Zambia - Jottings from the Copperbelt, by Peter Jones (1969-1972)

The Copperbelt is a fairly isolated upland region of Central Africa, which is rich in minerals and covers an area of Northern Zambia as well as the adjacent province of Katanga in the Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.

On the Zambian side, there are a number of towns built around the copper mines, notably Kitwe, Mufulira and Chingola. To the east of the Copperbelt lies  Ndola, which was, and is, the principal communications centre for the region, and the HQ of most of the commercial companies serving the area.  At the time of writing, its location was on the only metalled road to the south and east of the country.

The major European airlines, including BOAC, maintained a sales and ticketing office in Ndola, both to service the travel agency branches in the Copperbelt towns and to compete for the travel needs of the mainly expatriate personnel working with the mines and in supporting organisations, such as banks, insurance companies, retail outlets and light industries.

 Living on the Copperbelt was mostly quite pleasant; at an altitude of over 4000 feet the climate was generally benign for most of the year.  Most of the basic requirements of a decent lifestyle were available and there were excellent facilities for sport and recreation.  No TV of course, but plenty of social life, partying and entertaining.  Making one’s own entertainment stretches the imagination, and the small airline and travel community worked hard to add variety to our lives. 

A lady at one of the travel agencies had some experience of ballet dancing, and conceived the idea of persuading half a dozen (male) airline managers to don a tutu and teaching them to perform a corps de ballet scene from Swan Lake, as the cabaret for a Christmas party.  We trained over some weeks, during which she stressed that we were to present ourselves absolutely seriously, and not even to smile.  The end result, although not particularly professional, was at least reasonably coherent, and the sight of so many hairy legs, in imperfect symmetry, delighted the ladies present and brought the house down!  The performance was never repeated however…

Ndola Airport was, at the time of my posting there, unsuitable for longhaul aircraft like our VC10.  The runway was damaged at both ends;  the sanctions against Rhodesia had forced mining companies to use Hercules aircraft to fly copper ingots out of Ndola, although the runway had not been designed for such heavy use.  So, passengers bound for the Copperbelt from overseas now had to fly into Lusaka, nearly 200 miles to the south, to connect with a smaller Zambia Airways aircraft (BAC 111 or Avro 748) back north to Ndola.

One of my functions was to meet this twice weekly connecting flight and try to resolve any issues arising.  At the beginning of school holidays there would be sizeable groups of unaccompanied minors, and generally all the parents involved would be at the airport to meet their children.  On one occasion we were left with one young lad who had nobody there to meet him.  It transpired later that his parents, who lived in the far west of the country, had been held up by flooding en route to Ndola and had to turn back. We had an extra guest that night, and his somewhat anxious parents were able to collect him the following day.

I came to know one of the pilots from the Zambia Flying Doctor Service, who invited me to accompany them on one of their routine clinics.  We flew west from Ndola, over and far beyond the copper towns, in a twin engined six-seat Beechcraft.  Below us were miles and miles of scrubby bush and some more heavily wooded areas.  In one of these was a cleared rectangle, the size and shape of a small runway; we flew over this at low level for the pilot to assure himself that there were no animals on the 'runway', then landed, walked a few yards to a village centre, and the doctors set up and commenced their clinic.

Apparently, people will walk for up to 30 miles through the bush to attend these clinics to be treated for various diseases, injuries and other problems; the doctors told me that one of the saddest recurrent issues they faced was treating burns to very young children who had walked into unattended cooking fires.  We held two further clinics in different places that day, each a short flight away.  I consider myself privileged to have seen, and been out with these dedicated doctors at work in the African bush.

Sport figured importantly in our leisure activities and the Ndola Golf Club was one of the main centres of activity.  The course was excellent, carefully maintained, well managed and enjoyed not only by ourselves but also by visiting professionals, who, in the days prior to the formation of the European Tour, used to play in the winter months in several African countries on what was known as the ‘Safari Tour’.  This included a visit to Ndola to play in a competition called the ‘Cock of the North’, a reference I believe to its location in northern Zambia.  One year it was won unexpectedly by a bluff young Yorkshireman, who, at the presentation, looked at the trophy, held it aloft and said: “Cock of the North, eh? Grand!  Mind you, I’ve been called worse!”

One of the features of the Ndola Golf Course was the presence of a considerable number of termites’ nests, with an exterior of hardened mud, some up to 20 feet high.  One competition we played had a ‘shotgun start’, in which the competitors position themselves, several on each tee, and, on a given signal, each group starts to play.  Neville, a British army officer attached to the Zambia Defence Force, was deputed to start proceedings with a 'small' bang, but was somewhat over-enthusiastic in the amount of explosive he placed in an anthill, and succeeded in blowing it to smithereens!  Another 'feature' of the course was more serious wildlife; one had to look out for columns of soldier ants that marched unseen through the wispy rough and would attack any living thing in their path; there was the additional hazard of tree-climbing green mambas inhabiting the overhanging branches of the trees.  One needed a sharp-eyed caddy!

My friend Brian, who at the time was the Station Superintendent for BEA in Moscow, and has written elsewhere on this website about his experiences there, came to visit during the Russian winter with his wife and young family.  The day after their arrival, we awoke to hear the excited squeals of their two small daughters as they discovered the sunshine  and flowers in the garden - such a change from being cooped up in a Moscow hotel in the dead of winter; as we said at the time, like two litle birds being let out of a cage!  We all flew down to Victoria Falls and managed to persuade the Air Malawi flight crew to fly a 'figure of eight' above the falls so that Brian could record it on film.  An amazing and impressive sight and certainly one of the natural wonders of the world!

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