THE “punkahwallah” was working overtime this night. Only the string quartet and the aspidistra was missing as the punkah swayed backwards and forwards, creating a cool breeze to dissipate the steamy humidity in the dining room of the Gwaai River Hotel.
It was a quiet and tranquil hot night, the ones that the hotel likes best, and all the time outside in the darkness the punkahwallah tugged to and fro on the rope, providing the energy for a labour-intensive contraption the colonial British found in India.
Cecil John Rhodes or Rudyard Kipling or any other of those characters from Britain’s long-lost empire of which Rhodesia was a part would have approved of the punkah, and the Gwaai River Hotel, with its beautiful setting in the thornveld of southern Africa.
But something seemed out of place. It might have been the camouflage uniforms some of the quests were wearing to dinner, or the grenade screens across the windows. Or even that Rhodesian-born contraption, the pink phone of the agri-alert radio link that took its place alongside the ancient, wind-up telephone on the bar of the hotel’s pub.
A Gwaai farmer called Harry could smile now but at the time it wasn’t funny. He, his wife and son, and one of his son’s schoolfriends, had been pinned down for 45 agonising minutes a few weeks earlier when guerrillas attacked their homestead.
In the distant darkness, far beyond the patch in the flowerbeds where the punkahwallah stands, the hotel guests could hear the sound of exploding rockets and mortar bombs and they wondered whether Harry and his family were safe.
Harry managed to fight off the attack, however, with the help of the security forces answering his agri-alert distress call, and he was sitting at the bar to tell the tale.
* * *
Harold Broomberg, the proprietor of the Gwaai River Hotel, plays double bass when he can get a jam session going in his pub. They are lively “good fun” nights, as he describes them with a measure of under-statement, and this morning Harold was not looking too active behind the bar, having had one of those good fun nights the night before.
“You should have been there,” he says to travellers who have arrived via the armed convoys that ply the road from Bulawayo in Rhodesia’s south to the Victoria Falls, to the north. And he points out the musicians among the farmers and soldiers who had joined in with conventional instruments or makeshift ones, or who just sang along.
The musicians who had joined in did not look too active either.
Harold, of Johannesburg Jewish stock as is his wife Sylvia, is a quiet, retiring man in his sixties. He doesn’t make a fuss about the war between white settlers from colonial times and indigenous Africans that has engulfed the Gwaai River Valley and only mentions in passing why he has had to construct a high security fence around his hotel complex.
``I was pressured into doing it by various people,’’ he says, shaking his head sadly.
Harold talks about the fence but not about the time guerrillas attacked the hotel with rockets.
It is left to Sylvia to relate the incident.
It was late at night and Harold was working in his office doing paperwork. In the bar the guests and locals were having a final drink before closing time.
Suddenly a massive explosion, with people throwing themselves to the ground: small arms fire and then silence.
``The office took a direct hit, bringing down the ceiling all around Harold,’’ says Sylvia. ``The guests thought he had had it but out came Harold casually brushing the dust from his shirt. I don’t know if he even ordered himself a drink.’‘
Of the 20 or so white farmers in the Gwaai area some have left but most are staying. One farmer sits at the bar complaining that many of his cattle have been rustled.
``We just don’t know where they went,’’ he says in between a game of darts with some young troopies.
``And now the terrs [terrorists] have told my workers to stop working for me. Some of my most trusted men, who have been with me for years, came back to the farm to explain that they could not carry on under the threat of death.
``So I said to them just give me a month’s notice so I can make other arrangements.
``I dispatched an African to go and find the terrs and tell them of this arrangement. He didn’t make it off my property before he was killed.’‘
* * *
The soldiers and the farmers had moved from the bar into the lounge because Harold was showing films. One of the films - a South African tourist promotion featuring wildlife - most of them had seen if not once but a few times before but who was complaining?
When the lights went on two troopies moved over to the ping-pong table, situated hear Harold’s dimly-lit, paper-scattered office, for a game.
The old table stood up well to the rumbustious match, as it had stood up well to the weight of a dying man some time back.
A young man from Wankie to the north had chanced driving from Bulawayo late in the afternoon to get back that night to see his wife. He and his African companion were ambushed and the young man was seriously wounded. The African, having never driven a Land Rover before, took the wheel and got the driver to the hotel.
But it was too late to save him.
The cottages that make up the hotel complex, built with heavy stone and with polished steps, once had more than 10,000 visitors a year when tourism in Rhodesia boomed. Now Sylvia complains there are only about 1000. It is a different kind of guest, too. Although the hotel has always been a popular watering-hole for the farmers, ranchers and big-game hunters from the wildlife areas surrounding the Wankie National Park, the locals tend to stay overnight now.
``My hotel is a place where the farmers can rest and relax and escape the tensions down on the farm,’’ says Harold. ``They are safe here and so are their families. And it does them all good to get away from it all.’‘
* * *
The male nurse from Bulawayo had problems. His car had broken down on his way to the Victoria Falls and he was holed up at the hotel while the convoy brought a vital spare part. He didn’t mind, though. His hobby was drawing the interior of pubs - something he had started in his home country of Britain - and at the Gwaai he had an ideal opportunity to study the pub and all its paraphernalia in detail.
There were the big game trophies, the plastered-over hole in the wall where an elephant gun had gone off accidentally and the framed banknotes from all over the world which had been signed and sent to Harold and Sylvia from tourists who had passed through over the years (one of the notes a bullet hole in it from the night of the guerrilla attack).
And there on the bar is the pink phone of the agri-alert and a jar marked: ``For the widow and family of Jacko Ndlovu of the guard force, killed by terrorists on January 15.’‘
The jar for the African fighting on the side of the whites is stuffed with Rhodesian dollar notes.