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U3A Writing: African Holiday

…Suddenly, there in the water near where I and two other me were not just one but three crocodiles. Three crocs each fifteen feet long. I can see you have visions of us each wrestling with one of them. Actually there were three crocodiles each fifteen inches long. We each grabbed one and took them ashore and put them into large bowl. After that we were much more careful as little crocs meant that there must be big ones somewhere about. However none was ever found…

John Ricketts recalls an astonishing family holiday on the shores of Lake Nyasa.

We left Lusaka airport for a C.A.A. package holiday to Lake Nyasa for two weeks. Unfortunately we were the last to get on the plane and there were not enough seats for us to sit together, so I took Mark who was almost four and sat in the front of the plane while Elizabeth with two year old Tom and Peter, six months old was seated at the rear.

There was one stop on the way at Fort Jameson to drop off and pick up new passengers and to refuel. Because of the refuelling we had to disembark. Mark had always been a poor passenger and had been airsick the whole way and wanted to be with his mother. When we got back on the plane Mark went to the back with his mother. As the plane was about to taxi away we looked out of the window and saw a little fellow waving the plane off. Our Tom!

After a few minutes the pilot agreed to taxi back to the airport building, opened the doors and allowed me to get out and rescue our two year old. The looks I got on getting back on the plane we like those Herod received when he visited Bethlehem in A.D. 1.

We arrived at Lilongwe airport where we were met by a minibus to take us the 40 miles to our hotel on the lake. Beside our family there were just six others. The accommodation at the hotel was in thatched cottages built between the main building and the lake. They were primitive by today’s standards but it must be remembered that Nyasaland was a primitive place. The cottage consisted of one large room with netted windows and with a long veranda across the front facing the lake. At one end of the veranda was a chemical toilet and at the other end a cold water shower. The main room contained our beds, a table and some chairs. We even had electric light which worked when the generator in the main building was working, usually from about six in the evening until just after the bar closed which was movable feast. The baths were in the main building in which we dined.

It was wonderful to get out of bed in the morning, cross thirty yards of sand and walk into the fresh water lake which was as smooth as a baby’s skin. The beach sloped gently and so it was safe for even the smallest children. We all spent a lot of time in the water because it was the temperature of cool bath water. The only snag was that in the middle of the day the sand was too hot to walk on, so one had to stand in the shallows hollering for someone to bring the sandals so that one could get up the beach.

The lake was thirty five miles wide at the spot where we were staying, and the owners, in an attempt to get free publicity, had offered a free holiday to a New Zealand woman who was in the country, if she could swim across the lake. She had previously swum the English Channel. She swam over the new year and arrived to the flash of press photography in the afternoon of New Years Day. Though she did not seem unduly tired I feel that she had earned her holiday. The press photographer had his photographs published all round the world. The hotel got its name shown.

Incidentally I was in the lake at first light a few days later when this pretty New Zealander came down and invited me to swim with her out to Honeymoon Island out in the lake. I declined the tempting invitation. What would my wife have said? And anyway it was a mile and a half each way.

There was plenty to do round the hotel. There were trails marked out in various directions; there were water sports of all kinds; for a few pence the locals would take you out on the lake to fish in their canoes which were hollowed from a large tree trunk. When you were a mile or so from the seashore you tended to decide that the log had been really too small for the job for which it was intended, especially if a little breeze came up and you were given a cigarette tin to bale with.

I tried all the water sports. I was dragged along on my stomach learning to water ski. I don’t think I ever got up for more than a second. I found twenty different methods of falling off a wind surfer. I had to be rescued when I hired a nice safe dinghy with an outboard motor to take the family for a trip along the coast and the engine wouldn’t start on our way back.

Mark & Tom loved playing in the lake. To keep them from sunburn we made them wear shirts. Tom made a friend. In the next rather larger cottage was a family of mother, father and two boys of sixteen and eighteen. We found out that they had spent Christmas in Europe in the hope of getting in some skiing but disappointed by lack of suitable snow they had flown back and were spending a week water skiing instead. Tom’s friend was the man who must have been in his fifties. If the man was anywhere about when Tom was on his way to the water he would call out to the man “Me go swimming, You come too”. This amused us very much but what surprised us much more was that this gentleman got up, took hold of Tom’s offered hand and solemnly walked down to the lake with Tom, chattering all the time. When we intervened and tried to stop Tom bothering him he would have none of it. While the rest of the family were enjoying themselves on the water he seemed quite content to sit quietly and let Tom chatter away.

Most of the times the sun shone down relentlessly and we spent the heat of the afternoon lying quietly in the shade. One afternoon however the whole colour of the lake changed; from being bright azure blue with sun rays sparkling off the surface, it became a dull leaden grey. In the distance the horizon became black. Suddenly a wind sprang up and the surface of the lake was covered with white handkerchiefs waving madly. Then the rain came in torrents. We were soaked running the few yards to the dining room and then soaked again coming back. We stayed up late that night watching the flashes of lightening over the lake and shaking to the claps of thunder which came one on top of another. When we woke in the morning the whole atmosphere had been washed clean. Even the air seemed purer. It was certainly good to be alive.

The storm caused the rivers to flood and much debris had been washed down into the lake. The hotel servants were clearing the rubbish, twigs, branches, logs and leaves and the rest from the water in front of the hotel and I and several other of the guests went into the water to help. I am sure that you have all seen films of Tarzan wrestling with a crocodile. Suddenly, there in the water near where I and two other me were not just one but three crocodiles. Three crocs each fifteen feet long. I can see you have visions of us each wrestling with one of them. Actually there were three crocodiles each fifteen inches long. We each grabbed one and took them ashore and put them into large bowl. After that we were much more careful as little crocs meant that there must be big ones somewhere about. However none was ever found.

About a couple of times a week the hotel keeper would announce that the dhows were coming across the lake. About a mile up the shore was a native village with a small rocky harbour. Here the beach sloped steeply and quite close to the shore the water was deep enough for the dhows. We walked along the shore to watch the boats coming in. Some days there was only a single one but on others there might be as many as five. They had huge triangular sails which were furled as they neared the coast. About thirty yards from the beach they dropped anchor and came to rest.

They were always greeted by crowds of people. In the past there would have been several different reactions as they approached because in the not too far distant past they were crewed by slavers. A single boat would have been greeted cautiously with a muted welcome especially if the chief had goods, possibly slaves to trade. A couple of boats would have been greeted with a show of strength by armed spearmen. A fleet of more than two dhows would probably have resulted in the whole village taking to the bush. We were told that this was part of a trade route which had been in being for hundred, possibly thousands of years, and stretched from China and India to the gold mines of Central Africa. David Livingston fought to end the trade in slaves which was only suppressed by the pax Brittanica.

When the anchors had been dropped small boats were lowered and people and goods were brought ashore and a market was set up. From what we could see the dhows brought mostly grain and took back fruit and dried fish. There were always a few passengers, even the odd European back packer. We were told that there were immigration and customs controls but except for the odd native policeman we saw no evidence of these. There were three classes of passengers. The first class passengers paid about one pound and were found a nice shady spot on the deck to lounge in during the voyage. The second class passenger who paid about ten shillings had to find his own space on the deck and had to help raising and lowering the sail which, because of its size, was a very heavy task. The third class passenger who paid about five shillings had to work his passage. He had to load and unload cargo, clean the decks, raise the sails and, if they were becalmed, row the boat ashore with the huge sweeps fixed along the decks. During the civil war in Mozambique this must have been an escape route for thousands and a smuggling point for arms to both sides.

The time came for our holiday to end and after breakfast one morning we loaded our bags into the minibus and set off back to the airport. The engine did not sound too good and we had noticed that it had taken some work to get it started but we were on our way. Between the lake and Lilongwe there is a range of hills, not very large hills but hills nevertheless. We mounted the first without much trouble but the second proved difficult and by the time we reached the crest our speed was about two miles an hour. Each hill was worse than the last. Going down the driver gave it all that it had got in an effort to get up the next. To cut a very long story short we limped up to the airport just in time to see the weekly flight to Lusaka flying over our heads. We climbed out at the airport building to be greeted with the fact that the next flight was the following Friday. A Dutch woman with us promptly went into hysterics much to our amusement and the embarrassment of her husband. We were on a package tour and from then on we were handled like packages. Nobody consulted us. We were just moved from pillar to post just like a package is. We were transported and booked into the local hotel, told when to go to dinner and when to get up in the morning. (Very early, too early for the Dutch Woman.) We were driven at dawn to the airport and pointed to a small plane on the runway. The flight crew consisted of the pilot. Next to him was a German business man. In the second row of seats sat Elizabeth, Peter in his carry cot and Mark and Tom. I sat on the luggage in the cargo bay at the back. Before we set off the pilot turned round and offered each of us a boiled sweet from a bag. They did that sort of thing when planes weren’t pressurised.

We flew to Blantyre, the capital of Nyasaland. There we were treated like refugees being given vouchers to spend on food and drinks. We did not know what was happening but were told that our names would be called when something had been decided. We were later called and put on a plane heading for Salisbury, the capital of S. Rhodesia. When we arrived we were standing around wondering what was going to happen to us when Tom shot away. He ran up to a man surrounded by what were obviously civil servants. He grabbed his trousers and called out. It was his friend from the beach, his swimming companion. It took him a minute to recognise Tom because he had only previously seen him in his swimming trunks. By that time we had rescued him. “Bye Tom” he called. Later we saw his picture in the paper and found out that he was the small equivalent of the head of the C.B.I.

Eventually they found us room in the first class of the plane flying from Salisbury to Lusaka. We were virtually back home after a wonderful eventful holiday.

*

All Gardens of Eden have their serpents. A couple of days after we returned form our holiday both Mark and Tom began to get boils round their waists; Mark three, Tom two. Elizabeth got two under her bra strap. We realised immediately what the trouble was. A worble fly called a putzi fly had laid its eggs on the waist bands and straps of their swimming things, drilled their way through the skin and settled down to eat and grow. When they were ready the grubs popped out.

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