The end of empire almost upended our careers (don’t tell the editor)

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A bloat of hippopotamuses stared at us from the water as we lolled on the bank of the Zambezi River, treating mild hangovers with strong coffee poured from a vacuum flask into tin mugs.

There were elephants nearby. A bull, pumped on testosterone, rumbled and flapped its ears.

Hippos, semi-submerged in the Zambezi River.Credit: Shutterstock

The sun was only an hour above the horizon, burning off the night’s mist. The air smelled of life and death, buffalo dust and the promise of heat on the savanna.

We grinned like a pair of guilty schoolkids.

We weren’t supposed to be here.

We’d broken free.

Yesterday we’d rambled along the rim of the Victoria Falls, the spray rising in rainbowed clouds, drenching us as surely as if we were caught in a storm.

We were reminded that the name for the great falls long before Dr Livingstone came along was Mosi-oa-Tuny, “The Smoke That Thunders”, which was a lot more satisfying than a place named after Queen Victoria, who had never visited it.

Last night we’d had gin and tonic – the foundation of the old British Empire, we chuckled – and a steak dinner and champagne in the splendid, near-empty dining room of the faded Victoria Falls Hotel, liveried waiters hovering.

In truth, the steak was all but cremated and might have been elderly buffalo, and the “champagne” was a vinegary sparkling wine from South Africa, but it barely mattered.

We were in quest not of a menu, but of the experience of a waned mood, a suggestion of a period all but vanished since the Victoria Falls Hotel, built in 1904, had been the redoubt of unspeakably privileged colonials in a country then called Rhodesia.

The Victoria Falls Hotel in 1961.Credit: Unknown

We found a guide in the bar afterwards who agreed to take us on a dawn safari across the savanna and along the Zambezi in his rattling Land Rover. His wife packed sandwiches and coffee.

And here we were: outlaws getting the dubious eye from a riverful of hippos.

Our editors would blow fuses if they knew.

They probably would anyway, we reflected, when we got beaten by competitors and failed to file reports we were pretty sure we had no way of learning or transmitting.

Still, we’d made a pact.

“If we get to Victoria Falls, we have to stay in the hotel and drink champagne and go on a safari,” declared Dennis Shanahan, of The Australian. “How long might it be before we ever get the chance to do something like that ever again?”

I’d agreed. It was a deal.

Shanahan and I had put ourselves out on a long limb.

Five hundred and fifty kilometres away by plane, our colleagues and competitors from the Canberra press gallery were gathered in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, waiting on a story we felt sure we would miss.

It was October 1991.

We’d flown from Australia to Africa in the old Boeing 707 that was the prime minister’s VIP plane. Bob and Hazel Hawke had a suite up the front. Down the back were the press gallery journalists and camera crews equipped with guitars and cigarettes and a thirst for the RAAF VIP squadron’s well-stocked cellar.

We had come to Zimbabwe for CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

CHOGM, the lumpiest of acronyms, is a curious leftover from the old British Empire.

Nevertheless, it has long given Australian prime ministers a status on the international stage that pleases their egos, for the Commonwealth is made up of more than 50 nations, representing about a third of the world’s population.

The majority of those nations are from the developing world, some of them failing states, relying, one way or another, on the goodwill, which is to say, handouts, of the developed members: Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Bob Hawke had famously spent the 1980s doing furious battle at every CHOGM with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher over his insistence that the Commonwealth maintain sanctions to end the apartheid regime in South Africa, a campaign that was not at all to Thatcher’s conservative tastes.

A cartoon from 1987 of prime minister Bob Hawke and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.Credit: Patrick Cook

The stoushes raised Hawke’s international profile remarkably.

It was exposure not easily gained otherwise by an Australian PM in the years before APEC became a big deal and before there was a G20, a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an East Asia Summit or any of the other high-powered conferences that draw today’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, on a dizzying schedule of overseas trips.

The 1991 CHOGM was held in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, a city draped in a purple blaze of jacarandas and hung with huge posters featuring the face of Zimbabwe’s leader, Robert Mugabe, already well on his way to becoming a despot.

Without us quite comprehending it, the 1991 CHOGM marked the beginning of the end of not just the dwindling relevance of the Commonwealth, but of a world order that had existed since the end of World War II.

Robert Mugabe, right, pictured with fellow Black National Front leader Joshua Nkomo in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1976.Credit: AP

The Berlin Wall had fallen just two years previously, ending the Cold War, and there was a sense that the sclerotic structure of old empires, Soviet and western, had to be re-made everywhere, and fast.

We did not know it then, but the end of the Cold War did not herald blessed peace, but would set fire to the Balkan states and the Middle East and parts of Africa and stoke an even greater economic divide between the haves and the have-nots of the world.

The 1991 conference, too, would be Bob Hawke’s last gasp on the international stage, and it would be the last time a CHOGM would stretch over two languid weeks, as if the sun had never quite set on the Empire.

There was no internet-driven urgency then, either. The travelling media had the luxury of time to take in our surroundings.

Queen Elizabeth II meets the High Level Appraisal delegates at the Commonwealth meeting in Harare, 1991. Credit: AP

Australian reporters visited a village and discovered the only water was kilometres away, transported painfully in containers borne on the heads of village women. The hat went around and a water bore was commissioned. The new well was dubbed, merrily, the “well-placed source”.

There was a late-night expedition into the countryside to hear big bands of brass and guitars playing East African music, known as rumba, in a broken-down open-air stadium, locals drinking and dancing till dawn.

Meanwhile, Hawke was getting snappy with the travelling media.

His reliable sparring partner, Maggie Thatcher, was gone, leaving him to play desultory cricket on a Harare school pitch with the new British PM, the mild-mannered John Major, and to fret about what was happening back in Australia.

In Canberra, Paul Keating and his supporters were planning a second challenge to Hawke’s prime ministership.

Bob Hawke and UK PM John Major at the Harare sports ground in 1991.Credit: Fairfax

It made Hawke crotchety to be so far removed from the plotting.

He had reason for anxiety.

Within two months, Keating would overthrow him as PM.

Keating, having discovered Asia, would prove to have little of Hawke’s patience with the Commonwealth or its unhurried style. At his first CHOGM in Cyprus in 1993, Keating pushed through a motion to limit future meetings to three days.

Last year, Albanese snubbed CHOGM, held in Rwanda, clearly judging the Commonwealth all a bit yesterday.

It seemed noteworthy that the Commonwealth, in desperate quest of relevance, had broadened its membership to nations like Rwanda that have had no historical ties to the old British Empire. Albanese, perhaps, had sniffed the decay. He was the first Australian PM to miss a CHOGM since 1971.

And now, of course, Victoria has cancelled the Commonwealth Games.

In 1991 Zimbabwe, when such rebuffs would have been unthinkable, the heads of government (HOGs, an unfortunate acronym for politicians), moved after a week in Harare to the Victoria Falls for their private “retreat”.

There, they holed up in the Buffalo Hills Hotel, next door to the Victoria Falls Hotel, to thrash out a communique with which to justify the conference.

The media was banned, allowing the HOGs to freely express themselves and to produce, eventually, a document that would say little of substance, but promise, as usual, all sorts of good governance in the future.

Australian journalists flew from Harare to Victoria Falls for a day of sightseeing, but we were told we had to return to Harare if we were to get a briefing on the issues debated at the retreat.

The telephone service at Victoria Falls, a victim of Mugabe’s failing economy, wouldn’t connect to Australia, we were told, which meant we couldn’t file our stories from there.

This gave Shanahan and me pause to consider our impulsive and possibly ill-judged plan.

Damn it, we decided eventually: we’d made a pact. We were staying the night and taking a safari, story or no story.

And so we waved our colleagues goodbye as they grumpily boarded their plane back to Harare, and we set off for a gin and tonic on the hotel’s terrace, hoping we hadn’t bid farewell to our careers as well.

The next day, the elements of our agreement completed – the dinner, the safari – we had an afternoon to contemplate the imprudence of it all.

We set out for the swimming pool.

And there, good lord, stood Bob Hawke, a startling vision in loud casual attire.

He and the other HOGs had come for an unpublicised feast laid out on the hotel’s terrace.

“Ah, g’day boys,” he said.

“How did you go at the retreat?” we inquired, a bit shaken.

“Got everything I wanted,” Hawke crowed. I rushed off to beg a pencil and paper from reception.

And glory be, the prime minister of Australia dictated the major points he said he’d managed to insert into the yet-to-be-released CHOGM communique, starting with a winding back of sanctions against South Africa because it was dismantling apartheid, just as he had demanded, and had released Nelson Mandela.

Mandela – who had still been in jail during the previous CHOGM, held in Kuala Lumpur just two years before – had spent time with Hawke at the Zimbabwe conference, sharing his aura.

We had a scoop.

And alas, no way, apparently, to relay it to our newspapers in Australia.

Desperately, I approached the receptionist and asked whether there was any wild chance she could patch a phone line through to Australia.

“Of course, sir,” she said, with a look suggesting she sincerely hoped I didn’t believe her magnificent hotel was beyond communicating with the world.

A few minutes later, Shanahan and I had dictated our stories to copytakers at our newspapers.

Fortune, almost unbelievably, had beamed its full force upon us.

We basked away the afternoon by the pool, waiters delivering fresh drinks for generous tips.

We flew to Harare that night, to be met by a sulk of colleagues fused into the ugliest of moods. The smoke that thunders, I mused.

They had received no briefing from officials at the retreat. The phones from Victoria Falls to Harare, it turned out, were not working. They had no story.

“Oh, we’ve filed,” we airily informed them. “Hawkie gave us everything.

“It pays to stay close to the story, y’know.”

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