Frank Merryweather, my foreman, Jack, and I, based ourselves in Marromeu, the village on the south bank of the Zambezi, near its delta to the Indian Ocean. It was the hub of the surrounding Sena Sugar Estate, which lay in the next area that our Natural Resources company was to survey. We were there to do the initial recce of what we called Blocks 10 and 11.Being islands, sand dunes and swamps, waterways and lagoons, a road-served survey was out of the question, so it was to be done by helicopter. Our transport for the job was a beautiful Bell Jetranger, the civilian version of the military UH-1 which had proved to be very successful in the Vietnam War.
Frank would plan our route on his photo mosaic in order to cover the most representative possible variation in soil-type and vegetation community. The soils most utilized by the sugar plantations were black clay, and there were still huge areas of that which were still not under cultivation.
I think it was a very exciting adventure for all of us, but certainly I had never been in a chopper before, and Jack had never flown in any aircraft what so ever! He was very brave to go on that first flight, shaking and sweating with fear. Pedro, our young pilot, would set us down at Frank’s command. Jack would auger in several nearby locations and I would describe the soil and take samples, packing and labelling them, while Frank, with his vastly superior knowledge and experience would slot our findings into context with the landscape as a whole and take notes of the vegetation.
To determine salinity, we had to take water samples. Frank thought that the vast rafts of papyrus surrounding a lot of the waterways would present a huge obstacle, but I told him there would be no problem. If the pilot could hover just above the water, I would climb out onto the skid and scoop up the required amount.
Which I did, being used to climbing out of aeroplanes for skydiving. Frank was to tell me, in later years, how impressed he was with a feat that I had felt was easy! I think that he was worried about how to explain it if his surveyor had been eaten by crocodiles.Our ex-sister company AOC’s Dakota flew in a supply of jet-fuel in forty-four gallon drums for the Bell. First thing in the morning it would be refuelled, while we loaded our survey augers, sample bottles and packets, tape for labelling, forms for description, aerial photos and food.
Pedro let me take over the cyclic control, a couple of times. He told me not to move the stick, just to think I’d like to move it, it was so sensitive. However, I still threw the little craft around alarmingly!Game was plentiful, too. Hippos, waterbuck, reedbuck, impala, of course, and occasionally elephant.
On the ground, on two occasions, we thought we could see a vast black forest and try to find it on the mosaic. It was not there. It turned out to be colossal herds of buffalo. Naturally the chopper hovering overhead set them to stampeding. It was a sight I’ll never forget! Their numbers were certainly in excess of a thousand; maybe two!