Part 8 - Abercorn and Lake Tanganyika

My return to Northern Province of NR was a bit of a disappointment. The contract I was given was the construction of a number of African Housing, which was very uninteresting. They were laid out in barrack-like rows. All identical with concrete block walls around two rooms with a kitchen and courtyard between. The roofs were corrugated iron. Absolutely nothing to get interested in!

On one occasion the coincidence of having 3 MG cars in such a remote place as Abercorn was the excuse for a 'MG' club booze-up. The TF was a guy who had driven it down through Africa from Cairo on his way to South Africa. A lot of folks in those days used to make the 'Cape to Cairo' drive and we saw all sorts of cars, from MG's to Maserati desert wagons from the war, passing by. The other car belonged to a post-office engineer who had come by a more orthodox route.

I spent time in the Abercorn Arms hotel and made a few friends and when the Liemba came in to Mpulungu harbour we spent some interesting boozy sessions on board among what seemed like civilised surroundings on the ship.

I did some horse riding on the farm of a friend near Mpulungu and there learnt how easy it is to be "unshipped" over the rear end of a horse which suddenly decides to accelerate! A painful lesson. I also did some sailing in GP 14s and a very lively catamaran, but all in all it was very dull.

There were some interesting people in the area. The Gamwell Sisters were local 'characters', always dressed in khaki bush jackets and trousers who drove an old Chevrolet pick-up (vanette) with their 'boy' in the back whose only job it seemed to me, was to leap out whenever it came to a halt and place a block under the back wheel. It did not matter whether the ground was level or sloping, that was his job. I think they had been in one of the 'secret services' during the war. They were certainly well regarded by the Establishment but unfortunately I was too young to appreciate the interest I might have gained from talking to them.

'Westy' Westwood had a farm outside Abercorn which I used to visit (I think because he had a daughter there). He had a transport business which we used as well as the C.A.R.S. lorries.

A Yorkshire fisherman, Cliff Kellet, came out from UK to develop a fishing industry for Lake Tanganyika which had an abundance of fish, largely Nile Perch, tigerfish and nshembe or ndagaa. He was a very interesting, hard working man who using a local flat-decked craft introduced seine nets which had never been seen there before. I believe his son later opened a butchery in Abercorn and/or Kasama, the first in either place.

The Red Locust Control organisation based in Tanganyika flew some aircraft into the Abercorn grass strip sometimes but although I tried to get some "flying hours" never did manage it but it interested me in the Sumbawanga swamp and Lake Rukwa where the locusts bred. I made a few trips into Tanganyika using rough bush roads up the East side of the lake through wonderful rough country but there seemed to be very little game there. Perhaps their attempts at clearing all the game because of the Rinderpest disease had been more thorough than on the NR side of the border.

The interesting part was going through the tsetse fly controls, which was a couple of boma employees with little butterfly nets which they waved around the wheel arches of the vehicle and in the cab. A register had to be filled listing the number of insects caught. The other type of control was a long corrugated iron shed into which you drove the vehicle for the ceremonial waving of butterfly nets and here a DDT spray was used.

We decided one time to give the tsetse guards some excitement because the number of flies recorded was so poor, and on our trip collected 20 or so tsetse flies into a matchbox which we released in the cab at the control point. The authorities must have been puzzled at the sudden enormous increase in the number of flies recorded. I don't remember being concerned at the danger of sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse but many years later whenever I felt like just going to sleep I worried that I might have caught the sickness!

It came to an end when John Laing, my employers decided to pull out of NR. They had hoped to get lots of work from the Kariba or Kafue hydro-electric projects or the one in Nyasaland but these had all fallen through and the Federal Government seemed to be concentrating its spending in Southern Rhodesia. I was sorry to leave John Laing. I had had six very interesting years with them and received a lot of good training and experience with them. (I rejoined Laing when I returned to UK in 1966 and spent another ten years working for them.)

The independence movement was getting well under way in Nyasaland and NR at this time. Kenya had won their battle by this time and Hastings Banda in Nyasaland and Kenneth Kaunda in NR were gathering their forces for their particular attacks on the white rule.

At about this time a 'Development Commission' had been set up to try to develop the rural areas mainly in Northern and Luapula provinces to try to stem the flow of people from the country areas into the towns where a large unemployed population were eager supporters for the independence movement, the United National Independence Party under Kaunda.

I was offered a job with the Development Commission under Magnus Halcrow, an ex-director of Agriculture. The job was to provide schools and dispensaries in remote areas; right up my street! My first 'contract' was to identify and mark some rocks on the approach to Mpulungu harbour which were just a few feet under the surface and with larger boats coming into the area, such as Cliff Kellet's fishing boats, they were a danger.

I spent a lot of time 'snorkelling' around the waters between Mpulungu where the Liemba docked, and what we called crocodile island, because of its shape. The snorkelling was fascinating, there were so many wonderfully coloured fish to be seen mainly in the area of the offending rocks. When I found one I would dive down and attach a float to mark it and later would return with sacks of prepared concrete and hooks with which to attach the permanent marker buoy. I did all this personally because it was impossible to explain what I wanted and be sure it was done. I never thought about crocodiles although I suppose there were some in the area!

One day I was snorkelling well out in the open water about a mile from any land. I was using a catamaran under sail with the owner in charge. I had my head down underwater for a while and when I looked up a puff of wind had carried the boat several hundred yards away. I knew catamarans were very difficult to turn especially in light winds. In my whole life, including that with crocodiles, leopards and hippos, I had never panicked; but I did then, and have never forgotten the fear of that few minutes until I regained control and eventually rejoined the boat. Another lesson learned.

After marking the rock dangers, my next project was to build a school building at Chisanza, about 20 miles from Mpulungu on the East side of the lake. There was no road access to this village which was below the eastern escarpment, and not too far from the Kalambo Falls now well known as a tourist destination and which I never visited even though I was within a few miles of it. I just wish I had thought like a tourist when I was in Africa and I would have seen so much more instead of just being involved in my own little area and what I was doing in it!!

I had to ship all the required materials from Mpulungu using a government motor boat towing a barge. For 'personal' use I had a 14'narrow flat bottomed boat with a "Seagull" outboard motor.

One day when running from Chisanza back to Mpulungu a storm blew up and the very steep sharp waves were picking up bow and stern with fierce rolling so that the outboard motor unshipped itself and was lost in the water. With only paddles myself and the 'driver' eventually made land on a rocky outcrop about 10 miles from Mpulungu. The driver headed off to call for a rescue which arrived next morning in the shape of a Boma boat. It had been a very uncomfortable and hungry night and became known as 'the day bwana Williams was near died'.

I designed the building to suit the available materials, and to save transport only shipped bricks to make the corner columns and made the walls between the columns from rock which the village women carried from the hillsides and cliffs nearby. It looked very attractive and not at all like anything else in the area. More like the Norfolk flint buildings.

I spent most of the contract living in a grass hut at the village and although 'down South' all sorts of UNIP inspired attacks and protests were happening I got on well with the local UNIP representative who had the lovely name of Hardings Wind!

When the school building was nearly complete in March of 1959 the local villagers under the direction of the headmaster and Hardings Wind put on a concert to celebrate the occasion. It was extremely well done and very touching.


When my boss Magnus Halcrow heard of it I was given an increase, about £3 month I think, for helping improve relationships and opportunities.

My next 'contract' was to build a school and dispensary in the Yendwe Valley on the West side of the lake about 25 miles by sea from Mpulungu but the road, which only reached within about 5 miles of the site was over 40 miles and most of that was only track flattened through the bush.

For this job I decided only to 'import' cement and reinforcing steel but as it was in a swampy valley there were no stones so I built kilns and burnt my own bricks for the buildings. I received advice on how to do this from the ever-helpful White Fathers and brothers at the nearest mission. We used the clay from very large 'anthills' (actually termite mounds). For the internal plaster we used mafwasa, which were the small, 12in termite mounds which is what the locals used to plaster their grass round houses. I cheated and used a small amount of cement with it and it looked just like lime plaster.

Hunting here was good. I remember there were large herds of Hartebeest, Roan and Sable together with Water buck, bushbuck, reedbuck and the rest. I often used to go out before dawn and using my 'chinyenye' duiker whistle would get the duiker and be back in camp for a breakfast of the liver, kidneys and heart before 8 a.m. I bought eggs from villagers at a spoonful of salt each and chickens for 1s/6p each.

Philip Large the District Commissioner from Abercorn visited me in the valley a couple of times by boat. They had a very nice launch but it could only get a mile or so up from the lakeside and the remainder was in dugout canoes and then wading through reed beds. I enjoyed the visits from someone who could appreciate the special kind of effort required to create such a building in the conditions there.

The country around Yendwe was thicker forest than I had been used to and there were very few open spaces and dambos. I bought a new Mauser 7 mm rifle which had a short barrel so that it did not hang up on branches as I stalked through the trees. It had a wide vee back sight and a good shiny fore sight. Ideal for sighting and shooting quick shots which were so often all you would get in that kind of country.

It is strange to think now that the idea of telescopic sights in those days was considered a but 'sissy' and I never used one until deer-stalking in Scotland years later. I am sure I would have been able to bag many more animals in the early years if I had used a telescope, although the problem always is that because one can see the crosshairs on the animal one assumes this is where the bullet will strike; a very dangerous assumption as I found out in Scotland.

The debate about heavy or light rifles had been going on for years. I remember Frank Rumsey at Mbesuma having heavy debates with Captain Langham about this. Langham of course, mainly shooting elephant or rhino in the Luangwa Valley favoured heavy rifles and used a double barrel .450 Purdy I think, but he also favoured around 9 mm for all game on the principle that the bullet weight would 'knock over' most animals and make sure in one go. Rumsey used lighter rifles relying on accuracy and making neck or head shots.

I used various rifles. My first, the .303 had military 'needlepoint' ammunition which pierced straight through an animal without immediate damage until I cut the tips off and made dum-dums of them. My other rifles I used soft-nosed bullets which were very effective although I always kept a couple of solid nosed bullets at the bottom of the 5 or 6 round magazine in case I faced a head-on large beast like buffalo where the soft nosed bullet might not penetrate. I liked the 7.9 and 8 mm rifles and the fastest I had was an 8 x 60 Mannlicher Schoener which was almost flat trajectory for about 400 yds and which was ideal for the open country I was using it in, around the Bangweulu Swamps.

I kept some chickens at Yendwe until one night there was a terrible commotion in the henhouse and I found that most of them had been killed by an enormous infestation of red ants. That area seemed for some reason very susceptible to ants of all kinds and there were often very long 'armies' of soldier ants sweeping a path up to 2 ft wide, with an audible hissing where they passed. I slept on a folding camp bed and was very careful that the legs were standing in tins filled with paraffin to stop ants or other insects from joining me in bed.

I never did manage to eliminate mosquitoes and suffered several more bouts of malaria. I got over them without visiting hospitals etc but took lots of quinine even though such 'prophylactics' as paladrine and mepacrine were then available.

I finished the Yendwe valley buildings towards the end of 1959. It had been good there in spite of the health dangers. I had got back to some good hunting and made some forays which must have taken me into the Belgian Congo although there were so few villages and as the tribes straddled the national boundaries it was difficult to be precise about where you were. My 12 volt gramophone turntable and my collection of 78 rpm classical music were getting worn out (using acacia thorns in place of fibre needles) and I did begin to feel lonely for the first time. My constant companion was Rory, my dog who put up with anything had got tired of being used as a stud. Because he was so big compared with the village dogs he was forever being tempted away by bitches on heat being led past my camp.

When Yendwe was finished I was told to go to Samfya on Lake Bangweulu, near Fort Rosebery in Luapula Province to do some building work there, so I was ready, once again to load up my few belongings, my 7 mm Mauser rifle, and dog into the MG which had been parked at Mpulungu, and head off for what I hoped would be another adventure.