In the mid 1970’s, much effort was being put into strangling northern Mozambique. More and more ZANU Terrs were based there in the Tete Province. The relationship that ZANU had with FRELIMO made Mozambique a very difficult area to operate in, especially over a prolonged period. Captain Robert Mackenzie, an American who had served with the Rhodesian SAS after the Vietnam War was tasked to find new ways to harass and interdict the enemy and remain undetected. He focused on Lake Cabora Bassas, a man made lake along the Zambezi river in the Cabora Bassas Gorge. It was in the northwestern part of Tete Province and was within a day or two’s march to several infiltration routes into Rhodesia.

Canoeing was part of the SAS history and specialization in the area led to the formation of the British Special Boat Service. Cockle was slang for canoes. In 1942 the British Commandos pulled off a raid in German occupied France using canoes, hence Cockleshell Heroes. But Rhodesia was a landlocked nation and they had not done much in the way of waterborne training. Mackenzie believed that they could use the remote coasts of the Lake to provide hide sites and the Canoes would allow them to travel quickly and silently to land sites near their targets. After their work was done, they could silently slip away and leave no tracks back to their hide.

A 12 man team went to work practicing with the canoes, deciding on how to best load them, recovery drills, navigation, etc. The men set out with a long drive to remote north eastern Rhodesia along mine littered dirt roads rather than by helicopters that might be seen or heard from a greater distance. On that January sunset of 1977, they put their canoes into a tributary river that led to the Lake. After navigating the crocodiles and hippos and spending a day laying up due to a capsize and puncture of the canoes, they reached the Lake and paddled along to their proposed base of operations.

The small island was extremely muddy with little shade but isolated far from any villages or trails, inaccessible except by a water craft. With a planned six weeks, they set up the first camp with care and concealment, trying to make arrangements for the following resupply of more ammunition and food that was impossible to bring on the canoes. The resupply came with good food but nothing in the way of ammunition. Mackenzie, adaptable, set up another parachute drop soon and the men got to the business of fighting the enemy.