British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by S Nicholl
There was a time in my life when I thought I had Alzheimer's disease. The suspected affliction occurred during the time that my wife was pregnant with our first child. We lived, at the time, in a little town called Gulu in Northern Uganda and, during the pregnancy, I was the most absent-minded member of the Gulu community. To put it mildly, I was worried about my condition. In fact it had me worried stiff. A perversity of life of course was that the more I secretly worried the worse the condition seemed to get. I was not to know then that many first-time expectant fathers tend to suffer from a variety of mental aberrations during their wives' pregnancies. Luckily the various symptoms seemed to disappear with the birth of the relevant child. Probably the most notable of my numerous lapses, during this period, resulted in an unwanted and unplanned motorcycle trip.

By Motorcycle in Uganda
European Hospital, Kampala
For the confinement my wife was to be admitted to the European Hospital in Kampala, Uganda's commercial capital. A couple of weeks before the expected event, on our doctor's advice, I took my wife to stay with some very good friends of ours who lived on a coffee estate near Kampala. They had kindly offered to do the needful and take my wife to hospital at the required time. I then returned to Gulu to plot and plan a way to be in Kampala at the time of the great event. I had applied for some leave but "sorry old chap. No reliefs available."

My plan, which I thought foolproof, consisted of amassing long lists of required items of stores, repairs to vehicles, mechanical spare parts for maintenance of water supplies equipment, etc etc. Some of the instructions were deliberately ambiguous thus requiring my personal attendance at headquarters for the purpose of elucidation. However, I had forgotten the immortal words of Rabbie Burns "The best laid plans o' mice and men gang aft aglee". Well, my plans certainly went aglee. You see, quite often, during this period, I absent-mindedly forgot that I was absent-minded.

A couple of days before parturition day, I left Gulu bound for Kampala, fully confident that little could go wrong with anything concerning me in the immediate future. The road from Gulu to Kampala in those days was dirt road all the way to the outskirts of Kampala. Something of an obstacle on the journey was a poles-and-paddles pontoon ferry across the Nile about fifty miles south of Gulu. It was desirable, when intending to cross the Nile by this ferry, to arrive at the ferry early in the morning in order to be first to cross. This latter pre-emptive move reduced waiting time at the ferry in the blazing sun. It also reduced the time that one was exposed there to the hordes of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. It was therefore with a great feeling of optimism, that I left Gulu by lorry before dawn on that particular day and headed for the Nile ferry at Atura. When we arrived at Atura we found to our delight that we were to be the first vehicle to cross that morning. However, my feeling of euphoria was soon to be brought to a grinding halt. As our lorry was negotiating the rickety ramp on to the pontoon of the ferry, I realised that I had left all my stores documentation, etc back in Gulu. Panic. "Quickly, driver. You and the turnboy help me to get the old motorcycle off the lorry. You then continue on to Masindi by lorry and wait for me there at the Rest Camp. I must return to Gulu by motorcycle for some papers that I have forgotten. I will rejoin you later today at Masindi." A quick refuelling of the motorcycle from the drum on the back of the lorry and then I waited on the North bank of the Nile while my lorry, on the ferry, set off across the wide river. Refuelling the motorcycle was not a problem as it was common practice in those days for lorries to carry a 44 gallon drum of spare fuel. This was because of the long distances often travelled in remote areas

By Motorcycle in Uganda
Masindi Road
The motorcycle started after a few attempts and then I was on my way. Mindful of the importance of not having an accident, I was riding rather carefully. All went well for several miles and then I detected a faint intermittent jerking in the behaviour of the motorcycle. Reasoning to myself that there was nothing much I could do in the circumstances, I just kept going. Suddenly the rear wheel of the bike seemed to seize up and, as a result, I was thrown, arms and legs flailing, like a discarded rag doll, into the long grass by the side of the road. My not-so-trusty steed lay nearby in a way that seemed to indicate that it had had enough of maltreatment and abuse.

As I lay there in the grass it suddenly dawned on me what the problem with the bike really was. Before leaving Gulu we had emptied the fuel tank and drained the oil from the crankcase. At the ferry, however, we had only filled the fuel tank. For a few moments I scourged myself with a long stream of colourful and varied obscenities. When I had finished, it was then the turn of the poor innocent motorcycle to be the butt of my venom. A string of lurid invectives were launched at the now inert machine. I suggested to the poor wretched machine that certain of its integral mechanical parts would serve a better purpose if they were located somewhere in the lower reaches of a sick cow's bloated intestines. I further added that I hoped the said cow would be constipated.

Eventually good sense and reason returned. I got to my feet, rather painfully I might say, and lifted the bike to an upright position. The rear wheel refused to turn and I found my diagnosis to be correct; the engine had seized because of lack of oil in the crankcase. I then stood the bike on its stand as it didn't look quite so pathetic that way and settled myself by the side of the road to wait for assistance. It was probable that a north-bound lorry would eventually come from the direction of the ferry and, with a bit of luck, would have some spare engine oil; it was unlikely to have room on board for the motorbike.

After waiting for about half-an-hour or so, my patience started to wear a bit thin. My imagination too was becoming rather active as I listened to a variety of sounds from the surrounding bush. It was after all, wild country. I decided to put the gear lever in neutral and try pushing the bike and perhaps make some forward progress. It worked. After about one mile at slow pedestrian speed I realised that, although it was better than sitting by the side of the road, it was not going to get me to Gulu in a reasonable time. It was then that I decided to see if the bike's engine would start. It did and I leapt on board and took off up the road, giving vent to my feelings with a loud rebel yell.

By freewheeling downhill and stopping when I felt the motorbike starting to jerk, I made quite a bit of progress. Eventually I came to a village and found an African gentleman there who had salvaged some old engine oil from somewhere and kept it in a lemonade bottle for use on his bicycle. Gladly I paid him the price of a bottle of Dimple Haig for his bottle of oil and I felt I had got a bargain. I quickly filled the crankcase of the motorbike and completed the journey to Gulu without incident.

By Motorcycle in Uganda
Masindi Hotel
When I got to Gulu I was obliged to call at the P W D office to get the spare key to our house. Why? Well, you see I had put the key of our house in the glove box of the lorry and forgot it when I left the lorry at Atura. Suffice to say, I recovered my papers from the house, returned the key to the P W D, refused to answer the numerous queries re my appearance and, after checking the motorbike, headed for Masindi and the dubious comfort of the Rest House there.

The lorry was faithfully waiting in Masindi and after reloading the motorbike on board we called it a day. I had a bite to eat and went to bed. To say that I slept would be an inaccuracy; it was more like a coma. Next morning we headed for Kampala and arrived there without further ado.

Lorry, motorbike and requisitions etc were delivered to our headquarters. My boss perused the documents and then looked me in the eye. "I hope you are not in a hurry for this lot. It will take us about a week to complete everything". I looked him straight back in the eye and, hypocritical swine that I was, I said "That's okay. But don't keep me too long. I'm scheduled to go to West Nile District soon after I get back to Gulu".

During the week that I sojourned in Kampala I visited my wife every day at the hospital. At the end of the week, baby Nicholl had still not arrived and had overstayed his gestation residency by four days. He managed to extend this by a further six days before eventually making his arrival in the world. My wife still felt reasonably well and the doctor assured me that there was nothing to worry about. However time had run out for me. I had no option but return to Gulu.

Shortly after returning to Gulu I went off to West Nile District as scheduled. I travelled there by the Northern route through Madi Sub-District which was subordinate to West Nile District. After a few days I eventually arrived in Arua, the principal town of West Nile District and paid a courtesy call on the District Commissioner. We knew each other from my previous visits. After we had chatted for a while he remembered that he had a telegram concerning me. "Sam" he said, "some good news for you. First of all my congratulations. Your wife has given birth to a baby boy. Mother and child are both well. You may pick them up any time next week". I thanked him for the good news and stood up to leave. As I got to the door he said "Sam, there is something puzzling me. Why is it that you, being an enterprising chap, didn't wangle something so that you could be with your wife when the baby was born?"

Colonial Map
Uganda Map, 1963
Colony Profiles
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 87: April 2004


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