British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by N S Casson
Bwana Miti, Rongai, Tanganyika
Mount Kilimanjaro
During the mid 1950s I served as Forest Officer Rongai and lived and worked on the north face of the mountain (Kilimanjaro). The buildings at Rongai constituted a rather dilapidated house for the forester, a recently built separate office and a wooden rest house. They were situated at about 5,000 ft altitude on the edge of the camphor and podocarpus forest in a clearing that gave superb views over the Kuku Plains to the Chyulu Hills in Kenya some 30 miles away to the north west. The house was served by a long drop outdoor toilet and it was always a thrill on a clear moonlight night as walking down the path the sugar-coated dome of Kibo came into view above the house. At times it was so clear that it almost appeared to be falling on the house. It was quite magic and awesome when one could almost hear the silence.

My nearest European neighbour was a District Officer stationed at Laitokitok in Kenya on the plains some 20 minutes drive away. In those days there were no formal border crossings so one simply dropped down from the house and drove across the Amboseli plains to Nairobi. Game was in abundance and the plains were full of gazelle, giraffe and zebra with eland, kongoni and thousands of wildebeest. A small dust airstrip existed at Laitokitok and on the rare occasions that it was used a vehicle was driven about to clear the game from the strip before the plane could land.

Bwana Miti, Rongai, Tanganyika
Wildlife at Kilimanjaro
Flocks of guinea fowl and partridges would go scuttling ahead if one walked on the plains. Thomson's and Grant's gazelles if startled would leap over the smaller thorn bushes in a continuous flowing stream, quite breathtaking to watch.

The only means of mechanical transport was the department's three ton Bedford truck. It enabled me to collect supplies and pay for the staff and labour once a month from the town of Moshi some 50 miles away - a 4 or 5 hour drive. It was also used to transport materials and as a general utility vehicle. As personnel transport it left much to be desired. It lurched and bounced along the roads at Rongai which were mainly wheel tracks through the volcanic soil which became dust during the dry season and mud in the wet. As an added bonus sharp solidified lava would protrude at intervals making driving both hazardous and very uncomfortable. My preferred method of transport was on horseback. I was fortunate enough to have been given a pony shortly before being posted to Rongai. He was a small black stallion some fourteen and a half hands high which I used to get about the district. It was an ideal way to travel as the horse was acutely aware of the presence of big game such as buffalo, rhino and elephant which could be dangerous if startled.

Local African staff and labour lived at Naramuru and Endoinet on the edge of the plains, and at Kamanga sawmill, all of which were several miles from Rongai. My nearest neighbour was Forest Guard Mzee Sianga who lived in a small palisaded family enclosure a mile below the Rongai house. A small police detachment with a high frequency radio link was stationed at Endoinet as the Mau Mau emergency was still active in Kenya. The detachment was controlled from Moshi and I had little contact with it. A small dispensary was being built at Endoinet, all very basic. The nearest medical help was at Moshi, several hours drive away over potholed dirt roads.

There was running water at the forest house - two taps! The supply was by fereji, an open channel cut out of the forest. It was subject to heavy game damage and needing constant maintenance. When it flowed the water was generally fresh and clear. Lighting was by kerosene Tilley and Optimus pressure lamps with their characteristic constant hiss once lit.

Bwana Miti, Rongai, Tanganyika
Sufuria Cooking Pots
I had a sufuria (saucepan) radio, made for the masses, and well-known throughout East Africa. It would give me the BBC overseas service in the evenings. But most maddeningly it would fade in and out at intervals particularly when some interesting bit of news was being read. Sufurias were the ubiquitous cooking pot of East Africa in those days. Simply made without handles the various sizes would nest inside each other making them very easy to pack and transport whilst on safari. With straight side and flat bottoms they were invaluable and cheap.

Life for me centred around a constant stream of shauris (problems) such as game destroying Africans' gardens, sawmill permit controls, nursery maintenance, tree planting, issuing timber licences, discussions with Masai elders about the supply of labour to clear the Kilimanjaro fireline in return for grazing rights for cattle. The last could take considerable time as certain formalities had to be observed. A Masai manyatta had its own distinct flavour and flies were ever present. A unique experience was sitting in a mud walled courtyard of the Laitokitok duka drinking Tusker beer by the light of tilley lamps surrounded by Masai, their spears upright in the ground - never to be forgotten. The Masai bought their beer by the crate to drink at the duka.

Bwana Miti, Rongai, Tanganyika
Peter's Hut, Kibo
I climbed the mountain from both the Moshi and the Rongai sides which was quite a contrast. The north side of the mountain from the Rongai house was a steep climb through ocotea and podocarpus forest which thinned out into broken ground and volcanic rock supporting dwarf hagenia and heath. The final pitch was over broken volcanic debris to reach Peter's Hut at the base of Kibo. Leaving the house shortly before dawn three of us made the trip up and back in the one day. On this occasion we did not go on to the summit. Peter's Hut was, I seem to remember, at the 15,000 ft mark. All these landmarks have since been renamed.

In the early fifties an East African Airways airliner crashed into Mawenzi Peak killing all on board. It was several days before the wreckage was sighted and the wreck identified. Details of the crash are available here

The sawmill manager at Kamanga was a well known character called "Singapore Singh". He had been badly mauled by a leopard. A night watchman at a logging yard in the forest reported being frightened by a leopard that persisted in lying on one of the bulldozers after work had ceased and everyone had gone home. Presumably it was attracted by the heat of the engine. Singapore Singh took his shot gun, a very dangerous thing to do, and shot the animal. Before it died it mauled him severely in the legs. In 1956 an Outward Bound school was opened at Laitokitok on the Kenya side of the border. Sir Evelyn Baring, then Governor of Kenya, came for the opening and I was asked to accompany him on a forest walk during his stay and a very charming and unassuming man he was. At this time a new route to climb the mountain was undertaken by the Outward Bound personnel.

It was a very lonely, isolating time at Rongai particularly at weekends when all the African staff departed. The evenings were the most isolating as the radio only came on at certain times and there was no local news. Kiswahili was the norm and I even began to think in it at times. Awake early in the mornings, possibly a short ride before breakfast, some office work filling in returns etc, catching up on Kiswahili studies, and then to bed early unless I had something to read, that was my day off. Despite the loneliness and isolation the abundance of game made life exciting and vibrant. The mountain itself, certainly on the north side, is an awesome presence varying from incredible beauty to an overpowering dominance always there. It ruled our lives.

Colonial Map
Map of Northern Tanganyika, 1956
Colony Profile
Tanganyika Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 92: October 2006


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