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Category: After Livingstone

The Great North Road

From Great North Road

The following article was published in Horizon magazine in September 1966. It is reproduced here as true as possible to the original, including punctuation, spelling mistakes and spellings that have simply changed over time. Credit for providing this article to us goes to Ian Singer of the Northern Rhodesia and Zambia site, Arthur Steevens for transcribing it, and Heather Chalcraft of "The Lowdown" for proofreading it.

A map of the Great North Road.
A map of the Great North Road.
By no stretch of the imagination can the Zambian cart track which, for decades, has been called the Great North Road, justify its grandiloquent title. Yet there can be no other name, it being a section of the continental Great North Road that spears northward from Cape Town and -- north of Kenya -- reaches Cairo only by playing hop-scotch over deserts and vast tracts of bush and swampland. For all practical purposes it peters out in boggy ground north of Nairobi.

In Zambia, the road starts its journey at Chirundu, about 100 miles south east of Lusaka. For about 200 miles, from Rhodesia as far north as Kapiri Mposhi, it is a continuance of a well-tarred highway. Then, degenerating to dust and gravel, it meanders off to the north east. After a further 650 miles of devious twists and turns around watersheds, hills and swamps it emerges in Tunduma -- the border with Tanzania and last lap to the sea.

It is this link, until recently of little economic significance, that has suddenly thrust the road and its potential into the limelight. This latter stretch, particularly, is destined to become the main-road lifeline to a friendly coast. Thus, at last, will it become a truly Great North Road -- tar and all. The facelift has already begun (see Horizon, August, 1966).

The history of the road as applied to this country is sketchy -- and contradictory. Many people believe the 100-mile stretch between Kapiri Mposhi and the Copperbelt is also the Great North Road, perhaps because it has a truer north-south compass bearing. Even Zambia's official guide says it "... parallels the railway from Livingstone (sic) right through to the Copperbelt towns and into the Congo." Yet the stretch is signposted as being the Broken Hill Road.

"Of course, there are other Great North Roads apart from the railway track and the road beside the track," says Lawrence G. Green in his book Great North Road: a spokesman for the Ministry of Transport and Works concurs with Green's opinion: "The Kapiri-Copperbelt stretch can be regarded as part of the Great North Road complex in Zambia. The same can be said for the route between Livingstone and Lusaka, and the long stretch between Mpika and Abercorn which goes on to Mpulungu, Zambia's only port, on the southern shores of Lake Tanganyika. This is a major route for transporting fish. Until recent years, most travellers used the Livingstone link with Rhodesia. But now that highway between Salisbury and Chirundu has been upgraded, it is a preferable alternative. As far as we are concerned, the Great north Road proper runs between Chirundu and Tunduma." The Automobile Association in Zambia agrees.

Sir Stewart Gore-Browne on the modern bridge north of Mpika, replacing the one which he built in 1934.
Sir Stewart Gore-Browne on the modern bridge north of Mpika, replacing the one which he built in 1934.
Added confirmation about the 400-mile stretch which forks almost directly north to Abercorn from the Great North Road at Mpika (just over halfway between the "turnoff" at Kapiri Mposhi and Tunduma and cutting through Kasama) comes from Sir Stewart Gore-Browne, the only survivor of the pioneers who hacked out sections of the original road. In a note in the Northern Rhodesia Journal he referred to it as the Kasama Road.

Hence it is established that, from Chirundu, the road travels to Kafue, Lusaka, Broken Hill, Kapiri Mposhi -- where it makes its "right turn" -- Mkushi, after which it skids around the southern tip of the Congo Pedicle, Serenje, Mpika (en route skirting the Lavushi Manda Game Reserve), Shiwa Ngandu, Chinsali, Isoka, Nakonde and, finally, Tunduma. Its various offshoots and alternatives are simply part of the major complex of import-export routes. Seen from high enough the road would look like a misshapen fish hook.

Probably the first European to traverse a stretch of what is now the Great North Road was Jose Maria De Lacerda e Almeida, a Portuguese explorer and sometime Astronomer Royal at Lisbon. In 1798 he set out from Mozambique to establish a chain of fortified trading posts across Africa to Angola but soon fell ill, died and the party returned to Tete.

Arab slave traders were probably the next "outsiders" to cut across parts of the future road.

Before the turn of the century portions of the road came into more regular use through a runner service which had earlier been established between Kalomo and Ndola. At Lusaka and Broken Hill, branches led off to the north east -- the first through Petauke to Fort Jameson and the second via Mkushi to Serenje and Mpika. The first posts were carried by runners employed by missionaries sending their mail to Portuguese territory so that it could reach a port and steamers bound for Europe.

Thus, by the start of this century, there was a route of sorts -- if not a road. Mail runners had also trampled the ground towards Abercorn. Because they had to pick the most feasible routes they must be acknowledged as the original pioneers of the Great North Road.

Generally acknowledged as being the driver of the first vehicle to negotiate the "road" is a Captain Kelsey of the Welch Regiment, who set out from the Cape in 1914 intent on reaching Cairo.

Oberlieutenant Paul Graetz nearly 60 years ago, driving the first car to cross Africa. With him are the magistrates for Mpika and Abercorn.
Oberlieutenant Paul Graetz nearly 60 years ago, driving the first car to cross Africa. With him are the magistrates for Mpika and Abercorn.
The true motor pioneer, however, was a German -- Oberlieutenant Paul Graetz, a member of his country's regime in East Africa. Successive British historians and diarists seem to have overlooked his achievement of driving a car right across Africa between 1907-09. But author Lawrence G. Green dug out the facts. "Graetz started from Dar-es-Salaam in August, 1907," he writes. "He seems to have had unlimited money at his disposal. This supports a theory many people formed at the time that his adventure down the Great North Road into British territory was really a military intelligence exploit.

"Against young Graetz was the fact that the Great North Road had still to be built. He had to follow bush paths, elephant and hippo trails. Very often he made his own bridges and rafts. His car was an enormous 50 horse power Gaggenau, and he sent fuel and spares along the route ahead by carriers." It took him almost a month to cross the frontier and reach Abercorn. Further south, between Kasama and Mpika, he was stopped short by the broad Chambishi river -- too deep to drive his car through and too wide to build a makeshift bridge. Undeterred he constructed a huge raft with hundreds of bundles of reeds and floated the car across. "He was not only the motor car pioneer of the road," says Lawrence Green. "He actually built sections of the road so that his car could pass over it; a German military officer paying for a road in British territory!" From Mpika, Graetz swung back to Fort Jameson. Three months later he reached Broken Hill. The remainder of his journey took him through Livingstone, Bulawayo, the Kalahari, German South West Africa and, finally, Swakopmund. Behind him lay 5,600 nightmarish miles.

Five years after the completion of his journey it was the turn of ill-fated Captain Kelsey, an adventurous army officer who determined to drive his "tin Lizzy" from the Cape to Cairo. He reached a point just north of Kapiri Mposhi with relative ease, and turned north-east.

Mr. E. H. Lane-Poole, a retired Provincial Commissioner, recorded at the time in the now-defunct Northern Rhodesia Journal: "By April, 1914, he had reached a point north of Serenje -- where he came upon and wounded a leopard. Following the wounded beast into the long grass, a proceeding which any novice would have warned him against, he was badly mauled. Mr. and Mrs. Moffat (early pioneers) devotedly attended to his lacerations and he was apparently cured when complications supervened and he died. I buried him."

Hot on the heels of Captain Kelsey, travelling at relative snail's pace, was one of the road's most famous "travellers" ever -- a traction steam engine often accredited as being the first vehicle to traverse the route.

Chitukutuku, an early 'pioneer' of the Great North Road.
Chitukutuku, an early 'pioneer' of the Great North Road.
Recalls Lane-Poole: "It was through this vehicle that the Great North Road was originally called the Traction Engine Road, though before long Africans and Europeans alike started to call it the Chitukutuku Road. "This was because the engine, a classic puffing billy, made a noise that sounded like "Chi-tu-ku-tu-ku - ... Chi-tu-ku-tu-ku."

Chitukutuku, today a National Monument at the Northern Province estate of Sir Stewart Gore-Browne, was brought from England initially to haul the mills and vats for a rubber factory originated at Chambezi. On its arrival by rail at the Kashitu siding which used to exist just north of Kapiri Mposhi, it set off for Mpika -- where it was to swing north for Chambezi. At this time there was little or no track between Mpika and Tunduma, the present route of the road. The Mpika stretch to the southern shores of Lake Tanganyika was more generally accepted as being the road proper. Only in later years was it to become a literal "blind alley" -- though it has always been important to the development and supply of towns like Kasama and Abercorn. And in today's context of export-import road routes it is certainly part of the Great North Road complex.

Getting Chitukutuku to Chambezi via Mpika was a mammoth operation calling for much ingenuity. There were no surveyors on the job and theoretical alignment often had to be abandoned in order to deviate the road to a stream, for the engine needed water as well as wood.

Lane-Poole has recalled that Chitukutuku was helped on its way by the legendary 'Chirupula' Stephenson, the postal clerk who became one of this country's most famous sons. "Stephenson appeared on a bicycle to ask for help in obtaining labour for the clearing of about 200 miles of road in the Serenje district as far as Mpika."

The traction engine finally appeared on the scene again, and, in fact, the rubber factory produced until 1916, when the military authorities took it over to grind corn. Sir Stewart Gore-Browne bought it in 1923 but a virus among his citrus orchards forced the collapse of his business, and Chitukutuku was put out to grass. Weatherworn, grass growing between her wheels, she is still at his estate, Shiwa Ngandu.

A direct result of the war was the conversion of the Chitukutuku Road to a military transport route -- its role in the 1939-45 war also. The "front" against Germany's East African forces was at Abercorn, and the only way military intelligence could be transmitted to the railway line hundreds of miles distant was by despatch runners. Travelling in pairs by night and day, they accomplished some extraordinarily fast times.

Lane-Poole: "However, it came to be suspected the system was abused and the mail tampered with. The service was discontinued and it was decided to erect a telegraph line along the road."

This was, in effect, the first "signpost" showing the road's route.

A man named Rushforth was in charge of the project, and a good deal of work was completed by 'Chirupula' Stephenson. "Motor lorries were already using the road," says Lane-Poole, "and ox-drawn waggons were testing the virulence of tsetse fly."

But the African bush is apt to thwart human endeavour and ingenuity.

"A herd of elephants whose habitat was the Ika Hills rejoiced in the man-made road and in their nocturnal perambulations brandished aloft their exuberant trunks, bringing down the telegraph wires in coils for the Bantu maidens to turn into bangles for their own beautification. The oxen died by the score, their flesh providing carcase meat for the troops. Abandoned waggons and the chassis of lorries divested of all usable and portable parts lay derelict by side of the road for months and often years."

Pre-stressed concrete portions of a future Great North Road bridge under construction at a Kitwe factory.
Pre-stressed concrete portions of a future Great North Road bridge under construction at a Kitwe factory.
Before war's end the military also improved the state of the track between Mpika and Tunduma. Thus, by the Armistice, the two-pronged -- in places dual -- Great North Road was as firmly established between Kapiri Mposhi and points north and north-east as it was to Livingstone in the south.

It was, of course, a "Hell Run" then -- just as it was to remain for the next half a century before drivers on the shuttle-service petrol run to the Tanzania border coined the new title. Yet despite the bad state of the track, settlements inevitably sprang up at points between Mpika and Tunduma after the Great War. There is little doubt that stretches each side of these settlements -- Chinsali, Isoka, Nakonde and the like -- were improved by local residents. The road started to attract more traffic, often motor cycles and bicycles, in the early 1920s, though 'Chirupula' Stephenson operated an infrequent limited-distance service with old military vehicles he had bought.

In 1925, the first post-war organized motor transport venture was undertaken when Messrs L. F. Moore, "Mopani" Clark and Micklern, delegates from Northern Rhodesia, were taken by Major E. C. Dunn to Lord Delamere's first unofficial East African Conference at Rungwe Mission in Tanganyika. A year later and motor transport was established in the area between Mpika and Abercorn.

In 1927, the Governor, the late Sir James Maxwell, asked Major Dunn to introduce a regular service between Broken Hill and Abercorn and the settlements en route. Thus, the first regular motorized mail service was instituted. The Broken Hill-Abercorn trip took five days. The Northern Rhodesia Journal has recorded that, by May, 1927, practically all government passengers and goods for stations in the Northern Province and Fort Jameson (today on the Great East Road) were routed via the Great North Road.

Two years later, the service was replaced by two others -- one from Broken Hill as far as Chambezi, operated by Colonel Gray, and the second by Messrs Smith Brothers from Chambezi to Abercorn. Trips to points between Mpika and Tunduma were organized when required, but the stretch proved of inestimable value during the famine of 1932-33, when grain was carried as far as Isoka despite bad weather conditions. Sir Stewart Gore-Brown recalls that, not long after this, the government decided to improve the road and its bridges as much as possible by engaging the help of residents established on or near the road. 'Chirupula' Stephenson is known to have done a good deal of the work between the railhead and Mpika, while Sir Stewart was charged with the task between the turnoff to his Shiwa Ngandu estate and Mpika nearly 70 miles to the south.

Twenty-two miles north of Mpika, Sir Stewart and his gang encountered what they called Danger Hill -- an unusually steep incline down the side of a hill. There was no practical alternative route "so we had to tackle it the best way we could. I realized that the more dangerous it appeared, the more safely it would be negotiated by drivers. We made it so that vehicles had to really creep up and down it."

"My theory proved correct, and for many years there were no accidents on the hill. Then government decided to alter the course over the hill, despite my warnings. There have been accidents there ever since."

A picture from Sir Stewart's photo album showing the building of the original bridge which cost only £484 to build and still stands today.
A picture from Sir Stewart's photo album showing the building of the original bridge which cost only £484 to build and still stands today.
But the most positive monuments to Sir Stewart's enthusiasm and skill were in his bridges -- all of which still survive and some of which are still in use. (He also built some on the road between Shiwa Ngandu and Kasama).

Thus, by the outbreak of the Second World War, much of the Great North Road was firmly established. It had more bad patches than good, and was only 12 feet at its widest.

Again it jumped into prominence, this time as a convoy route to Nairobi and the Abyssinia and Somaliland campaigns fought by the Northern Rhodesia Regiment.

Army engineers and government's road works department worked on the route for most of the war, widening and compacting it in a valiant effort to keep troops and supplies moving.

Recalls ex-Sergeant Major Norman Redfern, today assistant chief storekeeper at Mufulira Copper Mines: "The biggest obstacles were the long stretches of black-cotton soil, which could bog a convoy down in the dry as well as wet seasons. Often the troops had to manhandle whole convoys for up to 100 miles at a time. It was really hard going.

"The army was very aware that the early pioneers has done an excellent job on the road. It used to take 12-14 days to get from Kapiri Mposhi to Nairobi once the road was in fairly good order. East African Command maintained the road over the border with Tanzania."

Modern bridges, like this one over the Chambezi between Mpika and Abercorn, are now part of the Great North Road complex.
Modern bridges, like this one over the Chambezi between Mpika and Abercorn, are now part of the Great North Road complex.
Surprisingly, little mention of the outstanding role played by the military in their building of the Great North Road is made in official records. The official history of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment overlooks it entirely.

The Northern Rhodesia Journal has recorded that, at one period, the road was so good that one convoy of 300 vehicles travelled from Kenya to Lusaka with only one incident -- a smashed lamp glass caused by a stone thrown up by a passing car.

There is no recorded history of the road between 1945-65, save in old guide books which describe its surface as "fairly good". Nor was it ever necessary to improve the road to a state where it could withstand regular commercial convoys to link with the Tanzania road to the coast. True, more and more vehicles started to use the routes to either Abercorn or Tunduma (including the spectacular passage of an old London Transport Green Line bus) after the war. By and large, however, the Great North Road remained a fairly wide cart track -- dusty, dangerous and exhausting to the traveller.

Today a new army of pioneers is turning it into a new artery. Through it will flow much of the life blood -- copper and fuel -- of the nation.

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