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A Long Gone Africa

PART 4 of Robin Stobbs' 1940's childhood memories

One day our Mum sat Norman and I down and tried to explain that sometimes, family life dosen't always go smoothly, nor as planned, and that the two of us would be going back to Nairobi but she and Dorothy would remain behind

Dad had some months earlier gone back to Nairobi taking Jill with him. I don't recall we fully understood what was going on - not then. Neither do I recall too many tears then, nor when we put onto the train in Grahamstown, though I'm sure there were many on both sides. Perhaps the finality of the situation had not sunk in and this was just another of those temporary life glitches we had experienced before

Once again our lives were to be turned upside down and once again we were leaving what had become a comfortable lifestyle for something unknown

We each had a small suitcase and some pocket money and were sent off with instructions to wait in Johannesburg station, where we would be collected by somebody we did not know and had never seen; but we had a name and contact details written on a piece of paper

Our carriage was shunted off at Alicedale and coupled onto the main line train and off we rushed through the rest of the day and all night. I think our sadness at leaving was tempered somewhat by the excitement of the journey we were making and the anticipation of what lay ahead. All this on our very own; Norman aged 9 and me 10!

Next day we pulled into Johannesburg, the adults in our compartment saw to it that we got off with our luggage and departed, leaving the two of us standing amidst all this hustle and bustle not knowing what to do next, and feeling just a little bit alone and idiotic

We waited and waited - like we had been told to do - and were beginning to wonder if we had been turned out on the wrong platform

We had never before encountered railway stations with more than one platform and here we were on one of dozens of them! Eventually this tall man came up and asked if we were Robin and Norman Stobbs. Relief! I think that by that time we might have followed almost anyone who appeared the slightest bit friendly! Oh yes! The world of yesterday was very different from the one we have today!

We were taken to the Jooste home, a house with huge windows and the most panoramic views overlooking part of Johannesburg city. Mr Jooste had something to do with gold mining - an accountant I think. I have a feeling that he took us to see the mine where he worked but that isn't clear. The only clear memory I have is cracking open my boiled eggs at breakfast on our first morning. As I lifted off the top I saw that the 'white' was green! Ugh! I must have voiced a complaint about having a bad egg because amid peels of laughter we were told that they were Penguin eggs! I probably ate them but I'm sure I didn't enjoy them as much as I might! I'm not sure how long we stayed with the Jooste family - two days perhaps

Early on the morning of our departure day from Johannesburg we were driven to Germiston Airport, given our tickets and placed in the care of an air hostess (that's what they were called back then!). We flew in a South African Airways Lockheed Lodestar to Bulawayo and then on to Salisbury. Norman and I had stepped into a whole new world when we boarded the SAA Lodestar - two excited but bewildered ten-year-old kids wondering what the heck has just happened and feeling just a wee bit lonely and alone now and again

Memories of our home and friends in Kenya had almost faded away; though it had been only two years ago that we left that behind. Now, hopefully, we were going back. But back to what? Would our friends still be there? What home did we have and would it ever be the same with our Mum at the other end of the world? Putting it mildly, we had become two very confused kids!

This was to be our first flight in a commercial aircraft and to us the Lodestar looked HUGE! It seated all of 15 passengers and was indeed a big plane for those days! Two - or three -hundred seat long-haul, pressurised, passenger jet aircraft were not even a dream in those days! We were put up at a hotel in Salisbury and diligently looked after by the flight hostesses

Early next morning we, the passengers travelling on to Kenya, were taken to Salisbury Airport where we were divided into two groups of seven, each to fly in one of two twin-engined de Havilland Rapide biplanes, which were to fly together, and in sight of each other. It seems to come as something of a surprise to many younger people today that in those days not only was ALL your baggage weighed but every passenger was also weighed and assigned a seat according to their weight in order to keep the aircraft's centre of balance within close limits

As luck would have it I was assigned the rearmost seat, on the starboard side, and opposite the entrance door, which looked flimsier and less secure with every mile we flew! I don't remember being airsick (though Norman seems to think we both made full use of the ubiquitous brown paper bag!) and thoroughly enjoyed the flight, and the relatively low level aerial views of the countryside

We might have landed at two or three places en route but I can only recall one short refuelling stop at Broken Hill (now Kabwe) where I picked up a small white quartz stone from the pathway. I kept that little white stone as a memento for many years

Amazing aeroplanes those de Havilland Dragon Rapides. They were metal, wood and canvas biplanes powered by two 200 hp de Havilland Gipsy Six engines. They were nominal eight seaters - that is seven passengers and the pilot (no co-pilot and no cabin crew!). Their range of 573 mi (498 nmi, 920 km) and maximum speed of 157 mph, meant that they had to land every three hours or so for refuelling. Also, with a service ceiling of 15 700 ft, we were always in contact with the ground below and could clearly see the hills and valleys, trees, houses, roads and animals

We stopped for the night at Mbeya in southern Tanganyika and not far north of the border with Northern Rhodesia. The small hotel where we stayed was a short way from the airfield but far enough that we were transported by road. I remember with great glee changing all our money into East African ONE SHILLING notes that evening. We didn't have much money between us but with all that paper money to flash around we felt like millionaires!

As we sat on the verandah after supper we could hear lions roaring in the (not so far off) distance - some hyenas too - after two years absence from the animal noises of Kenya we had forgotten how sound carries on a still African night and what a cacophony they make. We felt very grateful that we had a secure room for the night

At breakfast the following morning, we were told that the people travelling on to Nairobi in the second Rapide would not be travelling with us that day. Apparently those Lions we heard the previous night had munched on the elevators, ripping away much of the fabric covering, and also seriously damaged the tail wheel during the night - no wonder they were roaring so loudly: rubber and aeroplane dope tummy ache must be really awful!

As we flew over the vast plains of Tanganyika (Ngorongoro and Serengetti) our pilot treated us to a series of low-level passes over herds of animals; Elephant, Zebra, Wildebeest, Buffalo and various antelope. Every time he saw a herd of animals he would zoom down to pass low overhead. At least it felt very low though I'm sure at no time did we descend to below 2000 feet

On one occasion the pilot's banking manoeuvre was so violent that I was thrown out of my seat and thumped against that entrance door which, much to my relief and everlasting gratitude to the de Havilland design and engineering departments, was not as flimsy as my imagination had made it out to be, and a reminder to keep the seatbelt fastened!

I think we might have stopped to refuel at Dodoma. Way off to our right the massive 'plum pudding' dome of Kilimanjaro was faintly visible through the clouds and haze - it was almost like a 'Welcome Home' mat on the doorstep

Though we had been away for two plus years; seen and experienced some amazing events and places, we had certainly not completely forgotten our home

Finally we touched down in Nairobi - nearly three full days since leaving Johannesburg. Modern jet airliners, flying at altitudes of six or more miles would take only a few short hours to cover the same distance. But...they would be so high in the sky that one would never see all the mountains and rivers, hills and valleys and the millions of animals quietly doing 'their thing' on the Great Plains of Africa!

Did we land at Eastleigh, the commercial aerodrome at that time, or at Nairobi West (now Wilson Airport) Aerodrome? I'm sure it was the latter though I really can't remember but I do remember being just a little sad that we had completed the circle, and our adventure had ended

Robin Stobbs

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