If memory serves me right, in March 1968, when still living in Johannesburg, South Africa, my parents and I were scheduled to take a bus tour of Rhodesia, known since 1979 as Zimbabwe. Monday, being the first workday of the week, was to be our departure day.
On the Saturday night before our holiday, our neighbor’s daughter, Daphne Gillis, then about 25 years old, came over at about 9.00 p.m. to tell us that her father had literally dropped down dead in their kitchen. We had been living across from each other for about twenty years, but as I remember our parents were never on first name terms, whereas the other Jewish residents in the area were more informal. Daphne and my sister had been best friends from childhood, but my sister had married young, too young, and they had drifted apart.
Both the Gillis parents were from Eastern Europe and spoke good but accented English. Mrs. Gillis, often we thought, boasted that she had gained a matriculation certificate in Russia, making her the most educated of all her Jewish peers. No one understood the significance of this achievement. Mr. and Mrs. Gillis, like many other Jews, including my parents, owned a business in the center of Johannesburg. Buying a new car every few years, was the norm, but the Gillis family drove an old banger from the forties, similar to those seen in the black and white war films, eventually purchasing a more modern vehicle in the mid-sixties. No one in our street, however, thought it necessary to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’
Mrs. Gillis was at that time employed in a department store in the nearby high street shopping area. The company covered her medical bills, so she was obliged to call in their doctor on the night of the tragedy, who although also Jewish, did not know the family. Apparently when Mr. Gillis fell he hit his head on the edge of the stove, causing a trauma. The doctor called the police in case Mrs. Gillis had bashed her husband over the head. The neighbours who had by now gathered in support of their friend deemed this scenario utterly ridiculous, but the law is the law. The police requested me, I had worked as a nurse during the holidays, and my father was averse to death, to witness the body of the man I had known before I had memory, being taken to the coroner’s van for autopsy. It was indeed a sad moment.
In light of this tragedy, my parents decided to cancel their holiday, but saw no reason for me stay home. It is a tradition in our family not to go into a cemetery if one’s parents are still living. This left me to an experience free of parental restraints, without which the following story may have been different.
Monday morning came and my father took me to rendezvous with my fellow holidaymakers and the two minibuses with their driver/guides. The group was about even when divided by age, some older and more sedate, and others including myself younger and more adventurous. The senior guide took those who were more compatible chronologically and those of us looking for more action were fortunate in having a young man, Johnny, who was new to the company and had never been to Rhodesia. Johnny was gung ho and our group was most fortunate to accompany him.
Our journey north through South Africa ended, and we entered Rhodesia across Beit Bridge and into the small town of the same name, in honor of Alfred Beit, a German Jewish mining magnate. Here as I remember we had lunch and I had my first encounter with ‘white meat’. I had lived in a university hostel and seen and smelled breakfast bacon, but never pork in its ‘pure form’, perhaps being too expensive for the dormitory’s budget. I asked Johnny, who perchance was alongside me at the buffet table, what this meat was. He told me, and explained that the covering fat was called ‘crackling’. Although it looked delicious, I gave it a miss.
Our next destination was Bulawayo, meaning ‘place of slaughter’ in the Ndebelelanguage, and the second city of Rhodesia and capital of the southern state, Matebeleland. We stayed in good hotels all the way, with fine dining. One evening we sat down to our meal, and across from me was a middle-aged white man with a younger pretty girl of color. I was intrigued, as under the terms of ‘the immorality act’ interracial dating was banned in South Africa, and a jail-able offence. I did not see this outside the metropolitan areas, as there was more racial awareness among the farming community, which included many ex-pat English people.
Johnny, as I said, was young and willing to take his passengers out on the town after hours, a policy not encouraged, but not specifically against the rules. There was a core of five of us who were lucky to share in these adventures. Betty, in her mid-thirties was from England, Carly a petite, pretty blonde, twenty something, from Australia, Mick, a Scot, in his early thirties who worked with the British military building airstrips in Saudi Arabia, myself and Johnny. Mick gave me a Saudi banknote, of little value, which I still have somewhere at home. I don’t remember much about my companions, as memories have faded after more than forty years.
Bulawayo was the scene of my initiation into the ‘sleazy’ world of ‘real’ nightclubs. I had been dancing with my friends and dates to youth ‘nightclubs’ in Johannesburg, even buying alcoholic drinks, my favorite being, vodka or gin, with limejuice and lemonade. We considered ourselves very adult and sophisticated. The only entertainment, however, was a live band. Now here all of twenty-one or two, I saw my first and as far as I can remember my only live striptease. The young blonde, what else? was of course very pretty and came out in a long svelte sparkling green dress. In my dotage I still remember the important details of my youth. I imagine that part of the routine is to pick out the most suitable men to help her disrobe. My fresh-faced, youthful look perhaps gave her the impression that it would be entertaining for the audience, especially if I made a fool of myself. She approached and enticed me to undo one of the garters holding up her stockings. Pantyhose had been available for the past six or seven years, but one can’t take roll them down, one sexy leg at a time! I fumbled with the catch and eventually succeeded in freeing the stocking. In spite of the dim light, my blush was probably visible to all. The stripper then gyrated some more to the music, removing more clothing. When left with only a bra and bikini bottom, she once more moved in my direction swaying her hips to the rhythm of the seductive music and presented me with the strap of her bra. Now this I knew how to handle! I may not have been a Don Juan, but I was no novice either! I did the necessary most adroitly! But, due possibly to the conservative culture of the time, the erotic dance ended when the young lady was still wearing two green tassels and a green G-string. Disappointment showed on all the male faces.
We drank and smoked more than was wise. Leaving to go back to the hotel, and get some sleep before our usual early start, we stole one or two cheap tin ashtrays. All of us, including Johnny, the driver, were slightly inebriated. At the time I was a pharmacy student. One of the companies had given me tablets that they claimed prevented hangovers, if taken before drinking. I don’t remember if it was efficacious. Looking at the booty later, we saw to our amusement, “Stolen from the Stork Club, Bulawayo” engraved on the rim. This was one of my most daring youthful adventures. Maybe I should not regret the folly of my youth, but the timidity, to paraphrase Mason Cooley, an American English professor.
The next morning we visited the nearby Matopos National Park, renowned for its amazing rock formations. Pounded by millennia of rain and wind, the rocks balance one on the other, sculpted by a divine Michelangelo.
We continued our way towards the Wankie National Park, set aside for wildlife to thrive undisturbed by urbanization. The Bush War between the internationally unrecognized minority government of Ian Smith and the mainly indigenous Blacks who demanded an end to White rule was at its zenith. At the last moment, the authorities deemed the game reserve unsafe, denying us a wonderful opportunity to enjoy nature.
From there we traveled to the Victoria Falls, known to the locals as 'Mosi-oa-Tunya' — literally meaning the 'Smoke that Thunders'. We walked in the verdant rain forest surrounding the Falls, and despite our raincoats returned soaked through. It is wondrous to see and hear the power generated by the vast quantity of water cascading from the Zambesi River into the gorge below. The bridge connecting Zambia was only accessible halfway, having been closed off when sanctions were imposed after Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965. Warned not to provoke the ‘hostile’ soldiers posted midway, we kept our distance while looking down into the cavernous watery expanse below.
Another new experience awaited me at the plush Victoria Falls hotel, a relic of colonial times. Gambling was illegal in South Africa, due to the strict Calvinist morals of the ruling elite. I watched the action at the gaming tables, but fortunately did not understand the rules, and although uninitiated in games of chance knew danger lurked for the unwary. The ‘shell game’, and its variants, were popular on the streets of Johannesburg and I knew better than to fritter away my meager funds. I did however take a limited amount of money and play the ‘one-armed bandits’. I knew I would not beat the odds but I couldn’t resist taking a small risk. My stash of low value tokens gone, one of the casino hostesses, seeing the possibility of enticing a big spender, me, indicated that if I continued with a particular machine, I would hit paydirt. I begged a small loan from Mick, my travelling companion, and within a few tugs of the handle, a cornucopia of coins spilled from the belly of the contraption. I scooped up my booty, repaying the loan with interest and bought one or two drinks for my new friends and soon my luck was squandered. I went to bed content with my night’s work.
Our next stop was the Kariba Dam, opened in 1959, a major engineering feat to tap the flow of the Zambesi River for hydroelectric power, in the Kariba Gorge. It provided Zambia’s important copper mining area and Rhodesia with electricity. When Lake Kariba filled up behind the dam restricting the water a rescue plan, ‘Operation Noah’, was put into effect to save the wildlife.
Now we moved on to Salisbury, present-day Harare, the capital city with lovely, genteel suburbs of the mainly White residents. It is home to the Prime Minister, who if my memory serves, lived a large Cape Dutch-style residence.
The National Gallery housed a painting by a local artist which I have never forgotten. The initial surface was covered in horizontal stripes of rainbow colours. In the foreground three couples painted in silver shadow, in between the background, danced across the canvas in sequence from left to right. The male figure’s arm was raised above the head of the female as if holding her hand while spinning her, skirt flared, in a fiery Latin dance, much like the ‘dance hall’ scene from the film, West Side Story. The implied motion impressed me so much that I afterwards wrote to the artist, but could not afford to take up his offer of a replica.
The Zimbabwe Ruins, situated just south ot the town of Fort Victoria, obviously named for the Queen of the British Empire, was next on the journey, halfway between Salisbury and the South African border. This complex of now destroyed buildings are a series of walls built from rectangular granite stones placed one on top of the other, without any material to cement the structure. Supposedly built by the Lemba tribe six to eight hundred years ago, an ethnic group with a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line, a fact supported by recent DNA studies.
So my Rhodesian saga ends, but not without one last little episode. Already back in South Africa, driving down the highway, Johnny, our driver spotted a dead snake on the road, perhaps a meter in length and as thick as my upper arm. Why we stopped to inspect the road kill I don’t remember, probably someone’s morbid sense of humour. I don’t know what species it was but when alive was probably dangerous. For some reason, curiosity I suppose, I decided to wrap it up in paper and take it home, to preserve the skin. I didn’t know how to do this, so I salted it and hung it up to dry on the washing line. This method did not work and eventually, much to my mother’s and our maid’s delight I put it in the rubbish bin for removal.
I don’t think my parents ever took that trip, but sad coincidence provided me with a chaperone free holiday.