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A Long-Gone Africa

Robin Stobbs takes us back, in a fascinating story of his childhood experiences


I grew up in a time and place that will never come around again

These were wartime years and, although never at the 'sharp end', as were our Aunts and Uncles in England, all around us were the machines and signs of war

Our daily news of who was doing what to whom was the old Pye wireless that was always tuned to the BBC news broadcasts

The toys we had were blocks of wood - prime Mahogany offcuts cut and sanded smooth by the Sikh fundis in the railway workshops. Those blocks of wood were magical: with no mental effort they could instantly be transformed into 'planes, or ships, or tanks and they never required winding up or battery replacement

Our playroom was 'outside' where the very worst we might encounter was a safari of Siafu (safari ants that could, and if allowed, literally eat one alive)

Although life was lived at a more leisurely pace then - we had no telephone and we communicated via things called letters - all around us the world was changing

Soon after war broke out with Italy, there had been a few bombing and strafing excursions into northern Kenya (the most daring of which was when a couple of Mussolini's Regia Aeronautica Caproni bombers dropped a few small bombs on Malindi's airstrip on 24th October 1940). Most people thought, at that time, Italian troops would invade Kenya from Abyssinia - and indeed they could quite easily have done so and cleaned up most of Africa south of the Sahara, all the way through to the Cape. There had been considerable war activity in the Western Indian Ocean with German, Italian and (later) Japanese submarines hunting down and sinking allied shipping. Axis sympathisers in Madagascar took over the island establishing a Vichy-French government, which opened all the harbour facilities to enemy submarines that were harassing allied shipping from the Suez to the Cape; and beyond

In May 1942, forces from East Africa (mainly the Kenya Regiment and Kings African Rifles) and the Union of South Africa launched Operation Ironclad, a land, sea and air invasion aimed at ousting enemy sympathisers and preventing their use of Madagascar as a base. This was the first such invasion of the war. By November that year (1942) allied forces had defeated the Vichy-French. However, long-range German and Japanese submarines continued to harass shipping in the Indian Ocean - it's a little known fact that Japanese reconnaissance aircraft , launched from their giant long-range submarines, flew over Durban and Port Elizabeth in 1942

Apart from seeing the occasional 209 RAF Squadron Catalina in Mombasa, all I can personally remember of aircraft activities over Kenya was the occasion when we were in Nairobi City Park with our Gran. We heard the undulating wailing of air raid sirens. I seem to recall that what intrigued us most were not the aircraft but the frantic dashing about of people, mainly Indians, and some who were in the maze (I wonder if it still exists) and almost tore their way out with horrendous shouts and wailing. Anyway the Italian 'planes didn't hang around and quickly vanished northwards hotly pursued by the RAF from Eastleigh airfield!

We discovered many years later that a family decision had been made to evacuate us kids to a potentially safer place for the duration of the war in East Africa. That safe place was to be a small town in South Africa's Eastern Province called Grahamstown - home of our maternal Grandparents, George and Annie Aubrey. At the time all we were told was that we were all going away on an extended adventure fun holiday. Nobody told us that we were likely to be away from our friends, and the Kenya home we knew, for two or more years

Mum and five year old Jill departed for South Africa by Imperial Airways Empire flying boat, and some weeks later Dad, Norman and I left on what was to be the most exciting adventure of all time

This was, I think, some time in early 1942. Dad told us we were to travel to South Africa overland - something one can no longer do in this manner without running the risk of 'lead poisoning' at the hands of various terrorist groups in Central Africa

We were going to stay with our Grandparents (Mum's parents; granny and grandpa Aubrey) aunt and uncle (Mum's sister Doris and Neville Stirk) and our cousins (Tony, Dennis and Margaret). Gosh! We had cousins?? Wow!

The Great Adventure - and how we so wish we had visual and sound recording cameras and toys like kids have today; digital video and cameras and voice recorders, so we could have left a more complete record of this amazing experience that took place at a time and place that cannot ever be the same again

Africa has changed - not always for the better of course - the Africa we knew and saw then will never, ever come around again. I was all of 8 at the time so memories are fleeting, discontinuous and somewhat blurred; though some remain very vivid! I have a thousand and one pictures stored in my cerebral archives - too bad they can't all be easily retrieved, printed out or copied

We left Nairobi on a KUR&H train, north-bound for Kisumu on Lake Victoria. We had never travelled on the up-country train before so everything we saw was new. We'd done the Mombasa trip a number of times but from here on everything was new

Thundering along behind a 100 ton, 50 Class articulated Beyer-Garrett steam loco, the overnight trip took us from Nairobi station, crossing Delamere Avenue and up through Parklands and Westlands and the Prince of Wales School at Kabete, and Kikuyu.

Down the 1600 ft (500 metre) descent into the Great Rift Valley crossing numerous high viaducts spanning deep gorges and ravines near Uplands and Kijabe, and then down to Naivasha. Gilgil and Nakuru and then onto the Molo-Londiani branch line and up the far side of Rift Valley, passing hot steam and sulphur springs so characteristic of this volcanic region. This line was originally the main line of the Uganda Railway, but was now a branch line to Kisumu on the shores of the Kavirondo Gulf at the north eastern 'corner' of Lake Victoria. Port Florence, as Kisumu was originally named, was the terminal of the original Uganda Railway, and where grandpa 'Eddie' Stobbs was once the first Station Master at the turn of the Century

In Kisumu we boarded a lake steamer - I have no recollection which one it was, and it could have been either of the two passenger steamers in service at that time; the Usoga or Rusinga (both were commissioned in 1913 and were still in service up to, and possibly well beyond, the early '70's). The third large vessel in use on the lake at that time, the Nyanza, was a cargo vessel

Lake Victoria is one huge lake, and these ships were ships in every sense of the word. Storms on the lake can sometimes be every bit as bad and dangerous as storms at sea

We sailed for Mwanza, in Tanganyika, at the southern end of Lake Victoria - an approximately 2 to 3 day voyage. Here we boarded another train - this time on Tanganyika Railways - for the +-12 hour journey to Kigoma via Tabora. Kigoma is on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika - the deepest of the Rift Valley lakes. At Kigoma we boarded another lake steamer, the MV Liemba for the short, 90 mile, crossing to Albertville (now Kalemie) in the (then) Belgian Congo. This crossing could have been a one day voyage, though for some reason I think we slept one night onboard. The MV Liemba, formerly Graf von Goetzen was built in 1913 in Germany, and was one of three vessels the German Empire used to control Lake Tanganyika during the early part of the First World War. Her captain had her scuttled on 26th July 1916 in Katabe Bay during the German retreat from Kigoma. In 1924, a British Royal Navy salvage team raised her and in 1927 she returned to service as Liemba. Liemba is the last vessel of the German Imperial Navy still actively sailing anywhere in the world

We seemed to be forever boarding and disembarking from something; never quite knowing whether tomorrow was going to be another watery voyage or accompanied by the clickety-clack of railway wheels. Every day was a blur and Im sure my eight year old brain was beginning to suffer from some sort of visual overload. Sadly, cameras were never part of the family 'furniture' so we have not a single photograph from these years

PART 2 to follow

In Albertville we boarded a very different train to the ones we were used to in Kenya.....

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