Chapter 8 : Family Holidays
Our family holidays were some of the most wonderful times of my childhood. My dad was an expert camper, who could set up a whole camp with larders, plate-racks, washing-up boards, something to hang your towel on, anything you needed – all in a matter of minutes. He could manufacture a kitchen out of whatever was to hand. He’d take out his knife and he’d cut down a bit of wood and he’d lay it across another piece of wood. Then he’d peel bark from the trees and he’d make it into a binding, with which he bound all the wood together. While Mum got the fire going, we three boys were sent off to find water, and by the time we came back, the whole camp had been erected.
Jock and Daph slept in a trailer, which expanded out into a handsome tent, while there was always a big army tent for us boys. Camping was a whole part of living in Rhodesia at the time. Only the wealthy could stay in hotels, and as an army family, we could never really afford those sorts of holidays, so camping was our thing.
Daytimes were spent exploring. On one holiday we found an old Shona fort on top of a hill, and another time we spent the whole holiday damming a river so that we could make a pool to swim in. We’d usually get up at six o’clock if we were going out shooting. Maybe seven or eight o’clock if we were damming rivers. We’d crawl out of our sleeping bags – though John had this funny old thing called a blanket roll which Jock had brought back from the war in the desert. It was a canvas roll, and inside the roll were the blankets and sheets (just like cowboys used to have) and after your night’s sleep, you just rolled up the whole thing and tied it up with leather straps. (Colin and I wanted that really, we both aspired to the blanket roll.) Jock would make a fire and we’d drink cups of tea made with tinned condensed milk. (Condensed milk is quite the most glorious thing.) Then we’d trek down to the river to fetch the day’s supply of water.
After breakfast, we might take off with our guns. We all had pellet guns and .22s until we were 12 years old, at which point we were promoted to twelve-bores because Jock thought it was very appropriate that every boy should have a twelve-bore on his twelfth birthday. We’d been shooting things since we were about 8. My first killing was probably a dove, though we weren’t allowed to shoot birds for pleasure. If we shot one, we had to eat it. So my relationship with life and death was what you might call ‘elastic’. Until the day I shot a buck…
I was about 15 and we were on holiday with the Brebners. Sonny Brebner was my dad’s big buddy and a major player as a cattle farmer. He had a 3000-acre farm in Chabalala, slap bang in the middle of the suburbs of Bulawayo, and another 30,000-acre ranch at a place called Fig Tree. Every Rhodes and Founders weekend (commemorating the day when Cecil Rhodes first hoisted the Union Jack in Rhodesia), we Andersons would pack up the car and leave Salisbury on the Thursday, drive the three hundred miles to Chabalala, have lunch, and then set off in a convoy with the Brebners and several other families to the ranch at Fig Tree. At about 6pm, we’d arrive at the ranch, where James (the Brebners’ cook) and Emma (their maid) had already been for the last two days, setting up camp with a trailer and a tractor and preparing various kitchens with pots and pans and fires. James would have a big stew ready for us with rice and pumpkin and sadza. And after supper, the families would sort themselves out.
The campsite consisted of tents and barns and a rondaval, which had been part of a ruined farm built very crudely many years ago among a grove of Bulawayo’s ubiquitous gum trees. And all the children would sleep in the big barn at the far end, like a dormitory. There would be Sue Brebner (the daughter) with a couple of her friends, and then the Friggins family with two daughters, bringing the total number of girls to four or five. Then there were the three of us Andersons – John, Colin and me – plus the two Brebner boys, Ian and Chris, each of whom would also bring a friend. So there were about seven boys in total. Often there might be other families too. A weekend like this was a big do. And all these people would descend upon Fig Tree and sleep in huts and barns and rondavals and big army tents.
One of the jobs for the weekend was to brand the cattle, which meant first of all rounding up all the beasts. Sonny Brebner farmed a thousand head of cattle on those 30,000 acres, so every beast had the whole of thirty acres on which to roam. Added to which, each worker in each settlement had his own kraal, so when it came to rounding up the cattle on the farm, the job was to track down all the beasts on the 30,000 acres and then to separate Brebner’s cattle from all the workers’ cattle. This awesome task entailed herding the animals into the coral and then siphoning them one by one into a thing called a crush. Every herdsman had a huge stick about twelve feet long, with a length of hide tied to the end and a thinner piece of leather tied to the end of the hide. They’d crack these huge long whips above a beast’s ear and it would move like lightning. Throughout the two days, the black workers rounded up thousands of cattle into the coral, and at the far side was a man with the big iron crush, which was like a collar of iron that crashed down onto the beast’s neck. If it was one of Brebner’s cattle, he would check the length of its horns, and if the horns were too long, he’d get the men to saw them off with a hack saw. Then they’d vaccinate each beast, before branding it with one of the hot branding irons smoldering in the fire. The air would be rent with the lowing of cattle as they each received a jab and a hot metal brand. All the while, the men were cracking whips and gabbling in Sindebele. It was loud and mad and very exciting – just like being among cowboys but without the horses.
The task for us kids during the weekend was to catch the calves as they ran amok amid all the mayhem. We would tackle one to the ground and, while we held it down, one of the farm workers would take a red hot poker and stick it into the calf’s horns. First one horn, then the other, calf after calf, till the air was filled with the stench of burning horn. If they were bullocks, they would have the Pedizza, which was a thing that looked like a leather punch, only it worked the opposite way – so that when you pushed it down, it opened. You stretched a little elastic band (made by a company called Pedizza) over the opened jaws of the punch. Then you worked the stretched elastic band over the testicles of the little bullock – and let it go. Three days later, the bullock’s testicles would fall off, and its horns would never grow. These were prime beef cattle.
On the weekend when I shot the buck, I was walking with my young black guide through the bhundu on the Brebners’ ranch. (Walking, not in the Landrover which was quite a thing in itself, as the bush was filled with many a wild animal.) The moment I saw the buck, excitement drenched my skin. I was suddenly filled with eagerness at the thought that I might be able to kill it: this was a rite of passage and a question of skill. ‘If I can just get this buck, my God…’
I could see exactly where it was standing, and I aimed at its shoulder with my .22 rifle, thinking that I’d go for a heart shot. I saw its shoulder through the peep-sight, I held my breath, and I fired. I knew I’d hit it because its front legs crumpled. But then it lurched straight up again and ran away leaving a trail of blood. I’d struck either too low or too high, and now the animal was running wounded through the bush.
It was ten o’clock in the morning and, without a moment’s hesitation, I set off with my young black guide to look for the injured buck. We searched and we searched, all the time driven on by my burning ambition to find it and take it to camp so that we could all have buck steaks for supper. It would be such a coup for me to come back with a nice big duiker over my shoulders. After all, half of being a boy, in that place and at that time, was the bravura of going out by yourself at 14 or 15 with just one black kid who knew where you were going, shooting a buck and coming back to the assembled throng with the glorious trophy kill.
By five o’clock the wounded buck was still nowhere to be seen, and by now I was filled with a deep sense of remorse and ‘What a waste…what a completely pointless exercise…’ We didn’t need the meat. We could have bought the meat. But the point was to go shooting, and to feast on whatever you shot, not to shoot and leave a poor animal wounded. After seven hours of following the buck’s bloody tracks, stopping only briefly at a kraal for some water, we returned to camp. I was utterly crestfallen.
‘What’s happened?’ asked Jock.
‘I shot a buck,’ I replied.
‘Where is it?’
‘I couldn’t find it.’
‘Did you follow it?’
‘Yes, we followed the trail till five o’clock.’
My young guide assured Jock that we hadn’t even stopped for lunch, I’d been so determined that we should find the buck and put it out of its misery.
‘It’s okay,’ said Dad, patting me on the shoulder. ‘At least you followed it. At least you tried.’
That night as I lay on my bed in the dormitory barn, I pictured the wounded beast, writhing in anguish somewhere out there in the dense bush. I didn’t shoot any more buck after that.
* * * *
When we weren’t camping, many of our holidays were spent at a place called Kidd’s Beach near East London in the Eastern Province of South Africa. My dad would rent a little dwelling at the end of a row of cottages, next to which was a gate, leading through a farm and onto a waste tip. Beyond the waste tip were some fantastic rocks which loomed right out into the sea. In spite of its name, there was no beach at Kidd’s Beach. (At least, not where we were: we were always at the cheap end.) Instead, we explored these fantastic rocks, where very large periwinkles and octopi and all sorts of shell fish lurked and hid and waited. At night, Dad would take us out with a high-beam torch or a Tilley lamp, a sack and a gaff. A gaff was a piece of wood about 5ft long with a huge hook attached to the end of it and a spear coming out of the hook. We would clamber all over the rocks, stuffing a big mealy-meal sack full of huge periwinkles, along with anything else we could find.
My dad was an expert at catching octopi. He’d dangle his arm into a pool where he figured one might be lurking, and we boys would sit breathless as he inveigled the octopus with his hand. First one tentacle would emerge and then another... Octopi are very curious creatures and they can’t resist a dangled hand. Gradually three or four tentacles would wrap themselves around Jock’s fingers. Then he’d pull the octopus out of its lair and, in a blink of an eye, he’d turn it inside out, smack it on the rocks and shove it into the sack. Boy, we thought this was the bee’s knees! I mean, what a hero! A guy who could catch an octopus with his bare hands!
At Kidd’s Beach we had a maid called Dinah, who used to come and clean the cottage for us. She was a big fat coloured maid and her husband was called Paddy. He was a Cape Coloured with a huge moustache, and he used to suck his teeth a lot. Paddy drove a wagon drawn by six mules: he’d shout at the mules and crack a long whip and they’d gallop along the dirt track at full tilt. During the day, Paddy’s wagon was the garbage wagon, in which he’d collect the rubbish from all the cottages. At night, Paddy’s wagon was converted into the night-soil wagon and he’d collect all the buckets of waste from what were known as the little ‘P. K.s’ (or ‘Piccaninny Kias’) at the back of all the cottages – in other words, the loos – because there was no internal plumbing.
If we were lucky, Paddy would ask us to go on his wagon with him:
‘Yes, go on,’ Daph would say. And the three of us would climb onto his great big wagon – Colin up at the front with Paddy, and John and I at the back amidst the bucket-loads of trash! We thought it was the best thing in the world!
* * * *
Even a Sunday in those days could feel like a holiday. Often we’d go for lunch at the MacKays’, whose daughter Poo had famously dropped me on my head in the swimming pool. Her father, Alec, was a great builder, highly successful within Rhodesia, as well as owning a bar in Salisbury. Along with Poo, he and his wife Betty had two other children: an older daughter, Dianne, and a son called Rossie. These Sunday visits were a great delight to us boys, because Alec MacKay had bought Rossie a van. Rossie was only 12 at the time, but Alec had attached blocks of wood to the pedals so that Rossie could reach them, and on a Sunday we’d all have a go at driving the van. You’d never dream of doing it today, but in those days there we were – 11- and 12-year-old kids – driving this bloody old van down the road!
Alec MacKay was the sort of man who would have a whim. One of his children would suddenly say, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we went water-skiing…’ So Alec would go out and buy a speed boat, and they’d spend a day water-skiing. Then they’d all get bored with it, and he’d park the speed boat up in the garage. In fact, their garage was full of things like speed boats and caravans and all sorts of paraphenalia.
But Alec was also an extraordinarily generous man. He knew my dad and mum extremely well, and he realised that army officers weren’t paid a great deal in Rhodesia, whereas he on the other hand was very, very wealthy. And so he’d just give things away. We only had to mention something and that was that!
One day Jock mentioned that we wanted to go up to Nyanga, which was a wonderful place in the Eastern Highlands
‘Nyanga ...’ pondered Alec for a moment. ‘Nyanga ... Yes, I think we’ve got a place up in Nyanga. Haven’t we, Betty?’
‘Yes,’ said Betty, ‘you bought some land up there five or ten years ago.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Alec, turning to Mum and Dad. ‘Why don’t you go and see if it’s still there?’
‘Well, where is it?’ asked Jock.
‘I’m not quite sure,’ replied Alec. ‘But there’s a farmer up there called van Broomsen, who knows where it is. Yes, Mr van Broomsen knows.’
He gave us Mr van Broomsen’s address and off we set for a holiday in Nyanga.
Sure enough, we found the van Broomsens’ address and at about twelve o’clock midday we pitched up at their house. They turned out to be an elderly Afrikaans couple. My dad got on very well with the Afrikaaners, because he could speak fluent Afrikaans. In fact, he actually recognised van Broomsen because, when he’d been organising the Territorials (the troops of that area), van Broomsen had been one of his officers.
‘We’re looking for Alec MacKay’s land,’ said Jock.
‘Oh yes,’ replied van Broomsen, ‘I know where that is. It’s over there.’ He took out a map and showed my father where Alec land was. ‘It’s bounded by that…and that…’ he said, pointing out various distinguishing features on the landscape.
‘Now, you will stay for lunch, won’t you?’ said old Mrs van Broomsen.
‘Oh, no,’ protested Daph, ‘we can’t possibly stay for lunch – there’s five of us.’
Yet within a trice, the van Broomsens had produced a huge leg of mutton, with pumpkin and all sorts of vegetables from their larder, which was a little cave that backed on to their house. So we all sat down to share this huge feast.
Lunch over, van Broomsen sent us off with one of his servants to find Alec MacKay’s place. We hacked our way through the bush in our old Renault Domaine – a rather strange vehicle that had been made by Renault as a very large station wagon. We wound our way through the bush, until we arrived at an amazing kopje. On the rock outcrop were painted two of the most beautiful bushman paintings of kudu. We set up home and, from that moment on, it became our holiday haunt. Whenever we went to Nyanga, we used to go to the MacKays’.
After several visits and several accounts to the MacKays of Nyanga and the wonderful holidays we’d had at their place, Alec thought he should go and see it for himself. So off he went. And when he saw how beautiful it was, he built a house, fully equipped with a pump and everything. So suddenly there was running water and the whole bloody place became civilised. For us, that completely ruined it and we didn’t fancy Nyanga so much after that…
…Until Jock had a phone call from his friend, John Oliver.
‘I think I’ve got a cottage up in Nyanga near Punch Rock,’ said John Oliver. ‘There might even be an apple farm up there, too.’ (He was just like Alec MacKay: these guys would simply buy up land, then never go and visit it.) So off we went to John Oliver’s place and discovered the most beautiful old house built out of mud, hanging right on the edge of a cliff – literally. And from then until I was about 15 or 16, we used to have the most wonderful holidays up there. In fact, it was during those years as a young teenager, that our family developed a great relationship with a family called the Yeos. Colin Yeo was the British military attaché in Rhodesia at the time, and he and Jock got on famously. They were both brigadiers. Colin was such a nice man, he was just like my dad. Warm, open, concerned – a really good guy. And the family was lovely. There were three Yeo girls who were about the same age as us three Anderson boys – Sue, Cathy and Annabella. And the Yeos would come with us to Nyanga for nearly every holiday – Christmas, Easter, or summer.
Those holiday days were spent doing simple things. Jock and Daph would sit and talk, drinking coffee and smoking with Colin and his wife, Pamela. (Pamela Yeo was very proper. Later, when I was a student at RADA and I visited them frequently in Sussex, Pamela would say things like, ‘Tonight we are having boeuf rechauffé’, which was her way of saying, ‘yesterday’s left-overs’. She was a very witty, very with-it kind of woman. All the Yeos were. They were the sort of people who made you question life and politics, while also being just great fun to be with.)
John and Sue could usually be found reading a book each; they were intellectual pals. Cathy and I might go on an adventure, maybe to a lake or the river – sometimes just the two of us and sometimes Annabella and Colin would come too. We’d climb down the banks to the river and swim. Cathy was like something out of The Famous Five. She was blonde and very Jean Harlow. She had a slightly square jaw and looked as though she could captain a hockey team. In fact, she was very sporty, and we used to play tennis together a lot. A smiley English rose with a great pair of legs, though slightly slouchy as though she had no idea how pretty she was. She had the most perfect set of teeth and beautiful, beautiful blue eyes. When Cathy smiled at you, you knew you would do anything for her. She was heart-meltingly pretty. We were both about 14 at the time, and I suppose I had a ‘pash’ for Cathy, a bit of a crush, but all that really meant was that I wanted to be around her, because she was good fun – and a girl. I’d flirt outrageously with her, which at 14 simply involved trying to get in her eyeline the whole time, though I don’t think she ever had much of an attraction for me. She was one of those people who probably didn’t even know I was flirting with her. She was straightforward and direct – there was no game with Cathy.
At night, we six children would sleep in a grand dormitory on the verandah of John Oliver’s mud house, overlooking an amazing view called the Mountains of the Moon. It was just the most stunning, stunning location.
And under the moon hanging over the mountains my young life seemed complete.