My main job when I worked for a company on the Copperbelt, was to maintain a large fleet of earthmoving equipment including various trucks and stationary plant such as pumps, compressors & welding machines.
If the company was awarded a contract to build a road, dam or airstrip in the bush, I had to make sure the necessary plant was available along with tyres, fuel and spare parts etc. Explosives, which were used for blasting rocks, were the responsibility of the Boss who held the blasting license.
Once the plant was all out in the bush we communicated once a day with our UHF radio. I fabricated a really tall mast in our yard and the Boss usually found a tall tree to fix his aerial. We were only allocated a five minute transmission slot once a day by the Zambian Government, so any messages had to be both short and to the point with no time for chit-chat. UHF transmission were very difficult to understand and it needed a practiced ear to understand the garble and a quick control of squelch adjuster.
After a contract was completed, all of the plant & equipment returned to the yard and I gave each item a quick appraisal to see if it just needed a service or if a major overhaul was needed. Caterpillar Bulldozers and Cat Graders took priority as they were our main earners and had to be got ready for the next job. Any damaged items such as engines, gearboxes and back axles for example were put into a large building known as The Back Store. Nothing was thrown away as some spare parts were very difficult to obtain and sometimes impossible.
The plant coming back to the yard was a very slow process over several days as most was transported either on our low-loaders or in trailers pulled by our Kenworth Horses *
As the plant started returning to the yard, the Boss asked by radio if I had seen two magazines. Now by magazines, he meant wooden lined, secure steel boxes which were used to transport our explosives. Both magazines were painted red and one was for Dynamite and the other one was for the Detonators. It was a strict rule that the magazines never traveled together - for obvious reasons.
I replied the next day to the Boss that I had checked in one magazine and it had been put in a safe place.
Days passed and the Boss came over the radio again to see if I had found the second magazine. No, was my reply once again.
Over the next few days the Boss’s radio transmissions sounded that he was getting a bit stressed. He asked me to check the magazine that I had put in a safe place and then in the following day’s transmission I told him that it contained detonators
Now the Boss sounded very agitated. “What’s wrong? I asked .."
“Eissh we’ve lost a case of dynamite” he replied. “Can you organise a search party immediately as in this heat the sticks will be sweating by now” !
So, I organised a search party and after about half an hour, one of the Zambian grader operators came running up to me shouting “Bwana Steve, Bwana Steve. i have found a led box” **
The Grader Operator led me to the Back Store and there under a heap of old truck springs and back axles was the glint of a red box. Carefully we removed all of the clutter and gently carried the red box out into the sunlight. To my consternation, I noticed that a liquid was oozing out of a corner!
We stacked some old tyres over the magazine and retreated to a safe area - which was perhaps about fifty feet away as we were not afraid of a few sticks of dynamite blowing up - were we ?
By this time the Boss had arrived back to our town so I phoned him at his home to break the news that the lost case of dynamite had been found.
“Thats great Steve” he replied, ‘Just chuck it on the back of a pickup and I’ll see you in ten minutes.
“Boss, Im calling you from about five miles away as that box is sweating and looks lethal”
“Ach! you Poms are all the same” he replied with a chuckle, but I drove back to the yard to meet him.
The Boss arrived in his new Holden pickup which had a rubber lined cargo space. We gingerly loaded the magazine onto the back and jammed it in with some old tyres.
“Boss” I said. “You cant return that to the Government underground store, it's dangerous” “What are you going to do with it ?”
The Boss gave me a strange look with a twinkle in his eye and drove off out of the yard…
Normal life resumed over the next few weeks , with many small contracts more local to our town when we heard the news that we had won a contract for a job up near the Congo border.
The story was that a pumping station had been blown up with dynamite allegedly by Congolese rebels and we had been awarded the contract to re-build it.
Now how convenient was that ?
* Not real horses but trucks which hitched to a semi-trailer.
** Many Zambian substitute R’s into L’s ! Therefore a Led Box = Red Box