Kaawa Ferry Major Bruton Michael Fitzalan

Lake Victoria, Kampala. 

On the boat that afternoon it was still cold.

We drove at the usual breakneck speed with scant regard for other shipping on the lake. We could see various fishing boats shaped like the canoe that we had travelled in, but some were almost three times as big. Duncan and I sat on the roof, looking out over the gunmetal grey water peering at the overcast sky, a grey-white curtain drawn over the horizon. 

‘Pirate ship on starboard side,’ Aubrey cried.

‘Captain Pugwash,’ I shouted above the noise of the engine.

‘Master Bates hoists the Jolly Roger,’ Duncan was warming to the theme as he warmed to any theme. ‘Seaman Staines mans the cannon.’

‘Where’s Tom the cabin boy?’

We broke down at 5.00 pm. The engines just spluttered and stopped, both of those massive Volvo turbo diesels died. 

Wearing life jackets, Duncan and I moved up to the front of the boat, right to the metal frame that surrounded the bow, to look out for any passing boats that might offer help and to have a cigarette away from the children. 

Andrew was a tall man, six foot two and despite showing evidence that he enjoyed his food, he was fit and strong, but he had difficulty raising the cover of the aft engine compartment.

As a result the whole of the rear deck lifted up held by two hydraulic struts. Still, we both stood up and could see the cowling of the two engines. 

As Andrew bent down to look into the engine bay, we saw that he had a gun in his trousers.  It looked like a Browning nine millimetre; the automatic pistol favoured by European NATO troops. It could have been a Colt .45. It was that sort of weapon, more discreet than a revolver but powerful, nonetheless. 

Those who wanted to complain would have to keep their mouths shut, everyone to a man and woman offered help.

Innocent who had been sensibly in the cabin with Margaret came up on deck. Andrew asked him to look at the engine and then went down below himself to have a look at the oil pressure and fuel gauges located just inside the cabin by the steps. 

It was becoming increasingly clear that this was not going to be a problem solved in minutes and increasingly embarrassing for our captain that the new engines had proved powerful but thirsty brutes. It appeared that we had run out of fuel. 

Everyone was becoming colder as the temperature dropped. I myself felt pressure on my bladder. Ever conscious of sunstroke after my trip to Egypt the previous year, I had got into the habit of drinking copious amounts of water come rain or shine. 

An hour can move pretty fast, especially when you have nothing to do but stare at the butt of a pistol and try not to refer to the predicament you are in.

We were still an hour away from Kampala and our two and a half hour journey had just ticked past the fifth hour. 

Coldness always affects the body and my desire to expel excess water was becoming unbearable, particularly with Duncan’s comments. 

We were still at the front of the boat, pretending that it was our job to spot any vessels that might save us. Andrew had brought up his flare pistol from the cabin. Being in the middle of a lake the size of a small country without fuel might pose a problem to lesser mortals, but Duncan seemed to take it in his stride.

We still had electrical power and so our navigation lights were still alight, and Andrew scanned the water for a fishing boat with the big searchlight mounted on the bridge.

Miraculously or maybe fatally, a small canoe with a fisherman was spotted and Andrew called him over. An exchange in Bagandan and some rolled notes pressed into the fisherman’s hand had secured his services. 

Poor Innocent who had been cooking and cleaning up all weekend was dispatched into the canoe with the fuel tanks. Only a man of Andrew’s fame could have brought about this satisfactory conclusion and everyone was grateful for the ‘God sent’ courier. 

My bladder was not so pleased, but I hoped that I could hold out a little longer. The patience of the other members of our crew was staggering. The children seemed quite undisturbed by the whole series of events. As a result, they were storing stories that would hold their friends in awe when they returned from the holiday, if they ever did. 

Events like this certainly beat the usual: ‘I went to the south of France and stayed in a gite’.

‘No comments about Andrew running out of fuel or we’re dead,’ whispered Duncan as he sat with his knees up smoking a cigarette; as long as they lasted, he would be in good humour. 

I wondered absently how many he had in his pack; I only had ten left and by that time he had smoked half. That would leave five, which would keep us going for an hour at the most. 

From what we could tell, the island was an hour away, ‘round-trip’, in a canoe. The boat if it had been working would have taken us there in ten minutes. 

‘I know a thing or two about those Brownings, they have nine shells, and how many of us are there in the party?’

I confidently and authoritatively announced that I had shot several at Lympstone when I was considering joining the Royal Marines and went for training with the Commandoes. 

‘Pip, Anthony, Aubrey, Sam, Ollie, Matilda, the Major, Susan, you and me,’ Duncan understood exactly what I was driving at. There was a bullet for each of us and the lake was deep and wide.

‘It’s a good job that it’s dark and we’re away from everyone else.’

‘So, who takes the ninth bullet? I’ve only just got married.’

‘Fair enough, but I have a family at home.’

‘Don’t worry; I assure you they won’t miss you.’

‘If we distract him, he might miss.’

‘The man’s a fighting machine, highly trained. I suggest you take the fall.’

‘You’re thinner than me, he might miss you, and so you should be the diversion.’

‘Anthony’s a tough guy; he might have to use two shells to take him out.’

‘Nine millimetre bullets, I don’t think so. He could line us all up and put one through all nine of us.’

‘Just be nice and pretend we find the whole thing amusing.’

‘You want me to laugh, you’re joking, he’ll go for me first and we’re both at the front of the boat he might just miss me and get you.’

‘Okay, internalise the humour but keep your teeth gritted,’ Duncan suggested. 

‘That’s like trying not to laugh in church.’

‘Exactly, don’t worry. If I know Anthony, he’ll say something to upset Andrew, then the pressure is off and we’re safe.’

‘I hope Pip doesn’t say anything.’

‘He’s far too sensible for that,’ observed Duncan.

‘You’re right.’

‘The children are very well behaved.’

‘I think they saw the gun as well. Besides would you complain if you were their size? Andrew is a man mountain, children respect that.’

‘I respect him, you could fit three of me into his jumpers and trousers,’ Duncan observed, 

‘Please don’t make me laugh, I’m dying to go to the loo. It’s becoming excruciating.’

‘I’m dying for a drink and my supper and bed at the Reste Corner, but you don’t find me complaining,’ Duncan grinned, looking at me with a glint in his eye. 

‘Thanks, Duncan.’

We watched as the canoe with Innocent – sat uncomfortably in the front on top of the fishing nets – headed for land. No sooner had the boat disappeared to the nearest island than we saw the hulk of a large ship approaching. 

The ship turned out to be the Kaawa ferry that links Kenya with Uganda. There was only one way for goods to avoid circumnavigating the lake and that was it. The Kaawa ferry takes people, provisions, containers and railway carriages all bound for Kenya.

‘I hope they stop.’ I was aware that they might not see us even though we were lit up like a visiting Royal Navy cruiser.

‘I hope they’ve got some cigarettes on board,’ Duncan added.

‘The cigarettes are imported from Kenya, the boat’s going the wrong way.’

‘Not as far as Andrew’s concerned.’

The Kaawa ferry made most ferries look like toys, it was vast. Despite that fact the skipper brought the boat to a stop within metres of us. The bow loomed over us and, in a blink of an eye, we were alongside, and ropes were thrown from above. Duncan caught one and Anthony had caught the one thrown to the stern; he was at ease with ropes and boats, it was good to have him on board. 

Andrew leapt up on to the platform that had been lowered for him and climbed the steps of the metal walkway to talk to the captain. He looked confident and athletic as if he were a visiting army officer making a courtesy call in mufti. 

‘Thank God,’ Duncan gasped. ‘Talk about the luck of the Irish.’

‘Duncan, ferries run on diesel, I’m not sure whether these engines are petrol or not. Hopefully they might have some kerosene, or they can siphon the tanks of several cars, perhaps.’

‘We’re diesel, I checked,’ Duncan assured me.

‘Well, they might well have a loo on board,’ I decided, and I followed Andrew up the steel steps that clanged as I ran up, holding on to the handrail. I did not want to stumble as I rose up the huge hull of the ferry; there had been enough humiliation that day. The members of the crew were smiling at me in a welcoming way; it was a break from the routine and a bit of excitement in a normally uneventful crossing. 

I said hello to as many as I could and asked for directions to the toilet. They all laughed and pointed me to the end of the starboard bow.

The whole incident was highly amusing; they did not normally assist stranded powerboats in the middle of the lake. 

After several wrong doors, I finally found relief. The steel doors reminded me of a submarine. The first door that I opened was a storeroom for ropes and fenders. The second contained six bunk beds, three high on each side of a narrow room, the crew’s sleeping quarters; these reminded me of sailing with the Royal Navy down in Portsmouth where we slept on a supply ship, HMS Rame Head when I was considering a career in Her Majesty’s navy. 

The third room contained ‘Heads’ – a standard stainless steel maritime bowl and a stainless-steel handle for the flush. For me, at that time, it was paradise on earth. I dropped my trousers and underpants and sat down as my sisters had trained me to do from an early age. Then I finally relaxed. It was a huge relief. 

Within minutes of my returning to the boat and taking up position at the bow, Andrew and one of the ferry’s crew came down with the fuel. Anthony followed the crew member up to collect a third on Andrew’s instructions. I returned to the steps to carry the third twenty-five-litre jerrican. We passed them to Andrew, who emptied them and Anthony, Pip and I helped bring the jerricans cans back up to the deck and return them to the crew members.

Once we were started the crew waved us off and we could feel the throb of their engines accompanying the vibration of our own. We waved heartily as both boats sailed off in different directions. We were soon out of the beam of their searchlights and motoring through the blackness to Kampala. 

Written by Michael Fitzalan


Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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