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Hank's Working on the Rhodesia Railways

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Working on the Rhodesia Railways

After three months training in Salisbury, I was transferred to Livingstone, close to the Victoria Falls, which I found much more agreeable. But the house I’d been promised before I left England to join the Railways hadn’t materialised and I was getting restless. I had a new wife waiting to join me, but I had to wait until I was provided with suitable living accommodation.

I had a very brief affair – nothing sexual – with a train-driver’s wife. It was to lead to the most frightening experience of my whole life.
Guards don’t get the same driver very often and I think I had only worked with this particular driver once before. I hadn’t known that he’d found out about me entertaining his wife to dinner in my quarters.

The night I worked with him we had a cattle train. The stench probably drifted for miles and would certainly have been picked up by every lion within a ten-mile radius.

These were the thoughts flashing through my mind as we pulled into Zanguja, a siding that was notorious for lions. The RR rule was that if two trains had a crossing, the guard of the down-train (the train travelling southwards) had to go to the points and signal the other train through – when it arrived, which could be hours later. Once the last carriage had passed, the guard would switch the points, let his own train out of the siding – very slowly – switch the points back to the main line, lock them (with a padlock) and run after the slowly-retreating guard’s van, jump on board, and signal to the driver to pick up speed.

That is the normal procedure.

This night was going to be very different.

Zanguja was a siding that always unnerved me and I felt particularly reluctant to trudge the whole length of the train and a further couple of hundred yards past the engine to the points.

As luck would have it, the other train was already waiting for us. With two snorting Garrard engines spitting embers and black soot into the night and only a couple of hundred yards apart, I felt their snarling presence would deter any adventurous lions until both trains had left.

I signalled the other train through, changed the points over, and signalled to my own driver to pull out. As my guard’s van passed over the points I switched them over, fiddled with the padlock until it snapped shut, and started to run after my van.

Except that it was now disappearing into the distance and picking up speed all the time.

It took only a couple of seconds for me to realise that my driver had dumped me. And a couple more seconds for me to work out that the driver was Carole’s husband and he had obviously found out about that evening.

I thought it was going to be about four hours before another train was due to pass through Zanguja. The question in my mind was whether I could survive four hours in the middle of the night with the smell of the cattle still hanging heavily in the air – and likely to remain there for most of the night.

The red tail light of my van had disappeared into the blackness and even the barking sounds of the engine were fading away into the night. I knew for certain that I had been stranded. The fact that the train hadn’t pulled out slowly showed the intentions of the driver.

There is no such thing as the silence of the jungle at night. Lions and leopards, particularly, hunt at night. Leaves and branches move, not propelled by wind but by some other force. Animals, by some magical instinct beyond my comprehension, rarely – if ever – seem to step on a twig and announce their presence. But you know they’re there, just the same. They’re watching and waiting.

To say I was frightened would be the understatement of my life. None of the subsequent close-shaves I would have in later years would compare to the fear that consumed me that night. Why I thought of Shakepeare’s lines from Julius Caesar I don’t know, except for their appropriateness ...

Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once ...

There was no doubt I died many times that night.

Every movement from a nearby bush sent the blood pounding through my arteries, crashing into my heart and brain. My mind flashed back to tips I’d been given by other ‘veteran’ guards:

‘You can always tell if it’s a lion – the eyes are yellow.’
‘You can always tell if it’s a lion – the eyes are brown.’
‘You can always tell if it’s a lion – the eyes are green.’

That just about covered every possibility.

I was armed only with my guard’s lamp and a small hand torch. Whenever I heard a nearby movement I would spin round and shine my torch in that direction.

I would see eyes flashing at me, but I was confused. Yellow, brown, green. The eyes were always one of those. But would they belong to a lion or some other, less dangerous, creature?

I developed a survival strategy. Whatever the direction of the eyes, I would retreat to the other side of the points – which had a metal sticking straight up. If a lion sprang at me, I reasoned, it would crash into the rod. Not much protection, I knew, but it was all I had.

I survived the night but I can say, fifty years later, that it was the most frightening experience of my life. Probably the only time I have known real fear.I had three other experiences with lions – directly and indirectly – during my eight months spell in Northern Rhodesia.

One time was at another crossing. I was sitting at the points waiting for a train, which was already about two hours late. Twilight had fallen while I sat there, which lasts for only a few minutes. I saw a lioness staring at me – probably wondering how many meals she would get out of me.

This time I had a revolver, which I’d bought soon after my Zanguja experience. I fired one shot in the air and the lioness sprang away instantly.

This was more like it!

Another time, I climbed out of my van about to walk to the points. The other train was already waiting. It had grown dark since the last time the train had stopped, so I paused to light my red rear light before beginning the trek up to the points.

I was clinging to the back of the van when I heard this almighty roar only feet away. I didn’t even stop to look round. I dropped my guard’s lamp and shot back into the van, slamming the door shut.

After that I wouldn’t move.

Several times over the next few minutes the driver signalled to me with engine whistles that the other train was waiting for me.

I didn’t budge.

Eventually I heard footsteps and the driver appeared at my van door.

‘What’re you doing?’ he said, his voice tinged with anger. ‘Didn’t you hear me whistling you?’

‘I did,’ I told him, ‘but there was a lion out there. He was about to spring at me.’

‘Bullshit,’ he snapped. ‘There’s nothing out here. You were asleep.’

‘You can see that I dropped my lamp down there.’

He didn’t want to hear any more and span round and walked back to his engine. I wanted to point out to him that the guard was in charge of the train, not the engine driver.The third occasion was the saddest one. We (different train) arrived at a small station called Simba. Whenever I called there I would go into a small hut where Snowball, an elderly native so-called because his hair was turning grey, always had a kettle of boiling water for guards and drivers. We would fill up our cans to make tea on the journey.

More than that, when I had time I would sit in his hut and listen to his tales of Africa. He was enthralling, and a lovely old man.

This particular day the whole station was in commotion. We were told that only minutes before our arrival a lion had burst into Snowball’s hut and dragged him away into the bush. Although a group of men quickly chased after him his body was never found.

Although Snowball was soon replaced by someone else I could never again bring myself to enter that hut. I was too saddened by his tragic loss.One other brush with animals in the wild was on a trip from Livingstone down through the Wankie Game Reserve.

Many trips from Livingstone took us to the Victoria Falls. Sometimes the train would stop on the railway bridge cross the Falls and I would stand in my doorway marvelling at the sheer splendour and majesty of this wondrous sight.

Oftentimes I would wander off from the Victoria Falls Hotel and visit the baboons, which were always nearby on the fringes of the hotel. But they were unpredictable and sometimes they were threatening and would chase me off. Their sinewy arms belied their great strength and they could snap a man’s arm like a twig. To say nothing about what they could do with their long yellow fangs.

This one time I had a crossing with another train in the Wankie. Here the known dangers usually came from elephants, not lions.

I could hear the trumpeting nearby. One thing about elephants is that they seldom hide their presence. They don’t need to. But one young tusker appeared out of the bush while I was about halfway between the engine and the points. He appeared very angry – perhaps his anger was meant for the bellowing engine, which he might have seen as some sort of threat, but it was directed at me.

I sensed it was about to charge and I knew I could not outrun it back to the safety of the engine. So I summoned up the words of advice I’d been given by the sages.

‘Elephants won’t cross over railway tracks.’

If that advice was as valid as that of the lions’ eyes I felt I was doomed. But it was a hot sunny day and I felt more confident being able to see.

So when it did break into a lumbering charge I leapt very nimbly over the track and stopped a few yards on the other side. When you see an elephant charging with the frantic trumpeting telling you you’re about to be trampled into the dust, it’s the ultimate test of confidence – or desperation. Bravery didn’t come into it because I had no other choices. There was nowhere for me to go. Shinning up a tree was no defence against an angry elephant. And even I knew that my puny revolver wouldn’t do any more than cause him a minor irritation.

To my amazement, the elephant came to an abrupt halt feet away from the track. It snorted and hollered at me, beseeching me to come back to his side and face him like a man. Or he may have been calling me every kind of coward in elephant language. But I stayed my side and actually began to feel triumphant. A victory of brain over brawn – or something like that.

The engine driver had seen what was taking place and started blowing his whistle. The elephant turned towards the engine, and I witnessed this incredible battle of sounds – engine bellowing against elephant and vice versa. Eventually the elephant backed away and I felt long forgotten. Then he turned and suddenly disappeared into the bush.

I continued on to the points, blessing my good fortune. And thanking whoever had given me the good advice.The only other encounter I had that was quite frightening at the time was when Charlie, a Rhodesia Railways clerical officer, invited me to go fishing with him on the Zambesi. I’d only attempted fishing once before in my life, as a schoolboy, and didn’t take to it at all. I didn’t like attaching a maggot to a hook and even less did I like pulling a hook out of a fish’s mouth. In fact I wouldn’t do either – calling someone else to do it for me.

So when Charlie invited me to join him it was with very mixed feelings that I accepted. Only to keep him company, I’d said.

He’d been in Livingstone for a couple of years and had bought a new car, which made a change from all the old ‘bangers’ I’d become accustomed to.

We drove to a spot that he said he used regularly.

‘Good fishing here,’ he’d told me.

I didn’t mind eating the fish so long as I wasn’t expected to catch them, I told him.

The Zambesi is one of Africa’s mightiest rivers. At the part he’d chosen, the river was very wide and flowing gently along. The day was very hot – as it always was at any time of the year – and the water looked tempting.

‘I feel like taking a dip,’ I said. ‘Have you ever swum here, Charlie?’

He was busy unpacking his rods. ‘No. I wouldn’t advise you to, either.’

‘What is it – a strong current?’

‘No, not the currents ... the crocodiles.’

The words had hardly left his lips when there came a thunderous crashing from some nearby bushes. A huge crocodile was lumbering towards us. Despite its awkward movement, it was deceptively fast.

Simultaneously, Charlie grabbed his rods and we both scurried back to the car that was parked about twenty feet away. The crocodile, satisfied that it had chased us away from its territory, gave up the chase and contented itself by throwing warning hisses at us not to return again.

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