MY GREAT MISADVENTURE
The four massive Rolls-Royce engines below the tailplane of the VC10 growled in anger and anticipation as it prepared for take-off. From a low, deep rumble, it became a thunderous roar, before reaching a crescendo of loud howling, bellowing impatience to be let loose. It was as if the jet were announcing its tremendous power to anything that stood in its path. Then, in an instant, the restraints were off, and we were rushing down the runway, the thrust pressing me against the back of my seat. In moments, we were off the ground and hurtling toward the stars. The slim fuselage of the plane was rocketing me to a different way of living and a new beginning in South Africa. My pulse raced at the sheer thrill as the plane reached a high altitude at an ever-increasing rate. It was an experience I would keep forever. As the air- craft levelled out, the engines settled into a comforting low, continuous roar, like a lion. A fitting symbol on my quest to Africa. A sign of good luck or providence? It was November 1970; I was twenty-five years old.
I needed a fair share of both. With only £35 in my back pocket, a small bag carrying the few decent clothes I could muster, and a bucketful of dreams, it was not much for a better life. But it had to do. I wore my best – and only – suit, together with the new leather shoes my father had paid for before my departure; not for my intended journey, but to make an impression at a job interview before I left. At least they helped me dress appropriately as a passenger on this fantastic jetliner.
Glancing along the aisle, I could not see any vacant seats. In the same way as I had, the women on the flight had taken the trouble to put on their Sunday finest. The African ladies wore brilliant, kaleidoscope-coloured dresses.The gentlemen were less particular – their clothing comprised a mix of jacketed sportswear, smart khaki outfits, a few wore shorts. A number even wore T-shirts, and there were some with open vests. It was no compar- ison with the ladies. But I guessed that this represented many of the characters I might find in Cape Town, my destination.
I was allocated a window seat with a sizeable Afri- can lady beside me. I had given her a friendly smile and said hello when she had sat down but I did not get any response. She sat with her face set rigidly forward. With little knowledge of the country, I would have enjoyed talking to her about South Africa. But I assessed her demeanour as a reluctance to have a conversation. It would be a long flight. Chatting would help to pass the time. She was sat in such an upright, uncomfortable position. I settled down and looked out of the window.
It was a fascinating sight as we left London’s Heath- row Airport. The night was clear and the bright lights of the city of London were sparkling below. Gradually, the other large towns we travelled over diminished in size as we flew higher above the clouds. Eventually, we lost sight of land. All I could see were the clouds below and a full, bright moon in the blackness above. The glow of it illuminated the cabin until the flight attendants pulled down the window shades. It was the beginning of a long journey. It did not take long to read through the somewhat dog-eared magazine in the seat pocket in front of me. I tried to relax, but I was still so excited that I failed badly.
I had purchased a cheap paperback novel at a news- agent in the terminal which I began to read, but with the strain of the last few days with the family, combined with stress and tiredness, the words hurt my eyes and I put it down. With no one to converse with, and too excited to read or sleep, I reflected on how I came to be sitting on this magnificent flying machine hurtling towards Africa.
It was a British Overseas Airways Corporation VC10 with engines at the rear of the fuselage, above which reigned a massive tailplane adorned with its own small fuselage and V-shaped wing. To me the sight of it was like a religious experience. In engineering terms, it was a revelation, a mix of supreme technical innovation and artistry. Without doubt, it was the most magnif- icent piece of equipment I had ever seen. Sleek and regal-looking, with a blue stripe along its body accentuating its length. This manifestation of beauty gave an impression of flight even when the aircraft was still. The sight of it changed everything for me. I felt an overwhelming feeling of confidence flow through me. The very idea of starting my journey in such a fantastic object provided me with a new determination and faith in myself, characteristics long since diminished after months of unemployment, disappointment, and financial struggles. It was what I had to do, a last throw of the dice to get us back on our feet. I knew I would need all the strength and character I could muster. Leaving my wife and children behind in England was the necessary price I had to pay while I set out to reinvent our lives together.
Susie and I had married in 1963 when Susie was seventeen and I was eighteen; we had two baby girls, Carol and Julie. Two beautiful and feisty young ladies, they were seven and five years old respectively, but going on much older when I commenced my eventful journey to Africa. The time I was able to spend with them in those so-important years, due to work, was nowhere near enough, a fact I was to regret over the many years to come. Fortunately, Susie’s mum and dad loved the girls and were always on hand to babysit, as was our elderly next-door neighbour. Marrying so young brought its own pressures, particularly financial, but we worked hard, and married life was good. Thanks to Susie, the help of her parents and others around us, they grew up confident, assured, and well-mannered and we are both very proud of them. As my work levels eased, we were able to enjoy walking and talking with my extremely lively children.
Additional members of our family were our huge Dalmatian dog, Jason, who ate more than all of us com- bined, and Tucker the cat, who had adopted us. Together, we had managed to buy a small house in the South of England, which we had moved into the summer 1966. It was the day that England won the football World Cup. I was twenty-one. It was something of enormous pride to us; we felt we had achieved something incredibly special to have brought our house at such a young age.
In 1965, whilst still an apprentice, in an extraor- dinary stroke of luck, the company who employed me transferred a group of adult staff and me to another plant they had purchased in the east side of London. Unfortunately, the personnel department had selected the adults on their sickness and disciplinary records rather than their skills. This significant error meant that I was the only person transferred with the knowledge and technical ability to operate the equipment. I refused the manager’s request to train the adults as I was still an apprentice on a trainee salary.
The company, having a dire need for my skills, agreed to terminate my apprenticeship early, except for my college days and, overnight, elevated me to the most senior role. It was manna from heaven for a young family like ours. I went about the role with gusto. It never seemed odd to me, a 18/19-year-old, that I should be training my seniors. It was important that the staff acquired the skills on their own, and the company’s, behalf and, as difficult as the early days were, keeping all the equipment running with untrained staff until they gained sufficient skill felt natural to me. We settled into routines, and I was given due respect in return. Nor was it one way: doing so taught me so much about people and, to a degree, managing them. Together with my new position came a considerable increase in pay and benefits which quite probably made me the highest-paid youngster in my field, in the country. As a result, those early years had been good to Susie and me.
Thoughts about ever going to South Africa started with Susie’s brother, Bill, my brother-in-law. It was he and a bunch of his friends who all decided to emigrate to South Africa in 1961. He was single then and took to the African continent as a duck to water. Within a short time, he had set up a business, married and had a family. For him, the move was a great success. He had a passion for South Africa, and he encouraged Susie and me to go there, but circumstances did not allow that to happen. With the memories of his exciting tales of the country and the rosy pictures he painted of life there, he sowed a seed firmly in my mind which remained planted. He was not the reason I went there. Ultimately, the real catalyst to go there was becoming unemployed and our declining financial situation from then on.
But the prospect was triggered from a most unlikely source, my apprentice friends Colin and Brian. Colin had completed the end of his apprenticeship about six months after I joined the company. Wanting to see the world, he travelled and ended his journey in Cape Town. But, missing his girlfriend back home, he returned to England to collect her and take her back to South Africa with him. While in England he met up with Brian and convinced him to go back to South Africa as well. Then the two of them, in a surprise visit to me, turned up at the company I was working for, both sug- gesting I go back to South Africa with them. This being early days since my elevation from apprentice to the top paid position, as tempting as the thought may be, with my recent good fortune and promotion, I turned the opportunity down, giving them a reluctant no.
Our situation seemed too good to be true, and so it proved. It lasted until late 1968. Then, after just over three excellent years, the printing world and our lives changed dramatically. The industry went into a steep decline and I ended up in an extended period of unemployment. We hit severe financial problems. As our situation worsened, I started to think more and more about going to South Africa. But the challenge was that without the funds, it simply was not possible.
With the financial pressure on our family building, with negligible income putting a strain on our marriage, I felt I had to do something radical to get us out of the swamp we were drowning in. The strong possibility existed that we would eventually default on the mort- gage and lose our home – others in the industry were losing their homes – so it left me with few options to consider. Even so, the thought of going to Africa con- tinued to grow in my mind as a potential way to solve our problems.
One evening, an opportunity presented itself out of the blue. I did bar work at a local public house, and I was chatting with one regular customer when he mentioned that he was looking for a small car to buy for his wife. In a flash, I saw my escape route. Sell the car and go to South Africa. Without thinking much more about it, I told him I had an excellent little car for sale which he could buy. He bought the car and I bought myself an airline ticket to Cape Town the very next day.
A local travel agent found a flight deal at the price of the money I had from the sale, which included a stay in a basic hotel on a bed and breakfast basis. She said it was a new promotion airlines were selling now called a package deal, but I could change the return date if required. It also came with transfers to and from the airport and hotel. The agent convinced me that it was a good deal. With what little money was left, I paid the mortgage and household bills for a few months. I hoped that the few pounds left would last until getting paid employment in South Africa.
Returning home from the travel agents, I could not believe that I had done it. I was going, and that was that. The next challenge was going to be telling Susie, the girls, our families, and friends. The flight I had booked was leaving in two weeks’ time. I had a plan of sorts, to find a job there, get established and then have Susie and the girls join me.
There was no question that going to South Africa was a huge gamble, but I had been bolstered by the success stories of Bill, and hearing about how well my friends Brian and Colin had done for themselves in such a short space of time in South Africa. I desper- ately wanted a life that promised more than working myself to oblivion in England. The good times, which you never think will end, had taken a reverse path. I was out of work, out of money, and out of ideas. This was the driving force that resulted in me sitting in the window seat on the amazing British Overseas Airways Corporation VC10 aircraft.
I left England for South Africa, with only £5 in my pocket, and £30 begrudgingly given to me by my father on the way to the airport, plus a low-limit bank card. Getting work to fund my stay was vital. However, despite the impetuous nature of my actions, I was fortunate to have a few significant things going for me.
The first and most important was Susie, who, despite being devastated about me leaving her (per- haps, in her eyes, never to return), accepted what I felt I had to do and never once held it against me. The other was sheer, unadulterated luck. Fortune against fate had so far kept me alive and relatively healthy in circum- stances of extreme danger, where many others might not have been so lucky. It had lugged me through thick and thin. But ever since early childhood, I had had a most peculiar proclivity for putting myself in harm’s way. It never occurred to me that in Africa, this tendency would continue! What I did not know then was that during this journey, I would face the fear of an imminent loss of mortality, and the possibility of a tragic end, on more than one occasion.
So naïve and unprepared was I, that with minimal cash to my name, I set about doing the crazy, imbecilic things that I did. I had done little preparation for the trip. All I knew about Africa was from bits and pieces I had read or seen on the television, or from what Bill and my two friends had told me.
The sudden nature of my decision had created divisions in my family, particularly with my father, but also with several friends. In hindsight, maybe I should have listened to the doubters. But it was not a concern I could countenance. So I left home, perhaps more in hope than expectations, determined to find a new and better life in South Africa – not just for my own sake or personal satisfaction, but for Susie and the girls. I was determined to prove those doubters wrong.
The VC10 may have been a fantastic aircraft, but never had I sat in a fixed position for so long. My body ached and I was uncomfortable. I had been slumped in the seat and now my best and only suit was crumpled and creased. The new interview shoes my father had paid for had made my feet feel cramped and painful; I had removed them shortly after take-off. Still only half dozing now and again but still unable to sleep, I picked up the book again, but unable to concentrate I still could not get past the opening pages. I put it away. My mind kept returning to Susie and the girls and all those I had left back in England.
The excitement I had felt when boarding the aircraft had dissipated.The journey now felt everlasting and dull with nothing to see through the porthole windows. It was predominantly a night flight, and so far above the clouds, there was little new to see. But approaching the latter stages of the trip, the bright white moon and clouds had transformed themselves into what appeared to be a permanent golden sunset, with red streaks of cloud. The sight did revive my senses a little but was short-lived before returning to darkness. The only exciting part of the flight came when the food and drink was served. I was surprised by how good the food was. My funds being low, I opted to drink water instead of alcohol.
After what seemed like an eternity, the captain’s voice came over the speaker, announcing we would shortly be landing at Entebbe Airport, Uganda. I could not believe what I was hearing: this was news to me. The travel agent had said the flight would stop at Johan- nesburg Airport. Once there, I would get off and then stopover for a few hours until catching a connecting flight to Cape Town. It had sounded straightforward and comfortable enough. But Uganda was a long way from Johannesburg.
Nothing showed on the flight ticket or had been indicated elsewhere. It was shocking news. Not least because there had been plenty of newspaper and televi- sion coverage in England about a civil war there. Reports had included fierce fighting and atrocities occurring in Uganda under a politician named Milton Obote. Obote was being opposed by an army general called Idi Amin. England was supporting Amin to be President. I thought it was madness to be landing in a war zone. Was something wrong with the aircraft? Why would they stop in a country at war with itself? I was unable to get the attention of a flight attendant to ask her. Nobody else appeared bothered about stopping there, so I had to assume they must know what they were doing, even if I did not. I thought it must be all right, even if it was strange.
Sensing the aircraft gently losing altitude, the flight attendants switched the cabin lights on, bathing the passengers in bright lights, waking them up. Everything stepped up in pace. The attendants were coming and going at a fast rate up and down the aisle, asking people to sit up and adjust their seat belts in readiness for land- ing. They collected cups, glasses, and debris from the passengers. Shortly after, we started dropping sharply, and a voice on the speaker told us to buckle up ready for landing at Entebbe Airport.
Outside was pitch black with bright moonlight. From the window, I could see a vast expanse of concrete and a few small buildings. As the aircraft banked and turned, I saw a magnificent reflection of the full moon on the water. It looked at first to be a sea. The reflection I had seen was a mirror image so there were no waves. But then, thinking back to the television reports, I remem- bered that Uganda was landlocked. It was Lake Victoria I had seen. My excitement rose, the shock of landing in Uganda overtaken by the anticipation of taking my first steps in Africa.
Before landing, a flight attendant had been giving information over the speaker, which seemed directed at the South African passengers, mentioning South Africa several times. The other flight attendants walked down the aircraft aisle and collected passengers’ pass- ports and wallets, including mine, but I did not know or ask why. I had only taken one prior flight – a short camping trip to Guernsey – and I had never flown internationally before. So I was not aware that taking passengers’ identity documents away was an unusual thing to happen.
I heard only part of what was said on the speaker, because at the time I was bending down, searching under the seats for my shoes. Having removed them, they had rolled away on the floor under the seat in front. It was a struggle, but finally, I found them and managed to hook them back with my feet. If finding the shoes was problematic, then trying to put them on was near impos- sible. My feet had swollen up like footballs. I decided to wait until they had switched off the seat belt sign before trying again.
By the time I had forcibly squeezed my feet into the shoes, everyone else had left, even the flight crew and cabin staff. I doubted they could see me fighting to get my shoes on behind the seat. Several vehicles and people in overalls were around the aircraft. They all ignored me as I descended the steps delicately with my compressed feet.
Reaching hard concrete, I followed the other pas- sengers. I could not believe how hot it was. An oppressive blanket of heat smothered me even though it was the dark, early hours of the morning. I could see that it was a long walk over to what I supposed was the terminal building, but catching up was not possible – I could not walk correctly or quickly in the shoes.
My movements resembled a person treading on hot coals, every step was so painful. When I eventually reached the low, glass-fronted building, all the other passengers were just milling about, some seated in the few wooden chairs available or standing at the small bar. The heat was sweltering. My feet were aching following the long and uncomfortable walk from the aircraft, and I started to feel anxious and out of place. Suddenly, the earlier surge of confidence in my decision to go to Africa deserted me, and I felt alone and extremely vulnerable.