the brawny truckers know it as “the hell run.” Attracted by Zambian government offers of up to $450 per trip, they travel night and day, seldom stopping to sleep. They fortify themselves against danger with python-skin juju charms, but their defense against the heat is more practical: bags of water laced with gin.

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