THE GODS WHO FELL FROM THE SKY
The true story of the life of George Richard Mawson
The Avro Anson lifted into the air effortlessly from Mybeya airfield in Tanganyika and we were off on the last leg of our charter flight to Southern Africa it was the 1st July 1946. We were eight days out and the weather was hot and humid even at that early hour.
Flying over the Serengeti herds of wildebeest massed in their millions as they prepared for their annual migration, we watched this spectacle in awe and fascination from above as our little Anson flew overhead.
Nowhere in the world is there a movement of animals as immense as the wildebeest migration in Africa, over two million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the greener pastures of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya during July through to October.
The recent experience of seeing Kilimanjaro's snow-capped summit so close to the equator was still fresh in our minds, as we watched the herds congregate this being a unique spectacle and I believe we were some of the first ever to see it from the air.
We flew on to Fort Jameson in Northern Rhodesia. Being a small aircraft we were well aware of activities in the cockpit and my husband whispered to me that he recognised the Mayday emergency signal being sent out by the navigator. With that Chalky White stuck his head out of the cockpit, “I have been trying to contact Fort Jameson for some time now but can get no reply, I need to obtain a fix on our position in relation to the airfield to find out exactly where we are.
We are out of fuel and have to make a forced landing”, he continued.
My heart sank in other words we were lost and had no way of knowing exactly where we were, only that we were flying over an African jungle and about to crash.
The navigator looked around the cabin and continued talking,
“Strap the children in tightly within your seat belts and pad around them with clothes and blankets”.
We did not have time to think about what could happen so busy were we attending to the children as he had suggested. We felt the plane bank and drop; it had been used in the war and for reasons unknown, had two sirens attached under the wings; which were now switched on and creating a frightful noise inside our tiny cabin.
We were trying to comfort and secure two little boys as the African bush loomed ever closer and as I felt a prayer would not be out of place I began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The ground rushed towards us at a terrifying speed as I went about protecting our two precious children from impact. We were heading for a dry river bed when our very observant pilot spotted a small clearing off to the left covered with elephant grass. He immediately lifted the nose and banked the aircraft away from the river bed, dropping expertly into the 10 feet tall elephant grass covering the clearing. Thank God! (As well as a very good Pilot), who was able to expertly guide the plane to land safely. We hit the ground hard looking out of the window all I could see was the propeller on the left of the plane chopping the grass which was flying up and over the cabin accompanied by clouds of dust. The plane must have hit an ant bear hole as we felt it drop and the propeller folded back over the engine cowl after striking the ground. We finally came to a very jerky halt.
Nikanya looked up at the shiny silver bird spiralling out of the sky. It was the screeching of the bird that had attracted his attention, and as it fell lower and lower to earth, he ducked under a Mopani Tree, hoping it would offer him protection from the white gods who were certain to be in the bird’s belly. As it approached the ground at greater and greater speed and the wailing grew louder and louder, Nikanya became convinced that the bird had suffered a mortal wound.
As he watched this frightening spectacle being played out before his eyes and pounding heart, the boughs of the Mopani tree offered a measure of comfort. The bird was looking for somewhere to perch, and it seemed to Nikanya that the dry riverbed was where it was heading. As it disappeared from view, a huge cloud of dust and debris rose into the sky, and he knew the bird had finally fallen to earth. Silence reigned in the Luangwa valley once more. Since Nikanya was the local chief, it was his duty and obligation to greet any stranger to his part of the world. He stepped warily out from the protection of the tree and gathering his headmen around him, proceeding in the direction of the dissipating dust cloud to meet these gods who had fallen from the sky.
I had left England as a child in 1946, returning in the sixties to motor race and to learn the disciplines of design and development of competition cars and motorcycles. After six years I returned home to Rhodesia to help my Mother with the Hotels she owned and to open a performance workshop of my own. I met Penny who would become my wife in 1972. She was born in Kenya, from British stock, and apart from a couple of trips back to England to visit with family over the years, had lived in Africa all her life.
Our three children were born in Africa; the eldest Richard in Rhodesia, and David and Debra in Umhlanga Rocks, a popular holiday resort just outside Durban in South Africa. As young adults my sons Richard and David went to live in St Hellier, the Capital of the Island of Jersey where Richard married a local girl.
I returned to England in May 2005 and my “girls” as I often affectionately referred to them, Penny and Debra, followed in October. On their arrival we visited the boys in St Hellier and were introduced to our first grandchild, a delightful little girl christened “Gypsy”. The name suited her; she was a beautiful child with dark hair and enormous brown eyes. My girls and I were back in London in time for Christmas, where we rented an apartment in Chiswick close to the river. Penny and Debra were convinced we would be having a white one, but alas their hopes were dashed as Christmas came and went with not a snowflake in sight. It was in these very pleasant surroundings that I would walk our three miniature Yorkshire Terriers after their release from six months quarantine, together with our seventeen year old black cat, Sooty, who soon settled in like she had lived here all her life.
I had great pleasure in teaching the girls how to get around London by tube and bus. Debra took to it all like a duck to water, but Penny reminded me of an Ostrich trying to fly!! Thank heaven for mobile phones as she would phone me and tell me she had got on the tube or bus here, was heading for there, but more often than not she was heading in the complete the wrong direction. These situations usually resulted in either Debra or me going to her rescue; she was always overjoyed to see one of us, but when she eventually got the hang of finding her way around there was no stopping her.
We were presented with the opportunity of running a pub in Waterlooville near Portsmouth and to that end, rented a very nice apartment on nearby Hayling Island. We felt that this would be a new start for us. On closer inspection of the pub however it was obvious that most of the equipment in the kitchens was in need of replacement and on that basis we decided to decline the offer.
We looked at pubs all over the South of England but could find nothing that took our fancy, until a few weeks later I was phoned by a pub company in Henley-Upon-Thames with an offer. We took a drive to Henley and liked what we saw of a small country pub and decided to take it. The one hundred and three mile journey from Hayling Island would put most people off but it was a trip we would take twice daily. Coming from Africa with its vast expanses made this seem like it was just down the road and we were thankful we had found somewhere to make a start.
Our son David joined us to run the bar, look after the cellar and to live in the flat that went with the pub. I motored up every day and returned home at night after closing the restaurant, usually at about ten o’clock, depending on the number of customers in the restaurant and how late they decided to stay. Whenever we had bookings for lunch or dinner parties Penny and Debra would come and help and as the pub was usually very busy over weekends, my sister-in-law Heather would come along to help out in the kitchen. I was very lucky to have my three willing helpers.
On a Thursday night we could often be there until the small hours with all the local farmers, or “tractor boys” as they were affectionately known. They would arrive about 6pm and wouldn't leave until 3am the next morning. In the summer the lads brought their tractors and trailers along. Most of the patrons at the pub would wander out to the car park, clamber aboard the trailers, where straw bales were strategically placed around the sides and go for a drive along the river. There was always plenty of liquid refreshment and packets of chips placed on board to sustain the river viewers until their return. On their return vast amounts of beer would be consumed along with sandwiches and hot chips. We had some very late but very entertaining evenings. What a lovely bunch of guys!
One Sunday evening we worked until about 9.30 and as Pen was not feeling well we left the pub to return home early. We were motoring through a roundabout in Reading, when the car door flew open and with the inertia of the car going round the roundabout, Penny was thrown out of the car, the whole incident taking just a fraction of a second. Whether Penny had opened the door or it had flown open on its own we will never know as Penny could remember very little of the incident.
I had made a grab for her but missed while trying to brake the car to a standstill at the same time. As I came to a stop I could see her in the rear view mirror, tumbling end over end down the road. I understood fleetingly that had I grabbed her I might have pulled her under the rear wheels of the car. Instead she pitched head first onto the road at a speed of about 40 mph with other cars following close behind. By some miracle they all missed driving over her body.
Jumping out, I ran towards her. She was lying very still in the middle of the road, a huge gash running down from her left temple was bleeding profusely and the whole left side of her face was covered in blood. She was lying on her back with her eyes wide open, her teeth clenched tightly shut. My heart sank; I was sure she was dead and an icy chill ran through my body and a feeling of dread hung over me.
I looked around for help but none was forthcoming. I knew I would have to do something myself. She was badly hurt and her life was in my hands until the paramedics arrived. I knelt beside her and found a pulse but she was not breathing. I tore off my jacket, placed it over her, forced her mouth open and blew into her lungs. I pressed down on her chest-gently in case she had any broken ribs. I blew into her lungs a number of times when suddenly, she sucked in a huge lungful of air, her eyelids fluttered and her eyes opened slightly, although she did not seem to recognise anything. I cannot explain how relieved I was that she had taken that breath.
Explaining that she was a nurse, a girl ran from a parked car carrying a blanket and covered Pen. She rolled up my jacket sleeve and compressed the gash on Penny’s head to stem the flow of blood that was running down the tarmac. When a paramedic pushed his way through the crowd surrounding us I knew that my prayers had been answered. I briefly relayed the events of the past few minutes to him and stepped back to leave my Penny in his hands. I was just thankful she was being looked after by someone who knew what they were doing.
I moved my car to the side of the road, phoned my daughter and my sons to tell them what had happened, and promised to keep them updated as events unfolded. With sirens coming from all directions, the police had arrived. They were talking to some people on the edge of the roundabout, who pointed me out.
A policeman walked towards me and introduced himself.
“What happened?” he asked. I explained how the accident had occurred.
“Are you her husband?” he wanted to know.
“Looks to me as though you must've pushed your wife from the car”, he suggested.
I told him exactly what I thought of his suspicions and what he could do with himself. I was enraged and deeply hurt at his insinuations.
I looked across and saw Penny had come around. The paramedics motioned me to come across to them. He had fitted her with a neck brace, her face was covered with an oxygen mask and she was being placed on a body board. I went across and knelt beside her.
“Oh Pen what happened” I said without thinking and lifting her hand from the tarmac. I felt an ever so slight squeeze of my hand and was overjoyed that she knew I was by her side. The policeman came across and told me to move away from Penny as I was under arrest until such time as they cleared me of suspicion. I told him to go F--- himself.
“What kind of a man do you think I am, accusing me of pushing my wife out of the car”, I asked.
“I'm sorry,” he said “but there are some funny people in the world and I'm just doing my duty to protect her from any more possible harm.”
Looking back afterwards, I can understand his decision to act as he did. The police officer had spoken to the people who had been in the car behind us, and who had had to take evasive action to prevent running Penny over as she tumbled down the road. How must this have seemed to them? They had been diverting traffic until the arrival of the police.
I looked again at Penny. There was a compress on her wound and the Paramedics were bandaging it in place and she was placed on the ambulance stretcher.
A police sergeant soon came across and told me that they had cleared me of any suspicion or responsibility and that I was free to go to my wife. However, as landlord of a pub I would be required to take a breathalyser test.
“I have no objection to that” I said
I went and took Penny’s hand as they put her into the ambulance. She held my hand so tight that I was being dragged into the ambulance with her. I still had not been breathalysed and had to pry my hand away. Penny became hysterical while the ambulance remained on standby to get her to the hospital. I managed to calm her and get her sent to the medical care I was sure she would need.
The ambulance sped away and I was left alone to reflect on what had happened. The breathalyser equipment was brought to me and I blew into it. Glancing at the reading the Police Inspector shook it vigorously and had me blow into it again with negative results.
“You must be the only sober landlord on the planet”, he said “the test was 100% clean”.
I was anxious to be with my Penny and asked him for directions to the hospital. It was left here, right there and straight on somewhere else. He had me lost before I had even started. Eventually he gave up and decided that if he wanted to get home for supper that night he had better take me himself.
I arrived at the hospital with my Police escort and found my beloved Penny at ICU. She was very groggy but knew me straight away and grasped my hand. It was no good trying to get any sense out of her because when she did speak her words were very slurred.
As the various scans and tests were carried out a picture began to appear of the extent of the injuries she had sustained. She had a bad concussion but thank God nothing appeared to be broken or too badly damaged. The Doctor told me that with a blow on the head like she had sustained there was danger of a brain haemorrhage. She would be best left in intensive care with all its emergency equipment for at least twelve hours to stabilize.
I stayed by her bed until she was fast asleep before commencing the journey home, but was soon back at the hospital early the next morning in time to catch her stirring. She opened her eyes and burst into tears when she saw me, hugging me so tight it felt a Boa Constrictor had hold of me. She had absolutely no recollection of the events of the day before, and I would have to wait for her memory to return to get any answers.
It was late afternoon following more X-rays and scans when we finally got away. We popped out to the pub to make sure David was fine and also to let him see his Mum before I took her home. He was quite shocked to see the extent of the swelling and bruising.
We put up a notice to tell the patrons that the restaurant was closed for a few days and some of the locals sitting in the pub came out to the car to wish her well. She slept all the way home and upon arrival I carried her up the two flights of stairs to her bed. Her sister Heather helped her shower to wash off all the congealed blood from her head and when she was finally settled in her own bed she went to sleep peacefully.
The next day I went to collect Debra from work and on the way back bought the biggest Thermos flask I could find so I could leave tea at Penny’s bedside should I ever have to go out. We arrived home to find her fast asleep with our three little Yorkies curled up beside her as usual. They had not left her side since her arrival home, almost as if they sensed something was amiss. Even the cat was curled up at the bottom of the bed, a place she was not usually allowed to go but I left her as all five of them seemed very content. This would be a difficult period for us but I knew we would get through if we all pulled together.
Pain and fear were Penny's constant companions and her greatest worry was the paralysis down the left side of her face. I would leave home for the pub in the morning and 10 minutes down the road get a message of three words on the cell.
“I love you”.
Fifteen minutes later another message would arrive - this time four words.
“I still love you”.
These messages are saved on my phone, and I often look at them when I am alone and feeling lonely for her.
The days turned to weeks and every morning she would walk to one of the bedroom windows on the third floor to see me off. I would get a wolf whistle as I walked to my car and would pretend to look everywhere for the culprit except up, which was where my Pen was of course, standing by the open window. Shaking my head I would walk on and her voice would call out.
“Up here you gorgeous beast”.
I would look up and blow her a kiss.
A bit of devilment would creep in sometimes as I looked up there would be five fingers held up,
“Pick any two” she would say with a giggle, the very clear message being “up yours”.
Then moments later a huge smile would break out across her face and her laughter would filter down to me two stories below. She was a naughty little bugger and I adored her for it. Ninety nine point nine per cent of the time my kiss would be returned over and over again and as I drove out of the drive I was instructed to wave until I was out of sight. A text message a few minutes down the road would read,
“Why are you not waving any more”?
“If I close my eyes you are still here!”
In the darkness of closed eyes it becomes easy to pretend.
I would phone Pen before I left the pub for home and knowing it took me an hour and ten minutes, she would hear the front door open and wafting down from the top floor came the lyrics of a song.
“Doe, a deer, a female deer”.
Right through the chorus until we got to the line:
“TEA a drink with jam and bread”. Big emphasis on “Tea”.
The kettle was already boiling away by the time the melody faded into the fourth dimension. I would call out loudly.
“What was that again?” and the melody would begin again.
With consideration for the neighbours I hurried upstairs with the tea tray.
The Doe, Ray, Me, song brings a tear to me wherever I hear it even today.
It’s stupid little things like these that turn an ordinary person into someone very special and warm. These memories are mine and are locked in my heart forever. Even now a text will jog my memory and bring a flood of tears to my eyes as well as beautiful memories of my Penny.
“What great memories you must have!” Is an oft used phrase I hear from well-meaning people. It is just so ironic that such precious, unforgettable memories are the very things that can create the greatest hurt and longing.
When I went to fetch Debra from work, Pen would know when we arrived home because the three Yorkshire Terriers would leave her and run downstairs to greet us. She would send me a text message at that point
Debs would be Polly. I would be Sookey (from the Nursery Rhyme). I would take two cups of tea up to them and find them chattering away on our bed. They were very close; more like sisters than mother and daughter.
Penny was battling to recover and needed constant attention and reassurance. I sold the pub back to the breweries and concentrated on my girl’s recovery, my main concern being that she get well again. She had a paralysis down the left side of her face, no sense of taste, her hearing and balance were problematic and she was susceptible to bouts of dizziness. The specialist assured us things would right themselves in time as would the paralysis and her sense of taste. To avoid further mishaps I walked behind her going upstairs and in front coming down. If she had a dizzy spell I would be there to catch her.
Pen wanted to fly to SA on the 11th November 2007 to see her Doctor there. It was late October and Pen and Debs were having a tiff over something or other. As she walked back to her room she stumbled and putting out her hand to steady herself she missed the banister and clutching wildly at fresh air toppled over the balcony.
I was only able to watch in horror as she struck the landing tumbling down the remainder of the stairs to the floor below. I froze and could not believe what I had just seen. I was almost too scared to look over the balcony and had to force myself to do so. David was kneeling next to his Mum holding her hand as she lay on the floor below, her face contorted with pain.
I ran for the phone and asked for an ambulance to be sent immediately to our address and informed the paramedic on the phone of the happenings. Pen was trying to sit up and I shouted to my son to keep her flat on the floor, as I headed for the door to let the Paramedic in. They put Penny on oxygen and morphine to alleviate the pain and to help her breathing, as she was struggling for breath. After strapping her in a special chair they carried her down the stairs to the waiting ambulance where they attached a neck brace and lay her on a back board.
As I climbed into the ambulance beside her, the expression on her face was one of sheer terror. I reassured her I would follow the ambulance in the car but she was too spaced out to comprehend anything I said. As violent shivering and convulsions swept through her body I feared for her life.
She had stopped breathing a few times in the ambulance so was taken straight to ICU on arrival at the hospital and I was right behind them. As the medics struggled to stabilize her I stood back, convinced I was going to lose her. A while later a nurse called me across. I approached the bed with apprehension as she was lying so still I thought she was dead. Those convulsions had scared the life out of me.
There were all sorts of monitors attached to her and I was relieved to see the heart monitor recording a nice steady rhythm; my legs were on the verge of collapse as I reached the bed and took her hand.
My Pen opened her eyes and said to me quite seriously in a voice I hardly recognised.
“Tell the Doctor I want to go home”.
With that she burst into tears and one of the monitor alarms sounded. Nurses dashed in from all directions and I stood there holding her hand and praying that my girl would come through this ordeal. She was very pale and pain was etched on her face in spite of the morphine which had been administered.
“Please take me home Dick” she asked. “I love you”, she added.
I leant close to her ear and whispered.
“I love you very dearly my Darling and were it in my power I would grant your request. But . . . first we must find out what damage you have sustained, then we will talk to the specialist. I'll stay with you until we get an answer”.
Her body suddenly relaxed and I looked up startled expecting to see my Penny dead but thankfully she had dropped off into a deep sleep. I sat next to her listening to her breathing. I was aware of the sound of various functioning monitors in the background and tried to fathom out what had happened and more important why all this was happening to us, coming to the conclusion that it was meant to be and if I had had any choice in the matter I would have been the one laying there, not her.
Once again I mentally prepared myself for a long period of convalescence. By the time we had finished with x-rays and scans, the result of the morning’s work was two fractured vertebra which meant six week's bed rest flat on her back. The worst part was the toilet arrangements. She had of course a catheter which was easy, just a bag to empty, but the other ablution was not so simple. Penny was flat on her back lying on a plastic sheet and had to go where she lay. She refused to go without me being present to clean her up and once again the mobile was employed to send messages.
“I love and need you”. She would text.
This was our secret message that she needed to go.
I would leave whatever I was doing and head for the hospital.
The Specialist had told us an operation was imminent but after studying the latest scans changed his mind and decided to leave things as they were apart from removing a small fragment of bone with keyhole surgery. Following that Penny had to attend physio twice a week followed by an appointment with the specialist. I always insisted on accompanying her as it gave me a chance to update myself directly with the Doctors. Besides, I had matron’s permission to wheel the bed to physio and had the bed doing wheelies and 360ties down the corridors of the hospital on the way there and back. My Pen had found her lovely little chuckle once more as we skirted disaster at every turn. We certainly got a few funny stares from orderlies and nurses and how I stayed out of the psychiatric ward I will never know.
Any African person was greeted with a cheery
“Mangwanani”, which translated means “good morning” in Shona a language from Southern Africa. We did not get any replies, until one day we greeted an orderly in the corridor with our usual banter.
“Eh Kanjani” was his reply in Shona “How are you”.
Screeching to a halt we continued the conversation, as obviously he was from home. We discovered he was from Harare, the new name given by the black government to Salisbury where we had once lived. He inquired as to which ward Penny was in and went about his business. From that day forward most of his time off was spent with Penny reminiscing about home. They were making themselves terribly homesick. Unfortunately he was transferred to a London hospital just before Penny’s release and circumstances resulted in us losing touch.
Penny was a lot happier when she was allowed to sit in a special chair and be wheeled outside to “smokers’ corner”, where at any time of the day or night it looked like the hospital was on fire as plumes of smoke rose into the atmosphere. Patients came away from there gasping for breath only to return in an hour or two for some more self-inflicted punishment.
Penny was on the road to recovery for the second time that year and was finally released from hospital at the beginning of December, following which had a fantastic month as the family rallied around, spoilt her rotten and made her feel very special. We had a real family Christmas and, come the New Year, we put 2007 behind us with a sigh of relief and looked, forward to 2008, as we had some life changing plans in mind. We had become even closer since her accidents and I was fascinated to watch the way she coped with, and overcame the nasty injuries she had inflicted on herself.
Heather was going to SA in early January 2008 and Pen wanted to go with her to see her brother who had a heart condition. She also wanted to get some jewellery altered and some new pieces made so she collected all her broken chains and the jewellery she wanted altered. I booked the tickets for the girls for the 10th of January. Penny always got very emotional before she went away from me so the last two days before she left there was a lot of crying and a lot of laughter.
I took them to Gatwick in the afternoon, booked them on the flight and saw them to the customs control. The coming events that lay waiting patiently in the wings - Oh how I wish I could have caught a glimpse of those events that were about to devastate us. When I think back on the things that have happened to me through my own doing, destiny has always been very kind to me. But it was about to show me the other side, one I would need every ounce of my being to overcome.
Penny ran back three times whilst she was waiting in line, threw her arms around me and told me how much she loved me.
“Oh! Hurry up and go. My lover is waiting round the corner and is getting impatient”. I kidded.
“Show her to me. I’ll kill her”, my Penny replied.
An uneasy feeling swept over, me a dim memory from the past “flashed” and then disappeared.
“My darling I will be back soon and then we will have all the time in the world”.
“Stay safe my Love” and those were the last words she uttered to me face to face.
She turned and was gone.
I had an uneasy feeling inside again. I could not tie it down. Where had I heard those words before? It troubled me deeply as I searched my memory for a connection. She eventually passed the control and blew me kisses right up until the time she disappeared from view.
Deep inside I had this nagging feeling of impending doom. On the way home I thought how blessed we were by God; to have Penny so healthy and bubbly after her nasty accidents. She seemed to have taken on a new radiance since her injuries had healed. When I got home it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had not thought about my beloved Britt in nearly forty years. She was the love of my life before I met my Penny. Those were the last words Britt had uttered, the last time we were together.
“”Oh no God, don't do that to me again! I cried out in anguish.
A chill ran through my body as I thought of the day I got the phone call from Eric, Britt's father telling me of her death in a motoring accident. A deep feeling of terror and apprehension overwhelmed me. Waiting around the corner would be news that would make that day pale by comparison. Little did I know at the time that our whole world would be torn apart and our lives devastated within the next few days.
My dad was a coal merchant and an NCO with the home guard on a battery at the Liverpool docks during the war. I was born at home: 14 Larchwood Avenue, Maghull, not far from Aintree. Life started with an adventure in 1946 for my younger brother Clive aged two and me at the ripe old age of four
After World War II, our parents decided that a better future lay in Africa for us. I am thankful my mother recorded her account of our adventure below.
My husband had decided that there would be more opportunity in a new land. Our house and coal business were sold, and we went to London to procure passage to South Africa.
Back in 1946, it seemed impossible to book any sort of passage to South Africa without long delays. After spending a futile week in London, we were on the verge of giving up, when we heard about a MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) which was being converted for passenger use in Portsmouth. After about an hour of viewing the facilities available, we left and caught the train back to London. George, my husband, was quiet all the way back but he did not tell me at the time the misgivings he had about taking his family on a journey of some 6,000 miles across three oceans to South Africa in a plywood boat. By the time we reached London, he had decided that the boat journey would be too great.
On our arrival at our London hotel, a message awaited us: “Would we contact the travel agency we had seen earlier in the week”? So, arrangements were made for us to be there the next morning, and we were offered various alternative passages, none of which suited us. We were just about to leave the travel agency when we were called back.
“Were we interested in a private charter”?
A small Avro Anson aircraft (twin-engine used by the RAF during WWII) was available, the cost of which would be shared with a prominent businessman, also having the same difficulties regarding travel as we had. With the optimism of youth, a meeting was arranged for the next day at the offices of CL Air Surveys in Cromwell Rd, where we met with Lt Col Lloyd. We immediately liked the proposed charter and took up the option.
We returned to Liverpool to finalise our departure and to bid farewell to friends and family. At last we were on the move and had some direction in all our lives. We said goodbye to Liverpool, friends and family and caught a train to London. George bought a newspaper at Lime Street Station and a report on the second page caught his eye. A chartered MTB, which had left from Portsmouth a few days earlier, had floundered in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of all on board, and he wondered if perhaps it was the same one we had looked at.
Our adventure that nearly ended in tragedy started on the 25th June 1946. The Anson was waiting for us on the tarmac at Gatwick where we met our pilot, navigator and our travelling companion for the first time. The formalities taken care of, we took off about midday and landed at Le Bourget for a late lunch and then on to Marseilles “Mariguane” Airport for the night stop. The fuel capacity necessitated having to make frequent stops for refuelling, and for the passengers to partake of any refreshment available. Hotel accommodation also had to be arranged for the coming night stop.
We spent our first night at a comfortable little French inn in Marseilles and, with a dawn start planned for the next morning, retired early. Taking off around seven after a flight plan had been filed, we flew over Sardinia, which looked picturesque nestled in the middle of the Mediterranean. The sea was the most beautiful shade of blue, which turned to a brilliant turquoise as we landed in Tunis for lunch. Then on to Tripoli where we were sent on by the Yanks to Castle Benito, landing just after four in the afternoon. An army barracks was our accommodation for the second night.
Our son Richard was fascinated by the camel trains leaving for their long journey across the desert, but being intimidated by the size of the camels, he kept his distance and a tight hold of my hand. To bed early for a dawn start again the next morning.
A stop at Benito for lunch and on to Eli Adem near Benghazi for fuel. We saw lots of burnt out planes in the desert around Benghazi and flew on to Cairo where we landed at Abmaza Airport.
We stayed at the Heliopolis Palace, which was spacious and cool after our hot and dusty trip. With the children bathed and asleep, we went down for dinner, served outside on a marble terrace with millions of stars and a crescent moon hanging overhead. It was a magical night, and as we were not leaving until the following afternoon, our pilot suggested a trip to Cairo the following morning.
After breakfast, we boarded a tram, which proved to be hair-raising. The passengers swarmed aboard and hung on to every conceivable inch like flies on flypaper. The driver of the tram hurled us down the hills at breakneck speed, the tram bell ringing constantly in our ears as pedestrians dived for cover in all directions.
A visit to Groppis Ice Cream Parlour, a favourite with the tourists, where the ice cream was superb and cooled us down considerably. Given our hair- raising ride into town, we decided to take a taxi back, which was an eye-opener in itself. I don't know which was the lesser of the two evils and was thankful the driver had a good horn. We were eager to be on our way, so we packed and caught a taxi to the airport for an afternoon flight to Luxor.
Unlike the aircraft of today, we did not reach a very high altitude, so passing over the desert we could see the camel trains criss-crossing below. The burnt-out wrecks of planes and tanks brought home the realities of the war, which had been fought so recently on the desert below us.
We stopped for the night at Luxor on the banks of the Nile with the pyramids in the distance. We had arrived late and were seated at dinner with the manager of BOAC, Mr Frank Edge, who was fascinated to hear about our journey so far. I did not get a very good night’s sleep as the ceiling was alive with sand lizards.
We left at 8.30 for Wadi Halfa where we landed for fuel and a lunch it was too hot to eat. It had been 150 years since the area had last had good rains and everything looked very parched.
Khartoum was the next stop, where we stayed in the Grand Hotel. Despite huge fans whirling all over the hotel, the heat was intense. Our early arrival allowed us time to visit a small zoo, a welcome change for two small boys unaccustomed to the tiny cabin of a small plane.
Off early the next morning, we arrived at Malakao on Lake Victoria for lunch where a flying boat landed just in front of us. The trip was a very bumpy one and the worst part of the journey so far. Horrible desert country below, changing dramatically to green swamp.
We couldn’t land at Nairobi so we put down at Kisumu and booked into its only hotel, where we met our friends from the flying boat. It was very hot and we saw lots of elephants as we passed over swamps. From Kisumu we headed to Juba for more fuel and a lousy sandwich. It was very pretty green country as we flew over Kenya with Mt Kilimanjaro looming skywards in the distance that seemed to dwarf our tiny plane. We had not long ago crossed the equator and the heat in the tiny cabin was stifling, but it was breath-taking to see a snow-capped mountain so close to the equator. We had at last left the desert behind. It now turned very cold as we left for Tabora and then on to Mbeya in Tanganyika. We had been travelling for seven days and it was now July 1st.
In Tanganyika we were accommodated in chalets and warned not to move around outside, as leopards frequently came down from the hills. Thankfully, we left the following morning without incident, not realising that by nightfall, we would be placed in a very precarious situation.
It was the intention of the pilot to refuel at Fort Jameson, then in Northern Rhodesia, which we should have reached by midday and in time for lunch.
Flying low, we were now in thick bush country and could see many herds of elephant roaming around the scrub and wallowing in the rivers. We had been in the air for some hours now and lunch hour was nearly over. I heard our navigator tapping out a message on the Morse key.
Suddenly, George gripped my arm and whispered.
‘We’re in trouble, lass, I have just heard the “May Day” call going out’.
Before I realised the implication of this remark, the door of the cockpit opened and our navigator appeared.
‘I have been trying to contact Fort Jameson for some time now, but no reply’, he said. ‘We are out of fuel and have to make a forced landing’, confirming what my husband had heard going out on the radio.
The navigator looked around the cabin and continued talking, asking us to,
‘Strap the children in tightly within your seat belts and pad them around with clothes and blankets’.
There was no time to think about what could happen as we attended to the children. We felt the plane bank and drop. It had been used in the war and for whatever reason, had two sirens attached under the wings; these were switched on, creating a frightful noise inside our tiny cabin.
We were busy trying to comfort and secure our two little boys as the African bush loomed ever closer. I felt a prayer would not be out of place and I recited the Lord’s Prayer. The ground rushed towards us at a terrifying speed as I went about protecting our two precious children from impact
. We were heading for a dry river bed when our very observant pilot spotted a small clearing off to the left covered with elephant grass. He immediately lifted the nose and banked the aircraft away from the river bed, dropping expertly into the 10 feet tall elephant grass covering the clearing.
Thank God! (As well as a very good Pilot), who was able to expertly guide the plane in safely. We hit the ground hard on landing and upon looking out of the window all I could see was the propeller on the left of the plane chopping the grass which was flying up and over the cabin accompanied by clouds of dust. The plane must have hit an ant bear hole (small African animal with long snout that feasts on termites) as we felt it drop and the propeller folded back over the engine cowl after striking the ground. We finally came to a very jerky halt. The silence was profound for a few moments. The door to the cockpit opened, and a very apprehensive crew looked out and saw that their five passengers were all in one piece.
George scratched through Richard’s bag before going to the door with the navigator. They walked along the wing and jumped down and around to the front of the aircraft, and when they came back after their inspection I noticed that George had one of Richard’s toy guns stuck in his waistband. I burst out laughing.
“What were you planning to do with that”? I chortled. I didn't get a reply.
George asked the pilot why the sirens were switched on and it was explained to him that they would attract the attention of any persons within a ten mile zone of our crash site.
“All they did was scare the daylights out of any wildlife hereabout”, replied George. “There's not a human being within fifty miles of here”, he continued.
But how wrong he was!
We were now faced with a big problem. We had landed in the heart of the Luangwa Valley in the district of Jumbe, a very big game area, close to the border with the Belgium Congo. The aeroplane was shattered, we had no food or water and most important, no guns or ammunition to fend off any attack by wild animals.
The inspection of the Anson had shown cracked wings and a badly damaged propeller. As we were sorting everything out inside the aircraft, when suddenly I saw the tall grass waving and in a few minutes we were surrounded by natives. The plane's sirens must have attracted all and sundry from miles around. Terrible thoughts of cannibals crossed my mind. George made a grab for Richard’s toy gun, which he had returned to its bag and went to stand in the open door of the aircraft. My fears proved to be unfounded, when from the back of the crowd of milling African locals, one pushed forward and announced,
“Me Augustine! Mission boy, I speak English”.
Greatly relieved, our pilot asked “Where might we get help”?
He replied that there was a mission in the hills 40 miles away, but he would fetch the chief whose name was Nikanya. The chief must have also heard the sirens as he and his entourage arrived a short while after. We ascertained through Augustine, acting as interpreter for the chief, that there was a white Padre at a local village about 35 miles away to whom he would send a message immediately.
We took photographs of them all around the aircraft which pleased them greatly and with their help we rigged up an outside aerial and made contact with flight control centre at Salisbury airport. Salisbury informed us that a rescue operation was being set up and help would be arriving in the form of an air drop as well as a foot operation from Fort Jameson. We could only give them a vague idea of our location which was approximately 86 miles Northwest of Fort Jameson. The village reference given to us by Augustine was Katemo which was the small kopjie (hill) just above the village.
Augustine had suggested we trek to his village where his family would be pleased to house us, which left me with the distinct feeling that as far as hotel star ratings went, we would be lucky for a twinkle. No 5 stars where we were headed. He also suggested that the Nkosi (male chief/my husband), Nkosikas (female chief/me), and the picannin’s (our children) follow him. A runner was sent off to the village and a convoy of excited Africans followed carrying our luggage.
It was late afternoon and we were trekking through thick forest, the ground strewn with Mopani leaves, the favourite diet of elephants. Bearing in mind the vast number of elephants we had seen before crash landing, I was very apprehensive of possible herds, but subdued my fears as nobody else seemed particularly worried.
On our way to the village upon walking across the dry river bed we would have landed on, our pilot noted and commented that the sand was very loosely packed with deep ruts running across it. If we had landed on it the probability would have been that the aircraft would have dug in and flipped nose over tail almost certainly resulting in a number of fatalities. I had been praying fervently as we were about to crash and there was no doubt in my mind who had guided us to our safe landing site.
We came out into thick bush terrain and the Africans who accompanied us were carrying the children on their backs. I remember in particular the Head Man leaving our party to erect a small grass enclosure where food and water was provided for these important and strange visitors. The local people, many of whom had never seen a white man before peered through every chink in an attempt to see us.
It was early evening and we were all quite exhausted after walking for hours over the rough terrain, which had taken its toll on our feet. The few miles to the village seemed interminable and it was to our great relief when we spotted the lights of many small fires lighting up the darkness. When we finally arrived at Augustine’s kraal (village of round huts) we were immediately surrounded by the inhabitants and a big “indaba” (meeting) took place to agree the etiquette that should be shown to these “Gods who had fallen from the sky” or to translate into their language these “Amilungu Anagwa Kumwamba”.
Those who know Africa will be aware that an indaba can last days. Eventually though, we were conducted to a native-built thatched hut, the sole amenities of which were two low native-made beds with no mattresses but a kind of interwoven animal hide thong. This was a luxury that was usually reserved for people of note. Apparently we were people of note.
After our crash landing and the long trek through the jungle, we were all on the point of collapse, but some effort had to be made. A decision to bring with me three tins of Ostermilk, a small pan and a packet of tea, proved to be a God-send, as I was able at least to give the children a nourishing drink.
Having no blankets, we had to use whatever clothing we had with us to bed them down and eventually they slept. Outside, the other members of our group were discussing the best way of affecting a rescue in the event that we could not be found. This proved to be pointless, and we could only hope that the coordinates we had given to Salisbury were close enough that the rescue party would be able to locate us.
Dawn comes early to the African bush and the inhabitants, human and otherwise are up with first light. Young Richard took one look around at the foreign looking habitation and said, “Let’s go home, Mom. I don’t like this hotel.”
That was easier said than done, and we were only too thankful that we had not provided a meal for some carnivorous animal on our recent trek to this small community.
While the men folk were debating how to get us back to “civilisation”, as we knew it, I had more domestic issues to deal with, i.e. facilities for bathing, food and washing, to say nothing of the language difficulty. The nearby “spruit” (stream) was our water supply and the children splashed happily in it, surrounded by an admiring group of local piccanin’s. My washing was accomplished by rubbing and battering clothes against the large stones in this small stream; my blue wool Jaeger suit was never quite the same again.
The following day we spotted planes flying grid pattern to the west of us; they were flying low and had the roundels of the RAF on their wings and on the sides of the fuselage, but they were too far away to locate us. Powder compacts were quite large in those days and I opened mine with its large mirror and flashed it in the direction of the searching planes, catching the sun’s rays in the mirror. Instant response resulted. All three planes turned towards us and a message was dropped: “Stay where you are! We have got your location”.
The next day the planes flew right to us and two sacks of supplies were dropped by parachute and picked up by locals from the village. We were provided with six blankets, which were more than welcome as it had been bitterly cold at night. Also in the parachute drop was a loaf of bread, bully beef, oxo, bovril and raisins but no butter, tea or sugar, which we could have done with, and a 303 rifle, with no magazine or ammunition.
George made a grab for the rifle and announced, “Don’t worry, Dot. We'll be safe now we have this”. The absurdity of the situation struck me as very funny. A rifle with no ammunition and a balanced diet of oxo, bully beef and bovril, combined with a trek through some sixty miles of uncharted jungle. Home was never like this.
The runner, who had been sent off to the Catholic Mission in the Hills, returned three days later during the late afternoon with Father Robertson. We made a huge fuss of him as he was the first white man we had seen since the crash. I felt a little better about our situation.
He told us that the rescue operation was under way from Fort Jameson and that he had sent word via a runner as to our location. Mr Bernard Hesson, the chief of police for Northern Rhodesia, and John Sugg, District Commissioner, were on their way with two trucks, but because of the inaccessibility of the region, they were having to cut the road, building bridges from cut down trees and four-gallon paraffin tins. Father Robertson told us we had found the only possible spot to crash-land within a fifty mile radius.
A few days later John Sugg and Bernard Hesson arrived with a number of “askaris” (police recruits). They had been unable to reach us with the trucks and had had to leave them about six miles away.
Finally, after nine days in the bush, we set off on foot to find the trucks after saying goodbye to our hosts. The whole village turned out to send us on our way.
We walked through dense bush in such intense heat that I thought we would have to give up. Just as we were reaching exhaustion, we were delighted to see two trucks under the shade of some trees. After a short break for tea, we continued in the trucks through some extremely demanding terrain, down steep slopes and up escarpments. In one very steep place, the truck slid back three times taking 100 or so local natives to pull and push up or down the slopes, a feat involving several hours. How those chaps drove in the dark around those winding tracks still amazes me as most of the time we were in first or second gear with a top speed of 8 mph. At about 9 p.m. a halt was made for a meal and we were very hungry. Eating in the bush is a fine art when properly done with the headlights of the trucks left on and grass mats spread on the ground. We were introduced for the first time to the popular “braai” (barbecue), a lovely meal, finished off with a brandy, water or tea.
The trucks were packed and we continued on again over almost impossible terrain for many more hours, until we arrived at Moore’s Mission after a day and a half travelling. Sugg went to one of the bungalows to wake up the priest he knew, (a Mr Heritage) who emerged not very ecclesiastically garbed and remarking that it “was bloody cold”.
We were given accommodation at the Mission, which was very comfortable considering the preceding nine nights in the bush. After trying to sleep on a thong bed at the village, I was beginning to feel like a zebra - so my nights rest at the Mission was sheer bliss. The next morning after a good soak in a hot bath for me and the kids, a leisurely breakfast, and a walk around the Mission Station, it was time to say goodbye and to thank our newfound friends for their hospitality.
We departed for Fort Jameson, which lay fifty miles away, that afternoon, arriving in the early evening. Accommodation had been arranged at the Rangley’s Hotel and after a hot bath and a good meal it was early to bed in an attempt to recover from what had been a very arduous journey. It was Friday, 12th July and we were looking forward to a relaxing weekend. We were advised to stay close to the hotel as leopards came down from the hills at night and one had recently attacked a man and his dog outside the Knowles.
Our arrival had caused quite a stir among the residents who were mainly tobacco farmers, and on discussing our future plans regarding settling in South Africa, we were advised to look at Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia. Fate had taken a hand and our forced landing caused us to change our plans. After several days rest, we flew to Salisbury in a Rapide, piloted by Mr Jed Spencer. We were so impressed with what we saw of Rhodesia that we decided to settle in this new and rapidly growing country.