I was born in the Copperbelt of Northern Rhodesia. From an early age I remember being interested in the natural world and attracted by rocks, minerals and wildlife. My father used to bring back home samples of minerals from the mines for example malachite. This set my mind at an early age upon the idea of being a Geologist, something which I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to become later in life after studying Geology in the VI Form at Grammar School and then subsequently at London University.
My father was in the Police Force and my mother a Nursing Sister.
We lived on Police Camps, with bungalow accommodation and colonial service furniture with some personal effects. My father used to accrue his leave and every three years we would have six months ‘long leave’ returning to the UK. For the return journey we would travel by Union Castle Line to and from Cape Town along the West Coast of Africa. The liners would call at Madeira and the Canary Islands. In Madeira you could toss coins into the harbour water and the boys would dive from the small trade boats that had come to greet the liner and retrieve the coins from the water. There were all sorts of tourist items for sale, but especially Madeira lace. As a small boy I was both attracted to and intimidated by the ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony when we crossed the Equator. Everyone in their swimming gear being covered in raw eggs and flour and water paste by King Neptune and his entourage, then dunked ignominiously in the seawater swimming pool. I remember fondly the ticker tape departures from Southampton docks amid huge excitement and frantic waving.
My parents have an eerie small black and white photograph of me sitting on a dead ‘man eater’ lion in the back of a truck. After Chingola we lived in Lusaka and then Ndola. My brother who is four years younger than me was born in Lusaka. One of the camps we lived on was Wardroper Camp. I used to attend Primary School. School hours were an early start at about 07.30 or 08.00 with an early afternoon finish at about 14.00, home for lunch with afternoons free. This was a great opportunity when I Iearned how to ride a bicycle, went every where unsupervised at the age of seven, dressed in shorts jersey ‘T’ shirt and flip flops! If I wasn’t on my bike I was swimming, something I took to quite easily. I remember practising diving from the poolside in Lusaka, by running and throwing myself from the edge of the pool into the water. A considerable number of ‘belly flops’ were experienced before I finally developed the right technique. My father used to keep his service revolver with live ammunition in the top drawer of his chest of drawers. I discovered it one day, again unsupervised, and was fascinated by the weight of the lead copper jacketed bullets.
I remember the Queen Mother’s visit to Government House in Lusaka, all dressed up in school uniform waving a small paper Union flag on a stick. I visited the site of the Dag Hammarskjold (the Secretary general of the United Nations) crash and to this day still have in my possession a United Nations enamel lapel badge which was part melted by the heat from the crash. I read later that (as usual with most air crashes) there was considerable speculation as to why his plane had crashed. Guerillas or faulty altimeter? There was live ammunition to be found at the site.
I think it was during the rainy season my mother and I went with the Norwegian wife of one of our family’s close friends to look for flame lilies in the bush. They used to grow wild. I had been warned that there was a particular type of hairy caterpillar for which flame lilies were a delicacy and that I should not touch these because their fine hairs would sting and cause an irritating rash. Did I listen? Of course not! We found an area with many flame lilies and my botanical enthusiasm overcame me and the prior warnings to the extent that I was stung several times on my hands in trying to be the first to pick the lilies. I spent the rest of the day trying to pull out the hairs by plastering my hands in mud, letting the mud dry and peeling it off. An old African trick I believe.
We had an African cook, his name was Motokar. He prepared our meals for us and helped my mother with the housekeeping. He and his family lived in a kia at the bottom of our garden. The kia had bare floors and he had few belongings. The kia had a picanini kia (lavatory) of the type comprising a hole in the ground with two foot pads either side. I remember even at my young age thinking about the contrast with our own lives and not really being able to comprehend why he lived like that. Now I know he had no choice and in fact was quite fortunate to have a secure job with a white family.
We used to have family outings to a place called ‘Monkey Fountain’ a small zoo with ornamental gardens and a nursery. I think this was near Ndola. I laughed at my father chasing and then pulling tail feathers out of the male peacocks. The song ‘In and English Country Garden’, was popular at that time and I identified Monkey Fountain with the song.
I have memories of the Kariba Dam and Operation Noah to rescue the animals trapped by the rising waters of the newly created Lake Kariba. I saw Kariba in the early stages of its construction. A few years later we were to stay at the Kariba Boating Motel. My brother and I swam in the swimming pool and played with the with inner tubes. We both got very badly sunburned! On coming back from the Dam on one occasion, there had been heavy rain and the dirt road had turned to mud. There was a detour that took us down a steep embankment. Unfortunately, the car in front of ours became stuck and our car slid down the bank into the back of it. There was some minor damage, but insufficient to stop our limping home. The tsetse fly was also common at that time bringing with it the dreaded ‘sleeping sickness’. The Colonial authorities had implemented a program to prevent the spread of the disease. At certain points along the main roads there were hanger like buildings into which the vehicles were driven and then sprayed, probably with DDT to kill the fly.
I was sent to Preparatory School in the Vumba Mountains close to the border with Mozambique in Southern Rhodesia. I remember flying by DC3 (Dakota) from Ndola to Salisbury with a stop at Lusaka for Immigration purposes. My parents had given me my travel papers and at the last minute for safe keeping my father lent me his silver cigarette case in which to keep the folded documents. You can imagine the laughter when upon being asked for my papers at Lusaka airport, I reached inside my smart navy blue blazer with the gold badge on the pocket, and produced the cigarette case. I went through Immigration with considerable embarrassment, and to top it all they forgot to give me my boarding pass for the next leg of the journey and refused to allow me to board the plane. After several panicky minutes I was able to acquire a boarding pass from a much amused stewardess and allowed to board. After we had taken off the cabin crew did the rounds asking passengers if they would like a drink or a snack. I asked for a Coca Cola, only then to learn that I had to pay for it. I had no money, so more embarrassment followed. Fortunately, another passenger took pity on my predicament and paid on my behalf. Upon arriving in Salisbury, the teacher who was supposed to meet us at the airport was not there. It was left to me to find some one to whom to explain our predicament (I was travelling with a school friend). We were taken to the airline offices downtown Salisbury and had a long wait. Eventually our teacher turned up and we were taken to the railway station for the next leg of the journey to Umtali by Rhodesian Railways. Starched white sheets, polished mahogany, plenty of brass fittings in our sleeper cabin. I had the top bunk.
The school was founded by Claude de Mellor, Headmaster, and some other Dons (Oxford/Cambridge?). Nestling in the Vumba Mountains not too far from Leopards Rock Hotel with some of the most spectacular scenery. It was reached by a dirt road winding through forested hillsides with small trickling waterfalls and rivulets along the way. We were accommodated in dormitories, one dorm for each school year. Up at the crack of dawn we would have a quick cold shower, dress and then breakfast before lessons started. We used to have fruit buns at break in the morning to help keep us going through the morning until lunchtime. It was all very different from the freedom to which I was used. Uniforms, name tags with numbers, lockers etc. The School song was sung to the melody of the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. I still have the blazer badge, kept safely and given to me recently by my mother, I had it framed and it now hangs on my study wall.
The school had a San (Sanitarium) for those unfortunate enough to fall ill. The Matron was nick named ‘Cookie’. She was always cheerful and used to administer pink or green coloured aspirin for most ailments. She wore a Matron’s uniform with a broad belt with a big silver ornamental buckle and a starched white contraption of a hat. The annual medical, involved sticking your tongue out, followed by weight, height and cough! But this was preceded by waiting stark naked in a queue for your turn. Eyes forward!
On one occasion I had the good fortune of being taken out for lunch by the parents of my good friend, Lyall Watkins. His parents were successful tobacco farmers, near Bulawayo I think. We went to a posh Hotel in Umtali. I had rump steak and chips with a fried tomato, my favorite with HP sauce. The height of my day out was being given a dinky toy, a two tone Bentley Continental in silver and black with cut glass as headlights which twinkled like small diamonds.
During the winter months, there used to be a frost on the playing fields in the early morning. The dormitories had minimal heating if they were heated at all. The Vumba Mountains were also prone to a thick mist (Gouti) which would descend and cover everything in a layer of damp dew.
With my parents I visited Livingstone, saw Victoria Falls, and the tree with Livingstone’s initials carved into the bark. My father picked up vegetable ivory out of elephant dung on one of the dirt roads near the Falls. We went to a restaurant overlooking the Falls, there was a one armed monkey which came and stole food from our table. I spent some time looking for agates in the car park. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but I did know that agates were a semi-precious stone and might have some value. The hotel we stayed in had red polished concrete floors, wooden beds with horse hair mattresses and starched white bed linen. Room service with immaculately dressed black waiters in white tunics, they carried silver trays with stainless steel teapots and milk jugs and said ‘Yes Sah!’
On my first trip to school we stayed at the Leopard’s Rock Hotel. A magnificent palace of a hotel, with lawns and lakes at the front. I remember the lakes because they had big boulders in them and I almost fell in when trying to jump from one to another. The hotel had a games room for children. It had the most fantastic wendy house. We walked through the forest to the overhanging rock where the leopard which gave its name to the hotel had once had its lair. I recall being anxious about the possibility that there had once been leopards in the hills, were there any more I wondered? In later years I was to learn that leopards were sighted near the school! I was also to learn about the tragedy that befell the Elim Missionaries. This has taught me in life that where there is excellence there is also envy.
On one of my journeys South to school, probably the first journey, I was accompanied by my parents and we travelled by train. They woke me in the early hours of the morning, opened the window of the sleeping compartment we were in and said ‘Listen’. Above the clickety-clack of the train I could hear a thunderous roar, we were passing over ‘Mosi O Tunya ( The Smoke that Thunders otherwise known as Victoria Falls) the window of the compartment was wet with the fine mist, some of which entered the compartment and lingered.
Our family left Africa in the mid sixties. We left because Northern Rhodesia was granted Independence and my father feared that he would lose his job because of ‘Africanisation’ of the Police Force. My parents drove down to the School from Ndola with my brother to collect me in the family two tone turquoise and cream Opel Rekord estate which had a column gear shift and bench front seat. After they collected me we then stayed in Nyanga (with the spectacular ‘Worlds View’ escarpment, the slave pits and Troutbeck) for a while before making our way down across the Beit Bridge, and the Great Grey Green Greasy Limpopo River described by Rudyard Kipling in his ‘Just So Stories’ ‘The Elephant’s Child’ to South Africa, the Kruger National Park and then Durban to board the Italian Lloyd Triestino cruise liner the Europa for our return journey to Europe. At some point, whether on this journey or not I don’t remember we visited the caves at Sinoia and saw the remarkable ‘Blue Pool’, so named because of the intense blue colour of the water. We also visited Rhodes grave in the great kopjies of the Matopos with the huge granite boulders, the grave was later to be desecrated under Robert Mugabe’s Regime. In the early 1980s while working in Johannesburg I was to watch in horror and bemusement at the droves of cars fleeing from the newly formed Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s Regime across the Beit Bridge to the perceived safety of South Africa. Frying pan to fire! They were allowed two vehicles and whatever they could get in them.
We stayed near the Kruger National Park, at the Sabi River Motel. My parents bought me a book ‘Jock of the Bushveld’ by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick. The book was stamped at the Numbi Gate in Kruger National Park and contains a small purple pressed flower which reminds me of Lusaka and the avenues lined Jacaranda trees in bloom. We saw impala, lions, irridescent starlings, african water buffalo, kudu, bought tourist gifts -carved wooden baboons covered in monkey fur with the black and red seeds for eyes. I still have the book and a small hunting knife with the hoof of a Dik Dik as a handle.
After the Kruger Park we drove to Durban, and stayed at the Edge of the Sea Hotel at Umhlanga Rocks. The ‘rollers’ (the big waves coming in from the Indian Ocean) were great fun for body surfing. The white sandy beaches were generally deserted. One day there was a shark attack. and the body of a surfer brought in. There were shark nets, but no more swimming for a few days. Keep out of the water! decades later in the early 1980s while working for the South African National Oil Exploration Company (Soekor) I visited Umhlanga Rocks again. Not a good idea, the place was over developed, the beach was crowded, the Edge of the Sea Hotel was still there but dwarfed by developments either side. However, the small bird park which had been there in the ’60s was still there.
I hope that gives you a flavour of what living in colonial Africa was like for me as a child.