Monday, 24 June 2013

Lusaka to Mongu in Three Days

As CAA Press Officer, John Roger talked about de Havilland Beavers landing in Mankoya in 1961. He said that Mankoya was on the Zambezi. 

This was the Caption below his photo
Mankoya, a delightful place situated on the banks of the Zambesi River.

Below, if needed, is the proof that he was wrong about the whereabouts of the great River. 

Following is a newspaper article from the Bulawayo Chronicle, kindly sent to David Whitehead by Robin Clay, which describes the first trip by a convoy of motor-cars from Lusaka to Mongu, Barotseland, by way of the recently-completed road.


August 1937

This article also appears in David Whitehead’s book “Inspired by the Zambezi” due out in 2014. A ten page article describing how difficult it was to get to Barotseland before 1937, will appear before the Book in Aeroletters Number 106 entitled “Early Days of Flying to Barotseland” due out in Sept / Oct 2013.

The trip, which was made by the Chief Road Engineer, took three days as compared with three hours by air and three weeks by barge along the Zambezi River.


We accomplished what we set out to do, in spite of a good deal of pessimism, which was to get to Mongu, Barotseland, from Lusaka in three days by road. The bugbear of this journey was Kalahari sand.

We started off with the Paramount Chief's car, which was accompanying us, and reached Mumbwa in 4½ running hours. Here we had lunch and filled up with petrol, as this was the last filling station we should touch until our return. All the petrol for the remainder of the trip was carried on a big lorry.

The first portion of the road to the Kafue River is a new one, and has only been traversed by one or two cars since July. The last 40 miles were pretty rough going, over tree holes, through rocks and round ant heaps. The road runs through pleasant forest country which is flat except for sudden outcrops of enormous rocky mounds and hillocks.


At mile thirty we entered the game reserve, and as if by instinct the animals sense their protection, they were all round us. and we might have been driving through an over-populated Whipsnade. The first indication of game we saw was a herd of buffalo which suddenly rushed up from nowhere. and ran beside the car for some yards. In the fraction of a second, they had changed their minds. turned at right angles, and charged straight for us. The car was brought to a standstill just in time to avoid them dashing into us. Fortunately, they continued straight across the road; with heads down, and tails up they panicked off into the forest, regardless of what stood in their way, grazing large trees, scattering ant heaps, and taking all bushes in their stride.

It took us a moment to collect our scattered senses before we proceeded, but we had not gone more than a quarter of a mile when we saw another herd of about a hundred standing quite close on our right. Much to our relief they started to move off slowly. Two or three of them turned and snorted rather threateningly at us, and for one awful moment it looked as if they were going to give the signal for the whole herd to turn and charge us. However, they fortunately thought better of it as they quite abruptly kicked up the dust and disappeared into the dusk. I felt I'd seen quite enough for one evening's entertainment.

The next sight was a beautiful one of eight sable antelope standing beneath large spreading trees. They were quite unconcerned, and incursions. As we continued our journey every dambo had herds of wildebeest, hartebeest, bushbuck and waterbuck, grazing or returning from their evening drinks at the waterholes. Birds were very scarce, and in some areas might have been non-existent.

All this area is uninhabited by human beings, and filled with tsetse fly, which seem to bite through the thickest breeches. They are especially fond of your scalp, or the tender flesh behind your ears. As dark was now falling the lights of the car, as we went along, lit up many strange unknown eyes in the bush.

We eventually reached our camp on the Kafue River, and the end of the first stage of our journey, at 6:40 p.m. Here we met our three other fellow travellers, who had come so far on lorries. A large camp-fire greeted us cheerfully, and we soon had our beds up, and a three-course dinner on the way. We all retired to bed very early as it was arranged to make a start at 4 a.m. to get the four cars across the pontoon before the daily wind arose. After 9 a.m. it is inclined to be too rough to risk the crossing on a laden canoe pontoon.

The night was bitterly cold, but was only disturbed by a wandering hyena. We were a stir by 4 a.m. The first lorry (a bright flashing scarlet one, which was to prove the delight of all the natives we met) was safely over by 4.30. All the cars and lorries had to be unloaded before doing the crossing, and each return journey took about an hour, as the river is half a mile wide at this point. So it was 9 a.m. before we were all ready to start on the second stage of our trip.

Four hippos watched our movements with great solemnity. They kept bobbing up and down. seemingly conferring with each other as to our doings. Fortunately they stayed at a safe distance. While the pontoon was being built these gentlemen were so curious that they had to be chased away before the natives could be induced to proceed with the work: even then they were not satisfied till they had made two attacks on the pontoon.
Kafue Pontoon

The road from here onwards was rougher than anything one could ever have imagined, and the contact with the roof of the car became quite monotonous. At the end of the journey I never knew I possessed so many bones in my body to ache. Game was most plentiful on every dambo, and standing in the forests as we drove by.
This piece of country is strangely flat with miles upon miles of perfectly straight road running through forest. The surface improved further on, and in a few places we were able to do forty with the greatest of ease. At one part the road narrows, and the trees change to an almost tropical growth. The ground becomes a complete switchback and you might imagine you were driving over the Mountains of the Moon. However, we all cracked and groaned along at about 10 miles an hour. The villages were very few and far between, but any human habitation poured forth its men, women, children and dogs to greet us, as such a sight had only been seen to a very few  of them before. The flashing scarlet lorry put us all in the shade and gained all the attention.


[On Wednesday, the 25th of August, 1937] we arrived at Mankoya without any mishaps about 4 p.m. where we were most hospitably received by the District Commissioner [Gervas Clay] and his wife [Betty]. The Boma consists of two houses, the office, and aerodrome, nearby which was the wreck of a plane that had come to grief a week or so previously. The rising ground of the Boma very pleasantly over-locks a plain, through which one of the few largish rivers flow.

The next morning we left on the last and most difficult lap of our journey. The road for some 40 miles is wide and straight, with a good surface, and runs through forest country, where the game was still plentiful. The monotony is broken by enormous grass plains with herds of game grazing quite peacefully, as there are no inhabitants. Some of these plains are covered with the most amusing little ant heaps that look like a lot of small begging dogs, others resemble miniature castles on the Rhine.

We crossed one large river with several largish villages on its banks, otherwise water is almost unknown except for one or two very small streams spanned by bush bridges.


After our halt for lunch we entered the famous sand of Barotseland, having first deflated our tyres to 101b. Here the vegetation gets scrubby, pathetic, and seems to be struggling for existence. The great secret was to keep moving, and if you had to draw up, to do so on a place where there were leaves or tufts of grass. Every now and again the caravan was compelled to halt to cool off the boiling cars, and fill up with water, of which the lorry carried a good supply for this emergency. With a following wind and a very hot sun we had several boilings and coolings, but eventually began the long ascent of sand into Mongu, with the plains stretching on either side.

This hill was the worst part of the journey as the sand was particularly heavy, and the grade told on the cars. However, we reached the summit triumphantly, only to find that both the Paramount Chief's car and the lorry had stuck half way. As all the villagers were' most excited, and. willing to help they were soon pushed out, and joined the triumphal entry into the capital of Barotseland. We received a great welcome, and much kind hospitality from the residents.


The town is built on a hill overlooking the plain on three sides. The views are very extensive and quite unique. Trees are a rarity; and gardens a problem as water has to be carried considerable distances. There are no reads, as they have never required them, but there are brick paths set in the sand leading everywhere. 

Everyone possesses a precarious looking bush cart propelled on one wheel, which is very much more comfortable than it looks. If you have a baby, there is a contraption like a meat safe attached to the back of the bush cart in which your child travels very ably protected from the flies which seem to overwhelm the entire country.
Whitehead’s Bush Cart 1
Children’s gauzed-in bush car 1
Whitehead family Bush Cart 2


After three days' pleasant stay we started on our homeward journey. Shortly after leaving Mongu the sand proved too much for our car, and she developed a block in the petrol feed. While investigating this we discovered the main leaf of the back spring had gone in two places. This meant crawling home over the 300 miles left of our journey. We bound it up with wood and cowhide, which had to be tightened every 50 miles or so. However, after a hold-up of an hour, with the kind and able help of our fellow passenger, we carried on, and arrived back in Mankoya after a long, hot and tiring run.


The lorry was also beginning to make strange noises of protest at the road's imperfections. It was packed with native passengers, who seized the opportunity of reaching the railway line in three days. Chief among the passengers was a "wanted criminal," with his armed guard.

One of our most lovely sights on the homeward journey was a large herd of zebra which ran along beside us for quite a long way, then shot across the front of the car. A small foal accompanied the herd beside its mother. An alarming sight, though exciting, was a lion sitting in the long grass,. linking his chops, but he disappeared so quickly that we could not pick him up again in the protective colouring of the surrounding bush.

We arrived at the pontoon at 4 p.m. but as the wind was still pretty high, we had to wait a considerable time till it dropped sufficiently for us to make a comfortably and a safe crossing.

It was not until after dark that the big lorry was able to get to the camp on the other side. From here to Lusaka no untoward events occurred, and this ended the journey of the first car to make this trip.


Referring to the previous remark - refuting what John Roger said in ORAFs, that in 1961 CAA Beavers landed at Mankoya, which was on the Zambezi - by the way Mongu isn’t on the Zambezi either, but at least 25 miles away.

There is a canal (5) – see map below - linking Mongu to the Little River which runs eventually, miles away, into the Zambezi. The map is from Gwyn Prins’ book “The Hidden Hippopotamus”, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

 Canals of Bulozi © Gwyn Prins annotated by David Whitehead 
The canals and sluits (sloots) were all dug by King Lewanika’s regiments from 1888 onwards. It was kick started in 1987 by Adolphe GOY, a missionary, who started widening the Sefula stream (6) for canoes to come and go.

It was a truly monumental job by an inspired monarch, undertaken with hand-made hoes and wooden shovels, one could say very much like the epic draining of the FENS by the Earl of Bedford in 17th Century England.

Please note that David’s book is currently being formatted before being printedand this article will appear in his book “Inspired by the Zambezi”. 

About the book, Gavin G Barnett, who wrote Like a River Glorious initially kindly encouraged David Whitehead by saying :-

“Anyone who has grown up and lived on the great Zambezi River will inevitably have a heritage of beautiful and powerful memories. The river itself has such a profoundly interesting geographical history, its pristine beauty and startling scenery is unsurpassed. The river in days gone by was the gateway to Barotseland. Its influence on the Whitehead family and the author’s own boyhood has been powerful and memorable. All this has combined to clamour for a record binding them together. This collection of memoirs is the result of that clamour and of the strong urge the author has felt to ensure it does not all fade into the mists of time. A compelling connection is made between the river and the life of the author”.

Please be advised that I have David’s permission to circulate this story with ORAFs.

All text and photographs are the property of David Lisle Whitehead.

 (Please visit our previous posts and archives)

Ref. Rhodesia

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At 28 June 2013 at 12:54 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Chris Dams (RhAF) Writes:-

I got hold of John Rogers and he is not the Roger in the article. He also said he did not remember anyone of that name from his past.

He used to fly to Mongu using a Beaver which was a regular part of the CAA service. That was not his total experience by a long chalk. He was on Viscounts on the overseas duties for example.

Hope my delay has not upset the apple cart.

At 28 June 2013 at 13:02 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

David Whitehead Writes:-

I hope someone will ask about the Kalahari sand in Mongu. According to a forester I know it was over 100 feet thick. He dug down to look at the roots of a muzauli or mukushi tree.
What was the climate like when all that sand was blown north in days of yore ? The Zambezi cut its way through it of course. Maybe it was the monster sand dunes which blocked the river & made the it flow over the Falls instead of into the huge prehistoric Botswana lake and salt flats.

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