Everyone Has A Story To Tell
© Copyright 2023 by Beryl Trebble
Photo by ahmad syahrir at Pexels.
Who would guess that at the age of two and a half I could have destroyed a convoy of 44 ships while sailing on one of the last passenger vessels to leave Britain at the beginning of the World War 2? The cabin was hot and the blowers noisy and ineffectual, so my father, a resourceful man, unscrewed the porthole cover which was bolted down due to the blackout. When I was asleep, and the lights were off, he would open it to let in some fresh air. This night I woke up after they had gone to dinner, turned on the light and taking the potty into the passage chatted to whoever passed my way. The shaft of light cut across the eerily dark convoy like a lightning bolt and could have easily alerted a lurking U-Boat. The Bridge took immediate action and tracked down my errant father and firmly sealed our porthole for good.
We were headed for Mombasa and a journey up country where my father wanted to try his hand at pyrethrum farming. This didn’t last long, and we moved to South Africa to a sugar estate in Zululand before moving again to spend the rest of the war years in Durban where he worked on damaged ships limping into the docks. When the war ended, he decided he needed more security for my mother and me, so back to Kenya we went, and he joined The Soil Conservation Services.
Initially we stayed at the “The White House” on a farm called Kibomet, a couple of miles out of Kitale. Ten years later I moved back to that farm as the wife of the estate Manager.
I finished school during the Mau Mau just as “C” Company of the Kenya Regiment were seconded to the area for Jomo Kenyatta’s trial at Kapenguria. Life was a social whirl before I was shipped off to Liverpool to do a secretarial course. Shortly after my return to Kitale I became engaged - much to the despair of my father as I was only 18.
Six months later we were married. I became unwell. I suffered a miscarriage, was Belsen thin, and a self-obsessed nightmare. We needed a break so planned a camping holiday and set off to drive through the Suk Reserve and up to Uganda and the Murchison Falls - it started disastrously. I was at my argumentative best and we were at each other’s throats.
Women had to have a permit to go through the Reserve at all and everyone had to be out of the area by nightfall but after one puncture too many we limped to a District Commissioner’s compound and hoped to spend the night with no one noticing. We parked by a huge bougainvillea bush on a golf course and were just unpacking when the District Commissioner, resplendent in evening dress and medals, arrived with an askari at the wheel of his Jeep. In no uncertain terms he told us to get the hell out of the reserve and ordered the askari to return in half an hour to see we had gone. With tempers frayed we re-packed the car and took off, only to land on a large rock and damage the master cylinder. Minus brakes we still had to leave. Relying solely on gears and the hand brake it was a nerve shattering night with rough roads, creepy shapes lit by the headlights and animals appearing from nowhere. By daylight we cleared the Reserve and faced the next challenge. Cattle and goats criss-crossed the road, hundreds of cyclists, cars, trucks and lorries, horns blaring, were heading for Kampala. It was mayhem. We now had no hand brake either and had burnt out the clutch so the traffic lights in the city were another major hazard. Make it we did without killing anyone or anything. It took three days before spare parts came from Nairobi but, fortunately, we stayed with relatives and this broke some of the tension, But, a decision had to be made. Did we return home or continue and hopefully break this rather nasty spell? We had calmed down and decided to head on for the Murchison Falls
Once in the Park things changed for me. Elephants were everywhere and I was petrified. I was so scared in fact that I forgot my self-absorption and in a strange way enjoyed the experience of feeling in danger and out of control. It is a standing family joke that if it wasn’t for the terrifying wildlife, I probably never would have become pregnant.
I had been to Murchison before but on a different safari. I was fifteen when my father decided we would go to Uganda, to spend Christmas at Fort Portal in the Ruwenzori Mountains at The Mountains of the Moon Hotel. On Christmas Day I awoke to hear my father outside on the veranda intoning “Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse” and another male voice answering him. I peered out to see these two men, both in striped pyjamas, in earnest conversation. Apparently, the man and his wife and son, were also on holiday and that evening we met up for the Christmas Dinner and dance. There was a ripple round the room when King George of Toro, his wife and their entourage arrived. For the life of me I don’t know why but they joined us at our table in the lounge. What happened next was straight out of the movies. My mother tried to talk to the Queen who spoke perfect English, but the King would answer for her, referring to her as “She.” Then the King clapped his hands and a uniformed chauffeur crawled on his knees towards him. He was instructed to go to the Palace and fetch the Royal Visiting Cards. When he crawled in again, they were dealt out like playing cards. The design on them prompted my father and friend, tongue in cheek, to suggest designing a new throne for the King. He was delighted and invited us to the Palace the following day to see said throne. We were planning to hire a boat and sail up the Nile to the Murchison Falls the next day and my Dad and new found friend decided before they went too far with their prank they would make profuse apologies and promise to send drawings from Kampala.
The trip was magic. Safe on board we cruised ever so close to browsing elephants, rhino, buffalo, hippo, antelopes, and millions of huge gape-mouthed Nile crocodiles. And, of course, I fell in love with the son of our new found friends. At the end of the trip, he gave me his wonderfully coloured woven straw suitcase which I had admired. I treasured it for years. The sad part of the King story was that his daughter Elizabeth, an international model, became involved with Idi Amin and during the terror campaign in Uganda her father was thrown out of his kingdom.
A year after my marriage my husband and his job parted company. He went for an interview about the setting up and developing of a new tea estate at the back of beyond on the edge of the Tinderet Forest. This was a new enterprise and one totally unfamiliar to the normal tea boffins who ran established estates. Before my husband was finally offered the job the Directors asked to see me - by myself. My mother-in-law was incensed and father-in-law incredulous that their son’s future seemed to lie with me. A woman only 19 years old and now pregnant. This was not the norm!
Me? I was over the moon that I was considered important enough to be interviewed too. This was one up for women’s lib. Mind you, after arriving in the God Forsaken area that was to become home for 5 years I often wondered how, or why, the Directors could tell that the young, fashionable, and pregnant girl before them was up to the rigours of living in back of beyond before the job was offered to her husband.
I had no idea what I was in for when we left Nairobi for our new home. We were followed by a lorry full of newly recruited labour, farm equipment, our household goods and two Elkhound dogs.
By mid-afternoon we were ploughing through muddy farm tracks towards a menacing black sky glowering over a wall of forest ahead. The lorry driver couldn’t cope and finally bogged down and my husband decided to take over and I would drive the car. What did I know about mud driving? Nothing – but after a quick lesson I was deemed qualified and told to follow a track straight into the forest.
I plunged into the gloom with grass bonnet high between two barely discernible tracks. It was getting darker by the minute and the menacing storm exploded overhead and the heavens opened. I started to panic and stopped until I could hear the lorry behind me. As I switched off the engine there was a great movement in the bushes beside me and piercing screams shattered the silence. This was it – I was about to be murdered by the Mau Mau. Peering out fearfully I saw a troupe of Colobus Monkeys making a noisy getaway. And I dissolved into floods of tears.
120 inches of rain fell a year over the Tinderet Forest, and it was mud and slush everywhere. There were 20 miles of this forest track and before long I slid, not so gracefully to a shuddering halt against a bank and promptly burst into tears. – Again. I was five months pregnant, sore, tired, and scared. My husband decided to get me to the farm and he, together with reinforcements and a Land Rover would go back to rescue the lorry.
It was pitch black by now and I was dismayed when the headlights picked out a wonky sign pointing drunkenly skywards spelling out the word “Owles” and we proceeded to ascend a seemingly vertical track up an enormous rocky hill. There was horror all over the face of the 75-year-old Australian bachelor when a weeping pregnant girl arrived at his homestead. Dietz lamp in hand I was given a quick “tour” of the abode which consisted of two rondavels, one a bedroom, the other a lounge, joined together by a veranda divided down the middle to make a front and back – one side acting as al fresco dining room/veranda. Then I was left alone. Later when I was more composed, I entered the lounge. A spitting hissing fire sent sparks towards the smoke blackened thatch roof. There was miss- matched furniture scattered round the room, farmers’ magazines, spare parts, horned trophies on the walls, bookcases, and clutter everywhere. Incongruous floral curtains drunkenly stretched across the windows with sagging curtain wires, and all this was illuminated by a pressure lamp hanging from a hook in the rafters. A storm was raging overhead, and I was about to settle down with a book that started on the lines of “The ropes creaked from the gallows” when there was a knock on the door. It slowly opened to reveal a light skinned man with a wild head of hair and a severely crippled arm held against his chest. This really was “it” – I was going to die. Again. But no, the man silently glided across the floor, took a decanter of whiskey and poured a tumblerful into a grubby glass, spritzed it with water from an equally grubby jug and handed it to me. “They will be very late; do you want to eat?” I mumbled I would wait. He left the room as silently as he had entered and I let my pounding heart quieten down before pouring the whiskey back into the decanter as no one would detect the amount of water in it. What had I come to?
Next day dawned fresh and sunny. The rondavels looked picture book pretty sitting in a garden ablaze with colour and a neatly cut lawn. There was forest on three sides and a stunning view down a long valley with precipitous sides leading towards the blue haze of Nandi Hills. I settled onto the veranda to take it all in. Suddenly my dogs started growling and stalked towards a weird figure emerging from the forest. They were stone deaf to my pleas to come to heel and snapped at the stranger’s ankles. The person in dungarees, army boots a faded bush hat and straggly grey hair turned out to be a woman. “Don’t worry; all dogs do this to me.” And indeed, they did, every time she visited me during the next five years. This apparition demanded coffee and then proceeded to tell me I was too young to be married and pregnant and must be a disappointment to my parents. In staccato bursts she told me not to walk to the Gordon’s farm (at least 5 miles away) as the Great Danes were out in the afternoon and would attack me. She said she was walking to spend the night with friends near Muhoroni and vaguely pointed up and over nearby mountains. She would be back again the next day. I was in a right tearful state, again, when she left.
I learned this was Mrs. Weatherhead (embittered because her daughter was young, married, and pregnant. (Hence my lecture). She said my only neighbours were Major Gordon (ex-Indian Army) and his wife, and a father and daughter duo Frank and Margaret Huddlestone, and of course Digger Owles – wild eccentrics all. Civilization of sorts was 20 miles away in two directions – through the forest to Lumbwa, or down the precipitous valley road to Songhor. To say it was a culture shock hardly describes it.
It would be six weeks before we could move into our own home and Digger needed his bedroom back, so a corrugated iron shed was erected for us in the garden. Thinking how hot this abode would become in the sun we carefully placed it under a large pine tree – totally forgetting that with the huge daily rainfall the drips would constantly sound like a thunder storm day and night.. It had no windows, only a gap between walls and roof for ventilation but I had parquet patterned lino on the floor that made it seem quite posh! Our dogs slept with us to allow Digger’s cats some freedom at night – he had many, all of whom perched in secretive places during the day. My Elkhound Bess was also pregnant and also needed the loo during the night. To attract attention, with devastating effect, she scraped her nails down the corrugated iron wall and the two of us would then go out into the night.
However, as with most things one adjusts and adapts, and life was most interesting. I became one of very few people who could drive through the forest without becoming stuck. Once we had to rescue 20 bogged down rally drivers who, in their wisdom, thought it would be easy to tackle the Tinderet forest as part of their route.
When I was eight my father had taken me to a disused quarry and taught me to shoot at targets with a .22 Remington repeater rifle. I regularly went with him to hunt a buck for dog food and helped him cut the meat into strips and dry it like South African biltong. This is normally a human delicacy when spiced and considered a sacrilege to feed to pet dogs. Needless to say, our Bull Terrier Dinah loved it. When I returned from boarding school, I regularly shot out the latest population of large green headed lizards that inhabited our garden and, when I was big enough, I shot buck using my father’s beautiful double-barrelled shotgun.
I had been 16 when I went on a cruise to South Africa with my parents. The young men were shooting at clay pigeons off the side of the ship, and I was dying to have a go but felt too embarrassed. A friend said I couldn’t do worse than the young guys and persuaded me to try. To the amazement of the on-looking young blades I shot all my pigeons down and walked away basking in my success. I didn’t try again in case I spoilt the image. But it was another feather in the cap of female equality!
On the tea estate I had chickens in a deep litter house. One morning there was consternation as a wild cerval cat had got in and caused death and destruction. He was still in the enclosure having eaten one chicken too many to be able to make his escape. Taking my trusty .22 I despatched the villain before the wide-eyed labourers standing around. Later, a hawk that had been causing havoc amongst the chickens in the labour lines was flying high over my garden and as a deterrent I took a pot shot at it. Never in a million years did I think I would hit it, but I did, and the hawk fell from the sky like a stone to the cheers and whoops of the men working in the fields nearby. I certainly polished my marble that day and was respected as a force to be reckoned with if I had the gun in my hands.
Before Uhuru life became dangerous and very unsettled and there were nasty incidents on the Tea Estates when wages were collected from the banks. Tinderet was very vulnerable due to its isolation and dreadful forest roads, and you never knew who to trust. We concocted a series of red herrings when collecting the money for wages and had to get the assistants to patrol the forest before we came back because the trick the terrorists used was to fell a tree across the road and as you stopped to investigate, they would drop another one behind you and you were trapped. Radio phones were installed, security was everywhere, and everyone was armed. My trusty .22 was by my bed at night – not a great weapon but I was familiar with it and felt that if its 22 shots were pumped into you at close range it would be more than a good deterrent.
One night my husband was called to the factory at about three in the morning. I was in the passage with the gun in my hand as I watched the taillights go down the hill. The dogs came to stand by me and started snarling with hackles bristling as they looked towards the kitchen door. My two children were asleep behind me and there were no exit doors at this end of the house. When banging on the kitchen door started and voices shouted outside, I went ice cold and almost robotic with fright. I remember thinking “When you break down the door, I will probably know who you are, but I will shoot you anyway.” However, when my husband got to the factory, he realized it was a ruse to get him out of the house so the gang could try and get the key off me and ransack the estate safe which was in our house. Little did they know he was never parted from that key, day, or night, but my life would have been in even more peril if I wasn’t able to hand over said key. He raced back up the drive and reached the house before the door was smashed in. Whoever was there disappeared into the dark - and I dissolved into a gibbering heap. Not long after that we decided to leave Kenya. One of the main reasons was the fact that my eldest daughter was nearing school age and living in such isolation meant she would have to go to boarding school at six years old and I was not interested in that scenario.
We moved to South Africa and life was very different but not without some amazing happenings.
This all comes down to what
different lives and
memories people have that makes them so interesting. I have
travelled far and wide and can tell many a yarn but the lady who had
not been on a plane or ship and never been to London finished off our
discussion by saying she could write a book. Really? Then I thought
about it more carefully. Her husband had been an alcoholic, caused
her much grief then committed suicide. She had a son on permanent
dialysis until he died, a very strangely behaving older daughter and
another sickly son. She was now in her eighties and had lived a hard
life but was always optimistic and cheerful. So yes, I am sure she
could write an interesting story too. It would be a far cry from
mine, but none the less it would be very interesting in a very