BULAWAYO, Monday, October 17, 1966 — When Basil Watkinson wakes up at 4AM to set light to several acres of sugar cane, police and fire fighters turn a blind eye.
His only concern is that there are no wind variations. Then the flames leap 550 feet high and the dry leaves — the trash — crumble off the sturdy sticks of sugar cane. Rats, mice, lizards and even a few unfortunate birds are frizzled as the blaze sweeps through.
Half-an-hour later, the sticks of cane stand naked and blackened while the sunrise blurs behind a screen of drifting smoke.
For Basil Watkinson, section manager of 805 acres of cane fields at the Hippo Valley sugar estates, a long and grueling, 13 hour day has just begun.
He is one of 19 section managers who share a common zest for bush life in the simmering heat of the Lowveld.
These big, bold and beefy cane farmers are also men of few words, withdrawn and camera-shy.
Basil was an electrician with Rhodesia Railways in Gwelo and Salisbury until 18 months ago when he listened, enthrailed as a friend spoke of the sugar belt. His only regret today, as he surveys his past, is that he did not make his life in the bush 30 years ago
“People who don’t know the Lowveld are missing something,” he remarks.
His home is near the cane fields and miles from the cluster of bungalows built for other workers near the sugar mill. He has no electricity and depends on paraffin lamps. His beers are kept cool in the paraffin-run refrigerator.
The house on a kopje is surrounded by bulging baobab trees. Wide and smooth green lawns crawl down to the bottom but snakes, especially cobras, are often found on the grounds.
Basil and his wife used to be TV addicts when they lived in the cities but do not feel cut off from the world. “We have our newspapers, radio and cinema, and we usually go to bed at 8.30 PM.”
“It is just another job,” says Basil, “but my life is here and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”