‘I might have lost my luggage, but I still fell in love with Africa’

Feb 02, 2019

I recently read an article about a pair of rare white giraffes that had been spotted in Kenya. According to National Geographic the mother and daughter duo suffer from a genetic disorder (Leucism) that prevents pigmentation in skin cells. It’s a condition that would be similar to albinism in humans.

I first visited Africa in 1974. Obviously there has been much change in that time, but I’ve longed to revisit. I was 22 years old when I first went, and was living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It was a time when many Australians were living and working their way around the globe. I’d spent two winters in the grey, cold dampness of London in the United Kingdom and decided that if I didn’t get some sunshine soon, I’d go round the bend.

My financial situation at the time prevented me from returning to Australia, so I threw a dart at a map and let that be our guide. That precious dart pierced the map in South Africa and, little did I know at the time, it also pierced my heart with a lifetime of love for Africa; a place so diverse, so contrary, so mesmerising, so surprising and so colourful. It was unforgettable and I’ve ached to return.

In those days the flight from London to Johannesburg meant a refuelling stop in Kinshasa, in the Congo Passengers were shepherded into a lean-to demountable structure guarded closely by large African men armed with machine guns, big guns, little guns and chests full of ammo; most of us had never seen the like. Once inside, we were greeted with happy, smiling, dark-skinned faces and a weak, milky liquid they referred to as tea.  Unsurprisingly, I was hypnotised by the beauty of their skin; I wanted to touch them.  Even the tea connoisseur in me forgave them the sop that was in my cup.

The guards returned and we were duly escorted back to the plane. We all decided it had been a wonderful surprise as this stopover had not been noted on our tickets. More surprises awaited us at Johannesburg — no luggage. Not just our little group, but half the passengers were in the same predicament. Apparently Kinshasa was not just well known for its lack of tea-making abilities, but, I refuse to believe those happy, smiling faces were ‘in on it’.

Unfortunately, I’d placed my traveller’s cheques inside my suitcase (thinking that would be the safest place for them). When travelling in the mid-1970s, a new country and a new city meant a new source of income was required. I needed to find a job, and quickly!

If one’s luggage is lost, it is difficult to attent interviews wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Having one hell of a hissy fit at the airport (I’d been there for 24 hours without foot or a shower), I demanded to speak with someone at the Australian Embassy. I and my travelling companions were given a motel room for three days and a small amount of money for food and laundry. It would have to do. Thanksfully, my sister in Australia came to my aid and transferred additional funds, whic took four days to arrive.

Predictably, the Australian attitude of ‘she’ll be right, Mate’ saw me get a job almost immediately. I was able to rent a unit in the city centre and, more importantly, continue my fascination with this amazing continent.

Over 12 months I visited palatial ‘whites only’ enclaves, embarked on a pre-Attenborough-style safari or two, helped free a 6-foot Zulu from his disgusting master, attended one of the first native stage shows ‘Ipi Tombe’ and — reticently — accepted native maids as part of our rental payment inclusions.

Of course, there were the animals. What I wouldn’t give to see these creatures, and especially giraffes (of any colour) in the wilds of Africa once more.

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Have you been to Africa? Is a trip to the continent on your bucket list?

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