Part 7 - Fort Jameson and Nyasaland

Fort Jameson

I travelled to Fort Jameson in 1955 where I had the job of building six small concrete bridges between there and Dedza. This was a different setup from the bridges I had worked on with my father a few years before. I was now working for a major contractor with all the backup I needed. Machinery and materials delivered to site as required although communications were still primitive, using telegrams from the nearest centre sometimes 40 miles away from the bridges.

I drove up the Great East Road in my little Morris Minor and enjoyed the change of scenery with more hills and escarpments than I had seen for some time.

In Fort Jameson I met up with some old friends and some friends of my parents. Barry Ledger was one of those. He was a policeman and had an MG TD, I think it was. Following him one day back from the club through Fort J, I forgot that I could not corner like him and knocked a back wheel off my car!! I remember him well for another reason too. I was feeling very depressed after a broken love-affair and after another visit to the club we were in his house where I was saying life was not worth living!! He produced his .38 revolver and fired a shot into the fireplace then handed it to me saying, "go ahead, finish it". I remember well very nearly 'doing the deed' just to show him how seriously he had underestimated the way I felt.

In the years since I have often thought of that occasion with horror at how close I came to missing out on all the fascinating things I have been involved in since.

Work soon made me forget my miseries and I began enjoying life again. I did not get a lot of hunting and there was not nearly so much game in that area as in Northern Province but I kept the pot full with plenty of duiker, reedbuck, warthog and guinea-fowl as well as buying chickens, sheep and eggs locally. I had a small caravan at a central bridge and visited the other bridges from there. I acquired a puppy which I called Rory because all my previous dogs which I had called Jock had come to sticky ends. Rory stayed with me for years and was a great companion.

Bridge Deviation!

I remember a small 'rest house' near the N.R­Nyasaland border that I used to visit, where the owner Mr DeSouza served the most wonderful Samouzas and ever since I have remembered "DaSouza's Samouzas" with pleasure.

Crocodile Hunting

After finishing the bridges I moved to Blantyre for a contract at Liwonde on the Shire river downstream of Lake Malombwe. The river is the only outlet from 400 mile long Lake Nyasa and the company had a contract to build a bund (dam) across it. The building was a tremendous undertaking which cost over £50,000 and involved 100,000 cubic yards of earth dam across 1,120 ft width. The purpose was to act as a coffer dam for investigation and building of a permanent barrage for a hydro-electric scheme at Matope, some 40 miles downstream from Liwonde. The investigations showed that the scheme would cost tens of millions of pounds which the Federal Government could not afford whilst the Kariba Hydro-Electric Scheme was being built, so that the decision was taken to shelve the Shire Valley Project for at least four years. In view of this it was decided that the bund would be breached in August 1957 to return the river flow to it's normal pattern. The breaching was a major undertaking to avoid flooding and damage downstream and had to be controlled very carefully. I will not go into the details but it was a very exciting operation trying to stop the erosion of the banks from getting out of hand.

I lived in my caravan on site and as we steadily closed off the flow in the river and the downstream water level fell, crocodile hunters appeared and took advantage of the lower levels to shoot the crocodiles. Some of the hunters stayed with me and I went out hunting with them at night.

The business of hunting crocodiles in the wild was a new experience for me and is worthy of a description to itself.

There were no crowded sandbanks with crocs, as sometimes seen in film, waiting to be picked off at long range. They move so fast and clear into the water at any disturbance that it would not be possible anyway to get a decent 'bag'.

We shot at night using small flat-bottomed boats usually powered by a single paddler in the stern. We cruised as quietly as possible about 50 yards offshore using a 'bulala' lamp strapped on our heads. The crocodile's eyes shone a brilliant red in the light and one could learn roughly the size of the croc by the spacing of the eyes. Very small crocs had very bright eyes and more greeny in colour.

I used a 9.3 mm rifle with open sights, blackened with soot to avoid reflections. We had to shoot from about 10 yds because when clean shot in the brain, which is only about the size of a matchbox, they would thrash about and then sink to the bottom after about 5 seconds so we had to get hold of them before they sank. Once below the surface they would not float up until 12-18 hrs later and would be belly-up where the sun would ruin the skin. If you were in moving water, such as a river, they would surface miles away and be lost.

Crocodiles under 4' in length were known as hornbacks and the skin from their whole body was used, including the back, but with anything larger only the white belly skin was used.

The skins were carefully taken off as any cuts reduced the value. They were dressed with rough salt and neatly rolled up to go to 'market'. At that time skins brought in about £1 per foot in length (or £1 per inch belly width which worked out very much the same). A hunter could get 20-30 feet each night in a good area which amounted to a lot of money in those days.

When shot and roped a very large croc would be towed to the nearest beach for skinning in the morning but smaller ones were pulled into the boat.

On a few occasions the shot was not immediately fatal and the croc recovered enough to thrash around after being brought into the boat, which was not much longer than they were. This was a frightening experience as their reaction is to roll over and over in the same way as they tear flesh out of any kill they have made. You can imagine the result in the confines of a small boat, in pitch darkness out on the water with the snapping of its tooth-full jaws and threatening to overturn the boat as it rolled over the side!!

Any new paddlers we employed were first 'tested' by getting them to pull 'grunters' from the water with their hands. Grunters were baby crocs about 2 feet long which lay quietly in amongst weeds, usually in groups. They had very sharp teeth. They made a grunting sound when caught. I cannot remember being aware that this call was probably to alert their parents that they were under threat!!!

My main crocodile hunter friend was Brian Marsh, from Salisbury, and we shot together for 3 months in 1957. After the building of the Liwonde bund had been completed the company was obliged to be on standby to re-open the dam if the lake water level exceeded its 1936(?) flood level of, if I remember correctly, 1556.6 feet above sea level, and therefore I was able to go crocodile hunting with Brian Marsh while watching the lake level.

We had a 30 foot base boat loaded with supplies and salt and towed two 12 flat-bottomed shooting boats. We covered an area from the southern end of the lake up through Monkey Bay to Dormira bay 100 miles north and also went across to the East side of the lake, the Portuguese side where we had the experience of rescuing many Africans from the water when a Dhow sank in a storm. Unfortunately more than 20 drowned.

It was here on the East side that, because there were not many crocs, we decided to shoot a hippo as a bait attraction for crocodiles. We did get a few, and watching them thrashing around with their violent rolling movement to tear the flesh from the hippo carcass was a dramatic sight.

Near Cape Maclear an island called Mumbo had some caves in which we found large crocodiles. We had to use dug-out canoes in there. This was somewhat scary!!

Brian Marsh at Mumbo Island

'CROCODILE HUNTERS on Lake Nyasa often venture into what
must be the most dangerous hunting grounds on the Lake. They
are the caves on Mumba Island near Cape Maclear. The Cave
pictured above goes in about 100yd., broadening into a cavern
about 20ft. high. Small caves lead off and are populated by
crocodiles. The hunters have to go in canoes and would stand
little chance if the canoe capsized. Below is seen Mr. Roy
Williams, who with Mr. Brian Marsh secured a 14ft. 5in. crocodile
after shooting it in the cave.'
(Nyasaland Times Tuesday, July 23, 1957)

'Normal' hunting was done in complete silence in the early hours of the morning, the only sounds being in the distance, lions roaring or 'coughing', hyenas and jackals, and the sound of drums from far away, until hippos were in the area. We could hear the chomp, chomp, chomp of their racing through the weeds then into the water, followed by several minutes of total silence. Then, terrifyingly a burst of water, sometimes only a few feet away from the boat, and the great opening jaws of these very large creatures.

It was the total shock of this change from absolute silence to their dramatic appearance that I could not come to terms with and prevented me from taking up crocodile hunting permanently.

Sometimes the 'stalk' of a particular crocodile took a long time. The reflection of the eyes could be seen brightly until we were quite close when they faded but often only the tip of the snout and the 'brain box', about 3 inches behind the eyes and only about one inch high were all that showed above water. A very small target! After sighting its eyes we would silently paddle towards it. Often they would just slide out of sight without a ripple and would re-appear equally silently some distance away, after anything up to half an hour. This sequence could go on for hours but generally, with patience we would get him. Occasionally a croc would take fright and disappear with an enormous splashing of the tail and I found it was no good waiting for that one to re-appear. We experimented with different coloured lamps and a reddish one seemed to bother them least.

The sale of the skins gave me some spare cash for the first time and I decided to invest in a new car. I chose an Austin Westminster, which was one of the few British cars with a six-cylinder engine. I loved it. I had finally got a new car of my own, a good job and I, with my dog Rory, started getting around Zomba, Blantyre, Limbe.

Rory and the Westminster on top of the dam.

Christmas 1957 I did my first long trip, from Blantyre to Broken Hill, 730 miles, in 12 hours. The only bit of tarmac on the whole journey was Cairo Road in Lusaka. Not even 'strips'. (Remember those??)

It was a great trip, even in the rainy season and one of the drives I remember with great pleasure, until, on the return journey while driving like Stirling Moss up the Rufunsa escarpment a big-end bearing went: or so I thought. The engine was knocking badly and I had to stop! I managed to get a lift to Fort Jamieson where I arranged for the car to be recovered and towed to the agents in Blantyre.

The problem turned out to be a strap in the sump which had come loose and was being hit by a big-end bearing. I could have driven in home had I known.

I visited Zomba from Liwonde bund when not hunting and was a frequent visitor to the 'Pig and Whistle' hotel there. It was a typically English-type pub and used frequently by the army officers who had their headquarters in Zomba.

After one visit there I was driving to Blantyre when my car rolled over, seven times. I was fortunately thrown clear and only had minor injuries but the car was a total write-off. It was less than six months old but the habitually soft Austin suspension could not take the corrugated roads and the front suspension had collapsed. As a replacement I decided on something that would not turn over so easily and ordered an MGA with a detachable hard top. Whilst waiting for this to arrive from UK the garage loaned me a 'Fiat Belvedere station wagon'.

Fiat Belvedere station wagon

This was one of the funniest cars I have ever had. The 'station wagon' part of it was only large enough to hold my dog with his head bent. The tiny engine sounded like a sewing machine but revved wildly and never gave trouble. The tyres were more like motorbike tyres and I had more punctures than all my other cars put together, but I enjoyed driving this toy.

I was now working near Blantyre building railway sidings and school sports fields. From my caravan parked on site I could see the railway line from Beira and finally after three months waiting I saw my MG on a wagon passing in front of me. It was the first MGA in Nyasaland or Northern Rhodesia and I loved it right from the start and was to have many great drives over all kinds of roads that one would never believe suitable for a little low-slung sports car, and never had any trouble. It coped with corrugations and potholes and was always fun to drive. It cost me £873!!!

My MGA in its prime.

Having finished the Blantyre contracts and established that Lake Nyasa was safe from flooding, it was time to move on and I was sent back to NR, to Abercorn in the Northern Province again and that was the start of another interesting change in my lifestyle.

Ready to leave!

Heres to the next time!
(Note.. Rory was ill with a tick-borne sickness but recovered and stayed with me longer than the MG.)