British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by B.H.
Journey to Mongu
Lusaka, 1950
"...posted to Mongu." Such was the tail-end of a telegram we received at Cape Town on our return from home leave many years ago.

On arrival at Lusaka, we learnt, not without some surprise, that a road had been cut through to Mongu and we were to make use of it. A large car, complete with driver was put at our disposal and we left for Barotseland on a bright and sparkling morning at the end of September.

The first part of the run was easy and we lunched with some good friends of ours at Mumbwa where we collected the auditor whose duties led him to Mankoya.

Trundling some miles behind us was a weary old lorry with all our equipment and we only hoped that it would catch up with us that night as we had barely anything in the car with us.

Journey to Mongu
The Kafue
Shortly before dark, we reached the Kafue -- a grand sight after the heat of the day and, to our astonishment, we found a young cadet camped there. He had been, as far as I could remember, only three weeks in the country and had been sent out on tour almost immediately after his arrival.

He proved a delightful creature and his camp appeared to us the acme of comfort. Longingly we looked down the road for any signs of our lumbering old follower but the night air was not broken by any sound of a mechanical nature. So it came about that our friend proved host and served a most excellent dinner which we ate under the stars. After dinner we sat over the fire for a while until the time arrived for my young daughter to go to bed. The snag was that there wasn't any bed to which she could go. Our young host, however, insisted that we take over his tent for the night, so we wrapped the child in a rug and put her on the floor of the tent and told her to go to sleep. This she had little difficulty in achieving -- it had been a hot and tiring day.

Still no sign of our lorry. We gossiped for another hour or so with one ear cocked into the night. There were lots of noises, certainly -- quite a symphonic night -- but none the one for which we sought. We were camped in the middle of a big game reserve and the auditor remarked that there was known to be a large herd of elephant in the vicinity and that, possibly may have accounted for the non-arrival of our trailer. My husband and I couldn't help feeling that the fault was much more likely to lie within the bowels of the lorry itself. Subsequent events proved us right.

The time came when sleep was essential so we set about fixing ourselves up for the night with what spare equipment the cadet could lend us. The auditor, a smallish man, purloined the canvas bath which he filled with grass and snuggled down into it like a small bird in its nest. He declared that he had never been more comfortable. Everyone behaved very nicely and said nothing about straws in his hair.

In due course we all settled down though I confess to a feeling of disquiet when I heard a lion roaring in the distance. All I hoped was that it would keep its distance. Despite these feelings, it was not long before I was well asleep. Some time later, I wakened with a start and lay rigid listening to a scuffling noise all round the tent. With some excuse, perhaps, my mind immediately leapt to the larger carnivora and it was some time before I mustered sufficient courage to switch on a torch. I almost laughed aloud at what its beam revealed.

There was my young daughter -- the latter half of her still wrapped in the rug -- crawling round and round the bare earth looking for a softer resting spot. "I feel so cold and uncomfortable", she complained. The matter was duly adjusted.

In the early hours of the morning, the crippled old lorry snorted into camp and Africans tumbled off her in all directions. Why or how they came to be there was something which was never explained satisfactorily. The driver of the dilapidated old vehicle muttered things about the differential and we promised that it should receive attention in the morning.

Journey to Mongu
Safari Lorry
It had necessarily to be a makeshift job as we were pressed for time the next day. The crossing of the pontoon (with no guide rope) was something which had to be accomplished as early as possible -- before the rising of the wind which made it dangerous. After a hasty breakfast, the packing-up business was soon completed and our car was run on to the pontoon.

A slight mist lay over the river and the occasional hippo puffed up to blow it away. We pursued a somewhat circuitous course and the crossing took the best part of half an hour. From the other bank we watched the paddlers steer the clumsy craft back for the lorry. By that time, little fingers of wind were scraping the surface of the water.

The lorry was run, loaded, on to the pontoon and, from where we were standing, looked most precarious. The superstructure, formed mostly of our kit, was out of all proportion to the vehicle itself and it still had its human cargo clinging to it like flies. By the time it was getting towards mid-stream, the wind had risen in earnest and we watched the canting over of the whole outfit with some dismay.

Steering obviously became an impossibility. Riding at a sharp angle, the pontoon with its big burden was being pushed steadily up river and we despaired of ever seeing our belongings again. However, our driver assured us that they would make land higher up and paddle down to the bank where we were. Such, fortunately proved to be the case though there were times when it seemed an impossibility and in defiance of all the accepted laws of gravity.

It was hot when we started on our way again hoping - against all advice - to make Mongu that night. We took the bare essentials from the lorry knowing that it would have to take the trip very slowly while we decided to push straight through that night.

The run to Mankoya was a relatively easy one and we reached there in time for lunch. Our hosts almost implored us to stay over for the night but we pushed doggedly on. The next ninety odd miles were heartbreaking. The "road" was a mere track hewn from the bush and not properly stumped. The soil was pure sand and necessitated travelling in second gear for the most part. It would have been suicidal to stop where the sand was particularly deep or we should never have got going again. So on we ran through the baking afternoon. Bush fires were the order of the day; frequently _ we found a smouldering tree lying across our path. The driver would then swing out of the sandy rut and go snaking through the bush, missing trees by inches while I closed my eyes waiting for a rending sound.

Quite early on, we had found that some enterprising African had at some time during our journey, made off with our water sacks. A bitter blow!

Our thirst was terrific. Fortunately we were carrying a drum of water for the car and a single flask of drinking water for our little girl. We had to ration her with this as we were not too keen on her drinking the other which was both dirty and oily. The car's thirst was prodiguous and, whenever we struck a piece of hardish ground, we stopped and filled her up. It was a gruelling trip for any car. The driver assured us that there would be a water hole at Luampa so our minds busied themselves with this pleasant thought as we swung from side to side in our seats while the car waggled her way through the sand.

Alas! When we reached the much-vaunted water hole, it was dry. Three eland gazed at us speculatively as much as to say: "You've been had too." It was then that we broached the drum for our own thirsts. Our lips had cracked, our tongues doubled in size and felt like a thick pile carpet stuck to the roofs of our mouths. That drink was one of the best I remember.

As dusk fell, so some of the stinging heat of the day was left behind but we still had a good way to go. With headlamps picking out all the eccentricities of the road, we roared on through the night and then -- what we had dreaded for so long, happened. We stuck. Well and truly.

We all got out of the car and dragged branches from the trees to push under the wheels. Fortunately, we were by that time on the outskirts of Mongu and evidently within hearing range of an African village as various leaping, shouting people came speeding through the night and we soon had a willing band of helpers.

Those wheels seemed insatiable. We piled leaves and branches under them and every time we tried the car, the foliage was pulverised, while the smell of burning rubber from the whizzing tyres filled the air. So we continued to scrape and dig and fill up until finally there appeared to be a reasonable chance of getting going again. The driver levered himself into his seat and started the engine.
Journey to Mongu
Mongu Plains

Rocket-like the car shot into the night with a roar and, as she fled her long resting place, various bodies jumped the running boards. In the soft moonlight. I noticed a white shirt on the far side and thought it was my husband. The driver we learnt later, had spotted a white shirt on my side and had thought the same thing. We didn't dare stop in that treacherous place so flew on to Mongu.

On arrival, we found that my husband was not of our party!

Consternation sat heavily on the driver's face. "I can't go back , he said, "not tonight. I'd stick as soon as I stopped."

"Quite," I said, not very helpfully.

"Do you think your husband could walk in?"

"Of course", I replied airily as though walking through the bush with a nice sandy bottom was one of his favourite occupations late at night. The driver was afraid that he would prove somewhat irascible on arrival but I assured him, not without some misgivings, that he would be certain to understand. I only hoped that I had not over-estimated the big-heartedness of my husband's nature. Fortunately, by the time he did turn up, he had walked off any spleen he might have felt and there was nothing but a happy reunion.

Our hosts had not thought it possible for us to be there for at least another two days and they were reaching the tail-end of a dinner party -- the men all dinner-jacketed, the women in flowing gowns.

We were offered whiskies and the faces of the guests were a study when we asked for a water sack. As it was so late, we were asked to join them at table there and then. I squeezed in between two immaculately clad men. One turned to make a remark to me and I saw his nose ruffle up in disgust as I swung round suddenly and sprayed him with a shower of dust from my hair. I could not have cared less.

We had arrived.

Colonial Map
Central African Federation Map, 1960
Colony Profile
Northern Rhodesia
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 42: November 1981


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