Flights of Tom Claytor:

The Journals of a Bush Pilot
Travelling Though Africa


    Tom Claytor is currently flying a C180 solo around the world.

15 Apr 1996 - Shiwa N'gandu, Zambia

"He who enters the thick bush does not turn back when he hears sticks breaking," Kapumpe tells me. Kapumpe is a Bemba; he comes from the north. His father had told him many wise proverbs like this when he was young. I fly down the Lunsemfwa river then up the Lukusashi river. For three hours, I am suspended over a twirly expanse of green. There are no roads down there; it is a complete wilderness - trees, bush, and sandy verges along the river. Only occasionally do I see colored green circles of cultivated fields, but still no roads - just tiny villages alone in the wilderness. Far to my left is lake Bangweulu - also Bemba - "the place where the sky meets the earth."

I turn to the right and weave my way through the rain. The light is pink and fading in the western sky. I am trying to concentrate on the rain and the mountains, but I can't. I have never seen such a sky. The storm to the west is a deep purpley blue - a color that it shouldn't be - surrounded by a harsh and vivid pink. I keep trying to remember the colors, but how does one remember a color. I manage to not hit a mountain, and I slip out across an open plain. In the distance, a wriggley river leads to a lake. This is Shiwa N'gandu - "the lake of the royal crocodiles."

In a vehicle, it is 8 hours and 800 kilometers from Lusaka to here. I make a note that travel by small plane is almost three times faster than by Zambian road. This really appears to be in the middle of nowhere. I am looking for a mansion amidst the forest on the side of a mountain. Hopefully, there should be an airstrip too.

"He who admires a village, only admires the roof" - another one of Kapumpe's Bemba proverbs. I think it means that if you see the outside, you still don't know what is on the inside. I find a roof. It is extraordinary, surrounded by trees, spreading off in all directions to various wings and courtyards. I can't tell what it is made of. It seems to be made of tawny velvet, soft and flowing and far from the corrugated iron roofs of most colonial buildings of southern Africa. I land on a nearby slope and am soon surrounded by joyful Bembas. One of them hands me a civil aviation official landing record book to record that I have indeed landed. There are not many entries. A vehicle arrives in the last light, and I am invited by the farmer David Harvey to stay with him and his "er...um."

The "er...um's" name is Carol - a pretty Canadian girl, and David is called "Dai" - his Welsh nickname. "David Livingstone's last journey passed through here in 1867 before he died at Chitambo," Dai tells me. "He climbed that mountain over there, and his dog drown while crossing the lake - probably eaten by a crocodile." David's grandfather found this place while following Livingstone's footsteps in 1914. He had finished putting in the boundary between what is now Zambia and Zaire.

We walk down a dark passage with high walls and charred rafters overhead, from a past fire, and sit by candlelight in the kitchen. "This is an unusual house for Africa," Dai tells me. "It was built by a Scottish missionary who came out to translate the bible into Bemba; he went mad." Dai smiles. I inquire about the monstrous mansion near the airstrip. "That is Shiwa house; the house that my grandfather built. We used to live there, but the roof is about to fall in, so we came here."

The Shiwa estate is nearly 23,000 Acres and spreads all around the lake and the mansion. At present, there are 3 dogs, 4 cats, 3 kittens, 400 cows, 150 sheep, 100 pigs, 4,000 chickens, and 10,000 Bemba dependents. This is not an easy land to farm. The soil is very acidic and sandy. It does not have a great carrying capacity for cattle because of the thick bush and restricted grass. Dai has been suffering for several days with acute malaria, so his fuse is a bit short. I hear him yelling at an African while his three yellow Labradors bark and attack the elder man from all sides. "I told him not to walk across the property," Dai says. I can see the strain that it must be to manage the operation of this farm, especially with malaria. Dai tells me a story about one man who was sitting down on the job. Dai screams at him, "what the hell are you doing?" The timid man calls back, "no, I am just busy waiting, bwana." A wife of one of the workers has just died of malaria in the village; many people are preparing for the funeral. Dai tells me, "It's not a very good parasite, malaria. A good parasite shouldn't kill you, but I suppose it is a 'munt' parasite; it is African, and it just doesn't make sense." Dai has taken one course of fansidar, with no effect, so he is now taking a course of halfan. Carol tells me that some women in the village take overdoses of chloroquine to abort unwanted children; a lot of the malaria is now resistant to chloroquine.

Dai tells me a story about the sawmill on the farm. It came in via Lake Tanganyika, and the customs at the time wanted to charge duty. There was some discussion, and because the words "saw teeth" were printed somewhere, they were able to waive the duty and bring it in as "dental equipment." That was back in the 1950's, and the saw was already 40 years old then. It is just waiting for a new blade at the moment, but it is still working. All around the old mill are the remnants of machinery that used to produce essential oils. Dai's brother, Mark, tells me that all this used to be working when he was little; essential oils were the only thing that ever made any money. A disease then wiped out all the lime trees.

At the clock tower, the postmaster Godfrey Makupula shows me a long footpath beneath towering eucalyptus. Up the hill and far in the distance, after several series of steps and two more gates, stands Shiwa House. It took 5 years, 3 English craftsmen, and 1,000 Africans to construct this mansion. It was completed in 1932. The grandfather who built this was Lieutenant Colonel Sir Stewart Gore-Browne. He was tired of soldiering. Each time someone came to visit him, he would add a wing. Back then, visiting was not such an easy affair. The journey by ship to Dar es Salaam would take about 3 weeks, then by rail to lake Tanganyika, then by boat down the lake, then finally by foot for over 250 miles. It was not possible to use horses or oxen for the journey because of sleeping sickness from the tse-tse fly, so the journey on foot alone was another two months. It was probably about a 4 or 5 month journey.

"If a wall wasn't straight, he would knock it down," Dai tells me; "my grandfather had a hell of a temper, that is why the Africans called him 'chipembele' - the rhinoceros." In his malarial state, Dai doesn't seem too far from having inherited a touch of chipembele himself. On either side of the doors beneath the balcony hang two wooden carvings of rhino heads. There are 40 rooms in the mansion; each one has a fireplace, including the bathrooms. "He was a visionary, but he was vain," Dai continues. "He wanted to be the Lord of the Manor on the hill with all the serfs around." Up in the library, there are shelves of wonderful old books along every wall. Above the fireplace are the words, "Ille terrarum mihi super omnes anculus ridet" - this corner of the earth makes me smile above all others. "His joy was his library; he was erudite, an Edwardian man," says Dai. In the downstairs sitting room hangs a huge portrait of Ethel Locke-King. She was Sir Stewart's aunt. She was the first woman ever to fly in an airplane at Brooklands, her estate in England, I am told. This was also the site of the first horse racing track in England. She was the one who provided much of the money to build this mansion.

The outside is beautiful. It is a combination of an English manor house and a Florentine villa. The roof is constructed of clay tiles, made on the farm. They look very soft from a distance, but the heavy weight has caused them to sag and bend along the various contours of their support in a very attractive way. Unfortunately, on the inside, slow leaks have started to bring down the plaster from the ceilings in some portions of the house. As I wander back into this maze, I loose all sense of where in the house I might be. I find room after room full of bats careening up and down the murky corridors. It couldn't imagine a more perfect setting for a ghost.

"But there is a ghost," I am told. Bill Parish is an American forester from Tennessee. He weighs about 350 pounds, drinks a case of Coke a day, and took up two seats on the plane coming out. He was here to give advice on forestry, but he was told that there wasn't a ghost in the house. His reply was, "I'm sorry, but I can't be in this house without it having a ghost." So he began to tell the story of Miss Monroe. The only true part of the story is that there actually was a Miss Monroe. She was the aunt who came out to tutor Dai's sister many years ago; she stayed in one of the wings of the house. Bill has gone back to America, but the story lingers on. Every six months, Bill sends a new chapter out to Dai so he can pass it on.

In May of 1992, David found his parents murdered on their Chisamba farm. They had been shot by AK-47 in the chest and the neck while sitting in the living room. He was 23 or 24 at the time. They were ANC from South Africa, I am told. Two of them have been sentenced to be hanged, but as of yet, the sentence has not been carried out. "If they had been Zambians, I would have left," Dai says. "But I became a much harder person after that. I used to be a bit wishy-washy; now, I get on and do it.

Dai's dream is to preserve Shiwa House if he can. "To keep alive that it was possible to do this in the middle of the bush at that time," he says, "as an inspiration to others. It would be nice to develop it as an educational institution of some sort. Perhaps with wildlife for locals to learn and understand, the parks are too expensive and are out of reach for them." He has six months until the rains come. In that time, he will have to find some way of securing the roof against leakage until it can be properly repaired and restored. It seems to be a very precarious and critical time to me. There is a question among the children of who will own the house, and having more than one person responsible for something seldom works. If nothing is done, the house will become a ruin - a relic of the past and only a memory of a time long since gone.

The doors unlatch and creek open on their own from time to time, but it is an old house, and this happens in old houses as the frames shift. On several occasions the servants used to appear without being called, "but you rang the bell," they would say. The cook even used to answer without being spoken to, but would then explain that he had been asked a question. Three weeks after Sir Stewart's death, Major Harvey was sitting in the library. He was talking to the chair where Sir Stewart used to sit. The black cat named "Smith," that would only let Sir Stewart touch it, was sitting on the arm purring, as it only would do with Sir Stewart. There was a depression in the chair. Major Harvey's wife walked in and said, "who are you speaking to?" The Major replied, "I am speaking to your father." "But there is no one there," she said. "Yes there is; he is sitting right there." They are all gone now, but perhaps, the house will live on.

Tom Claytor

Continue with Part 5 of Tom in Africa. Click Here.

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Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
Virtual Horizons, 1996.