14. Scorpions

By Peter Fraenkel

In the days of white rule they were called the Matopos – this strange range of mountains in a country then known as Southern Rhodesia. But political change brings name change. Under African rule Southern Rhodesia has become Zimbabwe. The name of the mountain range has, however, only undergone a spelling correction: The Matopos have become the Matobos.

We camped there just before breaking up for our summer holidays. We? A scout troop from an all-white school. That’s what our Africa was like in the 1940s.

Around the camp fire our scoutmaster told us that Matopo meant “bald heads”. He did not need to explain: We had spent the day trekking around the range: bare rounded granite boulders shaped, indeed, like old men’s heads. On some of these boulders was lodged another rock, round and ball-like, and, occasionally, a third one balanced precariously on the second. It was as if, in ancient times, gods or giants had played childish games here.

The range, we learnt, had been given its name by Mzilikazi – the founder of the Matabele nation. But whites often rode roughshod over African names. That name, too, has since had to be corrected to Ndebele.

Mzilikazi had battled his way through a thousand miles of hostile tribes to establish a country for his Ndebele people. When he felt he was nearing death he had asked to be buried amidst these spectacular mountains. He set a precedent that was followed – a century later – by his white successor – Cecil John Rhodes. For a period of about a hundred years the country then carried Rhodes’ name. At Rhodes’ funeral one of the Ndebele indunas declaimed that the spirits of the two great chieftains would meet and hold a great indaba amidst these mountains.

Our scout troupe visited Rhodes’ grave, hewn out of solid rock. From the spot we could look over range after range of hills. It is as if from that perch one could overlook all the wide world. Indeed, the name they gave the site is “World’s View” and this name has survived political change.

For us it had been a tiring day but I found it difficult to sleep. Four of us had selected a narrow ridge for the night. To prove how hardy we were we had only brought one blanket each. The ground was hard, very hard. A rock stuck into my back. As soon as dawn came I went in search of a spade. We had brought spades to dig pit latrines. Clifford came with me. The two of us, armed with spades, proceeded to dig out the offending rock. It was bigger than we had realised but eventually we levered it out.

“Look out!” shouted Clifford suddenly. From underneath our rock there emerged a whole colony of scorpions. The poison stings on their tails were angrily erect. I had lain all night on a whole nest of them. We bashed them with our spades and squashed as many as we could. The commotion brought others of the scouts to help.

Ashworthy senior, the most bush-savvy amongst us, shouted “Make sure you kill the lot. Scorpions are worse than snakes.”

“Well, you can see a snake. At least, you usually can. And most snakes are timid. They attack only if they feel threatened. Just don’t get between them and their nest. But scorpions? They’re small. They hide in your shoes, your socks … anywhere. ”

“Surely they’re not as poisonous? You wouldn’t die?”

“If they sting you, you wish you had. I’ve seen a grown man on the ground, howling. A grown-up man!”

Of course there was no way of knowing whether any of that nest had escaped our onslaught. Things had happened far too fast. We evacuated the camp and moved to a new site.

A day or two later a bleary-eyed troupe of scouts dispersed to go on holiday to their various homes.

Next terms we reassembled at our boarding school. The first night in the dorm Ashworthy Senior boasted that he had had a good holiday. Very good! He had slept with a girl.

None of us smooth-faced virginal youngsters could trump that – except for me. I had slept with scorpions.