WATCHING Simon Reeve in the Kalahari in the final part of his TV adventures exploring our last remaining wildernesses (Wilderness, BBC 2) surely brought back some memories.

My first job as a beardless boy was as a ‘Bwana miti’ – Swahili for ‘Mister trees’ – in charge of Tanganyika’s West Lake Province, with the huge expanse of Lake Victoria to the east and Uganda to the west, an area roughly the size of Wales. As I didn’t know much, my head forester Athmani was delegated to introduce me to the troops.

His first step was to show me the tree nursery, where some smartly dressed staff were lining out pine seedlings. We were trialling Pinus Caribaea and P. radiata in plots laid out more or less on the shores of the lake, so fencing against hippos was essential. I commented to Athmani that his nurserymen looked pretty smart in their white uniforms.


“Bad men,” he replied. “All very bad men.” Apparently they were all convicts, let out for a day in the nursery. 

All this was a pretty steep learning curve for an inexperienced boss who spoke limited Swahili and not a word of the local language, Kihaya. My Swahili was obligatory. We colonial officers had to take daily classes on the six-week (yes, six-week) journey by boat from the Port of London to Mombasa.

My staff were locally trained foresters who, apart from the pine research, had to administer a number of timber concessions in Simon Reeve country. One of the first of these invited me to his rather impressive bungalow on the edge of the Podocarpus forest to the north. He was a jovial Sikh, who appeared on the veranda of his house opening a bottle of Scotch, which he waved in the air before throwing the cork away into the woods. I told him we really ought to look round the sawmill before drinking, as it was only 10.30 in the morning. Plus I had admin tasks with the local forester, Martin Drongo, who wanted me to equip him with a 12-bore shotgun, very much a status symbol, as he went in fear of lions. I pointed out to him that in the previous 20 years or so the concession had been going we had never lost any member of staff to wild animals.

“And I don’t want to be the first,” he replied. I got him a bicycle.

Our other major task was the survey and stock counting of another untouched area of forest, not rainforest but groundwater forest stuffed with mahogany of huge dimensions. The locals were to have a share of this bounty, which they enjoyed by the use of pit sawing. This involved felling the chosen giant, then tunnelling under the trunk before producing a vast two-handled hand-driven saw (no chainsaws back then), which two men deployed, one standing barefoot on the fallen tree and the other lying in the depth of the pit charged with pushing while his mate above pulled.

Health and safety? You have to be joking.

Back in the office sat the reliable chief clerk, Bartholomew. He paid salaries and the bills and kept us all in order, but came to me with a request that during the hot season we should change office hours to 7am to 2pm, in the interests of efficiency. I trundled into the office a week later to find him asleep across his typewriter, a deficiency he at once denied. I had to suppress the giggles when I saw that the keys had imprinted themselves across his cheeks, but dignity had to be preserved and I said nothing,

Bartholomew had the ultimate status symbol in the form of a Triumph 650 Twin motorbike, which he was very afraid to ride, but he lent it to me from time to time.

He would push it to the office first thing, and it was on display daily, parked outside in all its glory.

Martin, now resplendent in his own khaki uniform, would snap smartly to attention as I drove by in the department Land Rover, registration number (you wouldn’t guess) GT 007.

Watching Simon’s excellent programme brought it all back. It would be a major coup to get him to add an episode about the wilderness men like myself, with our programmes axed, now find ourselves in. Perhaps I should ask him. What do you think?