The developed areas of Northern Rhodesia were the Copperbelt in the North, where
all the important mines and ancillary activities were situated; the Midlands,
consisting of rich farming and ranching land from Ndola down to south of Lusaka, the
Capital and seat of Government, and thence from Kafue to Livingstone, a savannah type
of country with ranching and agriculture, mainly maize and tobacco. All the important
towns straddle the railway line from Livingstone in the south to Bancroft in the north.
The countryside from the Zambesi in the west to Portuguese East Africa in the east
(with the exception of a small developed pocket around Abercorn and Fort Rosebery)
was virgin territory sparsely populated and with large open spaces. This hinterland was
shared among about twelve labour officers dotted along the line of rail. With such vast
areas to administer it was incumbent on labour officers to visit them from time to time to
keep in touch with the hinterland.
Normally these tours were leisurely and pleasurable affairs as they were partly
intended to give officers a break from the office routine. The usual procedure was to
draw a suitable vehicle from the PWD pool, alert a member of his staff to accompany
him as interpreter and then to proceed on his business calling on District Officers en
route (a standing courtesy paid for invading or traversing their domains). If an overnight
stop was necessary there was always a rest house available with a capitao (caretaker) in
charge to provide a meal and a clean bed.
It was in 1956 when I had been posted to Livingstone after a serious illness on the
Copperbelt that I first heard about "The Mongu Walk". By the sound of things this was
no ordinary tour but more a trial of physical strength against the elements of nature! The
tour involved several modes of travel namely rail, foot, air, road and finally river
transport. The whole tour took about a month to complete.
Why a Mongu Walk
Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and of course the Gold Mines on the Reef were
all reliant on migrant labour as their own labour was usually employed in industry and
agriculture which were regarded as being more stable. Migrant workers originated from
territories around the Zambesi and travelled on foot to the nearest depot in Mongu from
where they were conveyed to their chosen destinations. Two labour organizations
operated along the Zambesi, namely WENELA for the South African Gold Mines and
Ulere (meaning "free") sponsored by the Southern Rhodesia Government. Both of them
provided free transport, rations and accommodation for anybody wishing to be employed
in their respective territories. Road transport was provided as far as Sesheke on the
Zambesi and then from Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip to Mambova just north of
Livingstone and Chobe in Bechuanaland by motor launch.
For those migrants for whom Mongu was too distant the only alternative was to
footslog it to Livingstone and it was for this category that the Mongu Walk catered. The walk was for most part through inhospitable terrain, very sparsely populated.
Consequently the Northern Rhodesia Government had established a series of camps
from Mulobezi just north of Livingstone to Mongu which provided overnight
accommodation for travellers with cooking facilities safe from marauding lions and with
capitaos in charge.
The rest camp buildings were constructed of pole and dagga, a term commonly used
to describe a frame of wooden poles plastered with mud under a roof of thatch. It is
obvious that the lifespan of such buildings in a land teeming with termites was limited
and it was necessary to inspect them annually, a trip undertaken in winter. Any
construction work necessary was done by the Labour Assistant in a follow-up operation.
Preparation for the Walk
From the foregoing it is clear that a fair amount of planning and preparation for the trip
was necessary as the walker would be out of touch with civilization for a number of days
with only his portable radio to receive the news and the odd sporting events. Firstly he
would draw such items as a folding chair, hand basin, bath and a tent from the Stores
Department. From a Provincial Medical Officer he would obtain a well-equipped first aid
kit plus medicines and pills for minor ailments and injuries. Fortunately the porters for
the walk were a hardy lot and made few demands for treatment. The village headmen
along the route however knew about the box and its contents and in the late afternoons
they and their families would receive treatment for ailments real and imaginary.
Sometimes a chicken would change hands. Rations for the party would have to be
purchased; these were doled out every evening by the head messenger in charge of the
porters. Lastly he had to provide for his own needs as no shops would be encountered en
route during the 10-12 day walk. It was essential to prune requirements to the minimum
to keep the loads of the porters within allowable limits. As meat was the major item on
their diet, a suitable gun for hunting was a necessity.
The assistance of the District Commissioners stationed at Sesheke and Nangweshi
along the Zambesi was vital. The first detached one of his head messengers to recruit 25
porters and then to accompany the party to Mongu from Mulobezi where the actual walk
started. The second was asked to deposit bags of cassava meal at rest camps on the way
to augment supplies running low. It was also prudent as part of preparation to strive to
attain a certain standard of personal fitness and a daily walk was a good investment as
embarking on a walk of approximately 150 miles would be foolhardy without doing so.
Lastly suitable footwear was very important. Bata produced rope-soled boots with
canvas uppers which were ideal as they were light and drained quickly after fording the
numerous streams, and the soles acted as cushions in the soft Kalahari sand. Seemingly
frail they stood up well to the harsh conditions of the walk.
The reason for doing the tour in winter was to allow the marshy areas swollen by the
summer rains to subside and become fordable and of course to take advantage of the
cooler weather. Although intended mainly for migrant workers these rest camps were
also used by other travellers such as fishermen taking advantage of the dry season to fish
for catfish in the marshy areas adjacent to the Zambesi river. These were then dried and
smoked over fires and later sold in towns along the Copperbelt.
It was from their ranks that most of the 25 porters required for the walk were recruited
by the head messenger from Sesheke. They were willing workers as they not only earned
a wage but were given a daily food ration according to a scale laid down by
Government. On arrival at Mongu they were paid off as their services were not needed
for the rest of the journey.
Mode of travel
Although the tour was termed a walk, much of the travelling was by other means. The
first 70 odd miles were by train reminiscent of a Heath Robinson cartoon from Punch of
the early 1930s. Its main purpose was to convey logs cut at Mulobezi to the Zambesi
Saw Mills in Livingstone. It was therefore made up of a number of open trucks with a
guards van at the back, big enough to accommodate the Labour Officer and his personal
staff. It contained a wood burning stove and a truckle bed. The truck was still marked
"ZAR" (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) indicating that it was a relic of the days of Paul
Kruger and the Boer War. The rails on which the train ran were not of equal thickness or
length. So instead of a sleep-inducing clickety-click the passenger was tossed from side
to side like in a ship on a stormy sea.
On arrival at Mulobezi I was met by the head messenger and the porters. After my
katundu (goods) was unloaded it was divided into individual loads not exceeding 50 lbs
The walk proper commenced the following day. The first day, despite all preparation,
was long to be remembered. The soil underfoot was a Kalahari sand pounded into a fine
dust by thousands of marching feet into which the walkers' feet sank almost ankle-deep.
It sifted into my socks and the ensuing abrasions caused blisters which eventually broke.
My feet were in such a bad state that the head messenger considered constructing a
machila, a rude chair mounted on two poles to be borne by four porters. However, I
decided to declare the second day a rest day and for the whole day I soaked my feet in a
hot, strong solution of permanganate of potash. This hardened the blisters and the
following day I was roadworthy again. Although I looked like a pied noir from French
Algerian colonial days, I was saved from the humiliation of being carried on the "walk"!
With the rigours of the first day behind one, matters became easier as feet and
muscles hardened. I walked behind the head messenger so closely that when his foot
lifted mine plopped into the hollow. Sometimes he would stop up short and my nose
would land between his shoulder blades. Once started and as the muscles hardened the
walk developed a rhythm of its own. Distances between stops varied from 10 to 18 miles
and starting times were planned to allow travellers sufficient time to attend crimp duties
and prepare for the approaching night. To kill time while walking I would count the
number of flies on the head messenger's sweat-soaked tunic and multiply this by the
number of walkers to estimate the number of unauthorized "migrants".
Fortunately the porters were well versed in the drill of pitching camps which involved
the tasks of pitching my tent, preparing a "loo" and a table made from forked sticks and
cross pieces to form the table top. A fire was started in front of the tent by the simple
expedient of placing four big tree trucks end-on and feeding them into the fire. This was
the task of two carriers who slept next to the fire. The resulting heap of embers warmed the inside of my tent and boiled a kettle for coffee in minutes. A bath would be filled
with hot water and after a bath there was an opportunity to relax in a folding chair with a
cooling drink while something sizzled on the fire. If fortunate the travellers might be
able to watch a fisherman in a dugout fishing for bream with a spear, the point of which
was a mass of barbs, or he might be entertained by village dancers. I was surprised to
find on paying a sentimental visit to the Victoria Falls a year or so ago, a group of
dancers performing the Luchichi dance, albeit it a watered-down version which was seen
on the Mongu Walk some 53 years previously.
This was an existence fit for a king and the hardships of the day were soon forgotten.
No wonder I volunteered to do the walk a third time! However this was vetoed by the
then Deputy Labour Commissioner Roy Philpott. I found out later that he had done the
trip three times - a record he was not prepared to share!
The marchers were accompanied by the throbbing of drums as the progress of the
walk was reported forward. Looking at the string of walkers the Labour Officer could be
forgiven for casting himself into the role of a latter day David Livingstone who, for all
one knew, might have followed the same route on one of his many explorations. So good
were the drum signals that the District Commissioner at Mongu was alerted in time to
meet the Labour Officer with transport for the final few miles of this final stretch. This
final lap was most difficult as the marshy areas on the Zambesi river banks had not
drained sufficiently and the walkers had to slosh through long stretches of muddy water
in some places thigh-high.
After a short rest a visit to Kalabo on the Zambesi flood plains followed. This is the
site of the Barotse Paramount Chief's winter residence. Here I met an ex-RAF WWII
pathfinder fighter pilot-turned-bargebuilder! The final trip by launch from Katima Mulilo
to Mambova was the "cherry" on the top although it was not without its hazards as some
years later a boatload of migrants died when a boat travelling at speed was engulfed by
the stern wave when the engine suddenly failed.
Major Trollipe's sister was an excellent caterer and she provided a hamper for the
by-now starving Labour Officer. With hamper, fieldglasses, gun and folding chair, I
settled on the steel canopy of the boat to enjoy a game viewing ride next to none as the
Zambesi river and banks teemed with wildlife. All too soon Mambova hove into view
and then it was home and the inevitable preparation of a tour report for headquarters.
Major Trollope and the Baobab Tree
In the earlier days Major Trollope had been in the South African Government Service as
a Native Commissioner stationed at Katimo Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip which bordered
on Northern Rhodesia, South West Africa and Bechuanaland. That area is known for the
size of its baobab trees. These trees as they grow older develop hollows in their stems.
This peculiarity was exploited by the Major who enlarged the cavity in the trunk of a
massive tree near his back verandah and ended up by constructing a "loo" with indoor
sanitation. He fashioned a door of baobab bark that fitted so well that it was barely
noticeable to the naked eye. It was rare entertainment for guests "in the know" when a
newcomer who "had to go" was shown the garden pathway which brought him up
against the base of the tree!
Trollope later left the Union Government and joined the Ulere labour organisation in