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.