Chapter 18 : The Best Laid Plans
My late adolescence seemed rent with challenges – and not only for me. Just when we thought we were piecing ourselves together as a family, more political events would send shock waves through our lives.
It was in the spring of 1965 – so some time before my cherry was picked but some time after my father had been ‘relieved’ of his military duties – and another expedition possibility began to ferment in my imagination. It was Kirk McClelland’s idea really. Kirk was the son of the American Ambassador, whose daughter, Alice, was a friend of mine. Alice was a cool chick; she and I used to play tennis together a lot and she became my first choice for the school dances. As it happened the results of Prince Edward Chironi Expedition had caused quite a stir, and one day Kirk said to me, ‘You went on that expedition, didn’t you? Well, I would really love to go down the Zambezi.’
‘I’ll take you down the Zambezi,’ I said. ‘I love expeditions!’ And my mind started to whirr with a fascination of the impossible.
‘We’ll go on a raft,’ I said. ‘I’ve got tons of food left over – dried vegetables from Royco’s and tinned food from Liebbigs and lots of other stuff we didn’t use on the Chironi Expedition. As for the cost of the raft,’ I added, ‘we’ll get sponsorship.’
By this time I knew all about sponsorship, so I went off to see people that I’d seen before and I said, ‘Hi. My name’s Miles Anderson and I’m taking the American Ambassador’s son, Kirk McClelland, from Chirundu down to Feira. It’s 300 miles, and it’s going to take us three weeks on a raft. Would you like to sponsor us?’
‘Yes,’ they all said, ‘of course we’d love to sponsor you – as long as we get our name in The Herald newspaper.’
And before we knew it, we’d got headlines in The Herald newspaper: ‘American Ambassador’s Son To Risk The Zambezi.’ ‘Explorer Miles Anderson is taking the ambassador’s son down the bloody sink.’ (Of course that wasn’t the actual headline, but that was the blatant subtext.)
On reading the headlines, poor old Mrs McClelland grew frightfully upset, and she phoned up Daph, saying, ‘Is Miles serious about this?’
‘Yes,’ said Mum, ‘he’s perfectly serious about it. And knowing my son, he’ll do it.’ (There had always been a certain ‘give-it-a-go’ jutzpah in our family, which now seemed even bolder – maybe due to our recent history.)
So I thought, ‘Right. Okay. We’ve got to design a raft.’ And I set about designing a raft out of 44-gallon oil drums. I showed it to Kirk: ‘I’m going to have gum poles going down like this, and they’re going to be lashed like this.’ (My designs were something of a work of art.)
Then I phoned John Akhurst whose father worked for the fuel company, Caltex and I said, ‘Hey, Ak, do you think your dad can get me some oil drums?’
And he said, ‘Well, come and talk to him.’
I made an appointment with Mr Akhurst and I went off to see him.
‘What is it you need, Miles?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m going down the Zambezi with the American ambassador’s son, and I wonder if you could supply me with some old oil drums?’
‘Hold on, son, I’ll get on to my P.A. people.’
So Mr Akhurst gets on to the public relations people at Caltex, and the next thing I know I’m getting a phone call from the PR department, saying, ‘Would you like to come in and see us?’
I go to their offices to see one of the P.R. guys, and he says, ‘I believe you want to go down the Zambezi on some oil drums?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
And he says, ‘We’re prepared to do better than give you some oil drums. How about we build you the raft instead?’
‘Well, that’s absolutely brilliant,’ I beam.
And he says, ‘Have you got a design?’
‘Well, this is what I want,’ I say, producing my designs. ‘My plan was to build the raft with gum poles.’
‘Oh, no, you don’t want to do that,’ says the PR guy. ‘Surely you want to build it in steel. We’ve got steel-welders and fabricators here. We’ll build you a raft.’ And they set about building me a steel raft that was worthy of Stanley!
Having got this far, Kirk’s dad, Ross McClelland, was impressed. ‘We’ve got a 5-ton truck here at the US Embassy. We’ll transport the raft down to Chirundu for you.’
So by now I’ve got a garage full of dried food, tins of bully beef, tins of meat stew, and biltong coming out of my ears. I’ve got my dad’s licensed shotgun to take with us just in case we get into any trouble on the trip; after all, there’s just the two of us in the middle of the Zambezi, for Christ’s sake. And we’ve got reporters talking to us about the expedition, and photos appearing in the papers. And Kirk is so, so excited! Man, he’s going down the bloody Zambezi and Caltex have built us a raft! What’s more, we’re going in the rainy season so the river will be a bloody great torrent, not just a little stream. This is going to be one hell of an adventure – and the whole expedition is my little contribution towards restoring my family’s national pride.
It’s a Friday in the middle of November, just two days before we’re about to leave. The raft has already been driven down to Chirundu and I’m walking out to the car-park to join Daph who is driving me down there with a car full of gear.
Suddenly Kirk’s dad telephones Jock.
‘I’ve got terrible news for Miles...’
My dad comes to find me and says, ‘Ross McClelland has just phoned me. I’ve got some terrible news for you, Miles…’
It turned out that on that day, November 11th 1965, Unilateral Declaration of Independence was declared – UDI – and all the Americans in Rhodesia had been recalled back to Washington. UDI was a highly unconstitutional act, as my father had forewarned. An act of gross illegality.
In England, my brother John was half way through a section attack exercise. Within one hour of UDI being declared, he and the other six Rhodesian soldiers (three seniors, three juniors) were summoned back to Sandhurst, ordered to hand over their rifles, pack up and get out. The next day, they were summoned to Rhodesia House by Colonel Passaportis who told them they would be flown out of England that evening and their backpay would be given.
John refused and said he wanted to resign his commission immediately.
‘You can’t resign,’ insisted Theo Passaportis, ‘you’re under contract to the tune of £6000.’ (Which was a lot of money in those days. Enough to buy a house.)
John immediately phoned Lonrho who agreed to guarantee his money and honour any debts he had incurred by being loyal to the Queen. He was immediately asked to hand over his federation passport and it was another seven years before he saw a proper passport again. As soon as the press found out he’d resigned, they had a field day, and he was asked to stay away from Sandhurst until the furore had died down. As for me in Rhodesia, the furore of UDI was immense – the idea that the Americans would be withdrawn was unthinkable.
‘But they can’t be called back to Washington,’ I wailed to my father, ‘Kirk and I are going down the Zambezi.’
‘You can’t go down the Zambezi, Miles,’ Jock insisted. ‘The whole family has been recalled.’
And bingo! That was it. Curtains on the expedition.
One day later...
...my father was sitting on a plane to England to negotiate John’s future. It was the first time they’d seen each other in eighteen months. John was enlisted to the Black Watch – Jock’s old regiment – for which he didn’t need a commission. (From then on, he became an under-officer and drifted his way through the rest of his time at Sandhurst, including – ironically – carrying the Queen’s colours on parade.)
Two days later...
...Kirk McClelland, Ross McClelland, Mrs McClelland and Alice were sitting on a plane to Washington, and all I knew was that they’d gone. Kirk had wept all the way to the airport.
And I was left at home with a bloody great garage full of food, while the raft was on the Zambezi at Chirundu, and I just thought, ‘Fuck it! How many times can dreams be dashed?’ There was no hope of me restoring my family’s faith.
Within the next few weeks, Daph and I got rid of all the food. As for the raft, I don’t know what happened to that: it was stuck in Chirundu and I couldn’t recover it. It probably ended up on a scrap heap somewhere. But I certainly had no desire to go and find it. I was absolutely heart-broken that I would never go down the Zambezi on my raft.