Thank-you everyone who have been faithfully reading my Dad’s story so far. Unfortunately this is as far as he and I got on his memoirs before he died earlier this year. While I have bits and pieces from him about other periods it is not in enough detail to be able to be presented as his memoir.

However, I am determined to try and finish this memorial to his life so I will now begin to piece together my, and my siblings, memories to try and present a picture of the second half of my Dad’s eventful life. It includes an idyllic sojourn in Fiji, winning a block of virgin Queensland scrub in a ballot and transforming it into a cotton farm as well as hacking his own marina out of the crocodile infested mangroves in North Queensland.

It might take me a little, and my siblings are rather spread out, so please bear with me if the postings get a little more intermittent from now on.

However, in exciting news, the kind people at Old Africa magazine have offered to help me publish Dad’s story as a book which I’m ecstatic about so I will keep you posted on progress (and possibly some of you now know what you might be getting for Xmas presents if I finish it in time!).


We flew from Nairobi to Aden, during which time I managed to cover the baby , Robert (who was about nine months old at this time), in gin and pork stew due to a mite of turbulence on the way. However, he’s always been a resilient child and he didn’t seem to mind too much (the same cannot be said for Margaret).

Robert, in contrast to James and Kathy, was very blonde and possessed remarkably blue eyes. This held him in good stead when we boarded the ship as our fellow passengers included a large community of Greek matriarchs who instantly took to him with cries of delight and wonder.

At least once a day on the six-week journey a frantic search for the baby would usually reveal him being joyfully kissed and tickled and fed vast quantities of hummus.  This was a great relief to me as it was I in charge of entertaining the children each day while Margaret washed a mountain of nappies, ironed clothes and prepared meals.

We disembarked at Perth and, after parking Margaret and the children with my sister Jean, I went looking for work. It was much easier to find then I had nervously anticipated. I walked into an Elders shop, who were (and still are) well known stock and land agents all over Australia, and walked out with a job rounding up sheep for the sales.

It wasn’t highly paid work but it was employment and it was a start.

Picture by Tim Phillips Photos

Picture by Tim Phillips Photos

My work colleagues were real Aussies and as soon as they knew I was English (being none too savvy about the geography of the rest of the world) they began taking the piss out of me as a “pommy bastard”.

Deciding that knocking their blocks off in my first week was not a judicious plan I instead adopted my most English accent and herded the sheep with a high pitched and gentle “come along now, you jolly jumbucks”.

Disgusted at such unmanly language and behaviour they decided I was a lost cause (or possibly a bit mad) and they left me well alone. But now, of course, I had to keep up the pretence. I managed it for a few weeks but one particularly irritating sheep smashed my carefully cultivated act as I let fly with a stream of abuse that mixed Swahili with some choice English phrases that I think shocked even my new work-mates. However, so relieved were they that I was then welcomed with open arms and invites to the pub.

It was only a few months later that I was transferred a bit further north-west of Perth to a place called Merredin. This time I was herding both sheep and cattle that were coming down from the North to the saleyards. Some of the cattle were almost wild and had probably only been mustered once or twice in their life, which certainly added a spice of danger to the job each day.

There were three of us in Merredin and we were also expected to negotiate with the local farmers and convince them to sell their sheep through us. The farms out there were mostly wheat but the farmers would usually also keep a few hundred head of sheep, despite having very little idea about what to do with them. As a little side business we would offer to muster, dip, mark and inoculate the herd for them before they were sent to market. The farmer, rather than Elders would pay us but what I did not learn, until a bit later, was that payment was usually in the form of a large, fat sheep.

This was only brought home to me the afternoon after I had helped to inoculate a huge herd of sheep and the farmer, hat drawn low over the face, nodded his thanks and jerked his thumb towards a sheep telling me it was mine.

“I beg your pardon?” I responded. He looked at me for some moments and then repeated the phrase more slowly, as if for a small child or an idiot.

“Er…that’s very kind of you but I don’t have anything to transport it in,” I said motioning to my small, sedan car.

The farmer shrugged. “That’s your payment. Take it or leave it.”

I looked at this fat sheep and she looked at me with a wild eye. But it had been a long day so I was determined to at least make the attempt to take payment. I asked one of the farmhands to help me tackle the sheep and we managed to wrestle it to the ground about 40 minutes later, tying its legs together with some rope. Then we carried it kicking and struggling like the devil herself, to the car where I buckled it into the seat belt on the passenger side.

I had some qualms regarding the interior but to my surprise, once she was strapped in the sheep stopped struggling and sat there incredibly calmly. In fact, as we headed back into the town, I would have sworn she positively enjoying the ride. She made not the smallest movement and looked out the window for most of the journey, serenely taking in the scenery. The same could not be said for all the passers-by who saw her as we drove through the town. I’ve never seen so many dropped jaws and double-takes in my life. In terms of entertainment value that sheep was worth its weight in gold.

Main street of Kalgoorlie in the 1960s

Main street of Kalgoorlie in the 1960s

I was soon moved again but this time the posting was to Kalgoorlie, a mining town on the edge of the desert. It consisted of one main street with a couple of big public buildings and the rest were pubs and whore-houses. It was wild and remote and Margaret had just given birth to our fourth child, another son called Donald. She was not keen on making the move and I was not keen for her and the children to be in such a town. So I left them in Merredin while I determined to try and get a transfer as soon as possible.

My job was to meet the sheep and cattle trucks coming from South Australia to Western Australia (WA) on the rail line that crossed the desolate Nullarbor Plain. Each Australian state had their own gauge rail lines and its own quarantine rules so the sheep had to be unloaded at the border, checked and shorn, and then reloaded before they could continue the journey. One of my jobs was to take the dead sheep off the rail-trucks and dispose of them. It was pretty dirty work to say the least. As the result of a former drought in WA, large numbers of sheep were being bought from South Australia and the temptation for farmers to over-crowd the carriages was too great to resist. This meant we usually had about 40 or 50 carcasses on each train. We would load them onto my truck and I would drive them to an old mine shaft on the other side of town where we disposed of the bodies.

On the day of the annual Kalgoorlie race meeting there was always a town parade. In blissful ignorance of this I loaded up my truck with the day’s load of dead sheep and headed into town. The police, in blissful ignorance of my cargo, decided I would be the last vehicle to go through town before they closed the road. By the time I realised what was going on I had to keep going (as I said there was only one real road in Kalgoolie) while behind me the parade started up. The band started playing, people lined the streets laughing and clapping and waving flags at me, evidently under the impression my truck was part of the parade. Then the stench of the dead sheep would hit them. The change in expression was so ludicrous that I could barely drive because I was laughing so much.

I finished covering myself in glory by going to the ball held that night. The general manager of Elders in Western Australia was attending and so was his pretty wife who was at least 30 years younger than he was. I spent the night dancing and flirting with her and a week later she invited me as her “special guest” to a picnic.

I got my long-awaited transfer back to civilisation two days later. But this time I was moving states- to Queensland.

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John and Lise

The twins thrived and we were fortunate in our close friendship with a Danish couple- John and Lisé Anderson. John was the local vet, whom I had had alot to do with even before the tick fever episode, and we had always got on well. His wife was a vivacious and intelligent blonde whom I enjoyed flirting with immensely. This did not seem to impact on the tight friendship she had with Margaret, particularly after the twins were born. Lisé had two older girls and was a source of infinite wisdom and experience when it came to children. She even came to stay with Margaret to help when the twins were born and often baby-sat for us when we needed a break.

But tragedy was to strike soon after. The younger of their two daughters fell from a horse when she was five. Her foot got caught in the stirrup and she was dragged to her death in front of their horrified eyes. They struggled to cope. Lisé returned to Denmark and John followed about six months later. But despite the tragedy they missed Kenya and after a couple of years returned, much to our delight as we had sorely missed their company.

However, their departure to Denmark led to the sole episode (for any of my children!) of “daddy day-care”, as they call it these days. Ann was also preparing to leave Africa with her husband and Margaret was worried she might not get the chance to say good-bye to her sister, nor did she have any idea of when they would meet again.

I was unable to leave the farm but I told Margaret that she should go and leave the twins because I, and Sam our houseboy, were more than capable of looking after them for a couple of days. It was, I have to say the first time I had ever offered to do such a thing and, after my wife got over her initial dumb-foundedness, she doubtfully agreed to the plan.

I was privately convinced that women made far too much fuss about bringing up children and this seemed a perfect opportunity to prove my point. So after the babies were dressed and fed by Sam, I put them both in the passenger seat of the landrover the next day and prepared to take them out on the farm with me. There were no seatbelts or childseats in those days but they sat happily enough on the bench seat and giggled when we went over the bumps. I headed over to some new yards we were building and left them in the cab as I inspected the work- first making sure the parkbrake was firmly on.

I was pleased with the work. When I returned to the car the twins were harmlessly engaged upon chomping a bit of tree that had made its way into the cab. I removed the twig, put the car in drive and wheeled it round sharply to head back the way we had come. Unfortunately the passenger door had not been shut properly. As the car spun around, the door flung open and the twins rolled out of it at some speed. They hit the ground with a thud and proceeded to bounce about two yards, coming to rest amongst a little thicket of thorns. I admit to a moment of worry as I slammed on the brakes and hurriedly got out to pick them up. But apart from some gusty tears and quite a few prickles and thorns they seemed unharmed. I brushed them off, dried their eyes and headed home. By the time we reached the house they were back to normal and, miraculously, with no tell-tale signs of their misadventure.

But so impressed was I with the bouncing resilience of babies that I  made the mistake of telling Margaret about it when she came home.

She never again left me alone with the children.

1963 saw Kenyan Independence achieved and, for us, the birth of another son- Robert.

By now we were all aware that the Africa we had known and grown up in was gone forever. For example we’d always had a white inspector of police but after independence the job was, naturally enough, awarded to an African. He wasn’t a bad guy and I got on well with him, but he made it clear that he would not be chasing cattle thieves unless there was one fat cow for him in return. If he did actually catch any cattle thieves they were usually shot on the spot as he had little patience with the British courtroom system of justice.

We were also worried about the children’s schooling. We could not afford the two very expensive private schools in the local area and the only other option was to send them to boarding school from five years old. Margaret’s own experience of being abandoned in school at a young age meant she refused to even consider the idea. So we were already thinking about leaving Kenya when an incident happened that made the decision easier.

My boss, Roger Boules, was in the habit of bringing his rich and often aristocratic friends from England to stay on the farm for weeks at a time. On this occasion the Duke of Portland was his guest and Roger  had decided to buy some locally hand-made rugs in honour of his stay. They were beautiful- weaved in very bright colours- red, yellow and ochre orange and made quite an impact when laid out on the grey, stone floors of the house.

Only a few days after the party left, the house was burgled. Quite a few very expensive things had been stolen but also, strangely, so too had the brand new rugs.
At the time we knew there was a gang of Samburu roaming the area, styling themselves on the recent Mau Mau gangs. Their leader had even taken up the name of General China, after the famous Mau Mau leader.

The real General China and Mau Mau activist.

The real General China and Mau Mau activist.

We immediately suspected they might be responsible for the burglary but when we notified the police they told us they were very busy and unlikely to be able to do much about it for a few days.

I had already recruited two Africans I trusted to work as security guards to help me keep an eye out on the property and later that day they were travelling with me in the landrover. We were driving past this little scrubby thornwood patch when we noticed three large red, orange and yellow bundles bobbing gaily just above the thorn bushes.

It didn’t take us long to realise that, in fact, there were people underneath these bundles and that the bundles themselves were the brand new rugs which had been used to wrap up all the valuables from the burglary.

We took off after them. The bundles split up as soon as they heard us. My guards got out of the car and chased two on foot while I took off after the tallest, red bundle in the car.
He was a big man- massively muscled, fit and tall- a real warrior. He started sprinting fast, dodging and weaving through the bush. After about half an hour I lost him.

I was just about to give up when suddenly the red bundle bobbed up again having zig-zagged back behind me. I churned the gears on the car and raced over to the other side of the thicket. I reached it just as he raced out and collided with the car.
He fell heavily and was dazed and winded but otherwise seemed unharmed.

I quickly took advantage. Yelling to my two guards for help I started binding his hands and feet with my belt and rope from the car. They soon joined me and helped me load him into the car. However, by this time he was regaining his senses and began to struggle so fiercely that my African guards had no option but to sit on him to restrain him for the rest of the journey.

It was a pretty bumpy trip and he was dangerously angry by the time we arrived in town and handed him over to the local police. The police however, were very happy to see us. They took one look at our prisoner and revealed he was indeed “the General” and leader of the notorious, criminal gang whom they had been hunting for months.

He was to be transferred to Nairobi the next day but he was left overnight in a cell with only one young police officer guarding him. The “General” asked for a drink of water.
There were no cups so this young officer let him out to drink from the tap. He was killed for his naivety- a single chop to the neck with the hand.

I wasn’t aware that he had escaped until one of my cattle herders was found murdered and another was told to give me a message that “the General knows where you live and he’s coming to get you”.

The next three months were long and filled with some anxiety. I was unable to do my job without spending most of the day away from the house, leaving my wife Margaret and my three small children there all alone.

Eventually the police did recapture “the General” but by that time Margaret and I had already made arrangements to leave Kenya.

It was with a wistful heart that I said good-bye to the land of my birth but I knew it was no longer the country I had grown up in. Both Kenya and I were entering new stages in our lives.

Margaret, I and the children boarded a ship at Aden and sailed to Australia as one of the many “£10 poms” heading to that country looking for a new start.

As my hand healed slowly over the next few months, so too the Mau Mau uprising drew to a close.

But I was still suffering nightmares about that night and could not face returning to the cremeries, so I handed in my notice and started looking around for different work. During my time at Thompson’s Falls (Nyahururu) I had become friendly with the owner of  Aberdare Stock Auctions (ASA). It was a successful business and he was looking for someone younger to come in before he himself retired in a few years. I was keen for the independence that working in your own business would bring so I jumped at the chance.

Also during the following two years Kenya began the long, and sometimes torturous, diplomatic road to independence. As a result the British government put everything on hold including the sales of government property and livestock in Kenya. Unfortunately this formed the greater part of ASA’s business and it soon became clear there was not enough income for two people- particularly when only one was doing all the work. I asked the old guy when he was thinking of moving on and he confessed he had not yet saved enough to retire. I said he had better buy me out and he agreed. So two years later I was again looking for work.

By this time Margaret had also changed jobs and was now working as a secretary for a lawyer, Geoffrey White, in Nkuru. He had just inherited a Boran cattle property called Ndurumo near Rumuruti but had no interest in farming or running cattle so was trying to sell it. He had also become aware that his farm manager on the place was not only engaged in fraud, with one big fat beast dying of snakebite regular as clock-work every month, but there were also strong suspicions he was a paedophile, preying on the local black children.

White fired him at exactly the same time he managed to convince Roger Bules, the son of the owner of Pearl Insurance, to buy the place. Boules was a playboy and liked the lifestyle of having land in Kenya but had no interest in running the property so he demanded a farm manager as part and parcel of the terms of sale.  From my time at the auction house I had got myself a reputation as being pretty good with cattle so I was offered the job. It seemed fortuitous as Margaret had just fallen pregnant with the twins and part of the package included a house on the farm.

At work on the farm

At work on the farm

I was excited and looking forward to this change in career from dairy to beef. I liked the Boran cattle and in fact my father had been one of the first to introduce the breed into the ranching areas of Kenya from Somalia and Ethiopia.

But the day I arrived so too did an outbreak of tick fever. When tick fever takes hold within a cattle herd it is one of the most difficult diseases to deal with. The animals suffer horribly with weakness and fever similar to that suffered by humans during malaria. On the day I arrived 20 cows had already died. It was pretty dreadful. I had been well and truly thrown in at the deep end.

The only cure was to get rid of the ticks and that meant dipping every single beast every three to five days. There were 2000 cattle on this place and we were dipping from morning until dusk. Boran cattle also have particularly loose skin so even the dipping wasn’t straight forward or swift as we had to make sure the chemical was getting in amongst the folds of the skin and in their ears- that had to be done by hand. With only one cattle dip on the place we also had to muster the cattle in from the outer paddocks and keep them near the dip.  They were held in traditional African pens made from thorn bushes with all of us taking turns to guard them from lions and cattle thieves during the night.

It was exhausting and deeply depressing work. Every day about a hundred cattle would die on us. They were dropping faster than we could chop the firewood to burn the bodies. Eventually I found a disused well that was 80ft deep and we started dumping the carcasses in there. But even using bags and bags of lime there were always some bodies in a state of obvious putrefication. The well was right near our house so poor Margaret, who was already suffering terrible morning sickness with the twins, also had to battle the foul stench of rotting flesh day and night.

After the death of about 500 cattle and a nightmare week we started getting on top of the outbreak and within three weeks there were no more deaths. I began to be able to breathe normally again.

Despite this horrific start I was very happy at Ndurumo. I got on very well with all the workers on the place, the house was comfortable enough and the land was rich so the cattle grew fat and contented.

New parents

New parents

By December 1961 Margaret was also enormously fat but not quite as contented and I think we were both relieved when she finally gave birth to the twins on Christmas Day – which by coincidence was also my own birthday. The babies, James and Kathryn, were born healthy and a good weight, despite there being two of them. The doctor in the hospital seemed very relaxed about Margaret’s ability to give birth naturally to twins and saw no reason to cancel going to the hospital Christmas Party leaving the midwife in charge. There I understand he greatly enjoyed his winnings from the hospital sweepstake about whether the twins would be born on Christmas Day. As soon as word reached me that the babies had been born I drove from Ndurumo to Thomson’s Falls to see them in our car which was a Mercedes 300 with 15 inch wheels and a top speed of 190miles per hour when most cars could only do 90 to 100 mph at that time. It was a very nice motorcar.

I should probably also mention that at the time the actor Anthony Steel was also in Africa filming and he was considered the heart-throb of the time. Anyway I stopped to pick up these two soldiers who were hitch-hiking. They got in and I said “Merry Christmas, I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a hurry.” One started off quite chatty and asked me if I was Anthony Steel- apparently I looked just like him and was driving a very flashy car. Looking back I do not remember disabusing them of this notion, only that I repeated I was in a terrible hurry. I put the car into top gear and reached top speed very rapidly. At this point in time both soldiers stopped talking. When we hit a long low curve with a hump in the road the car went airborne for about five feet before landing gracefully back on the dirt road.

I admit it even scared me a little so I slowed down and apologised to them in the rearvision mirror. I was quite taken aback by the terrified and rather green looking faces huddled together that greeted me. I took it a bit easier after that but both men did not say a word until I dropped them off. In fact they exited the car even before the wheels had come to a standstill. Probably to this day they talk about the mad and reckless Anthony Steel in his fancy car.

We brought the babies back to Ndurumo with great pride only to be met with a long line of the farm’s local Kikuyu labourers waiting to pay their commiserations. I soon discovered that if twins were born to a Kikuyu woman living at such high altitudes (and usually having no break from work) then more often than not the mother was unable to produce enough energy or milk to support both and one often died. I think it was a bit disconcerting for Margaret to deal with such heartfelt sympathy on her first day but she managed very well and soon both mother and babies were thriving- despite the odd interaction with a green mamba snake dropping into their baskets by accident.

Mau Mau prisoners

Mau Mau prisoners

I returned to Kenya in 1954 as the country was racked with the terror and uncertainty of the Mau Mau uprising. It had been brewing for years of course as tensions between the Kikuyu and white farmers increased but the extremists amongst the Kikuyu now launched a terrorist movement to prompt the British Government to swifter action and grant Kenya independence. A lot has been said about the Mau Mau uprising and our role as colonial and imperialists in Kenya. However, all I can say is that most of the Africans I knew and worked with were not part of the Mau Mau uprising and many were viciously attacked for their refusal to take the oath.

My sister Jean and her husband, on their farm in the Aberdare Mountains, were also attacked numerous times and quite a few of their police-trained German Shepherd dogs as well as their farm workers had been killed in the process. Doug was a target because he was fluent in Sawhili and so worked as an occasional interpreter in interrogations of Mau Mau prisoners. Eventually they both took turns at keeping watch during the night and both became such light sleepers that the slightest rustle or noise could wake them up long after they had left Africa.

But Jean was not only tall, and built on Amazonian lines, but also had a reputation as a crack shot. It came as no surprise to me or the rest of the family that she had one day rounded up four suspected Mau Mau terrorists on their farm single-handedly and drove them to the police station without any incident or any attempt on her life.

I felt I needed to do my part, so after obtaining a job as the production manager at Kenya’s Co-op Cremeries in Thompson’s Falls (now Nyahururu) I also became a part-time inspector with Kenya’s Police Reserve. With a small force of Masai, our job was to look after the local townships at night and keep a watch out for any Mau Mau activity.

Every now and then we would be sent to monitor the Northern Frontier which was a three day trek bouncing around in a Landrover through thick bush and on pot-holed and dusty roads. I would dread these trips as I suffered horribly from car-sickness. On one trip I was barely compis mentis as we went up and down endless hills. It was just as well we didn’t find any suspicious activity as I doubt I would have been up to doing anything about it.

For the most part, however, my part-time inspector job was pretty uneventful and perhaps as a result I grew rather blasé about the target it made me.

In the meantime I had begun in earnest my courtship of Margaret Patterson. She had returned from her drama course in London, having been unable to gain a scholarship to continue her studies. That year the Guildhall had decided to award all scholarships to black students in one of the first attempts at positive discrimination. So she had been forced to return to Kenya and was now working as a secretary in the rail department. She was bored out of her brain.

Trip to Mt Kenya

Trip to Mt Kenya

So we embarked on a social whirl of events and expeditions including a trip to the top of Mt Kenya together- my first experience of my future wife’s grim determination. Despite suffering terrible altitude sickness she refused to give up and I was secretly very proud of her, although it would not do to tell her of course.

I had enjoyed my bachelor days and it is fair to say that I was trying to put off married life as long as I could. However, Margaret was having none of it. On a drive home from a dance one night she asked me exactly where our relationship was heading. I ducked and dived the question but finally said that I felt it was a little too soon to get married and perhaps we should wait for a bit- perhaps even a year or two.

“Oh if you want to wait I might as well go back to England and study as a nurse, ” Margaret replied.

This was not the answer I was expecting. I had already made up my mind that Margaret was the girl I would marry and so the thought of her returning to England and perhaps meeting someone else there was not at all to my liking. And yet…and yet….it still seemed too soon to stop flirting with every attractive woman who crossed my path and buckle down to a life of responsibility as a husband and no doubt father.

I squirmed and wriggled but, despite being normally very amenable and deferential to my wishes, Margaret remained immovable. I knew she was quite capable of booking her plane tickets the following day and so by the time I dropped her off at her parents house in Karen, I had agreed we should get married.

Wedding Day

Wedding Day

We got married on a beautiful September day and  left the party early in order to travel to my mother’s house in Mombasa where we were to spend our honeymoon. I had decided I would introduce Margaret to all the joys of watersports during our holiday. So on the first day of I borrowed an aqua lung from a mate along with a gas bottle, hose and gauge that told the pressure. It was still in the early days of scuba equipment so it wasn’t terribly sophisticated. I sensibly decided to test it out in the loungeroom of the house before heading down to the water. It had obviously gotten rusty and the damn thing exploded in my face. Margaret spent the first day of her honeymoon extracting bits of steel wire out of me and cleaning up the room. She often comments that she should have known what was coming based on that first day of married life.

I have no idea what she means.

I also introduced her to Pimms. Margaret had never been a great drinker which was something I felt needed to be rectified so I made up a rather strong batch. She took a couple of sips and screwed up her face slightly.

“Don’t you like it?” I asked.

I knew she was in love with me when she shook her head bravely and said

“Oh no, it’s lovely.”

To which my evil genius replied that she should definitely drink a bit more then. An hour later I had to carry her to the bedroom and roll her into bed.

When we returned from honeymoon I moved from the strictly bachelor only accommodation of Thompson’s Falls up to Nakuru which had houses for married men and was also more of a hot-spot for Mau Mau activity.

I was put in charge of installing the new tetrapac milk packaging machinery and it was proving problematic. I had fought with it for three days and nights. On this evening, as on the others before, I stayed behind after the rest of the workers had headed home and prepared to do battle with the machine once more. The hours ticked by and I grew more and more frustrated. I had just extended my left hand inside the machine and was bashing furiously with a spanner when I heard a noise. It was a noise that dried my throat and sucked my stomach dry. It was the sound of a switch being turned on. It was followed by the tell-tale whirring of the tetrapak machine grinding into action, capturing my hand in the process.

Even before I had turned around to see a shadowy figure disappearing from the shed I knew what must have happened. One of the workers with previously unsuspected links with the Mau Mau had slipped back surreptitiously, plugged in the machine and turned it on just at the moment when he knew it would cause the most damage.

I pulled and pushed and panicked but my hand was caught inexorably in the machinery. There was nothing I could do but to follow it through the same process as a quart of milk. I yelled and screamed for help but no help came by the time my hand approached the “sealing jaws” of the machine.

I tried to resign myself to the inevitable, excruciating pain and the possibility I was going to lose my hand. I felt sick and faint.

I’m not sure how I did not manage to black out as the blades crunched through my wrist. Eventually they pulled apart and I was finally able to free myself. My hand, miraculously was still attached to my arm but only by the merest scrap of skin.

By this time some of the other African workers who lived on-site had heard me and rushed to help. Unfortunately medical help was another problem. At that time of night the nearest doctor was in fact a retired gynecologist who had succumbed to the pleasures of alcohol and was still quite drunk when they found him. One of the other managers, who had also been called, solved the problem by repeatedly dunking him in a cow trough until he was sober. Soon I was sitting at the doctor’s kitchen table alongside several bottles of brandy which were consumed in copious quantities by the both of us.

For three hours he stitched back together all my tendons and arteries before splinting up and bandaging the whole.

And even drunk the man was the best bloody surgeon I’ve ever come across. Once the wrist had healed I had full movement back and the scar was hardly noticeable.

The African responsible made the mistake of returning to his rooms in the barracks on-site. When the other workers found out they hacked him to pieces. By the time the police arrived the next day they found blood from floor to ceiling.

At work

At work

My second work placement on my dairy technology course was in a condensed milk factory in Victoria which had the lasting impact of a life-long addiction to condensed milk.

I consumed vast quantities of the stuff over that three winter months I was there. I swear I needed the calories to help me survive what was the coldest place in the world. I had thought I had grown hardened to surviving cold winters in climate-inappropriate accommodation but I was wrong. Only here did I feel real despair as I watched snow falling and knew I had to last a long night amongst uninsulated walls and not enough blankets.

It was in the small town where I was based that I met the son of a family we had known in Kenya- the Allens. They were an Australian family but had emigrated to Kenya and had had three sons- the eldest was the Kenyan commissioner of police and the second son was the commissioner of prisons. However, the third son had returned to Australia and was now working as a rigger on high power lines. My mother had sent me his address and it was hard to conceal my shock when he opened the door. His brothers were slim, athletic, well-dressed and cultivated men. This brother was a big, rough, bull of a man with an intermittent relationship with a razor and, even in the middle of winter, was wearing flip-flops (or thongs as they are known in Australia).

He looked me up and down and the first thing he said by way of introduction was:

“I suppose you’re one of these poofs then are you? Like those brothers of mine?”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, particularly since I had always got on well with his brothers, but I laughed it off and made some sarcastic comment.

He made no comment but proceeded to lock up his house and walk past me. I remained where I was uncertain of what to do until he looked back impatiently and said:

“Well come on then. Are you coming for a drink or not?”

I soon discovered he had a reputation as a fighter and a drinker. I was a pretty solid drinker myself at that age but when we entered the pub at 10am even I was a bit worried. We drank all day. At 5pm all his mates, who had been working, entered the pub. At 7.30pm my companion fell off his stool unconscious. I helped drag him out to the front steps and into one of his mate’s utes to get him home. When I walked back into the bar I was hailed as the new drinking champion of the bar and offered another drink. I said I needed a small nap first. I went upstairs to my bedroom, above the bar, and there puked up my guts before collapsing next to the toilet for about three hours. When I came too I felt much better and made my way back downstairs to accept that drink just before closing time- thus cementing my newly acquired reputation while minimising the risk of throwing up again in front of everyone!

At the factory I was charged with making two batches of condensed milk a day. I had to test the milk in the morning and then fill these big cylindrical vats- half milk and half sugar. Something like 22 huge bags of sugar, went into each vat. This was then vacuumed and boiled under a low temperature so it bubbled away all day like a witch’s cauldron. The trick is to not caramelise the sugar or burn the milk and is quite a delicate process….it also required frequent taste tests just to be sure!

My last practical was based in Brisbane, Queensland. I had been told that of all the states in Australia it was the most like Kenya so I was keen to see it. I rode my motor-bike from Adelaide to Brisbane, a distance of more than 1200 miles taking two full days.  My trusty steed did the journey in style without breaking down once.

Unfortunately I arrived on Good Friday and in those days not a single shop was open, either that day or for the rest of the Easter weekend. I had just $5 in my pocket and I knew it would not be enough to cover food and accommodation for four days. After asking around I made my way to a place called the People’s Palace on Edward Street, run by the Salvation Army. I asked if I could pay them when I got my first salary and they agreed. Then I went and bought a big bag of prawns and a loaf of bread with my $5 and lived on that for the four days I was there. The prawns were turning slightly by Easter Monday but I survived without too much more than a slightly dicky tummy.

dairytech2I worked as an ice-cream grader at the Pauls factory there. It was a big, dirty old place that stuanchly remained so right up until the 1990s, well after the Southbank became rejuvenated and trendy place to go (the building is now a theatre). I was in charge of sterilising the equipment and during my first week there I soon discovered that the milk cans were not being washed and steamed properly. I prepared to tackle the old man in charge of operating the steam drum. He may not have been that old actually…but all his teeth had rotted out and his breath had achieved extreme levels of putridness. I was forced to have a lot of serious chats with him to resolve the problem but I couldn’t bear to stand too close to him. It takes quite a lot of concentration to speak and yet not breathe without appearing to do so. Luckily he was a good humoured chap and the issue was resolved amicably and, more importantly for my lungs, relatively quickly.

After a while I also went on the butter line in the morning. It consisted of a long line of workers taking off the butter and packing it into the crates. We all wore white overalls with a pocket on one side and pulled in tight at the waist. However, on the women, this uniform left a very alluring gap around the midriff. There were a couple of pretty girls on the butter line and I could not resist putting my hands in the gap of their overalls as if it was a pocket. It would usually earn me a good-humoured slap and a saucy comment. I suppose I should be grateful that it was the 50s and not nowadays where I would no doubt be up on a workplace harrassment suit. But it was a good place to work and there was always a lot of hilarity amongst the workers. I enjoyed it so much that after my three month placement was up they offered me a permanent job and I accepted it.

But in the end I only stayed six months there as by that time the Mau Mau had broken out in Kenya and had lasted two years already. Both my brother Jim and I felt we should go back and help in any way we could.

Jim (front row, second from the left) as captain of the waterpolo team and myself as goalie (back row, second from the right)

Jim (front row, second from the left) as captain of the waterpolo team and myself as goalie (back row, second from the right)

In my third year I was joined by my younger brother Jim who also decided to study agriculture at Roseworthy. I was rather looking forward to seeing him and met him off the bus from the port. It wasn’t an auspicious start. As soon as he got off, he put down his cases and slogged me across the face.

I’m not really sure why and Jim has never spoken about it. I can only assume that having been able to (and I admit I frequently did so)  beat him up all through our teenage years he was itching for a chance to get his own back now he was the same size as me.

We fought and fought hard that first day but I managed to emerge victorious. While it meant our relationship was a tad uneasy in those first few weeks, it did cement our joint reputations throughout the college as “fighters”.

Our relationship changed for the better when Jim joined the water polo team. Although I had been a champion swimmer for two years running at university, Jim was a much stronger swimmer than I. He was rapidly elected captain of the water polo club, despite only being a first year, while I only just managed to hold onto a goalie position.

We both became friends with Mick Lucy, who was the secretary of the water polo team, and together we all decided we had to do something about the swimming pool.

Swimming in the pool

Swimming in the pool

“Swimming pool” was perhaps an ambitious term for it since it consisted of a mud dam with wooden planks knocked in at each end. It still had lanes and was a proper 25 metre length but every time you turned you probably kicked the board back half a metre into the soft mud.  If you dived off the platforms with force they would sink down. It was very good fun but it needed a lot of maintenance and if too many people were using it they made a bit of a mess.  We tried to solidify it with stones initially, then by pouring liquid concrete into holes, but nothing we tried worked terribly well. We decided that at least half the damage was being caused by the townspeople, who often made the trip to the college in order to use the pool in the afternoons and weekends but did not contribute any funds to its upkeep.

So we banned them.

This went down like a lead balloon as you can imagine.

One evening Jim and I went to the pictures in town and decided to have a drink at the local milk bar nearby afterwards. Some of the locals there recognised us as the ones responsible for the ban and decided to confront us.

There was a pack of them, all as broad as they were tall. They looked very capable of bashing us into a pulp. Although both of us were known as fighters they knew, and we knew, we would undoubtedly lose with such odds. But what they didn’t count on was that, having a well-honed instinct for survival, I was not averse to playing dirty if it saved my skin. I broke the bottle of soda in my hand against the steel counter and stepped forward with it.

“All right then- who’s first?”

Jim hadn’t broken his bottle but was poised to do so right beside me.

I had expected a bloody and painful confrontation and was quite surprised and very relieved when they actually backed down and let us get on our bikes and head back to the college.

Our next move in obtaining a proper swimming pool was to raise some funds and we did so doing various things such as running a Coca-cola stall at the college. The drink was still relatively unknown in those days but was rapidly gaining popularity so we made quite a bit of money out of it- more than enough to improve the swimming pool.

My aerial red hunter 350

My aerial red hunter 350

I also ran some side businesses myself in order to save up money- such as offering a cut-price barber service for the students. I became pretty proficient at hair cutting…after the first few attempts.

I eventually saved up enough money to buy an Aerial Red Hunter 350 motorbike which was the ticket to freedom for me…and to impressing quite a lot of ladies.

At the end of my year long dairy technology course- which involved learning the art of butter and cream making- I had to complete three practical placements of about three months each and so my Red Hunter came into its own.

I travelled on it firstly to a butter factory in a little town that I’d never heard, and now cannot remember the name of,  in the central drylands of South Australia.

I stayed with an old lady who ran a boarding house and the first night I was there she brought up a very tasty smelling stew with white meat all through it. I sniffed it hungrily and thought “ah good, I love chicken stew”. It was as tasty as it smelt and I was very satisfied. I was probably there for about 10 days before I realised that it was not chicken stew but in fact rabbit stew which she sourced from some obliging fields nearby. The discovery didn’t make me like it any less but it increased my respect at her ability to turn a profit.

At the factory I was put in charge of the two 40 gallon churns which were big circular tubs with beaters at the top and bottom. I had to monitor the butter making and clean out these tubs at the end of each day. It was a small factory, with only 12 workers. Two of them were rough girls who had never been to school and who were all over me as soon as I arrived. I obviously wasn’t as diplomatic in my rejection as I had hoped because one day, as I was in the middle of one of the tubs cleaning it, they turned on the beaters.

There I was trying to straddle one, still keeping my manhood intact, while ducking the other which was coming about an inch away from my head. I was there for about five or ten minutes and could hear the both of them laughing their heads off before they eventually turned it off. When I got out I gave them a bloody good spanking… which I suspect they  enjoyed immensely.

But the thing I really learnt to dread was when the refrigeration plant packed it in- which it did quite often in that searing Australian heat. The plant consisted of cold water and gas ammonia pumps which would release a whole heap of ammonia all over the place in response to any fault within the machinery.  Those of you who have never smelt ammonia up close and personal cannot imagine the reeking vengeance it takes. It would damn near kill you just to find the leak and turn it off. We had masks but they didn’t prevent much. After 10 minutes you would come out retching and spitting, with the smell indelibly clinging to your nostrils and tonsils no matter what you did to try and get rid of it over the next few days.

I admit I was not terribly sorry to leave at the end of three months. I jumped on my bike and headed to my second work placement in Western Victoria.