In which we periodically examine how art imitates life and life imitates orienteering.

by Peter Amram

The hero of Kim, Rudyard Kipling's classic of adventure and intrigue in India in the late 19th century, is a young Irish orphan, Kimball O'Hara. Kim enters a school specializing in geography and cartography. His covert sponsor for this education was the cynical and exacting British Secret Service, and Kim was being prepared as an intelligence agent for the Great Game: the struggle between the British and Russians for control of Central Asia.

Kim's handler in the Secret Service explains the art for covert fieldcraft:

A boy could, by merely marching over a country with a compass and a level and a straight eye, carry away a picture of that country wihich might be sold for large sums of coined slilver. But as it was occasionally imexpedient ot carry about measuring chains, a boy would do well to know the precise length of his own foot-pace, so that when he was deprived of aids, he might still read his distance. To keep count of the thousands of paces, experience had shown nothing more valuable than a Tibetan rosary of eighty-one or a hundred and eight beads, for it was divisible and sub-divisible in many multiples and sub-multiples.

Upon hearing this, Kim thought:

Here was a new craft that a man could tuck away in his head; and by the look of the large wide world unfolding itself before him, it seemed that the more a man knew, the better for him.

Especially a man with a Tibetan rosary who knows the length of his own pace, and the nine-times-table by heart.


 Karl Stephens sent this comment:

As Peter Amram recommends, Kim is a great read for any orienteerer who wants to get the feel for what has now become "an area of interest" for Americans. ( Also, while it may be somewhat dated, my grandchildren did say--though perhaps just to please me--they enjoyed the 1950 movie with Errol Flynn.)

The Great Game: the Struggle for Empire* in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk, gives it all a serious face. (*Between England and Russia.) Pages 330-331 explain how Royal Engineers Captain Thomas Montgomerie came up with the idea of sending native explorers trained in secret surveying techniques into forbidden regions.

"Montgomerie first trained his men, through exhaustive practice, to take a pace of known length which would remain constant whether they walked uphill, downhill, or on the level. Next he taught them ways of keeping a precise but discreet count of the number of paces taken during a day's march. This enabled them to measure immense distances without arousing suspicion." Here he describes how the Buddhist rosary beads and their wood-and-metal prayer-wheel were used to log the distances traveled without being detected by prying eyes.

Kipling did take, however, one bit of author's license when he talked about Kim knowing the 9-times table v.v. the 108 Buddhist Rosary beads. To simplify things for Western minds, Montgomerie removed 8 beads from the rosary, not enough to be noticed, "but leaving a mathematically convenient 100. At every hundreth pace the Pundit would automatically slip one bead. Each complete circut of the rosary thus represented 10,000 paces."

(BTW--When orienteering with Father Keegan, I first ascertain whether or not he has his rosary beads, and therefore an unfair advantage!)

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