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‘Tour d'Afrique (chapter 2)’

Tour d'Afrique (chapter 2)

Ron Barker’s friends, the Philips, accommodated us during our delightful five and a half week stay in South Africa. They lived in a very nice residential area called Stellenbosch; a famous university town in a large wine-growing area about twenty miles from Cape Town itself. Ron Philips owned a very well-run garage which also incorporated a successful car sales showroom. For our personal use he loaned us an Alpha Romeo Julietta car – the first car I had ever driven with five forward speeds!

Ron Philip was the essence of kindness to us and whenever he wasn’t too busy would spend as much time as possible showing us the sights, or introducing us to other friends or acquaintances. However one of the first tasks I set myself as soon as the Post Office opened after the Christmas Recess was to send a cable back to Biggin Hill to inform them of our safe arrival.

The three counters I first approached had rather longish queues. Then I noticed some other counters, with just one or two people waiting, on the other side of a partition, so I nipped around and joined a shorter queue. The person serving behind the counter immediately ordered me back on the other side of the partition, pointing sharply up at the sign saying ‘Non Blancs. It was then that I noticed all the people on my side of the partition were coloured whereas on the other side they were all white! By this time the whole Post Office was staring at me in disbelief. I sheepishly crept back to the ‘Blanc’ side and couldn’t wait to finish my business and get out of the place. That was my first introduction to apartheid!

The thought lingered at the back of my mind during the latter stages of the outbound flight to Cape Town as to how we were going to get back again, once our passports and aircraft documents were full of stamps from the Republic of South Africa. However as that was the least of my problems at the particular time I gave it no more that a passing consideration. In fact I didn’t start to contemplate the problem seriously until after we had actually arrived in one piece. There was still plenty of time to worry about that yet so I put it at the back of my mind for the time being. It was now mid-summer in South Africa and I was in no hurry to get back to freezing England anyway. My immediate intention was to relax and enjoy the sunshine and worry about the return trip at a later stage.

At the first opportunity we all went for a dip at the Stellenbosch University’s pool, which was open to the (whites only) public. Later we drove to the beach at False Bay and after a most enjoyable swim in the warm sea water we laid out on the sand and sunbathed to our hearts content without a care in the world. England was on the other side of the world, and as far as we were concerned, would have happily stayed in the idyllic summer sunshine of the Southern Hemisphere until the northern spring at least. We knew that we would have to depart before then of course but decided to enjoy ourselves whilst we could and worry about the inevitable problems that lay ahead of us closer to the time. I wanted to see a lot more of this wonderful country.

Cape Town is one of the World’s most beautiful cities, with the famous Table Mountain and its tablecloth of white lenticular cloud forming a backdrop to the scene. We spend a long time sight-seeing and exploring the various attractions, soaking in the gorgeous summer weather. We also took a boat ride around Table Bay and had the grim-looking Robbens Island penal settlement pointed out to us on the way; pondering on the grim fate of its inmates as we cruised past. Robbens Island is a barren 1,200 acre lump of sand and scrub-covered rock, just seven miles off Cape Town itself. Nelson Mandela was just about to arrive a few months later to commence 19 of his 27 years behind bars in its notorious prison.

One day, we drove right down to the very south-western corner of the enormous African continent, to the Cape of Good Hope itself – about thirty miles south of Cape Town. It was there that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet and you can actually see the frothing white line of their confrontation! I had previously been told about this phenomena but would not have believed it had I not witnessed the scene for myself. There on the left of us was the warm green-coloured Indian Ocean, and on the right of the dividing line, the cooler blue South Atlantic; an incredible sight!

Ron Barker was very keen on motor racing and one day he took me out to a racing circuit to meet-up with some old friends. The track was being used for practicing that day and I was later invited to have a go myself, after Ron had had his turn. It was a delightful and exhilarating experience and I would have been happy to have had a much longer ride but the car was required for other purposes. It was the first and only time I have ever sat , let alone driven, in a racing car.

Everyone we were introduced to seemed most anxious to hear our views on apartheid, but I prudently refrained from speaking out directly against it as they were obviously hoping I would be inclined to side with the ‘whites’. Instead I proclaimed ignorance on the subject, which in fact was not too far from the truth anyway, but in a show of goodwill I made a pretence at wishing to know more, although to be truthful I wasn’t altogether interested. Politics were never a strong favourite with me and anything outside of the somewhat tunnel-visioned world of flying I lived in at that time, soon had me stifling a yawn! However, as a guest I put on a brave face and tried to show an interest in their affairs. At the barbeques we were invited to I would patiently lend an ear. At other times on conducted tours I would view with make-believe astonishment the wonderful homes that the whites lived in with their well-kept lawns and spotlessly clean roads. Then by comparison I was shown the ramshackle filthy townships that the ‘Kaffirs’ lived in, with open rubbish tips alive with rats and flies, and wrecks of cars laying abandoned everywhere with hordes of semi-naked children crawling all over them. My guides would then stress the point of how necessary apartheid was to maintain decent living standards – for whom I wondered in silence?

Anyway, I was not about to start a revolution by even offering an opinion on such a controversial subject, and would just nod my head in silence in a non-committal way. I felt rather vulnerable though being British as by this time the UK had joined the anti-apartheid brigade. However, to be honest about it, I really didn’t fully understand all the ins-and-outs of the problem, so I decided to play a low profile whenever the subject arose. I was certainly not about to abuse their hospitality by becoming embroiled in the matter and inadvertently saying something that I may later regret.

One thing that did surprise me though was that despite the scrupulously clean houses of the whites, it was not an uncommon event among them to be host to the occasional flea! It didn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it would have done a British person, and they appeared to accept it as a fact of life.

One day I was sitting on a low wall, along the Philips’ front driveway, joking and laughing with the children, when suddenly they looked down in horror in the generals direction of my midriff. I thought for a horrible moment that my zip was undone! Then I saw it. Alongside me on the wall was the biggest spider I’ve ever seen – an enormous mustard-coloured one spanning at a guess about five inches. In those days, before I came to live in the tropics and grew more used to the nasties, I was a devout arachnophobic with a skin-crawling horror of the species. My rapid departure from the scene on that occasion would have done credit to the fleetest Olympic sprinter!

One of the many people I was introduced to was a nice guy in his early twenties called Pharoah who was a pilot in the South African Airforce. He very kindly arranged for a flight for me in one of their Harvard training aircraft from the same airfield that we had landed at with our Rapide. I was duly kitted-out with the mandatory parachute (being a military aircraft), and after signing an indemnity form was assisted into the rear seat of the aircraft. After take-off we climbed to a safe height and my new-found friend then proceeded to put the tough trainer through its paces, inviting me to follow through with him, using the rear control stick which had been left in for that purpose. We rolled, looped and spun the Harvard plus a number of other aerobatic manoeuvres. I had the time of my life – whooping with exhilaration like a kid on a helter skelter. My eldest brother had trained on AT-6 Harvards in the States during WW2 and I knew then just how much he must have enjoyed those wonderful aircraft. We landed back on earth all too soon and I counted that as one of my most memorable flights.

My brother Derek, and his wife Barbara, were living in a town called East London, which is some five hundred miles up the coast from Cape Town on the way up to Durban. Having not seen the pair of them since they left the UK many years previously, I was determined to somehow get up and visit them during my stay in South Africa. It would have been great to have flown the Rapide up there but there was simply no way I could justify it, and was certainly in no position to pay for the expenses incurred in doing so anyway.

Whilst I was still pondering the problem, Ron Philips came up with an idea. He had a few new cars waiting for collection at the docks of Port Elizabeth, about a hundred miles or so before East London. He suggested that I could travel up there with the other delivery drivers and after collecting my allotted car, I could disconnect the speedometer and drive to East London to visit Derek and Barbara. Then on my return trip back through Port Elizabeth, I could re-connect the speedo and continue driving the new car back to Cape Town. This way, the prospective new owner wouldn’t notice the extra mileage. There was one big problem though Ron Philips pointed out. All the other occupants of the large American shuttle car that was to take us there were ‘blacks’. I immediately said that as far as I was concerned there wasn’t any problem and if they didn’t mind then I certainly didn’t either. So it was agreed and a couple of days later we set forth late in the afternoon for the all-night drive through to Port Elizabeth, with myself sitting in the back seat between two large ‘blacks’.

They said very little for the first couple of hours except to mumble to each other occasionally in Afrikaans. At our first refuelling stop we got out to stretch our legs whilst the attendant checked the oil and water and cleaned the screens – something I’d never seen done before except in American films. After we climbed back in and got going again, the guy on my left suddenly asked me in perfect English whereabouts I came from? I said “England”. “Yes I know but what part”? I told him and then asked if he had ever been there. He said he’d been in the British Merchant Navy during the war based in Liverpool and had been torpedoed twice in the Atlantic! I was astonished and suddenly had a whole new respect for him. The Merchant Navy had suffered appalling losses during the war in keeping our life lines open and we civilians owed the seamen a great debt of gratitude – without them we would surely have starved.

That broke the ice and for the rest of the long night’s drive we held an animated discussion about everything. Needless to say the subject of apartheid arose, but once again I professed ignorance and somehow twisted the conversation around so that they did the talking and I did the listening. They were a bit guarded in what they said but I gathered they felt very bitter about apartheid and I must confess that I felt rather sorry for their plight.

We arrived in ‘PE’ as they called it just as dawn was breaking and they kindly showed me all the procedures for taking possession of the new car. Mine was an Austin A40 and having unscrewed the speedo cable from under the dashboard, I set course for East London, arriving there a couple of hours or so later on. Derek and Barbara were pleased to welcome me and after a bath I had a sleep to recover from the long drive up from Cape Town.

Derek was a preacher at the local Methodist Church and he invited me along to his service the following day being Sunday. I wasn’t over-enthusiastic about the idea but to avoid giving offence I pretended I was, so along with many others I took my place in one of the pews singing hymns with gusto and listening to Derek’s sermon, which I must admit was very good.

After the church service we all went back to the house for tea and cakes whereupon I was introduced to a number of people who had attended the service also. The ladies still wore their wide-brimmed lace covered hats and the gents wore their Sunday best. In an unguarded moment whilst chatting to one of the ladies I happened to casually remark that I didn’t notice any coloured people in the church? She looked at me in horror and said rather haughtily “No Kaffirs are allowed in our church – it’s strictly whites only”, quickly adding that they had their own church down the road. This rather shocked me but I was careful not to show it and steered off the subject.

Later I was introduced to a fabulous old chap who had long retired as a preacher, being now in his ninetieth year. He held me enthralled relating his tales as a young missionary years before in Darkest Africa. I was in fits when he told me in a most jovial manner that he’s actually been in the cooking pot, not once but TWICE! On each occasion he’d been saved from being boiled alive at the last minute by the timely intervention of other missionaries. What a wonderful character – he would be long since dead by now though, some thirty eight years after that memorable meeting with him – that really made my evening!

Having said my goodbyes the following day, I set out once again for PE and after passing through I stopped and re-connected the speedo as instructed. Ahead of me lay the wonderful Garden Route I’d heard so much about. Presumably we came up from the Cape this way overnight but this time it would be by daylight so I could take in the scenery. Although I had made a relatively early start that morning I knew it was impossible to make Cape Town before nightfall so I decided to get as far as I could by daylight before stopping for the night somewhere.

The scenery was fantastic; right down the south-eastern coastline of Cape Province. I only stopped once on a quiet stretch whilst passing through some grassland, for a quick call of nature. Suddenly as I stood by the side of the car I heard a sharp rustling sound in the undergrowth and out popped a long snake. I shot back in the car and took off rather hurriedly. Towards evening, as the sun lowered into the reddening sky, I came to a small town by the sea called ‘George’, and put up at a nice old Tudor-style Inn. Chatting to a gent at the bar after dinner I happened to enquire how the town got its name? He informed me that it was called after one of the illegitimate sons of King George the Third who was sent out to the Colony in ignominy. The next day’s drive was leisurely and I finally arrived at Cape Town in the middle of the afternoon, after a most pleasant and memorable trip that I will always recall with nostalgia.

A few days after returning from my long drive we were all invited to fly the Rapide to a small airshow at an old WW2 training field called Fisantkraal, now used by a local flying club. I did the flying of course as Anne and the three children came along as well. We were regally entertained by the most hospitable hosts as their guests of honour with our vintage aircraft, especially as they already knew about out epic long flight from the UK. I did notice though that Ron Barker was rather subdued. By now I was consciously aware of the fact that he was champing at the bit to fly the Rapide, having financed the whole venture, and was obviously getting increasingly vexed that he couldn’t. I fully understood his feelings, as no doubt I would feel the same had the roles been reversed, but then I wasn’t the one who laid down the rules in the first instance. Anne was adamant that she and the children would not fly in it whilst he was anywhere near the controls. I felt rather sorry for him but was relieved at the same time. This little wood and canvas flying machine was our passport back to dear old Blighty and I was not about to willingly agree for anyone to practice any Kamikaze antics in her whilst getting acquainted with its numerous vagaries.

When the show ended and we made ready for our departure back to Cape Town, our kind hosts asked me if I’d mind doing a low fly-past over the top before setting course back to our field as our dear old Rapide had been the highlight of the show, having never seen one since the war years. Besides which, they wanted some good air shots of her for the record. Anne and the children thought it was a great idea. Don was otherwise engaged in a lengthy conversation with one of our other hosts at the time so as we climbed aboard ready for departure, presuming he wouldn’t have minded anyway, knowing how he liked low-flying, I mentioned it to him. He unexpectedly grew quite heated and red-faced at the suggestion and angrily retorted about me ‘trying to show off in front of the crowd, and why should he pay for the extra fuel just to give me a few cheap thrills, etc’? To avoid a scene and spoil what had thus far turned out to be a most enjoyable day, I elected to stay quiet otherwise I felt fit to explode at his churlish attitude. I took off and flew in a straight line back to Cape Town with not another word spoken between us, no doubt leaving our group of camera-ready hosts somewhat bewildered at our unexpected departure.

Amongst the many other problems still facing us for our return flight to England was the maintenance record of the aircraft. Before we departed from Biggin Hill, as the Rapide had been used for ‘hire and reward’ in joy-riding – a role for which it was most suitable being a slow-speed 8-passenger aircraft – it had been maintained on what was called a ‘Public Transport Maintenance Schedule’. This meant that it was obligatory for us to have regular checks performed at periodic intervals by a British authorised Engineer with the Rapide on his licence. As this was a private venture we had tried to get a waiver from this requirement prior to departure but it was impossible for a variety of reasons. Therefore we should have had the first check done after fifty hours of flying which occurred somewhere in the middle of Africa, which of course was out of the question at the time – what to do? I was consciously aware of the fact that as we had erred by not having these checks performed when they were due, it was quite likely that the insurance on the aircraft may well have been invalidated. With the uncertainty of our venture into the unknown for the return trip, this facet became somewhat worrisome. I could envisage the problems that faced me on arrival back in the UK without these checks being correctly performed and signed for by a duly authorised engineer, but believing that if I were in fact to make it back to England in one piece anyway, then that would be the least of my worries!

The very nice Chief Engineer at Youngsfield, where our Rapide was parked, fully understood the problem but although he commiserated with us, was unwilling to sign our aircraft logbook without the requisite authorisation from our UK CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). This was impossible to get under the circumstances so we compromised and asked if he would sign a separate sheet of paper to certify that the necessary checks had been performed to his satisfaction. This much he graciously agreed to do for us. Ron and I then set ourselves the task of stripping the cowlings off the engines and removing, or unzipping (being fabric-covered) all the access panels for inspection and rectification where necessary. Our kind Chief Engineer then guided us on what work to carry out under his expert supervision, having explained to him first of course that I already had a fair amount of Aircraft Engineering experience behind me, but never took my licence exams because I concentrated on the flying side instead, which was fairly close to the truth anyway. He took my word for it!

The task took the best part of six days. One big problem that stared us in the face though was that both engine cowlings were sooty-black with exhaust fumes – a fact that had been noticed also by the Chief Engineer. This was the hallmark of engines that had been constantly running rich in the fuel-air ratio. The reason for this was all too obvious. The fuel mixture controls had been removed back in the UK as being superfluous to requirements. This being due to the low-altitude flights in its joy-riding mode, over relatively low-terrain English countryside, where there was no requirement for such controls to be fitted. As they were just one more item of equipment that could maybe give problems if inadvertently selected at the wrong time, they had therefore long since been discarded. I had in fact noticed this before leaving Biggin but paid scant attention to it, having many more important issues to concentrate on. In any case, it had been dismissed earlier in the piece as being unnecessary owing to the low altitudes we had planned to fly at. How wrong I was in retrospect not paying more attention to this detail. I was later to learn that at any altitude above 3,000 feet the mixture controls are necessary. Without it then it would be akin to running ones car along the road with the choke half-out. Had they been fitted, our performance and fuel economy at the heights we were obliged to fly would have improved dramatically. No wonder our cowlings were so black and sooty!

We considered a number of possibilities to try and remedy the situation but to no avail. It was impossible to modify the existing system without the necessary spare parts which would only be obtainable after an exhaustive search in the UK, which by this time (disregarding the lengthy wait involved before arrival), was in the process of imposing embargoes on exports to South Africa due to the apartheid situation. We were therefore resigned to flying the return trip in the same configuration as the outbound flight. Putting such reservations to one side, we continued with the check, under our kind Engineer’s guidance, until completion. With the cowlings replaced, all panels zipped-up, and after a short test flight, we commenced making plans for our inevitable, if somewhat reluctant, departure.

Realising of course the problems that would face us if we dared attempt to retrace our steps the same route we came out, having passports and aircraft documents liberally endorsed with the Republic of South Africa stamps all over them, our only alternative was to choose another route home. There could only be one other way and that was to follow the west coast of Africa from Cape Town to Tangier. On the face of it this offered the prospect of positive navigation at relatively low altitudes, albeit a longer way home, but this was not to be. Fate decreed otherwise!

Immense problems faced us. First and foremost we had no maps for the route, and absolutely no information whatsoever from the Royal Aero Club, who naturally assumed we would be retracing our outbound steps for the return journey. At this point somebody suggested that we contact the Air Attaché at the American Embassy who may be able to help in this respect. I eventually raised him on the phone and told him of our problem. He said “leave it with me – I’ll see what I can do”… The next day he rang and told me to meet him at the Embassy at a pre-arranged time. On arrival at the duly appointed time, he handed me a complete set of WAC US Airforce Route Charts covering the entire flight. An angel in disguise if ever I met one! I simply couldn’t thank him enough. First problem over!

Ron and I studied the charts at length and pondered over the numerous countries we would need to transit en-route, all of which would no doubt require permission and clearance to go through, and of course visas for each of us. Because of apartheid there was not one single country that we proposed going through that were represented in the Republic of South Africa, and therefore no possibility whatsoever of obtaining any clearances. This indeed was the greatest quandary of all…

We toyed with all various schemes and ideas to solve it but in the end we decided that we had no alternative but to heave off ‘into the wild blue yonder’ without clearances and just hope that we could flannel our way along. Doom and gloom descended upon me as I visualised the problems ahead. It was unheard of in aviation circles, and folly in itself, to attempt a flight from South Africa through hostile ‘black anti-apartheid Africa’ without permission or clearances, but what to do indeed!

At least Ron had the remarkable foresight (drawn on past experience no doubt) to have lots of General Declarations printed and liberally stamped with our own (Ron’s actually) cleverly forged stamps of various colours like black, blue, red and green, to confound any inquisitive Customs or Immigration officials en-route. As most of the territories we would be passing through were former British Colonies, lots of stamped paperwork (for which we British were world-renowned) was a must. We therefore hoped that armed with such, our passage through the unknown would be lubricated a little, hoping that being baffled by so much red tape, we would be in and out of their jurisdiction before being discovered. In the end, and being a born optimist combined with Ron’s ‘devil may care’ attitude, we decided to put the problems to the back of our minds and take each day as it came.

One more obstacle confronted us to blight our otherwise rising spirits as the departure day approached. We were informed that due to strictly enforced regulations imposed upon unauthorised aircraft, all flights up the so-called skeleton coast of South West Africa were forbidden because of the diamond fields there. Namibia as it is now called was still under South African control at that time. Lengthy prison sentences were threatened for anyone caught violating these restrictions. We were therefore obliged to fly some distance inland until we had crossed the border into Angolan territory. This necessitated a rapid re-planning and further scrutiny of our charts.

Final preparations for our departure got under way at last. Lots of flight planning and enquiries from all and sundry were made about any unknown hazards ahead. I was still rather unsure of our exact routeing though, especially as most of the WAC charts covering Angola had remarks like ‘Highest elevation unknown’ stamped across them. A visiting pilot at Youngsfield whom I got chatting to about the trip, claimed he knew Angola well and warned me that the spot heights referred to on any Angolan maps were highly suspect. He also warned me that due to the elevation, we would have to fly quite high, certainly in excess of 5,000 feet, most of the time. How I wished we had those mixture controls fitted back at Biggin Hill. We did however manage to contact the Shell fuel company to arrange supplies to be made available at our suggested landings spots which relieved my growing anxiety somewhat.

The day finally arrived for our departure. Our first leg was to be a long one – all the way to a small town called Keetmanshoop in South West Africa (Namibia). The departing formalities were completed without too much trauma, if a little tearful for our four females saying their goodbyes to their new-found friends. And so we all climbed aboard our dear old G-ALGC for the much longer flight back to the UK around the vast bulge of West Africa, with me at least wondering with considerable trepidation, what surprises lay in wait for us ahead…

Author’s note:

Chapter three follows later in what was to prove a most adventurous – if a rather unnerving experience at times – flight back to England.

CLICK here for the first part of ‘Tour d’Afrique’
CLICK here for the second part of ‘Tour d’Afrique’
CLICK here for the fourth part of ‘Tour d’Afrique’
CLICK here for the fifth part of ‘Tour d’Afrique’
CLICK here for the sixth part of ‘Tour d’Afrique’