In the mid 1970's, my (first, now late) husband was offered a lucrative job in Swaziland. We packed all our worldly possessions into a removals truck, which began its three-day road trip, and with daughters then aged 3 years, 18 months and 6 weeks, respectively, boarded an SA Airways Hawker Siddeley. No prizes for guessing why it was nicknamed the 'vomit comet'.
|The town of Big Bend is about a half-mile upriver from this spot.|
Teeming metropolis it was not.
One post office, one police station, one petrol station and one general store, was about it.
The company, Ubombo Ranches, (nothing to do with cattle, everything to do with sugar) pretty much owned most of it, including the village that housed about about a hundred (mostly white) employees, the sugar mill and vast stretches of sugar cane plantations. The black workers were housed in a compound some distance away. Ha! And I thought I'd left apartheid behind!
"Welcome to Big Bend," the exec said. What he should have said was, 'Welcome to the last outpost of the British Empire' or, more precisely, 'Welcome to the last bastion of British colonialism'.
With the exception of us 'Saffers' and a few 'When-wees' (Rhodesians, now Zimbabweans - God help them) the rest of the inhabitants were British expatriates (mostly artisans) who, judging by their descriptions of what they'd left 'back home', would have you wondering whether they'd had trouble finding a tenant for Buckingham Palace. To say that characters living in Big Bend were eccentric, would be putting it very mildly indeed.
As I'm sure you know, small, isolated communities tend to develop a culture all of their own. Big Bend was no exception. The salaries were inflated and labor was cheap, so everyone had at least two servants, usually three. Most of the wives didn't work and had far too much time on their hands. Salacious Gossip, Wild Innuendo and Company Politics were games everybody played - all of the time. The clubhouse, or more specifically the pub in the clubhouse, was the hub around which the social life in Big Bend revolved. The vast amounts of alcohol consumed there sure oiled the wheels of rumor, dissension and a lot of adultery, but also created some truly memorable incidents. One such event involves Murphy and the crocodile.
Now, on the off-chance that some of those Big Benders are possessed of a liver more robust than any medical examiner could give credence to and are thus still around, I'll refrain from using their real names. So 'Murphy' it will be.
Murphy was a small, somewhat rotund Irishman with a florid complexion and a mouth like a sewer when he'd had a few. He also had a pathological fear of crocodiles. Many a time I'd be in the pub after a round of golf, nursing a gin and tonic and catching an earful of whatever piece of gossip was the story du jour, only to hear Murphy sounding off about something or other. The more he drank, the louder he got, until someone would yell at him, "Watch it, Murphy, the crocs are going to get you." This usually produced a burst of profanity from Murphy, but he'd finish his drink and stagger off home.
I'd been in Big Bend a couple of months when reports came in of a particularly aggressive crocodile that was attacking the women of a nearby Swazi village as they did their washing in the river. Ubombo Ranches was requested to please deal with it. I think half the male population grabbed their rifles and went croc hunting.
The following day was a Saturday. We'd finished a four-ball better-ball golf tournament, which was no mean feat given as it was a mashee course with a clubhouse in the middle, roads running through it and numerous ball-eating flamboyant trees lining very narrow fairways. The pub was full that evening as we toasted our wins or drowned sorrows. Murphy, who'd been at the Guinness since before lunch, was as loquacious as ever.
I don't know how they did it - but they managed to drag a full-grown, 15-foot, Nile crocodile weighing nearly a ton, into the corner of the L-shaped pub without any of us seeing it. They'd propped its mouth open with a stick. I can' remember who the barman was that night, but he leaned over and gave Murphy the usual warning. 'Shut up or the crocs will get you." Murphy responded with his customary string of expletives. The barman pointed to the floor behind Murphy. Murphy turned and looked. What happened next has become Big Bend legend.
Murphy let out a scream, the likes of which I'd never heard before or since. He seemed to levitate upwards from his bar stool, arms and legs pumping the air before he caught hold of a brass support pole and took off running along the top of the bar, stepping on drinks, ashtrays, hands, heads and anything else that lay in his path, all the while bellowing like a banshee. Reaching the end of the counter, he literally launched himself off it, hit the ground, rolled, got to his feet and flew out of the door. He was still screaming as he disappeared into the darkness outside. People who then noticed the crocodile and thought it was still alive, took off in all directions. It was complete mayhem for a few minutes, until everyone caught on and calmed down. They were still laughing about it when I left Big Bend five years later.
It was six months before Murphy returned to the pub. He was still as rude as ever, but whenever someone told him to shut up or the crocs would get him, he'd look over his shoulder and give a nervous giggle.
Africa. You've just got to love it.
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/arnolouise/2600765440/">Arno Meintjes Wildlife</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/panr/2364898062/">pandrcutts</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">cc</a>