South Africa was not quite the Promised Land that I was seeking. I had spent all my life farming but in South Africa the farmers were all old Dutch Afrikaners who handed their farms down jealously to their sons. There was no room for an outsider and with no other qualifications it was not easy to find work. I eventually got a job as an asbestos foreman in a factory in Durban but after six months of that I was ready to quit and become a Congo mercenary.

          This was in the summer of 1964, shortly after the outbreak of armed rebellion that had swept bloody ferocity throughout that unhappy country. The rebel Simbas, goaded on by their witchdoctors and drugged high on daga and heroin, were freely looting, burning, killing and raping, encouraged behind the scenes by Communist propaganda and a crude attempt at a Communist takeover of the whole of the new republic. Moise Tshombe had been recalled from exile to take over the presidency of the Congo and was desperately trying to stem the revolt and restore law and order using white mercenary troops.

          Young Kenyans like myself, who had been trained in the Kenya Regiment for the kind of fighting that the mercenaries had to face, were in very great demand, especially those of us who had held rank or who spoke Swahili or any of the native languages.

          I was sharing a flat with two other young Kenyan exiles and we had repeated visits from one of Tshombe’s recruiting agents. He spent a great deal of time and trouble in persuading us to go north and fight. He was offering us £300 per month, plus an additional £50 per week combat pay during the time we would be in action. On average our pay would work out to about £400 per month. It was a big temptation and all three of us decided to go.

          However, despite that decision another pattern of events was leading me in quite a different direction. I met Peter Hooper, a kindred spirit born to wanderlust, who was to become my firm friend and travelling companion over twenty thousand miles of my first Trans-Africa safari.

          I had decided that I needed a car and breezed into Hooper Motors in Durban in search of a suitable vehicle. It was an excellent choice of premises for Hooper Motors are a well-established family business who have been thriving since 1932, and I soon found the car I wanted at a price I could afford. Peter was the salesman who came to attend me. He was a tall young man with fair hair, blue-grey eyes and a ready smile and the son of Mick Hooper, a well known racing driver in years past and now a prominent personality in the South Africa motor trade.

          I took to Peter immediately. He was frank about the faults in the second-hand car I was buying, and radiated more honesty than I would have ever expected from a used car salesman. I found out later that he had an easy manner with girls and hated Men Only bars, so perhaps in the first moment I had sensed that we were two of a kind.

          A few days later I receive a setback. I owned a motor scooter which I had intended to sell to raise the funds to buy the car. The scooter was stolen and so reluctantly I had to pay another visit to Hooper Motors to tell Peter that for the time being our deal was off. It was then that we began to talk more generally.

          Peter owned a short wheel based Land Rover which he used to transport his skin-diving equipment along the Natal and Zululand coast and he remarked that he had been planning to use it for a Trans-African trip to Europe. Suddenly we had a great deal more in common to talk about, for a Trans-African trip was something that I too had often visualized in my dreams. We adjourned to a bar, got beered-up, talked it over even more enthusiastically and then said: “Right, let’s get together and do it!”

          In many ways Peter was responsible for all that I have achieved in building up SIAFU, the company I have since formed to help other adventurous young people to make their own expeditions across Africa, for we each provided the incentive to get the other moving. Pete had been considering the trip for the past eighteen months but had been vaguely waiting for the right travelling companion to come along. He was a good mechanic and a keen photographer but he had never before been out in the bush. I had plenty of bush experience but although the Trans-Africa idea had often dallied in my mind there had been no drive to get me started. My meeting Peter and both of us finding that the other was keen to go was the impulse that we both needed.

          It was hard work getting the money together to make the trip and I was still prepared to go into the Congo. Six months fighting as a mercenary would have provided enough cash for us to do Trans-Africa in style. However, Peter was impatient and insisted that we must go now. We could pay our way by recording, photographing and writing as we went along.

          I abandoned the mercenary idea and later I was thankful for Peter’s impatience. My two flat-mates signed up, and although they survived I did lose four other good friends that I can trace who were killed in the Congo fighting.

          Most people looked upon the Congo mercenaries as men of rotten character, mere killers for money, but not all of the Congo mercenaries were like that. Most of the young Kenyans who went up there were men of adventurous spirit and adventure was their motive. Most of them failed to realize what they were letting themselves in for. They had no desire to massacre the Africans who came at them poorly armed but in fanatical hordes, convinced that their witchdoctors had given them safe immunity from the white man’s bullets. Once in that situation the mercenaries had to shoot the Simbas down en masse to stay alive. But they did not enjoy it. I met my two friends from the flat much later and they were both sorry that they had signed up. There was little adventure and no romance in the Congo during the bitter bloodshed of 1964 and 65.

          However, eternally grateful to Peter, I embarked on a totally different course of action. I resigned from the asbestos factory and the 24 Zulus who had been in my charge gave me a rousing send off. I have always got on well with the Africans and had built our shift into one of the best. When I left the Zulus presented me with a spear and shield as a parting gift, making the presentation in full traditional dress and ritual ceremony. It was a dancing display they rarely perform for a white man and I felt honoured.

          There were more farewell parties, a whole lot of beers to be drunk, and on the fourth of December 1964 we finally started out on our marathon journey.


It was one thirty in the afternoon when we climbed unsteadily into the Land Rover, still with colossal hangovers. Pete took the wheel and it was good to get out of the high, white city of Durban. We followed the fast dual highway sweeping inland through thickly the wooded slopes of lush green pine trees of the Natal hills. After the first hundred miles we made a diversion into the heart of the Drakensberg Mountains, so named by the old Voortrekkers who saw in them the serrated lines of a Dragon’s back.

          The most spectacular range in South Africa the Drakensberg peaks rise in a six hundred mile spine reaching up to heights of eleven thousand feet, and here in Natal form a green and rugged outdoor paradise. Before leaving Durban we had collected the addresses of as many friends and friends of friends as we could muster, and so at this early stage we had plenty of ports of call where we could find a welcome and a bed for the night. We were in no hurry and indeed both Pete and I were determined that we would not go so fast as to miss our chances with any pretty girl who crossed our path. On points such as this we thought with one mind and did not care how long it might take us to cross Africa.

          After four days we left the Drakensberg via the Oliviershook Pass at 5,800 feet, following a steep rocky road with wonderful scenic views. From there we passed down through high red mountains and flat rock mesas towering above the plains to the hot yellow veld of the Orange Free State, the old Boer Republic where even swimming is forbidden on a Sunday. We rejoined the main road at Harrismith, an attractive little town with red roof-tops and slender, modern church spires. From here the road stretched through endless miles of sun-baked grassland, treeless and monotonously flat. There was nothing but a few lonely sheep and cattle, and the occasional Basuto hut painted in bright geometrical designs. The road was superb but deadly dull and we counted one fourteen mile stretch without the slightest suggestion of a bend.

          We stopped in Johannesburg to fit new air springs to the back axle of the Rover, and also for me to fix up some very satisfactory interviews with the editor of the Johannesburg Star who was interested in some of the articles we intended to write.

          Johannesburg is a massive place, a city of towering blocks and buildings, buzzing with commerce and activity and very little time for anything else. The great yellow sand dumps that have been disgorged from the mines over the last hundred years stretch for thirty miles south and north to mark the great crescent seam of gold that mushroomed Johannesburg into the largest metropolis in South Africa. I got lost every time I had to make a trip through the busy canyon streets and was glad when we eventually left this impressive rat race for the open veld of the Northern Transvaal.

          First, however, we had to stop and visit more friends in Pretoria, a sedate city with more charm and a slower pace of life. The Union Buildings, the seat of the South African Government, are set here in sixty five acres of sweeping lawns and gardens, overlooking a superb panorama of the city to the massive, square Voortrekker Monument built on the far heights.

          We paid a visit to the monument, built to honour the pioneer Boers who first trekked north with their clumsy ox wagons to open up the frontier and found the city. From its commanding position the monument dominates the skyline for miles around and its solid, rugged and uncompromising structure seems fittingly appropriate to the men and the spirit it commemorates. The Afrikaner has a right to feel proud of his heritage, but at the same time I felt that the one and a half million rand spent on the two hundred and fifty foot high edifice might have been better spent on a memorial hospital.

          When we finally got away from Pretoria it was another flat drive north. There was nothing exciting until we spotted some guinea fowl just outside Pietersburg. I stalked them with the 0.22 rifle, fired a couple of shots and to my disgust missed. We chased them with no success but at least it was a diversion. We continued through Louis Trichardt where the veld ended before the Soutspanberg Mountains.

          Here the road climbed up through the Verwoer Tunnels blasted through the rocky heart of the range, but we preferred to take the old Boer road that wound below through a majestic canyon. One either side the close walls of red rock rose up for hundreds of feet and we made camp at the bottom by a tiny ice cold stream. Now that we were leaving South Africa our list of welcoming friends had run out and we made our first camp under the stars.

          It was a fine night. I was happy and felt that at last the safari was really beginning. For me this was Home Sweet Home, but for Peter it was his first night out in the alien bush. After supper we rolled into our sleeping bags but at midnight we were abruptly woken by a chorus of roars and barks that scared the hell out of my uninitiated companion.

          A troop of baboons had found us. Probably they had been disturbed by a prowling leopard which had caused them to move down the canyon at night, and finding us in their path they promptly began howling abuse in our direction. Peter was up and out of his sleeping bag in double quick time, looking very elegant in his underpants. He grabbed up his revolver and with that in his hand he assured me he felt much better. My own assurance that it was just baboons that pass in the night was not quite good enough. The baboons departed with a few final insulting barks and after that we went back to sleep.

          We continued the next morning, descending from the Soutspanberg through ranges of long scrub-covered hills into a landscape of brown and golden bush and sentinel baobabs. The baobab is the peculiar squat tree of Africa that looks as though it has been planted upside down with its bare roots waving helplessly in the air. In fact there are many legends which say that the devil or an angry god was responsible for the uprooting.

          The South African customs buildings at Bietbridge looked smart and formidable, but despite our misgivings we got through without a hitch. Our conflicting opinions and whispered evaluations of our equipment must have been noticed but were politely ignored. We drove over the bridge that spanned the rock strewn bed of the Limpopo River where we passed through the Rhodesian customs on the far side.

          We had been giving a hitch-hiker a lift over the last fifty miles, so saying goodbye at the Bulawayo road junction was a good enough excuse to make a preliminary survey of the Rhodesian beers. Much later we staggered into the Bietbridge District Commissioner’s office to get a permit for our firearms. We were carrying two rifles, the 0.22 and an 0.33, plus two revolvers, Pete’s 0.38 and my own 0.45. Filling in the forms that seemed to swim around in triplicate even when they were presented one at a time was a slight problem, but somehow we managed. The tough question is always the one that demanded my residential address. Customs officers always expect you to have one, but where does a wanderer reside?

          However, formalities completed, the Land Rover with its still canned occupants started an erratic course down the road to Fort Victoria, stopping every few minutes while we watered various parched and lonely trees with a sip of used beer. The smooth tarmac road led north through more bush and the rising domes of grey granite hills. The fierce heat slowly sobered us up and by nightfall we were camped by the Great Zimbabwe ruins.

          We awoke to another hot sunny day. There were yellow weaver birds among the bright crimson flowers of a nearby flame tree, and long-tailed speckled mouse birds and a golden oriole in the tree next door. At ground level had gathered a curious crowd of Africans of all shapes, sexes and sizes, the dedicated camp-watchers who will find you and roll up en masse wherever you try to hide your camp. They always seem to find the proceedings a source of endless fascination, jostling each other for better views, and the more private your actions the more interesting they seem to find them.

          I gave them a fine display of how to get out of a sleeping bag and perform a reverse striptease without appearing too immoral. After breakfast Pete and I sallied forth to view the ruins.

          I was very impressed. The great enclosure of Zimbabwe is believed to have been the palace area of the Monomopatas, the dynasty of kings who ruled over a vast area of the same name. The ruins date back a thousand years and were abandoned only a few hundred years ago. One theory is that the local salt supplies dried up and forced the inhabitants to move north, and it seems certain that a group of Chaka Zulu’s war-like warriors invaded from the south to speed up the final stages of the dispersion.

          I could not help but let my imagination run riot as I walked through the ruins. The massive circular outer wall of the enclosure is thirty feet high and the enclosure itself is three hundred feet across. Inside there are smaller crumbled walls where grey squirrels now run to and fro, and one tall conical tower of some unknown symbolic or religious significance. At the foot of the tower there was once a platform or altar where perhaps the priests of Zimbabwi officiated in some pagan ritual. Now tall trees shade the altar and silence enfolds the mysteries of the past. These ruined walls may have been graced with copper or gold from the surrounding mines and must have known prosperity and ransack alike. Kings and Tribal Chiefs held court here and traded with Arabs, Portuguese and peoples unknown. There is much to stir the imagination, and indeed Rider Haggard found the inspiration here for his great African novels, SHE and KING SOLOMON’S MINES.

          About half a mile away is the Acropolis, a huge pile of stupendous granite rocks forming a hill three hundred and fifty feet high and fortified on top by more ramparts of grey stone. In between the Acropolis and the enclosure lies the Valley of Ruins. Here the foundations of old buildings and old streets are overgrown with aloes, cactus-like plants with haloes of bright red, phallic-shaped flowers.

          From the Acropolis itself we enjoyed a soaring, eagle’s-eye view of the surrounding plains and the ruins below. How I envied the lost ivory hunter who was the first white man to stumble into this forgotten city a hundred years before.

          We moved on and Christmas Eve found us camped under a bridge on the Sebakwe River, half way between Fort Victoria and Salisbury. It was an ideal spot, dry with a roof and a concrete floor. We set up camp and then I departed into the bush to shoot guinea fowl while Pete made “crumpets.” The Rhodesian guinea fowl proved to be very cunning, spirited runners and quite adept at spotting the hungry look on the face of an advancing hunter. Sadly for them I was getting back into practice and bagged two of their number.

          Our Christmas dinner was a memorable one. Being camped out in the bush under a bridge, miles from anywhere was no bar to celebrating. We cooked the guinea fowl and a bustard I had shot earlier in the day over an open fire, wrapping them in tin foil to prevent them getting burned and also to retain all the delicious juices. Peter concocted a brandy sauce that defies description for the Christmas pudding. We had a bottle of brandy and a stack of beers. The evening was completed with a rousing two-man chorus of bawdy songs, and for the first time in living history the usual insect orchestra of the African night was silent in amazement.

          We liked our bridge so well that we decided to stay there for Christmas Day – or perhaps it was the hangovers that did the deciding.

          When I became capable I spent the rest of the day wandering around  in the bush, as happy as a duck that has been returned to its native water. There was a fair amount of game in the area. I saw bushbuck, reedbuck, impala, dik-dik, duiker and even a small herd of rare kudu. There were a hundred and one varieties of bird life, from tiny sunbirds like bright feathered jewels to a superb Martial Eagle that circled high in the hot blue dome of the sky.

          During my absence Peter was discovered by the local inhabitants who thought it hilariously funny to find one mad white man living under a bridge.

          On Boxing Day we packed up and drove north, over more straight roads through yellow bush and grassland. Salisbury appeared later in the afternoon, suburbs of clean white bungalows set among green trees and then the first skyscraper blocks rising gleaming white above the spacious streets. Rhodesia’s capital city has given itself room to expand, so despite the traffic and the people there is still not yet the modern atmosphere of the city rat race.

          However, we had more friends to visit, and so we drove straight through Salisbury to Raffingora and the tobacco farm of Pat and Bob Crees. We were their guests for three days and they made us most welcome. I found that Rhodesians are very much like the old home crowd in Kenya, kind and hospitable and very fond of their parties. That first night I managed to break my own record by acquiring the biggest hangover ever at the local dance, but at the same time I didn’t fail to discover that the Rhodesian women are very beautiful.

          Our stay at the farm was livened up by the appearance of the chiguli. All the Africans firmly believed in these water spirits who lived in the river. They told us that if a bullet was fired at a chiguli it would turn to water, and if a man tried to strike one then his fist and arm would turn to stone.

          We spent hours surrounded by children in the African village, waiting for the promised arrival of the spirit. Then suddenly the children took fright and ran away screaming in all directions. A hush fell over the older Africans and they became still. The chiguli had arrived and was standing by the corner of one of the thatched straw and mud huts on the edge of the village. He made a frightening sight with his head and shoulders and chest hidden behind a mass of monkey tails and chicken and turkey feathers. Animal skins hung around his waist and his legs were coated with grey mud. He carried a heavy knobkerrie and was led by an assistant with a rattle.

          With a series of high-pitched screams this apparition abruptly broke into a run, brandishing his knobkerrie at one young African who abruptly fled. Slowly, and with frequent breaks to pursue members of the community, the chiguli made his way to the centre of the village. There he began a wildly uncoordinated dance to the music of beating drums and chanting women.

          After the ceremony he ran away in the direction of the river.

          While at the farm we also took the opportunity to go pig hunting with two of the sons of the Crees and an old African name Kaseke and his five dogs. The wild pigs in this area caused a large amount of damage to the tobacco and cotton crops and had to be kept down. Our expedition was singularly unsuccessful in finding the offending porkers, but we did find Kaseke to be an interesting old character.

          He was a wrinkled old man, a great liar and a champion drinker, and recently he had been having a little trouble over his most attractive daughter. One of the local boys had taken a fancy to the girl, but Kaseke had decided that he didn’t really need the lobolo, the bride price, and he preferred to keep the girl as a servant in his own household. The unlucky suitor was somewhat peeved by this refusal and so in true African fashion he had hurried off to consult the local witchdoctor.

          A curse was initiated to immobilize Kaseke. A line of maize meal was laid across the path leading to Kazeke’s hut and when the old man stepped across the line his leg collapsed. Kazeke was peeved in his turn and hobbled off see the same witchdoctor, who effectively cured him by making seven incisions in his calf and thigh and for good measure marking a big knife cross on his buttock.

          Kazeke then demanded to know who had laid the first curse upon him and for a few extra shillings the witchdoctor told him.

          I reflected that witchdoctors must have a wonderful life. It was all so easy for them.

          We left Raffingora on New Year’s Day, the 1st of January 1965, and drove north to the Kariba Dam. Turning off the main road at Makuti to go down to the dam was our first venture onto dirt roads.

          Kariba is a fantastic engineering feat. It holds back the mighty Zambezi and the world’s largest artificial lake. I had seen the awesome power of the Zambezi, a mile wide and thundering over the Victoria Falls, on my way down from Kenya to South Africa and I could appreciate the size of problem involved.

          Looking down into the vast Kariba Gorge, 420 feet below the dam wall, we could see huge fish swimming around. They were vundu, a type of mudfish that grows anything up to 120 lbs. Our trigger fingers started to itch and we could hardly wait to do a little spear fishing. We had brought our underwater equipment along, anticipating some sport along the Kenya coast, and now was a good chance to get into practice.

          We had trouble getting down to the water level, partly due to the steepness of the descent, and partly due to an African official in a tin hat. Obstacles surmounted we donned our equipment and took the plunge. The upper layers of water were warm but ten feet down it was icy cold. There were rapids downriver and so we had to dive right at the base of the dam. Here the colossal torrent of water that poured through the sluice gates when open had created a pool three hundred feet deep. I got in one good spear shot at a five-foot vundu and missed. I could have kicked myself but there would be no sport if it were too easy. We enjoyed our swim but had to be out of the area by four o’clock.

          The following day we crossed the Zambezi, the dividing line between White South Africa and the new Independent Africa.


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