British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Harry Threlfall
Marking a Boundary and Heighting a Mountain
Mount Kilimanjaro
One of the most interesting pieces of work I had to undertake during my service as a Land Surveyor in Tanganyika (1948-1962) was the demarcation in 1957 of part of the boundary between Kenya and Tanganyika. My predecessor in Tanga had made a start from the coast about forty miles north of Tanga and I had to carry on the demarcation for about fifty miles in a north-westerly direction towards Kilimanjaro. From there the work would be taken over by the Survey of Kenya. The country we had to work through was well-wooded and undulating and our specification was to cut a trace forty feet wide to place intervisible beacons throughout the length. The cylindrical beacons were about four feet high and one foot across and formed by filling a metal case with concrete and supporting it with a substantial block of concrete in the ground. The survey work involved was simple - having once established the bearing it could easily be carried forward and observations using triangulation points in the Usambara Mountains to the west served to keep us on course.

But it was the logistical aspect of the work rather than the survey which was the more challenging:

(a) Cutting the trace: this was very labour intensive. There were no villages in the area but we managed to recruit about twenty local tribesmen (Wakamba I think) to supplement my normal staff of about ten.

(b) Felling the trees: we soon found that the trees, though not very large, were extremely hard and our axes were not up to the job. We had to indent for some two-handed saws which were much more effective.

(c) Water supply: there was no water close to the trace and every few days our lorry had to drive ten to twenty miles to the nearest river to refill our forty-gallon drums of water which we needed not only for drinking and cooking but also for making concrete for the beacons. (One very hot day we set off in the lorry to build another beacon. No sooner was the water drum offloaded than the workers made to have a drink and I was not very popular when I made them wait until we had mixed the concrete for the beacon!).

(d) Food supply: all our provisions had to be fetched from Tanga in the Land Rover and I soon found that we were being asked to bring inordinate amounts of sugar. These quantities were greatly reduced when it became clear that the locals were using it to brew pombe (the native beer).

We soon developed a routine of moving camp when it became uneconomical to make a return trip every day to the end of the cut trace and this was our life for a few weeks. My wife was with me most of the time (and our children, eight and five years) during the school Christmas holidays. She soon found herself holding morning sick parades, patching up minor injuries and dispensing basic remedies to our labour force. I also had an Assistant Surveyor with me, Rene Vidot, a Seychellois whose French accent was most reminiscent of Charles Boyer! It was he who showed us the first coco de mer we had ever seen, which is native to the Seychelles. Rene's bushcraft was remarkable. One day we were driving in the Land Rover when we had a puncture. We had a spare wheel, a jack and a wheel brace but it was quite impossible to slacken the wheel nuts. Rene collected some dry grass and twigs on top of a flat stone and located a hollow plant stem similar to a drinking straw. This 'blowpipe' served to direct the flame from the burning tinder on to a wheel nut and the heat expansion soon made it possible to turn the nuts and change the wheel. He was an excellent shot and our dinners of impala fillet kebabs around the campfire were memorable. The African cook we had with us was quite well educated and sometimes after dinner opinions would be expressed about the possibility of independence for Tanganyika. I remember the coup de grace which Rene delivered to end the discussion one evening: 'Do not forget Stephen, that fifty years ago your grandfather was eating missionaries!' The veracity was doubtful but the effect conclusive!

One day, driving back to camp, we noticed a flock of vultures hovering some distance away. We left the track to investigate and found a dead elephant. There were no obvious signs of injury and we presumed it had either died of natural causes or poison. We cut out the tusks and later, in accordance with regulations, handed them in to the Government Office.

We finally reached the end of the line. I fixed the position on the edge of a valley and down below we could clearly see a herd of elephants making its way slowly through the trees. I would have liked to put in the final beacon but it was clear that darkness would fall before we had finished and my gang were clearly worried that there might be other game around as well as the elephants. I put it to them that if I was willing to stay they should do the same. "Yes, bwana," said the headman, "but you smell!" I am sure that this was not intended as a reflection on my personal hygiene but came from their conviction that some aura about me which they did not possess rendered me immune from attack. There was no answer to that, and so we cut a substantial peg from a tree branch and hammered it in flush with the ground, intending to replace it with a beacon the next day. We returned in the morning to find that our king-sized peg had been pulled up by the elephants! We replaced it with a beacon but I had grave doubts that it, too, would soon succumb to a peevish attack by the elephants.

We regularly found that beacons were being damaged by elephants and I fear that they were not substantial enough to survive for very long. Equally, it was likely that natural regeneration would soon obliterate our forty foot wide cut through the forest. Perhaps some day an archaeologist will re-locate the boundary and say, 'Ah, well! It was a good effort!'

Marking a Boundary and Heighting a Mountain
Mount Kilimanjaro
Another of my once-in-a-lifetime tasks, in 1952, was to take part in the re-heighting of Kilimanjaro. This involved having two surveyors on the summit of Kabo (the higher of the twin peaks) and one surveyor on each of two triangulation points about thirty miles to the south, and taking reciprocal observations by theodolite of vertical and horizontal angles. Each station was marked by a heliograph - a six inch mirror which could be used to reflect the sun's rays from one station to another to provide a clear target over a long distance for theodolites on the other stations to focus on. I was on one of the two southern stations, Mt Lelatema, and camped overnight on the summit so as to be ready to start observations in the morning. I set up the theodolite and the heliographs and awaited signals from Kibo and Domberg. Time passed ... and passed ... with no signal from the other stations. We had borrowed radio transmitters and receivers from the King's African Rifles to enable us to keep in touch with each other but I became increasingly frustrated when I could not make any radio contact, so much so that finally I spoke into the microphone, 'If this is the Army signals system, thank Heaven we have a Navy!' Now, my wife and another wife were sitting in our house in Moshi with our radio tuned to the Army frequency and were very entertained to hear my comment quite clearly. No one else seems to have heard it, and so I was saved considerable embarrassment! Soon after that the bright lights from the other two heliographs became visible and the observations were made. Later calculations fixed the height of Kibo as 19,340 ft.

Of all my memories of fourteen years in Tanganyika one of the clearest is of seeing a heliograph shining from the summit of Kilimanjaro. I am tempted to quote from a poem by the romantic poet Leigh Hunt:

Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me.
Say I'm growing old, but add...
I saw a bright light shining from the top of Africa's highest mountain!

Colonial Map
Map of Northern Tanganyika, 1956
Colony Profile
Tanganyika Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 99: April 2010


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