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.
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.
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.
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.