By mid-August, Charles Howard (Jed) had recovered sufficiently to return to Head Office of Loxton, Hunting & Associates in Johannesburg to work his notice, which I thought was a cruel requirement for somebody being fired. The gaboon viper that had saved his life as an exhibit in the toilets of Jan Smuts Airport had died of mouth canker, but he brought a mamba with him to give to a friend that lived in Hillbrow.
When he called on the friend, he met Valerie Gillespie, a tall willowy blonde whom he thought was a druggy as her face was puffed and discoloured. It was a while before he discovered that she was recovering from a dog attack. A few of them went up the Hillbrow Tower, a few days later, where Jed met Valerie again. They got talking and slowly began to get over their mutual dislike. In the following few weeks, they met several times and Jed, intending to go to Mozambique to fetch his gaboon vipers, persuaded Valerie to come along. She said that she would be free to join him in ten days when she could take some leave. Jed moved into her flat until they left.
An acquaintance, Neville, had a battered Beetle. The three of them set off early one morning in September. By this time Valerie had become sufficiently used to Jed’s gogos to accept a grass snake as a gift. This went along with them. Short of Xai-xai, on the coast, where they had intended spending the night, Valerie insisted on a pit-stop. It was already dark and the talk had been of lions and tigers and such – she was quite a gullible gal – so she was loathe to leave the safety of the car. Eventually, it was decided that the men would relieve themselves at the front and Valerie would go around to the back, where the motor lived. She dropped her drawers and squatted and arose with a scream that brought the men running to her rescue. She had burned her bare butt on one of the exhaust pipes.
The next morning saw them stopped for fuel at the village just south of the River Save where Valerie saw a band of beggars. Of a generous nature, she went to give them some money. Most of them appeared to be blind, an affliction she was able to test by producing the grass snake and nobody ran away.
They were zipping along the Save floodplain when they passed what they thought was a fallen sack of potatoes. They turned around to go and claim it, but found that it was a human corpse. After a shocked debate as to what to do, they decided against reporting it as the Beetle had a dent up front. They were afraid they might be accused of running it over. They headed north again and by evening, were with me at my new camp at Inhamitanga.
I was overjoyed to see Jed again and we tackled the special bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label that he had promised to bring. I fed them, and Valerie could not get over the fact that I had Marmite on the table, out there in the wilds of Africa. We didn’t get much sleep that night, talking while we flattened the bottle. They set off again next morning and I was not to see Jed again until he, Valerie and Brian Nicholson came to my wedding. I then caught up on the rest of the tale.
Crossing the Zambezi on the Mopeia Ferry, they spent the next two days at Jed’s old camp at the base of Mount Morrumbala. The faithful camp-man, dubbed Snake, had looked after the gabbies well; he, too, was overjoyed to see Jed again. He brought small chickens to drop into the pit for their lunch. Valerie objected; said it was cruel. Jed and Neville held her over the ghastly pit and threatened to drop her in. Deciding to return for the gabbies later, they crossed the Shiré River and travelled to Mutarara to spend three days there at our office. Some of the field team were there as well as Frank Merriweather, our party leader. They visited the pub on the corner, where Brian Nicholson had crashed, but were asked to leave when Valerie started taking photos. There were some security police there who assumed she was taking pictures of them. The only other happening of note was that a villager was taken by a crocodile, which put Valerie off swimming in the Zambezi. They bought several pillow-slips for the gaboon vipers and returned to Jed’s camp to load them. Valerie refused to sit on the back seat with them as they headed south again.
Somewhere about the River Save, the Beetle lost its oil filler cap and a lot of oil; the engine died on them. Neville decided it was their fault and relationships got strained. The Army kindly towed the stricken vehicle into Maxixe, where Neville eventually got the engine going again He took two gabbies and left Jed and Valerie to their own devices. They booked into the little hotel, there. Valerie was desperate for a shower, but Jed first had to cool off the gabbies, or they would die, Jed said, before she could use it. The following day, they left the gabbies in their pillow slips on the balcony for the day while they caught a dhow across the bay to Inhambane.
They left Maxixe by bus, travelling to what was then Lourenço Marques, sitting over the engine behind the driver, pillowslips beneath their seats. They were not the only passengers with livestock; there were chickens and a goat or two, as well. On arrival, they caught a taxi to El Mundo night club, because Jed had met the owner on his way north. He directed them to a nearby hotel which turned out to be a brothel. In their room, they became aware of a nasty smell emanating from the pillowslips; two of the reptiles had died, probably due to the heat of the bus engine. These were buried with great ceremony in the garden of the brothel. Jed was heartbroken.
After a day in Lourenço Marques, they caught a train back to Johannesburg with the remaining vipers where Jed set to work building a glass fronted case for them. The cleaner nearly had a heart attack and reported them to the manager of the apartments who promptly evicted Valerie. Jed gave his beloved snakes to the Haartebeespoort Snake & Animal Park, but they died within a month, probably due either to their rough journey or to the colder climate.