Memories of a Scientist. The Carp Expedition to the Save River in Zimbabwe and Mozambique

Otto, a parasitologist, surveyed plant and animal life various southern African colonies
Büttiker-Otto, William
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Memories of a Scientist. The Carp Expedition to the Save River in Zimbabwe and Mozambique

Author: William Büttiker-Otto
Publisher: Basler Afrika Bibliographien
Basel, 2008
ISBN 978-3-905758-08-5
Soft cover, 15x21 cm, 70 pages, some photos and illustrations
Incl. DVD (8mm film, 42 min)


In this memoir, a Swiss natural scientist looks back at his first expedition to a remote corner of south-eastern Zimbabwe and the adjacent area in Mozambique.

In 1950, William Büttiker-Otto, a parasitologist, participated in one of the so-called Carp scientific expeditions that surveyed plant and animal life for museums and botanical gardens in various southern African colonies.

The expeditions also documented aspects of rural African life such as food production and local handcrafts.

This booklet brings together William Büttiker-Otto’s recollections and a selection of his materials, including photographs and a short DVD film of the expedition.

His reminiscences are complemented by those of his wife Sonya Büttiker-Otto on family life as Swiss emigrants in Harare between 1949 and 1952.

From 1949, William Büttiker-Otto worked as a research biologist in various African countries before becoming head of research for an agrochemical company in Basel.

He is the founding editor of Fauna of (Saudi) Arabia. He and his wife live in Magden (Switzerland).


The expedition members
Route of the expedition
Camp life
Talking locally, talking in Fanagalo
Local life
Fishing, hunting and gathering
Collections and observations
Photographic and film documentation
The expedition artist
Emigrating to Southern Rhodesia
by Sony a Büttiker Otto
Life at Noah's Ark
A small bush clinic
Film Commentary
Section A
Section B
Section C
Old and new geographical names
List of Illustrations


William Buttiker-Otto August 2008 Magden (Switzerland)

I never thought of writing a memoir of my first expedition as a natural scientist. The idea occurred only when, at the age of 86, I handed over materials originating from my African years to the Basler Afrika Bibliographien (BAB). It was the BAB archivist who, when going through my documents, suggested that the material on the "Sabi Patrol", as the expedition of 1950 became known, would need additional comments and data.

When I later discovered the 8-mm film that I had made during the expedition and realised that it had no sound commentary, it became necessary for me to add as much additional information to the various documentary and visual materials as I could possibly provide.

With not a little enthusiasm, I began to write up my personal recollections. This was not an easy task given the lapse of time between the Sabi Patrol and today (2008). Through conversations and watching the film again after so many years, memories were brought back.

I realised that the documents in my possession could be of interest to various readers. They document, albeit from a subjective point of view, aspects of former rural life in a border region of modern Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Social scientists and those living in the region might find this material interesting, especially perhaps the film scenes which depict local artisans, musicians and dancers.

Historians of the natural sciences in southern Africa might profit from my recollections and gain some insight into a particular form of privately funded research, namely that of an expedition. The aim of our expedition was to collect specimens and material for various South African and Zimbabwean museums, mainly natural science museums and botanical institutes. These institutes themselves might also be interested in gaining access to my documentation.

Something else made me sit down and record my memories of this particular expedition. In his autobiographical book, "I chose Africa", published in 1961, the sponsor of our Sabi expedition, Mr. Bernard Carp, did not mention in adequate detail all of the many expeditions that he had initiated and financed in southern Africa.

Here, I now thought, was an appropriate opportunity to complement his scant references, at least with regard to one of the expeditions that he personally organised. While the participants of our expedition published their respective research results in scientific journals, none provided us with a personal account. Furthermore, I was the only one who had taken along a film camera.1

Bearing all this in mind, I decided to strive for a modest publication, which in turn forced me to structure my recollections and material. This publication is the product of my endeavours. I am particularly grateful to Darrel Plowes, the only other surviving member of the Sabi expedition, who now lives in Mutare (Zimbabwe) and who commented on a draft version of this booklet and supplied us with some of his photographs from 1950.

The manuscript has been edited minimally and Dag Henrichsen has added some additional information in the form of footnotes. We both thought that there should not be any heavy contextualisation of my recollections. This also means that the film which has been reproduced here in the form of a DVD has been kept as it was produced in 1950, with no retrospective commentary inserted into it. The annex provides a text commentary to the film.

I would like to point out that the film was produced at the time to allow my wife to participate retrospectively in the expedition. It was not produced with the intention of public screening. Since accompanying the Sabi Patrol, I have not travelled through that particular region of southern Africa again.

Nevertheless, I was able to use my expedition collections of that time for research purposes for many years afterwards (see the bibliography). Two years after the expedition, our young family left Zimbabwe, where we had lived since 1949, for South Africa, before returning to Switzerland in 1956 for the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Our stay in Zimbabwe was the first of many others in a foreign country, and my wife Sonya reflects in her contribution to this booklet on what these particular years meant for her. Many more expeditions of shorter or longer duration in other parts of the world characterised my professional life, with all the personal consequences that such expeditions had for my wife and children.

As a result of the many dislocations and shifts in my fields of research, contact between the members of the expedition ceased after a while. At some stage I did have brief communications with Bernard Carp shortly before his death in 1966, with Reay Smithers (in 1966) and with Bengt Lundholm (in about 1971). We as a family, however, kept contact with and at times also visited acquaintances and friends in southern Africa.

Through all these years, the Sabi Patrol was very prominently present to us by way of two oil paintings in our house from the expedition painter Terence McCaw. The Sabi Patrol was my first - and my last - expedition which was accompanied by an expedition artist! Since our recollections and materials date back 58 years, we beg our readers for a generous attitude when reading them and watching the film.


1 Although William Büttiker cannot remember any other participants with a film camera, the expedition at a later stage, when Büttiker was no longer part of the team, did in fact include a "cine-camera man", P. Pretorius. According to a newspaper report, Pretorius, from Cape Town, produced "about 2,500 feet of cine film, covering bird life on the Zambesi, tribal dancing in the Sabi-Lundi area and a variety of other subjects of scientific interest". The information in this quote might be erroneous. Mr. Pretorius could not have filmed "dancing in the Sabi-Lundi area" as he was not present then. The only expedition member there with a film camera was, as far as Büttiker remembers, he himself. BAB, PA, Büttiker collection, newspaper cutting: "Scientists gather rich harvest", The Rhodesia Herald, 4.8.1950.

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