Possibly the most satisfying thing I ever did (apart from my personal life)
was building a road from Rusumo, in the north of Ngara District, into
Karagwe District, Tanganyika in 1960. Before this it was necessary to drive
about 200 miles in a huge circle first South, then East and then North and
then West in order to get there. My road was about 25 miles long.
It was a very rough road, and our methods were extremely primitive. The
surface was cut from the ground, up hill and down dale by about 300 Africans
using axes, saws, picks, hoes and baskets to carry earth. We had no
explosives so the only way we could attack rocks was with fire and cold
water, a very tedious process. We had one truck for carrying gravel or tree
trunks but no cement. We built bridges from trees and branches lashed
together with rope. When it was finished it was not sensible to drive more
than about 10 miles an hour. Yet it gave me enormous satisfaction. I spent
weeks walking all over the area to choose the best route. This was tricky as
we had to find a way up the steep slope above Rusumo, a way round the flat
and treacherous black "cotton soil" in the valley bottoms that became
impassable when it rained and, most difficult of all, a way up a 2,000 foot
escarpment leading up to the road we need to link with. For a while I thought
that finding a way up the escarpment would defeat me. But one day, it
seemed like a miracle, I stumbled across the perfect route, a gently sloping
ridge of hard gravelly land that went right to the top of the hills. Apart from
removing a few trees it needed hardly any work.
Most of the land we crossed was completely uninhabited, and beautiful. The
road passed two large and very gorgeous lakes, one of which was called
Lake Windermere, of all things. Except for a few fishermen there was no sign
of human life anywhere near them. In those days there was no need to go to
a game park to see large numbers of animals. We often saw Grant's and
Thomson's gazelle, wildebeest, eland, waterbuck and various other gazelles,
and some of them were amazingly unafraid of humans. There were hippos in
the Rusumo river. At night we heard leopards. The woods were full of
baboons. Occasionally we saw beautiful black and white Colobus monkeys.
We saw elephant droppings but no elephants. One day we saw a herd of
zebra, and I was persuaded by the workers to borrow the rifle of a game
scout (whose normal job was to protect crops, cattle, sheep and goats from
predators and elephants) to shoot one for them, which I did, thinking it would
provide a feast for people who love meat but get very little of it (and zebra
meat is delicious). Only after I had shot one did they tell me that eating
zebra meat was taboo. The corpse was left to the hyenas and jackals. I was
All the workers and I camped by the road we were building, moving on every
few days. My knowledge of road building was rudimentary. One essential was
to prepare for the torrential rain that would do its damnedest to wash the road
away We built many hundreds of ditches and culverts to make sure the rain
would run off. For many years afterwards I found myself looking at roads in
Britain and the US and wondering where the rain would flow away.
When the road was finished the 2 to 3 hour drive from one end to the other
was an exhilarating experience. I don't think I have ever felt so proud of a
physical achievement. To think that I led the team that built it. Wow!
A few weeks after finishing it I left Ngara and moved to a new district, Bukoba,
where I was delighted to receive a letter from my boss Ralph Tanner
complimenting me on the line I had chosen for the road. I still have and
I got the bad news a year later. Apparently poachers were among the first
people to use the road. Within a year or two they had shot all the rhinos.
I wonder what has happened to "my road". Was it washed away and
reclaimed by the bush? Or is it now a bustling highway?