Robin Johnston

Name ID 1691

See also

Johnston, Erika The other side of Kilimanjaro
Page Number: 011
Extract Date: 1950's

The Verandah Farmers

"IT's going around that we 0l Mologans are only verandah farmers! "

"Well, I wish some of those lazy baskets down below would take over my verandah, particularly the one on the combine," Robin grimaced, as he refilled David's and Piet's glasses with more whisky.

Robin stands six foot but he seemed small beside our neighbours, Piet Hugo and David Read, who were both considerably taller and broader. They all wore sun-faded jeans with openneck shirts. A film of wheat chaff and dust coated their faces, hair and clothes, and with their red-rimmed eyes, sore from the glare and dust of driving their combine harvesters all day, they looked like three amiable ruffians planning a revolution.

At Ol Molog, like few places in Africa, we had two crop seasons each year. We were in the middle of a harvest, a frantic period of activity when the farmers rushed to get their wheat crops off, the fields harrowed, ploughed and planted before the rains came again, when the pressure would ease a little and they could return to their normal farming routine. From the moment the large combine harvester, rumbling and shaking, with its hume reel a wide mouth of chattering teeth, began eating its way through the standing corn, until the last bag was sewn up and the whole crop was loaded on to lorries to take it to the millers eighty miles away, the farmers worked like men possessed.

Ol Molog has a haunting beauty all of its own. No one who sees it is ever likely to forget it. Even those who have heard its praises sung and arrive sceptical fall under its spell. To approach it from the north requires driving or flying across the wastelands of Masailand and, if these are anything to go by, a certain amount of doubt as to what Ol Molog is going to be like must arise in the minds of visitors. Then, perched like an eagle's eyrie on the mountain slopes, are a small group of beautiful, wellordered farms backed by forest and the huge mountain itself.

Ol Molog lies at 6,500 feet up on the northern slopes of Kilimanjaro before the mountain rises steeply into the cupola peak of Kibo, with its crusted snow cap shimmering down its sides. The Kenya border is ten miles below the farms, and had not Queen Victoria felt so generously disposed to her nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm, and given him Kilimanjaro `because the dear boy is so fond of mountains', Ol Molog would have been in Kenya and not Tanganyika.

The Masai plains stretch for over a hundred miles from Ol Molog, with long, low mountain ranges and jagged peaks breaking the horizon. Our view was panoramic in extent and varied day to day, almost hour by hour, as if an artist had never tired of using the same theme with different nuances. At times frothy cumulus nimbus clouds sailed like galleons over the sky, casting dark shadows on the plains, whose biscuit, sienna and ochre hues became more defined after a fall of rain. Far off mountains drew closer in their blue fig tinted splendour. When it was hot and dry, the colours were leached out and the mountains austerely withdrew behind a milky heat haze. Brown dust devils spiralled lazily up as if they would reach the clouds, or a plume of dust would trail behind a Masai herd of cattle, which we could not see but knew must be on the move.

Our sunsets seldom failed in magnificence. Most evenings we would sit on our verandah looking to the west on a sky, a glorious canvas of colour. Like a large orange phosphorescent balloon, the sun would irradiate shafts of lambent flame, brushing the soft billowy clouds with their downy grey centres, so that they looked as if they were gently smouldering.

The winds off the snows of Kilimanjaro brought with them sharp cold nights, heavy dew and mornings that were crystalline like champagne. We had two rainy seasons. In October and January when the rain was intermittent, and from April to May when it poured with a vengeance, filling our mornings with cold damp mist and turning the soil into a quagmire of cloying mud. Perhaps our most beautiful month was June, when our days were alpine in their crispness, clarity and sunshine.

Ol Molog is a Masai name, romantic to us even when we learnt its translation of `little pimples', which was evidently what the Masai considered the small hills resembled which erupted in our area. We had a hill feature on our farm comically called Loikitoip, but there were others with more mystical names such as Ketembellion and Legumishira.

With our bland climate and fertile forest loam soil, we might have been anywhere but in Africa, but we only had to drop down below our lower boundary into the `big country', which for years had drawn men and women from all over the world on shooting and photographic safaris. Hot by day, cool by night, it is typical of what people conjure up when they think of East Africa. Arid plains that are sparsely covered with flat-topped acacia, yellowbarked fever trees and skeletal whistling thorn, so named because their black pods are honey-combed with ants so when the wind blows, the pods whistle eerily. There is hardy scrub, brittle-tufted grass and occasional rocky outcrops. Dry sandy river beds, with their slopes steeply eroded, meander pointlessly away from their mountain sources. Now and then green swamps border on wide stretches of land where no vegetation survives.

Immediately at our feet lay Lake Amboseli, which up to the 'twenties shimmered under a sheet of water, but now lies dessicated with myriad game tracks traced over it. Sometimes after a heavy fall of rain it resembles a lake again, but the dry thirsty earth greedily drinks, leaving the surface caked and cracked, over which the game once more wanders in search of salt pans and grazing.

The harsh, sun-drenched heat, the dust and the flies are all part of Africa, as are the Masai, whose manyattas (dwellings) dot the landscape. They leave timeless scars on the ground where they have burnt their old manyattas to move on in their semi-nomadic state.

Extract ID: 4444

See also

Johnston, Erika The other side of Kilimanjaro
Page Number: 016
Extract Date: 1950's

District Commissioner

Robin maintains that there was no better life for a man in those days than that of a District Commissioner. It was a marvellous combination of an active open air life, coupled with a wide, varied and interesting amount of office work. You did long walking safaris through your area and slept under canvas, and in this way you got to know your parishioners and their problems. Responsible for a vast area, you were father, mentor and disciplinarian to everyone, sorting out family and tribal disputes. You had to do anything and everything: build roads, dams and bridges, dig wells and be a magistrate and adminstrator of law and order. Your problems could vary from shooting a rogue elephant despoiling villagers' crops to trying a stock thief in Court. (In later years, Nyerere once said to a silent Robin that the D.C's had made little contribution other than collecting taxes!)

Extract ID: 4451

See also

Johnston, Erika The other side of Kilimanjaro
Page Number: 019
Extract Date: 1950's

A Fly in Amber

To quote Susan Wood's book "A Fly in Amber" about those early days at 0l Molog, when she and her husband, Michael, used to visit Robin before they bought the farm next door from its original owner: "From Robin came the leadership of the community, for he possessed a personality which made men follow him and want to be doing things in his company."

While working like a man obsessed on his own farm, Robin somehow found time to knit the community together. His tent, and later his house, was often the pivot of the area. To it Ol Mologans went when their morale was flagging or they wanted to share the pride of some achievement, or they needed support, advice or just laughter, for Robin has a quick wit and an amusing turn of phrase. He manages to extract the maximum amount of humour out of any situation and can make the most mundane happening sound extremely funny.

Extract ID: 4453

See also

Johnston, Erika The other side of Kilimanjaro
Page Number: 024
Extract Date: 1950's


I had conditioned myself to the fact that I would spend the rest of my days as Robin's part-time secretary, part-time companion and good close friend. I had equated this with losing him altogether.

In Arusha I worked for a man called Benbow in a hotel and he was giving me a farewell party for I had decided to change jobs. Robin, Ben and I were strolling round a recently completed new wing of the hotel in which was the room where the party was to be held. In making the appropriate noises about its decor, Robin casually said: "Oh, Ben, you may as well announce Erika's and my engagement at the party."

I was struck speechless but I did manage to hear Ben say that in that case he hoped Robin would be able to attend. Robin excused himself. He had to be present at a meeting of the Kilimanjaro West Farmers' Association on that particular night.

At the party after presenting me with an attractive watch for long service (eight months) Ben announced our engagement. People looked surprised, delighted or relieved, depending on how cynical they were. A girl standing close to me looked outraged.

"Well, you've certainly got yourself the most eligible bachelor in East Africa!"

I did not know about that, but the eligible bachelor was already paving the way for my future life, for at the farmers' meeting he was elected chairman of the Association and put my name forward as secretary.

As all the Ol Mologans were up in Nairobi recuperating from our wedding, we spent our honeymoon at Ol Molog. The day after we were married I woke up to find a note propped up on the breakfast table: "Darling, I've had to fly to Moshi. Be a dear and take a look at the paper work."

Paper work! As I looked at the office table piled high with unopened correspondence, I realized that in the past I had only touched on the fringe of his work. As I sat down to deal with it, I began to suspect the reasons for him marrying me.

Extract ID: 4454

See also

Johnston, Erika The other side of Kilimanjaro
Page Number: 086a
Extract Date: 1950's

Coffee stealing

Gladys was watching the molasses spraying with evident approval. It was just the sort of thing she would do to protect her own crops.

Not many months previously there had been the matter of coffee stealing on one of her plantations. Every day she pestered the District Commissioner, Arusha, for some action. In final desperation in order to get rid of her, and never dreaming she would take him seriously, he suggested that a solution might be to shoot one of the coffee stealers if caught redhanded. It might discourage the others. Gladys promptly issued her nightwatchman at the coffee factory with a gun. A few days later she appeared for instructions for the disposal of the body in the back of her car.

The stunned D.C. was most disconcerted, and a case had to be instituted against the nightwatchman. He got off with a light sentence because it was proved that the thief was armed and had threatened the nightwatchman.

During the molasses spraying, Archie and Robin shouted instructions and counter-instructions to everyone to add to the general confusion, for in the dark with only hurricane lamps to see by and people milling around with hoses, pumps and sticks, it was anything but an orderly operation. Gladys, who was a great admirer of Archie's, suddenly asked him one of those inanequestions women tend to ask at the most inopportune moment. Forgetting the hose in his hands spewing out sticky, black molasses at a high velocity, Archie turned to reply. The full force of the spray hit her on the chest. She reeled back and stepped into a deep concealed wild pig hole and almost vanished.

Poker-faced, Archie and Robin rushed to her aid, wiping as much of the molasses off her as they could. She retired to Robin's house and a bath looking not unlike a negro minstrel.

She had hardly left when Lady Morveth Benson, the wife of the owner [Con Benson] of the last farm along the line, ventured to remark that she thought it was all rather cruel and her sympathies were with the poor little birds. Archie and Robin turned on her with narrowed eyes and their hoses. She beat a hasty retreat, and was found later in Robin's sitting room with an almost empty gin bottle, playing her guitar to a rather subdued Gladys.

Extract ID: 4459

See also

Johnston, Erika The other side of Kilimanjaro
Page Number: 015b
Extract Date: 1951

Robin Johnston

Robin, in partnership with Sir Archibald McIndoe, the famous plastic surgeon, was given farm No. 6. He was born in South Africa of Irish parentage and at the age of eleven, his mother, widowed in the First World War, took him and his sister to England to live. He was sent to Cheltenham College where it took some time for him to be changed from a small, freckled, crop-haired South African into an orthodox English public school boy. His main interests were riding, fishing and shooting and as a youth he went exploring in Newfoundland, salmon fishing in Iceland, and captained the English Public Schools Shooting Eight on a tour of Canada in 1935, winning the individual aggregate himself.

At Cambridge he joined the Senior O.T.C. and became a member of the Horse Gunners. In this way he got as much riding as he wanted, which he would otherwise not have been able to afford. His real love was flying and, without telling the O.T.C., he simultaneously became a member of the Cambridge Air Squadron where he got his pilot's licence. Somehow he also found time to get an Honour's Degree in Anthropology and Economics, and subsequently joined the Tanganyika Colonial Service.

Robin had hardly arrived in Tanganyika to take up his first post as Assistant District Officer, when war broke out. Though he persistently asked to be released, the Government ignored his pleas, maintaining that he was in a reserved occupation, so he decided to run away and join the R.A.F.

He distinguished himself both in the Western Desert, where he commanded 73 Squadron, and as a Wing Leader of 122 Wing in the Tactical Air Force. He came out of the fray with a D.S.O. and D.F.C. and Bar. During the war he was sent to East Grinstead Hospital, which was under Archie McIndoe, for an operation on his hand. A streptococcus infection kept him tied to the hospital for several months. However it allowed a great and lasting friendship between Archie and himself to develop.

With Sir Richard Atcherley, he and other notable fighter pilots like Piet Hugo, built up the Central Fighter establishment at Wittering and later at Tangmere. Under Atcherley's enthusiasm, Robin was momentarily persuaded to apply for a permanent commission in the R.A.F., which he was awarded, but he found the call of Africa was still too strong and foremost in his mind, so he withdrew his application.

When he left the R.A.F. he worked with Sir Ralph Furse in the Colonial Office for a year on the selection of Administrative officers, before returning to Tanganyika. While he was District Commissioner, Kongwa, during the ill-fated Groundnut Scheme, he was awarded an M.B.E., whether for good service or in an attempt to try and muffle his increasing protests at the mismanagement of the Scheme, he admits ruefully he was never quite sure.

Extract ID: 4450

See also

Johnston, Erika The other side of Kilimanjaro
Page Number: 017
Extract Date: 1951


Archie, exhausted by his war work and saddened by the break up of his first marriage, took Robin at his word when after the war Robin asked him to come and spend a holiday in Africa. He initially came out in 1947 and continued to repeat this visit annually, usually during January and February, for the next eleven years.

Together they began to plan going into partnership over some farming project. Archie found that the simplicity of life in East Africa, and the fabulous energy the sun gave back to him, was the contrast he required to his active London life. Robin himself was becoming increasingly interested in Tanganyika's long term future. He felt if he became a farmer, like his father before him, and thereby rooted in the soil, he could play a more permanent role in the country's development than permitted to a transitory civil servant. He had met David Stirling, the founder of the Capricorn Africa Society, and felt that his policy of common citizenship and a multi-racial form of government might well be the answer for the East African states where the Africans, though still backward, must soon begin to move politically, and there was a small settled European and Asian community.

He resigned from the Colonial Service in 1951 when he was allotted one of the Ol Molog farms. His colleagues thought he was quite mad. Surely every diligent Administrative Officer only had one goal in life-to be a Governor finally. How irresponsible of Robin carelessly to throw that chance away.

The opening up of Ol Molog with this group of unusual men did not escape the English press, who had some wild, misinformed theories about it. Perhaps the most amusing was that Sir Archibald McIndoe had taken over the whole area and given each farm out to one of his Guinea Pigs, as his war patients were called, with �2,000 each to start them on their way. Archie however was unamused, particularly when Con Benson, an eminent London merchant banker who was given farm No. 8 and visited it annually, came over to Ol Orien with the newspaper cutting in his hand and slyly demanded his �2,000.

Extract ID: 4452

See also

Johnston, Erika The other side of Kilimanjaro
Page Number: 00 dust jacket
Extract Date: 1971

The Other Side of Kilimanjaro

Erika Johnston, daughter of one of East Africa's early pioneers, writes her personal story which is one of the closing days of the British Empire; and it is bound to stir nostalgic memories in the minds of all associated with it or the countries of which she writes.

Married to Robin Johnston, ex Administrative Officer of the Colonial Service and a distinguished fighter pilot, she tells of their farming life on the northern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro and how, reluctantly, they finally decided to leave Tanzania following Independence. Sir Archie McIndoe, the well-known plastic surgeon, was a partner of their farm and a regular visitor to them in East Africa. Close friends and neighbours were Michael Wood, the motivating power behind the East Africa Flying Doctor Service, and his wife Sue, daughter of the great missionary, Alfred Buxton. The personalities of these remarkable people come vividly alive, as does that of David Stirling of Western Desert fame and founder of the Capricorn Movement, which strove so hard to find a solution to racial problems but found ill-success amongst extremist politicians.

Here is a personal story of a full life in a glorious setting, the Johnston trials and successes, their deep affection for the country and their African associates, their lovely farm and their aspirations.

There is humour and pathos in this moving story of a chapter in the life of Tanzania which is unlikely to be seen again.

In rescuing this story from the oblivion which might have overtaken it in the prevailing mood of British publishing, the publishers feel that they are performing a real service in accordance with the best traditions of their firm.


Dust Jacket by Ernest Ullman

Extract ID: 4463

See also

Robin Johnston
Extract Date: 9 March 1992


Robin Johnston, who has died aged 75, was a RAF fighter pilot whose leadership of No 73, a Hurricane squadron, amply demonstrated Montgomery's wisdom in welding his 8th Army and the Desert Air Force into a cohesive fighting machine.

In the course of the North African campaign Johnston sustained burns severe enough for him to be sent to the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead.

Here he became a patient of Sir Archibald McIndoe, the celebrated plastic surgeon, and a member of his Guinea Pig Club which, to this day, perpetuates his patients' wartime camaraderie and watches over their welfare.

In 1947, by then established as a Colonial Service district officer, Johnston invited McIndoe to visit him in Tanganyika. Together they tracked a bull elephant over a distance of 150 miles and shot it.

McIndoe was enchanted by Africa and in 1950 persuaded Johnston to go into partnership with him to buy and farm undeveloped land on the north face of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Johnston was happy to be released from the Colonial Service, not least because of an encounter he had had with John Strachey, the Labour `Minister, over the ill-fated Ground Nuts Scheme.

Johnston, whose personality and drive did much to offset the damage, told Strachey bluntly what he thought of the cock-eyed scheme. Next day Strachey visited Sir Edward Twining, the Governor of Tanganyika, and accused Johnston of disloyalty. Twining responded by requesting Whitehall for an immediate honour for Johnston, who was appointed MBE.

At the outset Johnston found farming on Kilimanjaro every bit as rugged as leading a desert squadron. He slept in the open under a tarpaulin until he had built a mud and wattle hut.

McIndoe was horrified by the chocolate-coloured water supply, covered with dead frogs and algae. He insisted on boiling it and refused to let anybody drink the liquid before adding quantities of gin "to kill off the germs".

Within a year, however, Johnston had turned 1,000 acres of sage brush and undergrowth into a farm with house, garden and 700 acres of barley and wheat. But in the late 1950s, unrest in Kenya, and the increasing size of his family, led Johnston to sell up.

Robert Arthur McGarel Johnston was born at Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, on Sept 2 1916 and educated at Cheltenham and Cambridge University, where he joined the Air Squadron.

In 1938 he was commissioned into the RAF Volunteer Reserve. He joined 73 Squadron in the Middle East in May 1941. After operating in the desert and defending Port Said at night he received command of the squadron and led it on the night of Aug 30 1942 when "Monty" opened the Battle of Alam Halfa.

By the night of Oct 23/24 when Monty launched the Battle of El Alamein, Johnston's score was mounting - he was ultimately credited with seven and a ,half, and at least seven more "probables".

That night No 73 was again the' first fighter squadron in action; leading it in ferocious low-level ground attacks, Johnston strafed enemy troops, vehicles, supply depots and targets of, opportunity.

In 1944, as the invasion of Normandy was planned, such skills were at a premium. Johnston led three squadrons of Mustangs-19, 65 and 122 - in aggressive sweeps and later as a long-range escort to heavy bomber formations.

The Wing destroyed 53 enemy aircraft destroyed, a well as 97 railway engines, 600 railway carriages more than 1,000 vehicles. It also smashed 93 barges.

These achievements were cited by the Air Ministry; as "a splendid tribute to Wing Cdr Johnston's brilliant leadership, outstanding ability: and courageous example which has inspired all."

He concluded his fighter career as Wing Cdr Tactics at the Central Fighter Establishment at Tangmere.

Johnston-was awarded the DFC in 1942, a Bar and DSO in 1944. He received the Air Efficiency Award in 1945, was mentioned in despatches in 1946 and appointed MBE in 1950.

He is survived by his wife and three daughters,

Extract ID: 4443