Friday, December 30, 2011

Reverse Gear on Lunatic Line

Iron Snake tearing through the Tsavo savannas

Cutting through a sward of savannas with their grazing giraffes and gazelles and lion prides and leopards, the journey on the erstwhile Uganda Railway was a customary tourist trail for Kenyans post-independence. Our Kenyan friends regaled us with stories of their weekly picnics to the Indian Ocean coastal town of Mombasa from Nairobi, and back, by train: “When school closed for weekend, we would set out for the Coast, packing  children’s uniform so that they could head back to school on Monday, straight from the railway station. The rail journey itself was part of the fun... a wild life safari in style. Meals were served with fanfare in fancy crockery and with silver cutlery... we dined while gazing at the game outside the window.”  Railway journeys are replete with romance and if they be a track from history then even more so.

Off-late, general decadence and negligence had set in and tarnished the UR – a British exercise in colonial aggrandizement - and our friends dissuaded us from embarking on this Kenyan adventure. The next best thing to do then was to traverse the important ports of call, which we did, not by any method but spontaneously, over three years. And though it wasn’t particularly intended as such, we ended up traversing backwards, from Kisumu to Mombasa; from Lake Victoria to the East African Coast – in reverse gear that the Line itself was built. Simultaneously, we traced the Railway back in time through archives, relics and history books.

Unlike in India and other British colonies, in East Africa sovereignty came before territory. Land was snatched from gullible African headmen through inducements but territory and terrain still needed to be explored and antagonists subdued. The Source (Lake Victoria, Jinja, Uganda) having been ‘discovered’ by the explorers, the Great Lake (Lake Victoria) now seized the British imagination leading to the grand idea of a railway cutting across the hinterland connecting it to the East African coast. The reasons were strategic, the vision romantic and the implementation full of adventure and toil. The “Lunatic Line”, as the detractors nicknamed it, actually presaged the birth of a Nation – Kenya. As the then British Commissioner Charles Eliot remarked:  “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but this railway actually created a country”.

Kisumu Railway Station
On our sojourn in Western Kenya, we found ourselves at the Lake Terminus, the Railway’s tail end. The erstwhile, Port Florence on Lake Victoria was a hub and web of activity. Steamers carrying cargo of cooking oil and soaps were heading to Mwanza in Tanzania. The UR did not reach the shores of the Source (at least, in its first incarnation) as envisaged but ended on the eastern shores of the Lake, in present-day Kisumu, in Kenya. Kisumu is the third largest town in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa. The station itself was somnolent.  An incongruous picture of cows on tracks – grazing grass growing between the sleepers – and even a car parked on the railway station greeted us. Relics such as the old railway clock, lantern, weighing scale and a plaque commemorating the inauguration transported us down memory train.

In fact, it is in Nairobi’s Railway Museum (NRM) with its assorted odds and ends that we get a real sense of the railway-building history. The wagons, coaches, engines, signals, clocks, communication equipment, inspection trolleys, even silver cutlery and ceramic crockery carry tales of events and episodes in one of the most ambitious projects that the British undertook in any of its colonies.  Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, too owes its existence to the Railway. When the railway plate-laying reached present-day Nairobi, it was a swampy, marshy wasteland. The Maasai’s, which was one of the chief tribes in this area (Southern Kenya), called this stretch ewaso nai 'beri (stream of cool water) which the British in their characteristic twang and whim twisted to Nairobi. When the railway moved here with its stores and yards, the enterprising Indian dukawallas (traders) set shops to cater to the everyday needs of the predominantly Indian labour force. Eventually, the British Administration too shifted its headquarters from Mombasa to Nairobi and the beginnings of a township emerged. This was a century ago when Nairobi town radiated outward the railway station. Ironically, today, the town has burgeoned to an extent that the railway lines lie buried into the city’s backyard, partially forgotten. Today, the only vestige of the fertile past is the Nairobi National Park on the periphery of the city that still boasts of lions and rhinos.

Tsavo Railway Station - deserted and dilapidated

Of all the stations we visited, the vote for the most adventurous (for the workers though it spelled misadventure) will undoubtedly go to Tsavo - of the man-eating lion notoriety.  This is perhaps the most deserted and isolated of the ones we have visited thus far.
The Bridge over River Tsavo
The building of the Bridge over River Tsavo was one of the most intriguing features of the UR. Tsavo Park was the biggest game preserve in Kenya, teeming with game, which the “Iron Snake” (clairvoyant of its destructive propensity, local people termed the line thus) sought to rip apart into two. This gross intrusion into exclusive lion territory could not have been without its consequences. For ten months, as the railway party – the indentured and indigenous labour – camped here, two felines held it hostage in a “state of siege”. The drama of the sordid affair elicited a book by Col. Patterson, who finally concluded the saga by killing the lions. The book “Man-eaters of Tsavo” was later turned into a movie, “The Ghost and the Darkness”.  

To visit Tsavo station we have to alight into the heart of the Tsavo National Park. We were provided a gun-toting askari (sentry); after all, this is lion territory. We walked the tracks and crossed the bridge over River Tsavo to get to the railway station, a modest kiosk-size shelter, all the time looking over our shoulders. The station-master was taken aback by visitors (he didn't get any) and was eager to show us around. I was only concerned about one thing: “Do lions still stray this way and aren’t you scared?” “I do hear lions roar at night but they do not come near the station,” he had replied unfazed. Brave man this, I remember thinking, who cannot be shaken by a lion’s (which in all probability carries the man-eating genes!) war cry in the dead of night. He was surrounded by old memorabilia which formed panoply of his current dispensation. The antique-collector husband ventured to ask if he had any that might be junked. With alacrity the station-master disappeared into the siding yard and returned with a trophy - an old signal-lantern with its red-gelatin niche - and handed it over to us!

Few kilometers away from here another well-documented incident took place where Charles Ryall (then Superintendent of Railway Police) fell prey to the perpetrators he had sought to prey upon. At the NRM, we had stepped into Ryall’s shoes when we entered the carriage in which Inspector Ryall lay in wait at night ready to shoot the marauder. On that fateful night, nearly a century ago, the elusive man-eater had managed to hoodwink Ryall and dragged him out of the carriage precisely when his guard was down and he had dozed off momentarily. The lion’s territory and reach also extended to Voi near Tsavo. We took Voi in stride when we had gone on a Battlefield Tour from Sarova Salt Lick. This back of the beyond railway station is a junction where another line was built around the time of the Great War. Voi was one of the important theatres of World War I, and even today, war debris - from bullets, rivets and even glass shards of lemonade bottles - from that era lie embedded here. Voi town also boasts of a cemetery exclusively to commemorate Indian soldiers who fought in WWI.

Mombasa Station: the beginning of Uganda Railway

Considering we had done the UR journey reverse in time and space, it was only fitting that we ended the exploration at the beginning. We finally visited Mombasa railway station only in Nov 2011, though we had visited this coastal city several times before. The platform here seemed endless. A passenger train was standing on the platform and the station master showed us around the train. Though this was a relatively new train of the Kenyan Railway, it was a shadow of the past with its demarcation of third class passenger compartments and first class dining cars with plush toilets! Mombasa is a bustling town where the old and the new co-exist like a bridge between past and present. It was here, at Mombasa Port, to be precise, that the rolling stock of material for the Railway was offloaded towards the end of 19th century. This was the doorway to East Africa. 

The UR was the umbilical cord connecting India and Kenya. While the Grand design to build the UR was British, Indians fitted the nuts and bolts on the Kenyan soil thus paving the way for a second wave of Indian diaspora. It is a little sad that a railway so rich in history lies in near shambles, both physically and in people’s imagination. Our railway journey was truly complete when a close friend and collector of railway memorabilia presented us with an original number plate of an engine of the erstwhile Uganda Railway. That and the Tsavo souvenir grace the Africa antiques corner of our home and will keep this slice of history alive in our imagination. 

Encashing on the Tsavo legend
Nameless Tsavo Station 

Car Park at Railway Station - Kisumu

Erstwhile Uganda Railway is now Kenya Railways - Mombasa Station 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

On a Rainbow Trail

Sarova Salt Lick in Taita country is an exquisite lodge on stilts by a watering hole (and a salt lick, obviously) that acts as a magnet for huge herds of elephants and buffaloes. Unlike in other resorts where tourists go on a game drive, here they come to witness game from the luxury of their windows or terraces. This idle idyll is not ours to wallow in, today, as this is a mere base camp from where we embark on a battlefield tour of Taita-Taveta country.

We are on the last lap of the battlefield tour of East African Theatres of World War I. Rife with imagination of the gruesome battle and slaughter of Allied Forces at Salaita Hill, we head to Taveta town on Tanzania border. The ochre soil, dry scrub of acacia, birds of prey, and the majestic panorama of Mount Kilimanjaro with rivulets of snow dripping from the caldera redeem the hot and tiresome road journey. The road to Taveta is dusty and bumpy winding through Maasai hamlets with their rondavels. In their patent red and black checkered shukas, bead necklaces, armlets and anklets – their everyday garb, the Maasai cattle-herders envliven the landscape. Apart from the umbrella acacias with their spreading canopy and wait-a-bit-thorn tree, there are the giant bulbous baobabs, Africa's quintessence.

In the distance, we can trace the silhouette of  a white mansion incongruous with the earthy countryside; this is the Grogan’s Castle, informs Donart, our battlefield guide for today. Grogan’s is an intriguing tale of valour and romance. He set out on foot to traverse the African continent from South to North - from Cape (town) to Cairo - to win over his lady love, an achievement that earned him the title, “Cape to Cairo Grogan”. Donart gives his own twist to the tale saying that after all this Grogan was spurned by the lady who thought nothing of his gimmicks! But the truth, in this case, is more pedestrian than Donart’s flight of fancy. Grogan did achieve his goal and eventually married his lady love for whom he built this castle. On the horizon, Lake Jipe looms large contrasting with the aridity around.

Lake Chala - a volcanic crater lake at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Lake Chala Safari Lodge 
But all this is a distraction; a mere sideshow to what lies ahead. We are heading to Lake Chala, a freshwater lake straddling the divide between Kenya and Tanzania, at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. Standing at 3000 ft, this lake is not a prominent blip on tourist radar but for the persevering tourist willing to brave the dusty, infrastructure-bereft path, it is the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Even before we get down to see the lake, there is a sense of déjà vu as the façade of Lake Challa Safari Lodge greets us. But wait a minute, its grand scale and opulence would have been obscene if it were not in shambles. The log-house ruins add to the aura of the place fallen off the map. Donart informs that this hotel project was abandoned when its owner died and the lodge had been left to its own fate subsequently. Built overlooking the lake, it affords a spectacular view of the turquoise blue waters fed exclusively by underground streams from Kilimanjaro. Lake Chala, in turn feeds Lake Jipe, which we encountered en route earlier. Reflecting upon the serene waters of the secret lake, Thomas Gray's lines from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" come to mind.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

On the way, we stop at another Commonwealth cemetery built to honour WWI heroes, the Taveta Indian Cemetery. After a long and exhausting ride back to the lodge, we are in time for sunset. In the failing light of dusk, herds of buffaloes and elephants troop towards the watering hole, a landscape awash with the golden glow of the setting sun. If the lake was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we had come home to the rainbow, a double rainbow, if you please.

Also read Battlefield Tour: East African Theatres of WWI:

Battlefield Tour

East African Theatres of World War I

I am standing at ‘Mwakitau’ cemetery by a memorial of soldiers - ‘some corner of a foreign field’ that is forever India. Martyred for an alien cause, they are among nearly 1400 Indian soldiers commemorated in various Commonwealth Cemeteries across Kenya. This safari was turning out to be more of a  pilgrimage. And yet it was a bit of both. The whistle stops we made on this tour were in the middle of nowhere amidst thorny scrub of euphorbia and acacia or as war correspondents would dateline: “somewhere in Southern Kenya”. We are not here to indulge in tribal tourism or gawk at esoteric animals, though they are there, animating these sites in their exclusive territory. We are on a mission to hear the winds blow and carry forgotten tales of the past; we are here to track milestones, coordinates on a map that witnessed history as a subtext to The Great War. 

 While everyone is aware that Europe was the main theatre of war of WWI, few may have heard of the East African narrative, in what was a fierce but (according to many) a fruitless war. The East African campaign did not serve the grand strategic purpose, at large, and was relegated to footnotes of history. However, today, nearly a century later, certain historians are trying to shed fresh light on this battle, particularly the British side of the campaign in Kenya. Revisiting the sites is one part of the renewed endeavour. 

The history of the East African campaign is beyond the pale of this essay, but a brief perspective is in order: with the declaration of war in Europe, the East African Protectorates of Britain and Germany (BEA & GEA) with their respective spheres of influence - present-day Kenya and Tanzania – were also dragged into conflict. In November 1914, the British Imperial Army attempted an amphibious landing at Tanga to take over GEA in the now infamous Battle of Tanga. It was a huge disaster in which, incidentally, many Indians died. Thwarted at sea, the BEA altered course to more conventional tactics and decided to invade GEA via the land route through the Voi - Taveta axis (Taita Enclave).


 The first pit stop is the Voi Railway Station. It may seem just another small-town sleepy station with the rare freight train making an appearance, but back then it was the base from which the Brits carried on their forward march right up to the Tanzanian border. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the British (with Indian labour providing the sweat and blood)  had achieved the Herculean feat of building a railway, the Lunatic Line, as many described it derogatorily, from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast right up to Lake Victoria in Uganda. The Germans sought to target Uganda Railway (as it was officially called), the very backbone of British Imperial Army to make tactical gains and thus unfolded a parallel railway narrative as a backdrop to the East African campaign. The Brits in an attempt to stymie the German machinations decided to take the offensive into the enemy camp by building another railway line – an offshoot from Voi on the Uganda Railway to Moshi in Tanzania (part of German Usambara Railway) at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. This was also designed to enhance logistics support and enable quick transportation of men and material. The attempts by both antagonists to defend or disrupt the lines of communication resulted in a number of battles which took place, in the trench warfare tradition of WW I, in the killing fields of Taita-Taveta. 

As a result, the Taita Enclave, which is part of Tsavo National Park (of the famed man-eating lions) in South Kenya, witnessed skirmishes and battles from 1914 – 1918. Today, we are revisiting this land campaign, a lesser-known and forgotten chapter of WWI. Even today this enclave is marked by trenches and stone fortifications – signs of garrisons, ammunition depots and observation posts, not to mention cemeteries to honour the fallen soldiers of the British units that comprised Indians, Kenyans and South Africans. The harsh weather conditions of the equatorial sun and the barren bush were not to British tolerance, hence the large more adaptable other component. The Taita landscape is littered with battlefield debris (memorabilia, for the battle history buffs) such as cartridges, vehicle chassis, padlocks of gates and even shards of lemonade bottles that are evidently from that era. These remnants are testimony to the battles that took place which are well-documented through original maps, correspondence and photographs largely archived by the British.

With this primary source of information, Mombasa-based historian James Willson has been researching the overlooked campaign, surveying places and establishing equivalence on ground for his forthcoming book, Guerillas of Tsavo. As the erstwhile Manager of the Sarova Group of Hotels, which have their two exclusive lodges on the Taita property, he could gainfully utilise his time exploring the terrain and indulging in his passion. There are only a few who are privy to this historical minefield of information and the current manager, Willy Mwandilo, one such foot soldier, is our guide.

 Willy leads us to the forgotten hamlet of Maktau (pronounced Mwakitau by the locals), a British garrison during WWI where a large number of troops was stationed.  Willy tells us how the oft-repeated order of “mark time” was phonetically distorted by the local soldiers to ‘Mwakitau’. We also learn that many places in vicinity derive their names from war lingo, thus “more shots” became the town of Moshito and “Carrier Corps” gave way to Kariakor. Here, in Maktau, there is an exclusive Indian Cemetery to commemorate the soldiers who laid down their lives in this theatre of war. A Hindi and Urdu inscription graces this collective memorial.  Like the Voi Cemetery, this too falls under the umbrella of Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Nearby, atop the Maktau Hill, ruins of an observation post overlooking the vast arid expanse of the Tsavo West National Park still abound.

Tsavo expanse from observation post

Observation post atop Maktau Hill

En route to Taveta with the majestic Kilimanjaro - dripping rivulets of snow from its mantle - in the background, we halt at Mbuyuni. This battlefield was the second largest encampment after Maktau. Today, only thorny acacias nurse the secret of the once volatile garrison with a full-fledged sick bay.  An unlikely battlefield landmark that we encounter is, not a piece of land, but a tree - a baobab tree, the quintessential African mascot. Baobabs are known for their gigantic bulbous boles and one such tree was used as sniper post by a German lady. Legend has it that she wished to avenge the death of her husband who was killed in the Battle of Tanga, and therefore, hid herself in the tree to ambush the Allied troops. Whether there is any grain of truth in this, nobody really knows, but the tree bears gunshot wounds giving it certain credibility. Further up, we climb Salaita (from “slaughter”) Hill, which was the scene of bloody battle in which the Allied Forces met a crushing defeat. Standing on this hill, we take in the panorama; a Maasai settlement amidst baobab outcrop and, in the far distance, Lake Jipe, before heading to the border town of Taveta. At Taveta, once again, there is an exclusive Indian cemetery to honour Indian soldiers who died in the Salaita encounter.

Bullet-riddled baobab bole

Sniper post

Nearly 20 theatres of war were spread over the Taita Enclave and one of them closest to the border was in Chala. The next venue is Lake Chala, Kenya’s best-kept secret (in the next blog).

Battlefield Tour continues in the next blog

All Photographs in this blog and website are the Author's Original work/Copyright. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lives well Lived

What do Colonel Jim Corbett and Lord Baden Powell have in common apart from the fact that they lived adventurous lives and died in their early 80s? As I discovered recently, both made Kenya their resting place and, in fact, lie buried and rest in peace at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the precincts of St. Peter’s Anglican Church at Nyeri. Wangari Maathai’s home-town, Nyeri, in Central Highlands sits pretty at the foothills - sandwiched between Aberdare Ranges and Mount Kenya. It is one of the most fertile regions in Kenya replete with wheat, tea and coffee crops. It is the magic of countryside such as this that drew the Brits here; as early settlers they made this land their home bequeathing it the title of “White Highlands”.

Jim Corbett, the hunter-naturalist of Indian junglelore left India, the country of his birth, after India’s Independence in 1947 and trained his sights on Kenya, another British colony. The alpha biodiversity  of the adjacent volcanic mountain-forests of Aberdare lured him and he settled in Nyeri in his last decades. It is in this milieu that Edward James “Jim” Corbett wrote ‘Man-eaters of Kumaon’ and other books on India almost as though he wanted to relive his nostalgia for India (a catharsis akin to Karen Blixen’s who wrote ‘Out of Africa’ after leaving Kenya never to return). His last book, ‘Tree Tops’ was based in Kenya, in Aberdare, to be precise. He died of heart attack and was buried at the aforementioned cemetery. Jim Corbett remained a bachelor and stayed with his unmarried sister, Maggie, in a cottage in Nyeri which belonged to Lord Baden Powell.


Lord Robert Baden Powell, the founder of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides Movement, fell in love with “wonderful views over the plains to the bold snow peak of Mount Kenya” and spent six retirement years in a cottage in Nyeri with his wife, which is now a museum. Bizarrely named Paxtu (Pax 2, after the hotel management lingo for two persons, our guide informs us, after all the cottage is in the precincts of old Outspan Hotel), the cottage revealed a lesser-known facet of this giant of a man. The pencil sketches and water-colour postcards of places he visited around the world and sent as seasons' greetings and letters to friends and family revealed an artist par excellence. It is not my endeavour to sketch the life history of Baden Powell here and it would not even be easy to compress a rich and eventful life as his into few soundbytes, but wandering around in his cottage overlooking Mount Kenya, standing at his grave and reading his last message was a life-changing moment for me, as I am sure, inspiring for my son. His simple message which was at the heart of his world-famous movement ran thus: “Happiness does not come from being rich, nor merely from being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy so that you can be useful and you can enjoy life when you are a man…But the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people.”

Unlike Jim Corbett, Baden Powell did marry albeit late in life; his wife, Olave, was younger than him by 32 years and was the World Chief Guide. Her ashes too are interred at the same grave as his. The cemetery is run down with weeds and overgrown grass, unlike other CWG cemeteries with their well-trimmed lawns and herb beds. The scouts organization do not have enough funds to maintain it, but the grave is by no means neglected. The scouts and guides tend to it with much love and affection. Our charming guide, Ema, also a girl guide and an instructor, takes us around. She says of her Guru: “It was his desire to be buried facing Mount Kenya.” As I lift my gaze from Baden Powell’s grave and turn around, I see the majestic Mount Kenya, its snow peak glinting in the sun. And I can see how this man who lived by his unshakeable vision saw his death-wish fulfilled too. We visit the lives of famous and successful people reading about their work or their writings, but this once as I stand at the graves of these two men, I see their lives and purpose in a light like never before.  

Baden Powell died in 1941; Jim Corbett arrived in Kenya in 1947. Their paths did not meet. But they chose to retire to the same town, stayed in the same cottage and rest in the same graveyard. I could imagine the two raising a toast over a drink to their eventful time in Kenya’s most beautiful countryside I had the privilege of visiting.