In 1953 I was working on the eastern slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro occupied by the
Wachagga, a highly intelligent tribe who conformed to their own sophisticated tribal
laws, particularly those related to land tenure, and were good agriculturalists too.
They valued their very productive land, and many had prospered having engaged in
growing Arabica coffee which was ideally suited to the climate and soils of the mountain
slopes. My district extended 80 miles from the town of Moshi to the Kenya border at a
place called Laitokitok.
The western slopes of the mountain were the province of another officer, and this area
was called Ngare Nanyuki where there were several huge farms occupied by Europeans
who grew thousands of acres of wheat each year. Unfortunately, some very destructive
small birds called Sudan Dioch, being new to the district and most unwelcome,
discovered the wheat and descended in their thousands and commenced to destroy acres
and acres of crops. The situation was considered very serious for the farmers, and for the
many different nationalities living in that part of the world that relied on wheat flour for
A meeting was called to discuss strategies for dealing with the situation, with input
from the farmers who had their say and came up with various ideas as to how to
eliminate the birds. The newly appointed Crop Protection Officer attended the meeting
and listened to proposals as to how best to deal with these birds, considered to be pests.
It was discovered that the birds, in their thousands, roosted overnight in trees and
bush-filled gullies. The gullies were of course quite large in area, probably covering an
acre or so and were about 12 feet deep. Now the best solution the experts could come up
with was to consider blasting the roosting areas at night with sticks of gelignite. A trial
was carried out and it seemed the best medium for the gelignite was a 40-gallon drum
because it created intense heat vertically, but reduced the risk of creating fires laterally.
The trial was successful and the next stage was to carry out such an operation on a really
The officer in charge of Moshi District made contact with an appropriate shipping agent
in Mombasa and discovered a consignment of gelignite was about to arrive by sea at the
port. So, ten tons were ordered. The plan was to transport the gelignite by goods train from
Mombasa to Voi, a busy station and junction on the main Mombasa/Nairobi railway line,
just over the border in Kenya, a distance of 113 km from Moshi. The road was unsealed,
and badly corrugated and extremely dusty in dry weather which made it hazardous when
meeting or catching up with another vehicle because of the density of the dust.
The only vehicle available for our purpose was a 10-ton Bedford truck belonging to
the Native Authority. The District Commissioner duly commandeered the vehicle and the
next problem was to find a driver, preferably a European, because of the nature of the
material being transported. Well, said the DC, "You can drive a truck, can't you
Edwards," and being young and stupid I said, "Yes". It was true because I had driven all
sorts of vehicles whilst farming in the UK.
Back on the western side of the mountain the farmers had been coerced into providing
about fifty 40-gallon drums, preferably old ones, for placement, under the supervision of
the Pest Control Officer, in the gullies where the birds were known to roost.
My role was simply to drive the truck to the Voi marshalling yard to meet the train and
then load the 10 tons of explosive, with the assistance of four Africans who were to
It all sounded rather simplistic really, but it was not quite so when I discovered the
goods train would not arrive at Voi until midnight! This meant of course driving over a
pretty dreadful road in the dark where there was always the possibility of meeting wild
animals, and vehicles driven by drunken Africans, and since Voi is renowned for its
elephant population one wondered who would be likely to come off the worse in a
collision possibly between 10 tons of explosives and an elephant?
After all details had been worked out and train arrival time noted, I was finally given
the departure date so I set out for Voi at about 9 pm. We arrived without incident and had
time to kill at the station. I remember sitting in a waiting room where the only lighting
was that of kerosene lamps with the usual familiar smell. I managed to find a small stall
selling some exotic dishes, mainly for African travellers, remembering of course this was
not Paddington or Charing Cross!
By the time the train arrived I had completed the necessary documentation. All that
remained as soon as the train stopped was to back the truck up to the wagon, where we
started to unload the boxes of gelignite and stacked them on our truck. We had to work
like the clappers because 10 tons between five of us was quite a lot of work, under less
than ideal conditions as the humidity at that time of night was almost unbearable, to say
nothing of the mosquitoes. Eventually we were fully loaded and I drove the vehicle and
set out for Moshi at about 4 am, arriving at breakfast time at the home of the
Pest Control Officer. I was greatly relieved to hand over the truck and its consignment to
him which, from then onwards, was his responsibility to take the truck and its load a
further 50 km to Ngare Nanyuki.
A team of farmers was waiting to commence the distribution of several tons of
gelignite sticks, attaching them to the 40-gallon drums, all of which were linked together
by a network of fuses so that they could go off in one huge detonation.
I duly went home to catch up with my sleep because it had been quite stressful driving
a truck over bad roads, in the dark, not knowing what was lurking on the sides of the
road. I was also conscious of the corrugations making the entire truck rattle and shake!
Perhaps sticks of gelignite are inert until contact with a fuse or fire, but how was
I to know what the consequences would be? I was just an adventurous young man with
no wife to worry about, and prepared to give anything a go! As a precaution of course
I forbade my workers to smoke whilst sitting on the load!
Well, the sequence to this tale is that whilst I was not invited to be present for the
'big bang', I had done my bit to make it happen. By all accounts the explosion lit up the
skies of Kilimanjaro, and the diochs were destroyed totally over a period of a few days.
A good percentage of the crop of wheat was saved and harvested, which made the
In those days, there were no regulations about protecting species of birds, but such
would not be the case today!