A remarkable true story (Dick Mawson)
As dawn broke across a cloudless African sky, our Avro Anson lifted into the air effortlessly from Mybeya airfield and we were off on the last leg of our charter flight to Southern Africa it was the 1st July 1946. We were eight days out and the weather was stinking hot and humid even at that early hour.
Our recent experience of seeing Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped summit so close to the equator was still fresh in our minds,as we looked down on the vast plains of Africa from our lofty perch high in the sky.
Herds of wildebeest were congregating in their thousands below us, the ground alive with motion as they headed north on their annual migration in a bid to find greener pastures elsewhere .
Nowhere in the world is there a movement of animals as immense as this wildebeest migration in Africa, over two million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
We watched in awe and fascination from above as our little Anson overflew this spectacle, we must have been amongst the first ever to see this magnificent sight from the air.
As we flew over the great lakes of Africa I noticed a vibrant pink mist ascending skywards from the shallows around the lake-shore, spiralling upwards on thermals rising from the sun baked earth.
I caught the pilots eye pointing down towards this strange phenomenon, after a quick look out of his window and with a wave of his hand towards me he banked the aircraft dropping down towards the pink cloud.
Upon approach we could see it was a huge flock of flamingoes obviously frightened by the unnatural noise of an aircraft or chased into flight by a predator on the ground. It was an awesome sight to see so many of these exotic birds so close after only being aware of their existence in books and magazines.
Our pilot was careful not to get too close for fear of the birds panicking and flying into us which would have brought our journey to an abrupt end.
We turned away from the flock, flying on to our last night stop on our journey.
I sat daydreaming of the sights we had seen on our journey so far, an eight thousand mile journey that had led us on to new and exciting experiences with every passing hour.
Whilst flying across the English channel we were amazed at the flotillas of ships criss crossing this narrow stretch of water, with ships sitting at anchor outside the ports awaiting a berth to offload their eagerly awaited cargo, bringing raw materials from all over the world, supplying British industry with much needed product for the manufacturing industry to rebuild their depleted economy after a very costly war.
As we approached the French coast it was the same story there with ships queuing outside the ports to dock and smoke pouring from the stacks in the industrial areas on the outskirts of the cities, queues of men could be seen waiting by factory gate in the hope of finding employment within.
Leaving the hustle and bustle of England and France behind onward we flew across the Mediterranean Sea, every mile revelling another magical island, with the magnificent blue of the Mediterranean Sea changing to a turquoise green which faded into transparency as the water lapped onto sun drenched beaches pictures I had seen in books and magazines became reality as we flew onward towards the African coast.
Flying east along the coast of north Africa we observed the remnants of the war so recently fought just below us, the desert appearing void of all life apart from the camel trains snaking their way from oasis to oasis.
Flying on into the Egypt land of Cleopatra where we were dwarfed by the Great Pyramid of Giza which was the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza Necropolis, it was listed as one of the seven wonders of the world and certainly a first for me, remnants from a great civilization once ruled with an iron fist by the Pharaohs.
Flying south down Africa, we flew on to the great lakes, with the mighty Kilimanjaro reaching majestically into the equatorial sky, the migrating wildebeest herds and now this glorious flock of birds,overflying then from a far off land, thoughts of England and family were rapidly disappearing into the recesses of my minds, we had experienced so much in such a short time.
I was brought back to reality as we approached the airfield for our night stop, landing safely we were accommodated in chalets close to the airstrip and warned not to move around outside, as leopards frequently came down from the hills. Thankfully, we left the following morning early without incident, not realising that by nightfall, we would be placed in a very precarious situation.
It was the intention of the pilot to refuel at Fort Jameson, in then Northern Rhodesia, which we should have reached by midday and in time for lunch.
Flying low, we were now in thick bush country and could see many herds of elephant roaming around the scrub and wallowing in the rivers.
We had been in the air for some hours now and lunch hour was nearly over. I heard our navigator tapping out a message on the Morse key.
Suddenly, George gripped my arm and whispered, ‘We’re in trouble, lass, I have just heard the May Day call going out’. Before I realised the implication of this remark, the door of the cockpit opened and our navigator appeared. “I have been trying to contact Fort Jameson for some time now but can get no reply, I need to obtain a fix on our position in relation to the airfield to find out exactly where we are. We are out of fuel and have to make a forced landing”, he continued.
My heart sank in other words we were lost and had no way of knowing exactly where we were, only that we were flying over an African jungle and about to crash.
The navigator looked around the cabin and continued talking, “Strap the children in tightly within your seat belts and pad around them with clothes and blankets”.
We did not have time to think about what could happen so busy were we attending to the children as he had suggested. We felt the plane bank and drop; it had been used in the war and for reasons unknown, had two sirens attached under the wings; which were now switched on and creating a frightful noise inside our tiny cabin.
We were trying to comfort and secure two little boys as the African bush loomed ever closer and as I felt a prayer would not be out of place I began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The ground rushed towards us at a terrifying speed as I went about protecting our two precious children from impact. We were heading for a dry river bed when our very observant pilot spotted a small clearing off to the left covered with elephant grass. He immediately lifted the nose and banked the aircraft away from the river bed, dropping expertly into the 10 feet tall elephant grass covering the clearing. Thank God! (As well as a very good Pilot), who was able to expertly guide the plane to land safely. The tall elephant grass took off a little speed before the wheels contacted rather heavily with the African earth looking out of the window all I could see was the propeller on the left of the plane chopping the grass which was flying up and over the cabin accompanied by clouds of dust. The plane must have hit an ant bear hole as we felt it drop and the propeller folded back over the engine cowl after striking the ground. finally coming to a very jerky halt.
Nikanya looked up at the shiny silver bird spiralling out of the sky. It was the screeching of the bird that had attracted his attention, and as it fell lower and lower to earth, he ducked under a Mopani Tree, hoping it would offer him protection from the white gods who were certain to be in the bird’s belly. As it approached the ground at greater and greater speed and the wailing grew louder and louder, Nikanya became convinced that the bird had suffered a mortal wound.
As he watched this frightening spectacle being played out before his eyes and pounding heart, the boughs of the Mopani tree offered a measure of comfort. The bird was looking for somewhere to perch, and it seemed to Nikanya that the dry riverbed was where it was heading. As it disappeared from view, a huge cloud of dust and debris rose into the sky, and he knew the bird had finally fallen to earth. Silence reigned in the Luangwa valley once more. Since Nikanya was the local chief, it was his duty and obligation to greet any stranger to his part of the world. He stepped warily out from the protection of the tree and gathering his headmen around him, proceeding in the direction of the dissipating dust cloud to meet these gods who had fallen from the sky.
To read more from Dick, about his life following this dramatic turn of events, read his memoirs ‘The Gods That Fell From the Sky‘.
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