As a young Assistant Conservator of Forests in Uganda in the 1950s I was generally
protected from the more unconstitutional aspects of my job by my very
understanding boss, George Leggatt. He would tactfully cope with a tea planter who
appeared to have encroached on forest land, or a member of the African Royal Family
who inadvertently caused a valuable tree to be felled. However, when I had been in the
post of District Forest Officer, Toro, for a year a situation arose which could scarcely be
ignored and in any case involved some of George's closest friends.
The background was this. The Uganda Development Corporation had in its wisdom
started a cement works in Tororo, 350 miles to the east, based on the impure limey rock
of a long extinct volcano. Only after the factory was in production did they realise that
the cement was so weak the concrete would wash away in the rains. You could make
very smart mud huts with it, but definitely not a new Legislative Council building. Enter
the Collins family. Many years before, this enterprising band - brothers Beetle and Jack
and their sister Spadge - had come out to the neighbouring district of Ankole to farm, to
hunt and to prospect for gold, titanium, wolfram or anything that could make their
fortunes. Alas little was found and nobody made any money except perhaps the Indian
traders who supported the miners in hard times and sold them a great deal of gin.
The Collins did however come across a phenomenal deposit of calcium carbonate so
pure that the crystals were fully 9 inches long, of a wonderful translucent pink.
They registered a claim and waited. Their first stroke of luck was the failure of the
cement works. The second was that the Uganda Railway was being extended west from
Kampala to the copper mines in the Rwenzori Mountains. It naturally served the cement
works, but it also passed the Dura River deposit. The brothers offered to ship pure lime
to Tororo. They were in the money for the first time in their lives.
The Dura River is one of the remotest spots in Western Uganda. Although it was in
Toro (my district) there were no roads and the Collins had cut a track to it from the
neighbouring district of Ankole. In the normal way I or my staff would have inspected
our forest boundaries on foot, but we knew there was no settlement and no cultivation
within many miles. George, on a shooting weekend as a guest of the Collins family, had been told of their run of luck and thought that it sounded as if the mine might be within
Kibale Forest. This would never do. Africans found growing a banana tree in a forest
would be unceremoniously bundled out. On the other hand George could hardly turn up
the following week with a warrant for the arrest of his hosts on a charge of illegal
activities in a forest. Round 1 to the Collins family. His only course was to send me. I
was to take no forest staff, as George was still stumped as to which way to play this - he
just wanted a verbal report.
My houseboy loaded camping gear and food for several days into the Land Rover and
we set off for the Deep South. The way to Dura is tortuous. First 60 miles of dirt road
following the eastern foothills of Ruwenzori and then through the Queen Elizabeth
National Park and across the Kazinga Channel into Ankole. We then followed another
60 miles of very minor roads winding through the hills of northern Ankole and back into
Toro at Ibanda, and then another 30 miles of bush road to the new railway where we
picked up a railway construction track which led us to the camp. Operations were
substantial. They were not only mining the limestone, they were felling a large area of
forest and were burning it in kilns to produce the pure white lime needed in Tororo. My
problem was that while the forest boundary was clear on the map it had vanished entirely
on the ground. George had suggested that I might measure the firewood being cut and
agree a licence to legalise it - not a practical proposition.
The camp itself was a village of grass huts - enough for a formidable labour force.
The largest was a lovely banda - dark and cool, with very thick thatch. On the stoop
were Jack and a new character, Ack-Ack Price. He was an old Etonian, down on his
luck, acting as cook and general camp superintendent. They were engaged in the very
important pastime of downing pink gin and warm dirty water ("the gin sterilises it") to
ward off malaria. They were immensely hospitable. We drank and we drank. The stories
of prospecting, mining and big game hunting were enthralling. Eight o'clock came, nine
o'clock, ten o'clock and still Ack-Ack made no move towards the kitchen quarters. I
believe we ate some time before midnight, but memory is dim. I think we had a kipper
and a fiendish hot curry. And more gin. They gave me a bed for the night and my boy
had lodging in their boys' quarters.
In the morning the camp was quiet; no miner would be up before the sun. I had plenty
of time and in spite of my hangover and lack of breakfast I could look round. While the
workings were outside the forest, the fuel cutting was definitely illegal. We slipped away
I was determined to salvage my expedition and as I drove back towards the railway
workings I saw a construction train and wondered whether they might take passengers.
They had a loading ramp for machinery so I was bold enough to ask if I could drive the
Land Rover onto a train. To my surprise they agreed and they even sold me a ticket - for
a very nominal sum. After a few hours wait an engine was connected and we proceeded
at a snail's pace over lines laid over very rough ground through the hills and then over
the game-filled plains to Kasese. This was probably the smallest railway terminus in the
world - one shed, one siding, two pairs of buffers. We had become the first paying
passengers on the Western Uganda Extension. How George solved the problem and
salved his conscience I never discovered.