I went out to Northern Rhodesia in 1955, aged 13, with my parents, leaving behind life in grimy, postwar London. In doing so I had abandoned a precious place in a good grammar school. I had left my brother behind in our house with our grandmother as he had started at University College and she was too infirm to travel….. Gran had always lived with us so there were tearful farewells. My father had been in Africa for a year and was now working for the Public Works Department in a remote town in Luapula Province, Fort Rosebery (now Mansa). My mother had worked as a PA for one of the directors at Marks and Spencer’s head office in Baker Street, a job she loved but naturally she wanted to join Dad.
I was given the option of staying or going. I couldn’t imagine living so far away from my parents and I leapt at the chance to travel. I had never been abroad and daydreamed that one day I would live in the country…. Being an avid reader and picturegoer and ever the romantic, my image of Africa was of sun-parched, tawny savannahs over which a suntanned Anthony Steel strode, immaculate in bush jacket and khaki shorts, while herds of giraffe, zebra and wildebeest cantered under thorn trees in the background. I had seen the film “Where No Vultures Fly”.
The prospect of a sea voyage was wildly exciting. My brother saw Mum and me off from a rain-sodden Tilbury Docks on the Braemar Castle, one of the Union Castle ships, where we were to travel steerage – inside, in close proximity to the engine room. Our ship might have been One Class but we were definitely part of the hoi polloi. Our departure had been delayed because the ship had encountered storms in the Bay of Biscay on her way home from South Africa. Consequently, she was low on cargo as she had missed her sailing date, wasn’t equipped with stabilisers so we bobbed along like a cork on the ocean. After two days I was often one of the few people taking breakfast – luckily, I had good sea legs – but Mum felt ill for the whole trip. I loved it all: the vessel surging through the waves, plunging and juddering as she hit the troughs in Biscay, walking round the decks with salt spray in my face, drinking Bovril for elevenses, grabbing my cutlery and crockery as it slid around the table inside its protective surround as we hurtled through the waves.
Things improved as we sailed into warmer waters and by the time we reached Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, the weather was positively balmy. Spanish dancers came on board and danced flamencos in a whirl of frilly dresses and clattering castanets. I lay low during the Crossing the Line ceremonies at the Equator, while the crew larked around and threw a fully clothed King Neptune into the swimming pool – I was a very shy teenager. The enormous meals which had seemed so varied at the start of the voyage were now merely repetitive and, used to postwar frugality, I was astonished to see the quantity bread rolls and other leftovers being flung from the kitchen portholes each day. I gawped at the beautiful evening gowns worn by some of the wealthier passengers and at the immaculate dinner suits of the men. From Ascension Island onwards we had seen some amazing fish from the deck – hammerhead sharks, iridescent flying fish, huge manta rays off the coast of St Helena. My new friend Jean and I scrambled up the steep steps of Jacob’s Ladder up to the stop of the hill and marvelled at how lonely Napoleon must have felt here.
Imperceptibly, as we neared our destination the height of the waves had increased so that one moment one looked above the horizon, the next into the turquoise depths of a wave’s trough. These were the Cape rollers. I hung over the rail, peering anxiously for my first sight of the African mainland. Suddenly, a shape loomed out of the mist – Table Mountain. Wow. It seemed so close that I felt as though I could touch it. All too soon we were called to the purser’s office to start our immigration procedure, the ship docked majestically into what is now the Victoria and Albert Waterfront in a cacophony of shouts and machinery. Hatches were lifted off the hold and nets full of boxes, trunks, even motor cars were hoisted from its depths. On the quay the cargo was manhandled by Cape Coloureds, speaking Afrikaans. A blinding autumn sun beat down on as we disembarked, found our luggage in the vast customs hall and waited for a taxi. I noticed every bench we passed was divided into two, with notices saying “Blankes” and “Nie Blankes”. I still felt as though the earth was slowly heaving under my feet. Finally, we were on our way to the station via Adderly Street and on to the Blue Train. As we steamed out into the Cape Flats and prepared to climb up to the plateau the setting sun lit up the Berg before us, its limestone cliffs flaming rose and crimson. Mum was exhausted but I was on a traveller’s high. There were distant thunderstorms and flashes of lightning lit up the veld that night, revealing flat-topped hills and piles of boulders above a plain dotted with scrubby trees.
We were to sleep on the train for three nights, I think, before changing on to our final Rhodesia Railways train at Bulawayo. We passed through Bechuanaland, dry and dusty, where piccanins begged for pennies when we stopped and cattle walked across the line, then crossed over into Southern Rhodesia. The night train ploughed on through the African bush: there was no moon and the high veld was illuminated only by sparks from the wheels. The darkness was immense. Every now and again the driver would sound a klaxon to clear livestock off the line. The train even had a cowcatcher on the front, like those in the American west. Early in the morning we slowed to cross the emblematic Victoria Falls bridge, built by Dorman and Long, a Darlington company. The falls were in full spate in April and the spray and noise were incredible.
Our progress slowed as we stopped at the little Southern Province farming towns – Choma, Monze, Mazabuka – before chugging into Lusaka, an unremarkable capital. Finally, a night and a morning later, day later, our train arrived at Ndola Station, the railhead. I spotted Dad in a sea of bobbing faces, black and white. He wore long khaki shorts and a white shirt, looked thinner than I remembered but his honey coloured hair was bleached by the sun. His eyes looked bluer than ever in a tanned face. That was an amazing day.
We stayed at the Government Rest House, reigned over by the formidable Mrs Perry. I was later to learn that mud and dust were anathema within these walls, its rooms redolent of Cobra floor polish, so that we were virtually stripped of our dusty clothes before showering and putting on our school uniforms. Sitting on starched white bedcovers was also strictly forbidden. The bungalow was draped in bright flowers and lush foliage – bougainvillaea, golden showers, pot of gold – and the scent of frangipani wafted through the windows into the cool bedroom, where a ceiling fan lazily creaked overhead. We ate a forgettable meal but I couldn’t take my eyes off the staff lined up along the wall in white kanzus and sashes, waiting to whisk away our plates or serve more food.
LIFE IN THE BUSH
From Ndola we faced a 150-mile trek up to the Luapula Province on dirt roads, the worst section being through the 40 miles of Congo Pedicle, a little peninsula snapped up by the Belgians in the 19th century Scramble for Africa. Dad’s driver, Luka, said “Bad road, sah” and he wasn’t joking. We piled our luggage into the back of the Bedford vanette, covered it with a tarpaulin and set off. Three of us were squashed together on the front bench seat while poor Luka sat in the back.
The first part of our journey was on tarmac, to Mufulira but at the border we passed under the pole of the customs post and bumped on to dirt. The red laterite road stretched endlessly ahead, with hardly a curve, through low forest. MMBA – Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa. It was potholed, rutted and corrugated after the rains, with deep drainage ditches on either side waiting to swallow you up if you slid on the gravel. Clouds of yellow butterflies flew up from puddles and the grass by the roadside was already getting its dry season coating of red dust. After 40 miles we reached the exit border post and the Luapula River, half a mile wide, with a strong current which the ferry took in its stride. At the other side there was a welcome cup of tea with the PWD man and a comfort stop in his thatched PK – piccanin kaya, the loo. Another 65 miles, through a tsetse fly barrier and we were practically home.
Our first house was a little white bungalow surrounded by cassia trees, adorned with yellow panicles of blossom and the resident blue skop lizards when we arrived. Dad’s cook Simon was waiting by the steps to greet us, help with our luggage and serve us a meal. What bliss. He produced the most wonderful food from a very basic kitchen equipped with a woodburning Magic stove (magic if you could cook on it, muttered Dad), a few shelves, a sink with a wooden drainer, a kitchen table and a couple of chairs, a zinc-windowed meat safe (no fridge – and no electricity, come to that) and a pantry. It was dusk when we arrived and Dad performed his nightly task of lighting the lamps: Tilley pressurised jobs which had to be pumped to make the white mantle glow, two Aladdins in wall sconces whose flames flared up without warning and a hurricane lantern for the toilet/bathroom. The nightly chorus of tree frogs, crickets and the odd hyrax was tuning up and the air smelled delicious. I bathed in the soft, brown unfiltered water from the Mansa River, heated in a Rhodesian boiler: an oil drum over a wood fire in an outdoor oven affair. Drinking water had to be boiled and was kept in the meat safe in old gin bottles. Occasionally these got confused with the real thing and your eyes watered when you took a swig.
This was the start of five very happy years of school holidays in Fort Rosebery – I say holidays as my stint as a school boarder was not pure, unalloyed joy. My holiday routine would seem boring to an outsider but I loved it.
I woke to a pair of noisy bulbuls in the bushes outside my window. Wherever you go in tropical Africa, these birds herald the dawn. Then there would be a soft knock on the bedroom door, closely followed by the gentle arrival of morning tea brought in by the houseboy and the more boisterous entrance of the resident dog or cat, who would jump on the bed and probably do its best to knock your cup from your hand. An early breakfast would follow for Mum and Dad. Fresh pawpaw, orange or bananas, cereal, toast, eggs in some shape or form, bacon if the cool box from the line of rail had arrived with Colcom goodies that week. My parents would then walk to work and a quarter of an hour later the Boma drum would signal the start of the working day, echoing across the valley. Soon afterwards I would take the dog on a walk before it got too hot, walking through the back garden, past the servants’ quarters, on to the golf course and down to the river. There were many paths which criss-crossed the course and I could use these even when the grass was high in the rainy season, essential to avoid snakes. We encountered many snakes in our time in Fort Rosebery, including a couple of black mambas, a green mamba and puff adders. Dad had found a nest of spitting cobras behind the loo door in his thatched bachelor house before our arrival and Mum had disturbed in our bathroom in the dark: she thought the cat was the culprit! Another cobra temporarily blinded Sammy, our cocker spaniel.
I loved the golf course because it had a view, across the river, some beautiful flat-topped large acacia trees and wild flowers sprinkled along the fairways. In the dry season beautiful orchids would bloom, springing from the dry ground, along with helichrysum (everlasting flowers), wild jasmine, even a few proteas. Then red puffball lilies erupted from the red dust, before delicate crowns of flame lilies appeared with the rains in December, around the time of my birthday. Even in the dry season the deciduous trees would come into leaf well before the grass sprouted in the first rains in an explosion of yellows, ochre, lime green, red and copper. The spiky grass was alive with all sorts of insects, including tiny but vicious red ants and the processions of Matabele ants, warriors who stalked in pairs. There were praying mantis, locusts, grasshoppers and vividly coloured beetles, also the black shiny dung beetles rolling along their balls in which to lay their eggs and the stag’s horn beetle. Birds of all descriptions flitted about – lilac breasted rollers, shrikes, sunbirds, weavers, wagtails by the river. My favourites were the tame, tiny finches who splashed around in Dad’s irrigation furrows in the vegetable patch, commonly known as LBJs (Little Brown Jobs). The odd bird of prey would wheel around on a thermal overhead in an impossibly blue sky. We would sit on the rocks by the water’s edge, watching the dog swim in a vain attempt to catch the pied wagtails who hopped from boulder to boulder just in front of her nose, taunting her. We would inspect the big mango tree on the way home, checking for fruit, and perhaps swing by the little market at the top of the hill, near the Mansa Hotel, to inspect their little piles of tomatoes, mealies, onions and peanuts.