AUDREY'S SOUTH AFRICAN ADVENTURE - CONTINUED.
After the excitement of `living rough' in the bush, life became less hectic for a while. Going 5 miles underground in a gold mine just outside Johannesburg was quite an experience. To make this trip you had to book up to three months in advance. On the day you were shown into a room where you were told to remove all your clothes and dress in what had been provided. My first thought was this is taking security a bit far. The clothes were laughable - baggy overalls, white cotton vest and vast, below the knee knickers, topped by a steel helmet complete with light, and boots.
The journey underground was breath taking as you hurled through the darkness. Below ground was lit by naked electric bulbs. Railway trucks trundled by carrying the rock away for extracting the precious metal. We trudged down a long, long tunnel before we came across any workmen.
I now knew why we were wearing borrowed clothes. It was unbearably hot, and we were wet through. After watching the men drilling the rock face I was invited to drill out my own fragment of gold. Back on the surface fresh air tasted wonderful. In the changing room our borrowed clothes just sploshed on the tiles as we dropped them. A shower and our own clothes were heaven! Before leaving the mine we were allowed to enter a well-guarded room where millions of £s worth of gold bars were on show. We were told if we could pick up a bar one handed we could have it. It was impossible - but I understand one of the British Lions Rugby team had been successful.
Then another adventure loomed - hoping to be invited to live with a group of Zulu's in a remote area near the Mozambique border.
Ruth and I set out from Durban, but this time with Paul Hallows, another big game hunter, in a vehicle which looked just like a tank, complete with a winch for if we got into difficulties.
We travelled for over 300 miles on a beach without even seeing a single soul. It would have been wonderful to cool off in the gorgeous clear blue sea, but there were no shark nets in this remote area. As we neared the Lebombo Mountains we turned in land. Here the vegetation was lush and green. Now we were seeing Zulu kraals. When a man decides to marry he chooses a bride, and she builds him a hut, then one for herself and the children she may have. As he takes other wives so the group of huts grow. As you pass you can tell how many wives each man has.
The number of cattle he owns gauges a man's wealth. If a beast has to be slaughtered its horns are placed in a tree - the sign of a very rich man indeed as very few cows are killed for eating.
Eventually we stopped at a small village and Paul asked if a witch doctor was present, as you must pay your respects to her before anything else. There was, and we were told to follow this tall dark warrior to a beehive hut and were asked to wait outside. After a short wait we were invited inside. The doorways are so low one can only enter on all fours. Once inside a blanket was lowered over the opening, and we had to sit cross-legged on the floor and wait in complete silence to be accepted.
Luckily we made it, and were offered a drink, which we had been warned about. Home brewed beer with human urine and animal blood, and we had to get it down! Once the shock was over we were escorted to a hut constructed of cow dung walls and floor, spread and flattened by hand. Inside was a wooden milking pail - a gourd for souring milk - a wooden meat tray - a beer pot and stirrer. These utensils were kept in an area of the hut where the good spirits lived.
Knowing I was going to sleep on a cow dung floor I thought the smell and flies would be unbearable, but the sun had baked the walls and floor like concrete, so there was no smell or flies.
We were now free to roam unhindered and were treated well. They were as interested in us as we were in them. They would touch our skin and run their fingers through our hair and even move our shirts to see if the white colour went all the way down our bodies.
Each day the men sat with their cattle and talked, whilst the women cooked, made masses of stuff daily from raw leaf tobacco and allow leaves, and brewed gallons of beer. We lived mostly on mealie porridge with added sour milk. I very quickly gave up the milk - it tasted so awful.
Washing was more than difficult by the lack of clean water. An old oil drum was produced, into which any stagnant water found was put. When it was thought there was enough a grass bung was put in the opening and the whole thing was placed in a tree. Ruth and I only had the one shower for, as we stood naked and pulled out the bung we were covered by more oil than water. The drum had not been cleaned out!
One day a native runner arrived from another village to say the witch doctor in his village had heard that there were two white women in the area and she wanted to see us.
The three of us set out on foot to find this village. We walked miles through rough scrubland in blistering heat and waded waist deep through a Bilhazia snail infested river. We were sure we were lost when we were greeted by a large group of naked children, who happily escorted us into the village.
Once more we had to wait outside the witch doctor's hut, but eventually we were allowed inside. For ages we sat in the darkness until our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and we could see her. She was the most senior witch doctor we had encountered. You could tell this by the huge amount of monkey fur she wore and the black and white beads in her hair. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor with her naked grandson on her lap.
After about 30 minutes she turned her head towards us and asked if we had come in “great bird in the sky”? Fortunately for us Paul could understand and speak their language. Paul also asked if I could “steal her spirit”? She was ages before she nodded her head and I was allowed to photograph her - which was difficult without being able to see clearly.
When the interview was over she did us the great honour of coming outside with us and I was able to photograph her again, but she never once opened her eyes. I was vastly amazed to see she had lots of beer bottle tops threaded around her ankles, which she obviously prized.
The same group of children escorted us out of the village, but they knew of a short cut to the river. The last we saw of them was a happy group laughing and playing in the dark brown water.
As we approached our own village we were surprised by a warrior in full ceremonial dress leaping out of nowhere to greet us and lead us back into the village. Here a full party was being prepared in our honour. A large fire had been lit and even the children had their bead skirts on. The warriors danced with wild abandon and as they came to the fire they didn't leap over it, but went through the flames with naked feet. We had a wonderful evening - one I shall never forget.
Early next morning I heard a strange sound, which I had to investigate. The witch doctor from the next hut was on her knees, arms raised to the sky, chanting her greetings to the dawn. I watched in wonder before creeping back into my hut.
Before leaving, our witch doctor made me my own drinking pot, and I was given a beaded necklace traditionally given by a Zulu bride to her prospective husband and seven beautifully carved clay tiles. But the gifts I treasured most were a magnificent brown and white Zulu cow hide war shield, a spear and a assagi, which I had to pay excess luggage at the airport as they were classed as dangerous weapons, but they were worth it.
Our journey back to Durban was leisurely, calling in at the Skukuza Game reserve, where we stayed in a tree house which was wonderful. As the wind blew the whole structure swayed. Now for the first time in quite a while we ate food we really enjoyed, and replaced some of the weight we had lost. Another wonderful experience was over.
Some time after returning home I was admitted to hospital for an operation from which I have never recovered. A local minister of the church whom I knew quite well, visited me at home, and decided African witch doctors had put an evil spell on me, and said all the gifts I had received from them must be destroyed.
He took my Zulu war shield, spear and assagi against my wishes, and even wanted my precious slides. A week later he returned again and performed an exorcism ceremony in every single room in my cottage by sprinkling holy water and praying, and to this day I still regret the loss of treasures I loved. I often wonder what happened to them.