A while ago I was corresponding with Deirdre in the USA and after griping about my lack of an impact on the world she commented; “Sounds like you are having a mid-life crisis!” to which I replied – “What? You mean I’m going to be 100! I don’t want that!” Well, anyway, here goes on the first 50.
I spent an idyllic childhood on a forest estate north of Mutare in the Eastern Highlands of Rhodesia (as it was then). My father was the general manager there for some 20 years and not long after the family moved into the manager’s house I was born. It was not an auspicious start; my mother had B negative blood and my father O positive which was a major problem to me the third child. Born by C section a month premature I endured some 3 blood transfusions and it was a while before I was allowed home. My aunt told me last year that there was a fourth child who did not survive and I remember when I was about 5 I was not allowed into the parents’ bedroom for some time as my mother recovered from an unspecified condition. Later they were called “women’s problems” which meant I was not allowed to ask!
I didn’t of course know that I was having an idyllic childhood at the time but I appreciate it now so I guess that’s OK. There were horses to ride and a New Zealand white rabbit called Rasey (for his raspberry drop coloured eyes) who was my best friend and ate just about everything I was given for tea; cake, biscuits, sweets, you name it I shared it with him. He lived to a grand old age for a rabbit and I was always a bit guilty that I lost interest in him as I grew into my early teens. Did he feel neglected and nostalgic for the days when he was the centre of my very small universe? Maybe I should credit him with awaking my long time love affair of animals (rats excepted) – I salute you here old friend! Of course we had dogs too. A long line of Labradors mostly and I think I can name most. There was even old Pfumo, a mix of Lab and mastiff, named for the John Profumo/Christine Keeler scandal which for some reason my parents would not explain! What a character dog he was! Immensely powerful he was equally soft and would bring distinguished guests and friends up from the front steps by the hand with a steel-like grip. Much to my parents mortification he drew blood on a Lord Somebody (come out to the “colonies” to check on his investments). It was about the same time that my father served the dogs’ stew to a group of similar distinguished folk. My mother asked him to get the stew off the stove and he chose the wrong pot. It seems the guests didn’t notice the difference either as they were all very complimentary.
My mother taught me for the first 3 years of school by correspondence course. My brother and sister were only taught for 2 years so were rather put out. Maybe my mother didn’t want me to leave being the youngest? I didn’t mind. Boarding school was quite a shock and I remember my first night at Chancellor Junior; after lights out all the new borders were crying not very surreptitiously under the blankets. I copied them because it seemed the right thing to do though I was actually quite excited!
I made new friends soon enough though I have lost touch with most of them. I did bump into Bronwyn recently. I sat next to her in my first year and reminded her that I used to punch her. She said “Yes, and I used to make you cry!” I’m not surprised I used to punch her! My last year of junior school was 1971 and I rose to the illustrious position of head boy. It did not mean much except that I had to give a speech at the final prize giving. I had something of a crush on the head girl, Kathy Miller who was blond and gorgeous. She seemed to spend her time giving me the cold shoulder. Thus was the stage set on my abysmal love life.
Senior school (from age 12) was in the same town and of course I was still a boarder. I don’t think boarding school did me any damage except for a complete lack of social skills; we did not mix much with the girls’ school which was some 5 km away. In the final two years we did meet the girls who were going on to “A” levels as they came up to our school to share facilities. I don’t recall mixing much and some years later one commented to a friend that I was no longer the shy boy that she’d known. She was wrong; I’ve just learnt to hide it better. Maybe it was me but I did not find them a very friendly bunch. I do today admire the attitude of my friends’ children who seem to be very much more at ease with the opposite sex.
When my father was murdered in my first year of the army my mother could not understand why I was not more emotional about our loss. My brother made some excuse for me but I never had the heart to tell her I could not easily mourn someone I didn’t really know – I never got to know him as another man as whenever I was at home on holiday he was at work. We got on OK but were never close. I vowed that I’d never send my children to boarding school for that reason – but I don’t have any.
Senior school was not a particularly enjoyable period of my life. I made some good friends (whom I rarely see any more) but I was bullied almost continuously throughout my first 5 years. Tip; bullies are cowards, they only bully those whom they know will not retaliate. The best treatment for them is to hit them very hard without warning. A friend of mine taught me this when he punched the same bully and never had any more problems and I’ve come across it elsewhere too. Some years back I ran into the bully at a pub. In those days I was very fit and the strongest I’d ever been. He by contrast was fat (he’d always been almost pathologically stupid) but he did not give me the excuse I was hoping for – I think he sensed I was hoping to thump him!
I left senior school in 1977 with mediocre “A” levels. I had lost interest in school and learnt the value of good teachers. I fought almost continuously with my maths teacher whose favourite refrain was “you must learn your formulae!” The previous year I’d done really well with a teacher whom I worshipped but as a result I ended up in the “advanced” class with a teacher whom I detested. Almost out of spite I got 4% for my mock exams in the June of that year though I did eventually pass. My biology teacher was arrogant and idle; more interested in riding his motorbike to inspect the cricket pitches than in teaching. In my first year of botany and university I discovered that for the most part he’d been using HIS university notes to teach us – even some of the phrases were identical!
On January 4th 1978 I was inducted into the Rhodesian Army. Immediately singled out for wearing glasses I was sent to a notoriously badly trained unit that was assigned to guard “Protected Villages”. I rebelled and immediately volunteered for SAS training. Looking back I don’t think the basic training was particularly good though friends who did make it through to the unit tell me that the real training started later. C’est la vie. I ended up volunteering for the RLI where I spent the rest of my army days. They were a mixed lot and not altogether bright (Rhodesia’s Lowest Intelligence was another take on Rhodesian Light Infantry) but we trusted each other with our lives and that builds a curious bond. Yes, we grew up REALLY quickly. Yes, we were callous and it was curiously easy to kill with a rifle – disconnected almost. I think killing at close quarters would have been altogether different. I was not a particularly good soldier – maybe I thought too much about what I was doing. To be a good soldier one must be prepared to kill on a reflex and anyway, I did mention that our training was not that great and although pointless to blame now it did cost me dearly.
Until I joined the army I had never seen a dead body. That of course would change and I was curious to know how I would react. In the end I did not react. After the first contact I was in we had to drag some bodies to a clearing where a chopper would take them away so that Special Branch could glean any intelligence off them. There was a stream to drag them across and I quickly learnt that the skin came off unless they were dragged by clothing. One had been shot through the head and his brains leaked into the stream. When I came back to get the next body a crab was nibbling at the brains.
One day in March 1979 it all went very bad. I was 19 years old and second in line to jump out of the DC3 (an ancient but incredibly reliable aircraft, we even jumped out of one that had been at Arnhem in WW2!) buckling under the weight of the machine gun, ammunition and the parachute harness that had to be uncomfortable to work properly. Parachuting into a contact zone was always high adrenaline stuff – if you jumped you WERE going to get shot at (quite a lot of the early call outs were “lemons” and if the heli sticks did not make a contact the paratroops were not dropped) but after getting buffeted around for the last hour it was almost a relief to get out. I never saw the green light come on just the dispatchers shouting GO! GO! GO! and the corporal in front of me was gone. I tried to catch up, stumbled and my next step hit air and I went out the door head first.
Shit. Look up and do checks. Shit again – I’ve got rigging twists almost to the canopy. I kick out of them and the machine gun swings out of reach behind my back. I just have time to assume a good parachute position and I’m hard into a maize field on my back. Damn that hurt. I get up and take the “cock sock” (masking tape and a coin on the barrel of the gun to keep the dirt out) off the gun and check the belt is in and pull the bolt back and push it forward. We set off up the hill where the enemy is stupidly trapped with only one covered route down and we are sweeping up. There is a lot of noise as a Lynx puts in rockets and machine gun fire and the K-car thumps 20mm cannon fire into the hill. We are now half way up and haven’t seen anything yet though we are in quite thick cover. “Watch out, there’s one running down to the left” someone shouts. Out of the corner of my left eye a silhouette appears and we both fire at the same time. A burst of rounds slams into some rocks to my right and sprays rock and metal fragments into my right shoulder. My first short burst of 4 rounds is low and just to his right. I correct, squeeze the trigger and there is a “kerchunk” as the mechanism slams forward and nothing happens. I look down at my ammunition belt. The slack has been taken up over my wrist and now the belt is too bent to feed. It takes an eternity as I look up seemingly at the pace of a snail. There is no noise. The silhouette is now being hit by other fire. His AK still on automatic I watch the white muzzle flashes go in apparent slow motion from my right to left as he makes a final futile sweep with the weapon and I am doubling over backwards under a massive impact. Total and utter disbelief. This is bad, very bad; I just know it and I have still not hit the ground. It was not supposed to happen! Why me?
I am lying on my back watching the blood run over the rocks. My blood. It really is running! Lots of it. Someone has turned the sound back on and I swear I can hear the blood trickle. I am vaguely fascinated. So this is what it’s like to die. It’s not so bad, there is no pain.
Reality sweeps back; panic. Help! They come running through the bush “Here he is!” They pull out the field dressings and cut away my combat clothes. They cut off my pack and roll me off it. Someone else’s legs flop below my waist. “You’ll be fine!” Spencer tells me. FUCK OFF – I am NOT fine, I am PARALYSED (why do they tell the medics to say that?). They try and get a drip line in but my veins have collapsed. There is no stretcher in the chopper so they use my sleeping bad and crush the morphine ampule rolling me onto the bag. I am bundled down the hill to a clearing and the chopper arrives in whirlwind of clattering blades, dust, leaves and sticks. I am shoved onto the floor and lie looking up at the tech. My legs are now on fire and I cannot believe that pain like this exists and I come to the conclusion that it’s OK to complain. I am frightened, no, terrified of dying. I reach up and take the technician’s thumb. He looks as frightened as I feel – he must think I am going to die on him. Is it that bad? It’s only a 10 minute flight to the hospital in Salisbury (Harare) and we mush onto the landing pad. Someone grabs my legs to move me onto the stretcher and I scream. A group of medical students in white coats have come to watch the action but I am well beyond caring. I am rushed to the emergency rooms and loaded onto a table. They cut the remains of my clothes off me and I am naked, bloody and dirty and I don’t care. A nurse who looks not a day younger than 60 takes my left arm, finds a vein and pushes a drip needle straight in and sets the drip running. The neurosurgeon appears – he is utterly detached and professional. He gets the staff to roll me over so that he can see the exit wound, says something to one of the sisters and departs. They prop me up to sign a form, then I lie back and ask for a blanket. I am shivering and ask for another and then another. They are red; blood-red. A nurse says “Shame” and covers me. I don’t even see the anaesthetist arrive.
I came back to my senses 12 days later. I asked one of the nurses how long I’d been in hospital “I got in yesterday, right?” and she just laughed and said “No, 12 days ago”. I had vague impressions of the OC coming to see me after surgery and my sergeant’s wife (with a massive cleavage) bending over my bed otherwise it was blank. I’d had a massive infection – it must have been a very dirty bullet.
After a month in the hospital on my back I was moved to St Giles Rehabilitation Centre where the long process of getting back onto my feet started. There were ups and downs (once they even sent a child psychologist to see me – I was terribly rude to her – forgive me if you read this!) but it was actually a lot of fun. I made friends and became aware of that there were many around me far worse off. The physiotherapists were quite easily the greatest bunch of girls I have ever come across who were compassionate, gentle and great fun. I loved them all. Here’s to you Trish, Jane, Heather, Sheila, Carrie, Marianne, Sandy, Jill and Judy. Judy ,who worked with the occupational therapy department, had no qualifications except an utterly unstoppable optimism and limitless good humour. She once brought me a carnation in a broken test tube with some putty on the bottom to seal it! Dear sweet Carrie is still around and I see her occasionally – time has been kind to her and after 30 years she is as lovely as ever. Sandy is still (I think) based in Chinhoyi but the others are who knows where. Thank you all wherever you are, you picked me up literally and figuratively, I hope life has been good to you.
I’d been hassling Trish to let me walk unsupervised on crutches for some time and she very reluctantly agreed that if I could walk the length of the gym I could walk alone. I got within 5m of the end and went down in a heap, hit a bed and burst into tears. As Trish said I was not hurt, just frustrated. I still fall but use bad language instead of tears to express the frustration.
I suppose it was inevitable that I would be attracted to the girls and developed affection with Sandy. It never developed into anything more than a single kiss (that I was not expecting) and a few years later I took the photos at her wedding. Janet was just 15 when she contracted polio and was left paralysed from the waist down. She was an extraordinary cheerful person (and drop dead gorgeous to boot) and I had no difficulty to be persuaded to bring her back Beechies chewing gum from South Africa (apricot flavour please) when I went to university. Sue was a gentle soul who’d only been married a couple of years before developing a particularly aggressive form of spinal cancer. She was paralysed from the waist down and did not live long after I left St Giles.
In 1980 I went off to the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. I had little idea of what I really wanted to do but agricultural engineering sounded interesting. I battled both physically and mentally – my brain being pretty much unused for 2 years. So I took a gap year and went off to the Tsanga Lodge military rehabilitation centre in the Eastern Highlands of the newly independent Zimbabwe. It was run by the irrepressible Capt. Dick Paget and a staff of equally motivated medics, and anyone else with the right attitude. Nearly all the staff had been patients at some time and once again I was humbled by the attitude of those with injuries far worse than mine. Poor Reg had a brain injury and his sole pleasure in life was eating. He cared little for manners or dignity but could still follow conversations in the pub and after a bit of practice it was possible to understand his garbled speech. He eventually died from a lung infection caused by food going the wrong route. I still occasionally drive past Tsanga Lodge and little has apparently changed; the FN rifle on the logo was changed to an AK47 some years ago!
I still have intermittent contact with Anne Paget, Dick’s wife, and I gather that he is now battling demons of his own with senile dementia. Life can be terribly cruel sometimes.
Back at university in 1982 I switched to an agriculture BSc and was far better prepared. It was a great time! Surrounded by like minded people of a similar age I made good friends and enjoyed life. Alas I was still hopelessly unprepared to tackle the issue of women. At school I’d been shy but now I’d just learnt to hide it a bit better. One day I met Kate up by the Main Science Lecture Theatre. I’d been friendly with her brother at school and though I did not know her very well she was nice enough and very pretty. She was wearing a light coloured dress which showed everything of the very little she had on underneath (blue butterflies on her panties – I still remember that!) and she said I must go and visit her at the girls’ school where she was a border mistress. I could hardly concentrate and surely she could not mean it? Me, when there were loads of far better catches to be had? In retrospect she was probably just lonely and of course nothing may have transpired but I have to wonder. It was the first of many opportunities that I missed and I continue to hide my shyness behind bullshit and nonsense. Curiously I get on very well with women, especially if they are attached and the relationship is platonic. I still have no idea how to cope with a situation in which I am physically attracted to the girl. My best friends have always been male but my closest friends female.
My undergraduate results were good enough that I was offered an MSc project in the Horticulture Department. I loved it; this was what I really wanted to do and despite the slog of writing up a 220 page thesis it was very satisfying to see it all come together at the end. I also met Kathy in my last post-graduate year. A slim girl just finishing off her midwifery course at the local training hospital we got on very well. I was besotted. She was off to go and travel the world and it did not take much to persuade me to follow her.
I’d been offered a PhD project but I was tired of the university life not to mention the academic inbreeding that it would have implied (although the PhD was in another discipline) and bought myself a ticket to London, Perth, and back to Harare. When I got to the UK I decided to go and visit my sister in the USA. A visa was required and a very brief visit to the US Embassy in London just got me “you should have applied in Zimbabwe”. The Iranian couple in front of me didn’t have a problem. Thoroughly cheesed off I went to stay with Jenny in Whitechapel where she was residing whilst furthering her qualifications. I don’t remember how the idea was born but I decided to go cycling on the continent from France to Switzerland and Germany where my mother had friends. In less than a week I’d bought an old bicycle, borrowed panniers off Jenny’s brother, bought a tent and was getting off the ferry in Calais. I spoke no French except what Jenny (who’d done a French degree) had written out for me phonetically – it was to have hilarious results! I cycled up the wrong side of the street and got a puncture in the bitter, misty conditions and had to use my gas stove to warm the tyre so that the patch would stick. That night I listened to the drip of the rain on the tent which I’d surreptitiously erected in a farmer’s field. I didn’t sleep much – I’d heard that illicit campers occasionally got shot.
10 days later I arrived in Zurich having subsisted on baguettes, camembert and jam and slunk out of campsites to avoid paying. I slept in more fields and forests without incident. On the way I passed through northern France with its numerous battlefields and cemeteries but by far the most moving one was the American one near Verdun. It was very beautiful, very peaceful and terribly sad. There was probably well in excess of 100,000 white crosses (there were around 1 million casualties in the battle for Verdun) stretching off in every direction, all perfectly lined up on the immaculate green lawn under the beautiful trees.
At the checkpoint in Basel I was stopped by two Swiss customs/immigration agents. They paged slowly through my passport. “So you have been to South Africa?”. “Yes”. “Are you carrying drugs?”. (Of course I am you arsehole) “No”. But further down the road in a campsite by the Rhine they were much more friendly and a woman and husband brought me tea and biscuits on little table. In Zurich the people with whom I stayed kindly organized for me to rebuild the back wheel of my bicycle at a local bike shop; I’d cycled across France with a broken hub! I liked Switzerland for its organization but found it bit sterile and after I while I had a desperate urge to throw down some rubbish; somewhere! It was time to move on.
In Germany I stayed with an old friend of my mother in the Black Forest area who was serious about her organic produce. So serious that the potatoes had succumbed to late blight and looked nothing like potatoes! The pig sty and dairy were under the house and not the most hygienic; there was even cow shit on the ceiling. I retiled the floor of the pig sty for her, fortunately without the pigs!
Back in France I headed north to Strasbourg with the intent of cycling out through Holland until I took a closer look at the map and noticed all the motorways. So it was back south of Paris and through the trendy town of Fontainebleau where I was roundly scolded for parking a disreputable bike against a very chic art shop. I arrived back in London a month after I left with 16 pounds in my pocket – I’d left with 120. I’d cycled 1800km over 18 days. I loved France and still do. Cycling is their national sport so I always got a cheery hoot from drivers of trucks coming the other way and a farmer stopped to chat when I was having lunch one day but I could not converse. Now I can speak a lot more French!
I forfeited my original air ticket and decided to get a round the world one but first I needed to earn some money. I tried a variety of jobs and eventually got a bedsit in Reading on the Basingstoke road. It was not a happy time; some weekends were so cold that I had to get into my sleeping bag with all my clothes on as I’d run out of 50p pieces to feed the gas meter. The girl upstairs liked to have noisy sex with her boyfriend on the weekends. I could cope with that but not at 2 a.m. Kathy and her friend Hilary passed through on their way to cycle through Pakistan to China. I was still besotted but she was not and never had been and we began to drift apart although I was too obsessed to notice. Years later she told me that she’d only slept with me because she liked me. It left me gutted but luckily I had a friend who picked me up.
The three and half months in South East Asia were the best of my life. Everything was so utterly different from what I was used to. I loved the food, the people were kind and despite or because of my disability I was never ripped off. As a single male in Thailand I was continually hassled by the pimps “You want velly sexy lady, 14-15 200 bhat all night?”. No I didn’t but a lot of the other male backpackers did take advantage of the sex on tap. A prostitute once climbed into the back of a taxi with me in one of the more remote northern Thai towns and had to be dragged out by bystanders who thought it a huge joke. The prostitutes were easy to spot; they all wore shorts. The other Thai women really were gorgeous and extraordinarily elegant. They just seemed to glide everywhere!
I did have the courage to try the opium though. The “treks” in the hill country around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai were de rigeur for the backpacking crowd and I went on a short one that included an elephant ride, staying with a hill tribe in their village and as much dope as you could smoke. I wasn’t much taken with the latter as I tried it in the army and though sort of interesting it wasn’t so interesting that I needed to partake again. I did want to try the opium though. The penultimate night of the trek there was opium available and everyone gave it a go. After smoking 5 pipes and getting absolutely no effect at all I decided to reserve my money for more fruitful pastimes. Maybe I’d been desensitized by all the opiate based analgesics I’d had in hospital.
Eventually I had to leave the Mama Charn’s Hotel on Kho Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand or I’d still be there. It was a very casual, relaxed place with no resemblance to a hotel but the simply thatched huts with just a bed and mattress inside were perfectly adequate. I had sole use of a dugout canoe (it was outside the usual tourist season) to paddle around the small islands offshore where the bird’s nest soup raw material was collected. So I made off to the west coast of Thailand where the European girls went topless on the beaches despite signs, in English, asking them not to and then onto Pulau Penang off the Malaysian coast. It has the best value food I have ever tasted and the biggest rats I have ever seen. There must be a connection. The rats had attitude; they positively sauntered down the gutters! The food was amazing too; Thai, Malay, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian. You just went along to an area where the food was served from carts, chose what you wanted and the food was brought to your table. All genuine and not tailored to western tastes.
Sumatra was fantastic! Excellent food and pleasant people. I started off in Medan in the north and made my way south to Bukit Tingi and then out to Singapore. In Bukit Lawang there was an orangutan rehabilitation centre where confiscated orangutans were re-introduced to the jungle. I was amazed to watch a huge male arrive nearly silently onto the feeding platform in the jungle and sit down and eat a banana and drink a mug of milk just like a human! On the way back past the camp, an Australian girl with whom I was walking waved to a young orangutan in a cage. It waved back.
The food, oh my I did love the Indonesian food! I had a meal in the Bukit Lawang village called nasi padang. Nasi is the Indonesian word for rice and it was free; as much as you liked. The padang side of the meal was a large selection of small dishes of food identifiable and otherwise. All was extremely spicy. I left the restaurant an hour or so later with my mouth anaesthetized by the chili. I couldn’t eat another bite and together with two good Bintang beers (made under licence to Heineken) it all cost less than $3!
Lake Toba is in the centre of Sumatra and is a vast crater lake. I stayed for 3 days enjoying the crystal clear water 10m from the room I’d rented for $1 a night and being demolished at the speed chess that all the locals played in the coffee houses. Then it was on to Bukit Tingi for more amazing food and pleasant people. Visiting a renowned silver smith near the town we listened to a learner muezzin making an appalling mess of the call to prayer and both of us burst out laughing. The locals were at pains to tell me that although they were Muslim “we are not extremists like you find in the Middle East”. Indeed the women wore skirts, no head covers and were charming. One even, with encouragement from her friend, said I was beautiful! It was my blue eyes which are very rare in that part of the world. I have not been called that since.
The ferry trip out to Singapore along the Sugai Siak river was an adventure in itself. I lay on the deck of the small boat one evening and watched thousands of fruit bats winging overhead on their way to raid fruit orchards. We changed boats onto a much bigger ferry with multiple decks all of a metre high full of people and their goods. A Dutch chef and his gorgeous Danish girlfriend (Lena, with baby-blue eyes and a turned up mouth) invited me up onto the roof and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the trip. A terrifying high speed motor boat trip completed the crossing in choppy seas to Singapore.
Singapore was a bit of a disappointment – just an overly large shopping centre to my mind so I couldn’t wait to get on the go again up the east coast of Malaysia. By the time I reached the Thai border the monsoons were in full flow and we were all wading through thigh deep water in the local town. The taxis became boats and I had a meal in a restaurant with water flowing straight through beneath my feet. I teamed up with some other backpackers who needed to get to Bangkok in a rush and I got there with a day to spare; fording flooded rivers and threatening taxi drivers to take us the last km!
Travelling alone had its benefits; I didn’t have to consult anyone so I could do as I felt on the day though I do admit it would have been nice to share some of the experiences. On a couple of occasions I did travel with other backpackers but it was never for long.
The Christmas of 1988 I was with friends who lived in Canberra Australia. Before I could travel Australia I had to find some work and was lucky enough to make a contact in Sydney where I worked for 2 months. Staying in Kings Cross (the red light district) had its entertainment too! On three separate occasions I was propositioned by the same prostitute and no, I was not tempted! Cheap meals were to be had at the Hare Krishna kitchen for down-and-outs and they didn’t mind if backpackers came along (30c if you used their utensils, free if you supplied your own). There were used syringes and needles in the gutter and needle tracks up the junkies’ arms. Sydney was just another big city to me and a means to an end. On evening I got on the wrong train and ended up where I’d started. It was time to get out.
I spent 6 months in Australia and saw all except the west coast. I loved the people who were disarmingly direct and kind. It has to be one of the easiest places to hitch hike. On average I waited 20 minutes and even got a lift from a taxi driver in Cairns. The country did not appeal to me though – lots of desert and gum trees though the Great Barrier Reef was great.
I had no idea what to expect from Fiji as there had just been a bloodless coup. I stayed 2 weeks but could have stayed much longer. What a laid back place! They had coral to match the Great Barrier Reef; one just had to be a competent swimmer (which I am) to swim 400m or so out to it. I dived down to investigate a moray eel. It swam up to meet me so I let it be.
I had misgivings about Hawaii but it was a compulsory stop on my ticket. Waikiki Beach was disappointing (not many of the hot babes in Hawaii 5-0 but plenty of sunburnt Japanese) and was so crowded on the weekend that I had to walk in the surf line to go along it. I packed up and spent the rest of my time in a campsite on the north of Oahu. I was the only person there and fulfilled an ambition to swim naked in the sea at midnight under a full moon!
Arriving in Vancouver I was thrilled to see snow still on Grouse Mountain across the harbour. So the next day in mid summer I was thigh deep in snow and unprepared for the frozen feet. I headed across the border to Pullman, borrowed my sister’s pickup to travel around Washington and Oregon and then we both headed up to Montana, Alberta and across into British Columbia. Then it was back to the UK and a variety of menial jobs including the obligatory bar tending before heading back to Zimbabwe.
It took me a while to get work once back in Zimbabwe but I eventually ended up just outside Chinhoyi on the Kariba road managing a flower project. I hated it. The bush was great though and I spent many happy hours exploring with my first two dogs; Cassie a Labrador and Kim a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I also made good friends with Gary and Jo Hensman who I still see on an occasional basis.
In 1990 my mother was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on her leg. She had it removed but it had been there too long (it was a re-occurrence and initially misdiagnosed) and by Christmas of 1992 the first headaches had started. I took leave without pay to go and help my sister look after her in the final stages and was there with her at the end. It was the Thursday before Good Friday, 1992. She was an extraordinary woman and I say that as a proud son and with the consensus of all who knew her. Not once in the final stages of her illness did I hear her complain. We ended as close friends. Perhaps one mistake I made was not asking her what she thought about her impending death. I was thinking that “if she wants to tell me she will” and she was probably thinking “if wants to know he’ll ask”. In the few times of my life that I’ve been ill or seriously hurt I have known somewhere deep down that I was going to get better. The only release she could look forward to was death. That humbled me.
She was a gifted Grade 1 teacher and I remember one Christmas she proudly showed me a tea set she’d been given by a grateful Indian family. She’d taught their daughter to read when all other schools and remedial institutions they’d taken her to had given up.
Although the Chinhoyi work experience ended up on a sour note I concluded that bad experiences were often more instructive than good ones! So I headed back to the Penhalonga house in the east and set myself up as a free lance computer programmer specializing in agricultural projects. I subsisted for 2 years before concluding it was a career mistake. I did enjoy working for myself and along the way my good friend Gary Goss introduced me to paragliding which has been a passion ever since.
I joined Hortico Produce in the Enterprise valley in February 1995 and worked there for 4 years. The company exported fresh produce to the UK supermarkets and I was employed as a crop technologist. I learnt a lot but came to the conclusion that I was going nowhere and left to buy a seedling business just outside Harare.
That was 10 years ago. It has been a mixed success. We battled through the first 2 years and then made reasonably good money for another 4. Then the great Zimbabwe currency debacle started. That we survived at all is, I suppose, something of which I can be reasonably proud but the future is not bright.
My parents bought me a camera back from Mauritius when I was about 14. It was a cheap Halina. All plastic, it took surprisingly good photos and was totally manual with a match-needle meter system and a focusing system where one had to guess the distance to the subject. It lasted me to university where I bought my first SLR, a Nikon FM which I still have. I now have a Nikon D90 which I love and it has done me well since I bought it in March this year. My best work is at www.gonexc.deviantart.com
Paragliding has been my passion since September 1992 when I did a course locally. It took some time but eventually I
started flying in competitions in South Africa. I never placed but they were huge fun and a great learning experience with lots of people who shared the passion. In 2002 I ventured abroad to the US Nationals in the Owens Valley in California. It was amazing flying. We had to carry oxygen as the altitude gains were substantial and although the days started off rough, by 3 p.m. the thermals were smooth and massive and I enjoyed the huge climbs. It couldn’t last. On the third day we were all milling around at high altitude waiting for the start gate to open. There were only a few minutes to go and I found some lift that would obviously get me a height advantage.
I turn right into the lift and my vario starts a satisfying trill. Suddenly there is a sickening lurch, the lines all go slack and I look up to see my wing is just a bundle of “washing”. Reflexively my hands come down on the brakes as I fall. The glider cracks open and I look up. Uh oh, I’ve got a lot of riser twists but the wing looks fine, Iwill just untwist the risers and we’ll be on our way. The glider starts to turn to the left. In one turn it’s starting to bank, in two I’m into a big spiral and by three turns we are locked in. I’m thinking there must be a way out of this but the brake (control) lines are locked by the riser twists. This is SERIOUS! I have to get the reserve ‘chute out. I try to get my right hand to the yellow handle by my thigh but the G forces are too high and I am being forced into the harness and we are flying straight at the ground (my vario recorded a descent rate of 19.3 m/s). If I don’t get the reserve out I will die. The next thing the reserve is streaking away behind me – I don’t recall pulling the handle. My arms are thrown back by the G forces the reserve comes out in front of my right arm and whips it up behind my head. There’s excruciating pain but at least things have slowed down. I must get the main wing in and commit to the reserve. My right arm is mostly useless but I can pull a brake line with my left, lock it with my right hand and pull again. Soon the wing is useless and I can assess my landing options. I’ve landed under a reserve before so am not too concerned but this is not looking good. I am drifting away from the spur below me and over a deep canyon. I drift down. The canyon is closer and things are starting to look ugly. There are huge spines of rocks running down into the canyon. This could hurt. The ground rush starts, there is a rock spine below me, oh shit, it slides underneath and I land on a scree slope with a crunch. It’s a bit of an anticlimax.
I was not badly hurt (the pectoral muscles were ruptured off my right shoulder) but I was helpless as my right arm is my walking stick arm. It was not long before another pilot landed and walked down to me and a rescue was organized. We got down to the floor of the canyon (a mistake as we found out) and some other pilots walked in to help. A “backpack” was fashioned out of a glider bag to carry me and the trek out started. It took us 4 hours to go a mile. We stopped late that night and met up with another group of pilots bringing in food, water and a stretcher. The next day it was decided that it was too dangerous to continue and a helicopter was called. The US Navy came to the rescue and flew up and down the canyon. Our radios would not work. It went off to refuel and came back to drop off a crew member and we ascertained that someone had transposed the frequency numbers. “Isn’t that a fire?” someone asked. The chopper had dropped a “hot” smoke canister to assess wind direction and now the sage brush was alight. This was getting interesting. The chopper came back and winched us up one by one. The fire burnt on the mountain for 4 days.
I have also flown in the Alps in France, probably the mecca of paragliding but purely for pleasure. Paragliding is in trouble in Zimbabwe, largely due to the very small number of pilots still around. Once upon a time we had an annual championship which was well attended by South African pilots and was voted the most social competition in southern Africa. I’ll take the credit for convening the first 7. We are no longer members of the FAI (international flying association) so there are unlikely to be any more soon; just another casualty of the tragedy that is Zimbabwe.
I suppose this little story would not be complete without recounting the most recent incident which occurred some 3 years ago. I was out excising Jenni on my mountain bike on the farm where I live. It was getting dark and I needed to get back across some wet ground and over some irrigation pipes.
I get up some speed but the ground is slippery and I am not going fast enough to attempt the jump over the irrigation pipe which I have done numerous times before. Still, if I stop now I’ll have to get off and have a long muddy walk. Let’s give it a go! I pull hard on the handle bars but there is still not enough speed and the bike stops dead. I am aware of a flash in my head and I am down in the mud, panting unnaturally. I can feel nothing below my shoulders. Now look what you’ve done – who is going to look after you? I shout for help several times as I am close to the main road but my head is facing the wrong way and I cannot seem to get much air into my lungs. Will I survive the night? Will anyone look for me? There is pain now in my right leg. So I cannot be paralysed. I can now feel my hands under my chest where I got them in a reflex. They won’t move. I shout again to no avail. I manage to ease some pressure off my left hand and get it out from under my chest. Where’s my cell phone? Shit. It was in my shirt pocket (this was the first time I’d carried it on a cycle) but it is not there now. I am still in trouble. I straighten my left arm and amazingly there my cell phone is! I pick it up and bring it up to my face where I can see it. I try to unlock it but my fingers are not working properly. I keep going and succeed. I can see one bar of signal and one bar of battery. This is not good. I get through to the ambulance service but they cannot here me. I try again and pray the battery will not give out. The god of cell phones answers and now they can here me but don’t know where to find me. I call a friend and she says she’ll meet the ambulance at the end of the road. I get through to other friends. Vehicles start to arrive. The ambulance goes down to its axles in the mud and a tractor has to be found.
I spent the weekend in a private clinic on a drip that was an anti inflammatory and a diuretic from hell. The nursing standard was not inspiring. I still bear the effects and my right hand is making lots of mistakes on the keyboard as I type. I need to get an MRI done but it’s pricey and I don’t know if I can afford the surgery (if that will fix the problem).
Unlike some of my friends I have managed to stay out of “political” trouble. Piet and Bridget Weller were beaten and terrorized off their farm near Mvurwi and Gary and June Goss were driven off their farm in Penhalonga under ugly circumstances and their eldest son, Stewart, had a torrid time in the Wedza area. I don’t own property so I was never likely to find myself in that situation but in 2003 I found myself on thin ice. It was the year of a general election and for some reason optimism was high in the opposition camp. Although never a member of a political party I was contacted to help the MDC and in a fit of optimism I lent them my old pickup so election monitors could monitor the polling stations. Hell, I’d even given up my British citizenship on the official form – it was all going to come right wasn’t it? Of course it did not and my pickup did not come back when I expected it to. My heart sank when I heard it had gone to the Muzarabani area north of Centenary in the Zambezi valley, a known hotbed of ZANU-PF activism. Apparently my presence was required at the Bindura police station. I was directed to Jonathan Samkange, a lawyer with connections. His office wall was plastered with grateful letters of thanks from parents whose children he’d extricated from trouble. Oh don’t worry, he assured me, I know them at Bindura, just bring along your passport next Tuesday and we’ll go out. This sounded like a REALLY bad idea to me. I called him on the appointed day only to find that he couldn’t go but another date was made and I didn’t need to bring my passport but Z$200,000 would help. I phoned around and found someone else, also white, in a similar situation. Oh don’t worry he said. I went out there and they weren’t really interested as soon as they found out it was just my vehicle out there and not me. Just tell them the truth.
The next week I went out with my driver having instructed a few friends where I’d gone and I told my driver if I was locked up he had to bring my other truck back and tell the aforementioned friends. Sure enough they were not interested. But they still wasted four hours of my time and it’s official that I don’t support ZANU-PF. Reason given; I don’t like their policies. I got the pickup back the next week with a broken windscreen and two flat tyres and even the unlicensed radio base station that had really irked the police. I kept the radio and had it reprogrammed to the paragliding frequencies we use.
Some years ago I did get a beating but it had nothing to do with “political” reasons. Political is placed in quotes because it was a favourite excuse for the police to do nothing as in “oh it’s political, there’s nothing we can do”. So far as I know none of the “political” murders of white farmers have ever been seriously investigated never mind the opposition supporters who were hacked, shot and bludgeoned to death.
I was having labour problems, not surprising in the hyper inflationary economics of the time. We were off in the pickup to take the grievience to the NEC (National Employment Council) who are the refereeing body in such cases before it goes to arbitration. Having forgotten a crucial file I turned the truck around and was driving back to work near the Wingate golf course when I was stopped by a squad of soldiers running down the road. A common enough occurrence they didn’t mind too much if one drove carefully past them on the verge. The squad leader waved me past. The NCO taking up the rear took offence. Running in front of the truck he forced me to stop and then absolutely livid with rage (and incoherent) he attacked me with his swagger stick (a piece of 2cm square plank) through the open window. It did not last long but I was totally unprepared for the savagery of the attack and suffered a cracked rib. The caddies waiting for customers outside the gate of the golf course all gave me MDC salutes (open hand palm outward) as I drove slowly past them. I reported the incident to the barracks just down the road from where the soldiers had come but nothing happened and a lawyer brother of a friend advised me to drop it in case the accused decided to follow up on me!
Having written this I have realized it’s been quite an eventful first 50. Materially I have achieved little but I guess it has been a full life so far. Maybe I can keep up the momentum! The sensible decision would have been to leave Zimbabwe some years back; I even had a visa to go to New Zealand but for various reasons did not take it up. I guess I am a white African and am too closely bound to the country I love and the friends I’ve made. So I’ll drink a toast to friends past, friends lost, friends present and friends future. Thanks guys – you’ve made it all worthwhile! (Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends. W B Yeats)
I am always vaguely embarrassed and occasionally irritated by people’s perception of me; “But you are so amazing! You have done SO well!” They are of course referring to my disability. I don’t see that I could have tackled life any differently than I have done; shut up and get on with it, and I know I speak for the various other disabled persons I came across over the years. One day early in my time at St Giles I went into the hydrotherapy room to chat to one of the physios. There was a group of children in there from the children’s section (the centre was originally set up for children). I didn’t hear it but one of them commented: “Look that poor man cannot walk properly”. She was a quadriplegic. I guess that it is just a question of perspective. Yes of course I get frustrated with my own clumsiness; in school I was a bit above average at sport – always hovering on the edge of the first team but never quite making it. I can still remember what it is like to be able to run and catch a ball or hike all day in the Chimanimani Mountains and even in my dreams I still occasionally run and am vaguely puzzled as to why I cannot do it in “real life”. But there is little that I can do about it. Has having a disability made me a more compassionate person? Yes. Sometimes one has to really carefully for the silver lining.
I have no regrets that I am aware of. Let me just make it clear how I define a regret; “I should have done it differently”. “Should have” along with “could have” and “if only” are the 3 most worthless phrases in the English language. My mother once made a passing reference to the “terrible ifs” in the final phase of her terminal illness – she was of course referring to the melanoma that had been misdiagnosed on her leg. She was saying that it was pointless to wonder on what fate had dealt her and I understood then and concur now. I do not ponder what would have happened if on that fateful day I’d not been shot. I am very much aware that I am extremely lucky to be here; had the enemy raised the barrel of his AK about a mm or two I might well have had my brains blown out and would be dead or worse. If the bullet had not gone between my ribs it may well have tumbled inside me and done massive damage – it just punched straight through. Would I have done things differently if I could? Of course I would have but I cannot so I see no point in dwelling on it (notice the “would” and “could”?). I suppose to put it coarsely my motto is – “Shit happens, learn and move on”. It is not always easy and there is only so much “character building” I can put up with and then I have a tantrum though I do try and make them private!
Gillian once asked me if I missed not having children. I replied that I didn’t know – how could I make a comment on something that I’d never experienced? I am not so sure now. My mother would have had a very lonely death if she did not have us around her at the end and I believe that is one thing that we all fear the most; a lonely death. She had her religious faith to help her along and sincerely believed that she and my father would be reunited after death. I don’t have any religion and although I don’t fear death (hey, it’s just the ultimate general anaesthetic and I’ve never had a bad one of those) I am certainly not looking forward to the process (assuming I see it coming). Now that I am approaching the half way mark (or a bit past it) I am very much aware that I don’t have a family of my own. It probably is too late to start one now anyway. I do of course have my brother and sister but we are continents apart and don’t see that much of each other. My brother and I used to fight as brothers do when we were teenagers though now we get on well; when we see each other!
Why did I never get married? Because it did not happen is the short answer. Of course that is simplistic. As I mentioned earlier I was painfully shy with girls at school. I wore thick glasses and had a pretty low self esteem. There were the socializing occasions at senior school when dances were organized but often we were inviting blind or on a “recommendation” and most of the time I was turned down so it became easier just to avoid the whole exercise and old habits are hard to shake off. As a result I never learnt the social skills (thanks for reminding me Suzanne!) and even at university where there was an equal proportion of girls I always felt silly saying the right thing just to make a good impression. I have always been brutally honest and I guess there is a time for that and a time not! Getting a major disability did not of course help the self esteem issue one tiny bit and in my blacker moods I tend to think “Christ you are unattractive” and at other times it is never far from my mind. Maybe I should see a psychologist or somebody like that (we could have lots of good arguments but why should I pay?). Sometimes it can be quite fun when small children stare and say things like “Look mummy, why is that man walking so funny?” and the mortified mother tries to shut the child up. I glare at the mother with my best expression of hurt mixed with disgust – just to make her feel really bad! It can be fun being a bastard!
Perhaps the biggest mistake of my life was my choice of career. I had no burning desire to do anything in particular and though I did enjoy my post-graduate years I had no idea there were so many interesting things to study outside of agriculture. Those who knew me at university find it curious that I really like working with people now. I take a certain pride that I can communicate and find common ground with just about anyone who comes into my business regardless of age, race, gender or background. Some time back I had a particularly obnoxious ZANU-PF character come and wind me up for half an hour. I was called “mabuno chapera” which is the Shona equivalent of “kaffir” and equally derogatory. I didn’t let it rattle me, in fact I took it as a challenge and at the end of it the person in question said “I like you, you must come and work for me when I take this place over”. Touché! Whilst working at Reading University in the UK I volunteered for a Phase 3 drug trial in the psychopharmacology department. I didn’t even know such a discipline existed – it sounded fascinating! I was turned down on the basis that I was asthmatic – a pity as I could have used the 500 pounds. Dick Paget who ran Tsanga Lodge once made the comment: “I think you should go into medicine as you have considerable compassion”. He was extraordinarily perceptive. Maybe I should look into a suggestion of doing a PhD through the Open University in the UK. It would have to be agriculture based but it would certainly be a challenge to my rather under-employed brain.
The future? This is Zimbabwe and to say the future is uncertain is an understatement. I worry about my future; as a single disabled male I am not looking forward to old age. I have no one to look after me and I may well have to fall back on my ancestral citizenship and go to the UK where hopefully I will be cared for. That is however some time off and in the meantime I will try and have a bit of fun!