Life in a Geological Camp in Africa by Trish Jackson

 

My husband worked as a geophysicist for a large international mining group in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He used scientific instruments to probe the ground and identify masses that were denser than the surrounding dirt, which often indicated large mineral deposits.

Our first child was six months old when we locked the doors of our house on the mine compound, settled the dog in the back of the truck, and headed out, towing our travel trailer. A caravan of trucks followed, loaded with the laborers plus all the equipment and camping gear. Rhoda, our nanny, traveled with us.

Empress Nickel Mine couldn’t produce enough nickel, and they needed to find more ore reserves.

This was our second geological camp since getting married. We set it up outside the mine compound on a low rise beside a picturesque dam. Our compound was made up of the travel trailer (our bedroom), the attached tent (patio), bolt-together metal hut (our dining room), kitchen (a pole structure with hessian sides nailed to it and a metal roof), the bathroom (with a tub like you see in cowboy movies), and the long-drop toilet. The hessian was painted with cement slurry which hardened into a thick crust to make it rain-proof.

The laborers set up their own encampment a few hundred feet away from ours, and David’s assistant, Arnold joined us with his travel trailer.

The horse stables on the mine offered free stabling for our horses, and accommodation for our groom, and we rode almost every day, and sometimes at night when the moon was full we would go for a moonlight ride around the lake.

Sam, our camp cook baked delicious fresh bread every day using an upturned metal bucket with hot coals heaped around and on top of it as a makeshift oven. Geologists and other mining personnel from all over the world visited us, and we got to meet some wonderful people.

David and Arnold built a raft out of empty oil drums. It tipped over most times they tried to get onto it. It was only later that we saw the enormous crocodiles that inhabited the lake. Ha ha.

Some evenings we would sing, and Sam and Rhoda would join in and harmonize with us as only Africans can do. It was awesome.

One of the laborers had a portable record player and only two records—My Sweet Lord by George Harrison and Joy to the World by Three Dog Night. He played them repeatedly as loudly as possible every evening. Whenever I hear either song, I’m transported back to that camp. I can smell the wood smoke, the mouth-watering scent of bread baking and the clean air. I can see the scrubby brush and thorn trees, and feel the vibrant essence of Africa.

To write about everything that happened would take way too long and would probably be boring, but here are a few memorable moments worth sharing.

Our first geological camp was on a farm. Bill Mills, the farmer, wasn’t too happy about it until we found a mutual interest in horses. After that, he and his two nieces often rode over in the evenings to enjoy a beer with us. We were invited to a farewell dinner at the farmhouse when our stay was almost up. The food was delicious, but I can honestly say it was the only time I’ve eaten a meal with horses standing in the dining room begging for scraps. Having a horse thrust its head between you and the next person while seated at the dining room table is a little disconcerting even if you love horses, but it will always be a unique and treasured memory.

One day in the second camp, a free-thinking goat broke away from the others in its flock, charged into our camp and jumped onto the kitchen table, sending pots, pans and crockery flying. An angry Sam chased it out, and not be outdone, it ran into our travel trailer and jumped onto the bed, where it stood with its horns ready to butt anyone who dared come near it. It took a while before someone was able to grab one of the horns and lead it out.

There had been a drought, and the Freedom from Hunger Campaign trucks delivered corn and sorghum to the villages scattered around in the trust land surrounding the mine compound. The recipients couldn’t eat it all, so they did what anyone would do with all that grain—made beer. Horses like the taste of brewers’ grains and it gives them extra pep and makes their coats shine, so we traveled from village to village collecting the masese as they called it to feed to our horses. Most times, the villagers were lying around on the ground too drunk to stand up, and brought new understanding to the term ‘paralytic drunk’.

The drought broke, and it started raining, and didn’t stop. The job was completed and we were supposed to go home. We packed everything up, but decided to wait one more day and spend New Year’s Eve 1971/72 at the mine, as they had organized a big party with a great band. The Umsweswe River flooded and rose so high it covered the bridge and made it impassable. No problem. The band was ferried across with all their equipment in a grader or a front-end loader. They played all night, because they had no place to go.

At six the next morning, tired and somewhat inebriated, we wound our way back to camp. The plan was to get a couple of hours’ sleep and then head out. When we arrived, we discovered that the dam had risen overnight and our camp was now across a large body of water on an island. We had no choice but to drive through the water. The waves lapped at the doors but we made it, hooked up the trailer to our little Daihatsu pickup and managed to slip and slide through the water and along the flooded, muddy tracks until we reached the paved road. Thankfully, the river had gone down a little and we were able to negotiate the bridge.

Soon after that, the bush war hotted up and the company instigated a policy whereby no women or children were permitted to accompany their spouses into remote areas.  It was fun while it lasted and those unique memories will always stay with me and make me smile.

Trish Jackson grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, Africa, and lived through some crazy adventures that sparked her imagination; including having to keep a loaded UZI by her side every night in case of an attack by armed insurgents. She loves all animals and often includes them in her stories. She’s happiest with her wonderful family members, or in her country home in Florida tapping out a new novel on her computer. Find out more at http://www.trishjackson.com .

 

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7 thoughts on “Life in a Geological Camp in Africa by Trish Jackson

  1. Micki Peluso

    Trish, this was wonderful!! it had been my childhood dream to live in Africa and Australia and I was able to do that for a little while reading of your adventures. I’ve always been drawn to Africa–maybe I lived there in a past life or one to come. Thanks for an enjoyable read!

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  2. John B. Rosenman

    Trish, you certainly have some wonderful memories to treasure and revisit now and then. What a rambunctious goat! Speaking of memoirs, this certainly qualifies. I’m a little envious. My life hasn’t been so exciting, though I have written of Africa (Nigeria) in one of my novels, A Senseless Act of Beauty.

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