Meet the Dereham man who fought in a civil war and now runs his own safari
There probably aren’t many people from Norfolk who have fought in civil wars on the other side of the globe. It’s fair to say that even fewer have gone on to launch their own safari tours, showing visitors the wonders of South African wildlife. But Derek Hewitt, who grew up in the Dereham area, has done exactly that over a lifetime packed with an abundance of danger, adventure, excitement and pure joy.
Derek Hewitt, who hails from Dereham, pictured with his friend Ardre – Credit: Derek Hewitt
Three years after the conclusion of the Second World War, Derek was born in a farmhouse in the village of Shipdham. He attended Toftwood Primary and then Hamonds Grammer school in Swaffham, but his real passion was sport. An accomplished footballer, Derek played for teams in Toftwood and Bintree, winning a cup final along the way, and was also a useful cricketer.
By the time he’d entered the world of work, however, this young man knew he was destined to see more of the world. After spending five years working for Barclays bank in both Fakenham and Reepham, the 20-something was offered a transfer to Johannesburg – which fitted in very nicely with his plans.
A copy of the Dereham and Fakenham Times from 1970, covering Derek Hewitt’s departure for South Africa – Credit: Derek Hewitt “My dad was involved in the Second World War and a lot of his friends were from South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe),” said Derek, now 73 years old.
“He made a lot of friends during the war. When the war finished he wanted to live in Africa but, with his parents and my mother’s parents, it was something he just couldn’t do. “So, it ended up with me being the first one in the family to move over there.”
Derek sailed for two weeks from Southampton to Cape Town, even playing cricket for the passengers against the crew during the trip. He soon found a place to stay in Johannesburg, but soon realised his heart laid elsewhere.
An elephant in the Addo Elephant National Park, where Dereham man Derek Hewitt now lives and runs a business – Credit: Derek Hewitt “I rather liked Rhodesia,” he added. “I took a holiday up there and it was a much more friendly country.
“There was no apartheid, like there was in South Africa.” After the death of three of their own parents, Derek’s mother and father saw a chance to move to South Africa. For a while the family was reunited, but Derek moved for a short time back to Dereham, living in Yaxham Road, while he contemplated his next move.
During this period, he bought a Lotus Elan in an eye-catching shade of magenta. Then came the opportunity he had been waiting for.
Derek Hewitt’s wife Etta pictured after rescuing an injured flamingo – Credit: Derek Hewitt “My parents were over [in South Africa], but I still had a bit of a hankering for Rhodesia,” said Derek.
“I was contacted by a friend at the bank in South Africa who knew how much I’d liked Rhodesia. He said he was taking his family up there and joining a finance firm.” The decision was made, and Derek had his brand-new Lotus shipped from London to Cape Town, before driving it north.
“When the customs guys saw the Lotus, with its pop-up headlamps, they said I’d better take the lights out and replace them with machine guns,” he said. “Because, by this point, the Bush War has started.” The Rhodesian Bush War, or civil war, was contested by three forces: the white-led government; Robert Mugabe’s nationalist army which recruited the Shona tribe and was backed by China; and Joshua Nkomo’s revolutionary army, which recruited the smaller Matabele tribe and was backed by Russia.
Derek Hewitt (middle row, far left), from Dereham, served with the British South African Police while in Rhodesia – Credit: Derek Hewitt Despite the troubles, Derek – now the manager of a building society – loved Rhodesia so much that he became a citizen.
The downside was having to serve for his country while the war raged on. Derek’s life assumed a five-week cycle, with three weeks at work and two weeks in the bush as an anti-terrorist officer with the British South African Police (BSAP). By this point, Derek had married Etta, a a Rhodesian farmer’s daughter.
The family farm sat near the Mozambique border, where the Shona based themselves, putting them at risk of attack. “The building society actually gave me an Uzi sub-machine gun,” Derek explained. “I had my own two-barrel shotgun, a 9mm German Luge pistol; my wife had a 9mm FN so, every time we went to the farm, we had a few weapons to fire back in case we were ambushed.
Derek Hewitt (top left), from Dereham, served with the British South African Police while in Rhodesia – Credit: Derek Hewitt “We put a big security fence around the farm with lights and all farmers were connected by a special radio to warn each other of attacks before the Rhodesian army came.
“In the farmhouse we’d roll thick steel plates in front of the windows at night in case a rocket was fired. You could say they were quite exciting times.” Derek remembers his time in the bush with some fondness, too – despite the dangers.
He does recall one incident in particular as being especially frightening. “We were at our base camp on a moon-lit night in the middle of Rhodesia,” Derek said.
Medals from Derek Hewitt’s time in the BSAP alongside recovered bullet casings following an ambush – Credit: Derek Hewitt “We’d just eaten when we heard there was a big group of terrorists about 50km away. After dropping off the special forces, we were on our way back when we saw a bush fire.
“Some terrorists had set up in a ditch and fired a rifle grenade into the truck engine. It was a pretty good ambush because they had set this bush fire, so we couldn’t get away that side, and they were firing to flatten the tyres. “One of the guys got hit through the hand, but luckily the truck was quite strong. We got on the radio to report what had happened and we stayed by the truck all night.
“It seems the terrorists were scared themselves because they didn’t know how many men we had but, in the morning, when we got picked up by another truck, there were still some there. We hit their machine gunner and then they just disappeared. We thought ‘thank god for that’.”
As war came to an end and Mugabe rose to power in 1980, Derek remained in the BSAP – now the Zimbabwe Republic Police – for two more years.
Derek Hewitt, from Dereham, with his son Julian in a bush camp – Credit: Derek Hewitt While Derek and Etta wanted to remain in the newly-independent nation of Zimbabwe, they moved to South Africa knowing their children, Julian and Nicole, would likely receive a better education there. Derek briefly took a manager’s role at a bank in Port Elizabeth, before he and his wife borrowed some money to buy a suburban house which came with an adjoining shop.
With limited money the change took a lot of adjustment, but the couple had the ingenuity to pounce on the rising popularity of arcade machines. They designed a room where children could come and play games, while buying snacks and drinks from the shop. “It had been decided that black people could not shop at white-owned shops,” added Derek. “We were the only shop in the area that kept trading with a mix of races.
Derek Hewitt’s Land Rover on the family farm in South Africa – Credit: Derek Hewitt
“We wanted our children to be brought up as they were in Rhodesia. We got them into a school which was private but multi-racial.” In the late-1980s, Derek and Etta launched their own business, which sold catering equipment to buyers across the nation.
They ran a successful firm for 15 years, before moving on to their current venture. Seeing it as an opportunity that was too good to miss, Derek and Etta bought a property by the river on the Addo Elephant National Park. Their idea was to transform it into a guest house and offer their own safari tours on the park, where visitors could see Cape buffalo, lions, antelope, leopards and, of course, elephants.
Lions on the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa – Credit: Derek Hewitt
That vision came to fruition in 2005 and has seen Dungbeetle Tours continue to grow. They now three full-time employees, a second accommodation building and several vehicles, including a 22-seater. “We started with nothing and now we have guests coming from all over the world,” said Derek.
“We have repeat guests every year, and we do get quite a lot of motorcycle groups coming, usually from Germany and Austria. “We absolutely love it here. It is tremendous.
Even if there are no guests, I will just go out on my own into the park.”
Paddleboarders at the Addo Elephant National Park, where Dereham man Derek Hewitt lives – Credit: Derek Hewitt In addition to his two grown-up children, Derek now has five grandchildren. He still has plenty of love for Dereham and recently returned for several weeks to stay with his sister, Wendy, in Sandy Lane.
During his trip, Derek visited a number of old friends across the UK and even strayed onto the continent to spend time in Barcelona.
He watched Norwich play Spurs on the final day of the football season at Carrow Road, and even found time to attend the Norfolk and Suffolk shows.
Derek also paid a visit to Dereham Baptist Church, where he was in the Boys’ Brigade as a child.