British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

By Stan Pritchard
(Traffic Inspector, East Africa Railways and Harbours 1951-63)
My Introduction to African Roads
Albion Bus
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.

My Introduction to African Roads
Albion Bus on Chunya Escarpment
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'.

My Introduction to African Roads
Urambo Station
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 topping up.

My Introduction to African Roads
Austin A70
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.

My Introduction to African Roads
Babati - Coronation Safari Rally
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.

My Introduction to African Roads
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 weren't you?"

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 Railways".

I got the impression I hadn't made a very promising start to my career on the Tanganyika Road Services.

British Empire Map
Map of Western Tanganyika, 1949
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 104: October 2012


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