The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 4
Chapter IV: The Building of the Tsavo Bridge
During all this troublesome period the construction of the railway had been going steadily forward, and the first important piece of work which I had commenced on arrival was completed. This was the widening of a rock cutting through which the railway ran just before it, reached the river. In the hurry of pushing on the laying of the line, just enough of the rock had originally been cut away to allow room for an engine to pass, and consequently any material which happened to, project outside the wagons or trucks caught on the jagged faces of the cutting. I myself saw the door of a guard's van, which had been left ajar, smashed to atoms in this way; and accordingly I put a gang of rock-drillers to work at once and soon had ample room made for all traffic to pass unimpeded. While this was going on, another gang of men were laying the foundations of a girder bridge which was to span a gully between this cutting and Tsavo Station. This would have taken too long to erect when railhead was at the place, so a diversion had been made round it, the temporary track leading down almost to the bed of the nullah and up again on the further side. When the foundations and abutments were ready, the gully was spanned by an iron girder, the slopes leading up to it banked up on either side, and the permanent way laid on an easy grade.
Then, also, a water supply had to be established; and this meant some very pleasant work for me in taking levels up the banks of the river under the cool shade of the palms. While doing this, I often took my camp-kit with me, and a luncheon served in the wilds, with occasionally a friend to share it -- when a friend was available -- was delightful. On one occasion in particular, I went a long way up the river and was accompanied by a young member of my staff. The day had been exceedingly hot and we were both correspondingly tired when our work was finished, so my companion suggested that we should build a raft and float down-stream home. I was rather doubtful, of the feasibility of the scheme, but nevertheless he decided to give it a trial. Setting to work with our axes, we soon had a raft built, lashing the poles together with the fibre which grows in abundance all over the district. When it was finished, we pushed it out of the little backwater where it had been constructed, and the young engineer jumped aboard. All went well until it got out into midstream, when much to my amusement it promptly toppled gracefully over. I helped my friend to scramble quickly up the bank out of reach of possible crocodiles, when, none the worse for his ducking, he laughed as heartily as I at the adventure.
Except for an occasional relaxation of this sort, every moment of my time was fully occupied. Superintending the various works and a hundred other duties kept me busy all day long, while my evenings were given up to settling disputes among the coolies, hearing reports and complaints from the various jemadars and workpeople, and in studying the Swahili language. Preparations, too, for the principal piece of work in the district -- the building of the railway bridge over the Tsavo river -- were going on apace. These involved, much personal work on my part; cross and oblique sections of the river had to be taken, the rate of the current and the volume of water at flood, mean, and low levels had to be found, and all the necessary calculations made. These having at length been completed, I marked out the positions for the abutments and piers, and the work of sinking their foundations was begun. The two centre piers in particular caused a great deal of trouble, as the river broke in several times, and had to be dammed up and pumped dry again before work could be resumed. Then we found we had to sink much deeper than we expected in order to reach a solid foundation indeed, the sinking went on and on, until I began to despair of finding one and was about to resort to pile-driving, when at last, to my relief, we struck solid rock on which the huge foundation-stones could be laid with perfect safety.
Another great difficulty with which we had to contend was the absence of suitable stone in the neighbourhood. It was not that there was none to be found, for the whole district abounds in rock, but that it was so intensely hard as to be almost impossible to work, and a bridge built of it would have been very costly. I spent many a weary day trudging through the thorny wilderness vainly searching for suitable material, and was beginning to think that we should be forced to use iron columns for the piers, when one day I stumbled quite by accident on the very thing. Brock and I were out "pot-hunting," and hearing some guinea-fowl cackling among the bushes, I made a circuit half round them so that Brock, on getting in his shot, should drive them over in my direction. I eventually got into position on the edge of a deep ravine and knelt on one knee, crouching down among the ferns. There I had scarcely time to load when over flew a bird, which I missed badly; and I did not have another chance, for Brock had got to work, and being a first-rate shot had quickly bagged a brace. Meanwhile I felt the ground very hard under my knee, and on examination found that the bank of the ravine was formed of stone, which extended for some distance, and which was exactly the kind of material for which I had long been fruitlessly searching. I was greatly delighted with my unexpected discovery, though at first I had grave misgivings about the distance to be traversed and the difficulty of transporting the stone across the intervening country. Indeed, I found in the end that the only way of getting the material to the place where it was wanted was by laying down a tram line right along the ravine, throwing a temporary bridge across the Tsavo, following the stream down and re-crossing it again close to the site of the permanent bridge. Accordingly, I set men to work at once to cut down the jungle and prepare a road on which to lay the double trolley line. One morning when they were thus engaged, a little paa -- a kind of very small antelope -- sprang out and found itself suddenly in the midst of a gang of coolies. Terrified and confused by the shouting of the men, it ran straight at Shere Shah, the jemadar, who promptly dropped a basket over it and held it fast. I happened to arrive just in time to save the graceful little animal's life, and took it home to my camp, where it very soon became a great pet. Indeed, it grew so tame that it would jump upon my table at meal times and eat from my hand.
When the road for the trolley line was cleared, the next piece of work was the building of the two temporary bridges over the river. These we made in the roughest fashion out of palm trees and logs felled at the crossing places, and had a flood come down they would, of course, have both been swept away; fortunately, however, this did not occur until the permanent work was completed. The whole of this feeding line was finished in a very short time, and trollies were soon plying backwards and forwards with loads of stone and sand, as we also discovered the latter in abundance and of good quality in the bed of the ravine. An amusing incident occurred one day when I was taking a photograph of an enormous block of stone which was being hauled across one of these temporary bridges. As the trolley with its heavy load required very careful manipulation, my head mason, Heera Singh, stood on the top of the stone to direct operations, while the overseer, Purshotam Hurjee, superintended the gangs of men who hauled the ropes at either end in order to steady it up and down the inclines. But we did not know that the stream had succeeded in washing away the foundations of one of the log supports; and as the weight of the trolley with the stone came on the undermined pier, the rails tilted up and over went the whole thing into the river, just as I snapped the picture. Heera Singh made a wild spring into the water to get clear of the falling stone, while Purshotam and the rest fled as if for their lives to the bank. It was altogether a most comical sight, and an extraordinary chance that at the very moment of the accident I should be taking a photograph of the operation. Fortunately, no one was injured in the slightest, and the stone was recovered undamaged with but little trouble.
Not long after this occurrence my own labours were one day nearly brought to a sudden and unpleasant end. I was travelling along in an empty trolley which, pushed by two sturdy Pathans, was returning to the quarry for sand. Presently we came to the sharp incline which led to the log bridge over the river. Here it was the custom of the men, instead of running beside the trolley, to step on to it and to let its own momentum take it down the slope, moderating its speed when necessary by a brake in the shape of a pole, which one of them carried and by which the wheels could be locked. On this occasion, however, the pole was by some accident dropped overboard, and down the hill we flew without brake of any kind. Near the bridge there was a sharp curve in the line, where I was afraid the trolley would jump the rails; still, I thought it was better to stick to it than to risk leaping off. A moment afterwards I felt myself flying head first over the edge of the bridge, just missing by a hair's breadth a projecting beam; but luckily I landed on a sand bank at the side of the river, the heavy trolley falling clear of me with a dull thud close by. This accident, also, was happily unattended by injury to anyone.