UK to Zimbabwe

In 1983 Sue and I, with our two daughters of six and eight, were finding the UK a bit cramped and Africa’s wildlife beckoned. We cashed in the house and our Morris 1000, bought a tent and tickets – presto, sun instead of rain.

The Rhodesian / Zimbabwe war had just ended and a mixture of euphoria, excitement and friendship was in the air. The killing had stopped, and the local ex-terrorists or freedom fighters were centred in a new light industrial estate in Gweru. Passing the entrance in my rebuilt Isuzu pick-up, a 1965 model, I spied, in the distance, what looked like a Post Office van.

The poor old van had the back chopped out, and was in a sorry state. No floors, and started with a cough, belching blue smoke to a selection of rattles and knocks. 

By now, the owner and I were surrounded by a throng of lads, fresh from the bush. I could feel a sense of nervousness creeping up on me, as I stared at the dilapidated old J-Type.

“Did I wish to sell my Isuzu?” the Matabele gent asked. In my stupidity, I replied “Yes mate, I’ll do a straight swap. I’ll have your van, you take the Isuzu.”

Agatha - the J-type Van

Sue and the family named her Agatha. We took her to bits; rebuilding the engine, clutch, back-end and floor.

Under the Zimbabwean number plate, was an original UK number plate, faded and worn, so the vehicle I suspect was taken out to Rhodesia probably by its then owner, in the fifties or early sixties. 

Slowly Agatha became mobile, bobbing about the hot and dusty dirt roads, ferrying our two kids, by now aged eight and ten, to school.

Dusty and spattered, struggling over rough ground, she carried the materials with which we built our dairy and refrigerated coolers.

Drive and shoot

I remember, baboons raiding the hen house, two hundred yards from the dairy, and having to drive furiously – shooting at them with the Mauser. Big holes through the hen house, clouds of chickens, with happy egg-clutching baboons bounding off into the kopjes – yes, a J-Type suits the western riding approach, but remember to open the doors first!

Petrol was often unavailable, so we bought drums of TVO Power Paraffin and drums of methanol. A 50/50 mix provided the usual performance, if a little sooty.

Trundling through terrorist hot spots

We’d only been in Zimbabwe four years and Mugabe chopped the milk price, leaving us broke. When our farm was burnt out by bush fires, we hit the road. Agatha provided a sound home as we travelled and searched for a new start. As I had worked with wildlife in the UK, we prepared to journey 150 miles north to Whange game reserve, for a job interview. The road ran through 80 miles of thick bush, where terrorist attacks were common.

Each morning vehicles would gather with an armed escort, and speed north flat out. A J-Type would never keep up, so we left early trundling slowly onwards alone, the girls lying flat in the rear of the van. Tension mounted as we passed a burning lorry, then a burnt-out bus, and then the armed convoy zoomed past. 

Memories, too, of belligerent and suspicious checkpoint soldiers at road blocks, confused by this antique van.

I couldn’t really explain to them about the reliability of Morris-Commercial and the principles of dependable, if slow, transport, or that we lived in it. And I didn’t get the job, so we stayed and enjoyed the wildlife, before the final journey from Africa for Agatha.

Back to the UK

Arriving at Durban Docks we loaded Agatha into a container and she spent two weeks at sea. Back in Southampton, we filled the tank and drove to Kent, the bright yellow Zimbabwe number plates and Bulawayo dust inviting motorway police.

Returning to the UK in 1984 meant new work for Agatha, our few possessions in the back were soon replaced with roofing and building tools, slates, tiles and cement. No, it was too much … not fair on such a vehicle. Agatha was ready for new horizons – advertised to go to an enthusiast only. Bob Sandford happily took her away.

The cars that followed could never fill her place, her unique open-door excellence and cheery progress across the world against any odds. It really had been touch and go getting her out that yard in Gweru!

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