Finally, after two days on the road in an underpowered, overloaded old car, we were overjoyed to see the “Pietermaritzburg” sign on the side of the highway. We descended Town Hill, our excitement infectious enough to stop the boys fighting on the back seat. We drove carefully through the heavy traffic in the city centre, out to the industrial area where the offices and factory of my new employer were located. We parked our laden trailer in the parking area, went inside to phone the real estate agent.
Another huge shock, the agent did not do much rental business, had not found a house for us and had not bothered to let us know. There we were, in a strange city, very little cash (this was before the days of credit cards) all our possessions in an unlockable trailer and two miserable kids and to make matters worse a temperature well over 30C.
The only suggestion from the people at the business was to hire a caravan (camping trailer or small RV) and live in the camp ground until we could find a house. A good idea except that the only caravan hire place was about 25 km back in the direction we had come from, the other side of Town Hill which was a steep climb and descent for my old Peugeot even without towing a caravan.
One of the people in the office offered to phone a contact who was renovating an old hotel halfway back up the hill. The owner assured us he had a room, a secure garage for our car and trailer and quoted a rate so reasonable that we suspected that something was not right. Leaving the trailer in the security of the fenced factory parking area, we set off for the city centre, through unfamiliar one way streets.
After some difficulty, we eventually found the hotel. The renovation had started but was still very much a work in progress. Workmen all over the place, electric extension cables and water pipes everywhere. A mess of bricks, cement dust, tiles, equipment. A cacophony of sound from compressors, drills, hammering, yelling workmen. Chaotic was an understatement.
The owner showed us a room on the 2nd floor, it was more or less finished, except for minor items like door locks and handles, it did have 2 double beds with bed linen covered in dust. While we were recovering from shock, one of the builders walked into the room to plug an extension cable into a socket. The owner told us that this was the only room on the floor that had been connected to the power supply so that the workers would have to use it for their tools. But we should not worry, they would stop work at 5 pm and would only work a half day on Saturday.
We had all our passports, other personal documents, our guns, ammunition, jewellery and clothes. There was no way we were going to leave them even for one minute in an unlocked room. Then we asked about the secure garage, it was anything but. The garage was there but the doors were not. The idea of staying a night there was out of the question. My wife Cheryl was almost in tears and it was certainly one of the least enjoyable moments in my life.
Very aware that it was Friday afternoon and time was marching on, trying not to panic, I thought of the local publicity and tourist bureau. After finding our way through more unfamiliar streets we found it. Our luck was about to change at last. A very helpful and friendly lady listened to our tale of woe, agreed that a caravan would be our best (and cheapest) solution, told us that there was another caravan hire place just down the street and phoned the owner for us. She handed the phone to me, he asked whether my car had a tow hitch which it did for our own trailer, then told me that he had a couple of options, how to find him and to come immediately.
We phoned the factory to ask them not to lock our trailer away for the weekend until we could come back and get it, drove to the caravan hire place. A really helpful man showed us a couple of different sized caravans and quoted us a ridiculously low rental. I asked him if he wanted a deposit, he said he could see by our licence plates that we were Rhodesians, had the greatest sympathy for our plight and admiration for the way our small country had stood up for what was right. He could not take a deposit from us. He also offered to get one of his staff to deliver the caravan to the camp ground for us with a pickup, but he had helped us enough. A true Good Samaritan. I had towed caravans before and it was not a long trip.
Another adventure, towing an unfamiliar, large caravan through heavy traffic on unfamiliar streets with vague directions to a camp ground somewhere “over there”. We made it without damaging ourselves or any one else.
I parked the caravan, levelled it, unloaded some of the gear from the car, left Cheryl and the boys to start sorting it out, then went back to collect the trailer from the factory. I got back just before dark, we switched on the caravan lights (electric from the car battery, not propane) and relaxed for the first time in 2 days. We had tea, coffee, sugar and powdered milk, put a kettle on the caravan stove (which was propane). Before the water had boiled, the lights went out, we had a flashlight, tried everything but could not get them to work again.
We drank our tea by the light of a distant street lamp. Then I headed out to get some thing for us to eat and found a fluorescent lamp that would work on the car battery. By this time we were all ready to pack up and drive back to the border and home, but that was no longer an option, we were committed.
That was our first day and night in our new city and country.
Apart from the real estate agent letting us down and the owner of the half-built hotel not being entirely truthful, we were treated with amazing kindness by all the South Africans we met in those early days. We were fortunate in that we were in the early wave of “Whenwes” so named because many of our fellow ex-Rhodesians started conversations with “When we were in Rhodesia….” Regrettably many of the later emigrants were not as well received, in some cases their own fault, in others some resentment that large numbers of immigrants would take jobs away from locals.
We had a few pleasant days in the caravan park before finding a suitable rental house, moving into it and camping in it for 2 weeks until our furniture arrived. After years of sanctions in Rhodesia, for entertainment we would spend hours in the nearest Pick ‘n Pay supermarket or Game discount store just gazing in wonder at the huge variety of goods on the shelves. We were the proverbial “kids in a candy store”.
It got better after that … for a short while!