The ships taking people to Africa before the days of regular air travel were comfortable, jolly, perhaps even frivolous places, whose passengers were predominantly government officers and where the few women on board were 'goddesses'. Meals were many and delicious. Social and elevenses were served on deck: hot Bovril with water biscuits in the northern seas and icecream sandwiched between wafers in the tropical seas. Deck quoits, parties, race meetings of little wooden horses and card games wiled away the days at sea as the ships thrummed their way south. The young men danced with the goddesses until the sun splashed upon the sea and love affairs flared up under the jewelled skies, creating frissons of drama at the pool's edge or the bar.
Julian Huxley who went to Mombasa in 1930 to look at education in East Africa did not enjoy the "organized pleasure of an English boat - secretary of sports, secretary of entertainment, won't you make up a game of shuffleboard, here's Mrs Blank who would like to play tennis, of course you play bridge, won't you recite at the performance for the crews of the second class." His ship - a French liner - was still coal fired and in Port Said he wrote: "I could hardly tear myself from the spectacle of the coaling ship. Goodbye to Europe now! What magnificent figures of men, these Arabs - tall, lean, horribly muscular, all dressed in long black shirts, all grimed, all shouting and gesticulating under the flares. A truly hellish scene; but how sadly unpicturesque it will be when all the liners run on oil fuel."
Pat O'Dwyer recalls that in 1933 on the West Africa route, a certain snobbery also pervaded on board, only some of which is tongue in cheek. "The army and the Administrative Service considered themselves the tops. In order of precendence were Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and the Gambia.
During the five day voyage to Madeira the men changed into dinner jackets in the evening. After Madeira the black jacket was replaced with a white bum freezer and with this they always wore a cummerbund. Each country had its own coloured cummerbund. Nigeria wore green, the Gold Coast gold, Sierra Leone blue and the Gambia red. After dinner the grand owners of the green cummerbunds and the gold cummerbunds would gather in two large noisy groups, leaving the few blues and reds on the fringes, uncomfortably aware that they were thought to b e rather inferior in the scheme of things."
A couple of years before Pat O'Dwyer travelled to Sierra Leone, John Winders went to Port Sudan "I doubt if one ever tires of the Suez Canal" he wrote "The ship's movement is slow and one glides along between two banks, occasionally passing vessels tied up; at night there is the powerful beam of the searchlight on the bows lighting up the waters... one has the feeling of passing altogether into other climes and other worlds - as indeed one is... the world of the Orient with heat greater than you have known, with smells other than you have met and people [so] different. For us we were nearing the end of our voyage and the sight of the hills rising in the west, the Red Sea Hills, were like a sight of the promised land. It was moving to think we should probably spend the best days of our lives behind those hills..."
On Sunday morning we sighted Sangareb light and about midday entered Port Sudan harbour. It was hot and sticky. The hatches were soon off and the [stevedores] swarmed on board. These were red tinted men with curious gollywog hair - the Fuzzie Wuzzies [Beja Tribesmen] of Kipling."
Eventually a British customs official came aboard, very annoyed at having to turn out on a Sunday afternoon, but decent enough to take us poor probationers under his wing and tell us how to carry on... But first we had to pass his customs... Most of us had, by this time, little enough cash on us and most of us left the quay with hardly anything at all - one man I know had to borrow to clear himself.
As the ships nosed into the African ports of their destined colonies the passengers would lean against the salt-rimmed rail watching the small boats bobbing around them. And while they waited in the roads, little boys would appear like magic and shout up to the white faces peering downwards to throw coins into the water so that they could dive for them. Some children would scramble onto the ship's deck and splash into the water like delicious glistening chocolate insects, in the hope that a shower of silver would follow. There was always excitement, shouting and laughter as the ship neared the quay. The heat was all embracing and the humid air was heady with salt, seaweed, oil, humanity and rotting vegetation.
In 1931 Kilindini Harbour in Mombasa was "a fine harbour with berthing accommodation for five large ships, as well as anchorage for innumerable others. The dozen or so great electric cranes tower[ed] up against the mangroves and palms. The liner [would glide] in to her moorings with a score of brown kites about her, wheeling and banking with sharp oblique movements of their forked tails; and on the primitive native fish-traps by the far shore [would] sit big-headed kingfishers the size of missel-thrushes" (Huxley)
But before the harbours were built, it was tricky taking off passengers from the ships. Philip Mitchell recalls that when he arrived in Nyasaland before the Great War, he could not see the shoreline and the port of Beira. The ship anchored in what looked like mid-ocean and Mitchell, along with a barmaid and priest, was swung off in a mammy chair dangling at the end of a derrick.
To Koton Karifi, Kiambu or Omdurman
The railway line to Lake Victoria was not the only one whose cost was carried by the long-suffering British tax payer but it was probably the most expensive at '5,500,000. The line began in Mombasa and was built over waterless semi-desert, climbed up to 6,000 feet, plunged back down the dramatic escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, dragged itself back up to almost 9,000 feet at Mau Summit and crossed innumerable ravines before it coasted down on to the pleasant flat, but hot, Kano plains to reach Kisumu five hundred and seventy two miles inland.
When the idea was mooted in Britain to build a railway line from the coast to Lake Victoria the anti-imperialist Labouchere was waggish in his opposition to it:
It was in fact an immense undertaking of ingenuity, hardship and danger. To this day it has brought great benefit to Kenya, not least of which is the journey from the coast to Nairobi which Miss Lucy Buxton described in her letter home when she and her mother the Dowager Lady Buxton, visited her brother, Major Clarence Buxton, MC in 1920.
The train left Mombasa at 3pm yesterday and stopped at Sambaru Station at 7. The train waits 40 minutes at the different stations where meals are served... We had a Second Class compartment to ourselves so were quite comfortable. Daylight came after 5am but the moon was quite bright until the sun was well up. We had a breakfast at Makindu at 7 and for several hours after that had the most glorious views of Kilimanjaro with its snow-capped cone."
At 11 O'Clock they clambered down to the earth platform at Kiu Station and lunched in the small whitewashed oblong building under the trees while the train hissed, clanked and screeched like a grumpy dragon. After forty minutes with the blazing sun high overhead, the train continued on his slow climb through the undulating grasslands. "Masses of giraffe, Thomsons and Wildebeeste and ostriches" wandered amongst the fever trees. In the evening they alighted at Athi River Station from where they were going to Machakos where Clarence was stationed. However, because there had been a mix-up over transport, only a bullock waggon for the luggage had met the train. They, therefore, spent the night in Athi River Station waiting room until 3am, to leave on foot with the bullock waggon at 4.30.
"There was a lovely moon and it was quite cold for the first hour or two's march. We had six bullocks and four men with the waggon and our own boy Daudi, who carried the lantern till daylight came. We walked until 7 O'clock then had a cup of tea by the road side. It was as well we started so early for it was the open plain with no shade at first. After the first halt, mother and I sat on the luggage on the front limber. The road was... just a very rough track, one place where we went down into the bed of a stream [in a later letter she calls it Lukenya Drift], we were almost upset... With the weight behind, the back oxen were pushed on to the middle pair and prodded them with their horns and there was a general confusion of animals. The limber reeled and creaked and the men danced and shouted and cracked whips. The bullocks are the humped cattle and so they have no traces in harness, just heavy wooden yokes fastened to their necks. Finally, the front yoke broke and the first pair got loose and as there was no wood near to mend it, they were driven in front and we proceeded with four!"
"We received messages from Clarence on the way. First we passed the Police Officer from Machakos with his safari; he brought a note and a haversack of food for which we were very thankful. Later we passed Mr Johnson, one of the American missionaries, who told us Clarence was sending horses to meet us. At 11 O'clock we halted in a shady place and had a meal and there the messengers met us with two horses and a mule. We rested there for one and a half hours... and then having seen the waggon harnessed we started on our way and reached Machakos at 2.45pm"
The trains in Africa were, for most us, the height of romance and adventure. In his rather prosaic way, Mr Winders seems to capture what it must have felt like to be a newly arrived cadet or probationer fresh from the cool, damp familiarity of Britain.
"The coaches were all white, with double roofs to keep them cool, with tinted glass in the windows to prevent glare and shutters to keep [out] the sun. The sleepers were excellent and roomy, and though we were doubled up... we soon made ourselves comfortable. At last, the swarm of passengers and those seeing them off separated - and the train moved off..."
"Very quickly one seemed to leave the heat and the haze of Port Sudan behind and on reaching the first station the air was clear and the sky filled with myriads of stars... The hills looked black and stark in the starlight, the rocks we passed looked as if they had just been molten and had cooled as the night descended... The line was a single one with passing places only at stations Every now and again the train stopped to take up water and we were able to get down and savour the smell of the cool night desert air..."
"We awoke to a different landscape. The hills had disappeared... We were now on a vast gently sloping plain of sand and gravel, with rocky [outcrops]... We saw our first hill camels, smaller beasts with browner hair than we had seen in Egypt. Wew passed flocks of sheep and goats and Fuzzie Wuzzie shepherds standing free [with] white 'tob' flung carelessly over shoulders, arms resting characteristically along their curved camel sticks carried across their shoulder blades. Many wore the 'tiffa' from which they got their name... With porcupine quill sticking in it... As the day grew hotter we saw our first mirage: trees looked as if they were standing in water and a train coming in the opposite direction seemed to be crawling through a lake; the sharp outcrops had a shimmering outline. It was a hard dry world."
"In time we reached Atbara. this is where the Port Sudan line joins that from Wadi Halfa and where the Nile is first seen. Atbara is the headquarters of the railway system and just as in other parts of the world it seems impossible to pass through a railway headquarters without an interminable wait... The restaurant filled with visitors [and]... the platform swarmed with [people] milling around shouting greetings, clasping each other with both arms and shoulders, slapping noisily."
"In time the whistle goes and we draw slowly out, cross the Atbara bridge and move away again into the countryside. Much of the time we are now in view of the [Nile], fringed with date palms... Dhows are tied up by the bank. In the morning they will spread their immense sails to catch the steady north wind which will drive them and their loads of dates up-river to the markets of Khartoum and Omdurman." What was awaiting those young men who had left behind them their families and their university salad days to work in Africa? Was it to be success or failure? Loneliness or happiness? Triumph or disaster?
When he had taken all this tropical kit off the train at Nairobi station, my father had to call on the Chief Native Commissioner. After making his 'initial bow' he had a forty five minute journey to the cool coffee-growing uplands of Kiambu.
He was driven in the DC's lorry by a handsome driver dressed in a red blanket and sandals who later became a chief. Work was about to begin.
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