British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Duncan D McCormack

It's a Dog's Life
Government House, Wellington
By early 1958 all was ready for the great Kenya adventure: medicals, the rather disconcerting interview with Lord Cobham at Government House in Wellington, letter of appointment from London, car sold, packing and personal arrangements completed; but what about the dog?

Ruff had come to us eighteen months earlier, wandering in off the road as a nervous, hungry stray with a frayed rope around her neck. Slowly built up to health and trust, we'd become inseparable. She couldn't fly with us from Auckland; in those days the flight took a full week via Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Cocos L, Mauritius, Johannesburg and Salisbury to Nairobi, with six one-night stopovers.

It's a Dog's Life
Royal Dutch Interocean Line Freighter
So we put her on one of the small Royal Dutch Interocean Line Freighters that tramped about the globe, assured she would be well cared for in her kennel on deck. As a typical New Zealand farm dog, an Alsatian-beardie cross, we were confident she had the hardiness to survive the voyage.

Our flight was not without incident, with mechanical problems out of Cocos, violent thunderstorms at Mauritius and finally arrival at the newly opened Embakazi Airport a day late and no one to meet us. Fortunately an Asian clerk from Survey of Kenya had gone out for a look at the new facility and reacted to our paging. The first weeks in Nairobi passed in a blur; introduction to Survey of Kenya, tentative trips up the Rift Valley to other newly-arrived Kiwis at Nakuru, the new excitements of Africa.

It's a Dog's Life
Embakazi Airport
Then the message to say Ruff's vessel had finally reached Mombasa, via eight or nine Australian and African ports along the way. Our shiny new little VW Beetle was to be tested on the ever-changing conditions of the 300 mile Mombasa Road.

First traverses are always the most memorable; out of Nairobi before first light, a pause beyond the tarmac's end at Athi River on the plains for a roadside thermos of coffee, the rolling landscape full of game and wild flowers from the first touch of the long rains which heightened that magic, heady smell of damp earth and animals. Then the brilliant glitter of mica schist on the murram road, the diabolical, rocky surface before Sultan Hamud strewn with troops of baboons and massive elephant dung. Finally, out onto the plains, the teeth-rattling corrugations ineffectually swept by a tractor towing a large thornbush, on past the Teita Hills and Voi, southeast to the beginnings of narrow tarmac at Mariakani, the start of villages with goats, chickens and laden women on the road, coconut palms, the hot, steamy mashed potato smell of approaching sea. The Coast. Mombasa.

It's a Dog's Life
Tudor House Hotel
After a night in the old Tudor House Hotel on the Island, we drove down Kilindini Road through the arched tusks next morning and found our vessel. The huge, jolly Dutch skipper welcomed us aboard where Ruff was beside herself in welcome, no doubt having given up hope on the tossing ocean and during the long tedium of ports. We were treated to a marvellous luncheon of sauerkraut, sausage, potato and Amstel. Over coffee and cigars the skipper said, "She would have died on deck. She's spent the voyage here in my quarters behind the bridge. Don't forget, she now has warm coffee with a little sugar mid-morning and she shares my meals."

Our euphoria turned to emptiness when we finally bade farewell and the captain, tears streaming down his weathered face, made a last plea for us to leave him Ruff as a ship's dog.

Then her real adventures began; a dog's first sight of antelope, warthog, baboons, elephant and all else Africa had to offer. Even before leaving Mombasa, she was pelted with small green mangoes thrown with unerring aim by the resident monkeys at Tudor House (they'd thrown none at us earlier).

It's a Dog's Life
Flamingos at Nakuru
Unlike colleagues, we were never pole-fished and our car was never interfered with. If we stopped at some distant, remote spot and the normal knot of children materialised from the bush, we were never crowded. Ruff simply silently retracted her upper lip to reveal a smile of formidable canines, tail still wagging. Over the years she traversed the Rift Valley from the heat of Magadi, the craters of Suswa, Longonot and Menengai, splashed in Lake Victoria, camped at Lake Baringo and put up half a million flamingos at Nakuru with a few barks.

She had only just reached her prime when the winds of change were at full blast through Africa. To my later regret I opted out, with ageing parents in New Zealand and the only way to get Ruff home was via quarantine in UK, then by sea to New Zealand. She flew off to London ahead of our leave to a kennel in Mill Hill.

Arriving by sea early in the bitter January of 1962, our car slung off and eventually started, we headed for a B & B we knew off Edgware Road, then drove out to pick up the dog. We were in need of a flat for the several months before we were due to sail for Wellington and a large dog didn't help matters. We located an ideal one very near Wimbledon Common but the owner insisted on seeing the dog. I guess my wife and I also had to pass muster. That evening we drove to a quiet mews off Bays water Road, to be ushered in to an Aladdin's Cave of luxurious carpets and vases that looked suspiciously Ming. The landlord stood erect and dapper in reefer jacket and regimental tie beside an extremely stem old mother. Ruff sat obediently beside me, while they appraised this large hairy animal of very dubious lineage. We assured him she only barked when she had to. Then, as if on cue, Ruff rose, crept across the carpet, tail and ears down, and gently licked heir hands. We were in!

It's a Dog's Life
Malindi Beach
For a few months, sporting "Visitor to Britain" bumper stickers which helped with minor parking infringements, we frequented the City and West End where Ruff, guarding the car, became a familiar to the beat policemen who were very impressed with her teeth on approaching the car. She slithered on icy ponds on the Common, chasing ducks, barked at the winter kite-flyers and visited the keeper of the Common's cottage: Derek had been a boyhood neighbour of mine in Auckland.

It was an anticlimax on arrival in Wellington after a 34-day voyage from Tilbury via Curacao, Panama and Tahiti when no one asked to see Ruff's quarantine papers until we finally proffered them.

She lived with the family for our final short tour of Kenya. Then again in 1966-67 when I returned to Kenya for the New Zealand Government.

Back in Wellington when Ruff was 13, one day she failed to rise to my call, only the eyes flickered. I held her paw while the vet injected her and as she slipped away it was as if the whole African adventure was finally laid to rest; the heat, the safaris, tick fever, tongue bitten by siafu, chasing crabs at dusk on Malindi Beach. Kwaheri, Ruff ... you did well.

British Colony Map
1955 Map of South East Kenya
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 85: April 2003


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