Home Articles A Visiting Fireman in Africa A Visiting Fireman in Africa, chapter 1
A Visiting Fireman in Africa, chapter 1 Print E-mail
Written by Raymond Henry CRITCHELL   
Friday, 30 October 2009 11:38

A Visiting Fireman in Africa

Part the first: How it all started. One foot in the door

My earliest introduction to Africa came from the pages of my geography and history books at school during the 1930's. Not surprisingly, as I have since come to learn, these were written with the sort of 'spin'  then current in our political and educational world. As a rule, English boys of that era grew up with the firm belief that our forefathers had explored, opened up and developed the Empire with great bravery and enterprise and we were exhorted to follow in their footsteps. Nowadays these endeavours would no doubt be seen differently and phrases such as 'Invasion', 'Territorial expansion', 'Regime Change' and 'Ethnic Cleansing' would probably be the headlines in some of our newspapers.

However, 70 years ago, with the innocence of the young, I longed to go to Africa and to explore. None of the other parts of the Empire ever had the same appeal for me.

My actual introduction to the continent, in 1946, was over the bows of a troopship approaching Table Bay in the early dawn - a never to be forgotten sight. I was at the time a signalman in the Royal Navy and en route to join my new ship, HMS Nereide,* a frigate with the then South Atlantic Fleet based at Simonstown in the Cape. For a year and a half we cruised around the coast of Africa, visiting seaports from Freetown up the west coast round to Mombassa up the east coast. My experience of Africa at this time then was only such as I saw by going round it with one foot on the beach.

Only once did I go inland, on a brief official visit, by train, to Johannesburg, when the sights and sounds during the journey, plus the historic place names showed me the Africa I remembered from schooldays, and wanted to get to know.

Despite this limited contact, I was fascinated by everything I saw. The people wherever we landed were invariably hospitable and welcoming to visiting British sailors. Needless to say, from that first heart stopping moment when the Table Mountain appeared in the morning sun, I fell in love with Africa and that feeling will last with me for ever.

A couple of enduring memories of the time and place before moving on: The Royal visit of 1947 when we formed part of the escort to HMS Vanguard,* the largest battleship we ever built but which never fired her guns in anger, that was bringing the King, Queen and Princesses to the Cape and on their way up to the Rhodesias. Several times passing Robben island, at that time I believe a leper colony, later a prison. Being invited to join in a braai on the top of Table Mountain by a group of students, and one fisherman's tale to end with.

My ship had to enter dry dock in Simonstown for repairs. We were a very small vessel in a very big dry dock and as the water inside it - a very large lump of the South Atlantic - was pumped out we could see looking down from above, shoals of fish, which could not escape because the pump inlets were protected by mesh screens. When the dock was finally pumped dry there was a layer of fish of every conceivable variety, several feet deep on the bottom. They lowered mechanical shovels down by dockyard crane to scoop the fish into lorries before they rotted in the sun. Everyone for miles around must have had a surfeit of fish dinners for days.

On return to the UK for demob in late '47, I left Africa with reluctance and found it hard to settle back into the post war England which, with its cold, dark days and nights, and the atmosphere of gloom and doom that seemed to be everywhere, contrasted badly with the wide sunlit open spaces and happy people in a land of plenty that I had just left. My family home, which had been destroyed* by one of the very last V2 rockets to fall on England, some six weeks before the war ended, had been rebuilt, but everything was now so bleak and austere, and most things were still on ration.

When I applied to the London Fire Brigade to rejoin, [I had served part time for 3 years with the National Fire service there before joining the Navy] they were full. Servicemen were being demobbed by the thousand and so finding work was not easy.

By great good luck, I heard of a scheme, provided by the South African Government and their Chamber of Mines, to recruit suitable young men from 'war torn Europe' and train them up for a career in the gold mining industry. Africa was the magic word. I applied, was accepted, and some six weeks after walking down the gang plank of the troopship, the RMV Carnarvon Castle, which had taken me to Africa the first time, and then brought me back, I was walking up it again onto the very same ship, this time as an emigrant, hopefully going out, with a group of like minded young men to make my home and future in the land of my childhood dreams.

Back in Africa, we entrained for the north and ended up at the Government Miners Training School at Modder B, near Benoni, east of Joburg. Several weeks later, having learnt a few new things, I was placed at Klerksdorp, a town close to the Vaal River, in the western Transvaal with the hope of becoming an assaying chemist within the industry.

The new environment was totally different to that which I had previously enjoyed. It was at Klerksdorp that I discovered that our version of events in colonising Africa, especially the Boer war, as learnt by me at school, was quite different to that known to the people here, some of whom had had personal experiences, which resulted in a difficult time for the 5 of us 'roineks' who were suddenly foisted on a mostly anti British community. Feelings seemed to run higher at that time as the Nationalist party had just won their first election and ousted the former pro British Government United party under General Jannie Smuts.

It was at this time that good fortune smiled again. I found an advert in the only English speaking paper available to us in the mine single quarters, in which BOAC [the former British Overseas Airways] was advertising for some one to take over the new position of 'Fireman/engineer' on their rescue/fire launch at the flying boat base to be opened on the Zambezi River bordering the two Rhodesias. I attended an interview in Joburg and was accepted. There were a number of applicants that day, and I learnt afterwards that there were many, many Brits looking for a way out of an increasingly uncomfortable place. Fortunately, it seemed that I was the only one with the combined single status/maritime/fire service background required.

Things moved quickly, and after a weeks notice I off, up and away to pastures new.

Part the Next. One and a half feet in the door

And so it was, I arrived in the land of Cecil Rhodes on the Afternoon of August the 14th 1948, by flying boat, my first ever flight.

We landed on a stretch of the Zambezi some four and a half miles upstream from the Victoria Falls after two low level circuits of the falls, made for my benefit! The aircrew, knowing I was a staff [?] passenger allowed me up on the flight deck for these manoeuvres and that part alone made an unforgettable memory*. On landing, the aircraft taxied to a large inflated buoy, which was moored to the river bed. The Radio officer had the task of leaning out of a small hatch in the aircraft nose and hooking on to the buoy with a boat hook. The main cabin door opened into the land of my dreams, and we stepped out into an immaculate cabin launch to be taken ashore.

My first impression, impact almost, was the smell and the steamy heat. The scented air was the consequence of the perpetual bush fires, burning without let or hindrance all over Africa; a combination of grasses and Acacia/Bluegum/Masasa trees, animal droppings, in fact anything that could burn, plus the all pervasive dust. Most people, arriving by road or rail in those days, would probably not have this sudden exposure, becoming slowly acclimatised. In those days only the very rich, or people who worked for the airline travelled by air. Stepping out of a cool, air conditioned aircraft, it hit like a hammer. Although August is not regarded as part of the hot season, the Zambezi lets you know differently. It was hot.

The BOAC Base* comprised of a small group of buildings with the usual offices, workshops and passenger facilities on the southern River bank, with an unmade road some four miles long connecting this to the Vic falls ‘village’. There was also a locally made bus ‘garage’ for a pair of passenger coaches owned by BOAC. This was a thatched roof spanning between several palm trees, just to keep the coaches cool, and which the local elephants took pleasure in knocking down periodically.* There was a pier leading down to the river, with a hinged gangway from the pier down to a floating landing stage, which allowed for the rise and fall of the river, and from which passengers embarked into launches. There were three large aircraft mooring buoys, although we rarely had more than four aircraft going through each week, two southbound and then back north again, but scarcely ever two at once. These extra buoys were necessary for an aircraft whenever it was test running engines after servicing or repair. A land plane doing this would have the wheels chocked and brakes applied. Flying boats were not so equipped. Here we would secure a line from the tail of the flying boat and secure it to one of the other buoys as a restraint. This made for a few exciting moments if the restraining line failed for any reason with the aircraft engine running at full power.

In addition to the Fire/control launch,* a 35 foot twin engined air sea rescue launch equipped with a large fire pump, foam making system and assorted fire and rescue equipment, there were two large passenger tenders with cabins to shelter the passengers for the short journey between aircraft and landing stage, two fifteen foot open auxiliary launches with a very fast rate of speed, two ‘unsinkable’ Tod’ dinghies with four cylinder ‘marinised’ engines and inflated gunwales, and a rowing dinghy which I later fitted with a mast and sail for expeditions up the river.

The local staff, some 20 of them, lived with their families in a purpose made compound a few yards in from the river bank. Although there was a water supply pumped up from the river into a large header tank in the compound, the local people still tended to use the river bank for washing. One of our sailors was taken by a crocodile about a week after I arrived there.

The ‘expat’ staff were accommodated in two separate places. The married staff lived across the river in the Fairmount Hotel* in Livingstone, about seven miles into Northern Rhodesia, whilst the half a dozen bachelors, myself included were housed in a bachelor mess in the small residential area at the Victoria Falls, which was in Southern Rhodesia. This temporary accommodation lasted until several new staff bungalows were built, and was housed in a building owned by a Mr Buck, known as ‘Buck’ to all and sundry. Buck lived in his own house next door, one of very few at the time, with his wife and daughter. He was the proprietor of the one and only garage at the Falls and bred Rhodesian Ridgeback hounds, one of the puppies being presented to the Queen during her recent visit to the Falls. He was very clever with his hands and I remember him showing me a small domed lid he had just beaten out of a ‘tickey’, or threepenny bit, to replace the missing one from the mustard pot of a cruet set.

In those days there was a small, grass airfield at the falls from which light aircraft, including the De Haviland Rapide, a light, twin engined bi-plane built of pipes, canvas and string used to offer sight seeing trips around the falls. Spencer Airways, operated by the Spencer brothers were based there. Sadly one of the brothers , I think it was Terry, was killed in an air accident. They had a ground engineer, ‘Benny’ Beneke who eventually took up flying too, and became quite well known in aviation circles. We will come across him again later.

Amongst the other few permanent residents were Mr and Mrs Clarke, owners of Clarke’s Curio Stores, where we could get our films developed, although we soon learnt to do this ourselves. They had a pool with small live crocodiles in it,* and a couple of quite large stuffed ones hanging on the wall. On one occasion, which I think coincided with a visit from the All Blacks rugby touring team,* one of the stuffed ones found itself in the Vic Falls Hotel swimming pool.*

All Blacks Rugby touring side 1948


The rest of the community was centred around the hotel which had quite a large staff, the Railway station with an on site Post Office*, the Vic Falls Conservator who lived at the small government camping site, a Police/Customs/Immigration post, and of course, the ubiquitous Trading Store that sold just about anything for the ‘native trade’, complete with treadle operated sewing machines on the front stoep to make anything from a party frock to, as I later found out, a set of sails for our dinghy . The Police Post was manned by a Sergeant and two troopers of the British South African Police, plus a Customs and an Immigration Officer, and they controlled the to and fro traffic, such as it was, along the Great North Road.

The police were responsible for the oversight of a very large area and were often away on patrol, sometimes on horseback, for several days at a time. The nearest town on the southern side was Wankie, with its coal mine, some 80 miles to the south on the road to Bulawayo, which was about three hundred miles away.

Because Livingstone was much nearer, albeit on the Northern, and therefore ‘foreign’ side of the river, we all tended to do our bulk shopping for food etc over there. The only Customs/immigration post on that side, about four hundred yards from the Bridge, was a hinged wooden pole to act as a road barrier. This was permanently in the raised position, manned by an Askari in a little thatched shelter, and whom I never ever saw get up from his chair, or attempt stop a vehicle. We used to take our crew ‘mini’ bus over once a week and shop for everyone at the Falls who wanted stuff

In those days most of us smoked and since tobacco was grown and processed into cigarettes in the south, they were very cheap. However, by one of those anomalies of government economics, those made in the south and exported to the north were much cheaper up there because they weren’t taxed the same. No one in their right mind was going to buy tobacco at the Falls, and so we would shop for all and sundry, including those who we shouldn’t have been doing it for, like the customs department. Nowhere in the Rhodesias in those days sold cigarettes in any size other than boxes of 50, with 10 boxes to a carton of 500 for under a pound in Livingstone. The shirt pockets in all the shirts made seemed to have been designed to take a box of 50.

Apart from shopping, we could have a ‘proper’ night out over there as Livingstone had a modern electric bioscope, as distinct from the magic lantern slide show projected on an old bed sheet from an oil lit contraption that gave off clouds of smoke and smelt of burnt tin that was the standard bush entertainment on our side of the river.

I should say here that I had a vested interest in these trips and would always volunteer to drive; I had been smitten as they say

I should introduce this subject from its beginning. On the afternoon of my arrival at the base, a group of staff and wives had come down to the jetty to greet the new fireman. Amongst them was a girl of about my own age [although 60 years on, she still reminds me she is senior to me by 5 weeks]. This was Marjorie Cooper, the niece of Mrs Christine McNeilage , who owned the Fairmount Hotel where our married BOAC staff lived.

Mrs Mac, or Auntie Chris, was a well known and popular figure in the town and was a keen member of the bowling community. People who remember her will be shocked and saddened to hear that she was murdered in her home in Gwelo where she had gone to live after having to sell up the hotel in the 80’s.

Courting in the circumstances was not easy. None of us owned cars in those days and so our once a week shopping/ bioscope outing had to suffice. Telephoning was not as easy as one might imagine, bearing in mind that Livingstone and the Vic Falls are within sight of each other. In fact, because they were two different countries, all telephone calls from the Falls had to be pre-booked and routed through the international telephone exchange down at Bulawayo and treated –and charged – as international calls.

I got a bit daring and bought a bicycle from our trading store, but after a couple of trips I gave up and sold it back to the store - at a loss. I hardly passed a living soul coming or going, apart from the Askari sleeping in his hut and a very infrequent car on the 14 mile round trip. The locals had more sense than to go walkabout in the dark, and after finding out that baboons can almost catch up with a fast pedalling cyclist, and that snakes like to lie quietly on the warm dry surface of the tarmac road, and just hate someone running over them in the dark, doing something different made sense.

The ‘something else’ didn’t do so well either. I arranged, with the approval of our station manager, Alan Collins,* to have the use of a dinghy to cross over the river and for the use of a small van either side. I would drive down to the base and leave the first van at the jetty, take the dinghy and motor over to the opposite bank, mooring it safely to a tree, and then driving up to Livingstone in the van left on that side. The return journey could be at a time of my convenience, rather than have a bus full of colleagues anxious to get home, and banging on the hooter outside the Hotel where Marjorie lived* as was their custom. There was not a streetlight from start to finish except when finally entering the town, and if there was no moon it was a pig of a trip. The Royal Mile, a strip of surfaced road made especially for the royal visit of 1947 that led down to the river, had fallen into disuse and was full of great big, deep potholes. This one mile long road, now leading nowhere, was itself witness to a unique event. King Lewanika, the King of Barotseland came down for the occasion of the Royal Visit in his state barge which was used for the Kuamboka ceremony. The Queen was permitted on the barge which is something that had never happened before as women never went on it.

For my part, I discovered that the time when I was free to go courting coincided with the time when the animals came out looking for their dinner. After a couple of frights, plan ‘B’ had to be abandoned too. My boss thought privately, he later told me, that he thought I must be some sort of an idiot to go blundering about on the river in the dark. My view, at the time, was that either someone up there likes me or else someone up there doesn’t want me anywhere near the place. Either way, whoever looks after fools, drunks and young lovers looked kindly down on me.

Working on the river gave a wonderful opportunity to study wildlife, and I have a couple of memories I would like to share.

My usual task on service days when an aircraft was due in was to slowly cruise up to the end of the alighting area, the equivalent to a runway threshold on an aerodrome ashore. This landing area stretched from just below Kandahar Island to just below Princess Elizabeth Island. The fire boat was also the equivalent of an airport control tower as we were in radio contact with the aircraft, and passed the usual landing instructions about wind speed and direction, and the barometric pressures etc.

Because of the possibility of damage to the rather thin aircraft hull, we were particular to locate and drag ashore any floating trees or debris that might cause harm. This meant that our course up to the top of the area, some 3000 yards distant was a series of zig zags as we crossed the river continuously to search for anything floating. This of course took time and gave the opportunity to observe, and also led to my ‘claim’ to have been the first professional fire-fighter in Northern Rhodesia. In those days the police using a flat back lorry loaded with fire extinguishers usually provided the Fire service in the north. The copper mines had rescue teams equipped with the then current breathing sets manned by volunteers. In reality, the first such claimant was I believe a Mr Rudram, formerly of the Jo’burg Fire Department, who arrived in Livingston in 1949 to start the very first Municipal Brigade. He came over to introduce himself and to borrow some of our foam making equipment when he was asked to stand by at the old Livingstone Airport for a VIP flight. His daughter worked in the licensing office in Livingston and later signed my driving licence when I moved over to live there.

My ‘claim’ to fame was based on the rather flimsy reasoning that since I crossed over from the south to the north side of the border line - which by International agreement is considered to coincide with the centre line of the deep water channel in any river acting as a national boundary - then by ‘working’ in the north about twenty five times each day I could justify it!

Even if that doesn’t hold water, I could still claim to be the most widely travelled person in the area, going abroad so often every day, and I did not need to show a passport to anyone. However, back to the animals.

I have mentioned the crocodile incident with its fatal outcome. These reptiles have a fearsome reputation and the river here abounded with them. Crocodile hunting was widely practiced, and I think the going rate was two and six in old money per inch of usable hide. The Sussen brothers from over the river were expert hunters. Eventually, the authorities recognised the harmful knock on effect of thinning out one predator from the predatory chain and they became forbidden game. Along with the silver backed jackal that used to earn hunters ten bob for each tail that they took into the Boma, and which were therefore saved from probable extinction at the same time.

The croc I have in mind is one I had got to know over many months. As I said, I used to go up with the fire boat, and when I reached the top end, I would nudge the bows up on to a sandbank, about 300 yards down from Kandahar island and shut down the engines. It was as quiet as the day of creation. The only sounds were the natural ones of the river. The most hauntingly beautiful one was the cry of the Fish Eagle. Years later, when Zambia became independent, this bird call became the station identity signal for the new Radio Zambia under the then Director, Donald Lightfoot.

A large mother croc used to lie there in the hot sun and never moved a muscle most of the time. We used to look into each others eyes from a distance of about twenty feet and, no doubt, think our own thoughts. This would go on for up to an hour when I would finally have to break the silence when the approaching flying boat called up on the radio. Even this did not seem to disturb the old girl, nor when I restarted he engines and backed off the sand bank. I was not aware that she had a clutch of eggs warming up and therefore had no intention of going anywhere.

This all changed however when I arrived up there one day to discover several baby crocs leaping about all over the place, even in and out of their mothers’ wide open jaws, normally the favoured spot for the tick birds. Now she did show signs that I was not welcome and tried to shoo her brood into the water. I was interested to see that, no matter how I positioned the boat, she would only allow her babies into the river on the deep water side of the sandbank, and never in the river that ran between the sandbank and the river bank itself. She seemed to sense that there was a risk to them by going into a shallow place when perceived danger was there. If the playful little ones took too long, mum would flick with her tail and the disobedient one would go cart wheeling through the air to plop in the river. Only when they were all safely in the water did she herself go in. An example of mother love that was unexpected.

We had a few minor problems with hippos, but luckily nothing as serious as we did with the crocs, one of which bent the propeller blade on the fire boat when I accidentally hit it, causing some nervous underwater time to replace it. Another time one died, possibly from natural causes, and was washed down river to the falls where it became wedged in some rocks on the very lip of the drop*. For several days it became a focus of attention as it swelled up, getting larger and larger as it filled with gases. I don’t know what it looked like, or smelt like, when it finally exploded and went on its way, as I missed that.

The hippo on the other hand, generally kept to the shallows and submerged when there was any noise. The only time I remember coming into conflict with them was on the one occasion, by accident almost. There was a crop of water melons on the river bank near our slipway* and I came across a couple of hippos early one morning vandalising the place. The odd thing was they were not eating the melons, but walking up and down squashing them. We had all been hoping for a good crop to make konfeit, or candied peel, and when I shouted at them to clear off, they trotted back into the river whist simultaneously defecating and twirling their tails like little propellers. The resulting mess was spread all over the place. Later, when I mentioned this incident to the game ranger he said this was a sign that either the hippo liked me or was afraid of me. I think I was having my leg pulled.

We had occasional run-ins with a local herd of elephants. In my early days there I had wanted to get some close up photos of the big animals, and it comes as a bit of a shock when you first discover just how close you can get to them before seeing or hearing them. In the bush they become invisible until they move. On the occasion, the one and only, when I got too close, against advice, and was chased, I discovered something else about the elephant. They do not work up to speed slowly like a lorry going through the gearbox, but ‘hit the deck running’ and whilst running they do not, like the rest of us, go around bushes or small trees in the way, they go right through or over them. I was lucky to get out of that particular fracas with nothing worse than some scratches and a good fright. I did not try that again, but it reminded me of my old mum once telling me that good advice usually works better when preceded by a bit of a fright.

Sadly all seven elephant were shot soon after that event. A young boy, the son of the people that used to come to Livingstone each year with their Luna Park fun fair, had been playing with friends near the Big Tree*, the giant Baobab famous in the area. They had apparently thrown stones at the animals which then killed the little boy. The game ranger said all of the herd would have to be shot as they would otherwise be a risk to tourists.

Everyone was co opted in the beat, and they were quickly found and shot. It was a truly pitiful sight to see these magnificent animals lying dead, all within sight of each other in a close group. Two were dropped on the river bank and the other five just a few yards away. The game department took the ivory and the villagers for miles around came to collect the meat. This took several days as there was quite a lot of meat, and it became a common place sight to see two men with a long bamboo pole slung on their shoulders, with lumps of odiferous elephant meat hanging down walking back to their village, sometime many miles away.

Take away elephant dinners. Victoria Falls 1949


One of the animals that had fallen on its side had it belly cut open which was then propped open with tree branches whilst several umfazis climbed inside to collect the offal. The stench after the first week was unimaginable and this was being traipsed through Livingstone main street, not just the bush paths. The first two carcasses to finally go were the two on the river bank, helped no doubt by the crocs. The others attracted big cats and hyenas at night and soon it had all gone.

I imagine there was a surfeit of elephant meat dinners all over the place, like the fish dinners of Simonstown. I have never since admired the practice of hanging up animal heads or feet on the wall for ornaments and I have never shot anything except for food.

On the subject of big cats, we were assured by the ranger, the same one who advised me on the habits of the hippo, that there were no lion in the area of the falls. Just a ‘few’ leopard. However, during one walk from our mess down to the falls, about a ten minute stroll, there was the unmistakable footprint of a cat in the sandy path, with grains of sand still trickling down into the paw indentations, meaning the animal that made it had scarcely got out of sight when we arrived . Whatever the bloke told us, that print was too big to have been a leopard.

Another creature I watched with interest – at first, was the hornet. This one flew into the wheelhouse and back through to the radio compartment in the main cabin. Over a period of time, several days, I watched as it repeatedly flew to the shore, returning with a mouthful of mud and then using its feet and forehead, it gradually made a little domed house with a tiny circular doorway, on one side of the radio transmitter. It managed to find us even though we were not always in the same place. I envisaged a nest full of these with their painful sting growing up and living as house guests on board, and had to spoil its day. By closing the wheelhouse windows it was eventually deterred.

Another fishing tale to close this animal reminiscence with. When slowly cruising, it was often the custom for my crew to throw a fishing line over the back to troll [trawl?] for fish. Nothing fancy like rods and reels or the expensive gear the professionals used to bring. The Zambezi was well known for the Tiger fish, which the experts regarded as the king of fresh water fighting fish, which means they fought harder than most to escape off the hook. My lads were quite inventive and made their own ‘spinners’ from teaspoons, probably nicked from the hotel, or even mussel shell. No bait was needed as the tiger would chase and swallow anything that moved within vision. For some reason, Pike, another voracious predator was found in the Kafue River, but not in the Zambezi and vice versa. Goodness only knows what goes on at the confluence of the two rivers down Mozambique way when the two meet up.

On this day, I heard a sudden commotion down aft and going back to see what was causing it I saw one of the sailors holding his line up with the head and about ten inches of the body of a very big tiger fish. Apparently, just as they were pulling in their catch, an even bigger one came up from behind and with one bite took off the rest of the fish on the hook. Although the tiger was highly regarded by sportsmen, I couldn’t see anything about them to like. They seemed to have more bones than the pike, which is saying something, and even after carefully picking out bones they were practically inedible unless they were ground up and made into fish cakes.

I should mention my crew here.* I had six sailor/firemen that had to be trained up to operate as a rescue unit. None had ever seen an aircraft before except at a distance up in the sky, and had never seen a boat bigger than their traditional dug out canoes. Although familiar with the ever present bush fires, they had no concept of a large petrol fire or a plane crash or what all the different bits of our equipment were for, so we start from scratch. I think four were Lozi men and two were Bemba. These last two had been to a mission school so had a very basic understanding of English and could read and write a little.

One of the early things to sort out was how we could communicate with each other. I had acquired a smattering of Fana ka lo at the mine training school and found bits of it worked up here. I also discovered that people who attended mission schools tended to adopt Biblical names when mixing with Europeans, such as Peter, Paul and Matthew etc. I started by renaming all the equipment with a European name* and learnt a few Bemba phrases so that by the end of the week we could carry out a fire drill on our shore based petrol store with a mixture of these that would have sounded most odd to my former drill instructors back in London. For example, instead of calling for the crew to bring ‘two lengths of two and a half inch hose with a foam making branch pipe’, and having learnt that ‘tenga’ means bring , I would stand on the jetty and bellow ‘tengani lo itatu [2 ?] Charlies nalo one Peter. If I couldn’t remember the right word for the numbers I would stick my arms up in the air to indicate. We had it cracked, and soon had a smooth operation going although it would have sounded strange to anyone else. My Bemba trainee later pointed out the polite form of tenga with the suffix ‘ni’ was unnecessary when giving an instruction.

Because we were a marine outfit, and because I had trained as a signalman, I encouraged the two lads who could read and write to learn semaphore, and I often wonder if they or their descendants still talk across the river by using their arms.

Around this time, and on the same sort of subject, I met a chap, Pete Brown, who operated the Hotel tourist launch,* which carries guests up the river. This was a very posh affair, all polished brass and varnish, with a shady canopy to keep the sun off. He had also been a signalman and used to call us up on his signal lamp to ask when the aircraft was due in so that he could pull well into the river bank. He would also pass on details of any dolly birds he had on board in case anyone from BOAC wanted to go down the pub that night to meet them.

There were many famous people passing through the Vic Falls using our service, but the passing years have dimmed the names and faces of most. I can recall seeing Seretse Khama travelling with his wife Ruth Williams, the London girl that he married. Because of the discriminatory law of the day, they could not stay at the Hotel in Southern Rhodesia but had to be taken to stay with the Provincial Commissioner in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia. Another face that was well known was the film star, Jean Crain. She was staying with a whole film unit making a film called Duel in the Jungle, and they were using the ‘rain forest’at the falls for a background. For some reason she had taken to the idea of walking round in Livingstone with a leopard on a chain which caused some alarm.

One of the film extras, a man of impressive physical stature was recruited on loan from the Police in Livingstone, where he was a sergeant. He so impressed the film makers that he was offered the chance of going back with them to Hollywood. He declined the offer and went on to become Zambia’s first Police Commissioner after independence. The police Training School at Lusaka was named after him, Peter Mataka.

Turning back to the river again, I must digress a moment. I have just, [May 14, 2007] finished watching a TV programme presented by Victoria Woods on the life of Queen Victoria in which she visits a number of places all around the world made famous by association with the Queen, which of course, included the Victoria Falls. The opening shot was of the old alighting area, taken from a boat at the top and looking down river, taken at sunset. Had they played a recording of a fish eagle, I think I might have wept. The nostalgia, kept at bay for almost sixty years came back with a rush.

Insofar as the airline operation itself went, apart from the odd alarm and upset, the only serious incident during the two and a half years was when a flying boat struck an underwater object when the river was very low, whilst landing. Water poured in through a rip in the skin of the hull and she stated to sink. The skipper, with quick thinking, taxied the machine up on to Queen Elizabeth Island and beached it. No one was hurt and the hole was patched and later repaired properly at the base in Jo’burg. The rock, which had lain undetected through frequent dragging trials was named ‘Majendies Rock’ after the name of the Captain of the flight that day.

Perhaps a word or two on the flying boats.* These wonderful aircraft were the Solent, and the Sandringham, civilian versions of the wartime Sunderland flying boat of Coastal command fame, and represented the best and most luxurious form of transport at that time. They were two decked, with comfortable seating, quite unlike today’s aircraft, even providing a couple of four seater cabins on the lower deck. There was a powder room for the ladies with a make up table, complete with illuminated mirror, and the top range of make up and accessories were provided free of charge. There was a cocktail lounge, complete with a well stocked bar where you could sit on a high bar stool and watch the ground slowly unroll below through large windows, whilst sipping the drink of your choice.

Flying Boat on the moorings, Victoria Falls 1948


As these were unpressurised aircraft, they flew below 10,000 feet, or a little under two miles high, and frequently much lower. There being virtually no conflicting air traffic in those days in those places, pilots had more of a free hand as to whereabouts in the sky to go. It was not unusual to descend lower to afford passengers a first class view of a herd of animals below, and in those days, the African plains seemed at times to be alive with different species. They were powered by four large piston engines which drove them along at the then magnificent speed of around 180 –200 knots, which meant of course that the passenger’s view of the ground was a slow, leisurely one.

Getting unstuck


It was always a ride to appreciate, to be able follow one of these large aircraft when it was getting airborne. After it had taxied – behind the fire launch that was clearing the way ahead – to the top of the area, it would turn into wind, a brief pause whilst any cockpit checks were finished, then after getting clearance for take off from the launch, the four engines would be powered up to full throttle, the hull would seem to ‘dig in’, and slowly at first, then with ever increasing speed, it went roaring down the river, eventually getting ‘unstuck’ and becoming gracefully, even majestically airborne.

The Fire launch would chase it closely all the way until it was safely in the air, and this could mean a turbulent ride as we hit the waves of the aircraft wash. Sometimes watching this transition from river to flight I would think of the punch line from an old aviation joke; ‘ I said it to Orville and I said it to Wilbur, that thing will never get off the ground’.

The airline provided this service from the UK to South Africa, and there was a similar route out to the far east. For passengers travelling out, their journey began at the BOAC terminal in London, and then by coach to Southampton, stopping enroute for refreshments. From Southampton the flight was via Augusta in Sicily, Alexandria in Egypt, Luxor on the Nile or ‘Gordons Tree’ at Karthoum, Entebbe on the lake in Uganda, Victoria Falls and Vaaldam at Jo’burg.

We found this routeing convenient for supplementing our catering arrangements at the mess. People of that time and place will remember that potatoes were a bit of a luxury. There were no commercial farmers and the alternative for most of us for most of the year was ‘stomp mealies’. We discovered that our local trader could get a brand of whiskey called Mansion house, like the floor polish, but in square shaped bottles, that sold at ten shillings a bottle. We would put a crate of this on the northbound flight to our opposite number in Entebbe, and receive back on the next southbound one a supply of potatoes, pineapples and assorted luxuries, which were unobtainable locally. The Ugandan lakeside was a very fertile place.

Because there were no night flying facilities, the aircraft would stop overnight, when the passengers were fed and housed in the top hotel at each place, all in the price of their ticket. This gave ample time for sight seeing at each place. The flying time between stopovers was usually just a few hours, Jo’burg to Vic Falls for example was about 3 and a bit. At each stop, BOAC would have to have permanent booking for the total capacity of the aircraft plus its crew throughout the year. Additionally, each stopping place had to have an alternate one available in case bad weather closed the destination port down. These also had to have minimum facilities which would be radio, a launch and, of course, staff. Our one for example was on the Kafue. Jo’burg was the Hartebeesteport Dam.

The entire cost of all this fell on the airline, unlike the present day arrangement where the landing fields are owned by government bodies with them charging each airline rent for office space etc, hangarage and landing fees. This could not continue, and with the rapid post war development in aviation, the days of the flying boats with their prohibitive cost were numbered. Livingston over the river was building the first International Airport in Northern Rhodesia, equipped with all mod cons including an electric flarepath to accommodate the new generation of intercontinental machines coming off the drawing boards, such as the Comet.

And so one quite historically interesting era in aviation ended, and another began. I decided against a job offer in London where the new Ministry Of Civil Aviation had taken over the provision of airport fire and rescue services, and instead accepted the offer from the Northern Rhodesia Government of a position as an Airport fire Officer at Livingstone.

The flying boat base was closed down, the boats were sold, the equipment redistributed, and the site was returned to the elephant and the hippos.

During my two and a half years on the river, I had seen it in all its moods from drought conditions to full flood. On one occasion we measured a rise in the river level of 14 feet, and the huge volume pouring over the falls caused the earth to tremble. In my bed at night I could feel the ground quiver. The spray could be seen over 8o miles away and well earned its local name of ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ long before Queen Victoria was born.

Before finally leaving the river, and planting both feet firmly, and I hoped permanently, in the North where my heart lay, I feel obliged to express an opinion on this now so unhappy country, Zimbabwe.

My short period in Southern Rhodesia, most of it spent no further than 500 yards from the river bank, does not qualify me to speak on it. However, during the next twenty four years in the North, ten of those being the full period of the Federation, coupled with the fact that my wife is Rhodesian and her family lived there, I got to know it well enough to recognise that this was an exceptional example of what can be achieved in converting a non productive land into a fertile, blossoming one, well able to support itself and even feed its neighbours, in peace and harmony. The situation today typifies what happens throughout Africa when the people who made this happen are ousted, and tribalism, nepotism and corruption take over again. The state of some forty African countries that have been ‘freed’ from colonial rule since the end of the second world war is evidence of that.

Anyone who has watched the deprivations of the little hairy caterpillar known locally as the ‘Army worm’ that will devour every growing thing in its path will recognise the aptness of the following. The Shona people, of whom I believe President Mugabe is one, have a saying. “The hairy caterpillar is stupid because it eats the house in which it lives.”

And so, on to the North, this time with both feet through the door.