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
(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
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!'
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!