British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by B.W. Thompson
Kenya Journey
Road-grader
It's about 300 miles from Mombasa to Nairobi. In 1952 only some 20 miles of the road was tarmac. The rest was native earth though covered in most places with murram - crushed laterite. This was maintained by periodic levelling with a grader or by the less technologically advanced feat of towing a tree behind a tractor and so sweeping the muck back into the holes. There were four settlements. First was Voi at 100 miles; it had a road and rail junction, a station, a hotel and a goodly number of permament houses and shops as well as African huts - quite a metropolis. Then came Mtito Andei, half-way; it had a small hotel and petrol, nothing else. 200 miles from Mombasa was Makindu, its existence derived from a water tank where railway locomotives could fill up. A number of track maintenance staff had quarters here and a few Africans were living in the area. Finally came Sultan Hamud, 50 miles further on, where there was a petrol station and a few huts. Apart from these small settlements and others nearer Nairobi the road was deserted and ran lonely through the savanna, climbing from sea level at Mombasa to 5500 feet at Nairobi.

Views were fantastic and ever-changing - rolling hills, deep valleys and vast sweeping plains. There were distant mountains with Kilimanjaro's snow-covered peak dominating the northern half of the route. The road skirted the majestic Tana River near Tsavo, famous location where the building of the Uganda Railway was held up in 1898 because the local lions developed a taste for eating labourers. Along almost all the route there was game to be seen - and run into if you didn't watch out. It wasn't unknown to be stuck in the middle of a herd of elephants as they ate the roadside trees and playfully tossed the branches on to the highway, leaving you to drag them away before you could get started.

The road was always bumpy and often rutted. However, the main problem was the corrugations. Corrugations were the curse of East Africa's earth roads. A few inches deep and six to nine inches from crest to crest, like miniature waves in earth, they developed across all country roads. Cars bounced over them, often almost uncontrollably, and always most uncomfortably. It was claimed that the only solution for reasonable progress was to get to 40 mph. At this speed the wheels were supposed to ride over the crests and not have time to drop into the hollows. The theory was fine, in practice it didn't really work too well, besides which taking a bend on loose murram at 40 mph was liable to result in an alarming slide into the ditch, a condition in which longsuffering passengers could be most uncomplimentary.

Cars trailed a massive cloud of dust, visible for miles. At least you could always tell if anybody else was about. Most often there wasn't and you were all alone. However, should someone happen to pass, especially if you were stopped, you'd find yourself in his dust cloud, covered in a layer of road dust, spluttering and choking and with visibility reduced to nil. A good shower would lay the dust and make life more comfortable but at the same time might well convert the surface into a thin layer of slithery mud - almost as effective for uncontrollable skating as ice on tarmac!

Kenya Journey
The Nairobi-Mombasa road in 1954
Given these various potentials for disaster the cognoscenti would rarely set forth without a variety of items, such as a shovel, panga, spare petrol and water and a goodly supply of food, all intended towards simple self-preservation. In addition it was desirable to allow plenty of time. Indeed a couple of days with an overnight stop at the half-way hotel was often a wise planning precaution, especially during the rainy season. It was into this maelstrom of uncertainty that I pitched myself one day in Eebruary, 1952. The weather was and had been dry and warm, the forecast the same. There was no reason to expect unusual difficulties. If I left at 7 am I'd have 10 hours to do the 300 miles. Average 30 mph - should be no problem - in fact I'd more likely average 40 mph and be home before 3 pm. I phoned my wife the day before and assured her I'd be home at the latest by 5 pm.

I set off from Mombasa at 7 am, exactly to schedule. The journey went fine. I was in Voi by 9 am. 50 mph average. Fabulous, at this rate I'd be home for lunch. But I had a small job to do in Voi. No more than just a quick drop-in I'd been assured. I dropped in. They were thrilled to see me. They'd got a serious instrument problem, they said, could I please take a look at it. I looked. They were right, they had, a very serious problem. It needed over three hours of determined impatient struggle to get the thing working again, my mind throughout far more attuned to schedule than problem. But all things come to an end and in due course, success achieved, I bade farewell and hurried to the hotel for a quick lunch. I was on the road again by 1 pm, 200 miles from home. I'd have to push hard to meet my 5 pm deadline.

I pushed hard. Police patrols on remote Kenya roads hadn't then been invented and there was little or no other traffic. The road over the Voi - Makindu section was wilder than before Voi - narrower, much more twisty and hilly and mostly with a bumpy, corrugated, loose murram surface. Being young and all alone I travelled in competitive mode. Accustomed to loose murram, a superb surface for drifting the car round sharp bends at speed, I made rapid progress, helped in no small measure by a succession of both intentional and unexpected skiddy thrills. I completed the 100 miles in just over two hours. This was so good it was almost unbelievable. I persuaded myself I'd meet my self-imposed schedule.

There was another visit to be made in Makindu where two lonely Africans of my Department worked from a small office. Luckily they had no problems and by 3.30 pm I was happily on the road again, revelling in speed, sunshine, and the optimistic determination to do the final 100 miles in an hour and a half.

I was busy revelling, and doing a sprightly 80 mph on a flat bit, when I spotted a length of wood on the road in front of me, obviously dropped from a passing truck. It had been broken in two, though the two halves were still joined. One half was lying flat on the ground, the other half was sticking up at about 45 degrees away from me. I saw it. I thought about it, all in the same flash, decided it wasn't harmful, and went over it. Bad decision. The bit sticking up hit the front of the car and went down flat, the bit lying flat pivoted upwards and there was the hell of a crash as it pierced my petrol tank. The car jerked to a sudden ragged stop. I happened to be looking at the petrol gauge at the moment of impact. It collapsed to zero in one fell swoop. My heart went with it. The ecstasy of life abruptly evaporated as I realised I'd been precipitated into the sort of predicament I daren't even dream about. My future had suddenly become decidedly uncertain, if not exactly desperate, and my schedule was all set to be upset. Getting away from here would be a problem. There was no telephone and little more hope of a tow than of Cinderella's coach arriving at midnight. I felt furiously unhappy.

In a quandary the wisest thing to do is think. I thought. Black thoughts. It seemed sensible to crawl under the car and have a look. I crawled, a dusty crawl, the back of my head scraping the ground, my nose wiping dust off the bottom of the petrol tank. Why can't cars be three feet off the ground? A piece of wood about 2 by 3 inches was stuck hard into the bottom of the tank. The other end was jammed so firmly into the road surface that I could only shift it by hammering hard with my shovel handle. I took off the tank, there seemed no point in leaving it there. The hole was frightening. The wood had struck the front corner of the tank and driven a hole through the bottom and the lower part of the front face. The edges of the hole were jagged metal bent into the tank. My grandfather would have said it was a fine how d'you do. It was too.

In times like these human companionship is always helpful. I walked back to Makindu and was hot and dusty by the time I arrived. I consulted my staff but they could tell me nothing I didn't know. The next passenger train wouldn't pass by until the early hours of the following morning but I might hitch an earlier freight train to Nairobi. Alternatively I could sit on the side of the road and hope to hitch a lift. I sipped some tea whilst one of my lads went to ask when the next freight train would appear. He came back in jubilant mood accompanied by a railway plumber who'd been dropped off an earlier train to do some work on the water tank. He was going to be picked up tomorrow. He had a soldering iron and some solder. Might he be of any use?

Would solder stick to petrol tanks? He didn't know, nor did I. There was only one way to find out. I borrowed a bicycle, returned to the car and, with the tank unsteadily balanced on the handlebars, took it back to Makindu. To repair the hole all we needed to do was solder another piece of metal over it. But I didn't have another piece of metal. Nor did the plumber. We'd have to use what we had and all we had was the jagged metal bent into the tank. What could we do? We began to debate the question. Now Africans are good at debating. Give them an issue and they'll debate it non-stop, everybody having at least one say. That's why things often don't get done. The fun's in the debate, not the doing. So when the plumber and I began to consider how to get the jagged edges back together again, my two lads joined in, three or four railway workers came over, then a few of the folk living nearby. One man brought his wife and another brought a cow and a big talk ensued. Soon the wife fetched some home-brewed beer - pombe - and before long the debate began to get shrill.

Long before this stage I'd decided that action was needed, not talk, so the plumber and I hack-sawed a big hole out of the top of the tank in order to get at the damage from inside. Then, using a length of wood and a hammer, we banged the metal back into shape until the jagged and torn edges more or less lined up. Some of the cracks were pretty wide and didn't look at all promising. Nevertheless we optimistically heated the soldering iron in an African cooking pot, fuelled by charcoal, and tried to run solder into the cracks, cheered on by the assembled community, now debating our chances of success. A lot of solder fell through the cracks and for some time the project didn't look at all hopeful but with persistence, spluttering and swearing the job eventually seemed to be finished. There was extreme tension when we put water into the tank. We all held our breaths. There was no leak. Encouraged, and by now semi-expert, we re-soldered back the bit we'd cut out of the top of the tank, no easy job this as it kept falling in, and then sat back and contemplated the achievement. The community, by now somewhat slurred in speech, cheered the success.

Fine, I now had a petrol tank. Unfortunately a petrol tank without petrol isn't a particularly useful possession. Maybe I could borrow some from a passing motorist. If there was one. We all went back to the car. I re-fitted the tank and tried to borrow some petrol. Time went by. No car passed. No borrowing was achieved. Even had a car stopped there was no means of transferring petrol from his tank to mine unless he had a rubber tube, a somewhat unlikely possession, or a spare can. There didn't seem much cause for optimism.

But then, out of the blue, came sudden salvation, the cavalry galloping up. An African walked along the road carrying a bow, arrows and a guinea fowl. He stopped for a chat. He'd been hunting and had passed the camp of a white hunter some way back. He'd bet his guinea fowl there'd be plenty of petrol at the camp and maybe I could buy some. I'd have to go along the road for a mile or two until I came to a deep dry streambed, make my way up it for about a mile, and look for tents on the top of the slopes on the right. The going was pretty rough. I borrowed a bicycle from one of the group. It had no brakes and a chain that missed a beat once in every revolution. Still, the niceties of the Highway Code didn't seem appropriate in this situation and I optimistically pedalled away, accompanied by a gaggle of merry supporters, some rolling about on bicycles and some on unsteady feet.

I was able to cycle along the road, brakes or no brakes, but I had to push the bike up the watercourse, struggling round enormous boulders, over sheets of shingle and up little dry waterfalls. I abandoned the cycle after a while and climbed. Made it in the end too though my supporters gave up. Maybe I'd had less pomhe and more incentive. Found the white hunter and his clientele, all dressed up like white hunters and getting ready to go out on a shoot. I told my story. They said I looked a bit dishevelled and gave me a couple of strong whiskies, a four gallon drum of petrol and a hand back to the bicycle. Then I was on my own. Have you ever tried riding a cycle with no brakes down a rocky watercourse with four gallons of petrol balanced on the handlebars after about a tumblerful of whisky? Progress was exhausting and very erratic and I kept falling off.

Kenya Journey
Mac's Inn
Back at the car I tried to pour the petrol into the tank. It wasn't easy, the can gurgled and the hole wouldn't stay still. However, eventually much was in and at last I was ready for departure. I cycled back to Makindu where the community, still gathered in discussion and reminiscence, welcomed me with acclamation and something sobering to eat and drink. At last, bidding fond farewells to a now raucous assembly fully convinced of its inventive engineering expertise, I trudged back to the car and set off, very gingerly, for Sultan Hamud, 50 miles away, where I could get more petrol. By now it was dark, but moonlit. I purposely ignored my decapitated schedule. No more speeding. I was far too terrified my petrol tank might spring a leak and I'd have to start repairs all over again. I had a headache and tried not to sleep.

Some time and 20 or so miles later I was approaching a hazardous point on the road where in the past I had learned to be careful. Between high banks the road suddenly dipped steeply for 20 or 30 yards, then turned sharply through a right angle to cross a dry streambed. There was another sharp ascent and sharp turn on the other side. I was watching for it in the full headlamp beam and saw it in good time. But there was a tree across the road. I slowed to a walking pace to inspect the situation. Sure enough the tree was between the high banks and although completely blocking the road there was just enough space on the verge to squeeze between it and the bank on the left. Trouble was I'd have to leave the hard road surface and run on soft sand. I didn't much like that idea, there's not much grip on sand, especially going slowly, but it was steeply downhill, which would be helpful, so I started to turn on to the sand. While I hesitated I had a sudden thought - why was the tree down, there hadn't been a storm. I looked to my right. There on the bank above me was the biggest elephant ever built, its tusks about the size of Cleopatra's Needle. He'd obviously just pushed the tree over for his evening meal and it disappeared down the bank. Then I turned up, a couple of bright eyes, quite outside his experience, looking at his dinner. He was probably the most perplexed elephant in Africa.

For an astonished moment we looked at each other. Then, totally instinctively, we reacted in our separate ways. His trunk went up, his ears went out, his tusks came down, he gave a little squeal and started to slither down the bank straight at me. Assuming I was in trouble, my foot went down hard on the accelerator, the front wheels stuck in the sand, the rear wheels, still on the road, shot in front of them and I went down the slope in a series of spins, totally out of control, like a Catherine wheel gone berserk. It was the second time that day Fd been scared but this was the biggest scare of all. This time three things terrified me, the elephant, the spin and the tank. By sheer chance I stopped spinning at the bottom of the hill facing the streambed. This had a strip of concrete in the bottom. Praying I still had some petrol and not daring to look back, I bottomed the accelerator, the wheels gripped on the concrete and I shot across the ford, round the bend and up the hill on the other side still accelerating, and reached 90 mph before I decided I'd better nurse my tank again. Far enough away from the elephant, I stopped, crawled in the dust under the car and gently fondled the tank not, as you might think, to soothe it but to find the leaks. There weren't any. The relief was quite indescribable. I began to breathe again and set out on my way, confident, proud of my engineering and reckoning I might at least get home by midnight.

Kenya Journey
Tsavo Railway Bridge
Moonlight on the high plains of Africa is special. The silhouetted trees, the changing aspects of the winding road, the pairs of unknown eyes occasionally caught in the headlamp beam, the sinister shadows, the myriads of watching stars above, pinpricks of light, the call of the hyaenas, the mystery of it all. The reaction was setting in. I was tired and getting poetic, thinking of home, sleep and a bath.

Before the shakes had completely disappeared my headlights picked out, far away, what appeared to be another obstruction across the road. The shakes revived. Not again. I approached slowly. The road narrowed between low banks and sure enough there was something across it, right across it. But it wasn't a repeat elephant, it was an enormous American Chewy, down at the front, slewed across the road, completely blocking it. I could have wept. The two occupants explained that they'd been running fast over the corrugations, had hit a hole, and the front suspension had collapsed. The car had slewed sideways and they'd been stuck ever since. They couldn't think of anything to do except wait for somebody to come along and keep them company. They were grateful to me for doing this. They were scared, hungry and thirsty and hoped I had some water.

In everyday emergencies the thing to do is keep cool and think. I stopped quaking and thought. Our only hope was Sultan Hamud. If there was a phone there they could call Nairobi for a rescue vehicle, if there wasn't they could come to Nairobi with me. Easy. All we had to do was get my car round their wreck. How? Piece of cake. We'd build a road round it. They seemed a little startled at this proposition. Obviously city types. I did a recce, then from my boot took a shovel, a panga and two tyre levers. The bank on one side was about two feet high, more on the other side. I gave the healthiest looking of my new acquaintances the shovel and asked him to grade the lower bank so that I could get my car up the slope. His hands were soft and white. Pretty hands. The ground was hard as iron. He was soon all asweat and shifted the shovel to his friend. I attacked the bushes with the panga, using the tyre levers to heave up some of the roots. Finally we graded the bank on the other side of the Chewy to allow my car back on the road. It was hard work and took over two dark hours. We were too puffed and had too many blisters for other than essential conversation and profanity. Then, with the two guys pushing to keep up the momentum, I managed to drive my car on my new highway around the obstruction. It was a great moment. Another crawl underneath to fondle the tank, still operational, a transfer of their baggage and we were away.

We reached Sultan Hamud in the early hours. It was in total darkness but screaming and shouting aroused the alarmed shop and petrol proprietor. Yes, he had a phone which could be used in the morning and the two opportunists could sleep in a shed till then. It was already close to dawn, they wouldn't have much sleep. He'd send out a truck at first light to pull the Chewy round and make the road passable. A tow-truck would have to come from Nairobi.

Kenya Journey
Nairobi
Feeling like the Good Samaritan, I waved goodbye and set off for home. I'd topped up my wounded tank with only a minimum of petrol, afraid that a tank-full, sloshing around, would split my seams. I drove gently and stopped twice to give the tank a fondle. I don t think I was observed, there were no subsequent reports of peculiar behaviour, and without further incident I crawled slowly into Nairobi soon after dawn. Home at last I was greeted by a distraught wife who'd spent the night walking and worrying round the hearth rug. I don't know who was the more worn out.

The tank, the hero of this tale, stayed on the car for another 12 months and never offered the slightest hint of a leak. Indeed I came to take it so much for granted I stopped fondling it and was very sorry when a replacement was eventually fitted. I'm sure the car never ran as well afterwards.

Kenya Map
Kenya Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal: April 2005


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