Out of the Top Drawer and… into Wildest Africa…

Edgar Whitehead was born in the British Embassy in Berlin where his father was chancellor. He grew up in the family manor house, Efford, and was educated at Oxford. The fifth of seven children he knew that he would not inherit the manor house and would have to make his own way in life.

It took three days to travel the 165 miles from Salisbury to Umtali 1928.
1924-1926. Rhodesian roads.

The heaven-born served in the Indian civil service.  But with poor eyesight and hard of hearing he knew he would not pass the physical.  Southern Rhodesia was looking for immigrants. Perhaps he could show what he was worth before he faced a medical.

In 1926, after disembarking at Capetown, he travelled by rail to Rhodesia celebrating his 21 birthday en route. But within 6 weeks, he was rejected by the civil service in Gwelo on medical grounds although no errors had been made. He decided he would not let his education go to waste. He would ‘be his own man’.  He paid Hugh Shaw, owner of Novar, a chicken farm, 40 miles from Que Que, five pounds a month in return for keep and tuition. He claimed it was the best money he ever spent. 

After two years there, he registered with the Department of Agriculture under the Empire Settlement Scheme. The Midlands Province was too hot and dry for Edgar. He headed for the Eastern Districts. 

His introductory trip of 165 mile took three days by light lorry from Salisbury to Umtali. The rains had not yet ended. He and his two "boys" used axes, ropes and shovels every time the lorry sank to its axles in mud.  Sometimes it took several hours to cover a few miles, cutting down bush along the way.

At the Umtali end of the road the grass had grown so high on what was supposed to be the road that he had doubts whether he was still on it at all. Having no road map, there was a definite possibility of finishing up at some lonely farm and being told he had left the main road miles away!

He struck out on foot to survey the Vumba Mountains the minute he set eyes on them. He completely fell in love with the beauty of a particular spot, in a hollow below the highest hills. It had views extending up to eighty miles east to west with mountain chain after mountain chain to the north and south.

The equinox had just passed, giving him twelve hours of darkness. Invariably he was scratched and worn out at the end of the day. The nights were so cold inside his tent that the only thing to do was to get into bed by seven o’clock and read by the light of a hurricane lamp. He registered the farm as Witchwood, after John Buchan’s Witch Wood which he was reading at the time.

He had pitched his tent within three hundred yards of the Haunted Forest. His natives were terrified of ghosts and wouldn’t stay after sundown.

There was no use waiting for the Government to do anything. Camping for two years, he cut his own road and cleared the surrounding forest for a garden somewhat on the lines of a pleasure ground, but rather more open to keep lions, leopards, and a type of lynx called vunga away from the fowls and set to work on his manor house in wildest Africa.

Umzimtuti Series

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The historical novel Whitewashed Jacarandas and its sequel Full of Possibilities are both available on Amazon as paperbacks and eBooks.

These books are inspired by Diana's family's experiences in small town Southern Rhodesia after WWII.

The various town characters lay bare the racial arrogance of the times, paternalistic idealism, Zionist fervor and anti-Semitism, the proper place of a wife, modernization versus hard-won ways of doing things, and treatment of endemic disease versus investment in public health. It's a roller coaster read.


  • Material excerpted from Full of Possibilities. Originally sourced from Sir Edgar Whitehead's Memoirs, Rhodes House, Bodleian Library, Oxford University.
  • Photo credit: Alamy Photo Stock. Rhodesia. 1924-1926. Trans African expedition. (Many of Sir Edgar Whitehead's photos were destroyed by white ants in his absence from Witchwood for the duration of WWII.)