Chapter 21 (Part 1) – Juba – Nairobi 742 miles 11 – 12 January 1939

It was already hot when, at 6.30 on the morning of 11th of January, we started off to follow Stanton, who had insisted on coming down to the ferry to see us off. It was the first time I had been in the car since the crash and, except for the wetness that continually soaked through the cushions and the appalling smell of stinking river water that pervaded the interior, everything seemed perfectly normal. The car, having a fair amount of rattle from the ill-fitting doors, was as quiet as before and ran as smoothly. I was frankly nervous. It seemed to me that something must have suffered from the appalling crash and the subsequent immersion. I had not yet an opportunity of driving the car and I think I was a little afraid that I might be unable to forget the crash and find myself too nervous to drive.

The Nile here, 3000 miles from its delta far away in Egypt, is about half a mile wide and the current runs very fast. The ferry is an extraordinary contraption. It consists of a wide flat pontoon tied up side by side to an antiquated-looking old steam boat, which conveys it backwards and forwards across the river. The ferry was waiting for us, having received warning the night before, and after taking several photographs and parting sadly from our good friend Guy Stanton, we set off.

It took about 20 minutes for the strange craft to arrive at the other side, as it had to beat up against the current and at 7.25 exactly Humfrey drove off the ferry and away along the sandy road. Unfortunately I found that I was still terrified and sat huddled up while Humfrey, always considerate, drove steadily along at 30 to 35mph I kept asking what things felt like and he replied that it was perfect but that didn’t comfort me. The road was good but the country was an uninteresting scrub covered waste.

After about an hour and a half Humfrey said “Well, Bertie, feel like driving now?”

Although there was nothing in the world I would have not have preferred, I said that I did. I had the same sort of feeling that one has when one is about to sit down in a dentists chair. I started off gingerly, gripping the steering wheel like a novice. In a mile, I was doing 40 miles and hour!  All my nervousness was gone, (what a fool I’d been to endure those tortures!) for the car was indeed perfect. The steering had its old feather light feel and one could place it to an inch on the road. The car was a joy to drive, as always. Humfrey said, “All right now, Bertie?” for he saw that all my tenseness had disappeared. I looked at him and laughed. “Yes, thank you,” I said. He laughed too. The road continued good: it had been indeed newly opened and was in excellent condition.

When I handed the wheel back to Humfrey, I was glad to find that I was able to relax in my seat in the old comfortable style and enjoy myself, just as I always did when Humfrey was driving.

The country remained scrubby and dull but we had been assured that we were certain to see elephants here, and we kept a keen look-out for them. They were not kind enough to be on view, a fact which disappointed us very much. I had just taken over the wheel again when we began to descend o precipitous winding hill towards the low ground where in the distance we could see the Nile, which having made a huge detour had now returned to its southward course towards Lake Albert. At the foot of this hill we expected to find Nimule, a place renowned as a starting point for hunting expeditions. But before then we were to meet trouble. It was intensely hot as we reached the foot of the hill and the sun blazed down in the narrow cutting in which we found ourselves. Humfrey had been craning out the nearside window and, suddenly drawing in his head, said, “You’ll have to stop, Bertie. There’s a funny noise in this front wheel.” I stopped and Humfrey got put. “Let her run forward slowly” he said, “so that I can listen.” I did so and he said, “there’s no doubt about it: a wheel bearing’s gone.”

I stopped and got out also. My word it was hot in that airless valley as the heated air rose in waves from the burning ground! We got out the jack, the grand new jack we had bought at Kano, and raised the front wheel. Turning it slowly we could hear an ominous clock! clock! as the wheel went round. We had brought spare wheel bearings with us – it was just as well, as we were about 675 miles from Nairobi, nearest place we could have hoped to get a new one – and we set to work. We got the wheel off the nut holding the hub and then suddenly realized that we had no hub-drawing tool. However the hub had to be got off somehow and we employed heroic measures. Using a piece of wood as a punch we hammered the brake drum from the inside, running the hub continually to get a fresh place. We were almost giving up in despair when suddenly the hub moved and we were able to pull it off and to see that it was undoubtedly the small outer ball race that had gone. It was plain that the blow the wheel had received when it struck the baulk of timber on the bridge had cracked a ball and that had chewed up the race completely. We got it off and fitted the new one. Then we realized that we had no grease to pack it with. By this time we were so frightfully hot and so appallingly dirty that we became utterly callous. We got as much grease as we could out of he old broken half race and pushed it in. then we replaced hub and wheel and drove off. The whole job had taken us 1 hour and 23 minutes. I should add that we thought it would be a good thing to change the same ball race in the other front hub in case that had been damaged, but having removed the wheel, we failed completely to shift the hub and, after trying for some time, gave it up as hopeless. It was fortunate that the bearing that gave trouble was in the hub that we were able to get off, as the other gave no trouble and was never changed.

We were exceedingly hot and filthily dirty when we had finished our repair and we had certain misgivings. We were afraid that perhaps the damage to the car had been more deep-seated than we thought and that we were in for a lot of trouble. I may say that our misgivings were completely unfounded as the car behaved perfectly thereafter except for one small electrical trouble.

We ran down to the foot of the range of hills that we had been descending when the bearing went and come out on the level plain at the foot – momentarily we were expecting to arrive at Nimule, a place with so attractive sounding a name that we had pictured it as a pleasant village on the banks of the Nile. Where, under the shade of tall leafy trees, we would sit at a little table by the cool water and consumed cold drinks brought to us from the hotel. We could have dealt with a good many!

However, when we came out on to the plain we saw a road turning off to the left with a signpost “Attiak”. As this was our next point, without hesitation I swung the car down this road. We never saw Nimule at all, or had these cold drinks, or ever knew if our mental picture was a figment of the imagination! The road we were following appeared to be newly made and a little further on we came to a party of roadmen at work on it. Their efforts gave us some little trouble, as the approved method of roadmaking appeared to be to spread loose earth on the surface to a depth of perhaps a foot and leave it there in the hope that sometime it would be beaten down hard. Meanwhile we had to plough through this soft stuff which was not too difficult a task for a car that had crossed the Sahara and dealt with the difficulties in northern Nigeria.

Eventually we rejoined a harder road and concluded that the new road was a bye-pass avoiding Nimule. The country was utterly deserted and very uninteresting. Low scrub and occasional belts of trees made it terribly monotonous in its dull flatness: there were no signs of cultivation and the only thing that kept us from utter boredom was our continued hope of seeing elephants. It looked to our inexperienced eyes the sort of country that elephants might fancy but apparently we were wrong, for no elephants appeared.

In due course we arrived at Attiak, a native village of absolutely no importance except that to us it marked a point where we could check up our position and get an idea of how we were going on. It was 139 miles from Juba and we had taken 5 hours and 50 minutes of which we had spent 1hour and 23 minutes changing the wheel bearing so that we had actually taken 4½ hours, and had averaged just over 30 miles and hour. This part of our journey represented a trial run for our car after Hetchen’s masterly work on it. We had made no attempt to press the pace, rather the opposite in fact, and we were quite satisfied. More than satisfied indeed! Actually we were delighted. Because the result showed that, given no further trouble and a continuance of the excellent road surface, we should have no difficulty in keeping up the same sort of average speeds that we had made before our crash. We went straight on through Attiak, consuming a lunch of Ryvita and sardines without stopping. We had become quite expert at this. The procedure was that the passenger-for-the moment partially opened a tin of sardines, then poured the majority of the oil out of window, afterwards opening the tin completely. We had developed this technique in the Sahara, ever since I had received an unwelcome bath of oil from the sardine tin in my hand when the car struck at unexpected gully at the critical moment. A sardine was then placed on a biscuit and devoured, but we never attempted to eat while driving. The driver waited till it was his turn to act as passenger before he had his lunch. Driving in Africa needs both eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead because one never knows what unexpected snag may make its appearance without warning. It may be a huge boulder in the exact centre of the road, or the sudden appearance of some animal, a jackal or a hyena, that attempts to commit suicide under the wheels. Wild animals in Africa are at about the same stage as regards judgment of speed as domestic animals in England were in 1910!

The road remained quite reasonably good all through that long, and very hot, afternoon and welcome signposts made their appearance: one of them round a corner only just in time to prevent our proceeding at speed down what appeared to be the straight road ahead instead of taking a sharp turn to the left for Lira, out next point in the log book, where we proposed to re-fuel before we started our run through the night towards Nairobi.

Eventually, at 4.13 we drove into Lira, a considerable town where there is a British District Office, a rest camp, and several shops. All these shops were kept by Indians, and one of them was our Shell re-fuelling depot.

We had covered the 102 miles from Attiak in 3 hours and averaged 34mph It was exceedingly hot and we were extremely thirsty when we stopped outside the Shell agents. While Humfrey was dealing with the re-fuelling I took two of our thermos flasks and went off to see if I could find some filtered water anywhere, for in these parts it is inadvisable to drink anything else. I saw a neatly dressed elderly Indian and approached him. Tentatively I asked him if he could tell me where I could get some filtered water. “Come with me,” he said, and led me up the road to a large Indian store. There he took me round to the back, through a courtyard and into a sitting room behind. He clapped his hands and a native boy appeared to whom he gave some orders in a language incomprehensible to me. I had gathered by this time that this gentleman was the proprietor of the store and having happened to see a basin of water in the courtyard as we passed through I asked him if it could be possible for me to have a wash. In a few moments my shirt was off and I was indulging in a much needed clean up. Feeling refreshed after this, I re-entered the sitting room to find the table in the centre laid for tea. “No doubt,” said my host, “you would like some tea?” I replied that it was the one thing in the world, now that I had had a wash, that I really longed for and begged his permission to call Humfrey. I rushed off down the street and found Humfrey wondering what had become of me. “Come on,“ I shouted “Tea and a wash.” He wasted no time in inquiries but followed me.

Behold us then, seated at a table spread with a white cloth while black boys brought us relays of tea, more and more bread and butter and excellent jam. Our host sat with us. He told us that he owned a chain of stores all over Kenya and Uganda and that his headquarters were at Jinja, a detectable spot on the shore of the great Lake Victoria. We had been there in the Rolls Royce and were eager to hear more about it.

At last we could eat and drink no more. We said that we must really be going and asked our host if we could take with us some filtered water. He said something to a native servant who re-appeared carrying, of all things, two quart of Whitaways Cider! Our eyes goggled out of our heads at the sight and I may say now that this as the most refreshing liquid we had discovered on our while journey.

Humfrey then rather diffidently, asked our host how much we owed him. After all, he was a trader and had to live. He waved it aside and his exact words are worth quoting “Gentlemen,” he said, “you are travellers. Every year I go on safari” (East African for touring, or travelling) “20,000 miles. I look on it as a duty and a pleasure to do what I can for other travellers.”  After that there was no more to be said. We thanked him heartily and shook hands warmly. For all his black skin he was a white man and a gentleman.

Another little instance of the same kindness was in evidence when we returned to the store where our Wolseley was standing by the pump, surrounded by the crowds. Its battered appearance always drew when it was at rest and which became familiar to us as we made our way southwards to Cape Town. Realizing that I had very few matches left, I asked one of the Indian partners of the store if he would present me with a box as we had no small change in Kenya money, and it seemed absurd to offer a five pound note for a box of matches. He produced a packet of a dozen boxes. “How many do you want?” he said. “Could I have two boxes?” I answered. With a smile he pushed the packet of a dozen boxes into my hand. ”Take them,” he said, “Thy may come in useful.”

So it was with pleasant memories of kindness that we drove out of Lira. It was 7 minutes past five and we had spent 54 minutes there but we felt all the better for our wash and our tea. The road after Lira was a sad disappointment. We had anticipated that the good roads we had encountered for all the 240 miles we had travelled from Juba were going to continue. But alas, we met immediately with that hideous bugbear of African motoring, corrugations.

I have attempted to describe the horrors of motoring on corrugated roads in the part pf my story dealing with pre-Sahara days, and these, though not as bad as the corrugations in Africa, were sufficiently unpleasant to make motoring a torture. In addition, the appalling vibration that shook the car now made our ill fitting doors rattle in a manner that drove us nearly to a frenzy. I was glad when my two hours was up (I had still had an hour to go when we left Lira) and I could hand over to Humfrey. So we rattled our way over this hideous road as darkness fell and over our sufferings, let us draw a blank.

Suffice it to say, that it took us 2¾ hours to cover the 75 miles to Soroti which we reached at 7.54. We had made the magnificent average of 27 miles an hour! We knew of course that if we kept up a sufficiently high speed, say 40 to 45mph, we should escape the dreadful vibration of the corrugated surface but, in view of the strains to which the car had already been subjected in our crash, we did not feel justified in travelling at such a speed over this terrible road. So that we sat and suffered at a comparatively low speed, trying to dodge the corrugations by keeping one wheel running in the gutter where traffic had not run and where therefore the surface was comparatively smooth. But constant endeavour to keep within as inch of the grass verge made driving very exhausting.

We had already decided to stop at Saroti and have a proper sit down dinner from our store of tinned foods before embarking on the long night run and as we drove into it we kept a sharp look out for a suitable place. We found it at once in front of a large garage – as usual in these parts, Indian–owned – there was a wide open space and in front of the garage were two glaring electric lamps. Obviously the place! It would be far pleasanter to eat our meal here in the brilliant light of the lamps rather than in the darkness further on. We stopped and got out. An Indian came across from the garage and when we explained to him that we wanted nothing except permission to stop there and eat some of our tinned food he agreed immediately. Further, calling native boys, he sent them out to us carrying a table, two chairs and a carafe of cold iced water!

I regret that I do not know the name of this Good Samaritan for I should like to have paid some of our debt of gratitude by mentioning it, but his kindly forethought remains a precious memory of Soroti.

We opened the drawers in the luggage locker which contained our tinned provisions and were faced with a ludicrous dilemma which had not occurred to us until this moment. The tins, having of course been immersed in the river for 12 hours, had lost all their labels! So we had no means of finding out what each tin contained! We had already decided to have cold tomato soup, which we used to drink as a kind of teetotal cocktail and found most refreshing, meat and fruit. We were able to identify the tomato soup as the tins were smaller in diameter than all the others, but how to find the meat was a puzzle. We took out tin after tin, shook them, listened to them, at last “That sounds like meat,” we said. I opened the selected choice: it contained tinned strawberries! “Never mind” we said, “we’ll have that for the sweet course” and we tried again, after more shaking and listenings.  The second one we opened was also fruit, raspberries I think. By this time we were becoming helpless with laughter. I wanted to give it up and have ham or sardine which we could recognize by the shape of the tins. But Humfrey was quite determined to have meat, so we extracted more tins, shook them, listened to them, held consultations over them. We opened another. Cheers! It was jugged hare and vegetables. We therefore ate hare and strawberries, giving the second tin of fruit that we had opened to the garage hands. A jolly good meal and a pleasant one. It was really comfortable, sitting in chairs at our table, with the cool evening wind whispering through the trees and refreshing us after the heat of the day. We were not dissatisfied. We had travelled 316 miles from Juba and, though we had taken 12½ hours, we had tested out our car and found it perfect. We were correspondingly elated and toasted Hetchen and Stanton in weak whisky and water. Only one thing was not functioning normally: and that was the voltage control. This, as most of my readers probably know, is an electrical device which allows just so much charge to pass from the dynamo to the battery as needed to keep the latter fully charged. For example, after using the starter motor, which takes a great deal of current, the voltage control allows the dynamo to charge the battery at a high rate until the deficiency is made up, when it automatically reduces the charge to a degree sufficient to replace the quantity being used either for the ignition only or for the lamps in addition, if they are in use. Now, our voltage control was apparently not doing its job and throughout the day the ammeter had been showing a very high rate of charge, a rate which varied with the speed of the car. At moderate speeds, say 25mph the charge rate was about 20 amperes – too high but not abnormally so –, but at 40mph the needle of the ammeter left the scale altogether and jammed itself against the side of the instrument. We didn’t like this but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. Neither Humfrey nor I pretend to be electrical experts though we are both competent to deal with normal running adjustments to a car’s electrical equipment. But a voltage control gadget was beyond us and we had decided that our battery, long suffering piece of mechanism that it was, would probably not object to this additional strain being put on it as far as Nairobi. There we hoped to get an electrical expert to rectify the trouble. We packed up, said goodbye to our kind friends at the garage and left Soroti at 8.35: we had spent 41 minutes there. It was Humfrey’s turn to drive and before we left we put down the bed, as Humfrey was anxious that I should get some sleep. So, having got safely out of the town on the road to Mbale, I lay down. I had not felt a semblance of a re-occurrence of my nervousness since I had taken the wheel for the first time that morning, not even after darkness fell, but as soon as I lay down I got the horrors. Every time I felt the car swerve slightly I imagined that we were going off the road, down, down, into the black depths, into water, to death – I lay quivering. At last I could stand it no longer but sat up, holding my head in my hands and trying to blot out those horrid visions.

“What’s the matter Bertie?’ asked Humfrey.

I think I answered that I was terrified. Instead of trying to reason with me, as some men might have done and which would have only made me worse, Humfrey promptly stopped the car. “Poor old thing,” he said. “Look here, take a big drink of whisky and a couple of aspirin out of the first aid case and you’ll be quite all right.”

I think I muttered that I shouldn’t, but he forced me to do as he said and to lie down again. In ten minutes I was fast asleep and these horrors never attacked me again, to the same degree at least, though I did have minor re-occurrences later. But I was able to deal with those by a little mental firmness. Humfrey always told everyone, and I think there was probably a modicum of truth in it, that one reason why I was more affected than he was, was because I saw the crash coming during those awful moments of the race along the bridge, with the car out of control, heard the smashing of timber and experienced that hideous plunge down into the blackness. Whereas he was asleep and knew nothing of it till he woke to find himself in water and was able to emerge of the window without any particular difficulty. All the same, I know that that is only partly the truth and that I do not possess his incredibly phlegmatic mind.

After about an hour’s sound sleep, I woke and sat up. “How are you feeling, Bertie?” asked Humfrey. “Fine,” I answered, for my sound sleep had done me a lot of good. “Can you take over?” he asked. “I’m getting sleepy.’

He stopped the car and we changed places. Almost before I had set the car in motion, he was asleep and I marveled at his complete confidence with which he left the car to me, considering that the last thing I had done while he was sleeping was to put the car over the bridge!  When he stirred and woke, some time later, I voiced these thoughts. “How the devil you can sleep with me driving, after what I did last time you were asleep, passes my comprehension!”  I said.

Humfrey sat up. “My dear old Bertie,” he said, “how many years have you been driving?”

“Thirty-three,” I answered.

“And how long is it since you had a crash?”

“I think it’s thirty-two,” I replied, with an inkling of what was coming.

“Quite so,” said he “Well, it’s hardly likely you’re going to have another one tonight, is it?’ He relapsed on to the cushions and was asleep in an instant. Iron nerves and understanding of one’s co-driver are invaluable assets on a journey like ours!

The road remained ghastly. Horrible corrugations seemed to shake the very brains loose in one’s head as we crept soberly along, and I tried my hardest to avoid the worst places so that Humfrey should not be awakened. It was not a pleasant drive, though our front headlamp with its 60 watt bulb threw a brave beam ahead, but the fog lamp on the nearside was not really adapted for anything except use a s a fog lamp. Nevertheless, at the slow speed at which we were travelling the driving light was ample. At last we drove into Nubale. We had taken 3 hours and 40 minutes to cover 80miles, a magnificent average of 22mph! But time was of minor importance now. The important thing was to get our battered car first to Nairobi and afterwards, if the Gods smiled, to Cape Town.

Chapter 20 – We reach Juba and hope again.

Early on the morning of Friday the 6th we left Niangara, our poor car loaded on to Lenoire’s 3-ton Ford – it exactly fitted inside the low sided body with nothing to spare! – and in the first 30 miles we nearly met with another disaster. Lenoire swerved to avoid a huge hole in the road, and the lorry, its steering upset by the swerve and the heavy Wolseley high up, took charge. It shot across the road and up a steep bank at an angle of 40 degrees, swerved round and down across the road, up the bank on the opposite side and finished up all standing in the road again. Why it did not turn over is one of life’s mysteries! Our nerves, not completely recovered from our crash, were utterly shattered by this second narrow escape and we had to take a stiff drink of whisky before we felt able to continue. After this Lenoire handed the lorry over to his black driver, who seemed to be comparatively safe, though I confess that I did not enjoy the drive. We had arranged to stay the night at Aba, 190 miles from Niangara, where there is a very comfortable hotel and I was thankful to reach it. The first drive in the darkness after our crash was not an enjoyable experience. Humfrey had told Lenoire that he was prepared to pay his hotel expenses but that the 1000 francs must include this, and Lenoir had agreed, but when he saw the old Ford’s thirst for oil he relented and offered to pay the hotel bill too. The pistons must have been completely worn out for never in my life have I seen any engine consume so much oil. It seemed to us that we stopped every 20 miles or so and put nearly a gallon into the engine. We now saw the reason for the colossal oil drum carried on the lorry and even then, we were doubtful if we should have enough to get to Juba!

We left again the next morning on the 140-mile run to Juba and about 50 miles out we came to the border of the British Sudan. British territory at last! There was a barrier across the road with a smart Sudanese soldier guarding it, and as we stopped, through the door of a large bungalow beside the road came a British Officer. It made me proud of one’s country to see him! Here in this desert African post, miles away from civilization, he was turned out just as if he were about to go on parade. A smartly cut khaki shirt and shorts, immaculate stockings and brilliantly polished shoes set off to perfection his clean soldierly smartness. He was a sight for sore eyes.

He was very polite, also. “Symons?” Oh yes, he had been warned to expect us several days before and instructions had been received that our passage was to be expedited. So much for British efficiency! What had happened to us? We told him. He inspected the car expressed his astonishment at our escape. Formalities did not take long and we resumed our journey over a perfect road. It made us long to have our good Wolseley running over that smooth surface. It was not a pleasant drive, for me. Eventually at 3 o’clock in the afternoon we entered Juba. This is the seat of the Southern Sudan government and has lately been built in a pleasant position high above the hill. We wanted to go straight to the Governor’s residence as we had been in communication with him about the hill ferry before we left England. We wanted to apologies for our non-arrival and to obtain information about getting the car and ourselves home. We had just passed the wireless station, where a herd of elephants, the curse of the Southern Sudan, had one night run amuck and pushed down in one night the great masts that had taken weeks of labour to erect. Elephants, which are protected by law, have increased to such an extent that they are now stated to number 20,000 in this one province and the amount of damage they do is incalculable. They are destructive beasts for, like foxes in a chicken run, they are not content to take only what they require for their immediate needs but wantonly destroy everything around as well.

Just after passing the wireless station we saw a large building with a Union Jack flying over it. Humfrey called to the driver to stop “This must be an official residence of some sort.” He got down from the lorry and walked in. He found himself in the office of the Governor’s A.D.C. and called me in. We explained to the ADC what had happened to us and that we were seeking information as to how best to get the car home. The ADC said “Look here, Mr Symons. The Sudan Defense Force has a very good workshop here which keeps their vehicles in repair. It is under civilian control and undertakes civilian work in addition to any repair jobs. A Mr Hetchen is in charge of it and I am sure he would be only too pleased to do anything he could for you. Why not let him look at the car, anyhow?” We thought there could be no harm in that, and a messenger was sent to fetch him from his bungalow. In a few minutes he arrived, a slight fair-haired man, full of enthusiasm for his job. He looked at our wrecked car on its lorry and admitted that it was certainly a mess, but he said at once. “Look here, you and Mr Browning must be tired out. Go along to the hotel, have a bath and some tea and meanwhile I’ll get your car unloaded at the workshop. We’ve got a hydraulic ramp there. I’ll get the car up on it and examine it: then I’ll come along to the hotel and tell you what I think about it.”

We agreed to his suggestion, without much hope. Baths and tea at the very comfortable hotel made us feel more like human beings and we were just finishing when Hetchen arrived. As near as I can remember; these were the words Hetchen used “Of course the body is a fearful mess and I can’t do much to it. But I can roll out the wings, get the doors to shut (the windows all wind now) and patch the rest up somehow. I have no welding plant here, but I can make up a plate to carry that torn off spring hanger and bolt it to the chassis. The front axle will not be quite in line, but I think the car will be drivable. There appears to be no other damage at all. All your wheels are true, your front axle and steering connections are not bent and there is nothing wrong with propeller shaft or back axle. That oil drip from the back axle was caused by the water forcing the oil out. The engine, gearbox and back axle were full of water, but I have taken out the plugs underneath them to let them drain. What do you say? Shall I go ahead?”


Such enthusiasm infected us. A tiny shaft of hope sprang up in us, was it possible that our good car could have survived such an appalling fall? Could we – could we go on after all? Perhaps anyhow we could reach Nairobi? We looked at each other and knew the answer. Humfrey said “It will be a miracle if you get the car on the road again, Hetchen. But go ahead if you think there’s a chance.”

“Right” said Hetchen, bursting with enthusiasm “we’ll start on it first thing tomorrow morning.”

When he had gone, Humfrey and I talked the matter over. We agreed that it seemed impossible that the car could ever run again but we were quite prepared to try. In addition, we had found out that it would cost something like £250 to get ourselves and the car to go home from Juba, so that it would be just as cheap to go on to the Cape.

That evening we sent off telegrams and cables. We cabled Thomas that we hoped to get the car running again and continue. We also sent a telegram to a young friend of ours at Nairobi, Graham Bell, who had kindly undertaken to act as liaison officer there for us: in other words we were to wire him the expected time of our arrival and he would advise the Wolseley agents, Dunlop and the Shell representatives when to expect us. This was to ensure that they would all be expecting us and waiting. We had expected to stop only 12 hours at Nairobi, though there was not now the same need for haste, owing to our big loss of time through the crash. We had discovered that there was a homeward-bound Imperial Airways flying-boat leaving next morning as Humfrey wrote to Thomas, explaining fully what had happened, and dispatched by this mail the two rolls of film that he had taken at Niangara with the camera borrowed from the hospital sister. He was anxious to get these back to Thomas so that he could make use of them to obtain some publicity as our hope of putting up a sensationally fast run to Cape Town was now gone.

We were tired out and slept well that night. Next morning early, we were down to the workshop and found Hetchen and his assistant hard at work. These assistants were of all races, black, brown and yellowish and I cannot refrain from mentioning one. He was an American or some mixed breed and rejoiced in the name of “Whiskers”. Why I do not know as he only had a long flowing moustache. Hetchen was certain the car would be all right and his men were busy beating out the flattened wings and trying to do something with the doors. Owing to the extraordinary angle of the body of the chassis, leaning ungracefully over to the near side, the doors on the offside were at the bottom several inches away from the body sides. Hetchen explained that he was afraid to try and bend the doors to fit because it might prevent the windows from working, and as we were certain to meet both with very hot weather and with extremely heavy rain it was imperative that we should be able to open and close the windows. He proposed therefore to try and hammer out the body sides to fit the doors. He explained that glass was unobtainable, so he proposed to it a temporary windscreen of wire gauze to keep out flies and possibly locusts and that we must get a glass cut at Nairobi to replace this. One fog lamp was left intact on the near side and we suggested fitting on the nearside a Ford headlamp out of his stock of spares for the military vehicles. Nothing could be done about side lamps and anyway these were not necessary. He had already removed the battery, emptied out the water, re-filled it with acid and put it on charge. He had tested the axles again and they were absolutely true: something of a tribute to Wolseley material. He told us that the crankcase of the motor was completely full of water which had now drained out though the plug and that he did not propose to dismantle the crankcase until we had had the engine running and he had discovered if dismantling was necessary. He also proposed to leave the engine and electrical equipment to continue to dry out until the work on the body was finished. The plate to carry the torn-out spring hanger he was himself making out of sheet steel and a good solid job it looked. Although we were full of hope, fired by his unflagging enthusiasm, that the car would run but it looked such an appalling wreck we could not help having misgivings.

It was then about 11 o’clock and the atmosphere in the corrugated iron workshop was almost unbearable. We both felt rather shaky and were just contemplating returning to the hotel when in at the door strutted a tall commanding figure. The good angel brought him; this smiling giant. He was the major in charge of the motor transport vehicles of this part of the Sudan Defense Force and a grand fellow. He had come in for a day or two on business from his station at Torit, 80 miles away, and being told at the hotel of our arrival and of the accident he had come along to see what he could do for us. His name was Guy Stanton and for his help and friendly companionship we owe him more than we can ever pay. He looked at the car, expressing the usual amazement that we were still alive, then telling us – what we already had seen for ourselves – that if it was possible for the car ever to run again, Hetchen was the chap to make it do so he insisted on our leaving the workshop and returning to the hotel with him. There, over a drink, he discovered about Humfrey’s finger which was not at all satisfactory and that my leg was not too good. These problems settled themselves in the simple way that anything Stanton undertook always did settle itself. He told us there was a good hospital here, with English doctors, and sent his servant over to fix up with the doctor to see us. Then he drove us over there, and the doctor took us in hand.

They said that he could tell nothing about Humfrey’s finger because of the swelling and that he had better have it X-rayed when we got to Nairobi: but he bound it up to make it as comfortable as possible. When he examined the wounds on my leg he said immediately, “This won’t do. We must get this open at once.’ They weren’t pretty to look at. They had, partially at least, healed over but the wounds were black and unhealthy looking, and the flesh was knee to ankle was red and angry. The doctor said “You must have hot poultices on this every two hours to get that poison out and I will send an orderly over to the hotel to do it. Meantime you must keep your leg up. If we don’t get these wounds cleared up quickly, they are so near the bone that there is danger of periostitis, he said, “and that leads to a diseased bone.”

Humfrey, who has a perfect genius for this sort of thing, then said “oh yes, Bertie. You know so-and-so, who lives in the next house to me at Leatherhead. He got it from a kick on the shin at Rugger and has never been able to walk without a stick since!” We all roared with laughter, including Humfrey. It was such an obviously fatuous thing to say and, to those who know Humfrey Symons, so completely typical of him.

We found that, that good chap – Stanton, had left his car with his native driver to bring us back to the hotel while he himself had walked and we were soon back there, sitting at a table with him and some other people who were staying at the hotel. Having a drink with them before lunch, Humfrey suddenly said, “I don’t feel very grand. I think I’ll go and lie down,” and went off across the courtyard to our room.

Soon after I went over and found him in bed. He said he felt very shivery, that he had just taken his temperature and found it was 103. It was perfectly clear to both of us that he had got malaria, that curse of Africa. We had all three, Humfrey, Hamilton and I had it after journey in the Rolls Royce and Humfrey very badly indeed. Now it was clear he had got it again. We had been continuously taking prophylactic, Artemisinin, which is supposed to be more efficacious than quinine and not so lowering to the system but, nevertheless, he had undoubtedly got malaria. I sent a message across to the hospital and the doctor came over after lunch. “Oh yes, malaria undoubtedly” said he. “Quinine and stay in bed. Nothing else to be done.” It was a curse. It meant that we might be hung up for days until the attack wore itself out and then Humfrey would be left as weak as a rat. I spent a very despondent afternoon. About 4 o’clock I went across to see if Humfrey wanted anything. He said he would like some tea. “Anything to eat?” I asked, “Yes please,” he answered, “bread and butter and jam and cake.” “You feel better?” I asked.  “Never felt better in my life,” he replied cheerfully. And that was the end of that extraordinary attack of malaria! It lasted about two hours and a half, and he felt quite well after it, though he stayed in bed for two days, writing articles industriously for his various newspapers and consuming four square meals a day! Undoubtedly it did him a lot of good, that long rest, after the nervous strain of our accident and the past few days and I am sure now that if I had been wise, I should have stayed in bed also. I should have felt much better for it, afterwards.

But a sort of fever of impatience drove me on and I could not rest. That good fellow, Stanton, did his best to keep me quiet and unselfishly gave up the whole of his time to driving me about in his car down to the workshop and back, to the village shops to buy various things we wanted. When he was not driving me about, he kept me company at the hotel. In fact, he quietly let his own business and pleasure slide and gave up the whole of his days to me. I was not very happy these days and I think he knew it.

Next day a cable came from Thomas. It read “Congratulations on your pluck. Excellent publicity here. If you go on forget record. Do not spoil excellent story by anticlimax.’ We interpreted this to mean that the crash had been welcomed as news by the English papers, and that if we went on, we must be careful to avoid any further incident that would prevent us arriving at Cape Town. Time was now of no importance. The really important thing from the publicity point of view was to arrive safely. We also had a telegram from Graham Bell at Nairobi saying that everything would be ready for us there.

Gradually the car began to look like a car instead o a wreck. A wonderful job of work was done to the front wings which had been flattened like crumpled brown paper. Hetchen had them beaten out with wooden mallets and then rolled with a special rolling tool, so they resumed more or less their normal shape. They were of course still battered and had a good deal of paint missing while they had been so smashed that certain cracks developed in the straightening process. But they were at any rate recognizable as wings. The doors were still not a very good fit for the body but Hetchen ingeniously fixed rolls of sacking into their front edges, so as to seal the gaping cracks. All the doors opened and shut. A wide leather strap had been fitted across the bonnet to hold it in place as all the original fixings had been bodily torn out.

Wire gauze clamped behind the windscreen frame made an efficient guard against the ingress of insect life. A Ford headlamp was fixed to a jury rigged bracket on the offside front dumb iron and when fitted with one of our 12 volt, 60 watt bulbs gave such a beam as no Ford headlamp has ever given before!

Meanwhile workshop hands removed all the spare parts from the rear locker, dried them as well as possible, and coated them with grease. They were not so very rusty, all things considered.

The plate to hold the torn off spring hanger was made by Hetchen himself and bolted in place through the chassis frame, though some difficulty was found in doing this as the frame member was of box section and the inside could not be reached. When it was bolted up and the car again standing on its wheels, careful measurements were taken, and the front axle was found to be approximately an inch farther back on the repaired side than on the other. The front dumb iron on the other side was also bent downwards and inwards but nothing could be done about this without stripping the whole chassis. So, we had to risk the possible effect on the steering. All four wheels spun absolutely true, so we had no anxiety about bent stub axles or rear axle shafts.

After two days Hetchen told me that he had done all he could do to the body and that next morning he proposed to tackle the engine. We were rather worried about the electrical fittings, the dynamo, coil, and voltage control and cut-out, petrol pumps, starter etc, as they had been submerged in the river for 12 hours and since then had been left for a week without attention. We had spares for most of these, but the spares were in exactly the same condition and there did not seem to be much point in fitting them.

So next morning Stanton drove me down to the workshop early. The original battery, after its 12 hours short circuiting in the river, had been recharged and was holding its charge perfectly. A good battery will stand a lot of abuse! The ignition switch was turned on, but there was no pleasant ticking sound from the electric pump to show that it was doing its job of filling the carburettors. We had two S.U. pumps wired so that we could, by throwing over a two-way switch and turning various taps, immediately change over from one pump to the other. I did this with no result. So off had to come one of the pumps. Taking off the end cover, we found it full of water. We dried it and put it back again. Switch on, rather hopelessly, to be greeted with the delightful ticking. So far, so good; one pump was working, and we didn’t bother with the other.

The carburettors appeared to fill up, so a stalwart black garage hand manned the starting handle and swung it. No result. Stop. Try to see whether there was a spark. There was not. We took off the cover of the distributor and dried it out: we wiped the terminals of the coil and tried again. There was a spark now, but the engine would not start.

Hetchen said “I reckon the carburettors have got water in them”, so he dismantled them. They were quite full of water and sand. After emptying them and cleaning them out, relays of blacks manned the handle in turn. When one was exhausted with swinging the engine – no mean job in the sweltering heat under the corrugated iron roof – another took a turn. Suddenly, “pouf” from the exhaust pipe! The engine fired once. We all cheered. To the handle with renewed vigour went the blacks and in a few minutes, after several starts and stop, the engine roared out its triumphant note. It was working again. Less than 3 hours from the time we started to work on it, it was running perfectly with a steady throb that made the heart glad to hear. The needle of the ammeter flicked over to ‘charge’ so that even the dynamo was working. After letting the engine run to get everything hot, we stopped it and tried the starter. Pressing the starter button, there was no sound: not even the click of the solenoid under the floorboards throwing the starter motor into gear. The cover of the solenoid was taken off and found to be full of water. The solenoid was dried off with a rag and, on pressing the starter button, the gears went into mesh, the starter spun, and the engine started. It was amazing. Every single part of the electrical gear was working normally, and, in point of fact, we completed the run to Cape Town with all the same electrical accessories as we were using when we started, except the voltage control. This was changed for a new one at Johannesburg, as you shall hear. I have forgotten to mention the radiator. I have said this was pushed back in the crash until the revolving fan had actually struck the gills on the inside and flattened them, but the radiator was not holed. If it had been, we should have been finished, for radiator repairs are a specialist’s job and even the resourceful Hetchen would have found the task beyond him. Actually, we put a cupful of water in the radiator, when it overflowed over the top. This was the only water added to the radiator between leaving England and arriving at Cape Town.

I returned to the hotel to tell Humfrey the glad news that the engine was running. I was glad to get there for my leg did not appreciate several hours of standing. The wounds were gradually losing their very unpleasant appearance under the two-hourly hot fomentations, but it was not too comfortable. Humfrey was dressed when Stanton and I returned to the hotel and was more than delighted to hear our good news, which we celebrated in the approved style. He had quite recovered from his peculiar attack of malaria and seemed all the better for his rest. He had been waited on hand and foot by the native bedroom steward whose real name was quite unpronounceable and whom we christened Abdul – to this name he answered quite happily.

After lunch came the great moment. The moment that was laden with every kind of importance. The moment of a road trial. Was the car drivable or was all Hetchen’s hard work to be wasted? We went down to the workshop and, while Stanton and I waited, Humfrey went off with Hetchen for a trail run. It was wonderful to see our beloved car, even in its now battered state, disappear down the sandy road. To think that it was running again after its ghastly fall! If I had been a woman, I should have sat down and cried. We had thought that Humfrey would be back in a minute or two and as the time passed, we became horribly convinced that something had happened.

Stanton said, “I do hope Humfrey has not been rash and that nothing has happened.”

I answered, “Humfrey’s the last person to take risks on an occasion like this. Something may have gone wrong. Water in the petrol, or something: after all they can hardly have got all the water out of the tank.” For the petrol tank had been full of water to the brim! I answered confidently to reassure myself, but I was afraid, very afraid, that something might have happened, and I began to visualize, as I had done that night of the thunderstorm in the Congo forest, all sorts of terrible things. I pictured the steering going out suddenly, the car in collision with a tree and – and – or a rending crash as, not appreciative being lubricated with a mixture of oil and water, a bearing seized, breaking a connecting rod and smashing the crankcase or – or – but what was this? The Wolseley turned in at the gateway and stopped beside us. Humfrey, a broad grin on his face, holding up two thumbs, “It’s perfect, perfect” he cried, and he got out. “She steers perfectly,” he said, “and everything is O.K.” I couldn’t get her really going because I didn’t want to go too far but I’ve had her up to 46 and she feels exactly as she did before.”

We congratulated Hetchen heartily on a wonderful piece of work and, while he set the native garage hands to re-pack the spares and etceteras in the car, we all adjourned to the hotel to celebrate. That afternoon Humfrey sent another cable to Thomas, who would, we knew, be all agog to hear our news. It read “Car O.K. Leaving for Nairobi tomorrow morning.” We were still cautious. We did not know whether we might not find something wrong when we really got going. So that for the moment our immediate aim was Nairobi, and what we called the consolidation of our repairs. We wired Graham Bell at Nairobi. “Leaving tomorrow morning. Expect arrive Nairobi 2pm Thursday. Have waiting coachbuilder, glasscutter, electrician. Advise Shell and Dunlop.”

Later that evening we collected the car and it seemed like old times to have it standing outside our door, though all its pristine smartness and glitter had disappeared. It was now battered and scarred and no doubt to others it looked a wreck but to us it was still our faithful friend, a partner in the narrow escape we had survived together.

That night we packed our kit in the plywood cases that had been made to fit the space above the spare wheel. These cases were now alas distorted and burst by the soaking they had received, and we had to fasten straps round them to hold them together.


The Dunlop Rubber Company

Dunlop Tyres were one of the sponsors of the Cape Record. While Chris was reading a book called My Darling Daisy by Theo Lang he came across an interesting passage about how the Dunlop Rubber Company developed the pneumatic tyre. The book is about Daisy’s endeavour to blackmail the British Government and the British Royal family with letters that had been sent to her by Prince Edward (later Edward VII). Below is an interesting extract from the book about the creation of the Dunlop Rubber Company

“Albemarle, like most informed people in London at that time, would also be familiar with the romantic story of du Cros’s rise to and fortune. In his youth Arthur du Cros had been an ardent racing cyclist, and this sport had actually been the root cause of his considerable wealth.  In May of 1889, when he was eighteen, he was racing at Queen’s College Sports and saw Hume, a well-known cyclist, win all the events on a cycle equipped with a strange new device. Around the rim of the cycle wheels was fixed a rubber tube covered with stout linen tape. The tube could be inflated by using the pump normally used for blowing up footballs. The man who concocted the device was a Scotsman, John Boyd Dunlop, then a veterinary surgeon in Belfast. Du Cros asked to borrow the machine and four months later raced it at Ballsbridge, Dublin. Du Cros described the device as a ‘pneumatic tyre’, though spectators rudely called it a ‘pudding tyre’ and the race officials were doubtful whether cycle-racing ethics could allow the use of such a novelty. However, deciding to humour the youth’s eccentricity, they allowed him to compete. Arthur won the race and the first prize.

He had won more. He had learned the immense potentialities the pneumatic tyre could have. Not only on such modest appliances as cycles, but also for the new vehicles, the motor-car, which at that time, under the impetus of such men as Daimler and Panhard, was at last being considered as a commercial proposition.

John Boyd Dunlop had neither the capital nor, it seems, the commercial ambition to do much to develop his invention, but Arthur du Cros and his father, William Harvey du Cros, had both. They began manufacturing the tyres at a Dublin factory, and within seven years the twenty-five-year-old racing cyclist was managing director of a £3,000,000 company, had laid the foundation of the family fortune and also of the giant Dunlop Rubber Company which within a few more  years was a formidable world-wide industrial concern.”

Chapter 19 – The car is salvaged.

Chapter 19 Pic

The night was short, thank Goodness. It must have been two o’clock before we were bathed, bandaged and left alone. And at six daylight stole into the quiet white room. Soon after, the sister, clean and cool in her white robes, came in with tea and Humfrey woke. We took stock of our wounds. Humfrey’s face was covered with small scratches, probably from flying glass, and his finger was painful. My left leg had five or six deep wounds on the front and side of the shin bone and we were both badly cut about the arms. Otherwise we were unhurt, though we felt stiff and bruised. While we were washing with some difficulty, owing to our bandages, I was able to shave though Humfrey was not, owing to the cuts on his face, the sister came along to tell us a man was here from the store. She had sent for him to bring a selection of garments, as of course our own were still wet through. This is another instance of the thoughtful kindness that we met with at Niangara, instances multiplies a hundredfold in the days to come. We made a selection, trying excellent solar topees for the sum of one and nine pence each. Of course, we had no money, as it was all in the car but the trader, who had worked in London and spoke excellent English, made no bones about that. Breakfast was bought to us in a pleasant room with wide verandahs on three sides and a cool morning breeze blowing in at the open French windows. I could eat nothing but Humfrey made an excellent meal. He got quite cross with me because I would only sit and mope with my head buried in my hands. He said we were lucky to be alive and was, almost exactly, his usual cheerful self. Wonderful fellow!

While we were still at breakfast, a car drove up. The doctor, a cheerful young Belgian, examined our injuries and re-bandaged them. Before he had finished more cars arrived. The Administrator – the big man of the district – the Chief of Police, a hearty young fellow, full of optimism, and the Bishop, a marvellous little man with a grey pointed beard, very neat and dapper in his white robes and the gold cross hanging on his breast. These four held an inquisition as we sat in that pleasant airy room and were amazed to hear that we were unhurt after our terrific fall. Then the Chief of Police, Loerand by name, said lightly “Well, Mr Symons, now you will want to get your car out of the river?”

Symons said that he feared that would be impossible. Loerand replied “Nothing is impossible if one has enough men! I have already sent 50 prisoners to the bridge. I shall turn out two villages to help, and if that is not enough, I shall turn out two more.” We were still dubious. It seemed to us impossible that there could be anything left of the car after its fearful fall and its long immersion. But we agreed to go with them. Before we went, Humfrey borrowed from the sister her camera and some film as our own camera being of course submerged in the car. The Bishop drove us in his own Chevrolet, the other cars following. On the way we passed the 50 prisoners, in their uniform of black and yellow striped jerseys and blue shorts, marching towards the bridge. We arrived at the bridge. There, far below, lay our poor Wolseley on its side. Perhaps eight inches or so of the body with the open window through which we had climbed to safety above the swift water, and, as we looked down on it from the dizzy height of the bridge, it seemed impossible that we could have survived that ghastly fall. I remember distinctly the Administrator saying “Messieurs, veritably you have the good luck to still be alive.” We agreed. Loerand, the indefatigable chief of Police, would not hear of our doing anything, “No, no, you must be exhausted,” he said. “Leave it to me to arrange everything.”

Wolseley River

He sent a party away somewhere down the river to bring a dug-out canoe and meanwhile those prisoners who could swim stripped off their clothes and swam out to the car which was lying exactly in the middle of the river. Loerand called out something to one of the prisoners, who thereupon held his arm straight up above his head and let himself sink to the bottom. When he was standing on the bottom his up stretched hand was 4 feet below the surface. So, he continued to take soundings till it was discovered that, although the water was only about 5 feet deep on each side. It was clear that we had fallen exactly on a sandbank in the middle of the river. If we had fallen 3 feet to the right or the left, our car would have been in eight feet of water and would have been completely submerged. In that case we should never have got out alive. While we were waiting for the dug-out canoe to arrive, we all walked across the bridge to try and re-construct exactly what had happened. No other vehicle had passed, and the track of our car was plainly to be seen on the sandy road. We saw the straight line it had taken after rounding the bend 200 yards away; then the line deviated to the right as the car had swerved under the application of the brakes. Standing on this line and facing towards the river, we could see how the track was pointing towards the abyss of the high embankment, with the entrance to the bridge away to the left. This coincided with my recollections. I remember seeing nothing but a black drop in front of me and swinging the car towards the bridge. The track showed this. It was a perfectly smooth curve. A straight line, an outward curve to the right, an inward curve to the left, and this inward curve led on to the bridge at a slight angle. We could see a mark where the near side front wheel had struck the guarding baulk of timber and at the same point the outer guard rail was smashed away. About 20 yards further on along the bridge we could actually see a slight abrasion on the timber where the huge tyre had climbed on the baulk (although it had been rubbing along it, the soft flexible tread had given it enough grip to climb up the 10-inch high vertical side) and the track of the tyre was clear on the baulk, as it gradually veered towards the outer edge, and the two tracks were distinct where the wheels had taken their awful leap into space. The guard rail was smashed down all the way from the point where the car had struck it on entering the bridge to where we had gone over. We discussed the matter of what it was that had caused the car to go out of control and why I could not pull it back after it struck the baulk of timbers. Humfrey said that he was certain the first words I had uttered on emerging from the car were ‘The brakes jammed on” three times repeated. I did not remember it, but the doctor said that, from a psychological point of view, the first words uttered after emerging from a severe crisis are likely to be true even if the shock causes them to be forgotten afterwards. But the brakes had not jammed on because the wheels had not locked. All the way from the place where the tracks swerved to the right long before reaching the bridge until the point where the car went over the side, it was clear that the wheels had been rolling and were at no time locked. Some other explanation must be found. We believed then, and still believe after discussing the whole matter later with various people, that what happened was this.

Obviously the first part of the car to strike the upright of the guardrail when it entered the bridge at an angle was the front bumpers. We had found that the attachment of this heavy stabilizing bumper was the one weak point in the whole car. The method of attaching the bumper to the chassis was not sufficiently rigid to carry the weight of the bumper under the frightful conditions of the surface on which we had been travelling and the bolts had a tendency to come loose. We decided, and have had no reason since to doubt the connectedness of our diagnosis, that when the bumper struck the upright, the bolt broke and the bumper bar itself was smashed back and carried under the mudguard, between the tyre and the mudguard. It wedged there and prevented the wheel from running to the right when I tried to steer the car back towards the middle of the bridge. There can be little doubt that this was the true explanation. Meanwhile the dugout canoe had arrived and Loerand was poled out to the wreck. He decided that before attempting to place it on its wheels, it would be best to empty the car of all its contents as we did not know what damage had been done to the side of the body under water. If it was utterly smashed, all the contents might be left in the bottom of the river when the car was lifted up onto its wheels. Natives crouching on the side of the car, as we had crouched the night before, plunged their arms through the windows and extracted various articles. If we had felt in any mood for humour, it would have been amusing. A native’s arm would dive in and emerge with one gumboot from which he would proceed solemnly to empty the water before putting it in the canoe, or a sodden coat weighing a ton with its load of water appear or perhaps something hideous like an orange or a pot of jam. Almost at once Humfrey’s black bag was extracted, that black bag had held all the money. It was intact, though of course full of water. It seemed to go on for hours, this unloading of the masses of stuff one collects on a journey of this sort. While it was still proceeding, Humfrey told me that when we were leaving to swim ashore, it had flashed through his brain that we might be miles from civilization and need warmth. He had therefore searched in the car and extracted his wife’s favourite rug bought along by accident. Of course, being a thick woollen rug and also being soaked in water, it was enormously heavy, and equally, of course, after swimming 10 yards with it he had to let it go as he was quite unable to support the weight. Actually that rug and an old cap of mine were the only things lost, though our cameras needed some attention, which they got at Nairobi before they would work again and all the cine film, not very much owing to our unwillingness to stop for photographs, but valuable documentary evidence nevertheless, was utterly ruined, also about £30 worth of unused film.


At last the natives announced that the car was empty, and two long ropes were floated out and attached to the front axle. Humfrey tried to persuade Loerand to fasten them to the chassis but without avail. Then about ten natives standing up to their necks in water, pulled the car up till it stood on its four wheels. It immediately sank until the roof was just below water-level: we had fallen as near the edge of the sand bank as that!

Now a great difficulty arose. The car was facing in the wrong direction. It had leaped off the bridge at an angle of perhaps 30 degrees to the line of the bridge and in its fall it had somehow turned completely round through 180 degrees so that it now stood, submerged, with its radiator pointing towards the bridge at the exact angle at which it had left it. In order to pull it out, the front of the car had to be got around through an angle of about 120 degrees. The method adopted was rough and ready, but it worked wonderfully. The natives in the water supported the side of the car to prevent it being pulled over while the villagers, about 150 of them by this time, hauled the front round by man force till it was facing in the right direction. Then every available man, woman and child was put on the two ropes and the car was dragged towards the bank. It was terrible to see our beloved car gradually disappearing under water as the bottom of the river shelved. We felt it would never emerge again. At the deepest part of the channel we could just see the white roof shining through 3 or 4 feet of water. But emerge it did, though every minute we expected the front axle to be pulled right off, for of course we did not know how much damage it had suffered in the crash. It might be now attached to the chassis by only the bolt. If the axle parted or the ropes broke, the car was lost forever, for the water was too deep for there to have been any possibility of getting a fresh rope to it. The axle did not part from the chassis and the ropes did not break and gradually the car began to emerge again, first the roof, then the radiator, and finally the wheels, when the front wheels were almost on the bank, the car stopped with the rear wheels sunk to the hubs in deep white clay. We had also noticed that the front wheels were not turning and the indefatigable Loerand discovered that this was due to the wings being so battered that they were resting on the tyres. A dozen natives, lifting with all their might, managed to tear them clear of the wheels, but still the car would not move, so deeply was the back part sunk in the mud. Humfrey suddenly thought to himself that of course the car was in top gear, so that the wheels were having to turn the engine and pointed this out to Loerand. The latter then told a native in the water to open the door so that he could see. The native did so and picked up something from the floor. Humfrey held it up, “Bertie, your glasses – unbroken!” he called. Something of a miracle that and, though of course I had a spare pair in my suitcase in the car, I was glad to have them back.

During this time, a large part of the prisoners had been set to work by Loerand to make a practicable path up the steep bank from the river to the road. This they did most efficiently, chopping down bushes and cutting away steep shelves of earth, till finally a rough sloping track, winding its way for some 50 yards through the scrub, was made. All hands were then set to the ropes and, giving a series of more or less concerted heaves to the signals of Loerand, the rear wheels freed themselves from the clinging white clay and with a plunge the car stood wholly on dry ground again. Then, laughing and shouting, the whole crowd of perhaps 250 natives, men, women and children, dragged the car up the track the prisoners had cut till finally it stood on the hard-sandy road.

We could then examine it and a sorry mess it looked. The body leaned drunkenly to the left, the side being some six or eight inches out of the vertical: the roof had taken a kind of twist from the deformation; the doors were gaping widely at the bottom: the windscreen had of course completely disappeared – it was made of toughened glass, not triplex sheet. The glass of the window in the rear door had gone and the front near side window out of which we had climbed was broken, with long sharp slivers remaining. The bonnet had been torn bodily away from its fastenings, though fortunately the natives had found it lying on the sandbank beside the car. The front wings were smashed and flattened till they resembled nothing so much as crumpled paper. Both headlamps and one fog lamp had disappeared and the side lamps on the wings were merely flat pieces of chromium plate. Inside the bonnet, the radiator stays were both broken, and the radiator block had been pushed back till the revolving fan had struck it, flattening the tubes. Lying underneath the car we examined the chassis and found serious damage. The rear hanger of the nearside front spring had been torn bodily out of the frame. It was riveted under the frame member and the rivets had not pulled out, but a piece of the steel had been ripped out, leaving the rear end of the spring free. Otherwise there did not appear, to a superficial examination, any vital damage but the tearing out of the spring made it impossible to consider driving the car if it were possible to get it going. It looked terrible, our beautiful car that had appeared so trim and neat, it looked an utter wreck and only fit for the scrap heap.


By this time, it was noon and very hot. We were completely exhausted with standing under the blazing sun and Loerand insisted that we should return with the doctor while he himself would steer the car while it was pushed to the town by the prisoners. We had already made the experiment and found that the front wheels still answered a movement of the steering wheel, so that the steering connections were not broken. Feeling very despondent, we were driven back to the town by the doctor and along to the Post Office, where Humfrey cabled to Thomas and to his wife while I sent a wire to my sister with whom I live. Unfortunately, she was away from home and was horrified to hear on the wireless in the nine o’clock news that night an announcement that we had crashed. It was not until the next day that she received my reassuring cable saying that we were unhurt.

We arrived back at the hospital and feeling very gloomy, we found the car just arriving. Loerand told us that it steered quite all right but we looked at it with feelings of utter hopelessness. It was such a complete wreck. Water poured from it everywhere and we were further dismayed seeing a steady drip of oil from the back axle which seemed to betoken some serious damage there. When Loerand got out of the driving seat, he surveyed rather ruefully the seat of his white duck trousers. Dunlopillo cushions, though exceedingly comfortable to sit on, are not well adapted for immersion in water as they act exactly like a sponge and a large black wet patch showed where Loerand had been sitting. He came in and had a drink with us – our whiskey bottle in the car being still intact – and left for his office after receiving our heart-felt thanks for his efforts on our behalf.


We had lunch and I managed to eat something at last. Over our meal we discussed the future. We ruled out at once any question of being able to go on, a bitter decision but one that seemed to us inevitable under the circumstances, as there were no facilities of any sort for the execution of repairs at Niangara. We decided that the only possible thing to do was somehow to get the car conveyed to Juba, where it could be shipped home by Nile steamer while we ourselves would probably return home by air. We both felt anxious to reach British territory, for there we should at least have the feeling of being among our own people and we proposed to find out if there was any way of getting our car conveyed or towed to Juba, 330 miles away.

We had just finished lunch when a telegram was brought in. It was from Thomas and it put is into a serious quandary. It said “Sorry to hear of the accident. Please cable immediately car total loss. Cable your plans.” It was plain to us that Thomas naturally wished, if the car was lying wrecked in a river, to claim under his insurance policy for the value for which it was insured. But here was the car, though wrecked, standing outside the door and, as I said, it seemed a shame to take it back and push it into the river again. We sent off another cable making the worst of the damage for Thomas to show to the insurance company; but still we were determined that, if it were in any way possible, we would get the car home as salvage, if as nothing else. That afternoon I wrote to Thomas, explaining exactly what had happened. I shall refer to his reply to this letter. We went out to the car, removed the six spark plugs and turned the engine round by hand. It was quite free and as we turned it great jets of water six feet long shot out of each plug holes in turn. We were relieved to see this because we were afraid that as the engine had been running when it entered the water, it might have sucked in water through the carburettors and that the pistons might have been smashed as they came up, water being incompressible. If this had been so, or a connecting rod broken, there would have been no corresponding jet of water from that cylinder when we turned the engine round. So, we were relieved of that fear. When no more water came out, we squirted oil into each plug hole to arrest the savages of rust and replaced the plugs. There was no more we could do, and the engine was not touched again until after we reached Juba, 5 days later.

We stayed at Niangara for four days, meeting with nothing but kindness from everyone. The Administrator gave a cocktail party in our honour and we gave one in return at the hospital where we were kindly permitted to remain, as it was exceedingly comfortable and the food excellent. It was ridiculously cheap: I think we were charged 8/6 a day each including all our meals and medical attention.

Eventually, after some disappointments, we made arrangements with a young Belgian farmer, Lenoire by name, to convey the car and ourselves to Juba, 330 miles away, by lorry. When we asked him how much he would charge, he asked us if 1000 francs would be too much! As this represented about £6.10.0, it struck us as the cheapest form of conveyance we had ever heard of for 660 miles for £6.10.0! Well, well! What would it have cost in England?


Chapter 18 Part 2 – Disaster – Bambili Ferry – Bridge at Niampara 159 miles 1 January 1939.


With Humfrey at the wheel we set off from the ferry at 6.34pm. I remember distinctly, Humfrey saying “Well, Bertie, this has been the best days motoring we’ve had since we started,” and my cordial agreement. Rested after a good night’s sleep at de Boose’s house, we had not felt at all tired, the road surface had been respectable, we had had a good lunch, and the weather had been delightful, hot but not unpleasantly so. We were feeling very fresh and fit and were eagerly looking forward to reaching the Sudan border about 500 miles ahead, where we should enter British territory, never to leave it again, all the way to Cape Town, nearly 5000 miles away. As Humfrey drove steadily forward into the darkness and we compared notes as to our feeling, we saw ahead a distant flicker of lightening. “Oh Lord,” said Humfrey “I do hope we aren’t going to run into another storm and waste a lot more time.”

Waste a lot more time! I agreed. It would be maddening to meet with more difficulties after this pleasant day. Two hours after the ferry, Humfrey handed over to me. He put the seat into its sleeping position as he said he would get some sleep before we reached Nianpara where we were to re-fuel.

It was 8.35pm when I took over, and Humfrey dropped off to sleep at once. I have never felt less sleepy in my life and I was thoroughly contented as I drove steadily forward over the good road. I passed through a large village and just beyond it the road forked. There was a signpost at the fork. I was pretty sure that we ought to go to the left, but it was better to be certain. I stopped and, as I had slightly overshot the turn, I reversed a few yards to get the headlight beam on the sign. The right-hand arm said “Dingba” and I remembered that this place lay off to the right of our road, so I was just starting off again when Humfrey stirred and sat up, disturbed by my reversing. It is a curious fact that anyone asleep in a car is invariably awoken by the car being reversed: presumably the change in direction affects the subconscious mind. He said sleepily, “Where are we?” I said that we had just passed Tapili. He reached for the logbook, looked at the dashboard clock, wrote 10-7 opposite the name “Tapili” and, dropped back on the cushions, was asleep again at once.

Later I remember looking down at the dimly lit clock and noting that it was 10.35pm, in other words that I had completed my two hours turn. Then I looked at the mileage on the speedometer and, making a mental calculation, decided that as it was only about 15 miles to Nianpara where we were due to stop for petrol and as I was not at all sleepy or tired, I decided that I would drive on to that place and not disturb Humfrey.

Steadily, at about 40 mph, I drove on. I was doing sums in my head and reckoning that we should just about reach Nianpara at 11 o’clock. The road rounded a gentle left-hand curve, for which I slowed, probably to about 30; once on the straight again, I believe that I looked down at the speedometer or clock. Looking up again, I saw in front of me perhaps 100 yards ahead, two tall posts marking the entrance to a long narrow bridge while the road ran out on to a high embankment. I lifted my foot from the accelerator and braked to slow for the entrance to the bridge. The car, owing to the unequal pull of the brakes to which I have already referred, swerved to the right and I was startled to see ahead the blackness of a great abyss with the narrow entrance to the bridge away to the left.

One’s recollection after a disaster is apt to be rather blurred but I distinctly remember being startled to see the car heading to miss the bridge entrance altogether. I turned the steering wheel sharply to correct the swerve under the brakes and entered the bridge at an oblique angle. I must digress for a moment to describe the exact construction of this bridge as it is of some importance in what occurred. The bridge was about 140 yards long and spanned the River Gada, 40 feet below. It was narrow, just wide enough to take a lorry comfortably. The surface was of transverse planks and on each side, there was a huge longitudinal baulk about 10 inches square, while outside that there was a stout guard rail made of square timber about 4 inches square, carried on upright posts. To resume; the car entered the bridge at an angle travelling, probably, at 30 to 35 miles an hour. I felt a jar as the nearside front wheel struck the left-hand baulk of timber and there was a sound of splintering wood. To my horror I found that the car would not answer the steering, so that I was unable to straighten it out; there was more crashing of timber and a great jarring and bumping as our huge tyres climbed on to the baulk. While I wrestled with the wheel, the car ran along the top of the baulk for 40 yards or so, smashing down the outside guard and then suddenly and smoothly leaped bodily over the side of the bridge down into the black chasm below. I am not going to pretend that I remember anything of that hideous leap into the darkness. I am conscious of only one thought that flashed across my mind as the car fell. “This is the end. We are dead.”

Wolseley River

Oddly enough, after that awful plunge, I remember no crash as the car struck the water. I only knew that I was under water, inside the car, in a horizontal position and struggling, though with no hope of finding a way out in the blackness of the water. I knew that thoughts of Humfrey flashed into my mind, with deep grief that he was dead too, but for myself I was so convinced that I was already dead that, although I struggled to escape, I was not particularly worried about it. I had already begun to take in water as I could hold my breath no longer and it was easier not to bother, since I was already dead when, suddenly and incredibly, I breathed air. My head had risen above the surface, and I seemed to be standing up though I was still inside the car, and I heard a frantic voice calling “Bertie, Bertie.” It was Humfrey, so he was not dead either!

I saw a window near my head and put my head through. Humfrey clutched me and I climbed out; we were both crouching on the side of the car, as it lay on its side in about 5 feet of water, and high above our heads the bridge with its smashed guard rail was outlined against the starlit sky. We had come from there. Right down from there and we were still alive. It was incredible.

My nerves had utterly gone, and I was like a shell-shocked man. The horror of that rush across the bridge in an uncontrollable car, the noise of the smashing timbers and that hideous leap into the black abyss had temporarily deprived me of all self-control. Even now, after the lapse of many months, those ghastly moments are apt to creep into my mind so that I have to fight away the memory of them.

Humfrey, wonderful fellow, was as calm as though he were seated in his own drawing room at home instead of crouching on a wrecked car in an African river in the middle of the night. He had been asleep and dreaming. He was conscious in his sleep of a loud noise and much shaking: then he had dreamed that he was in the water and had thought “This is a damned unpleasant nightmare. I hope I shall soon wake up.” Suddenly he realized that it was not a dream that he really was in water, and under water. He thought, “Bertie’s driven into a duck pond. I must get out.” Finding an open window just above him, he had got out to find the car lying in the river and himself crouching outside; almost immediately afterwards, I had appeared and joined him.

He swears that the first words I uttered were “the brakes jammed on” – three times repeated. I have no recollection of this, but I will refer to it again when I come to the dissection of the cause of the accident.

The first thought that occurred to me when I arrived out of the window was, I am sorry to say, not thankfulness for our miraculous escape, but the fact that the trip, so marvelously began, was now ruined, that I was responsible; that Humfrey was my best friend and, well many other hideous thoughts of this sort, perhaps better forgotten.

Humfrey, as I have said, was perfectly calm and said, “We must get out of this – must get to he bank.” I, with some sort of insane idea that we were safe here, muttered “oh, no, no.”

“We can’t stop here,” said Humfrey, “All these rivers are full of crocodiles and we must get to the bank at once. The splash will have driven them away for the time being.”

I looked round. I could not see very well and discovered that I had lost my glasses in my struggle inside the car. We were crouched on the rear side of the car, which protruded some eight inches or so above the black oily water that streaked past the wreck.

The headlamps, under water, were still shining beneath the surface and threw a ghostly light into the depths. Humfrey said “We must go. I wish we had some lights to train on the bank.” Then, “Ah this spotlight!’ We had a spotlight mounted high up on the side of the car on the near side above the windscreen, and this, although the bracket was broken off, was still attached by the wires. “I wonder if it would work,” said Humfrey.

“I can reach the switch,” I uttered. I reached inside the broken window through which we had climbed to safety and found the switch. The lamp worked and Humfrey swung it round and pointed it to the bank. Meanwhile I remember that there was an electric torch in the cubby hole on the rear side of the car. I reached in and found it. It worked.

“Come on, Bertie, we must go,” said Humfrey, “before the crocodiles come and this spotlight won’t last long with the battery under water.”

We slipped down into the cool, fast running stream, and (we have often laughed over this since!), just as we were preparing to leave the car, Humfrey, in his most prosaic voice asked, “By the way Bertie, can you swim?” “Yes,” I answered. I wonder what he would have done if I had answered “No!”

Without glasses I am so shortsighted as to almost blind and Humfrey held me by one hand, with the lighted torch in the other as we battled across the rapid current towards the bank. We had about 50 yards to go and we landed a long way down below the bridge, so fierce was the stream. By the time we had swum the river, the spotlight on the car was out as the battery, short-circuited by the water, gave up the ghost. We lay panting in the reeds, but Humfrey gasped “We must get up the bank. The crocodiles will get us here or there may be snakes.” We climbed the steep bank to the road and lay exhausted for some minutes. Humfrey asked me what had happened, but I was so shattered that I could explain nothing and could only gasp that I had ruined the trip and him and everything.

Humfrey said, “Forget all that. It won’t do any good. We must find someone and get help.”

Then he asked me if I knew where we were. I could not remember, but said I thought we were 10 miles from Nianpara. He said that he remembered the bridge quite well and he thought it was only 2 miles from the town. We took stock then of our injuries. They were not serious. Humfrey was a horrible sight. His face was covered with blood which we found afterwards were caused by surface scratches from flying glass, but he looked ghastly. Also, he had damaged the little finger of his left hand: he thought it was sprained but afterwards it was found to be broken. I had some deep cuts on my left leg probably caused as I climbed out of the broken window and we were both cut about the arms. Otherwise we were uninjured. We set off to walk towards the town. Humfrey, who had been wearing his jacket to keep him warm as he slept, took this off and also his shirt as he had some idea that he would be less likely to catch a chill without them. As a result, his teeth were soon chattering, and he was shivering with cold. I was wearing only a shirt and shorts and was too miserable to bother about whether I got a chill or not.

We walked in the darkness and it was not a happy walk. All our hopes lay with the car in the bed of the river. Humfrey kept saying “Cheer up, Bertie. We’re alive anyhow.” That didn’t cheer me up at all. I felt I would be better dead. No, not a happy walk.

We found a native village. Humfrey had an idea we might get help here and insisted on explaining, though I urged him not to do so. I was afraid. He actually entered a hut and found an old native woman jibbering with fear in the light of the torch. Humfrey said “Homme blanc, homme blanc,” meaning that we wanted to find a white man, but she only glared in terror.

On again and another native village. This time in the first hut he tried, he found a young native woman, whom he described as “quite attractive”, but she also simply stared with horror at this frightful apparition of the night. Far away in the scrub on our right we could hear the beating of drums, that perpetual ever-recurring thudding that echoes in the ears of everyone who has visited the heart of Africa, the mysterious drums of night.

At last as we plodded along the road, we saw the light of a fire and natives dancing round it. We approached the fire and Humfrey said “Homme blanc, homme blanc.” They roared with laughter as though we were some tremendous joke got up for their benefit. Suddenly one of the men snatched a burning brand from the fire and held it up high. He saw Humfrey’s face covered with blood and the blood pouring from the wounds in my leg: at the same moment a woman touched my sleeve and said something. No doubt pointing out that it was wet. I think they realized that something had happened. White men do not as a rule walk about in the Belgian Congo in the middle of the night, at any rate not covered with blood and wet through. They listened attentively when Humfrey repeated “Homme blanc, homme blanc.” Then one of them said clearly “Mission, mission Romain.” A Roman Catholic mission! That was the idea. “Oui,oui,mission,” cried Humfrey and pointed north, south, east, west, as if to ask where it was.”

The natives went into committee on this and eventually the scene by the light of this blazing fire ended in our setting off towards the town escorted by a large part of the village. It would have made a lovely scene in a film, that procession. First came a native carrying a huge flaming torch, followed by Humfrey, clad in his shorts, walking so close to the torch in the effort to get some warmth into his body that he was almost scorching his bare chest, as he beat his arms round his body to try and get some warmth into it. Then more natives, then myself, leaning my arm on the shoulder of a young native girl who, seeing that I was limping from the pain of my cut leg, had taken my arm and placed it on her shoulder. A graceful action for which I am afraid I was not as grateful as I ought to have been. I was still too shattered in my nerves to be normal. Then a lot more natives followed, chattering gaily.

We went on for what seemed like a hundred miles till we saw a large sign by the side of the road, the most welcome sign I ever saw in my life. It said “NIANGARA. VITESSE MAXIMUM POUR AUTOS 20 KM”. Immediately after this sign, our natives turned off the road towards a large building on the right. They went up to it and one of them banged on the shut door. After some time, a sleepy voice asked in French who was there. Humfrey explained that we were travellers who had met with an accident. There was some grumbling and a sound of movement. Then the door opened. There appeared at the door an enormous bearded man dressed in pajamas. He shone a torch on our faces and arms. “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, mon Dieu! What has happened?”

Humfrey explained that we had fallen with our car into the river; also, that we were not seriously injured but needed some medical attention.

“My son,” said the large priest, “you are fortunate in that you have arrived at the very best hospital in the Congo. If you will go over to the building across the road, I will send the sister to you.”

Humfrey explained that we were wet and that of course all our clothes were in the river with the car. The reverend father produced at once pajamas of such a vast size that when I came to put them on the front part met at the back and the cord went twice round my waist! I saw on his table a packet of cigarettes and begged a cigarette. He thrust a packet on me. Then Humfrey said “Mon pere, these natives have bought us here and all my money is in the car in the river will you give them something for me?”: Assurement,” he replied. From his table to take a couple of packets of cigarettes and, going out, he divided them among the natives.

Apparently, there was some trouble; one of them said that it was not enough or something like that. Immediately, the enormous bearded priest, rushed madly at the party of surprised natives, slapped one of them across the face and kicked another’s behind as they all ran off screaming and laughing. “It is nothing,” he said returning, “they are used to it! Now I will fetch the sister if you will go across the road to the hospital.”

We went off towards a large brick building with a wide verandah. We were deadly tired after our walk following the shock of the accident, but in a very few moments the sister arrived clad in clean white garments. She introduced herself as Soeur Marice deBoose l’Annonciation’ but she was really an angel in disguise. She spoke English well. She opened the door of a clean white painted room with two beds and ushered us in, while native boys came running with basins of water, rolls of bandage and dressings. As she was washing our wounds and bandaging our various cuts, she asked what had happened. Humfrey explained that we had fallen over the bridge about 6 kilometers out and when at last she understood that it was indeed the high bridge over the River Gada she was amazed that we were alive.

While bandaging us, she told us that she was sorry she had no whisky, but she had ordered some tea to be got ready for us and wine was being brought. The hot tea soothed our jangled nerves and the wine was comforting. Humfrey wrote out a cable to Thomas at Wolseleys and she promised to have this dispatched first thing in the morning. The actual words were “Crashed through bridge in Congo. Car wrecked. Both unhurt.” (This was delivered to Thomas reading “crashed through brigade” but he did not believe that we were likely to have decimated the army of the Belgian Congo and correctly interpreted the word as “bridge”). She also promised to arrange for a sentry to be sent out to the bridge before daylight to ensure that natives did not swim out and loot the car. Humfrey was chiefly anxious because all our money – some £150 – was in the car.

Then, leaving beside each of us a glass of some sedative and a couple of aspirins in case we could not sleep, and lighting a candle which she sheltered behind a book, she wished us goodnight and left us.

I attempted stumblingly to express to Humfrey my regrets for what had happened, but he said “Forget all about it, Bertie. We’re alive anyhow.” And that from first to last was the only condemnation I received from him for what was undoubtedly my fault. He has never to this day said one word of blame or abuse for the ruining of our high hopes. One cannot but wonder what some men would have said!

I lay in the dim white painted room, listening to Humfrey’s quiet breathing for he fell asleep almost at once. For my part I left the sleeping draught and aspirin untouched. I was determined that at any cost I would not sleep. I was afraid of what I might dream. So all the remainder of that most bitter night I lay quietly in my bed, visualizing the consternation that would shake the Wolseley Works when the cable arrived, visualizing Thomas’s anger, the dreadful business of home-coming that we had cherished so long, the end of the attempt of the Cape Record. Every now and again the horror of these ghastly moments would come over me again, the black abyss, the blow, the crashing of timber during our uncontrolled passage along the bridge. The awful leap into the blackness below, the struggle for life in the black water, the hideous memory of crouching there on the side of the car just above the oily water streaking past and the great bridge with the eloquent gap in its rail towering above our heads against the starry sky. I fought these visions away, but they would keep recurring. But mostly the feeling of that ghastly leap down into the black night. I was not thankful for our miraculous escape; for Humfrey’s, yes, but not for my own. Bitterness flooded me so that I wished I was lying still and cold with our beloved Wolseley beneath the black river. For everything was lost now. Dreams and plans and visions of triumph. There remained only the hideous memory of that awful fall. That and the bitterness of Humfrey’s goodness. No, not a nice night.

Chapter 18 – Part 1

Chapter 18“As we drove past the trunks of the mighty trees, strewn asunder and dragged clear by the working party, we decided that if we were ever again caught in a storm in a forest we would stop at the first convenient clearing. Everywhere along the road there were traces of the great storm, trees had fallen in the forest and were leaning against their neighbours, and debris of branches and boughs were scattered far and wide. The road was perfectly dry and the conditions perfect. We were very contented, feeling fit and refreshed after our good night’s sleep. Of course the delay was a nuisance and had upset our schedule completely. Whereas, at the ferry across the River Bibi, some 20 miles before we met the storm, we had been a mere matter of 2 hours 40 minutes late, we were now hopelessly behind. Actually about 16 hours and this meant a complete reorganization of our plans. We decided, however, to do nothing about it until we reached Juba in the British Sudan, about 800 miles further on. There we should be in direct telegraphic communication with Nairobi and could telegraph fresh instructions as to the time we shall arrive there. Meanwhile there was nothing to do except to plod steadily along. Only one thing we would have to do and that would be to send a telegram from Buta, 170 miles ahead, to the Governor of the Southern Sudan at Juba, to inform him of our delay. The reason for this was that we had expected to arrive at Juba in the early hours of tonight, about one in the morning, and he had kindly promised to arrange for the ferry which does not normally cross the river after dark to be waiting for us to take us over to the eastern bank. We could not now hope to arrive at Juba before the next afternoon and we felt that it would only be polite to send a telegram. Actually this telegram was never sent from Buta, because we were told on our arrival there that we should certainly get to Juba before the telegram! As events turned out, it was just as well we did not wire. While we were discussing these matters, we passed through a large native village which seemed, even to our not very interested eyes, to be in an unusual state of alertness.  A quarter of a mile on we found the cause. A huge tree, six feet across the trunk, lay squarely across the road, felled by the storm of the previous night.

We had hardly stopped, with a few hearty causes at the prospect of a fresh delay, when from the village there came running men, women and children. In this neighbourhood where storms are frequent and trees are often down across the road, the villagers are responsible, as a part of their dues to the Belgian authorities, for removing any such obstacles and keeping the roads clear. I hesitate to impart commercial motives to these untutored sons of nature, but I think there can be little doubt that they had known of this tree blocking the road and had been hoping for just an eventuality as had occurred, the arrival of a car, before they felt compelled to clear it away! Obviously it was likely to be more profitable to await the arrival of travellers rather than to clear the road without anyone having any knowledge of their good work!

I will say that those natives knew their job. Men, women and children attacked the tree. The men with swinging blows from their axes chopped the tree into three, while women and children tore away smaller branches. In 36 minutes they had finished the job, rolling away the centre portion to leave a passage for the car. Humfrey filmed the scene as they pushed the centre portion clear and I drove the car slowly through. After distributing the necessary largesse in the form of small change and cigarettes we drove on, hoping fervently that this sort of thing was not going to occur every 20 miles.

Shortly after, we drove down the slope to the ferry at the trading station of Bondo, an important place on the banks of the great River Wele. The ferry, a regular super-ferry this one with a crew of about 30, was on our side and we were over and away in 15 minutes. Here we left the great forest region and entered the fertile fields of the great Belgian colony, where the land was tilled and cotton was the staple crop. A cotton field is a pretty sight; cotton grown on long stalks about four feet high and each stalk is topped with a fluffy white ball, so that the field looks for all the world like a gigantic bed of white flowers. It is a smiling, pleasant, prosperous neighbourhood and every now and again we would pass huge red brick ginneries of the Cotton Co. It is a thickly populated country and we began to feel as though we had reached civilization at last. 30 miles after Bondo we crossed the river Likati by a most ingenious method, which filled us with delight because it saved so much time. Here the road climbs steeply up to the railway track, for there is an old railway here that , according to the map, begins nowhere and ends nowhere, a native comes forward, takes 10 francs as a ferry fee, opens the gate and one drives across the river along the bridge which carries the single line railway. Presumably his job is to see that one doesn’t meet a train on the bridge but – well, natives are not notoriously efficient!

Eight miles on, one crosses the Likati again, but this time by a normal type of native ferry. We had covered the 38 miles from Bondo in 64 minutes including the railway bridge ferry, so it can be judged that the road is not bad. The road – or track or whatever one likes to call it – is sandy and smooth and makes very pleasant and comfortable travelling. It is not, of course, a made road in the sense that roads in Europe are: by this I mean that it is not installed, but is simply the smooth beaten natural soil. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. It was a lovely day, not too hot, with a bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine: the country had a pleasant aspect and even record-breaking motorists have a preference for agreeable scenery! We were fresh after our good night’s sleep and the car, needless to say, was running perfectly. What more could the heart of man desire? We were very happy and contented. The date, January the 1st, then meant nothing to us except that it was New Years day. It bore no hint of the disaster ahead.

It was 1.39 pm when we drove into Buta, where we were due to re-fuel at the Shell Depot, here as throughout the Congo, known as SEDEC. We had only averaged 30m.p.h. from the Likati ferry, the reason being, I think, that we had been enjoying ourselves too much to want to hurry – all time motorists will know what I mean! After some little difficulty we found the Shell Depot where there was, a delightful surprise, an Englishman in charge. He said that he had been told to expect us the night before and had waited up for us. We had, therefore, to explain our delay. We refueled from a Shell pump, gave the steering a shot from the grease gun and drove to the hotel. It is a most swagger affair, this Hotel Vicicongo, one enters a large lounge on dining room with a shining bar in one corner and we felt suddenly that we needed lunch. Madame was agreeable to supply us although it was well past the usual hours and we sat down at a proper table, with a cloth and shining cutlery. Except for the fact that the servants were black one might have been in a comfortable provincial hotel in France or Belgium. It was all most sophisticated. After an excellent lunch we set off again, having spent 1 hour and 8 minutes at Buta. A grievous waste of time, but we were quite contented to loaf on this most delightful of days. It was a quarter to three when we left and we were anxious to reach the ferry – once again across the River Uele – at Bambili, our last Congo ferry, before it was dark as there was some doubt as to whether it could be persuaded to function after night fell. It was 132 miles to Bambili and the country became gradually less appealing and began to take on the dried up look that reminded us of French Equatorial Africa, but the road remained good and we covered the 132 miles in 3 hours and 23 minutes, exactly one minute under schedule (with which accurate forecast I was highly delighted). We reached the River Uele at 9 minutes past six and were unlucky enough to find the ferry on the opposite side bringing a lorry across. So it was 25 minutes before we were over and away on the other side. It was then quite dark, but the night of January the 1st meant nothing particular to us yet.”


Chapter 17 A Narrow Escape

Chapter 17

“As we left Monga and drove towards the east, we saw in the sky ahead a flicker of lightening. I think that both of us saw this, but we each carefully refrained from making any remark about it. As we neared the ferry 9 miles beyond Monga the flashes became so frequent and so obvious that it was impossible to ignore them any longer. Humfrey said, “I do hope that doesn’t mean a storm ahead, Bertie.”

“Oh, no,” I answered as casually as I could manage, “only summer lightening.”

We went on kidding ourselves in this way as we drove the car on to the ferry, crossed over the small River Bili and landed on the other side. But soon it wasn’t any good pretending any more that it was only summer lightening. Darkness fell as we started off again from the ferry and ahead of us all across the black sky, brilliant flashes of lightening flickered. The lightening was not just in individual flashes, as we see in our English thunderstorms but it was absolutely continuous: in five or six different places in the sky at the same time the jagged streaks flared out, so that it was just like some giant pyrotechnic display or as if some small boy was playing with the electric light switch. When we had covered some ten miles or so, the storm seemed to roll away to the north and we began to hope that it might have passed before we passed its path. Suddenly, while we were discussing the possibility a roaring peal of thunder crashed out, and right across the sky, directly on our path, the lightening flared.

“We’re in for it, Bertie,” said Humfrey.

“I’m afraid we are, “I replied.”

They drove into the Congo forest with trees as tall as 80 – 90 feet in height. The storm was all around them with lightening flashing and thunder crashing as the rain came cascading down – the windscreen wiper was unable to deal with the torrential rain. They drove in second gear at 10 miles an hour. The thunder got louder and suddenly Humfrey jammed on the brakes so fiercely as to lock the wheels and we stopped just 100 yards from where, a huge great tree, 80 feet high or more, lay white-hot and smoking directly across the road. They only had a small axe and they needed help. Their log book had a record from the previous trips that there was “a European house on the right.” Humfrey decided to go and try to find the house armed with only a torch.  Bertie was quite nervous about Humfrey being in the forest on his own and he started to fear the worst. Finally Bertie decided to get out the car and call for Humfrey. At last Bertie saw the beam from the torch and was relieved to see Humfrey.

“I told him that I had thought of a gorilla. He replied that he was glad that hadn’t occurred to him, but he had decided, as he could see no sign of any village and it was most inadvisable to wander about Africa in the dark armed only with a torch, to return to the car. I said I had been terrified.”

They turned the car with some difficulty and decided to return the 20 miles to the ferry. They were creeping slowly along while feeling disconsolate “when I suddenly shouted “Look, Humfrey, the European house! there on the right! I remember it quite well.”

“We must have passed it in the rain storm,” said Humfrey, “without seeing it.” He turned in at the gateway, stopped in the compound outside the door, and blew the horn. A young Belgian by the name of de Boose appeared – he was home as it was New Year’s night. He invited them in for dinner and organized about 30 natives to go and remove the tree. de Boose exclaimed to Humfrey and Bertie “Good heavens! You took the most fearful risk in continuing to drive through the forest in the storm. If one is caught anywhere near here when the trees are so thick there is only one thing to do and that is quickly to find a clearing where there are no tall trees on either side that can reach the road if they fall and stop in that clearing until the storm has ceased”.

Later that evening the foreman sent back a message that there were in fact 6 trees that had fallen. “Six trees in half a mile! Humfrey and I looked at each other but neither of us voiced the thought that was in the minds of us both. We must have stopped on the very fringe of the storm’s path! Our tree was the first! There were five others down in half a mile! Suppose we had been a quarter of a mile further on, in the midst of those six falling trees! Well! We looked at each other and silently lifted our glasses.”

Bertie slept well but Humfrey had a buzzing in his ears. “He put this down to the effect of the continuous travelling telling upon his nerves.”

They woke early to find the sun shining in a cloudless sky and enjoyed a hearty breakfast. Humfrey thanked de Boose and his men and he paid the men a couple of hundred francs and some cigarettes for their assistance.

“Our good engine sprang to life at the first touch of the starter in spite of its soaking of the night before and at five minutes past eight we drove away with heart-felt thanks to our young host for his hospitality.”

Chapter 16: The Belgian Congo. 77 miles 31 December 1938

Chapter 16

“At last Humfrey arrived and we boarded the ferry for the long paddle across the river. We had arrived at Bangasson at 1.25pm and by the time we drove away from the Belgian side of the ferry it was 3.55. Actually our stop here had not occupied 2½ hours, but 1½, as we had here put our clock on 1 hour to compensate for the later time as we travelled east. None the less it was now 3.55. We had been due to leave Bangasson at 1.30, so we were 2½ hours behind schedule. Still, we had now travelled over 5000 miles, so perhaps it was not so bad.

It is worthy of mention that, in an account which I read lately of a journey across Africa by car, the author wrote “our passage across French Equatorial Africa brought us the worst roads of the whole of our journey from Rhodesia to Algiers and it took us six days of really hard driving before we reached the border of The French Cameroon.” Six days of really hard driving! It had taken us exactly 30 hours!! Such is the difference between touring and record-breaking! We left the ferry over the Ugangi River and drove, over a very indifferent and disappointing road, to Monga, a pleasant little place where is the Belgian Customs Post was. A Belgian flag floats proudly from a tall flag pole in front of a white thatched building where a cordial and efficient official stamped our papers, while expressing the usual amazement at the date of our entry at Algiers. “Ma Foi,” said he, “you arrive at Algiers on the 25th and it is now already only the 31st. Six days! Incoyable! Incroyable!” He repeated “Incroyable!” under his breath at intervals as he completed the necessary forms. Then “Combien de distance?” he inquired. We informed him that it was almost exactly 4000 miles or 6400 kilometres. “Mon dieu” said he “more than 600 miles” factually he said “1000 kilometres a day! Incroyable!”

He was going on with further questions when Humfrey politely interrupted him by informing him that we were anxious to get as far as we could before darkness fell and, shaking hands warmly with us, he let us go.

We drove off quickly along the – so called – Route Royale or Royal Road, which runs for 1000 miles along the northern border of the vast province of the Congo Belge. We heard in the distance the roar of the waterfall which had its being at Monga, but which we have never yet been able to spare the time to visit.”

This is  very short one page account. Chapter 17 is a narrow escape from danger going through the Congo forest.

Footnote by Bertie in his diary – written Tuesday night 5th Dec. (most probably in 1950)

Who was Bertie

Over the past several weeks I have had lots of help trying to put together a record of Bertie’s life. Many thanks to Jocelyn Martin and Richard Armstrong via Facebook and Sue Naylor for her genealogy skills.

So here’s what we know about him. His full name was Herbert Brooks Browning – born on 11th January 1884. His parents were Captain Hugh Edmond and May Browning. He was baptised on the 27th February 1884. (See below).

Bertie's birth notice

His family lived on the Clapham Park Estate in one of the lodges called ‘Woodlands’.

He was one of at least 6 siblings and the household had eight domestic staff, including a governess.

He attended Eton College from the Michaelmas Half of 1897 to the Michaelmas Half of 1901. His Housemasters were C. Lowry (until 1900) and J.M. Dyer. His tutors were C. Lowry and T.F. Cattley.

He married Hilda Harriet Mason in Chelsea in 1906. I have not been able to get any further details of their marriage. Hilda passed away on 2nd February 1958 at 31 Queens Gate Kensington. By 1911 he was living at 47 West Kensington and his profession was listed as ‘motor cab proprietor’.

HB Marriage (2)

Bertie served in France during World War 1 – many thanks to Eton College’s archivist, Georgina Robinson for his war record. (See below).


His service number was 32222. From his enlistment records he was 5 feet 7¾ inches in height.

From the 1933 electoral roll, he was living alone in a flat at 8 Raglan Court, Raglan Gardens (now named Empire Way), Wembley Park.

It appears that in 1938 he was living in Brad House, Bradpole, Dorest, which is the address given on his travel record when he and Humfrey returned from South Africa on the Capetown Castle.

In the 1939 Register Bertie was recorded as living in military quarters in Barrack Road, Weymouth, working as a ‘civilian transport officer’, probably under the control of the RASC. Six civilian lorry drivers and a chauffeur were also living at the same address.

In December 1948, Bertie travelled on the Edinburgh Castle from Southampton to Cape Town. Final destination was ‘SR’ which is presumably Southern Rhodesia. His last address in Britain – not necessarily permanent – was a hotel in Dorking. So that may be from where he emigrated to Que Que, Southern Rhodesia now Zimbabwe.

He passed away on the 28th September 1959 in Que Que. His death notice was published in the The Times (London, England), Wednesday, 7th October 1959.

Bertie's Death Notice

His estate wasn’t settled until May 1964 – he left £3259 in England.

Below are other documents relating to Bertie’s during World War 1.

Bertie War Record

Bertie Medals




Chapter 15 Bambaie – Bangasson 222 miles 31 December 1938

Chapter 15

“Away to the east dawn was breaking as I drove away from the Shell agents. It was 5.53 and we had spent an hour and 3 minutes here, including crossing the ferry. I had allowed one hour, so my estimate was fairly correct. We were now 2 hours and 3 minutes late.

The Shell agent had warned us to be careful as there had been heavy rain and the road would be wet and slippery. Humfrey was asleep again as I drove off over the hilly road towards the Belgian Congo and I was not at all happy. Here the country changed completely. It was green and fertile with high rolling hills, a contrast to the burnt-up flat desolation of the district round Fort Archambault. The reason I was unhappy was that the track wound up and down exceedingly steep hills, generally with a narrow track that was wet and exceedingly slippery. I wasn’t happy. I seemed to be crawling but I daren’t go any faster. 40 mph felt like a hundred and the car skidded under the brakes in a most unpleasant fashion. Eventually I developed the correct technique for the type of surface and contour. Racing flat out in third up a long straight climb, I would go into top gear at the summit and get up to 50 mph. When half way down the other side a change down to third, gentle braking and into second reduced my speed to about 25 mph at which I felt content to cross the narrow plank bridge: then accelerate hard and into third again for the next rise. But it was worrying work on the slippery surface.

Humfrey sat up and yawned “What the hell are you doing, Bertie?” he inquired, mildly. “You seem to be changing gear every 100 yards.”

“Sorry,” I said “But the road is wet and damned slippery.”

He sat up suddenly at that and looked out through the windscreen. “Gosh,” he said, as we shot across another narrow bridge. Then, “I’m feeling fine now; like me to take her?”

“Yes, rather,” I said, and we effected he desired change. I had no desire to sleep now that it was daylight and we changed the seat into its upright position for day travelling. I leaned back, snuggling down on to the comfortable Dunlopillo cushions, and enjoyed watching Humfrey cope with the conditions. His tactics were the same as those I had employed but we did not seem to be making very rapid progress. I said “I’m afraid I’ve been awfully slow but I was frightened of the wet roads.”

“I expect it’ll be all right,” said he “I wouldn’t worry.”

“I’m not worrying, “I said, “I’m as happy as a king,” and I sang a little song. I have as much ear for music as a cow. Humfrey laughed. “Shut up, Bertie” he said.

Down a steep slope we went and came to a stream running between tree-lined banks. This is the Banqui, which swells into a mighty river before it joins the Congo, 700 or 800 miles away south, down near the west coast, though here, near its source, it is only about 100 yards wide. We were again fortunate enough to find the ferry on our side and quickly were put across to the other side. This ferry is operated in a very simple manner. There is a wire rope stretched from bank to bank and natives, standing in the canoes which form the floats for the platform, pull hand over hand on this wire and so propel their craft across. This ferry only delayed us 14 minutes from the time we stopped until we were away again.

When we got on the move, I consulted the log and found that, whereas we were allowed 2 hours 1 minute for the 93 miles from Bambari we had taken 2 hours and 9 minutes. We had averaged 34½ mph so I need not have been so despairing at the slow progress I was making over the early part. We had saved 6 minutes at the ferry on the 20 minutes allowed, so we were only 2 minutes down from Bambari, though actually we were now 2 hours and 3 minutes behind on schedule time.

I gave these figures as a sample of the kind of calculations that were going on continuously inside our car as we travelled across Africa, for on a journey like ours, this matter of time-keeping becomes as absolute obsession. While we were still in French Equatorial Africa it was a matter of some importance, too, for the ferries here do not function during the hours of darkness, as they do in the Belgian Congo, our next objective. We had only 150 miles to cover to reach Bangasson, the eastern frontier of the huge territory of French Equatorial Africa: in this 150 miles there were 3 ferries and as it was only 8.16 in the morning when we left the Bangui ferry we were quite safe in reckoning that we should be out of French Equatorial Africa and into the Belgian Congo long before darkness fell and the ferries stopped running for the night.

It is jolly country, this eastern end of the huge French province, green and fertile, with great rolling hills: it was pleasant to see once again trees that really looked like living things and not like ghosts of some long dead vegetation, with bare withered trunks and brown dry leaves. We enjoyed our drive over the comparatively sandy road through this pleasant country under the as-yet-not-too-hot rays of the morning sun. It was comforting not to be thrown off one’s seat every 100 yards or so and we felt it was a nice rest for our much-tired chassis.

63 miles on, we arrived at Fort Ombala – a name which Humfrey loves, he says that it reminds him of a thunder storm! – a large village on the banks of the broad River Kotto. The approach to this seemed different, somehow, to what we had expected. We were sure that the road had led through pleasant shady avenues where large native houses stood far apart and the office of the administrator, to whom we had delivered a letter from his offices at Bangasson on our return journey in the Rolls Royce, was a delightful thatched bungalow.

This road we were on seemed quite definitely to be bearing away and leaving the village far away to our left. It was obviously new, surfaced with deep red sand and with its path carved deep out of the red banks of earth on either side. It was not only new, it was exceedingly slippery so it was in a most cautious fashion that we descended to the river by the new Ombala bye-pass.

The Kotto is wide and lazy as it floats serenely between its tree-lined banks, and the blue water looked most tempting under the now rising heat of the African sun. It was seven minutes past ten when we arrived at the bank. We took a long 31 minutes to get across, when we left our log showed us to be 2 hours and 20 minutes late on schedule. We didn’t care much. The road was at least respectable, the country was pleasant, the car was running well, the sun was shining, though too fiercely perhaps! At Bangasson we should enter the Belgian Congo where the road, sandy but smooth, we knew to be better than anything we had found since we left the tarred road away back in Algeria. In addition, throughout the Belgian Congo territory, even though at fairly long intervals there are really comfortable hotels – at the one at Buta there is even a bar! -, there are telegraph offices (though cables cost a fortune), there are many places with white inhabitants; in a word, there is civilization, so we were eagerly looking forward to our arrival in that civilized country. We had no inkling of the tragic disaster that the Belgian Congo held for us.

On and on under the rising temperature as the sun climbed to its zenith and the thermometer inside the car rose to 100 degrees: through a big native village where the inhabitants gazed at us curiously, till we arrived at another ferry over the river Korro. They are an efficient lot, these natives of the Korro ferry and a cheery crowd to book, for they sang a cheerful song – after Humfrey had held up a 10 franc note with the magic word “Cadeau” – we were soon across in 17 minutes we were off again on the 11 mile run to Bangasson.

This is a large and important place. A big native settlement and the seat of the local administration, with fine white buildings in the native style, looking cool and clean with their reed thatched roofs and wide shady verandahs. It was very hot in Bangasson at 1.25pm and we fairly sweated under the brassy sky as we re-fuelled at the Shell agency. The engine appeared to need a little oil to bring up the level, so I attempted to remove the gallon can which we carried in clamps under the bonnet. After several tries, using large quantities of rags as insulators. I desisted. The can was far too hot to touch even through half a dozen thicknesses of rags! We therefore took a supply of Shell oil from the agency though it was thinner than the kind we were using. We felt that our good engine would not resent such a minor detail as the use of Double instead of Triple.

The re-fuelling completed we drove to the administration office to have our triptyque stamped on leaving French territory for Belgian. Humfrey went in while I sat in the car outside. Minute by minute the interior of the car, already like a furnace, grew hotter as the sun blazed down on the roof and I sat, dripping with perspiration. For half an hour Symons endeavoured to get away while the administrators to whom of course time was no object chatted away about the European situation! Humfrey is always polite under these circumstances: indeed, in my opinion, ultra-polite, though we always made appoint of making ourselves as civil as possible to all the officials and indeed to anybody else we met as we looked upon ourselves, in a very humble degree of course, as ambassadors from our own country to Frenchmen and Belgians. It would be better for the reputation of Englishmen and, may I add Englishwomen, if other travellers adopted a similar attitude for we have been told, in conversation with many of these most helpful dwellers in  far off places, the most grisly tales of the way in which they have been treated by people of our nationality. We have many times blushed with shame at these stories, told without resentment or rancour, of the ill manners of travellers. It is an attitude that I do not comprehend – this unpleasantness to foreigners (though in fact we are of course the foreigners in French or Belgian territory). Civility costs nothing – that is something more than a cliché and my experience is that there is nothing that anyone, Frenchmen, Belgian, Englishmen, or South Africa, white, black or brown, will not do to assist a traveller who appealed to for help in a civil friendly way. I do like to think that wherever Humfrey and I have travelled, we have perhaps left people with a better impression of Englishmen than they appear to have had before.

So Humfrey inwardly itching to get away but outwardly thrilled by the conversation of the French official, for half an hour while I remained outside sweltering in the sun and frenzied with impatience. At last he managed to excuse himself and to tear himself away. We drove down to the ferry across the great River Ubangi, already here, some six hundred miles from its union with the mighty Congo, a quarter of a mile wide – we found the interior of the car so appallingly hot that we took refuge under a tree on the river bank while awaiting the arrival of the ferry which is manned by natives from the farther, the Belgian Congo shore.”