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Life at ZAF Livingstone
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Life at ZAF Livingstone
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Well actually it was NRAF Livingstone until Northern Rhodesia became independent "Zambia" in Oct '64, following which the base (the local airport) became the home of ZAF Livingstone.

I went out on Loan Service from the RAF as part of the second traunch of "technical instructors" in July 1964, shortly after my 21st birthday. Not surprisingly, it came as something of a culture shock to learn that we would be on double wages in Africa, accomodated in hotels, and regarded by the local "expats" as something of a novelty socially. Life couldn’t be better!

A number of other „Europeans“ formed the NRAF contingent - these were contract uniformed staff of S African, S & N Rhodesian extraction. They were a good bunch, and always „up for it“.

Our working day finished at 1pm, when we were transported back to the Fairmount Hotel for lunch. It wasn’t long before it became habit for several of our 20 or so to take lunch in the men-only swing door public bar - which was open most days for 24 hours. The publican, being a shrewd Yorkshireman, put trays of food out every 4 hours for the wellbeing of all at no cost. That meant that the hardened customer left for home only when he felt bound to by his consciernce. I remember some long sessions at that hostelry. We were also regular visitors to many of the local clubs (Police, Railway, Airport, MOTHs, etc) which ensured a heady social life. Afternoons were often spent on the river (Zambesi), fishing or boating. Victoria Falls was another attraction, being quite local.

It became a regular weekend feature to negotiate some 60 miles of dirt roads to the Chobe River Hotel in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) for the game park and very good river fishing there. There was a hotel proper (I think it had no more than four rooms), but we preferred the thatch covered rondavels - at 12/6d a night! It might interest some readers of this to look up the current prices at the many "Safari Camps" that now swamp this resort – most around 800$US a night! I recall one weekend in particular when a fishing match was arranged at Chobe (ZAF Officers v Others). Unfortunately, there were insufficient boats available to accomodate both teams, and being gentlemen the officers commandered all the boats. Our prospects looked grim; we were faced with fishing from the river bank -a fairly hopeless task. Anyway, having previously fished one of the game reserve lakes that became land locked in the dry season - and having been disappointed at catching only catfish (to 25lbs) as opposed to tiger fish – I suggested that we head for the same spot, so all we piled into a white Rover 100 belonging to Bruce. The anticipation of shoving it up „our betters“ dominated our thoughts. Some hours later we just made it back to the hotel in time for the "weigh-in". Of course, being without a boat we were not expected to require the scales, and there prevailed a certain smug satisfaction from our opposing team. The results were about to be announced when the cry came, "Hang on" it was Roger, one of our crew, and Bruce's Rover was duly backed up to the hotel swimming pool lawn to discharge a literal barrow load of large catfish from the boot - a winning weight. Of course our win was not popular with all, but we had enjoyed a great day followed by a splendid evening.

Although we at Livingstone were all originally accomodated in the Fairmount Hotel, those below SNCO rank were moved to the North Western Hotel after two or three months. This establishment was run by an elderly lady whom we soon dubbed „Rosa Klebb“. The nickname stemmed from the attitude she adopted with us NRAF guys, compared to that . which she reserved for „standard paying guests“. Typically, no „seconds“ allowed in the dining room, no room-service after 10pm, and don't bother to ask for anything whatever beyond your stipulated entitlement– however urgent your need. It gave one the impression that she had made our masters an offer they couldn't refuse, and then needed to make the books balance.

One particular Saturday morning Bill (a mild looking but „toughie“ contract N Rhodesian) awoke several of us from our morning slumbers to announce that it was his birthday, and that we should report to the men-only public bar in the Fairmount Hotel to celebrate the occasion. We kicked off at 10am, and enjoyed a splendid day which saw only four of us left by 10pm (Bill, Gary, Bent Arms Morgan - known as BAM, and myself), all well oiled of course. Back to the North Western to try room service for a nightcap. I don't recall from where they originated, but we did manage to procure a few bottles of Lion Lager. We opted to sit outside in the feature garden quadrangle; which was overlooked by our rooms. BAM soon retired to bed and it couldn't have been much later when Gary suggested that if we wanted to give Bill his birthday bumps, we should do it before the stroke of midnight. Gary and I were both quite fit, but we were soon to discover that Bill had a strength that belied his looks. Struggle as we might, we could do no more than pin him to the ground for brief spells. Seeking an alternative that might give us some advantage, we found that by making use of the metal framed park bench on which we had been seated, we could at least restrain him by sitting on it with him pinned underneath. Stalemate! Okay, we had gained some ground and if we couldn't go so far as giving him bumps let's see if we can cool him off. Into the fishpond he went! We were struggling to position the park bench over him when Rosa Klebb intervened. Not a happy woman. When she had cooled down a little, I apologised on our behalf and suggested that if she would like to call in a professional company the following morning, she should have the garden (the state of which, it has to be said, bore witness to our rigourus efforts) recovered to her own satisfaction as a matter of priority and we would foot the bill without question. Her reply was not what we expected „Get back to Maramba, you b-----ds“. It was at this point that the RAF Cpl Admin guy came out of his room wearing his RAF raincoat (bearing Cpl stripes) over his pyjamas, and told us that he would be charging us ….

The following morning we were wheeled in front of the Flight Commander. A list of serious offences was read out, concluding with Conduct Prejudicial to Good Order. I was a worried soldier. „What have you to say for yourself Bramwell?“ I came clean and explained it exactly as it happened, up to the point of apology and offer to recompense Rosa. „What was her reaction?“ enquired the Flight Commander. „Get back to Maramba, you b-----ds“, I replied. His face slowly drained of colour. Maramba, it should be understood, was the local African township and, despite impending independence, the colonial way of life still influenced attitudes. The charges were admonished, and nothing more was said to us. Some weeks later we were all moved out of the North Western Hotel to a Government Hostel on the outskirts of Livingstone, known as Chandamali. Here we built our own club/bar which allowed us more liberty, and the opportunity for „games“,and which over time became very popular with the residents of Livingstone.

A few months after arriving, I was sent on a detachment with two or three other guys and one pilot – all in a Pembroke aircraft. We landed at a small airport at Mpika, near Chinsali in the northern province. The Luangwa Valley Game Reserve was a short flight away. There had been a local uprising involving a religious sect known as the Lumpas, led by one Alice Lenshina. Neighbouring villages had been attacked and wiped out, in the name of religion. With the independence elections on the horizon, the european authorities were quite concerned to quell this revolt and stabilise the region. Our role was to act with a local detachment of the Army, carrying out either photographic low level sorties over and around the Lumpa village, or with the Army on board carrying out intelligence gathering flights. We three or four air force guys were accomodated at the Crested Crane Hotel in Mpika, the Army were under canvass in the bush close at hand. A few days into our detachment Ted, the Pembroke pilot, told us that he had to fly into Shiwa Ngandu between Mpika and Chinsali and deliver some goods to Lt Col Sir Stewart Gore-Browne DSO at his residence. He went on to say that we had been invited to lunch, and asked if we were interested in going. I jumped at the chance, and we were given a splendid tour of the house and grounds by this somewhat eccentric english aristocrat, followed by a fine lunch on the house balcony. Shiwa Ngandu estate had been built by Sir Stewart and he was regarded by his (african) staff as a father figure. He died in 1967, and was given a state funeral by Kenneth Kaunda. After his death, the estate was taken over by his daughter and her husband. Both were slaughtered by three members of the ANC (who you will have heard of) in 1992 – Africa triumphs again. It is worth looking up the history of Shiwa Ngandu on Wikipedia. We also had a day on foot patrol in the Luangwa Reserve with the Army, but at that time of the year there was little game to be seen. By any other name, it was a fantastic jolly.

My original posting to Livingstone was for twelve months only. With three months left to serve, I was asked if I would like to extend my posting for a further 18 months. I agreed to remain in Africa until Jan '67. This meant that rather than continue my correspondence with several female acquaintances in the UK, I would need to bring these relationships to a conclusion. I mentioned this to a mate Harry, who suggested: „Leave it to me, I'll soon come up with something“. The following afternoon he passed me several photocopies of a letter he had penned. It went something like:

Dear (fill in name as appropriate),

Being Mike's best mate, it unfortunately falls on me to me to write to his correspondents and tell you of his sad demise. We were at a riverside restuarant one afternoon last week, when several of the party decided to cool off in the water. This area was well known for its crocodile population, and this was usually accounted for when taking a dip. For some reason or other Mike and a few others headed out for deeper water when without warning Mike disappeared in a flurry of foam. He showed once more, but by now the water was red with blood and we realised the situation. As his head came once more above the water Mike had time to call; „Tel -------- I love her (fill in name again as appropriate). He disappeared with a final wave and these words on his lips, never to be seen again.

Please accept my deepest sympathies.

Harry S.....

I would like to think that the several girls who received a copy of this were able to raise a laugh.

One weekend, the usual Fairmount Hotel bar RAF contingent were (together with a number of „Sunshine“ nurses from UK) invited to a party on a tobacco farm some miles out of town. Big place, swimming pool, etc. I had gone to the party unattached and, during the course of the evening, struck up conversation with a girl from Lancashire. There was a lot of booze flowing, and she was worried about driving herself home. Another air force guy said it would be no trouble for him to drive her home (in her car), so I stepped in and pointed out that it had already been agreed that I would do so, but it would be no trouble to drop him off on the way if he needed a lift. He was a bit p----d off, but that's the way it goes; faint heart never won fair lady. I had never driven a car in my life! However, it did provide a talking point during the journey. I had just had my first driving lesson – free of charge. I dropped the young lady and her car off, and walked back to the Chandamali, but not without arranging my next driving lesson.

A friend of mine G--- had fixed himself up with this girl's best mate, and we used to walk to their shared bungalow together in the afternoons. Sometimes, it was a case of having to wait for them on the door step until their shift at the hospital finished, and we were often joined by their dog „Socks“. He was a full blooded basset hound, and feared neither man nor beast. It became his habit to get in a fight with another animal, then return to the house well torn up from his antics. On two occasions I recall, him limping home really in a mess, to the extent that we couldn't leave him without vetinary attention. The first time this happened, we got him stitched together but the vet wanted cash. OK, we paid – but deliberated whether it would be wise to ask the girls for the money since they were regularly feeding us (at no cost). The next time it happened he was in a real state, and we discussed the potential vet's bill to be faced. „Let's just whack him on the head,“ said G---. „When the girls come home, we can say we found him dead on the doorstep“. I persuaded my colleague that I thought this unwise. Socks got his treatment, and the bill was paid. He didn't last much longer though, being runover whilst chasing another dog soon after.

My girlfriend's car, an Austin A35 painted Post Office red, had begun to emit serious noises from the engine – suggesting a need to replace the big-end bearings. One advantage at the Chandamali (our accomodation) was that we had a virtual monopoly on the accomodation, including the several open garages at the rear – one of which had a servicing pit. I got the parts ordered, not an easy thing in the middle of Africa, and started to remove the engine once they had arrived. Assisted by a good friend, Roger, I dismantled the engine down to the crankshaft, and sent this off for a re-grind. Unfortunately, things had rather dragged on a bit, and I felt an obligation to get Julie's car back to her. Earlier that year, along with a few others I was detailed for a detachment to Eastleigh RAF base in Kenya, and that time had now arrived. I left the car in Roger's care, with instructions to deliver the cylinder block, internal parts and those on order (once they arrived) to a contract MT Fitter for re-assembly, and joined the crew bound for Nairobi.

Our task at RAF Eastleigh was to assemble and prepare for ferry flight six Beaver aircraft which had been shipped from Canada to Mombassa, then freighted in crates to Eastliegh. Once assembled the idea was to fly them down to Livingstone to form a local squadron. In common with 99% of RAF blokes finding themselves near Nairobi, we spent several weekends in the city backstreet Indian restuarants and around the various clubs (Sombrero, Halliens, Equator, etc). Quite an education. Once each aircraft was assembled, it needed an air-test to check out all systems and these were usually carried out by flying up to snow topped Mt Kenya and return – with one of us ground crew „navigating“. On the completetion of all six air tests, the aircraft were flown back to Livingstone, with again a groundcrew „navigating“ on each. First overflying the Meru park, then Ngorongoro, stopping for lunch at Tabora in Tanzania, and one night stop at Kasama in the very north-east of Zambia. One more refuel at Lusaka, and we were almost home with the new squadron. Another fantastic jolly.

As soon as I got back to Chandamali, Roger sought me out. „Mike“, he said. „You'd better have a look at what M---- has done to Julie's engine. It was upside down on a table, and I could see that everything inside the cylinder block was coated in a layer of iron filings. I then noticed that the big-end bolt heads on one side of the engine had been filed down. This accounted for the iron filings – at least. The next afternoon Roger and I paid a visit to M---- at his home in Livingstone. „Yes“, he said. „I re-assembled the engine, and when I tried to turn the crankshaft the big-end bolt heads fouled against the inside of the crankcase, so I modified them to suit“. I was stunned. It was obvious that he had re-assembled the engine with the big-end rods rotated 180 degrees out of position. Of course the engine wouldn't turn – it wasn't meant to rotate backwards! I gave him a piece of my mind, told he would not get a cent for his work, ordered (again) the necessary parts and cleaned up the engine. I was livid, but there was little more I could do. My girlfriend was rather disappointed, but it was out of my hands. The parts arrived, we put the engine together, filled the fluids and turned the key – purrrrrrrrrrrr. A sweet sound. I was releived.

Looking back I recall that driving discipline was generally quite poor locally. One day a new police inspector arrived from UK, and on his first morning in post set up a radar speed trap of the road from town to the airport. He managed to catch a dozen or more air force guys on their way to work, and issued all with speeding tickets. Word has it that, shortly after the incident, his boss (an Inspector) was heard to remark to him; „Ten out of ten for work efficiency, nought out of ten for diplomacy“. The traffic Inspector led a somewhat quieter life after this.

Life at Livingstone continued with the usual round of parties and weekend trips to Chobe, and the like. Access to Rhodesia was rather more difficult after UDI, although a number of loan service guys made the trip. One or two actually did a runner „south of the border“, and disappeared from the radar.

In April 1967 I married a local UK contract nurse. There were several choices available regarding our accomodation and we decided that we would move into the Chalets Hotel, near the airport. I had become good friends with the proprietress, Hilda Mann, and she not only gave us a favourable rate but also asked me to help out behind the bar from time to time - and paid me well for this.

Once we had moved into the Chalets Hotel, the temptation of afternoon sessions in the Fairmount bar became a thing of the past, by virtue of our location at the Chalets, and I spent many afternoons on the Zambezi, fishing. One afternoon in particular I had gone to a spot on the river close to some rapids which extended most of the way across the river (which was a mile wide here), blending into a rocky bank on the near side. A small group of elephants routinely crossed using the rapids each afternoon, and it became known as „the elephant crossing place“. The area was perhaps two hundred yds upstream of a hostelty known then as The Falls Restuarant. Anyway, I parked my car off the road some 50 yds from the rapids, and ventured forth with my rod and tackle box in search of a likely looking spot. Just below the rapids on „my“ side of the river was a large pool – adjacent to which was a sign BEWARE CROCODILES. Naturally, I avoided this pool, and continued downstream along a small track. This was at the back end of the dry season and the river was very low; most trees had shed their leaves, and a thick layer of litter covered the ground. As the track took me inland from the river, I heard a distinct rustling sound. I was still nervy from the mornings activities at the hotel, where Brian (Hilda's son) and I had encountered (and despatched with Brian's 4.10 shotgun) two snakes that moring – one a boomslang, and the other a puff adder. I stopped dead in my tracks, and quickly noted a large snake, head reared up four feet from the ground, scanning left and right, approaching me rapidly. I stooped to pick up a loose rock and threw this at the approaching snake. My movement obviously caught its eye, and it locked on to me immediately, increasing its pace. I am not bullsh-----g when I say it was at least four mtrs long! My first impression was cobra or black mamba. I went into a cold sweat, and considered my options. In hindsight, I was amazed at how quickly one can go through thought processes in search of a „best option“. If it was a mamba, it could probably outrun me, and the car was perhaps 100 yds away. No chance. If I went into the adjacent pool, it may well pursue me in the slow moving water – if the crocs don't get me first! Little chance. Run for the rapids – 50 yds distant, and get out as far as you can – hoping that the snake would not be able to keep up the chase across the rapids. I dumped my rod and tackle box, and ran as fast as my little legs would carry me, half expecting to feel its fangs at any moment. I made it to the rapids, and scuttled out from the bank through the broken water. When I felt that I was relatively safe, I looked back to see the b----y snake still head up four feet patrolling to and fro along the bank above the rocks. I shouted back „Up yours, you b-----d, up yours“, whilst giving it the V sign with both hands. It was not long before the snake lost interest in me, but I waited another half hour before venturing back towards my car. Fishing was over for the day, and I had no further interest in my tackle box or rod for the moment. The following day I related the incident to one Derek Maritz (a South African contract guy) who was bush orientated. „From what you say Mike, it is 90% sure it was a female black mamba - with a nest in the rocks by the rapids. You were between the snake and its nest, when you disturbed it. Others have died for less!“ Fifty years on, and I still go cold at the memory. I have one consolation; it is said that a Black Mamba may live for up to twenty years. If so, that b------d has been dead for at least forty!

We were due to be repatriated to UK at the end of '67, and were ready for it when the time came. Muscle flexing by „the locals“ became very much a feature of life and as each day passed one sensed an increasing threat. My wife and I had considered permanently moving south to Rhodesia before my UK return date, but it was clear to all that the flood tide was sweeping southwards at an alarming rate. We agreed that we could not leave such a legacy to our children (or theirs).

In hindsight I am quite surprised that I returned from Africa without disease, injury or even worse. I spent much of my spare time in the bush, often sleeping under the stars, had three very close calls with elephant - when only rapid application of reverse gear saved the day. Whilst boat fishing out of Chobe, hippo attacks became almost par for the course on each outing. I spent much of my spare time river fishing on the Zambezi and, whilst I always took care not to stand too close to the river where the water was deep, there were enough africans taken every year to ensure one maintained awareness. They used to say that for every one croc you see, there are likely to be nineteen others that you don't. Well, I saw quite a few, including one from the air when doing a low-level up the Zambezi in a Beaver with Flit Clayton which, and I exagerate not, would have bettered seventeen feet! Otherwise, Bhilharzia was ever a threat in slow moving water – it was prevalent amongst the local africans; mosquitos were rife although malaria was uncommon, and where you found buffalo you invariably found tsetse fly. I never suffered sand-jiggers under my toenails, nor did I have a single tick in my time there, although my girlfriend's dog needed to be dipped for ticks every month. In contrast, I expect to have a few ticks here in Germany (my home) every year. I don't know – perhaps it was the Buku brandy in Africa! One other ailment springs to mind; that being of a more personal nature. The local currency in Rhodesia /Zambia included a throwback to English currency of old – the silver threepenny piece. It was known to one and all locally by the African term „ticky“. Some ten miles out of Livingstone was a small hamlet by the name of ticky-village. When I asked about the origins of the name, I was told that in ticky-village you could buy twelve fish for a ticky …........... and twelve women for a fish! When an RAF Regiment squadron were detached to Livingstone shortly after UDI, the fishing at ticky-village went into a spiral – as did the workload of their RAF MO!

Almost fifty years have passed since I left Zambia to its own folk. In the meantime, most independent African states have demonstrated beyond any argument that although white rule/colonialism or call it what you will did ensure a reasonable living standard for the blacks, independence ensures nothing of the sort – except for those milking it off at the top. During my (colonial) time in N Rhodesia if you employed a black, not only did you have to pay him a minimum wage but you also had to provide his family with a large sack of mealie meal (maize flour) and a small sack of dried kapenta (fish) every month. That ensured that his family had food after he had p----d his wages away in the beer halls during the first three days of every month. He then returned to work, to resume his duties. Remember, this was law under colonialism. Decades on and those laws have fallen by the wayside as the african hand continues to be extended for free handouts to all who will listen. The Africa I knew is gone – lost to time.

Post Script: I recently made contact with V--, who was my best mate at Livingstone for a while. He had a romance with the daughter of Dave Habbershaw, owner/proprieter of the Fairmount Hotel. V-- went back to UK (tourex) some months before me, and when he had got himself set up, Dave's daughter joined him in UK. I didn't know at the time, because I had lost contact with V--. Anyway, they were married some weeks later, by which time I had been back in UK a few weeks. Dave Habbershaw and his wife travelled to UK for the wedding, did a few other things they needed to do, then flew back to Zambia – landing at Lusaka intending to take an internal flight back to Livingstone. ENTRY DENIED, and all possessions etc in country, confiscated! No argument – take the next flight out of here! Dave being Dave started again in SA, and got back on his feet, but …...... I do miss Zambia, but not the politics.