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).

Eton

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.”

Chapter 14 Fort Archambault – Bambari 335 miles 30/31 December 1938

Chapter 14

“We left Fort Archambault at 4.27, having stopped there 48 minutes, instead of our scheduled 19 minutes. This made me very cross because it meant that we were now 27 minutes late, and I hate to be late. We knew that our next stretch of 335 miles to Bambari comprised some of the worst roads we should meet with in the whole journey; but we were glad that we were to cover this stretch by night, because the country is monotonously uninteresting and we remembered the awful heat we had endured here in the Rolls Royce. Our schedule allowed us 11 hours for the 335 miles, that is 30 miles an hour and we looked forward to jogging quietly along through the night without any attempt to hurry. The track did not seem as bad as before, which was no doubt due to the superlative springing and general comfort of the Wolseley. We made very good progress until darkness fell and for some time after, but soon after passing Ndipi, 148 miles from Fort Archambault, we suddenly came to a barrier across the road. This was a wide piece of board, supported on two trestles: chalked on it were the words “Port detruit: route barrée”, and that was all. Nice! The bridge over a wide stream was down and the road was closed. Very nice indeed! So what does one do next? There were two obvious courses. One was to remove the barrier and proceed, hoping that we might find some way of circumventing the broken bridge: the other was to find some way of avoiding the obstacle altogether. We got out our French military maps and studied the matter. The result was not promising for the maps shows no other route from here to Fort Crampel. We had just established this fact and were contemplating an assault on the barrier when Humfrey’s luck, to which I have previously referred, came to our rescue. It didn’t look very promising at first, this bit of luck. It took the shape of a native, dressed in ragged trousers, an even more ragged pullover, and a battered hat, but it was really Humfrey’s good angel looming up out of the black night. The native approached the car, gravely raising his hat with true Gallic politeness. Humfrey addressed him, not very hopefully, in French, for neither of us speak a word of any native language. “Did he speak French?”  “Que, monsieurs.” (Humfrey’s Good angel!) He explained in broken African French that he was the foreman of the bridge-repairing gang and was at our service. Could we get over? Alas, not for many days would the bridge be passable. Was there any other way of getting to Fort Crampel certainly, we must go down this narrow track to our right for 40 kilometres, there we would turn sharply left and rejoin another track that would lead us to Fort Crampel.

That seemed sufficient for us. To find a bridge irreparably broken, to meet with the foreman who could speak a few words of French, to be told by him of a way of avoiding the broken bridge: all this is child’s play to Humfrey’s good angel and is an instance of the kind of providence that watches over its chosen. We were to meet with other instances of it in circumstances that meant the difference between life and death. But those circumstances were, at the moment, fortunately wrapped in the mists of the future. Thanking our good friend and bestowing upon him the largesse much appreciated by natives, a handful of my cigarettes – Humfrey does not smoke – we turned off down the narrow track to which he had pointed. It was no worse than the one we had quitted and we made good progress, running at a steady 35mph while Humfrey, having done his part by conjuring up the vision of the native foreman, slept serenely in the bed by my side.”

Bertie drove and finally he was delighted to come to a sign “and there fastened to a tree – oh joy of joys! was a dirty piece of board on which were chalked the words “Fort Crampel” and an arrow.”

“It always gave me an eerie feeling, this night driving; for with the long white path of the headlamps, shining ahead, the windscreen gave the impression that one was looking out at a lighted landscape from a dark room; inside the car it was inky black with only the faint yellow glow from the illuminated dials on the instrument board to make one realize that one was actually driving a car: dimly I could see, or rather sense, Humfrey’s recumbent form as he lay beside me wrapped in rugs. It seemed so  intensely lonely. There were no signs of life such as one sees when driving at night in England, dogs, cats and rabbits with, now and then, a belated pedestrians, cyclist or motorist. Here there was nothing, no sign of life of any kind, nothing. Only the night breeze raised by the car’s passage through the air and the steady whisper of the engine. Everything seemed very silent and it was hard to keep awake. There were no features to mark the passing of the miles; the scene was always the same as it rolled across the lighted screen of the headlamp beams. Eternal scrub and a few trees and more scrub: the yellow sandy track and the scrub. One had the illusion that one was not moving, that in spite of the evidence of the lighted speedometer dial with its hand pointing to 30mph,one felt that in reality the car and the eternal scrub were standing still and that when dawn broke, one would find oneself still in the same place”.

“As I was driving along, semi-somnolent and struggling with the desire for sleep, suddenly the trees receded and the line of telegraph poles ran across a little clearing. I was following them quite confidently, being convinced that they would lead me across the cleared space to pick up the track again on the other side. Then I got an awful fright. From the blackness of the car, a voice screamed out “Look out!” in a tone of horror and a vice like grip clutched my left arm. Heart in my mouth, I stamped violently on the brakes and brought the car to rest. “What is it?” I gasped.

Humfrey was sitting up beside me. “I’m most awfully sorry, Bertie” he said, “I must have been dreaming. I could have sworn you were heading straight for a great tree.”

“My God.” I replied, “You frightened me to death,” for my heart was beating like a  hammer. 

“I’m terribly sorry, Bertie,” he said. “I’ve never done such a thing before. I can’t think why I did it.”

I said, “I simply can’t drive anymore. I was frightened to death. Frightened to death,” I repeated stupidly.

“Here,” said Humfrey, reaching behind him in the darkness, “take a drink of this,” and he held out a cup of whisky. I drank it down but I was shivering so that I thought I was going to faint.

“I can’t go on,” I uttered.

“You must,” said Humfrey. “I promise you I shan’t do it again.” He was quite right, of course, though I was so shaken that I couldn’t see it. If I had given up that wheel then, I should never have been the same again while driving at night. The only thing to do was to go on now while the incident was still fresh in my mind and drive through the nervous attack bought on by the sudden shock. After a well known racing driver had had a narrow escape from death while practicing at Brooklands, a wise friend forced him to get into another car immediately and do five or six really fast laps and though his shattered nerves cried out against this brutality, his friend was right. After completing his fast laps, he regained his confidence and the narrow escape never affected him again. The well-known racing driver was the late Comet Zborowski and the wise friend that old hand, Lionel Martin. The story is well-known to all Brooklands habitués. So Humfrey was right and, with quivering nerves, I went on driving. For a short time Humfrey sat erect by my side, but when he sensed that I had recovered and was no longer shaking with apprehension, he quietly lay down and, when next I gave a thought to him, he was sleeping like a child. I never thought of the incident again but the experience was an unpleasant one. Desire for sleep had gone and I quite enjoyed the driving. We never attempted to do anything but crawl during the night hours when one of us was asleep, content with the knowledge that the miles were slipping away behind us and this quiet night driving would have been really pleasant if it had not been for this awful battle with the desire for sleep. We realized now, for the first time, what an immense additional strain we were to undergo, owing to the fact that when one of us was sleeping the driver had no one to talk to. A third driver would have made all the difference as two would have been awake while the third slept. We had, in fact always when discussing an attempt on the Cape Record contemplated having three drivers for this very reason, but lack of space and the wish to save the additional, not inconsiderable, weight had forced us to abandon the idea for this run. The lack of a third driver was to prove a very heavy additional strain on our nerves throughout. But it was unavoidable”.

Bertie handed over to Humfrey and slept like a log. The detour had added 29 miles to their journey.

“Before taking over from Humfrey, I took a glance at the log to refresh my memory because I remember that at a place called Moronbas, we had on a previous trip been in some doubt as to which track to follow, as there was a fork with no sign. I wanted to be sure now far ahead this place lay. I can only say that I never saw it. Whether we were following a different track, I don’t know, but the one we were following did not agree in any particular way with my recollection. However, I arrived at a T road and found an immense sign board on which, among the names, I was able to pick out Bambari, though as I swung round the corner I was not able to see how far away it was. I did not want to stop unless I could avoid it, as I have learnt by experience that to stop the car almost invariably causes a sleeping passenger to awake. I wanted Humfrey to stay asleep. Several times after this, the track turned or joined others and I followed blindly a series of these enormous sign boards, on each of which I discovered as the bottom name the word “Bambari”. At last, I came to one facing me so that as the headlamps illuminated it some 200 yards ahead I as to get a good look at it. It said Bambari 50; that meant 50 kilometres or about 31 miles. It was now four o’clock in the morning, so we should be in Bambari by 5. I couldn’t remember what time we were due there and couldn’t really be bothered about it. All I knew was that another hour would see us there. Soon it would be daylight and another of these torturing nights with its amazing longing for sleep would be over”.

 “Suddenly the track sloped steeply downward and rounded a sharp bend to the right. Oh yes, I remember this. It was called in the log “Steep descent” and as I braked for the corner, Humfrey woke, sat up, yawned, and asked the inevitable question “Where are we, Bertie?” he said. “About 25 miles from Bambari,” I said. “O.K.” he replied, “are you all right? If so, I shall go to sleep again.”

Bertie had ‘beastly doubts’ that they had strayed off the track and then they may have insufficient petrol to get back and reach their next refueling station. As he said – “Ugh! These worries frayed the nerves and gave us moments of acute and quite unnecessary misery.”

They eventually found the track and checked “The dashboard clock said 4.50 and the log told us that we were due here at 2.50 so we were 2 hours late: ½ hour late leaving Fort Archambault, say an hour for our discussion with the foreman and the 29 miles detour: this meant that we had only actually lost ½ hour and this was due to our slow speed through the night.”

They had arranged with the Shell Company that they would be re-fueling at 2.50 in the morning and they were wondering if the instruction had arrived from England. They stopped on the river bank with the Wolseley’s headlights throwing a powerful beam across the river and woke the sleeping crew of the ferry.

“They had been sleeping in their canoes awaiting us. It was a triumph for our organization and for that of the Shell Company. We drove on to the ferry and set off for the farther bank, blowing several lusty blasts on our twin horns to warn the Shell agents that we were coming.”

Once they drove off the ferry, they found the Shell pump and were greeted by a young Frenchman who had been waiting since 2am for their arrival.

“We told him that we were sorry to be late and thanked him for the arrangements he had made for the ferry. We refilled our tank while the Frenchman kindly produced for us coffee and biscuits. Then I spied a jug of water and at our request he bought out a large basin. We stripped off our shirts and had a much needed wash, the first we had had since leaving Marona 1000 miles back.”

Keeping in touch

Hi to the Cape Record blog readers.

I can see that there are many people from all over the world having a look at the blog and I’d love some feedback about how you are enjoying Bertie’s diary. I’m busy with Chapter 14 Fort Archambault – Bambari 335 miles 30/31 December 1938.

You can email me at cwilkin@iafrica.com

Capture

Chapter 13 Masona – Fort Archambault 384 miles 30 December 1938

Chapter 13

“I slept like a rock for an hour after we started, as Humfrey had another hour’s driving to do, and afterwards he slept while I drove steadily on in the darkness over rough track. The character of the country was now changing from the Cameroons with its plentiful rainfall induced by the lofty peaks of the Cameroon mountains and its ample vegetation. We were now to enter that bleak desolate region known as the French Equatorial Africa, a huge bare country stretching for 800 miles from east to west. And the character of the road, or track, alters also. In the Cameroons the surface is mostly comprised of earth, soft and yielding, but in French Equatorial Africa it is hard, rocky and appallingly rough. The tracks in French Equatorial Africa are as bad as, or worse than, those of any other parts of the journey from Algiers to Cape Town and one is liable, unless one is cautious, to break something at almost any minute by hitting rock or gully in some inattentive moment, so the watchword was caution.

It was 5.25 in the morning, and still dark, when I pulled up on the bank of the great Logone River, a mighty stream that rises far away in the mountains, 800 miles to the south, and eventually discharges into Lake Chad, 150 miles to the north, that swamp like lake that has no outlet to the sea. The Logone River is a sluggish stream, wandering through almost flat country and at Bongor its width would be about a quarter of a mile.

Humfrey awoke as I stopped the car and we stared across the river at the village lying on the far side. Not a light was to be seen and it was obvious that we were too early. It was 5.25. Humfrey suggested trying the horn and the headlamps, so for some minutes I blew piercing blasts on our twin horns and switched on and off our brilliant lights. There was no result and the village lay black across the river.  At last away down to our right, we saw this sparkle of flames which soon revealed itself to be a blazing fire. Once again I tried the horn and lights, with no result. We had hoped that someone, hearing the noise and seeing the lights, might call the crew of the ferry but the village lay wrapped in darkness, except for a few dim figures that we could see against the flames of the fire.

At last we became philosophic. It was clear that nothing was going to bring the ferry across for us until the crew considered that their working hours had commenced so we decided to employ the time by having breakfast. We made a hearty meal in the growing light of day, occasionally breaking off to send a few more rousing blasts on our horn across the silent river. Breakfast finished and packed away, we sat staring at the village. It was now full daylight and just as we were beginning a new assault with our horns we saw signs of life down by the stream, but in a place quite different from where we had expected the ferry to put out. We watched eagerly and at last it was clear that this was the ferry boat’s crew launching their craft. Soon we saw the crazy affair creeping slowly across sluggish water towards us and as it drew nearer we recognised it. We recognised the “Capitaine” a native who wore the same ragged blue trousers, the same tattered brown overcoat, and the same solar toupee as when we had passed here two years before! We recognised too, the colossal four-cylinder outboard motor which projected far out over the stern.

This ferry, except for the outboard motor, is typical of all the ferries in Central Africa, so one description will do for the lot. It consisted of four or five dug out canoes, wooden logs almost 60 feet long, pointed at the bows and square at the stern, the inside hollowed out by fire. The canoes are fastened side by side to a wooden platform resting upon them across their width: this platform being about 20 feet long and eight feet wide. And that is all. The crew stands in the dugout canoes and propel their crazy craft by means of paddles, one of them usually giving the time by means of a chanted song. The crews vary considerably in temperament: some are light and merry, chanting in unison and laughing like happy children, others are somber and rather miserable-looking. The Bangor crew were a gloomy lot and the “Capitaine” a born pessimist.

As they slowly drew nearer, for the river, though seeming to be sluggish has a considerable current and the journey takes a long time; we saw that the outboard motor was not motoring. “Ah” we said laughing, “he’s up to his old ticks again,” for when we crossed here before, the “Capitaine”, in response to him to start it has made signs that he had no oil and it was not until we had supplied him with some of our spare oil that he would start his motor going.

At last the ferry arrived at the bank and the crew, began to hoist up the precarious plank access on which one has to drive onto these ferries. When all was ready, Humfrey drove the car on and we found at once that with our high ground clearance, we had no anxiety about anything. The difficulty is that the slopes down to these ferries are so steep that when the front wheels mount the planks, the tail of the car is apt to strike the ground with a tremendous bang. Almost every time we drove the Rolls Royce on to or off one of these ferries, the tail of the car, beneath which was the exhaust fishtail, used to strike the ground, until eventually the fishtail was so flattened that there appeared to be no egress for the exhaust at all. Our Wolseley’s steeply cambered springs completely obviated this trouble and by degrees we became utterly careless how we drove on and off the ferries. As I anxiously watched Humfrey driving on to this first one it was amusing to see the huge tyres flatten when they came to the cross baulks of timber on the staying, roll themselves lovingly round them and clamber over them. I saw for the first time how much, from the point of view of absorbing shocks, we owed to these tyres and their enormous capacity for swallowing obstacles.

The natives pushed off from the shore and began to paddle. When we pointed to the motor and signed to the “Capitaine” to start it, he shrugged his shoulders and patted the oil tank. We burst out laughing and apparently that made him recognize us, for though he did not manage to raise a smile to his saturnine countenance, he gravely shook us each by the hand. We handed him a tin of Shell oil and, winding a strap round the flywheel, he set the motor going. It was a colossal affair and must have been at least ten horse-power. He dipped the whirling propeller into the water and the ungainly craft shot off at redoubled speed while the paddlers ceased their efforts. Eventually we came alongside and disembarked up a similar narrow plank gangway. The charge at some of these ferries is 10 francs while others are free, in which case one is expected to give 10 francs to the “Capitaine”, so the result is exactly the same whether it is  a free one or not! In addition, we always used to give 5 or 10 francs as a present to the crew. Humfrey would hold up the note so that they could see it and say “Cadeau”. This is a word that they all understood and while the gloomy crews would raise a difficult smile the cheerful ones would burst into a merry song, calling out “mercy monsieur, mercy monsieur.” When we landed, a native soldier saluted and came forward. He climbed on the running board and signed to us to proceed to the Customs House. Humfrey and I had often discussed what would happen if we decided to rush the Customs here, to avoid delay. Suppose that, instead of stopping to pick up the soldier, we were to drive straight off! We were pretty sure that his rifle would not be loaded and, if it were, we were equally sure that he would never hit the car. It was least half a mile to the Customs post from the river and long before he arrived there, we should be past. Bongor is not in telegraphic communication with any other place, though the T.S.F. (Telegraphic Sans Fil – or wireless) was expected to be installed shortly. Well, how would they do anything about it?

It was five minutes past seven when we left the ferry and 7.28 when we got away from the Customs Post, after exchanging the usual remarks when the official noticed with blank astonishment the date of our entry at Algiers. “Messieurs, is it veritably the fact that you did not leave Algiers until the 25th December?” We assured him that it was so “And it is now the 30th December?” We reassured him on this point. “My faith, it is formidable, Formidable!” he would utter, looking at us if he doubted our very existence. This little scene became so familiar to us that we ceased to take any notice of it after a few repetitions, but it was a measure of the amazement created by all out record breaking passage through Africa. We had expected, according to our log, to leave Bongor at 6.30 so we were just an hour late, owing to the dilatoriness of the ferry men.

Bongor was a desolate, gloomy spot only redeemed from sheer ugliness by the neat river Logone that sparkled under the early morning sun like a neat silver ribbon. It is dry, arid and hot. The stunted trees and dried-up vegetation give no shade or air of coolness. I should not like to be an official stationed at Bongor. The natives were a wonderful crowd, most of them, women and men alike, seem to be about six feet tall: they are completely nude except that some of them wear a small piece of string under their waists and the women smoke short pipes. They do not seem a very nice people, as they are inclined to be solemn and uninterested.

It was already hot when we left Bongor by the wide straight sandy track that was beside the great river. The surface of the first part is quite good, though the dust clouds we left behind were terrible – our big soft tyres were demons for raising dust, as we had notice before – and for sheer decency’s sake we felt compelled to slow down for the numerous native villages through which we passed to avoid obliterating them completely. The population in this neighbourhood appears to be fairly plentiful and the country is cultivated for a mile or so on each side of the villages, but it is not an agreeable part of the world. After 94 miles from Bongor, 2 hours and 27 minutes, we had averaged about 38mph and here we had decided to make a deviation from the track we had followed in the Rolls Royce. Our maps showed another track cutting off to the left and joining the one we had previously travelled about 100 miles from the Customs officer at Bongor as to the practicality of this route and we had decided to take it as it saved 30 miles. We found, in fact, that it was no worse than the other and we made quite good speed. The heat was terrific and we were both getting rather peevish when Humfrey gave me an opportunity to vent some of my wrath. The track we were following was comparatively straight when suddenly there loomed up before us a right angled, right-handed bend. It was plain to me that this bend was deep in loose sand, and exceedingly sharp, and that it was quite impossible to get round it at the speed at which we were travelling, some 45 mph. To my unutterable astonishment Humfrey made no move to slow down and we skidded round it in a huge broadside which carried us within inches of the rough bank at the side and which bought my heart into my mouth. I let fly in some of my choicest language and Humfrey retorted in kind. Finally, after some terse exchanges, we simultaneously burst out laughing, and having recovered, Humfrey explained that he simply had no idea why he attempted to get round that corner at an utterly impossible speed. He assured me that he was not sleepy, that he had seen the turn miles away, that he could see it was deep in loose sandy gravel and that, in fact, he had made a bloody fool of himself. After such a hands on admission there was, of course, no more to be said and I think the incident really did us both good. I may add that through the whole of our journey this was the only time Humfrey did a foolish thing and it was the only semblance of a mistake he made in an amazing exhibition of absolutely perfect driving. If one considers that a possibility of making a mistake arose perhaps five times in a mile and that he drove some 5000 miles of our journey to Cape Town, only to make one mistake out of all these opportunities argues a performance which, in most drivers, would be nothing short of miraculous. But not in Humfrey, who is the complete and finished perfect driver.

We plodded on through the uninteresting barren country that is French Equatorial Africa under the blazing heat of the midday sun. The thermometer inside the car was standing at 102 degrees. We were delighted with the green celluloid strips across our windscreen for through the narrow slit between them we could look ahead without screwing up our eyes, but when one looked out of the side windows the whole countryside seemed to be white-hot and burnt colourless in the blinding glare, so that it seared the eyes to look at it. Though we were continually longing to drink we pursued the policy on which we had decided at the start and which we had been advised to observe, the policy of not drinking at all while we were on the move. For it is quite certain that the more one drinks the more one wants to drink and the act of drinking does nothing to assuage one’s thirst but only gives one a momentary gratification of the senses. Occasionally we would eat an orange, the passenger at the moment feeding the driver with quarters and we would suck acid drops, which really quench one’s thirst, at any rate, for the moment. We felt no inclination to eat and indeed only ate to order, so to speak, as a means of keeping up our strength. It is for this reason that I have made no mention of stops for lunch: on rare occasions we would perhaps consume, while still travelling, a tin of fruit, but the contents were usually so warm that any refreshment we might have obtained from them was lost. More and more as our journey proceeded; we cut out any thought of food during the day and only ate either in the early morning or after the sun had set. We were hardly hungry but always thirsty.

As we went on, we found that the steering was again getting stiff and the car again losing its automatic sense of direction. Eventually this became so bad and so tiring that we decided to stop and try the grease gun. It was about 2.30 in the afternoon, the very hottest part of the day, and as we stopped a great wave of heat rolled over us so that every breath scorched the lungs, for with the cessation of forward motion the draught we created by our movement stopped and we felt the full force of the blazing African sun. Even now I can feel that searing heat and see the picture of our car standing in the wide sandy track, the low scrub colourless and withered by the white hot rays of the sun, and Humfrey lying beneath the car while I handed him rags and the grease-gun. He found it impossible to get and grease through the lower nipple on the off side steering post, so I filled an oil gun with oil, already hot, from the spare can under the bonnet and he squirted this all over the steering connections, hoping that some of it would get to the dry place.

Then, quickly replacing oil and grease guns in their clips under the bonnet, we set off again, gasping for breath and steaming with perspiration. It was a relief to be on the move again after our ten minutes stop and particularly as, suddenly, the steering grew light again and the car would retain its direction without continually hauling it straight.

Just after three o’clock we reached another ferry and were fortunate enough to find canoes on our side of the stream, so that in little more than a quarter of an hour we were across and away. We seized the opportunity while crossing to climb down into one of the canoes that form the support for the platform and to splash the water over our faces and arms. It was not easy to make a decent job of washing one’s face because it was quite impossible to remove one’s solar toupee for an instant for fear of sunstroke but at any rate the cool water gave us momentary gratification and we felt cleaner. It wasn’t necessary to dry faces or hands for the sun did that for us almost instantaneously and the rapid evaporation brought a sense of coolness, – for the moment.

Just after leaving the ferry, we had our first encounter with a swarm of locusts. At first we did not realize what the few flying insects were as we had never seen them before, but suddenly we saw in front a black cloud and simultaneously exclaimed “Locusts.” Hurriedly we shut the side windows as we approached the swarm and, as we rushed through them at 40 miles, an hour it was like a hail of bullets striking the windscreen. We were almost afraid that it would break and so thick was the air with the flying bodies that it was difficult to see where one was going. Suddenly the air cleared and the banging against the windscreen ceased. We were through for the next few miles. We were thoroughly amused by the antics of some fifty or sixty locusts that were left on the bonnet. Clinging to the louvers on the top, they would be whirled round by the current of air created by our passage and suddenly one of them unable to retain his hold would go skidding along the smooth central ridge between the louvers. Sometimes he would manage to cling to another louver or body of one of his pals, and sometimes as he went spinning along he would sweep other locusts from their hold, so that a dozen of them would come whirling along the smooth metal to be swept of sideways when they struck the vertical windscreen. It was five miles or more before the last was swept away by the wind and we laughed heartily at the involuntary antics by our visitors. When we stopped at the store at Fort Archambault, 13 miles beyond the ferry, there were locusts stuck in every crack and cranny of the front of the car: the radiator was covered with them and as there was no way of getting at them through the grille in front, we had to leave them there.

We arrived at the Portuguese store which was the Shell agency at Fort Archambault at 3.39, out schedule time of arrival being 3.41; so we were exactly 2 minutes early after a journey of 4200 miles! We were quite proud of that, as we take a certain pride in keeping to schedule. We had come 4274 miles from England in less than 8 days, averaging about 550 miles per day, and we had averaged over 600 miles per day from Algiers. We were now 820 miles from Kano, and it had taken us 33 hours to cover this distance, but out of this time we had stopped ½ hour at Mora for the customs, 6 hours at Morona and had wasted 2 hours at Bongor through being too early for the ferry. So our sum time had been 24½ hours, and we had averaged 33½ mph

We refueled our tank from 50 gallon barrels. This is a laborious process as it entails decanting the spirit into 4 gallon tins and pouring these into the tank. While this was being done by a horde of natives, we went into the store and consumed large quantities of cold lemonade. The oil refrigerator is the greatest boon that modern invention has brought to dwellers in the tropics and makes the difference between life being bearable or utterly insupportable. Linked with the oil refrigerator, I should place the wireless: not so much for the purpose of entertainment, though this phase is of course of value, but as a means of communication. Think what it must have meant to a place like Fort Archambault. Previous to the coming of the wireless, it meant that an addressed letter to France would have to be carried partly by native runner, partly by canoe where a river was available for more than 6000 miles to reach the coast, which might or might not be in cable communication with Europe. Even, if it were, it would probably mean at least eight months or more before a reply from the home country could be received. The wireless now brings the home country within a very few days of the centre of tropical Africa. A few days? A few hours, perhaps you think! Wait and you shall hear.

Leaving me consuming cold drink at the store and talking to a Dutch chap and his sister, who were touring Africa in their Ford and were duly amazed to hear that we had left Algiers 5 days before; Humfrey went off to find the Port Office as he felt he must cable news of our progress to Thomas at Wolseley’s. In twenty minutes or so he returned, grinning broadly, and told me what had happened. He had asked the French post office clerk if he could cable to England: the Frenchman was aghast. “Monsieur,” he said, after consulting tariffs, “it will be very expensive. It will cost you 57 francs a word; six shillings certainly did secure a lot, but Humfrey said “I can’t help it. I must send a message even if it is only six words.” So he set to work to write out the message. But the frugal mind of the Frenchman apparently revolted at this waste of money and, after a struggle, his natural native economy triumphed. He came across to Humfrey and said “Monsieur, I cannot see you waste your money. This cable will take many days to reach England. It has to be relayed may times and there are often long delays. Now tomorrow morning an aeroplane bound for France is passing through here and you can send a letter by this for say few francs which will reach England at least four days before your cable.”

Humfrey decided at once not to send a cable and as he felt that to write  a letter would mean that he ought to write a long one, he decided to do neither and he returned to me at the store without having communicated with Thomas at all. As it happened, this was unfortunate in the last degree, but we had no suspicion then of the disasters that were to befall us in the near future.”