Durban, Harare and the Victoria Falls - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Durban, Harare and the Victoria Falls

When the Team arrived at Durban Airport someone, but definitely not me, had arranged for them to be met and blessed by Phemelele Ngcongo, a sangoma, which is a polite word for female witch doctor. The sangoma's name in the strange Zulu language, which is full of tongue clicks, was completely unpronounceable by the Brits. The ceremony, which lasted about three minutes but seemed a lot longer, bemused the Red Arrows and the airport workers and media alike but it provided some unusual pictures for the media. I took a lot of photographs during that arrival ceremony and the subsequent display on Durban waterfront, but, mysteriously that 35mm film reel disappeared from the bedside table in my hotel room, never to be seen again. During the Durban Airport press conference, John Rands was quoted in the Durban Mercury as saying that, "A stable extrovert with an appetite for adrenaline and a capacity for beer is what makes a good fighter pilot." Quite - but not quite the way I would have worded it!

The display over Durban was centred on the splendid beach and watched by an enormous crowd; the nearby civil airport closed down for 20 minutes. The Team Manager's commentary, relayed over a public address system, was heard by tens of thousands of people along several miles of the promenade. The following day was a rare day off, spoilt somewhat because of a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius, a 40 mph wind blowing like a furnace, and humidity of almost 100%.

I then went my own way again and flew to Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, while the Team spent a few days sabbatical in the dry north of the Republic at Hoedspruit, home of the SAAF's own aerobatic team, The Silver Falcons. I was made very welcome in Harare by the British High Commission staff who had booked me into the 5-star Meikles Hotel in the centre of Harare for three nights. Fortunately I didn't have to pay the bill.

On my first morning I walked to the offices of the Harare Herald, just a few blocks from the hotel. I got some very curious looks from Zimbabweans; it seems they were not used to white men walking the streets on their own! I had been told by the High Commission that I would be expected at the Herald but I'm not sure that I was. I spent about an hour telling a reporter all about the Red Arrows without being asked a single question. I was very conscious of the fact that the reporter spent most of his time making surreptitious glances towards the man I assumed to be the News Editor at the other end of the room, and very little time making notes of what I was telling him. The next day a lengthy report was spread over three columns on the front page but there was hardly a mention of the Red Arrows. Most of the article was about the Air Force of Zimbabwe and their participation in the "Historic air show at Charles Prince Airport." Perhaps they had heard how the Red Arrows had stolen the show at Waterkloof and didn't want the same to happen at their air show.

Incidentally, the airport's name has nothing to do with Prince Charles. Charles Prince had been involved with aviation in Zimbabwe for more than four decades; he had been the chief flying instructor at, and later became the first manager of, the airport that was named after him.

The Red Arrows eventually arrived in Harare from Hoedspruit. I learned that the Air Force of Zimbabwe, AFZ, is so-called so as not to be confused with the neighbouring Zambian Air Force, ZAF. Air Commodore Bostock, Commandant of CFS, later wrote in his official report that the Harare display took place ". . before a modest crowd by South African standards but there was a great deal of good will. Performances by aircraft of the Air Force of Zimbabwe were noisy and spirited, but hardly within normal safety regulations accepted within Europe."

The following day I made a side trip to the Victoria Falls in advance of the Red Arrows who were going to make a flypast over the Falls. The High Commission had booked me into the Elephant Hills Hotel, on the banks of the Zambezi River about 4 kms from the Falls.

This was the magnificent view from my suite in the Elephant Hills Hotel
Unfortunately, the Falls were not at their best because there had been a drought for several years. Nevertheless, a spectacular picture of the Red Arrows flying over the Falls was obtained by the Team's own photographer, Peter Mobbs, flying with Red 10. Peter was using a manual single shot 500CM Hasselblad; the Hawks were travelling at 400 miles per hour.

This is Pete Mobbs' great photograph that was seen around the world.
(C) UK MOD Crown Copyright [1995]
Peter Mobbs' superb picture appeared in several UK national newspapers and was seen around the world in newspapers, brochures and magazines. Up until the day I retired I was still getting mail from members of the public asking where they could get copies. If only one PR photograph had come out of the whole tour, this one would have made the tour worthwhile. What a pity that, because Peter was an RAF serviceman, he got no royalties from his work!

David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, is believed to have been the first European to view Victoria Falls, on 16 November 1855, from what is now known as Livingstone Island, one of two land masses in the middle of the river, immediately upstream from the falls on the Zambian side. Livingstone named his discovery in honour of Queen Victoria, but the indigenous name, Mosi-oa-Tunya - literally "the smoke that thunders" - is also well known - and very appropriate because the noise, even during a prolonged drought as was the case when I was there, can be heard from several kilometres away. Dr Livingstone had featured regularly in my scripture lessons at primary school in the 1940s, and the school had a black and white photograph of the Falls that fascinated me. I had always wanted to visit the area to see the Falls for myself and during my stay I took several photographs, one of which was almost identical to the one I had known and admired at school.

I flew back to UK from Harare, via Bulawayo and Cape Town instead of the direct British Airways flight from Harare - for reasons best known to the RAF Booking Centre.

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