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Authors: Tony Park

African Sky

BOOK: African Sky
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Tony Park was born in 1964 and grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney. He has worked as a newspaper reporter in Australia and England, a government press secretary, a public relations consultant, and a freelance writer. He is also a major in the Australian Army Reserve and served six months in Afghanistan in 2002 as the public affairs officer for the Australian ground forces. He and his wife, Nicola, divide their time between their home in Sydney and southern Africa, where they own a tent and a Series III Land Rover. He is the author of
Far Horizon
and
Zambezi
.

Also by Tony Park

Far Horizon

Zambezi

AFRICAN SKY
TONY PARK

First published 2006 in Macmillan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited
1 Market Street, Sydney

Reprinted 2006
Copyright © Tony Park 2006

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication Data:

Park, Tony, 1964-.
African sky

ISBN-13: 978 1 4050 3726 6.
ISBN-10: 14050 3726 1.

I. Title.

A823. 4

The characters and events in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Typeset in 11/15 pt Birka by Post Pre-press Group, Brisbane
Printed and bound in Australia by McPherson's Printing Group
Cartographic art by Laurie Whiddon, Map Illustrations

Papers used by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited are natural, recyclable products made from wood grown in sustainable forests. The manufacturing processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.

These electronic editions published in 2006 by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd
1 Market Street, Sydney

Copyright © Tony Park 2006
The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the publisher.

African Sky
Tony Park

Adobe eReader format 978-1-74197-197-2
Online format 978-1-74197-800-1
EPUB format 978-1-74262-492-1

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CONTENTS

Cover

About Tony Park

Also by Tony Park

Title page

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Epilogue

Historical Note and Acknowledgements

For Nicola

1

H
e knew he was about to die. He cried as much from frustration and anger at himself, as he did from the terror.

He heard the strange clicking noises of their language, a sound like a child learns to make early in life with its tongue and the roof of its mouth. He glanced over his shoulder. The two bushmen trailed him, about a hundred yards away. Small in stature, but more deadly than any big man he had ever tangled with. One held his tiny bow and arrow up at him and laughed at the way the white man ran, then stumbled.

The dry white salt stuck to his hands, stung his knees in the abrasions where he had fallen before. He was naked, except for his air-force-issue underpants. The skin on his back, face and arms was burned pink. He screwed up his eyes at the blinding whiteness of the saltpan. Earth merged with sky, the horizon lost in a shimmering heat haze that made his head spin when he looked at it.

He cried in the knowledge that he would die in this lifeless, blanched place. He bellowed, like the dying animal he was, a primeval cry of anguish at his stupidity. A desperate, futile plea for clemency.

He had no idea where his aircraft, his Harvard, was. In a matter of minutes he had gone from being an untouchable, privileged god of the
skies to a hunted animal in the unforgiving white sands. His fear, born of the stories of his father and uncle, the only two to have survived the carnage of the first war's trenches from a family of six brothers, was to be trapped on the ground, pursued by an enemy who wanted to kill him. In the air, as a would-be fighter pilot, he felt himself more than a match for any German or Japanese airman. He was a good pilot, a damned good flyer. The instructors were spare in their praise, but he'd seen it in the small smiles and the odd wink after each phase of his training.

All that was for nothing now. He was on the ground, out of his element, a hunted animal.

They followed him, not even bothering to hush their voices as they would if they were stalking the wary gemsbok or the fleet-footed impala. He was just a man. Not agile enough to outrun the hunters, not smart enough to outwit them.

The hunters walked with the easy, loping stride of men who must cover long distances on foot while expending minimal energy. Each wore a skimpy kaross made from the pelt of the black-backed jackal. They laughed as they chatted. Rarely, if ever, had either had to kill such a worthless prey.

‘He runs like a child,' one said.

‘There is no challenge in this deed,' the other added.

‘The decision has been made. It was not ours to make.'

‘Will we suffer for this hunt?' the second asked, his laughing checked.

‘If anyone ever finds his body there will be nothing to point towards us.'

They were from another age. The two hunters, from the San people, known as bushmen to the whites who dismissed them as primitives, lived the same way as their fathers and grandfathers and those for generations before them had lived. Their bodies were slight, all muscle, without a trace of the fat that comes with an easy life. The hunters
worked for every mouthful of food, every drop of water in the red-gold sands of the Kalahari Desert and the white-hot plains of the Makgadikgadi saltpans, places where other human beings died in a matter of days or hours. The noise above them, however, was from another world. They looked up in amazement, still unused to seeing one of the flying machines so close to the ground.

The pilot turned his blistered red face to the sun and held a salt-crusted hand to his eyes to shield them from the painful glare.

‘Here! I'm down here!' His voice was tiny, lost in the emptiness. He hoped the man in the air could see his waving arms.

The Harvard was flying low, no more than seven or eight hundred feet, but the pilot pushed it into a shallow dive, until the spinning propeller was barely twenty feet off the shimmering saltpan.

The two San ducked instinctively, as though the flying machine would take off their heads. They turned and raised their bows and pointed them at the man they were stalking. He had stopped, to wave at the aircraft.

He looked again at the near-naked hunters, saw the bows and started to run again, all the while flailing his arms above his head to show the Harvard pilot he lived. He felt the beat of the engine in his chest. He had no idea where the aircraft had come from, but his tears now were of gratitude for his great fortune. He might yet live after all.

The shadow of the single-engine trainer raced across the flat surface, momentarily eclipsing the tiny dark figures.

The running man looked up and back at the Harvard, fervently hoping to see the undercarriage being lowered. He hoped the pilot behind the controls knew the saltpan would make a perfect landing strip for his rescue. The wheels, however, remained up. He stumbled again, tripped and fell. He rolled onto his back as the aircraft overflew him. He saw the letters painted on the side of the aircraft.

‘No!' he bellowed. ‘No, no, no!'

2

F
rom a thousand feet, where the martial eagle rode the hot current that rose from the baking white concrete and the shimmering black Tarmac, Africa looked scarred as never before.

In fifty years the white man had carved roads and railway lines through the Rhodesian bush, and built his towns and dug his mines, but, in truth, the British pioneers who had migrated north from the Cape had barely scratched the hide of the beast that succoured them. Until the war started, that was.

The great dry western lands, with their golden grasses and stunted acacias, were cattle country and had been for the best part of a century since the Zulu impis migrated north, sweeping all other tribes before them. The sons and grandsons of the conquerors had become the Matabele – as feared and respected as their forefathers. They had fought the whites, in the same way the Zulu had defied the Europeans, and there were still a few gnarled and grizzled grey-hairs who remembered the rebellion of 1897. They had spilt the blood of Cecil John Rhodes' men and their women, before their families had suffered the inevitable consequences of making war with the settlers. Rhodes had given his name to the lands of the Matabele and those of their enemies, the Shona, to the east.

There was peace now between the Shona and the Matabele, and the blacks and the whites, but from the sky the soil of Matabeleland showed as a spear wound, fresh and red with the telltale signs of a new conflict.

The eagle let the air spill from beneath its spread wings and it dropped out of the path of the machine. It had learned how to avoid them – had to, if it wanted to survive. They were everywhere, belching their hot exhaust and assaulting the peace of the sky with the roar of their rotary engines. The metal bird's nest was below. When not flying, they hid in the rows of tin sheds and sat side by side in a most unnatural way on the concrete runways and taxiways that stood out like pathetic little Band-Aids on the freshly opened dirt wounds in the skin of Matabeleland.

In the distance was the town, Bulawayo. It had been the site of the vanquished Matabele king Lobengula's kraal. Gubulawayo, as the king had called it, meant place of death – where he had slain his foes. The killing was over, long dead with Lobengula, but more white men than ever before had come to this part of Africa to learn the way of the warrior and the eagle. To learn to kill. Some died in the process.

The eagle spied a duiker. The tiny grey antelope, no bigger than a small dog, darted from its hiding place in the meagre shade of a thorn bush, which had just been crushed beneath the steel tracks of a bulldozer. The bird of prey tucked in its wings and dived with a speed and accuracy that the pilot of the orbiting aircraft could never hope or dare to match.

Squadron Leader Paul Bryant watched the eagle streak towards the earth, but a cloud of dust stirred up by the dozer obscured his view of the kill. He loved watching the birds. Envied them. He turned away from the window at the sound of the man clearing his throat, then reluctantly sat down behind his desk. ‘Yes, Wilson?'

‘Seems another stupid bastard's bought it, sir,' the young pilot officer said. He was a native Rhodesian, with cheeks reddened by the last vestiges of acne.

‘Who?' Bryant asked.

‘Um, Smith, I think. No, sorry, Smythe. That's it. One of the Poms. Londoner, I believe. Short fellow. Second solo on a Harvard. The ops officer asked me to tell you, sir. Said you'd want to start the investigation. He was due back late yesterday afternoon but never arrived. There's been no word.'

Bryant closed his eyes for a moment and tried to place the missing pilot's face. It was hard – hundreds had passed through the flight training school since he'd arrived, but he made a point of meeting them all. He saw him now, and nodded to himself. He was mildly annoyed that the pilot officer, Wilson, had called the lost trainee a stupid bastard. The boy who'd delivered the news barely had his wings and hadn't flown an operational sortie. Hadn't earned the right to call anyone stupid. ‘Shit. Two crashes in two weeks. That's a record even for this pilots' course. First the Canadian . . .'

‘Cavendish, sir.'

‘Right, Cavendish.' Bryant ran a hand down his face. ‘Now this bloke.'

‘We'll mount a search, sir?' Wilson looked down his nose at his superior officer.

Bryant reached into the desk's top drawer and grabbed a mint. He popped it in his mouth, bit hard into it. He knew some of the men called him a coward behind his back, but he had nothing to hide or prove to this boy. Boy? The pilot officer was only five years younger than he, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three, but the gap between them was like that between father and son. ‘A-Flight will be following the same flight plan as the missing man today. They might see the wreckage. A bit of low-level won't do them any harm. Trouble is, he . . . Smythe might have been off course.'

‘Shame for the silly bugger to come halfway around the world to Africa, only to die before he got to run onto the game.'

Bryant fixed him with a stare. His voice was calm, almost conversational. ‘It's not a fucking game, Wilson. You don't “run on”. We don't know if Smythe is even dead.' Anyway, Bryant thought to himself, if
the pilot were a goner, it was better it happened to him here, in Africa, rather than him biding his time at some rain-soaked strip in England watching the bodies of his mates being hosed out of their kites after a mission.

Bryant closed his eyes to shake the memory and broke the contact with the junior officer. He'd let the door to his memory creak open and wished he hadn't. He didn't want their pity, these over-keen, wide-eyed pups who hadn't yet been there. He didn't want them mocking him. Didn't want to be the headcase crying in his cups in the mess.

‘Yes, sir,' Wilson said, but he made no move to leave Bryant's office.

‘Well? What is it, Wilson?'

‘Um, just wondering, sir . . .'

‘What?' Bryant looked up from a mountain of irrelevant, yawn-inducing paperwork. It was getting warmer. September. The skies were still clear outside, no rain yet; not for another month, he reckoned. Good African flying weather.

‘It's just that, well, I got my posting this morning, and I wanted to know what it's like, over there. What it's really like.'

Bryant saw the smile breaking at the corners of Pilot Officer Wilson's mouth. He closed his eyes again. Poor bastard. He was excited about it, too. ‘Where?'

‘OTU 10, in Buckinghamshire.'

The acronym stood for operational training unit, and this one was based near the village of Westcott. Bryant knew the place. Nestled in a patchwork of rolling green hills. Quaint country pubs, thatched cottages and pink-cheeked East End girls having the time of their lives ploughing fields for the land army during the day and flirting with pilots from the colonies at nights. Funerals under leaden skies. Marathon drinking sessions after each mission. The wailing klaxons and the trilling bells on the crash wagons.

He'd done his time in an OTU, converting to Wellingtons, and, before his second tour, in a heavy conversion unit, learning to handle four-engine Halifaxes – bloody death traps – and eventually his beloved Lancaster. He forced a smile for Wilson's sake. He'd been a
carbon copy of the young pilot – keen, cocky, and overconfident, hungry for everything this new life had to offer and worried the war would be over before he got to England. He'd wanted to get his training over and get out of Rhodesia as soon as possible before his first operational tour, but now he'd be happy if he never saw England again. Despite the drudgery of his office job, Africa was suiting Paul Bryant just fine.

‘It's what you wanted,' Bryant said.

‘Yes, sir.'

‘Be careful of wanting something too much, Clive.'

‘What do you mean, sir?'

‘It's not like here, mate,' Bryant said, opening the drawer again, taking out his packet of Woodbines. ‘Smoke?'

‘No thanks, sir, I don't.'

Bryant shrugged. ‘Want to take a seat?'

‘If you've got time, sir,' the younger man said.

Bryant inhaled deeply, looked out the window at the dry, yellow grass. An African labourer, sweating under the midday sun, scythed away with a
bemba
, a piece of iron bar bent like a crooked finger at one end and honed to a razor's edge. His arm moved in a long, wide arc. He made the back-breaking chore look effortless.

Bryant wondered how much he should say. ‘You'll probably go straight to Wimpeys – Wellingtons. You know why they put you in Wellingtons, Wilson?'

‘I imagine to get us used to a twin-engine kite before they let us graduate to one of the four-engine big boys, like a Halifax or a Lancaster.'

Bryant smiled. ‘Yes, that's right. Gives you a chance to get used to working with a crew.' The real reason the OTU's used Wellingtons these days was that they were old, near the end of their operational lives, and it didn't matter so much if they were shot down or collided with another aircraft on the way into or out of Germany.

‘But we'll be flying proper missions?' Wilson said, enthusiasm shining in his blue eyes.

‘Yes, you will. And you'll be sharing the sky with other squadrons,
operational squadrons full of men near the end of their tours. It can get crowded up there.'

‘Sir?'

‘One of the Lancasters in my old squadron was involved in a midair collision with a Wimpey from an OTU. The other kite was hundreds of miles off course. The pilot of the Lancaster had trained here in Rhodesia, when I did my elementary flight training. Jimmy Roberts was his name. On his last sortie, would have been going home afterwards. The Wimpey ploughed into Jimmy's fuselage, just aft of the mid-upper turret. Cut the Lane in half. They all died. Thirteen men, from both aircraft. Try to be careful where you fly, Clive.'

Wilson nodded. ‘The losses, sir. Are they as bad as some of the blokes reckon?'

Bryant shrugged. ‘Numbers don't mean much, Clive,' he said. He dragged on the cigarette again. ‘Live life.'

‘Sir?'

He tried hard to think of something positive to say. Too late. The door had been opened wide. He took a deep breath and coughed. ‘Live life, Wilson. Enjoy it while you can. Get rat-arsed tonight and hit the town. When you get to England, live every day like it's your last.'

‘You make it sound like I won't be coming back, sir.'

Bryant smiled, and stubbed out his cigarette. He looked hard at the boy. He reckoned he could tell, during his tour, who'd make it and who would die. He'd been right more often than wrong. He was certain about Wilson. The boy had the look, the attitude, the cocky smirk, the swagger. He even wore his peaked air force cap at that rakish angle he thought made him already look like a veteran. ‘You'll be fine, Clive,' he lied.

‘Well, um, thanks, sir. I'd best be off. I'd like to talk more, if you have the time. Maybe over a beer or ten tonight?'

‘I'll try to be there.' He searched the younger man's eyes to see if he were taking the mickey out of him. Bryant knew he drank too much, and he suspected the rest of the base was also aware of the fact.

‘Thanks again, sir, for . . . for your words.'

‘You're a good pilot. Do your job, look after your crew, and you'll all get home in one piece.'

‘I hope so, sir. See you tonight,' Wilson said as he left, and shut the door.

He gave the young pilot officer a month in England. No more. Probably wouldn't even make it out of the OTU alive.

Bryant checked his watch. It was five minutes to eleven. Fuck it, he thought. Searches ran themselves once the operations room was alerted. He slid open the second drawer of his desk. He lifted the single sheet of blank paper that covered the Santy's gin bottle. Rarely did he take a nip before eleven. His hand shook as it closed around the smooth glass neck. He told himself it was the talk about Roberts and the severed Lancaster.

He started to lift the bottle, felt the saliva fill his mouth. The telephone rang. He put the bottle down and closed the drawer again. ‘Adjutant, Squadron Leader Bryant,' he said.

‘Flight Sergeant Henderson on the front gate, sir. I've two police officers here, sir.'

‘God. Which pub have the trainees destroyed this time?' Usually the drunken brawls, property damage and car accidents happened on the final night of a course, not five days before graduation. While they were learning to fly, the student pilots tended to control their behaviour, lest they get kicked out of flight school and wind up as wireless air gunners, where they could look forward to freezing their balls off in front turrets or short lives as tail gunners.

‘They won't say what it's about, sir. Should I send them through with an escort?'

That would have been the normal procedure. Bryant could probably have had a quick drink while he waited for the coppers to arrive. No, that wouldn't do. ‘Don't worry, Flight. I'll walk down and pick them up.' The walk would keep him away from the bottle. He wasn't so desperate that he didn't realise he was developing a problem. That had to be a good sign, he told himself.

‘Very good, sir.'

Bryant hung up. He took his peaked cap off the hook on the wall and opened the metal locker in the corner of his office. There was a small mirror on the inside of the door. His eyes were bloodshot. He adjusted his hat and gave himself what he hoped was a winning smile. ‘Cheer up, you're alive,' he said to himself. The smile fell from his face and he shut the locker.

His office door opened onto the orderly room. Corporal Richards, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the base's daily paperwork war, looked up from his typewriter.

‘Back soon. I'm going to the gate to pick up some coppers. I'd call my lawyer now if I were you, Richards.'

‘Very good, sir,' the younger man smiled. ‘Should I burn the pictures of you and the goat, sir?'

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