Chapter 3 – Africa Algiers – Ghandaia 384 miles 25/26 December 1938

Africa

It was Christmas morning and there was a huge crowd waiting on the white quay to greet the French ship from the home country. We soon picked out the tall figure figure of Captain de Malglaive waving frantically to us and, picking up our bags, we made our way along to the hold where our car was standing, nose to door, as if anxious to get ashore. We started the engine, to the consternation of member’s of the crew in the hold, in order to get it warm; then leaving Symons with the car, I went up on deck to meet de Malglaive, half English himself, and a confirmed Anglophile, served with the British Army in the war 1914 – 1918 and anything he can do for an Englishman is done with true Gallic enthusiasm.

Greeting him and his wife, I found that they had with them the Shell representative who had come along to ensure that the petrol tank wagon, which we had arranged to have waiting for us, was there and also the President of the Algerian Motor club in person.

We had asked de Malglaive to see if he could get a representative of this club to meet us and to sign officially our book showing the time we left Algiers, and the President had insisted on coming himself. A pretty sporting action to get out of bed at 6.30 on a Christmas morning for the sake of a couple of foreigners!

When we all got off the ship on the quay, we found Humfrey already there with the car, filling up from the petrol wagon. The customs people, warned in advance that we were in a hurry, waved aside at once any question of formalities (it was Vive le Sport! with them with a vengeance) and in 12 minutes from the time the ship tied up to the quay, that is at 10 o’clock exactly, we were off, petrol tank full to the brim, customs papers signed, the magnificent supply of sandwiches, fruit and salads and the two bottles of whisky supplied by Madame de Malglaive in their lockers, our book signed by M. le President. Twelve minutes! How long would it take a sporting Frenchman setting up a record say from Monte Carlo to John o Groat to get clear of his English port of arrival? Well, more than twelve minutes, I’m sure.

Though we were already exactly 2½ hours behind our schedule, we didn’t care. Was there not 2200 miles to make it up in before we reached Kano?

The car was running well and as they drove to Boufarik the first part of Algiers reminded them of the French Riveria – unfortunately they managed to get momentarily lost.

Beyond Bonfarik there began to loom up in the distance the great mass of the Atlas Mountains, where the road rises to 3900 feet and we were decidedly perturbed to overtake several cars carrying, most ominously, winter sports equipment. Did that foreshadow snow in the mountains?

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When at last we emerged from the gorge and saw Medea ahead we had climbed in the 20 miles from Blida at 600 feet above sea level to Medea at 2800.

But what was not so satisfactory was the view in front. Indeed, it was most unsatisfactory. There was no possible doubt that snow lay ahead. Higher we climbed into deeper snow but still we said “It must be all right. That lorry had come through and it it can we can”. But I think we both had the same dreading idea at the back of our minds. It was “Suppose that lorry has tried to get through and has had to turn back.”  In fact, Humphrey had just remarked “It looks to me as if only that lorry has been along here,” when suddenly as I cautiously rounded a shoulder on the mountain side, the track in the snow simply came to an end! In front of us across the road was a virgin snow drift 8 feet high blocking the road. So that was that!

Turning around wasn’t a nice business. The road was not wide, the snow was very deep, the hills all rose steeply on our left and on our right was a sheer drop of probably 1200 feet to the plain below. No, not nice. But at last, after many reverses, it was done and we slithered our way down again through the deep soft snow ruts.

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After discussion they returned to the used snow ruts and after leaving the snow they returned to look for the sign post for ‘ARTHUR’ and ‘BOGHARI’ – their next stop. Once they left the snow (which cost them 24 minutes) the road was good and they were able to travel at comparatively high speeds. They passed through Boghari and past the Rocher de Sel at which point they had covered 77miles with an average speed of just over 50 m.p.h. Their next stop was Dielf where Humphrey tried to phone the hotel in Ghardaia to tell them their estimated ETA but he couldn’t get through and the stop cost them 9 minutes. The road to Layhonet was dull and uninteresting. Bertie describes Layhonet as ‘rather a jolly place’ in a Moorish style. Layhonet was an important junction of the many desert tracks. At which point they had lost 1 hour and 3 minutes – yet averaging just over 39m.p.h.

After leaving Layhonat one looks out ahead over the desert and here the road abruptly comes to an end: at times driving is bewildering for when one set of ruts has grown too deep to be used, vehicles turn aside and make a new set : these are in turn rejected when they have grown too deep, and so it sometimes happens that one will find six or seven sets of tracks, all travelling completely in the same direction, but sometimes criss-crossing wildly as if in effort to find the best surface.

Soon after leaving Layhonat darkness came down and there are no landmarks and one cannot see anything except the two beams from the headlamps lighting up the desolate trail in front. We passed Tibeut, called an Oasis, but as far as we have ever been able to discover, consisting of one stone building which looks like a fort and is actually a “bordj.” This is the name given to a rest-house where one can sleep and at some of these rest-houses there is a native who will provide food. I believe that the native the Tiheut is an excellent cook and can produce a first class meal (gazelle pie being his specialty) if advised by telegram before hand, but I am only speaking from hearsay as we have never had time to stop there. This is, of course, the hideous disadvantage of record-breaking: one never has time to stop and see anything.

They passed Tibeut 57 miles from Layhonet – having lost 5 minutes. Bertie describes how well the Wolseley was going and they were pleased with their average speed but the corrugations were indescribably awful! He gives an explanation as to why the speed appears high and a detailed description about corrugations – very funny reading (it must have been awful). They continues to Beniane, a jolly little oasis of palms trees and “one way traffic” and then to Ghardaia.

At Ghardaia the Shell filling station we found the native attendant still waiting, although it was 3½ hours after the time at which he had been told to expect us. We re-filled our petrol tank taking 25 gallons, only about 15½ miles per gallon instead of the 16½ we had hoped for. We had expected our fuel consumption to be considerably heavier than the normal for the 18 Wolseley. Normal being about 19 m.p.h.  We hoped that even with our greatly increased load we should be able to do 16 to 16½, giving us a range of about 500 miles. The engine needed no oil and the radiator no water, so we went straight along to the hotel. The hotel, one of the excellent ones run by the Societe Algerian des Transport Tropicaux and called by the generic title of “Transalt”, is managed by an enthusiastic Frenchman who prides himself on being, as he says, “the best cook in the Sahara.”

Bertie goes into an elaborate description about Ghardaia and an interesting “sweet story” about how a princess saved it.

We had not expected to stop at Ghardaia as we had intended to go straight to Le Golea for dinner that night but he greeted us with delight. We were the only guests: it was Christmas night: we were hungry: splendid: in one all little minute an excellent dinner would be ready for us. And it was. I cannot remember all we had, but I know that turkey formed the backbone of the feast. Personally, I was stumped before the end but Humphrey, who has an excellent appetite, ploughed steadily through the numerous courses. We drank Algerian wine and coffee.

 

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