honeymoonplanet travel blog

I have reproduced my handwritten notes here. I started taking these notes a couple of days after the accident so I could keep all the facts straight along the way. Maybe they will make a boring read for most of you, maybe not. If anything, they'll let you in on the intensity of this part of the experience. I don't know. You tell me.

Acacia Accident Notes

Started February 8, 2007

On Jan 21, 2007, we joined an Acacia overland trip from Nairobi to Cape Town. On Feb 5th, 2007, at approximately 11:30 am, our overland truck went off the road on a curve and flipped on its side south of Mbeya Tanzania, en route to the Malawi border.

Although there were 4 or 5 very seriously injured people, Kristine and I were apparently only slightly injured at that time. (Ted - bruised ribs and Kristine - wrist abrasion and sore shoulder). The group itself had to perform its own first aid, and eventually (the next day) 4 people were emergency flown out of Mbeya airport. Our tour leader, Nel, after dealing with the most seriously injured, arranged for accommodation for the rest of us at the Karibuni Centre in Mbeya. The rest of the day was spent shuttling others with minor injuries to clinics/hospitals for treatment. Kristine and I, believing we were some of the least injured, waited. At 5:30 pm, I called the Worldnomads emergency number (Insurance) to inform them and open a file if we were to need it in the future. In that call, we were advised to see a doctor. Meanwhile, tour mates were helping a lone American doctor at one of the hospitals, along with Nel, our tour leader. They stayed there throughout the night.

The next day, Feb 6th, the seriously injured were flown out, and Kristine and I went to the Agha Khan clinic in Mbeya to get checked out by a doctor. The doctor examined us both and told us we did not appear to be seriously injured at this time and provided a letter as such. We were also prescribed some painkillers and antibiotics and muscle relaxants and we took them as prescribed.

That evening our tour leader informed us that Acacia was sending an alternative vehicle to collect us from Mbeya to take us to Livingstone, but that it would have no seat belts. The group was furious that a) Acacia would indicate that the tour would simply continue business as usual, and that b) they would provide a sub standard vehicle compared to their own minimum standard for what all the passengers viewed as a rescue mission at this point. The group remained highly traumatized. We were also very upset that there was no indication to us from Acacia senior levels to acknowledge the seriousness of the event, and a commitment to get someone senior into the region to help us.

On the morning of Feb 7th, the dispatched vehicle from Livingstone had not yet arrived. Kristine and I went to the Internet to e-mail our families and contact Spencer Clarke, our travel agent in Vancouver. We considered that the tour was terminated at the point of the accident, and wanted as a minimum that a) Acacia get us safely to Livingstone which was the next major milestone as we understood it, and b) offer to refund us all unused amounts from Feb 5 forward if we wanted to leave the trip. We were not hearing anything in this regard from Acacia reps on the ground with us, so we were understandably upset. When we got back to the Karibuni Centre from town, the others told us that the truck Acacia had sent up from Livingstone had come and gone because the group were so appalled at what Acacia was attempting to provide. People were visibly angry. The truck was old, with portions made of plywood and tarpaulin sidewalls, bench seats (that come right off) no seat belts, a bad tire, cracked windscreen and windows, and no seat belts. The speedometer also did not work.

After this, one of our tour mates, Brett Shields managed to call one of the owners of Acacia, Vivian McCarthy. The group wanted to make sure that Vivian was a) aware of the gravity of the situation and b) ensure he was going to come and meet us to answer questions on refunds/compensation for those who wanted out and c) commit to the fact that the tour was over, and that some form of refund/compensation would exist. It was explained to us after the call by Brett that Vivian agreed in principle with some form of compensation and that the tour was not on, but he would not commit to coming to Livingstone, even though it was stressed very highly that this was very important to the group. We were all very disappointed with his response.

In the meantime, Allen (one of the tour members) started working on alternative transportation out of Mbeya because Acacia had not provided a vehicle equivalent in quality to its own minimum safety standard as set by the vehicle we had the accident in, and it appeared that there would be no other options from Acacia. Angus, the Acacia rep that came up with the truck said that this is what management would be offering and that was that. This also made the group very angry and we all refused to board that vehicle.

Allen was successful in locating a minibus that was brought over to the Karibuni Centre, but after Angus inspected it, he found it to have a faulty rear spring. He told the company to fix it before morning, and then we would use that vehicle to get to Livingstone. People were still very angry because the vehicle had no seat belts, and Angus was saying we could now take this one. That evening, the group voted on whether or not to take the vehicle if the spring were to be repaired properly. This became extremely uncomfortable because some were willing to accept no seat belts due to their perceived urgency and wanting to get out of Mbeya. Kristine and I abstained from the vote due to our concerns about the safety Acacia was providing us, but also indicated that we would go under sever protest, since no other option was being provided by Acacia, and we would otherwise be left behind.

Angus sent the bus away for repairs, to be returned for an early morning departure at 8:00 am. Angus had to call Vivian to update him, so I asked him to ask once again for those who wanted to leave the tour in Livingstone due to the trauma/fear of continuing on an overland vehicle, if Acacia was going to offer the option of getting a refund for at least the portion of the trip from the accident forward. Angus said that he believed that to be reasonable, and that he believed that this was the sort of thing Vivian was expecting from some of the passengers, and would likely be agreeable to under the circumstances. After the call, I asked Angus what Vivian's response was, and he said yes, Vivian would definitely refund some sort of prorated amount, but that it would be a different amount/issue for everyone, and that we were to contact the office in London with the details of our claim. I asked how. Angus said the best way was to send an email with the details to the attention of Vivian and the process would start fro there.

At this point, believing I had a commitment for some sort of refund, I decided to call Spencer Clarke in Vancouver to start working on refund with Acacia on our behalf, because we would not have access to the Internet for 3-4 days en route to Livingstone according to Nel. When I got in touch with him in the evening by cell phone, Spencer was already working on it for us, and he was trying to make onward arrangements for us from Livingstone. He was also registering his disappointment with Acacia's performance up to this point. Spencer was going to continue working on this as we made our way to Livingstone.

The next morning when the minibus returned, Angus was not satisfied with the repair to the spring, and he did not accept the vehicle. The vehicle was sent away, and the owners asked to replace it with an alternative one. 2 hours later they returned with another minivan, with no major mechanical problems visible to Angus, and it had seat belts. The question arose as to why this vehicle was not provided in the first place? No answer was given by anyone, including Acacia. Unfortunately, some of the belts on the bus were faulty, and Kristine and I had to go without. So, essentially, Acacia had still provided us with something that didn't even meet their previously established minimum standard.

We left Mbeya for the Zambian border at about 11:30 am on February 8th. This route was chosen instead of the Malawi route, according to Angus, due to better roads and a shorter distance, and also one less border crossing. For the drive to Livingstone, we emphatically stated that we would not accept any speeding or any driving that was too fast for the road conditions, and that the truck sent up by Acacia from Livingstone would act as a lead vehicle for the mini bus and it would be responsible for setting a safe pace (anticipated to be a maximum of 80 kph by all as this was the posted speed on the back of the Acacia provided truck). All of our bags were loaded on to the Acacia truck, and all the passengers rode in the mini bus. In addition to our big bags, gear was taken from the wrecked truck and put into the alternate truck (tents, cooking gear, sleeping mats, etc.), as Acacia was saying that the intent was to camp to Livingstone.

Once again, this made people livid, that Acacia would suggest anything of the sort. Considering that the tour was not on, the group all believed that Acacia should cover the minimal amounts to put people into rooms for the duration of the "rescue drive" to Livingstone. It was just another indication to all of us that Acacia had not grasped the gravity of the situation. Some were injured enough that they would not be able to perform the necessary physical duties associated with camping (setting up tents, packing, etc.) and this was known to Acacia reps (Nel and Angus).

Once we reached the Zambian border, we were lucky and still got the Zambian visa waiver for the group, even though we were not crossing where we were supposed to from Malawi. A fax to this border had been arranged to deal with this. However, because the vehicle and drivers provided required special permitting and visas, we spent nearly 4 hours at the border. We also found out that the drivers spent more time buying fuel in Tanzania because it was much cheaper than in Zambia, which exacerbated the wait. After we were underway again, it became clear that there would be nowhere suitable to stay for the night for another 6 hours of driving, meaning that we would have no choice but to continue driving in the dark. This apparently a) is against Acacia policy according to Pete, the trainee guide and b) according to Dominique, the driver Acacia provided for the Livingstone truck, dangerous in northern Zambia because the road is very narrow and many trucks and buses travel at night. The area is also very remote.

Luckily, we arrived safely at a very poor motel in a place called Mpika at 11:30 pm where there were rooms available for us. The rooms were of very poor quality, damp, and full of bugs. After we were all allocated rooms, a meeting was held. People were very angry that we ended up driving far less safely at night as a result of the day's events, and that the driver was continuing to speed (over 100 kph at times as verified by me looking at the speedometer) and to tailgate after repeated instructions by us the passengers. Nel, our rep, was obviously exhausted and just as distraught as the rest of us, and as a result, was not very able with respect to leadership duties such as keeping the driver's speed habits under control. Even though I asked Nel to do it, we had to continue doing it on our own.

It became apparent during this meeting that Acacia people (Angus and Dominique) were aware at the time of delivery of the second mini bus earlier that day in Mbeya that the border process would become protracted due to the vehicle licence and insurance issues and driver visa issues such that it was easy to see that by leaving Mbeya at close to noon, we would obviously be driving a long distance in the dark in northern Zambia. Why then did Acacia not stop our departure on that day to allow time to rectify the vehicle and visa issues and then plan for an early departure on the next (or any subsequent) day that would have prevented night driving? If in fact it is Acacia's policy not to drive at night, they appear to have planned themselves knowingly into a situation contrary to their own policy, and placed us in unnecessary risk. Obviously, this made people very angry.

Also in this meeting, we discovered for the first time that we would only have the mini bus for three days in total (why, we were not told) essentially forcing us into another very long day of driving on February 9th to get to Lusaka, in order for us to eventually arrive in Livingstone on February 10th. We could not understand why Acacia was in such a rush, given that our original arrival date for Livingstone was February 11th, not February 10Th. Taking more time would obviously be safer from the point of view of driver fatigue, and prevent the possibility of driving at night due to unforeseen delays such as police roadblocks (which are relatively common). Feeling as though (once again) that there was no other option, the group accepted Nel's advice that we leave very early in the morning at 6 am in order to arrive at accommodation she is familiar with in Lusaka before sundown. By leaving then, we would increase our chances of not driving in the dark. Of course, through all of this, regular meals and even water supply were not adequate, and everyone included continue to view the entire operation as getting us out of a terrible situation safely. We also began to question why Acacia had chosen this route if it was so unsafe and so poorly serviced.

As such, it was the view of the group that any monies spent out of the local payment, or "kitty", was being spent out of necessity to facilitate our removal from the situation, and not paying for tour costs, as we were not on tour. If we were, we would have being going through Malawi and seeing the sights, etc. We all believed it was understood that the tour was not on as of the point of the accident, and that many of the stranded people still had bumps, bruises, trauma, and in one case, cracked ribs, that made it very difficult or impossible for them to camp, and Acacia would cover the cost of any accommodation, meals, and transport to get us to Livingstone safely. The camping gear was not suitable anyway because the tents had diesel on them from the accident, and the sleeping mats were covered in mud and blood, also from the accident. This is the gear we were expected to use. For many, camping was not possible (setting up tents, gear etc.). Local payment portions from the accident forward are expected to be a part of refunds provided. When I said this to Nel, she did not disagree, she just stayed silent.

On February 9th, we left for Lusaka. Only 1 hour into the drive, the police pulled us over and told us we had violated a traffic rule by not having a first aid kit with us. We did in fact have the big one from the original truck that was in the accident with Dominique on the other truck, plus a few small personal ones belonging to some of us. Still, the police essentially extorted cash from our drivers in order for us to be permitted to proceed. I don't know how those monies were sourced, if they came from Nel or not. Before we left Mpika, Tannu (one of the passengers) clearly instructed the driver to go a maximum of 80 kph (bypassing Nel for the direct effect). Still, the driver was found to be doing 100 kph (I observed this), and the group kept asking me to tell him to slow down as I was seated near the front. Not being the group leader, I felt I needed to ask Nel to manage this as Acacia was in charge. This was a tough message to pass to Nel, because she was also under tremendous stress (and we all only got 4 hrs sleep the night prior), but, unfortunately, she is Acacia's representative at the moment, and it is her responsibility to lead us through the situation safely.

Some other random points I have (outside of this chronology, but I am thinking of them now). Nel at this point has told us that her and Pete (the Acacia trainee on the tour, who is fairly seriously injured) will be continuing on with their jobs from Livingstone to Cape Town. I find this to be of great concern that Acacia would expect them to work after such a trauma. Any reasonable organization would get their people out of the situation as soon as they can, and deal with them properly. Very bad I think, and hard to believe. Next, some thoughts about the accident itself. Although we have no police report at the moment, and who knows what a Tanzanian police report will contain, I am aware of what I believe are some relevant factors to the accident. It had recently started to rain, and the roads can sometimes become more slippery right after a rain due to the oils that have been slowly deposited over time as vehicles pass, the road becoming more slick due to the moisture. The accident occurred on a corner, and it felt as though we were drifting moments before going into the guardrail. Our speed felt excessive for the conditions. After the accident, I went back up on to the road and noticed that the curve appeared to be well banked and properly designed. I definitely believe that speed was a factor in this accident, given the road conditions at hand. Our driver, Dzengi, had received not one, but two speeding tickets in the week prior to the accident, and I felt he was driving to fast for the conditions even subsequent to these tickets. Many on the truck felt the same. I was told by those who were on the Uganda leg of the journey that they felt speed was excessive on that leg of the journey as well, although Kristine and I did not take that portion of the trip. Another driver issue of significant concern was the fact that Dzengi developed malaria over the period we were in Zanzibar. Prior to Zanzibar, he would sleep in the cab during our driving breaks. I asked him several times how he was feeling and the answer was always "so-so". When we returned from Zanzibar, Dzengi told me he had malaria, and that he had to take a daily shot for treatment, and that he was still not feeling so good. Indeed, the night we stayed near Iringa, I witnessed Pete helping him the needle he had to take. I am not a doctor, but it certainly must be the case that someone with Malaria and being treated for malaria is less fit to drive than someone without these conditions. My other thought on these driver issues is whether or not Acacia management were aware of these issues with respect to this driver, and if so, did they allow or instruct him to continue regardless. Are the management structures such that Dzengi may have feared reporting these issues because he may lose wages if he were off, or might his job be at risk? If so, Acacia people management practices must be called into question because they could be a contributing factor to the safety of passengers on their vehicles, and a likely contributor to this accident.

Another item involves the fact that even with severely injured people in the hospital at this point, it did not appear to us that Acacia had attempted to contact the hospital in Nairobi or Johannesburg where the most critically injured were undergoing surgery. We were getting no communication from Acacia seniors through Nel. We knew that there was no contact in Nairobi because the parents of one of the passengers on the tour live in Nairobi, and they were helping one of the girls at the hospital, and they had told us there had been no contact from Acacia.

With respect to Pangani (the truck), there are some important facts regarding the interior of the truck. First, neither of the two tables was properly attached to their mountings, and the tabletops became projectiles as the truck went over. Second, at least one of the passengers claims that he was seat belted in, and that his seat came away even though he was belted in. It is true that some of the seat cushions came away from the frames during the accident, but seat belts are attached to the frames of the seats, so this set of facts needs to be investigated further. Both of the blue ice chests need a system to fix them to the truck while the truck is in motion. They also went flying. Finally, (and perhaps most importantly) we were forced to exit by one of the forward caged windows. The truck fell on the side of the door, so it was useless, and the glass emergency exit became too high to reach with the truck on its side. Similarly, the opposite side windows were too high to reach. An emergency man way needs to be engineered and installed in the roof of the truck, operable from both the inside and outside. That way, even if the truck falls on either side, there is a way out that is relatively easy to access. Another item would be a simple speed governor on the engine.

Later in the afternoon, around 3:30 pm, Nel and I had a discussion re the local payment because we were planning for a refund in Livingstone for all amounts from the accident forward. I wanted to confirm with Nel that she was just using the local payment money for practical purposes to get us from Mbeya to Livingstone, but in fact, the remaining amount would be frozen as of the accident, and then refunded to people in Livingstone. I.e., Acacia was paying to get us out of this mess to Livingstone. Nel said that the office had agreed to pay for the Mbeya costs, but now that we were rolling again, we were back on the kitty. I said what? This is not the understanding that everyone in the truck has, and I re-iterated that the tour was considered over at the accident and that Acacia was essentially performing a rescue mission to get us to Livingstone and that none of the activities or locations the local payment would have been applied to were being experienced by the group anyway. I explained that our understanding was that she would have to use the funds for practical purposes to get us there and feed us and house us, but for refund purposes and accounting purposes, we understood that a line was drawn under the remaining amount at the point of the accident. She understood, but said that this is not what she is doing, and that for example, last night, where everyone had a motel room; everyone's local payment was used. She said if this continues to Livingstone, the LP would be more than exhausted. I explained that the solution to this would be for her to arrange for Acacia funds in Livingstone so that people can get their LP back from the accident forward once we are there. I asked Nel to get in touch with the office to work on getting the issue sorted out, and stated that this should all be worked out in Livingstone. I then turned to everyone in the truck and explained the conversation I had with Nel. All agreed that their understanding was that Acacia was paying for the time from the accident to get us out to Livingstone and that the use of the LP for accounting purposes was stopped. Obviously, people were upset, as this was not what was happening.

Nel seemed to think that people would have to try and claim the portion of the LP from the accident to Livingstone, and that there would not likely be much left of the LP once in Livingstone. I asked her to start working on communicating the issue upwards so we could get information ASAP.

We arrived in Lusaka at 6:30 pm and Nel refused to pay for putting anyone into rooms saying that if she did so, the kitty would run out. Some people paid, but her answer angered many. So, many were forced to camp because the inexpensive rooms were full anyway, and Acacia would not help out. Many had to set up tents with some injury. Almost all the sleeping mats were dirty from the accident, some covered in blood, and we were forced to use these. Tents had diesel smell from the accident and also from being transported in Dominique's truck with fuel. I had to pull out three tents before I found one we could actually sleep in.

Finally that night Nel was able to tell us that Acacia's No 3 person would be in Livingstone to deal with our claims. Vivian did not see fit to come in the end, which angered people, but this was the only positive news in days. Apparently, this person would have the authority to deal with any and all claims. She was also able to give us some information about the more severely injured passengers now in Nairobi and Johannesburg. The news lifted the spirits of most people, but most were still very unhappy about how things had been handled up until now. Also welcomed was the fact that Pete was finally being flown home from Lusaka, as his condition appeared to be getting worse as we were travelling.

The next day we arrived in Livingstone at the Waterfront Campsite and Resort where we me Willy, Acacia's senior representative in Africa. An initial meeting was held with the group as a whole where we gave Willy as much information as we had, and Willy explained to us what the process would be going forward, including individual discussions with people regarding leaving the trip in Livingstone and refund/compensation issues. During this conversation, Willy first indicated that we would have to camp that night, but after the group explained the condition of the gear, and Willy inspected it himself, he agreed to provide alternate accommodation for the night for everyone. I believe he then arranged to have the gear properly cleaned by local people. I also asked Willy if he and senior Acacia people were aware of the speeding tickets and malaria that Dzengi was subject to and his response was no, they were not aware. The meeting ended with everyone getting sorted into rooms and then having dinner. A plan was made for individual discussions the next day.

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