LIFE IN THE LOWVELD
Early in 1966, I started work in the Lowveld of South Eastern Rhodesia. This was once an area largely shunned by the European settlers of early Rhodesia due largely, I would imagine, to its inhospitability. An almost total lack of infrastructure such as roads and railway lines combined with incredible heat in Summer, various wild and dangerous animals and disease made it a bad choice when compared to the higher areas in the centre of the country. An old friend of the family, “Sasha” Nyarishkine, who worked for the Sommervilles (sp?) on Devuli Ranch a long time ago, once told me the story of how the Bridges family, having returned to England from South America, and at a bit of a loss as to what to do next, visited Rhodesia House in London. While examining a map of Rhodesia they were told that the area which included most of the “Lowveld” was quite unsuitable for European habitation.
Undeterred, however, and apparently without seeing the land in question, Mr Bridges decided to buy about a million acres which was to become “Devuli Ranch”.. Slowly other intrepid adventurers began to settle the land, and by the time I went to live in the Lowveld, Hippo Valley Estates and Triangle were already well established agro-industries with water for irrigation led in through a network of canals from newly built dams such as Lake Kyle, Manjirenji and Bangala. The Lowveld brought together a combination of “magic” ingredients and when water, fertile soil, hot sunshine, sprinkled liberally with excellent farming expertise were combined, amazing results were achieved.
The new town of Chiredzi was growing quickly as road and rail links were built to bring in the requirements of a rapidly growing population and to carry sugar and other agricultural products away from the two big mills. The two big estates produced large areas of sugar cane, citrus and wheat, along with feedlots to mop up the by-products of milling, and smaller farms were allocated and bought up by individual farmers. A contingent of farmers from Mauritius brought their expertise in the growing of sugar cane to the area, as well.
As I started to settle in to my new surroundings I was fortunate to be invited to join a small circle of golfers who played from time to time at the Hippo Valley Country Club. Bertie, who managed Midlands Construction in the Lowveld, was one of the group and he was the sort of person who never bothered to try to remember any one’s name! He simply called everyone “Young Man”, no matter who he was talking to.
Now Bertie, as anyone who might remember him from the mid-nineteen sixties, would testify, was something of a “larger than life character..” He loved cars and owned a couple of somewhat “different” cars which he frequently drove fairly recklessly. One was a Ford “Starliner” which Bertie would “wheelie” mercilessly, on the graveled streets of the town, further than the laws of physics or of common sense should have allowed! His driving habits were, however, to cost him dearly in the future. Another vehicle, around which most of this story revolves, was a “Short Wheel Base” Series 1 Land Rover, probably ten or twelve years old at that time. From my lowly “perch” I used to admire this amazing little vehicle, for I was only a “junior clerk” at the time and I would “joke” with Berty about buying the Land Rover when the time came to sell it.
He loved that little Landy though, and vowed never to part with it!
Early one morning, and I mean at about sunrise, much to my surprise, there was Bertie and the Land Rover outside the “mess” which a couple of us inhabited. “Do you still want to buy this vehicle, because here it is anyway?” asked Bertie. What else could I say, but “yes,” especially as I was even given time to “scrounge” the money from a long suffering father. This urgent change of heart on Bertie’s part was made all the more strange by the fact that he had just finished painting the vehicle. All very strange, but he never let on why he had been in such a hurry to get rid of the car. General consensus was that he may have had a brush with the law. I'm reasonably sure that he used to go poaching on the unused “Nandi” estate, for impala.
Perhaps something a bit more drastic happened that night and it seemed wise to get “shot” of the evidence without delay!
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Well, whatever the problem may have been, I happily became the proud owner of my first Land Rover. The significance of, at the age of about twenty one, becoming the owner of a so called 4X4 vehicle, is probably lost on today’s reader as they are “ten-a-penny” in this day and age. In the nineteen – sixties in Rhodesia they were quite rare and as far as I can remember were used mainly by the Police and other government departments. This “life changing” acquisition opened up a whole new world to myself and a couple of friends, that of the Gona re Zhou………a huge area of wilderness in the extreme South East of Rhodesia as it was known in those long ago days.
The area of this vast, hot and dry chunk of land with which I became reasonably familiar was situated between the Sabi and Lundi Rivers, where they depart collectively as the Save river from Rhodesia and then on its way to the sea through Mozambique. Africans lived fairly sparsely along these two rivers but most of the land away from the water in the rivers, was the home of elephants, buffalo and lions. Although there was a Tsetse Fly cordon protecting the commercial ranches from the wilderness of the Gona re Zhou, I don’t recall ever seeing a “fly” there, unlike the Zambesi Valley where, in some areas, one became quickly acquainted with the little pest.
For the most part there were only rudimentary tracks and one of the biggest obstacles, which provided good “protection” to the whole area, was the “hill” at the Governor’s Pools. To get to the best bits of the river it was necessary to cross over the hill and then Number Two, Number Three Pools etc. became more readily accessible to any would be adventurer. We had our own names for the different most favored fishing spots along the Lundi. The names we gave them are not necessarily the names by which others knew them, but in our little group, we knew where we were going if we planned a trip to Number Two for example.
Number “Two” was not greatly favored and we usually made a “bee-line” for Number “Three”. This was situated in a flatter, more open stretch of the river, with easy access around the pools and more comfortable camping conditions. Here the fishing was always a bit more rewarding with plenty of smallish bream, and the occasional “mudsucker” which could pull” like a steam train” when hooked. It was here that I caught my first Tiger-fish, too. It was a good six inches long, and I dried its head and mounted it on a small shield which hung on the wall of our “mess” in Chiredzi. One day there were crunching noises and the cat was found to be eating my first Tiger trophy. The moral of the story is to always glue a tiger’s head on properly!
On one occasion, while fishing in the hot midday sun, I heard a noise and looked up to find a Rhino having a nice long drink of water just a few yards from where I sat. It never noticed me thankfully, for when it was full, it “mooched” off quietly about its business. As I recall, “Parks” had at that time translocated a handful of Rhinos into the area in the hope of building up the numbers, but that one was the only one I ever saw. Another time, I accompanied my brother in law, Roger, and an English friend of his on an expedition to the area. After supper (and some Beer!!) we settled down to sleep on the ground, around the remains of our fire, when a lion presumably fairly close by, judging by the awful “thundering”, got our attention. While the two of us “cringed” in our blankets, our friend started in a most undignified manner to vomit ……nerves, beer and lions roaring probably make a disastrous cocktail, I suppose.
Strangely lions were “invisible” by day, as far as I was concerned. One would hear them regularly at night but I only ever saw one which got caught out in the middle of a patch of totally bare veld as we came past in a vehicle by day. He got down as low as possible to the ground and just lay there flattened out until we’d had a good look and moved along. The elephants too, were more audible than visible most of the time and at night one could lie awake and listen to their progress as they marched through the dark night calling to each other on their way to drink in the river. Merciless poaching over many years had obviously taught the animals to avoid contact with man, “Like the plague!” “Tsetse Control” shot them on one side and ivory poachers had been after them from time immemorial on the other side.
Number Four pool consisted of very deep narrow pools gouged out of the solid bedrock of the river over the centuries. My first boss and good friend for more than forty years now, Peter, was content on a couple of occasions to sit for hour after hour in the stifling heat of one of these “gorges” getting baked and using once again beer as his only defense against dehydration. His aim was to catch “Black” Bream which he knew lurked in those waters, but I have to admit that I only remember limited success regarding this lot……although Peter might not agree entirely with me on this one.
Back to “The hill” at Number One or Governor’s Pool, which really “sorted” out the men from the boys” in a manner of speaking! It was relatively easy for any vehicle to get to the Governor’s pool providing one didn’t mind hammering your vehicle on the “superb” corrugations that grew mysteriously on the graveled roads of Rhodesia. Being able to get “over the hill” safely was what set one apart from the rest and this was just what the four wheel drive capabilities of a Land Rover were designed for.
My friend Sonny and I were attempting a crossing of the hill when he managed to break one of the half-shafts of his Austin “Gypsy.” It took him a good six months to find spares for the vehicle, which led to just one conclusion …Stick with “Land Rover!!!” On the positive side of the equation, the “hill” kept most people out of the lower reaches of ( what I suppose was) the North bank of the Lundi, although I do remember being” horrified” when we found a little VW “Beetle” that had apparently made the pilgrimage quite successfully!
Now just in case it is beginning to sound as though we “owned” the patch, let me clarify the situation. It would have been great to have been able to spend a lot more time exploring the incredible wilderness of the Gona re Zhou, but as is so often the case in life’s journey there are always constraints of one sort or another.
Also see The Golden Days by Tom Hogg
The Flower Exile
She lives in exile on a lush green island,
An island that’s always leafy, always wet;
Where new leaves push out the old,
And great fleshy flowers of orange and red
Rest on beds, on cumulous clouds of green;
Of viridian, emerald and forest green,
Of green striped and spotted and splashed
With gold and cream, as if a profligate god
Had whirled and danced, and flung gobbets
And streaks of tinted liquid with his eyes closed,
Laughing wildly against the sun.
But she will always yearn for the spare baked spaces
Of the high plateau of Africa, where, after a harsh dry spell
The weather turns, and against the gray lace of bare branch
A faint stirring comes. Among the eddies of dust
Small pale bells push through the ends of drooping wood,
And suddenly along the streets there come
Heavenly clouds of lilac, hiding branches, shimmering
And multiplying in fallen reflections on the ground.
The people stop and stare, their eyes grateful for this change,
This outpouring of beauty in a dry land, and she measures her exile
In jacaranda seasons.