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U3A Writing: Into Africa

John Ricketts tells of a fraught air journey from London to the then Rhodesia in 1957.

We were married on Easter Monday 22nd April, 1957. We got lost on our way to our one night honeymoon in Preston, but that is another story. I was due to take up the headship of Kansanshi School on 1st May so we didn’t have any time to waste. On Wednesday 24th we flew from Manchester to London where we stayed in a hotel.

We were called at 2.30 and taken to the airport where we boarded a Rhodesian Airways plane and set off. In those days planes did not have the range of to-day’s planes and had to set down to refuel quite often . The first leg of our flight was from London to Algiers. We noticed that the airhostess was chatting to the passengers but when she did not come to us we were not surprised.

Airlines tended to book their passengers into good hotels and we were not surprised to be bussed to the George V which had been used by the army as the headquarters of the army command during the war. Each door had the name of the general who had occupied the room at that time, starting with Eisenhower and Montgomery. I cannot remember whose room we used but it was huge.

We had a quick wash and rushed out to see as much as we could of Algiers in the afternoon. It must be remembered that the war in Algeria between the French government and their settlers and the native Algerians was just coming to the boil, but it was a case of ignorance being bliss. We were surprised to see armed soldiers everywhere. All the government buildings, post offices, banks, government offices etc. were all heavily sandbagged.

We saw armed soldiers riding on each of the trams. We went into a department store and were stopped at the door by armed guards, one of whom grabbed Elizabeth’s handbag which was quite large and tipped its contents out onto a table. I was grabbed from behind and one of the guards ran his hands down my body in search of concealed weapons. We did not stay too long in that shop.

Everyone in the town seemed to have forgotten how to smile. Even some little girls who were dressed for their solemn Communion refused to smile as we tried to take their photographs. All the local people seemed to wear perpetual scowls. Maybe they did not like us. We went to the Governor’s palace and tried to take pictures of the ceremonial guards outside but they covered their faces and turned away. A policeman ordered us away. It had proved a very interesting though disturbing afternoon. We returned to the hotel in time to wash and change before dinner. As we made our way into the dining room we were surrounded by our fellow passengers who wanted to know where we had been as the airhostess had been looking for us all afternoon. When we told then that we had been sight seeing they were horrified.

“Weren’t you told not to leave the hotel?” they asked . “The airhostess came round and told us all that we shouldn’t go into the town because it was too dangerous.”

We told them that she hadn’t told us so we had been fools who had rushed out to see the town where angles wouldn’t go.

Incidentally, three days after we had stayed there the hotel was destroyed by a bomb with some loss of life and many injured.

We were up at dawn the next morning and flying out at first light. We flew south across the desert . From the plane windows we saw stony mountains with areas of green on their northern side. After we crossed the mountains the land became barren with large sand dunes. Further south the desert again became stony eventually a town surrounded by green fields. It was Tamenrasset. An oasis and trading centre in the middle of the Sahara.

We landed at an airstrip some five miles from the town so that the plane could refuel. When they opened the door of the plane the heat hit us. It was like stepping into an oven. Sheltering under the wings of the plane were two soldiers who looked most unhappy. They came to us to beg English cigarettes and Elizabeth spoke to them in French. They were overjoyed to have a stranger speaking to them in their own language.

They told us that they were French conscripts who had been sent to this God-forsaken hole in the middle of the desert. Because of the trouble they spent all their time either on guard at various strategic locations or locked up in their fort. I am sure it was some months since they had spoken to a pretty girl. And that did not last long for the sergeant came out, swore at them and chased them back on duty.

We went into the shed that was the terminal building for the airport and had a cold drink while the plane taxied away for refuelling. The man in charge, a man of about fifty, had seen Elizabeth talking to the young conscripts and he came over to talk to her. He told her that he had come to Tamenrasset as a soldier during the interwar years, had met and married a local woman and settled down there. We asked him if he had been back home but said that he had found it so cold and wet that he had cut short his visit to get back to the dry heat of the desert. His final comment was “I’ll die here. I’ll never go back.” We often wondered what happened to him when, a few years later, the French were driven out.

After re-fuelling we took off for Kano in Northern Nigeria. A friend of Elizabeth was a nurse there and she had arranged to come to the airport hotel to meet us. We waited for her in our room. From the window of the room we could see two men riding camels up and down the runway. They had big trumpets which they blew on occasions. They seemed to be warning people or driving things away. We never found out what they were really doing. We waited for hours for Elizabeth’s friend to show up but she never did. Eventually we had a phone message that she had been rushed into hospital that morning with appendicitis so she would not be coming. Because of the delay we saw very little of the fabulous mud city of Kano.

As usual we climbed on the plane soon after dawn and it taxied to the end of the runway. The engines revved up and we started to gather speed . Suddenly there was a bang and a lurch. The plane swung from side to side while we passengers were thrown every which way, mainly saved from injury by our seat belts. While we were gathering speed on the runway one of the huge tyres had burst. It was only the professionalism of the pilot which had prevented a catastrophe. I don’t think that many of the passengers realised how close they had been to death. I had been in the airforce and knew of the dangers.

We disembarked and sat waiting for action. The pilot came and told us that there might be quite a delay because the route was a new one for Rhodesia Airways. They usually used the east coast route through Egypt and the Sudan but the Suez Crisis had forced them on to the route they were travelling. This meant that they had not built up the usual stocks of spares and that they did not have a spare tyre. Later on the hostess told us that they had pinched a South African Airways tyre so that we could continue the journey. It was dark by the time we landed in Brazzaville in the French Congo and so we could not get out of the hotel. All we could do after dinner was to sit on the veranda and look over the mile wide Congo river, watching the lights of the town on the opposite bank in the Belgian Congo. Strangely, I cannot remember and mosquitoes at all.

The last day of the trip took us to Lusaka and then onto Salisbury, where we caught the train to QueQue where we picked up my car, a Ford V8, and the rest of my kit and set off to drive up north to Kansanshi. It was 29th April.

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