I was standing in the middle of Tanganyika holding an ex-army jerry can in my
hand. A score or more African males stood in a line facing me. The next to step
forward was a Masai warrior. He jammed his spear into the ground, hung on to it
with his left hand and, with his right hand, flung aside his ochre-coloured garment
to reveal his nakedness from his belly button down to his toes. Then, with great
aplomb, began to urinate in the general direction of the can.
"In it, not at it!" I yelled as warm liquid trickled down my hand. The Masai
grinned and, though my tactful instructions delivered in my best Lancastrian
accent obviously puzzled him, said a cheery Ndiyo bwana - Yes, Sir. As the last
few drops dribbled into the can I called out "Next!" - and wondered how the hell I
had got myself into this situation.
I had few qualms about performing this function, vital to the efficient working
of the Road Services branch of the East African Railways and Harbours
Administration, but I couldn't say, in all honesty, I was enjoying it. The old Albion
bus on which I was travelling sprang a leak in the radiator and, when all the spare
water he was carrying was used up, the driver had no alternative but to resort to
more desperate measures. As he lined up all the male passengers by the side of
the road he handed me the empty can and asked if I would help him collect the
liquid which would soon materialise.
Whilst I admired his initiative, I was anything but comfortable with my part in it,
but felt I couldn't refuse. Here I was, not long out from England from where, in
1951, nine others and I had been seconded from British Railways to the recently
formed East African Railways and Harbours Administration, and was on my way down from Nairobi to Dodoma in central Tanganyika to take up my post as District
Traffic Inspector on the Road Services.
The old German-built Tanganyika main railway line ran for nearly 600 miles
from east to west and connected the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam with
the inland ports of Mwanza on Lake Victoria and Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika.
The many scattered townships and villages to the north and south of the railway
line were served in the 1950's and 60's by a recently acquired fleet of buses and
lorries operating out of railheads at Morogoro, Dodoma and Itigi by the Road
Services branch of the Railway.
None of my seconded colleagues from British Railways - all keen railway buffs
- wanted anything to do with the Road Services, but I was in my element. I would
have a brand new car provided for the job, two thousand miles of Tanganyika bush
roads over which to drive it, and twenty odd stations and depots to supervise. I
couldn't have been happier. It was the answer to my boyhood dreams, as since
boyhood I had often been described as 'driving mad'.
Shortly after my arrival in Dodoma the District Traffic Superintendent handed
me the keys to the new Austin A70 'pick-up' which I was to use on my inspection
duties. He instructed me to drive back up the Great North Road to Arusha and
carry out a thorough inspection of the depot there, and also call in and check the
small wayside stations of Kondoa Irangi and Babati on the way.
Arusha, the northernmost depot of the Tanganyika Road Services, was an
attractive small town nestled 4,000 feet up in the foothills of Mount Meru and
close to the more majestic Mount Kilimanjaro. It had a cool agreeable climate
and I looked forward to a few days pleasant outing - but not so enthusiastic about
tackling the brutally rough 280 miles of earth and stony road to get there. I had
sampled the road as a passenger sitting comfortably in a tough Albion bus on the
way down, but what would it be like driving over it in a flimsy car? And driving
alone through strange hostile territory? And what if the radiator sprung a leak? I
wouldn't have a bus load of male passengers to provide the necessary liquid for
I don't think the DTS had any more confidence in my driving ability than I had.
He explained at great length some of the perils of driving on rough Tanganyika
bush roads such as over corrugations and through deep loose sand with its
tendency to throw vehicles off line and into danger skids. And in heavy downpours
of rain, when the roads turned to slippery mud, they were even more treacherous,
he emphasised. "Just remember", he added, "driving out here is not like cruising
along England's, or even Nairobi's, tar sealed roads - here it is a constant battle
between you, the car and whatever sort of ground surface passes for a road".
With a packet of sandwiches and vacuum flask full of tea, and the DTS's stern
warning not to exceed 30 mph during the first 500 miles running-in period, and his
parting words of 'not to bend it', still reverberating in my ears I set off.
The corrugations on the relatively wide section of stony road just outside
Dodoma bounced and rattled the car up and down in an alarming manner. The
vibrations made me feel I was holding a pneumatic drill instead of a steering wheel, and even my head bounced high enough occasionally to hit the roof. The
car felt it was going to shake apart and, even more worrying, I couldn't keep It
going in a straight line. It was a most unnerving situation with the car constantly
sliding from one side of the road to the other.
Fortunately, when the bouncing caused my foot to slip and bang the accelerator
down to the floor board, I found how to improve the situation. The car accelerated
for a few seconds and, almost miraculously, the vibrations eased noticeably. With
a slightly guilty conscience I deliberately disobeyed the DTS's instructions, pushed
my foot harder down and speeded up to 35 mph. Without a doubt, progress
became marginally smoother. Encouraged by this, I crept up to 40 mph and
then - very guiltily - even to 45 mph. At this recklessly high speed the steering
wheel felt less like a deranged pneumatic drill with the rear wheels bouncing out of
control, and my head almost hitting the roof. I felt a little happier - but not much.
Though the bumping and bounding up and down eased slightly, the car was still
skidding all over the place but now, to my alarm, the skids were even more difficult
to control. The car would progressively turn sideways and slide at high speed
almost at right angles to the road. This was worrying as I was having to turn my
head further and further round just to see the road, not through the windscreen,
but now through the side window. I was most uncomfortable, and I had to do
something about it otherwise I would soon be travelling along the road backwards
- and I certainly couldn't turn my head that far round! By painful trial and error I
learned to leave the brakes alone and just lift my foot off the accelerator, then, very
gently and very gradually, turn the steering and try to coax the car into a straight
line. It required much concentration, and I had a few hair-raising moments.
The road gradually changed from wide and stony to narrow, bendy and
dusty, and corrugations gave way to rutted surface littered with potholes. This
posed different sorts of problems. The constant vibration and sliding around on
corrugations gave way to a slightly smoother ride, but was interspersed with jarring
bangs whenever a wheel hit one of the potholes - and they were so numerous it
was impossible to dodge them all. Even worse was the feeling of helplessness,
with all control of steering lost, whenever a front wheel lodged itself in one of the
deep fissures which sometimes ran down the middle of the road.
After a couple of hours of this I decided I needed a break so, seeing a huge
baobab tree ahead, I stopped in its shade and began to nibble at my sandwiches.
Even if the road surfaces were challenging I thought, this was much better than
working in a dreary old railway office in the industrial north of England. I was
suddenly woken from my euphoria to see a baboon appear on some roadside
rocks and sit there watching me eat. Animal lover that I am I threw a piece of
sandwich to it, and other baboons quickly appeared. I threw out more pieces of
sandwich to them and enjoyed watching their antics as more and more arrived
and fought with each other for bits of stale bread and bully beef. They were
enjoying it far more than I was, I thought.
The car was soon surrounded by a road full of squabbling baboons. At first
it was amusing, but became a problem when I wanted to get on my way again.
No amount of horn tooting or frantic 'shooing' and waving of my hand out of the
window would move them. I was becoming a little apprehensive, but was too
scared to get out of the car to chase them away. When one cheeky fellow jumped
on the bonnet and glared at me through the windscreen, I even hesitated to drive
into the mob. I didn't want to injure or upset them, and I certainly didn't want to
arrive in Arusha with an angry baboon or two still sitting on the bonnet clinging to
the windscreen wipers. So, summoning up all my courage, I gingerly opened the
door a few inches, reached down, and picked up a sizeable rock from the road.
'Right', I thought, 'if you lot want to be stubborn then I too can get tough'. With
that I hurled the rock into the middle of the group. Most of them scattered, but one
old fellow, bigger than the rest, had other ideas. He picked up the rock and, with
surprising rapidity leapt toward the car - and flung the rock back! I cringed as,
with a sickening clang, it bounced off the front of my shiny new car.
On my return to Dodoma a few days later the newest car in the railway fleet
was closely examined by some of the old garage hands to see if this 'greenhorn'
to Tanganyika's dusty tracks had managed to keep it on the road. They looked
at the small, but conspicuous, dent and nodded their heads knowingly. When the
DTS arrived and surveyed the damage I was lectured at length on how to handle a
vehicle on loose murram surfaces, and told that young 'greenhorns' like me really
had to learn how to drive all over again when they went out on African roads.
"But Sir", I said - this was in an age when one was expected to call one's
superior 'Sir', and certainly were in the British Colonial Service, and before there
was any 'Madam' in such exalted positions - "the dent had nothing to do with me".
"What do you mean, nothing to do with you? You were the only one driving
When I came up with the devastatingly simple reply that, 'a monkey chucked
a rock at it', the garage foreman gave the sort of expression that said I was even
dafter than I looked, and I distinctly heard him mutter, "We've got a right one here"!
But the DTS wasn't so philosophical.
"Look here young man", he said, rather unkindly I thought, "any more cheeky
comments like that and you'll be on the next boat to England and back to British
I got the impression I hadn't made a very promising start to my career on the
Tanganyika Road Services.