The Tamsen Chronicles

Serendipity — From Africa With Love

Serendipity — or the making of important discoveries by accident — has blessed me at various times of my life,  including the aftereffects of when I worked as a foreign correspondent  in Africa over 60 years ago.

The biggest example of this occasional and mysterious African-connected  experience occurred to me in Yamba in 1996 while I was mulling over my two decades spent working between Cairo and Cape Town.

 n this occasion, I was steeped in determined thought for an old journalistic competitor and leading foreign correspondent from London’s famous Fleet Street, our original home of pen and wig newspapers.

The person in question was one Don Wise, a former Second World War military officer in the Suffolk Parachute Regiment, a one-time Malayan rubber planter and African adventurer who survived four bullet wounds and two aircraft crashes during a life involving wars on three different continents.

Don was my best friend in the ranks of our profession in Africa,  attempting as we did to enlighten the world on what went on both in front and behind enemy lines. In fact, he was my hero for the way he never gave in to even the worst of threats by African terrorists. An example of this was when he was gaoled and tortured in Kampala Prison by Uganda’s notorious Idi Amin for daring to criticise his Government in print.

Not only had Don helped to open up the dark side of Africa to the Western world, but had previously been taken prisoner by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore — only to end up as a wartime slave on  the construction of Thailand’s bridge over the River Kwai.

While rubber planting in Malaya after the war, my friend also saw distinguished service in leading a unit of Borneo headhunters against the enemy and in commanding a regiment of troops in Palestine before the British mandate there was overtaken.

It was only after these events that fellow Oxford-educated Don Wise became a journalist with the world at his itchy fingertips, reporting on several Middle Eastern wars before turning his attention to Africa where we happily met during Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion and narrowly escaped being shot outside the Treason Trial in Johannesburg, South Africa.

All these memorable descriptions of the courageous Don — and more  —  were coursing through my mind that day in Yamba 1996. These thoughts soon led me to want to urgently re-establish our friendship which had become diffused by each of us temporarily retiring in different directions after our African experiences.

I spent the next couple of days wondering just where my friend had got to, and whether he was still alive as we were both getting on in years. One evening during that time, I was incredibly and suddenly confronted by an image of my former hero on the screen. “That’s Don,” I shouted hysterically for the whole of Yamba to hear.

I could not believe my luck. Here was Donald Wise sporting a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken white beard and moustache in a TV advertisement for Cathay Pacific Airlines. He was sitting in a rickshaw next to a beautiful young Chinese woman twirling a fancy umbrella — all to lick the imagination of would-be tourists to Hong Kong.

With this unexpected lead, I immediately set about contacting the airline in Sydney and in Hong Kong to find Don’s address, but to no avail. I spent many hours also phoning our former professional contacts but, again, this was sadly futile.

It was not a week later, however, when I was once again watching TV and up popped an advertisement offering cut-price airfares to Frankfurt. I immediately had the distinct urge to take a holiday in my favourite fishing port village of Cabanos on Portugal’s Algarve coast and promptly bought a ticket to Germany.

A couple of days later, I was well settled in my usual beachside accommodation at Cabanos when I decided to take a walk through the village. I had hardly stepped a hundred meters when I astonishingly walked smack bang into a tall, soldierly and white moustached  Don Wise sauntering with his lady partner, Daphne Salvesen, and another mutual friend, the well known Rhodesian writer, Eric Robbins, author of “The Rapture” books  and an expert in African wildlife.

Coming face-to-face with the man who had been re-introduced to my mind in such a serendipitious way was beyond my comprehension in spite of previously experiencing a couple of lesser events of this type while working in Africa.

As one can imagine, all four of us had the most marvellous holiday together exchanging old memories of the “big continent.” As it had turned out, Don had created a home on the South of France after his retirement and Daphne had access to a house in British Hong Kong where the pair would live for a portion of each year.

While there on one occasion,  Don had been invited to take part in the airline advertisement promoting Hong Kong, no doubt because of his eternal appearance as an old soldier and man of the world.

I have no reason to disbelieve the fact that the Hong Kong filmmakers had also been seduced by his David Niven moustache, erect bearing and a smile that had always done him good with the ladies in our old African days.

Very sadly for me and Daphne, my gallant journalist friend suddenly passed away two years after our Cabanos meeting. The way our final meeting happened on the Portuguese coast can only be described as a marvellous example of “serendipity.”

Obituaries written in Don’s memory by such prominent newspapers as “The Times of London” all described him as the top newsman of pen and ink in his generation.

I was very fortunate to know the man, let alone his courage under duress from marauding terrorists and Communist troops  sent to Africa by the Russians from Cuba under the leadership of the infamous Chez Guevera.