Chapter 16 : Flower Picking
Despite the thrashing from Owen over Letcher, compounded by my father’s professional situation, the year of my Matric exams wasn’t all bad and there were some very good adventures to be had.
Prince Edward was renowned for undertaking impressive expeditions. They’d climbed Kilimanjaro in 1960. Then in 1962 they’d tried to negotiate the Cabora Basa Gorge on the Zambezi River, when they took a raft from Chirundu down to a place called Feira (Feira was the start of the Cabura Basa Gorge), but the raft got broken up and the expedition was unsuccessful. In fact, the only man to negotiate that whole stretch of the river and come out safely at Sofala (where the Zambezi meets the Indian Ocean) was Henry Morton Stanley in the 1800s. Well, millions of Africans have probably achieved it, but no white man had ever done it – and Stanley did it in a steel boat, not a wooden raft! Nowadays no one can even negotiate that part of the river any more because they’ve built a huge dam called the Cabora Basa Dam.
The next school expedition was in the June of 1965 to the Chimanimani Mountains, and to a specific place where the Haroni River meets the Rusitu River. What was particular about this area was that it was actually at sea level, from which you could go up 7,600 or 7,800 feet to Nyangombe on the Chimanimani range. The mission was to collect fauna and flora for the Umtali Museum and the Salisbury Museum, as well as for Leakey’s Museum in Nairobi. (Dr Leakey was a renowned anthropologist; it was he who tried to find the missing link between man and ape. He also discovered the legless lizard. Well, Prince Edward school discovered it, but they gave to Leakey and it became known as Leakey’s legless lizard.)
The selection process for the expedition to Chimanimani – known as the Chironi Expedition – began at the start of the first term by interested boys putting their name down on a list. I’d always been interested in expeditions, so I put my name down for this one. (What with the traumas my parents were suffering, I was looking for diversions in life.) There were several months to go before the expedition and, during that time, the selection would be made. About 150 guys put down their names, out of which only about twelve would get to go. The selection panel comprised ‘Foxy’ Siemers (the schools inspector who was heading the expedition) and Keith Coates Palgrave (‘Pinky’ – the Biology teacher who wrote Trees of Southern Africa), along with a chap called ‘Wee-wee’ Morgan (another of the Biology teachers) and Mr Tatum (a game ranger working for the Game Department).
The way they chose the final team was by taking boys out on a series of weekend field trips to places like the Zambezi, the Mazowe Valley, and various other locations. As I was one of the first people to put my name down, I soon found myself part of a group including four or five other guys who went for the weekend to Mana Pools to photograph wild animals.
During that weekend, I set off on a recce one day with a chap called Rob Dawson (who was known as a bit of a prankster) and I decided to photograph a particular buffalo, which was all by itself with a damaged eye. Clearly it had been ostracised from the rest of the herd and was now in rather a dangerous state.
‘Hey,’ I said to Rob, ‘you go and stand back there on top of that ant hill where I can see you, and I’ll crawl through the grass towards the buffalo. You signal to me when I’m very, very close to the buffalo, and then I’ll stand up and take a shot.’ (I wanted a really close-up photo.)
‘Yeah, okay,’ said Rob and he headed towards the top of the huge ant hill.
I began to creep through the bush.
Every few moments, I’d look back at the ant hill and Rob would signal to me to go a little further. On and on I crawled, all the while Rob signalling me forwards until in the end, I thought, ‘Jeez, I must be getting pretty damn close. This bloody buffalo can’t be that far away!’ Creep, creep, crawl, crawl, looking back at Dawson who was still signalling me on. At last, I turned round to him and he put his hand up very quietly for me to stop.
I slowly began to stand, and as I reached my feet, there was the buffalo – less than a yard away – eyeballing me in shocked surprise.
‘Bwwaaarrhh!’ went the buffalo.
And I went ‘Aaaarhh!’ I turned and ran straight towards the river. I had no idea whether the buffalo was charging me. In fact, I don’t think it was. It’d got such a terrible fright as I stood up, it had hurtled off in the other direction. But I thought the buffalo was charging me and that was enough for me. I raced towards the river and leapt off the bank. And as I leapt off the bank, a thought popped into my head: ‘Crocodiles!! Aaaah! Crocodiles!!’ In one split second, I was in the river and out again, before you could bat an eyelid. My feet had barely touched the water before I was back on the bank.
It was during that weekend that I also got to photograph elephants close up for the first time in my life.
Elephants are known to make mock charges. They don’t actually charge you, they just pretend to, so if you stand absolutely still, they simply retreat again. People have frequently said they got charged by an elephant and so they shot it, or they got charged by an elephant and they fled. But the trouble with fleeing is that elephants are extremely short-sighted, so all they see is movement and their instinct is to run towards the movement. But if you stand perfectly still, they don’t know what you are. They’ll run a few steps towards you, then trumpet and dart back. They’re a bit skittish are elephants, they’re wary. But that weekend I was with Mr Tatum, the game ranger, and he knew all about wildlife. Tatum was an extraordinary man; amongst other things, he spoke fluent Shona and fluent Ndau (which was a dialect of the people who live in the particular area of Chimanimani to where the expedition was going). ‘Just make sure you stand absolutely stock-still,’ he said to me.
We positioned ourselves down-wind of the elephant herd so that they didn’t catch our scent, and I started to photograph the beasts. It was an amazing experience, they were so large and beautiful and serene. Even though I only had my little Brownie camera – there was no zoom or anything in those days – I took some quite good photographs.
Indeed, my photography obviously came up trumps, because at the end of the weekend, I was selected for the expedition team. And so was Rob Dawson. We were even asked to be on the selection panel, which was a huge honour and meant that every weekend, we’d get to travel out in a Land Rover with five or six other kids on another selection trip. There, we’d spend a day and a night with them to test their personal mettle.
These weekends often entailed what you might call ‘incidents’. On one of the trips, we went fishing in the Mazowe River. Rob Dawson had a rod with a bloody great hook on it, and just as he cast it, John Akhurst walked past. The hook caught Akhurst in the hand and hurled him straight into the river. Rob and I dragged him out of the river, but we couldn’t get the damn hook out. It had gone through his palm and right out of the back of his hand. As with all these physical mishaps, we thought it was hysterically funny – except for poor John Akhurst who fainted and then had to be dragged off to the Mazowe hospital. At the hospital, the doctor was summoned off the golf course, where he was getting in a few holes with some friends, not to mention a few gin and tonics. When he arrived, he was rather the worse for wear and he fumbled around for ages trying to extract the hook from Akhurst’s hand. In the end, Pinky Palgrave grabbed some sort of clippers, clipped the end off the hook and pulled it out. They bandaged up Akhurst’s hand, and he came straight back to the river and carried on fishing. We selected him for the expedition on the strength of that incident, because he’d proved himself to be such a game guy.
By the time it came to the Chironi Expedition, twelve boys had been assembled and each of us was given a job. I was put in charge of catering and I immediately set to work organising everything we needed. I had badges made and news of the expedition appeared in all the newspapers. Then I went to Fray Bentos, the corned beef manufacturer, and Liebbigs, who did a lot of other tinned stuff, and dried vegetables from Royco’s. I’d just go to the food companies and say, ‘It’s all for the Chironi Expedition.’ And in this way, I managed to get all the food sponsored.
I then set to work on the menus, deciding what meals I was going to give the expedition party. Catering for sixteen people (a dozen guys and four masters) for two weeks in Chimanimani was no mean feat, but I decided we weren’t going to take any frozen food. Instead, we’d have to get meat from the local villages en route. That way I could ensure that the meat would remain fresh.
As I was busily arranging all this, we were suddenly told that someone else was coming on the expedition: a guy called Robert Howe who was at Gordonstoun School in England. It was his eighteenth birthday and his father had offered him either an ‘E’ type Jaguar or a place on our expedition. (Mr Howe had some sort of connection with one of our masters.) Of course, we all rebelled and cried, ‘What’s all this about?’ but it turned out that his father had in fact coughed up two thousand pounds towards the expedition. That would be about £20,000 today, so it was a vast sum of money.
Robert Howe arrived. He was an English public schoolboy who smoked and drank and swore. Of course we Prince Edward boys did all of those things, but we’d always done them on the quiet, whereas Howe was quite open about it and we weren’t sure what to make of him. Building up to the expedition, he stayed with one of the masters, until about two weeks before we left. Around that time, a meeting was called to check who was doing what, when it transpired that whoever was in charge of botany had come down with some illness and he couldn’t go on the expedition. It was decided Howe was incapable of doing anything botanical, so another person would be needed. My friend Garrick Fletcher had been on the various selection trips, but we hadn’t actually chosen him and he’d become rather bitter and twisted about it. So when they said, ‘Do you know of anybody who would like to come on the expedition?’ I instantly said, ‘Well, there’s my friend Garrick. I’m sure he’d like to come.’ So the masters said, ‘Go off and give him the news.’
So off I went to Fletcher’s house and I said, ‘Garrick, there’s a place come free on the Chironi expedition. Would you like to come?’
‘You bet!’ he said. ‘But what will I have to do?’
‘I’m afraid you’ve got to do botany,’ I replied.
‘Blimey, I can’t do bloody botany. I don’t know anything about plants. No, I can’t do botany: I don’t want to do botany.’
So in my usual way, I said, ‘I tell you what: I’ll do botany and you can do catering.’
‘Okay,’ said Garrick, ‘I’ll do catering.’
‘Well, it should be easy,’ I said, ‘because I’ve done most of the work for you.’
‘Forget that,’ he said. ‘I can do it myself.’
Although he took a load of the sponsored stuff that I’d already organised, he then said, ‘I know Mr So-and-so who owns a butchery in Avondale, and he’ll lend us a big ice-box. We’ll take it down to Chimaninmani in a truck.’ So he organised a truck and then he said, ‘We’ll stock it full of lamb and beef. Then we’ll have lots of meat and we’ll carry it on the expedition.’
‘You’re bloody crazy!’ I said. ‘We don’t want frozen meat in the middle of the bush!’ But before I knew it, he’d talked everybody into the idea, although I somehow knew that it was never going to work.
‘It’s never going to work,’ I said. ‘The first time you open it, somebody’s going to leave the lid off or something, and it’ll all go bad. This is a crazy idea, Garrick. Besides, who wants to take a bloody big box on an expedition? It’ll have to be hauled down the mountain, you know.’
‘But I’ve organised a truck,’ insisted Garrick.
‘Okay, let’s look at the maps,’ I said. Which we did, and we saw that there were no roads into this place in Chimanimani, we’d have to go by foot. How were we ever going to get a freezer box down into the valley? At this point, I left it all to Garrick. I decided to check out of catering and focus on botany instead.
I arranged a meeting with Pinky Palgrave and I said, ‘I’m doing botany, but I don’t know anything about botany.’
‘Right,’ said Palgave. ‘Presses. We’ve got lots of presses arranged.’ And he took me into a storeroom where there was a stack of flower presses. Each press was made of strips of plywood in a sort of checker-board frame. And inside each press there were two sheets of blotting paper and then another two sheets of thinner paper, so there was a double layer of paper between which you pressed the flower. Using several layers of paper, you could preserve two or three samples in each press.
The stack of presses must have been ten feet high. My jaw dropped.
‘How am I going to get all these to Chimanimani?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Pinky. ‘You just have to arrange for members of the group to take ten or twenty each.’
As well as the flower presses, there were masses of plastic bags for fruit samples and all sorts of other things that I didn’t know anything about it, but I knew I had Palgrave. And that was enough. After all, he’d written a book, so he would know everything.
* * * *
The time came for the expedition to set off. The trip was to last for two weeks before the rainy season began. We knew that once the rains started, we would be in trouble.
Just before we set off, we were divided into two groups. The plan was that one group was to go up the mountain and traverse along a particular route, collecting their samples. Then they would come back down and the other group would go up. Each person knew their task; for example, Ed Gous was in charge of guns. Gous was a great big farmer’s lad and he had a stack of guns: two 12-bores, two 410 shot guns, and a handful of .22 rifles – all for collecting specimens. Then there was one guy on herpetology (snakes and lizards); another on ichthiology (fish); a third on lepidoptery (butterflies), and I was on botany. In fact, there was a person in charge of absolutely everything. And the amount of equipment we had! There were jars and cases and bags and boxes. There were shot-gun shells with No 6 shot in them and ‘dust’ to shoot at the birds without damaging their skin. There were two permanent skinners from Umtali Museum, who would work all day on skinning the birds, the rats, the wild life, packing them with cotton wool and Borax, wrapping them up, putting them into bags, and labelling them so that we could take them back. A lot of equipment had already been taken in trucks, like the jars and the collection cases. Then there were porters to take the equipment from the roadside past Melsetter down the five-mile trek into the area we were exploring. This was a serious expedition, a real one-off: this was the Chironi Expedition!
On the day before we arrived, the big truck organised by Garrick Fletcher had dumped off a bloody huge box full of meat. Frozen meat, apparently. So when we arrived, there it was, sitting on the edge of the roadside. We all looked at it and I said to Garrick, ‘How the hell are you going to get this box down there?’
‘Oh, Christ!’ he said, ‘I thought…maybe, you know…there’d have been enough porters… Looks like we’re going to have to carry it…’
‘What?’ I said. ‘We’re going to carry it five miles down a precipice? How are we going to do that?’
After much debate and sucking of teeth, the group decided that this box could stay near the roadside with a lock on it. We pushed it off the track so that it was hidden in the bush, and the plan was that every two days, we’d send a team of two guys up the mountain-side to collect a load of meat and bring it back down to the camp. Garrick Fletcher would always be one of the boys, because he’d made the cock-up with the food. As for the canned goods and dried fruit and stuff like that which I’d got from the sponsors, we carried most of that in series, as we made our way down the precipice.
It took us several hours to reach the bottom of the valley. Once there, we set up a base-camp on the banks of the Haroni River. First of all, we made tents from great long tarpaulins that we’d also carried down the precipice, and we constructed a dormitory under the tarpaulins. We didn’t need sides to the dorm because it was baking hot in this place: jungle conditions. Then some guys were sent off to dig latrines, and Garrick Fletcher tried to cook. (During those two weeks, he screwed up the cooking so many times that I ended up doing most of it.)
In fact, it didn’t take long for Garrick to fall into bad odour with everyone. We’d been at the camp for two days when he was sent trekking back up to the road with another boy to fetch some meat from the icebox. Up they went, reached the road, hauled the bloody box from the cover of the undergrowth and, as they opened the lid, they could smell the meat inside. It turned out that the box hadn’t been packed with ice at all; the meat had just been put in the box and somebody somewhere had forgotten the ice. The whole of the stock was off, so now we hadn’t got any meat at all. Thankfully we had lots and lots of dried vegetables, but Garrick didn’t know what on earth to do. That evening, as we sat around the fire at supper, the boys cast Garrick evil looks and gnawed their way through more dried mangoes. As it happened, my dad had supplied the expedition with a load of 24-hour army ration packs, but we knew we couldn’t use those because the two main groups would need them on their trips up the mountain to collect samples. So everybody was sitting thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’
Foxy Siemers turned to me and said, ‘What are we going to do about the meat supplies, Anderson?’
‘Well, I know what I’m going to do,’ I replied. ‘I’m going to do what I would’ve done if I was in charge of catering. I’m going to go round some villages and I’m going to buy some food off the locals. Anybody got any money?’ Immediately everybody delved into their pockets and we came up with a £50 kitty.
‘And, Garrick,’ I said, ‘you’re coming with me.’
The next morning, we set off walking till we found two little villages with livestock. My first purchase was two goats. I paid the villager about 10 bob each for the beasts, saying, ‘We’d like the goats down there, please,’ pointing down the precipice.
‘What do you want them for?’ the villager asked.
‘We’re going to eat them,’ I replied.
‘Yes, that’ll be fine.’
The next day at 1 o’clock, we’re sitting in the camp when all of a sudden we hear, ‘Baa, baa,’ and a little picannin comes walking down the path. He’s got these two goats, all freshly washed and shining, and he’s got them on the end of this string. I’d been expecting them to arrive dead, skinned, butchered, the lot. We look at each other and say, ‘Uh? Who’s going to kill the goats? Hey, who’s going to kill the goats?’
The picannin looks at us, wondering what’s the problem.
‘Hey, Ed,’ says one of the boys turning to Ed Gous, the big burly farmer’s boy, ‘you’re the guy with the guns. Take those goats off and shoot them.’
‘I’m not bloody shooting a goat!’ wails Ed Gous. ‘I like goats.’
And suddenly everybody likes goats. Loves them, even! And nobody wants to kill them.
In the end Mr Tatum and I took the goats into the bush. Tatum took out his shot-gun and shot both the beasts in the back of the head. The little piccannin walked back up the hill, trailing two bloody pieces of goat skin with bits of dangling intestine attached. Tatum and I cut up one goat and we put it into a stew. The other goat we left hanging in a tree. The next morning, it was completely fly-blown, just full of flies’ eggs. I took the carcass into the river, washed all the flies’ eggs off, and thus we had another day’s goat meat. (There were no hygiene standards or sell-by dates out there in the bhundu.)
A few days later, I also bought six chickens off the villagers and, continuing like that, we kept everybody reasonably well-fed. Though no one was talking to Garrick Fletcher.
The Chironi Expedition was a challenge for us all. One day, Gous shot a samango monkey in the stomach, and the poor creature tore its insides out looking for the bullet. This huge farmer’s boy burst into tears and hung his head in his hands.
‘Kill the poor bugger! Kill it!’ we urged, but Gous was a blubbering wreck. In the end Rob Dawson had to bash the poor monkey on the head to put it out of its misery. Nobody spoke to Ed Gous after that, because clearly this big tough Boer farmer’s boy wasn’t as tough as he thought he was. Then somebody else got chased by a leopard one night – yes, there were all sorts of funny little adventures.
While the first of the two groups went off on their sample-collecting trip, I would often spend the days fishing with a few of the other guys. Some of the fish we put into preserving jars to be sent off to the various museums for the ichthiologists. And a lot of the fish we netted and ate. On one particular occasion, I’d gone with Bob McClearey to get the fish out of the net and we were strolling up the side of the river. We climbed up a very steep bank and clambered on to a path. As we were walking along it, we came to a frame-work in the middle of the path with a little note attached to it. I bent down to look at the note and in schoolboy writing it said, ‘Beware of a big trap here. J. Nkomo.’
‘What the hell does this mean, Bob?’ I asked. And Bob looked down and I stepped forward to get out of his way. As I stepped forward, the ground underneath me went, ‘Beeeze’ and I went, ‘Aaach!’ I wrenched my foot up, and as I did so, there was an almighty ‘Bang!’ I’d stepped on a humendous bloody jaw-trap. The teeth of the trap went right through the sole of my boot and pinned me by the tip of my heel. I couldn’t get my foot out of my boot because my heel was caught by the trap. Had I not wrenched my foot up – had I been slightly slower – the trap would have broken my damn ankle.
‘Christ Almighty!’ I whispered in awed shock.
The jaw-trap had been buried on the end of a chain. Bob McClearey took out his knife and cut a length of stick from a tree. He brought the stick back and he managed to ease the jaws open just wide enough for me to extract my foot from the trap. There was blood everywhere. I picked up the trap and, winding it above my head, I threw it down below us into the river.
Two days later, we were sitting in the camp when a young African man wandered in and assailed us. ‘What have you done with my trap?’ he demanded, whereupon we told him what for and that he shouldn’t be trapping in the area anyway. (We seemed to forget for a moment that we were slaughtering everything that moved — butterflies, birds, fish, worms, bugs, beetles, and flowers and plants by the million.)
The time came for our half of the group to set off on our two-day trip up the mountain, and I took with us about twenty flower presses. This meant that I could probably collect about 50 or 60 samples along the way. I had two feet of flower presses and a 50lb pack on my back. Every time I came across a little flower or a leaf off a tree, I’d undo the stack of presses on my back (which were tied together by tapes), take a press off the stack, get a sheet of paper and a piece of blotting paper, press the sample between the layers of paper, tie the press back onto the stack and tie the stack onto my pack. If a tree had a fruit, a pod or a seed, I’d collect one and put it in a plastic bag. Then I’d make a note of all the details of the sample: how tall the trees were; the height above sea level (I’d look on the map and see exactly what height they were); what the terrain was like, whether it was brachystegia woodland, or a riverine forest, or whatever. I’d also note the area of flora around the place. Working like this, it took me forever to get up the mountain, but eventually I had about sixty samples.
In fact, we found two new species of tree on that expedition, samples of which were dried and sent off to Kew Gardens. One is called podocarpus milanjianus Rendle after Professor Rendle at the Umtali Museum (I always thought it should have been called podocarpus milanjianus Andsersonii. And you can find it in Pinky Palgrave’s Trees of Southern Rhodesia. The other tree we found was a milicia excelsa and was then listed in L. J. Mullin’s Historic Trees of Zimbabwe.
We also collected about a hundred snakes on the expedition, which were kept alive in bags. Rob Dawson was in charge of snakes, feeding and looking after them, and he just loved them. He’d pick any old snake up by its tail and chuck it in a bag. It didn’t matter if it was a bloody gaboon viper! And I don’t know how many birds we found – maybe 300 different types of birds that were shot and then skinned, their bodies taken out so they didn’t rot and then packed full of Borax to keep their shape. And animals, from mice to every sort of hare, rabbit, rodent, whether it jumped or crawled or scurried. If it was found in that area and it breathed – and even if it was dead – it was collected, so that it could be accounted for on this amazing trip.
The Chironi Expedition was a tremendous success. And it was all done by us Prince Edward boys. At the end of it, Foxy Siemers wrote me a report, which in years to come would amuse me intensely: ‘Any responsibilities entrusted to Anderson were promptly and efficiently carried out and it was a great pleasure working with someone so completely reliable. Perhaps somewhat hasty in his judgments he none the less showed a keen sense for right and wrong and a willingness to revise decisions in the light of further experiences.’ As ‘a most acceptable member of the Expedition’, I was eternally grateful to Foxy, Pinky, Wee-wee and Mr Tatum for the extraordinary opportunity – and what’s more, I had found two trees!