In 1974 we had the opportunity to run a cattle and sugar cane farm near Dondo, Sofala, Mozambique. At the time, there was fighting occurring in the country between two factions, Frelimo,and Renamo. However, even knowing the precarious and potentially dangerous situation we decided to chance our luck and moved into the large, isolated, air-conditioned house on the banks of the Pungue river, just off the main road to Beira, taking with us our Wolfhound, Mr. Murphy. Our daughter was nearby across the border at a small boarding school in the Eastern Districts of Rhodesia, and it would be convenient to visit her there.
There was a telephone in the house. Unlike any telephone I have encountered. It looked normal, but it had no number, and no dialling tone. Our “number” was “The English on the Pungue” ! When we wanted to make a call we would pick up the phone, there would be total silence, and so we had no idea if it was free or engaged. We then had to say “Sta” and if no one replied we had to turn the handle a few times frantically and wait and wait and wait, but saying sta every few moments. At last someone would answer (that is if the line wasn’t engaged). My Portuguese being fairly rudimentary I would look up in my book what I needed to say beforehand, but then the operator would reply in Portuguese of course, and I would have no idea what she was saying! Our daughter attempted to telephone us from school. She had to get hold of the telephone exchange in Rhodesia, they would ask her what number she wanted and, of course, she would say “The English on the Pungue” – there was much disbelief and amazement, but she did manage to persuade them and managed to get through to us.
We would often visit the Seaman’s Mission in Beira and would take our Wolfhound, Mr Murphy, with us in the back of the pickup. All along the road we would encounter road blocks manned by police and Frelimo and we would be stopped and searched. Very often there would be hopefuls standing around and the officials would ask us to give lifts to one or two. This was hard to refuse, but we would point to the back of the pickup and say, yes, hop on. Usually, on seeing the very large dog they would decide not to join us. I must say though that Mr Murphy, like most Wolfhounds, was the most gentle and mild creature. It was merely his size that was daunting to the would-be travellers.
Shopping was interesting. I was told about a butcher who would sell us a few cuts of beef and so off we went to put in an order. We were always used to buying T-bone steaks, fillets, roasts, mince, sirloin and so on. After much sign language and halting Portuguese I managed to tell the butcher what I wanted, and said we would call back in a couple of days to collect, and so would he keep it all in the deep freeze. We called back two days later. Two of the butcher’s assistants came to the vehicle struggling under the weight of a huge plastic bag, all frozen solid. Happily, we went home and offloaded it onto the kitchen table. I opened it up expecting to take out each cut of meat in its own individual plastic bag. But no. The whole order, every cut, was lumped together in one, solid, mixed up frozen mass. Nothing dividing the different cuts from each other, not in separate plastic bags. We had to allow it all to defrost overnight before we could pack it up again and put in our deep freezer.
The shops in Beira were quite depleted. There was little on the shelves and the meat counters seemed quite deadly, with most of it looking green and quite smelly. There had been a restriction put on the amount of alcohol you were allowed to buy, that is one beer per customer! To arrange a party, or just to have a few drinks at home, meant you had to go to several stores buying one beer from each place, and each person you were with buying his or her one beer, but paying for it separately .
Another shortage was cash, particularly silver coins. These apparently were being hoarded and then melted down by enterprising people, who then formed it into earrings, necklaces and the like for sale. And so, when paying at the counter in a shop they would have no change. You would pass over your note, and be given a fistful of chewing gum instead of coins.
We would occasionally go across the border to visit our daughter at school and there were always road blocks where we would be searched. Usually there would be a couple of policemen, immaculately dressed complete with pure white gloves, and at least one or two Frelimo soldiers. They would be scruffy and usually wearing a motley selection of hats, for instance baby bonnets complete with frills and ribbons. And all heavily armed with their AK rifles, bayonets fixed, hand grenades on their belts. They were usually always polite but you never knew. Peter was an avid snake fundi (expert) and collector for the Bulawayo and Umtali Museums and he had the brainwave to take a couple of live samples with us on one trip, the idea being that the men at the road blocks would see the snakes, drop back in horror and allow us through straight away. This, however, had the exact opposite effect. They were surprised, intrigued, amused, afraid, but then proceeded to call across to all their mates to come and see the snakes in the penga murungu’s car (mad White man). And, of course, Peter then became engaged in conversations about the snakes and why they were in the vehicle. It turned out to be our longest stop at a road block! Another time we were invited by the very polite and immaculate policeman to search our own suitcase! He had no gloves, and he said his hands were dirty. And so we went through the charade of opening our suitcase and turning a few items over, and pushing them to one side as he looked on. Needless to say, there was nothing in them that should not have been. Well, we didn’t find anything.
My parents were going on holiday to England and offered to take our daughter, then aged eleven, and so we arranged her flight from Beira to Johannesburg with the airline making a chaperone available to travel with her until she reached Johannesburg there to be met by my parents. The three would then continue on to London. She was due to fly out on the Monday and on the Sunday afternoon we were relaxing, playing scrabble, when we suddenly heard machine gun fire. Then explosions. We sat tight for a while and when it seemed to have died down Peter went outside to see what was going on. It turned out that some members of the Portuguese army were shooting into the dam and and thrown hand grenades into the water to kill the fish which they then gathered up and took away. We were quite relieved, having thought the war had come to our doorstep.
The next morning we drove into Beira and saw Carol off onto the plane with the chaperone ready and waiting to take care of her during the flight. Arriving safely in Johannesburg, she was met by her grandparents who later that day boarded the plane to London to meet family members and for Carol to see snow for the first time in her life. She was returned safely to us a few weeks later.
One day we all decided to go to the beach at Rio Maria, north of Beira. We parked the car behind some sand dunes and Peter and Carol headed off over the dunes to have a swim while I sat reading in the shade. They seemed to be gone quite a while and I could hear shouting, and then suddenly over the dunes came Carol with Peter who was in some distress. He was coughing and vomiting badly with Carol trying to support him. He had been dragged into the sea by a treacherous current and had had to shout at Carol not to try to go in to help him knowing she would have been dragged under. He had at last managed to get back onto the beach. He was in a bad way, but we managed to get him into the car while I drove back to the house where he collapsed into bed.
It was very hot at that time of the year and I had decided Carol should move from her bedroom into our adjoining dressing room so that she could enjoy the benefits of our air conditioner providing we left our door open. Peter gradually improved and had something to eat. At last, with air conditioner going full blast and feeling relieved to be home we all settled down to sleep.
It wasn’t long before I heard voices. Peter was asleep. I got up and without putting on the lights, peered through the curtains and saw a group of six Frelimo soldiers outside in the garden. I quickly went over to Peter and woke him, whispering to him what was happening. After the trauma of the afternoon this was the last thing we needed. The next minute there was urgent and imperative knocking and shouting at the front door. We had no choice but go and see what they wanted. As Peter went to the front door, I quickly got dressed, not wanting to be in night clothes when they came in. I could hear them talking as they came into the house and this continued for some time. Eventually they came into the bedroom demanding to see our passports and wanting to search the wardrobes for weapons. There were weapons there but they belonged to the man from whom we had leased the farm and were stacked at the very back of one of the cupboards. In order to look inside they had to step over Carol lying on the mattress I had placed on the floor for her. As one of the men stepped over her she woke up. She merely looked up at them grumpily, turned over and went back to sleep!
Of course, they found the rifles and took them to another room. There they listed them onto a form and began to search the rest of the house, going through private letters and documents which it seemed they couldn’t understand as they were all in English, and had to keep asking us what they were all about. At this point Peter decided it would be diplomatic to offer them some beers while I remained in the bedroom wondering what on earth was going on. At last the voices ceased and the front door slammed shut. They had gone, taking the weapons with them. It had been a tense few hours, never knowing which way the situation would go .as they had quite obviously been drinking before they came to us,
This event quite shook us up and we made the decision to leave. On our way back to Rhodesia we called in to see friends who were ranching at Lamago and told them what had happened and that we had decided to leave. They persuaded us to first join them on a trip they were making to a holiday resort at Inhossoro. We all arrived and were treated wonderfully. Due to the unstable situation they had had very few tourists and we dined on delicious seafood and spent time on the beach all together. At last it was time to go our separate ways. They headed off back to their ranch to face a possible visit by Frelimo and we continued back to Rhodesia. We never saw them again.