British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by S Nicholl
Karamoja Journey
Karamoja Cattle
The dry season in the Karamoja District of northeastern Uganda should have ended. It was late April and the rains should have come in March. Fields which had been planted in anticipation were withered and scorched. By the roadsides and in the bush borehole pumps were working all day and, in many cases, through the night. These crude clanking contrivances, which pump water from Karamoja's some two hundred and seventy boreholes, are often all that save the pitiful stock that water at them from death. Cattle are the basis of Karamojong tribal economy. They are sacrificed in tribal religious ceremonies; their possession is the cause of most inter-tribal conflict and they can buy a wife.

A safari north from Moroto to inspect sites of rural water supplies seemed indicated. The Jie County HQ were in Kotido, about sixty miles away. Most important to my crew and me was the fact that at Kotido there is a rest-camp. One of the pleasant things in the job of maintaining rural water supplies in Karamoja is to come back to a rest-camp after a day of bone-shaking scrambles in a Land Rover, of thorns scratching paintwork, of rocks chewing into tyres, until one wants to get out and carry the car. And then the restcamp. What a pleasure to sit back in a camp chair and relax in the wonderful stillness. We left Moroto early next morning and arrived at Kotido in the late afternoon. On the way we had checked and repaired boreholes and had been annoyed by thousands of flies. The flies of Karamoja have a unique persistence that keeps a person on the brink of going berserk but never seem to have that little bit extra needed to tip the balance. A couple of mornings and many borehole pumps later the horizon all around had taken on a dark threatening look. Lightning flashed in the distance although its thunder was still faint. There was no doubt about it this time, the rains were coming at last and, what was more, were going to fall that day. Only one job remained for the crew to complete our work in the area. I, in my Land Rover, had completed the inspection of boreholes pumps and dams in the area.

Karamoja Journey
Land Rover
In pouring rain I returned to the rest-camp in Kotido. With visions of roaring rivers and gooey mud I feverishly threw my safari kit into the Land Rover. The rain was now a steady heavy roaring downpour. Earth that was yesterday scorched and dry, had now taken on a glistening voracious look. Large puddles had formed and rivulets were starting to run. A panicky getaway from the rest-camp in four-wheel drive and the journey home to Moroto had commenced. Toror mountain a few miles away, which had stood proud and aloof throughout the dry season, was now hidden in a humiliating blanket of grey. Water hissed and mud sloshed and spattered underneath the car. But what about the lorry! The lorry and crew were about five miles along a bush track in the Panyangara area. "They'll be all right" I reasoned. "There are five men on the lorry and they have chains for the wheels. I will probably meet them along the road."

Karamoja Journey
Before I realised it, the access track to Panyangara loomed up through the rain. Still undecided what to do I turned into it. From now on it was low gear work. The pump where the crew were working was in a low-lying stretch near a river. If only they had packed up in time and were on higher ground the situation would not be too serious. I got the answer fifteen minutes later in a pathetic picture. Poor struggling mortals. Lorry bogged to the axles with engine roaring and a bedraggled crew straining and pushing in a vain attempt to shift it. "Why didn't you get out of here, Josefu, when you saw the rains coming?" "We had nearly finished, Sir, and it seemed such a pity to leave the work uncompleted." How could I be angry.

Now for the lorry. A rope fixed to the back of the Land Rover, the strain taken and off we go. But no. Land Rover wheels and lorry wheels all spin ineffectually. The rain still lashes down. Perhaps jerking the lorry with the Land Rover might help. It works! In a long series of jerks, taking over four hours to earn us one and a half miles of progress, we eventually reach higher ground. From there, we slosh our way to the main road. Main road? By now it looks like a river but, from the wide smiles and looks of the crew, it could have been the Great North Road. The crew were by now fagged out. It was now late afternoon and, besides having done a morning's work, they had pushed and heaved at the lorry in the pouring rain. Wearily they climbed aboard the lorry. It was up to the driver now. He would have to drive fast enough in order to have sufficient momentum to overcome deep clutching muddy patches and yet be slow enough to control skidding. "Safari, Musa, let's go home."

We convoy a few hundred yards apart with my Land Rover in front. If only the Kalotharich River isn't too high. We should be near it now. Another Land Rover looms out of the rain. It is stopped by the Kalotharich River. Only one answer, the river is up. And how! The second Land Rover belongs to the District Agricultural Officer. Together we huddle in his car and eye the torrent that is now the Kalotharich. It was hard to believe that the day before it had been a harmless dry river bed. The rain, lashing on the bonnet, seems scornful and omnipotent.

Musa, in his oilskins, appears at the window. "Musa!" "Yes, Sir." "Musa, we are going to cross this river now. If we wait conditions will probably get worse. You take the lorry through first. If you get stuck our two Land Rovers will pull you out. Everybody out except you and the turnboy." "Yes, Sir." No hesitation about Musa. A few moments later the lorry moves towards the river. At once my confidence deserts me. What if it overturns? What if the driver and turnboy are drowned? Too late! The front wheels dip and the lorry is in. A cloud of spray, a few lurches in the swirling waters and the bonnet starts to climb the opposite bank. They've made it! My heart, still palpitating, sinks slowly back into place. My turn now. The remainder of the lorry crew pile into the two Land Rovers. Into bottom gear and creep to the bank. In go the front wheels, full accelerator, water comes through the floor, and then we are up the other bank. Amen to that. Now the Agricultural Officer. "What's it like?" Apprehensively. "Piece of cake. No trouble at all. You'll make it all right." Funny the reaction hysteria has. We are on the way again with the Agricultural Officer in the lead. I take the number two position where I can keep an eye on the lorry with the rest of the crew.

Further on the Agricultural Officer slows and stops. Puncture perhaps? No, just a culvert washed away. Only one thing to do, back up a couple of hundred yards and detour. A stroll in the drenching rain finds us a suitable detour and, after a bit of pushing and pulling, we are soon on the way again. The accelerator feels odd with a one inch ayer of mud between it and the sole of my shoe. Another culvert with an approach causeway looms up. Must be okay as the Agricultural Officer is out of sight. Over we go and on. Five minutes later, on a straight stretch, a quick look back shows no lorry. Stop and wait. Another five minutes and no lorry engine sounding in the distance. Trouble. Probably at the last culvert. A careful turn around and then back towards Kotido. A few minutes later the lorry is revealed athwart the causeway before the culvert. "Not your fault, Musa. Too much camber on a muddy road." Rope out again and hook on the back of the Land Rover. Alas, jerking and pulling avail nothing this time. The lorry is fast athwart the causeway and resting on its chassis. "Right chaps, shovels out and dig. You other two collect branches for putting below the wheels. The bigger the better." Poor chaps, by now their meagre clothing has reached saturation point and water, quite literally, is running out of them.

Karamoja Journey
Lokichar River
It is dusk when the causeway is eventually persuaded to release the lorry. Only another thirty miles to Moroto and the only sizeable obstacle in between is the Lokichar River. That should not present too much of a problem however as it is bridged. My headlights pick up the Agricultural Officer's car again. It is stopped. What was the Lokichar River is now revealed as a sea of water a quarter of a mile across. Defeat on the last lap? Mud, Kalotharich and culverts all crossed for nothing? Why didn't we just stay in Kotido. At least we would have enjoyed some degree of comfort. As we stared in frustration at the water, we noticed that our headlights showed most of the bridge rails showing above the water. What if we drive our cars on a line between the bridge rails? The depth of water over the causeway and above the bridge might be shallow enough to allow us to cross. Get out and test it first. If a piece of the causeway, or of the bridge, were missing, we dare not attempt a crossing. A cautious and frightening wade across the causeway and bridge reveals that a crossing by car is possible. I secretly hoped that the lorry crew or the Agricultural Officer would raise some objection. No hope, those chaps were Moroto bound, come what may.

My turn to cross first this time. Dark water all around. Slowly does it. Once on the other side, I looked back to give the thumbs up sign but neither the Agricultural Officer or Musa had waited. They were already half way over and their easy confident manner destroyed completely the dare-devil grin I was trying to manufacture just for their benefit.

On again and I began to feel a bit tired. Should be striking the main Moroto-Soroti Road soon. Yep, here it is, the main road at last. Only twelve miles to Moroto now. The main road is a sea of mud in places, but somehow it has a warm friendly look about it. I work the Land Rover up to twenty mph and it appears to be flying. Then the township and then we go our three separate ways. But before we split, I stop the lorry for a moment to congratulate and thank the crew. They had been magnificent.

Home at last. My wife meets me on the verandah with a torch. It is 11 pm. "Had a good safari ? I would have thought that, with the rains, you would have tried to get home a bit earlier. Were you shooting guinea-fowl or something?"

Colonial Map
Uganda Map, 1963
Colony Profiles
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 88: October 2004


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