A Night of Two Tales in Bulawayo
By Mick Follari and Richard Darbourne
(1999) My shoes clicked on the hardwood floors crossing hall at the Bulawayo Club, echoing off the paintings of the walls– upright men in turn-of-the century clothes. Depictions of history hung all over the walls and there was an obvious air of colonialism to the place. The ceilings were very high, the wood was dark and well preserved; worn leather chairs waited patiently in corners, plaques adorned most everything, identifying nodes in the timeline of this Club and this city. I stepped down several flights of wide stairs, crossed through several doors, and looked over the balcony of an interior garden, square and vaulted, right in the middle of the building. I crossed back into the interior, past several black faces sticking out the tops of white jackets, and passed into 1920 for the evening.
Several heads turned as I entered the cocktail party, raising a glass; I nodded back. People were dressed formally, some in tuxedos, in stark contrast to the crew who only had their one change of clothes– no more than three dinner jackets between the five of us. There was excitement, as there had been at the airfield, and an undercurrent of relief. This event, this dinner, was 79 years in the making and certainly several weeks in delay. Brenda Brand, a warm soft-spoken woman, had set up several glass cases with artifacts and photos from her father-in-law, Sir Quintin Brand, one of the original pilots. There was the original menu from 1920, photographs of the Vimy taking off, of her after the crash, and of the pilots. After several drinks, a white-haired gentleman in black tie announced that dinner had been served.
We shuffled our way into the dining hall, an immense room with a ceiling as high as the walls were wide. Everything echoed off the hardwoods, chairs scraping, the quiet din of conversation. At the front was the largest of the tables, with our names written in script around the places. Pete McBride and I sat down next to each other, and sipped our drinks, looking around at all the white faces lining the long tables before us. We passed our menus around the table signing them for each other, as van Ryneveld and Brand had done; I glanced in it to read that we were eating Hake in Vimy sauce, beef van Ryneveld, and Aviator’s Delight. The roast beef, potatoes and greens were apparently just as the aviation pioneers had eaten nearly 80 years ago.
During our meal I dare say I noticed one or another of our crew scratching his head, trying to choose the right fork. The waiters scurried around, serving the meals and getting drinks. There was a reserved excitement, a quiet soup of white noise bouncing around the room. The white-haired gentleman sitting next to Pete was full of stories about life ‘on the frontier’, and chuckled at our conversation, pink-faced from the drinks. Finally, he stood, rapping his spoon sharply on the table to quiet the crowds and begin the speeches.
We had presentations, rememberances, congratulations, and welcomings. I smiled to myself, twirling wine in my glass as I thought of how much a part of this town the Silver Queen is. In Kenya, we were greeted warmly, and people were interested in the project, but needed to be told what we were doing and why. Here in Bulawayo, it is part of everyone’s consciousness and they were dropping everything to welcome us. In fact, the following day we would visit a school where nearly all the students had been at the landing. We all stepped into our 1920’s roles helped by the atmosphere of the Club, and they were beaming, having sewn this part of history to the present at long last. Because of the crash at the racecourse in 1920, Bulawayo has a strong connection to the project; it is, after all, the final resting place of the last Silver Queen.
Mark gave a brilliant speech, chronicling the trip thusfar, detailing places along the way, the problems in Djibouti, the highlights of photoflights in Kenya. It was a wonderful summary, and the crowd hung on every word. Throughout our stay they were so gracious and warm, so interested in this adventure and this plane. Mark, John, and Pete had permanent smiles from the warm reception after their troubles in North Africa. Directly after Mark’s words we were treated to a 1920’s radio recording of van Ryneveld and Brand. The crackling old radio program was the most powerful tool in sending us back in time, and the first sounds of those original aviators’ voices stirred me from my musings, chilling me slightly, such a direct experience of them. After the speeches and the auction, the quiet din resumed, and eventually we crossed back into the cocktail lounge for some after-dinner conversation.
Throughout the evening, I thought of the students across town, separated from us, mostly in time, less in distance, having a traditional meal and dance performance. I could only imagine what was happening out in the townships that night, trying chunky corn beer, learning their hosts’ dance steps. We in the Club were having a conceptual costume party of sorts, reliving a time past, a time Bulawayans have been waiting to relive for years. I would glance around the room, feeling the slightly stodgy atmosphere, feeling the weight of the silverware. I would breathe the slight mustiness in the air, looking at the pinched necks in bow ties, and think of the students sitting cross-legged on some floor eating with their hands, and thumping their toes to the rhythms of Africa.