During my first eight weeks as an Education Officer in Northern Rhodesia I was based in Livingstone, the administrative centre of the Southern Province. After a three week settling-in period it was suggested I should go on a tour of African schools to get the feel of the country and the job I would be doing. Accompanied by my wife, Millie, and an African messenger, I set off in a dilapidated old Chevrolet pick-up truck known as a vanette. On the back was a 44-gallon drum full of petrol since garages were few and far between.
I’d been advised that the thin strip of tarmac road running north of Livingstone would run out after 30 miles, to be replaced by a wide dirt road. Because of the weight of the lorries using this main road it would be ‘corrugated’ into hard ripples, and to counteract the bone-shaking effects of this wavy surface it would be necessary to travel at over 40 miles per hour. As we neared the end of the tarmac strip, having seen hardly a single other vehicle, I happily increased my speed until the vanette was driving smoothly along over the orange-red dirt road at 45 miles per hour. Lesson One taken in and digested.
Just a mile further on, the road suddenly made a right-angled bend to the left to take it over the railway line which was hidden from the road by dense bush. There had been no advance warning signs, the Automobile Association clearly not having yet penetrated the Dark Continent. I applied my brakes, but they were far from efficient and we were still doing over 30 mph when we reached the bend.
In an ordinary car I might have risked it, but with a 44-gallon drum of petrol on the back, I knew instinctively that if I tried to take the bend we would simply overturn. I took my foot off the brake and sailed straight over a three-foot-wide ditch and into the bush. Seconds later, the vanette came to a juddering halt just one foot from an imposing tree. For some reason there was steam issuing from the area of the bonnet, and the vehicle had developed a list on one side, caused I discovered later, by a broken leaf spring.
I got out gingerly and helped Millie out on my side since the door on the passenger’s side was permanently jammed. (We’d already named the vehicle ‘The Yellow Peril.’) Our African messenger needed no such help, having been unceremoniously flung out of the back as we took to the air over the ditch. He limped up, nursing a few bruises which, fortunately, didn’t show because of the colour of his skin.
Between us we managed to get the vehicle turned round. After the radiator had stopped making its ridiculous hissing noises, I even managed to coax the engine back into some form of life. As we set off once more I warned the messenger to stay awake in the back, though I suspected the advice was hardly necessary as he’d been favouring me with dark looks ever since the incident occurred. Slowly we chugged towards the railway crossing. At the precise moment that the vehicle straddled the lines, the engine stalled. I thought: ‘Thank God this is Africa and the next train is probably due tomorrow, or the day after.’ Then, glancing idly out of the open window, I beheld this damn great goods train bearing down on us from only a hundred yards away.
Being only newly wed, my first thought was for my bride. But when I turned to yell to her to get out quickly on my side, I found she’d already gone! The messenger had also executed an acrobatic exit from the rear. Pausing only to push the gear lever into neutral, I leapt out as the engine of the goods train loomed up less than fifty yards away. Between us, we just managed to shove the truck clear of the line before the train lumbered noisily and heavily over the space we had occupied only seconds before. The white engine driver and his mate waved ironically at us as they passed. It was probably the only excitement they had experienced all week.
I never did find out how my wife had effected her escape. Whatever the case, it may have been that she hadn’t considered the vows she had so recently taken regarding our sticking together in sickness and in health, etc., as totally binding in this sort of situation.
That evening we limped into Chikuni Mission Station which was staffed by Jesuit Fathers and Irish nuns. Over the next two days a little old Belgian mechanic, Brother Jacques, fitted a new clutchplate to the Yellow Peril and patched up the hole in her radiator, allowing us to continue on our tour of schools. On our way back to Livingstone a week later we met the Mechanical Superintendent from the Public Works Department, an Afrikaner rejoicing in the strange name of Visagie. He was leaning against the side of his truck, drinking tea from a thermos flask. As I stopped alongside I discovered from the smell of his breath that there was more than tea in the flask. He took one look at the Yellow Peril, which was still listing heavily to port, and declared: ‘Good God, man, I condemned that vehicle more than a year ago!’
‘Can I have that in writing?’ I asked. Secretly, I was somewhat sorry. During that unforgettable week we had gone through so much together that I was beginning to grow quite fond of her. Millie never achieved the same degree of rapport, possibly because her passenger door was still jamming.
As for that treacherous bend in the road 33 miles from Livingstone, I discovered some time later that it became known as ‘Dunning’s Corner’. For all I know, it still is.