The road train from Mpika and getting fired.

January 24, 2019  •  4 Comments

I joined Smith & Youngson in October 1967 and started my life in Lusaka, Zambia working on the Canadian Kenworth Tankers.

I was later seconded to Contract Haulage which was part of S&Y and Lonrho. Contract Haulage took over the repair and maintenance of all of the Kenworths. The management later asked me if I would like to be relocated to Ndola where the new oil storage depot was being built and which would be the place where the oil pipe line from Dar es Salaam would terminate.

I agreed to this new adventure and as I was still a single man, I looked forward to the challenge.

The yard at Ndola was more or less bare. An office was on site but no workshop as such existed, just a large concrete slab and an old Ruston Generator which had seen better days providing power at the Livingstone Saw Mills.

I stayed in the Savoy Hotel Ndola and found that many of the other guests were the top brass of the Worlds oil companies including Shell, BP and Texaco.

Boy could they drink, as soon as I had finished for the day I would be spotted and dragged to the bar where I would be plied with many free drinks. I often wondered why they were being so  friendly and then it dawned on me that I was the guy who would be servicing  about 52 trucks and of course specifying what type and brand of lubricant  should be used. They were also there for the official opening of NOSCO* by the President of Zambia Dr Kenneth Kaunda. 

This hard drinking became so much for such a young lad that I had to sneak into the hotel via the back entrance to avoid my new friends. One perk though of being a long term resident of the Hotel was that the Chef often poked his head around the kitchen door and if he saw me, he gave me an extra helping. Chicken or pork  peri peri was his speciality.

Prior to moving up to Ndola I  had already advised the company that I would be returning to the UK to get married which I did on October 24th in Chichester and that date was also Zambia Independence Day !

On my return to Ndola with my wife, I learned to my dismay that a new guy would be my boss. To say this really peed me off  would be a bit of an understatement as I had spent a lot of time and effort setting up a yard from more of less nothing, with scheduled servicing, repairs & welding etc.

I will call the new man Tom Wilkins, not his real name for obvious reasons. He was Welsh and also he was the best mate of the new general manager who's name was Ron.

Now this Tom was one of those guys who had seen it all, done it all and if he hadn't done it his brother had either done it or was about to do it, in other words he was an obnoxious know it all and I took an immediate dislike to him and he to me.. The tricky part was that he lived in the flat next door to mine and he had to give me lift every morning to the yard as he had  already commandeered my company Peugeot 404 for his own use.

I had one ally at the yard and that was the transport manager, by the name of John Corey, a  Canadian who came to Zambia when  the Kenworth Trucks were delivered. He tipped me off that my days were numbered as Tom and Ron didn't want me upsetting their cosy jobs and as Tom knew about everything, they didn't really need a qualified diesel mechanic like me.

It all came to a head one day when I was flat on my back under a Kenworth adjusting the mainshaft brake - a device to assist in making quicker gear changes. To adjust the brake you needed to turn a ring around on the mainshaft and to do this you needed a long punch and a hammer.

Tom poked his nose under the truck and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was adjusting the mainshaft brake . His response was to say that you don't do it that like and I was doing it all wrong. My response was to grab this little Welshman by the scruf of his neck, pull him under the truck and tell him in no uncertain terms what I would do with this hammer if he didn't go away ! or words to that effect.

Not surprisingly things didn't go well after that and Tom spent a lot of time with his mate Ron in the office no doubt plotting on my demise.

It was the start of the rainy season and reports came back that many trucks had got stuck on a bad section of road near Mpika. I talked to some other drivers and as I suspected, three of our Kenworths were stranded with slipping clutches. 

After reporting my findings to the management, guess who was instructed by Tom to rescue the trucks ? Well there was only one person capable and that was myself after all, I had never ever seen Tom with a spanner in his hand let alone driving a Kenworth.

I recruited the best driver, Peter Jam and got him to load up a Kenworth tanker with water for ballast. Ernest Tembo, my right hand man spanner boy organised my tool box which we heaved up into the sleeper section of the cab along with some wire rope, shackles and other bits & pieces.

On Friday we left the yard and headed South to Kapiri Mposhi where we turned left onto the Great North Road, better known as “The Hell Run”. We drove all day and after stopping for the first night we feasted on a chicken stew cooked up by some of the other drivers on the road.

Early the the next day after an uncomfortable night trying to get some sleep in the cab, we continued our journey to Mpika. The road in some places was like a quagmire, churned up by many vehicles transporting fuel to Zambia.

Eventually we came to a long steep hill and it was just chaos with numerous trucks trying to pass each other in the mud. We saw that a couple of Fiat Tankers  with Somali drivers were mainly responsible for causing the hold up, so we attached a wire rope to their vehicles and hauled them both up to the top of the hill to continue their journey. 

Then our attention turned to the Kenworths and it was obvious that a lot of clutch abuse had damaged the centre disc in the twin disk transmission - a common problem with the Lipe-Rollway design. The clutches were was OK for use on the American Highways but no good for dirt roads and African drivers…

Using our good tanker and the skills of Peter Jam our driver, we towed each Kenworth up the hill and parked them all nose to tail on a straight stretch of road.  What next? Well all of the afflicted Kenworths were carrying a full load of fuel and they had to be got to Ndola by any means but all three had limited drive due to their damaged clutches. So, why not join them all up ?

Each vehicle always carried what was known as an A-Frame which was a simple piece of equipment to easily attach and tow another vehicle in the event of a breakdown. So we set to work coupling all of the tankers together with our single vehicle in the lead.  With no mobile phones or radios in those days, we solved the problem of communication by getting the driver's mates or lorry boys as they were known, to sit on top of their vehicle and to  shout out any warnings if anything went amiss.

So, off we went, a tanker towing a tanker plus trailer, towing a tanker plus trailer, towing a tanker plus trailer. 

We had ourselves a Road Train ….

We got back to the yard in Ndola on Sunday and with some extra help we steam cleaned all of the vehicles and parked them up neatly in a corner of the yard.

Come Monday morning I was waiting outside our flat for Tom to give me his customary lift to the yard. He didn't speak to me during the journey but when we got to the yard he took me straight to the general manager's office.  Tom with his mate Ron stood with their backs to the office window and both of them started giving me a really hard time.

“Why are you here, were you not instructed to bring back three broken down Kenworths, so I’ll ask you once again, why are you here?”  raged Ron.

“Three Kenworths” I replied, “Well if you turn around and look out of the window you will see three Kenworths all parked up, washed and waiting to be unloaded  -    Next job please” ?

That afternoon I was fired!  Perhaps I shouldn't have been so cocky but I couldn't  resist it and the looks on their faces was a picture…

News quickly spread among the Zambian workers and three of the Kenworth drivers, including Peter Jam, took me to one side.

“Are you leaving Bwana Steve?”

I nodded.

“Is it because of Bwana Tom?” they asked.

The look on my face gave them their answer.

“Bwana Steve, we like you and respect you. All of us drivers have  had an Indaba (meeting) and we think it could be a good plan if Bwana Tom doesn't come to work tomorrow.”

I smiled and thanked them for their support but made it clear that I didn't want any harm to come to Bwana Tom. He will eventually get his comeuppance. 

The following week I hitch hiked to a site where a Mr Charles Edmunds had a contract in the bush. He had a Kenworth and he asked me if I knew how to drive one !

After I demonstrated the use of all fifteen gears, he muttered something like ‘bloody poms’ and gave me a job. I stayed with him at Edmac Contractors for the next eight years and he was my hero and the source of many of my stories.

Some months later, Contract Haulage ceased their operation on The Hell Run as the pipeline was now completed and fuel was flowing freely into the country.

I don't know what happened to Tom and his mate Ron as I never heard of them again…..


* NOSCO - Ndola Oil Storage Company

Tanzania Zambia Mafuta (TAZAMA) Pipelines Limited is a company jointly owned by both the Zambian and Tanzanian governments. Founded in 1966 its purpose was, and still is, to transport finished petroleum products from Dar-Es-Salaam to Ndola by way of an oil pipeline. The construction of the pipeline took almost two years, with its official opening being in 1968, when the first Zambian President, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, and his counterpart, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, jointly opened a valve at Tank Farm in Tanzania and a valve at the Ndola Oil Storage Company (NOSCO) in Ndola, Zambia. TAZAMA has since been successfully pumping finished products through the 1,710 kilometre (1,062 miles) pipeline from the Indian Ocean port of Dar-Es-Salaam in Tanzania to the Copperbelt town of Ndola in Zambia.



Clement Manenga(non-registered)
Hey! Beautiful write up. you should have abeen a writer instead of a diesel machanic. Kkkkkkkkkkk
D J Daubermann(non-registered)
Lovely story.
Roy Wilson(non-registered)
I was manager of Smith and Youngson in Kitwe 1967 when the Congo crisis was at it's peak trucks where shot up and I went into the Congo without a passport with a case of Zimba beer often
John Kemp(non-registered)
Hi, I really enjoyed reading this and it brought a smile to my face at the memories. I started in Ndola in 1968 but got transferred to Lusaka as I didn't like it much as I was the only expat there. I worked for Power Equipment - Massey Ferguson Dealer in Cairo Road. They were part of Lonrho with Smith & Youngson and so I lived in the single men's mess at Barlaston Park in Lusaka. I eventually went to board with Alf Bulmer and his wife Margery. Alf was the Transport Manager at Smith & Youngson. As you can understand, I saw things happen to tractors that I never ever saw happen in Scotland, eg Centre plates torn completely out of clutch plates.

I met my wife at a party at Barlaston Park and at the end of our contracts we married in England and then went to Rhodesia for 4 1/2 years.

I remember Don Turner, Dave Parker, Dave Kelley, John Raeburn, Alan Harper (who had something to do with customs at Chirundu I think) who got PI’d for spending too much time in Rhodesia.
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