Rob Burton moved to Vanderbiljpark in the Transvaal (a former province of South Africa) when he was twenty-two years old and apartheid was occurring. Decades later, he relfects on his journeys during that tempestuous time.
Guests: Essay Author- Rob Burton
Voice Actor- Justin Hueffner
On the road – Rhodesia – 1976
Twelve months of working continental shifts in a massive South African steel works was taking it’s toll. Young marriages were feeling the strain because the men were continually at work or asleep. There was a lot of work and not much play. Some of the families just bailed, disappearing overnight, never to be seen again. I needed a Plan B to get out too.
The company, ISCOR, stood HP guarantor for everything we wanted to buy for our new lives in Vanderbijlpark a steel town in what was known the Transvaal in 1976 – this area of the country was mainly populated by the Afrikaans, the white South Africans of Dutch decent. It was an open secret that many of the would be ex-pat deserters would go around town and purchase high value but portable items such as jewellery, watches and so on to take home with them. Those who had them drove their cars to Jan Smuts airport and left them in the car park with the keys still in the ignition.
But I was looking for another way out. After all Africa was a big country and I was a highly skilled British engineer. I can’t remember how we actually found out the Rhodesian (Now Zimbabwe) Railway Company was looking for maintenance engineers. I had been an apprentice at a company in Somerset called Bristol Aerojets making bits of rockets and missiles and for one year of my training I had attended the Rolls Royce Technical College in Filton, Bristol. My mate, the other Rob, had been apprenticed at Westland Helicopters in Yeovil, Somerset, so we were pretty hot property.
The railway company was keen to interview us so a road trip was planned to Salisbury, (now Harare) the capital of Rhodesia. Pouring over the map and asking friends and colleagues it seemed that the drive from Johannesburg to Salisbury would be about fifteen hours, non-stop. We couldn’t rent a car locally so first we had to get to Johannesburg to pick up the Toyota Corolla we had chosen for the trip.
Our first destination was a place called Beitbridge because this was the border between South Africa and Rhodesia. We also had to get there because it was the place we had to pickup the armed convoy to get to Salisbury safely. We had to do this because black nationalist guerrillas were attacking travellers and killing them. So it was imperative that we drove hard and crossed the border in time to join the convoy.
Of course, we were late, and we missed the convoy. A soldier on duty told us it had only just gone and if we hurried we would surely catch up with it. We couldn’t miss it because it was a line of vehicles protected by British South African Police (BSAP) driving pickups (bakkies) with Browning heavy machine guns mounted in the rear. ‘Was it dangerous?’ We asked. ‘Not if we caught up to it quickly’, he answered. So we set off at a pace to catch it up.
We never saw the convoy. We didn’t overtake it and I had booted the car to try and catch up. I have no idea how we missed it. I have a vague recollection of seeing some vehicles in a café car park, but it was only a fleeting glance as we were going so quickly, maybe that was it? There was only one road to Bulawayo and we were on it. So with the naivety of youth and no questions about our own mortality we forgot about the convoy and drove on through the beautiful Rhodesian countryside.
And have no doubt Rhodesia/Zimbabwe is a beautiful country even when viewed through a dusty windscreen at speed. We flew through areas of bush dotted with rounded humps and with koppies in the distance. The red soils baked hard by the sun and mile after mile of hard driving which blurs the memory.
I have no recollection of staying anywhere for the night so we must have shared the driving to get to Salisbury. Rob and I, with our two wives Janet and Heather on the back seats piloted the vehicle along the long, straight and empty roads. We even stopped to stretch our legs and take photos at some of the obvious viewpoints. It was late in the evening when we eventually arrived in Salisbury (Harare).
On first impression Salisbury left a favourable impression. It was very ‘British.’ Plus I remember the kindness of the locals summed up when a complete stranger gave us coin to use in the parking meters because we hadn’t any local currency.
The next day we went to see the representative of the railway company. When we recounted our journey he was gobsmacked. He couldn’t believe we’d made the whole journey and not been in the convoy. He was even more amazed that we’d stopped to take photos. He went on to tell us how lucky we’d been not to have been targeted by the guerrillas and have an RPG fired through our radiator––which was the standard operating practice of the guerrillas. It was only later when we were driving around Salisbury that we noticed how the locals would have their weapons stuck out through the open windows of their vehicles as a sign that they were armed and ready.
The crux of the interview for the railway job was that they needed engineers such as ourselves and if we were willing to take the positions they offered us we would be working and living in Umtali (now Mutare). We asked where Umtali was. Over by the Mozambique border in the East of the country we were told. ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ We asked. We might have been naïve but we did know there was a war going on over there and the warning about the folly of our drive had hit home. No, we were told it’s not dangerous any longer. Umtali only got mortared about twice a week now.
That put the mockers on Plan B so we went to the Lion Park to be tourists instead. This was a local game park just outside of the city, where you could drive around to see the animals. Unfortunately it only had dirt and sand roads and our little Toyota got stuck in a hole. We got out and tried to push it but it was stuck fast. We hadn’t seen any game and the place seemed empty, not that we could see much as we were surrounded by bush. Rummaging about for twigs and branches to put under the wheels I came across a large sheet of plywood. It was exactly what we needed to get us out of our predicament––until I turned it over. Stencilled on the other side were the heart stopping words BEWARE OF THE LIONS.
Janet was swiftly put on the roof of the vehicle as look out, as she was the lightest, while we quickly and efficiently got the car out of the pit. I know we didn’t see any lions nor any other wildlife come to that. We returned back to the city centre for a quiet walk and a look around the botanical gardens. It was nice but as we wandered back towards the car I realised I had lost the car keys. Panic. We retraced our steps and sure enough there they were sat in the middle of the path. But believe me my heart was racing. I’m not even sure that we were allowed to drive the car outside of South Africa–– we might have glossed over those details, as you do.
The next day we were faced with the fifteen-hour drive home. We had a deadline. The vehicle had to be back with the renters in Johannesburg so we would not be liable for another days rent and we also had to be able to catch the bus back to Vanderbijlpark where we lived.
This time on the return journey we would be sensible and use the convoy to get us back to the safety of South Africa. But the convoy was just too slow. We had that deadline and they kept stopping, eventually with a reluctant, ‘be careful’ they thought we were enough out of danger to let us go. I’d worked out we needed to average about seventy mph to get us to downtown Jo’burg to dump the car before the rental company closed. We made it with about thirty minutes to spare––that was some hard driving––all I remember is the three of them sleeping and letting me get on with it.
Back home, in the flat at Vanderbijlpark, it was time to think about the future because I knew I wasn’t going to spend another eighteen months of my life in the maintenance department of the steel mill. In fact this was the beginning of the end of me wanting to be a skilled machinist. But it would take at least another ten years for that to happen, in the meantime there was a whole continent to explore.