On my first arrival in Nyasaland in January 1951, I needed to report to Reginald
Dickenson who was Chief Engineer to the Posts and Telegraphs Department at that
time. Having worked with 'Dicky' in Germany prior to this, I should have known what
to expect in the way of pleasant surprises. The one he gave me, however, could not have
been more unusual for an ex Post Office engineer. I was to proceed to Fort Johnston with
'Billy' Budd, the Radio Engineer, to install a VHF radio link between there and Monkey
Bay to cover the launch of a new lake steamer Ilala II. This was necessitated primarily
for the arrival of HE and Lady Colby who was to perform the actual launching
ceremony. We travelled in Bill's Austin A40 in comfort, with all the necessary
equipment having gone ahead on a Post Office five ton Bedford. The new ship had been
given the name of Motor Vessel Ilala II, the 'two' taking into account that its
predecessor was used by Livingstone for his lake journeys.
The ship itself had been built in UK on a basis of bolting it all together to ensure that
it could be taken apart again and transported in sections by sea and rail to the Railways and Harbours port at Monkey Bay. Here, the parts had been reassembled with the hull
this time being permanently riveted. Most of the fitting inside it was then completed,
with more to be done after the launch.
We set off from Zomba and rather late in the day arrived at the Palm Beach Hotel on
the lakeshore not too far from Fort Johnston. Having spent the night there we started
work next morning by erecting the mast which would carry the aerial, with Bill showing
me how it was done, he being ex-RAF had done a number of these previously. These
masts, used by the RAF, were in sections of six and a half feet; four when combined
gave a height of twenty six feet which was the standard unit. We put two of these
together to give an aerial height of fifty two feet and having fastened on four stay cables
of the correct length hauled it up from the ground until it was vertical. This completed,
we returned to the hotel for the night. Next morning both of us went to Monkey Bay and
repeated the business of aerial erecting, returning afterwards to the hotel. We arranged
for one of us to stay there until all the fuss died down and for the other of us (I drew the
short straw) to be transported to Monkey Bay.
This journey was made by courtesy of the Captain of the cargo vessel MV Mpasa.
He anchored off shore next morning and sent a boat to pick me up with all the equipment
I would need at Monkey Bay. Once there, I was introduced to the Shore Engineer of
Nyasaland Railways and Harbours, shown where the radio would be best placed, then
left to get on with it. When I had completed all that could be achieved on that day, as
dark neared I asked where I was to stay overnight. This request was obviously
unexpected and after a short conference it was decided that I should sleep aboard the
MV Mpasa, which needed to stay at Monkey Bay in case of any emergency, until the
launch was successfully completed. Next morning the ship's boat took me ashore
through waves running a few feet high so the day began with me in wet clothing but at
lake level I was dry in a very short time.
Having started the petrol generator to give the mains power needed, I got on the radio
and was pleasantly surprised to hear Bill's instant reply. Once we had established the fact
that it was a good 'solid' link, it could then be left to the African operators. This left me
with not a lot to do, so I offered my services to the shore engineer, who said he would be
very grateful for help at the actual launch. The new vessel stood solidly on its keel
supported on a heavily greased timber slide and held upright by large baulks of squared
off tree trunks. Since the displacement weight of the ship was around the six hundred ton
mark, it is easy to understand that it would take an awful lot of shifting to start on its run
down the slipway. The method employed at Monkey Bay was to build, at the bow of the
ship, a large timber framework with the launching platform at an upper level. Below this,
at about three feet above ground level, was an enormous screw type jack with two three
foot handles. Two men could apply leverage to these to turn the screw. The jack had been
mounted horizontally between the ship's bow and the huge vertical post in front, thus
providing the thrust to start the ship's slide along the slightly inclined slipway.
In due course, the Governor and Lady Colby arrived and were looked after by the
Railway hierarchy who had arrived previously. When launch time came, the VIPs were
led up the steps to the platform. The Shore Engineer and I had hidden ourselves below
the platform awaiting the noise of the bottle of champagne breaking against the bow. We could hear all that was being said 'upstairs' and so knew when to expect the
smashing bottle would shower us both with champagne to begin the heavy work of
turning the screw of the jack. It was probably a matter of a few seconds only, but to the
two of us below it seemed an age before we detected any movement. All went well
however and the newly named vessel was actually afloat.
Once the ship had completely cleared the slipway, I was amazed at the number of Africans
- there must have been hundreds - who raced to the slipway and promptly began to collect
just as much as they could of the grease down which the llala had slid so easily. Shore staff
told me afterwards that the grease was actually soft soap which left me wondering if the
people who had helped themselves to plenty of it would use any for cooking.
Duly back on board the Mpasa, I was having a drink with the Captain who had made
me so welcome. He had insisted that I used his bunk whilst he slept on a folding bed.
This was because he needed to be available at times in case of, for instance, the ship
dragging her anchor in the middle of the night. We were on deck looking at the llala
when a boat approached and a messenger came needing urgent help. The new Captain of
the llala had discovered a leak caused by one of the ship's plates being sprung, due to
rivets which presumably had been insufficiently hammered. Lighting in the compartment
where the leak had occurred was urgently needed because the ship's main generator had
not yet been commissioned. Since I had two 1 kilowatt petrol generators with me, I
offered to lend these in the hope that a number of lamps could be found. That was how I
found myself on board the llala, having been rowed to her from shore, after collecting
the two machines. An unforeseen snag was that when these were used inside the
compartment where the leak was the exhaust fumes did not get away so the length of
time that men could work on caulking up the leak was restricted. Despite this, the work
had been completed by sunrise next day and the llala was finally seaworthy, or should
that read lakeworthy. Perhaps? Either way, I read recently that she is still in service after
all these years...