Beit Bridge Border Post
The great thing about “blogging a book” is that I can write about experiences and memories as I recall them and then edit them into a readable book with a logical structure later. This way I will have material to work with, not have to think of content to fill parts of a framework.
Writing about the “Salvation of Small Miracles” last week, reminded me of our journey to our new city of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, back in 1978.
I had served 10 years as a territorial soldier and in the last few spent more time on army call up than at home, I had missed big chunks of both my two sons early years. The strain of trying to keep a career going, a sideline little business functioning and meet the needs of a young family was considerable, but thousands of us did it because we believed that we were fighting for our country. We were trying to ensure a good and peaceful future for all Rhodesians, white and black. We had seen the wave of disaster after disaster unfolding down newly independent Africa. The atrocities, murders, rapes, corruption and economic chaos. We tried desperately to make Britain keep its promises to our country made on several occasions previously.
We won the war on the ground convincingly, but we were sacrificed by our allies to appease the Afro Asian bloc at the UN. The final straw that broke us was when South Africa was pressurised into cutting off our oil supplies with false promises that the pressure on them would then be lifted.
At that point, when it was obvious that our government was going to surrender, I decided that my family needed me more than a lost cause and I made plans to emigrate or take the “chicken run” as many called it. I was concerned about the safety of my family and my children’s education under a terrorist government. That my concerns were well founded would be borne out by events years later.
That our cause was right, just and our actions in the interests of all in our country has been validated and vindicated a thousand time over by the murder, torture, denial of human rights and economic chaos that Mugabe has destroyed the country with in his 30 year reign of terror.
The terrorist war was still a reality, it was necessary to travel in convoys in the lowveld region of Rhodesia. We travelled independently to the collection point in the small town of Umvuma. We were in our elderly and overloaded Peugeot 404 station wagon with mattresses and kids bicycles on the roof rack and a large loaded trailer behind.
Currency controls in force at the time meant we could not take much cash with us, we certainly could not afford to stay in a hotel for the 2 weeks or so it would take for our furniture to arrive. We had been in contact with a real estate agent who assured us he would have a house for us to rent. This was before the days of email, internet or cell phones, so we were relying on his assurances in a telephone conversation weeks earlier.
That is why our old car was overloaded, we had all the basic necessities we needed to “camp” in a house for two or three weeks until our furniture and appliances arrived. Mattresses, gas cookers, folding chairs, a few cooking utensils, toys, bedding and clothes, dried food, soap, they were all there carefully packed. Most importantly, my pistol and shotgun to protect us on the road.
It says something for the ease of cross border travel in those days, that taking legally licensed firearms and ammunition across an international border was just a matter of producing the licences and filling in a form.
The convoy was guarded by three Mazda B1800 pickups front, centre and rear. All were armed with a mounted 7.62 machine gun and manned by several police or army personnel armed with infantry rifles. The trucks also carried good first aid kits with dressings and bandages. Most of the drivers and passengers in the 100 or so private and light commercial vehicles in the convoy were armed, a considerable amount of firepower could be relied on in the event of an ambush. Because of that, ambushes on convoys were extremely rare. The vulnerability of single vehicles on those long empty roads was sufficient incentive for most people to wait for the twice daily convoys, or the daily one for heavy transport vehicles.
The convoy commander walked the length of the convoy, checking that we all had full fuel tanks, spare tyres, secure loads and that our weapons were accessible. He shook his head at the sight of our overloaded vehicle and asked if we thought we could keep up with the 100kph (60mph) convoy speed. We assured him that we had travelled from Salisbury at 110kph or more and that it would be no problem.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in Fort Victoria, then formed up for the longer leg to Beit Bridge on the Limpopo river and the border with South Africa. A new convoy commander, more worried about our ability to keep up and more sarcastic about our vehicle than the first one. He moved us up to the front of the convoy behind a large Ford pickup towing a boat. His parting comment was that we would all have to pedal really hard up the hills because he was not slowing down for anyone.
Another long, hot but uneventful journey to the border. Past Baobab trees and endless miles of dry bush, no houses near the road for miles. Except for the road and the fences either side, no signs of human activity at all. Temperatures were often over 40C (105F) in the lowveld, few cars had air conditioning and the windows had to be open anyway to make it easier to return fire if ambushed. As any parent knows, not good conditions for peaceful travelling with young kids. It is a testament to parental tolerance that as far as I am aware no kids ever got shot on any of those journeys despite the proliferation of loaded guns.
Despite touching 140kph trying to keep up on the downhills, we made it to Beit Bridge without losing the load from our roof rack or our trailer. We produced our tax clearance certificate, my army release papers the vehicle export permit and were through Rhodesian customs in minutes. A much quicker and more pleasant experience than at most borders today.
Sadness driving over the bridge across the Limpopo river, not knowing when or if we would ever see our country again. Worried about the future of friends and family left behind. Great concern for all Rhodesians, knowing that we had been sacrificed for political purposes by our allies. Suspecting that the future would be grim but never imagining that it would become the nightmare of Zimbabwe today.
With our South African residence permits, vehicle and gun papers in hand, we breezed through the border and into our new country. It is amazing how a couple of whining kids can speed up the bureaucratic process.
We unloaded our guns and felt relaxed for the first time in years while driving outside the security of a town or city.
With no experience of driving on freeways, we stuck to quieter roads when we neared the Pretoria Johannesburg conurbation. We drove through citrus groves and crop lands in the Eastern Transvaal to Ermelo where we planned to spend the night at a hotel, we still had 700 km to travel and did not want to arrive after our estate agent had closed.
Arriving exhausted at he Holiday Inn to be told that they were full as was every other hotel in town, there was a huge conference taking place. Just our luck, we had deliberately not booked as we did not know how far we would get on that first day, we had travelled 1200 km, far more than planned. A very helpful hotel manager telling us that there was a small town named Amersfoort about an hour up the road that would certainly have a room, he phoned them for us to confirm. Back in the car and on the road again, all thoughts of a nice relaxing bath, a cold beer and a good steak put on hold. It was starting to get dark and a storm was approaching, lightning flashes ahead.
If we would have blinked, we would have driven right through Amersfoort, it was that small, no wonder the hotel had space, no chance of any conferences being held there.
The hotel itself was old, like something out of a movie about the great trek or early Cape life. A big courtyard behind with enough space to turn an oxwagon and span of 16 oxen, unchanged since the time when that was the only mode of long distance transport. The building with ornate wrought iron decorations, high ceilings and a distinctly Victorian decor.
We were greeted by a charming old Afrikaans lady, in her night-dress and dressing gown, she had two adjoining rooms ready for us and had kept the kitchen staff on duty to make us dinner. It seemed like we were the only guests. I was concerned about my trailer and car with its loaded roof rack, she let me use two garages that opened on to the courtyard and summoned a young boy to help me. The garages were converted stables from the ox wagon and horse era. the doors were rotted away at the bottom, flocks of chickens wandered in and out.
After reversing the trailer into one, I put the car in another. Chickens immediately clambered up onto the trailer cover and the mattresses on top of the car, I imagined that by morning both would be well covered in chicken manure. I asked the boy how I could lock the doors, with a big grin he said “Easy” and rolled a large rock in front of each door. I was so tired I was beyond worrying, my guns, papers and valuables were safe in the hotel, I locked the car and hoped for the best.
We had a good dinner, a comfortable night, woke up refreshed and had a first class cholesterol rich breakfast. There were a hand full of other guests, but it was obvious that the hotel was not often full. The bill was very reasonable, the car and all our stuff was safe and only slightly covered in chicken excrement.
Feeling far more optimistic than the night before when we arrived, we set off on the final leg of our journey to our new home believing that the worst was behind us and it could only get better. If only we knew how wrong we were and what was in store for us the next night, we would probably have turned around right then.
That will be explained in the next Memorable Moment.
Attribution: Macvivo at en.wikipedia