Chapter 6 – Sahara Crossing El Golea – In Salah 262 miles 26 December 1938

Chapter 6



It was 4.23am, of course, still dark when we left El Golea. It was my turn to drive so Humfrey said “I’m going to put down the bed and try and get some sleep.” He did so, wrapped himself up in the stolen rug referred to before and was promptly asleep. It was very cold, as it can be in the desert at night, but I was quite sure that, in view of Desuoyer’s as to the state of the track, I should be quite warm enough soon (desert driving is very hot work!) so I did not feel it necessary to wear an overcoat.

Immediately I found that what we had been told was quite correct. The track seemed to have disappeared altogether: it was littered with debris and stones and buried under heaps of sand which was not easy to negotiate in the darkness while at the same time keeping a sharp look-out for the cairns. Soon after leaving El Golea the track runs, or used to run, beside a ‘shott’ or dried up lake. These shotts are features of the northern Sahara: they were originally huge shallow lakes formed in the courses of the rivers which used to run northwards to the Mediterranean from the Hoggar Mountains. When the Sahara became desiccated, the rivers ceased to flow and these ‘shotts’ were left: in the first place filled with salt or brackish water but now dry and covered with a layer of salt. It is from the shotts that is obtained the salt which is the keenest need of the dwellers in hot deserts and which formed an important part of the merchandise carried by the Sahara caravans. Shotts are duplicated in the South African desserts by what are called ‘pans’.

Bertie describes in great detail how at the beginning of each season – in October, lorries of the SATT went out to see what the roaming desert winds had done during the heat of summer and then to make alterations to the route. Driving was quite challenging and Bertie was very conscious of avoiding rocks that could damage the tyres – as had happened during the Rolls Royce expedition.

The Dunlop Company had gone to great lengths to ensure they had no tyre troubles on the Wolseley Cape Record journey. There was only an incident when one tyre cover was cut nearly in half by a sharp slate outcrop – more details in a later chapter.

Symons has twice been to Timbuktu by this western route – known as the Tamezuft – over which a bus service is operated by Compagnie Transsataiienne, – but he prefers the Hoggar Mountain route, first because the scenery is more varied (the Tamezuft route has one 600 mile stretch of nothing but bare sand) and secondly, and far more importantly to us from the point of view of making a second run, it is 600 miles shorter from El Golea to Kano.

As Symons was sleeping peacefully when we past it, no time was entered in the log for Timimona Corner and I drove along slowly and as gently as possible in order not to wake him. The track was quite undoubtedly, as Desuoyens had told us at El Golea, in a very much worse condition than it had been 2 years before and I became convinced, as I went on that we were going to lose more time.

From Symon’s book ‘Both seats let down and formed full-length dunlopillo beds. Beneath each seat was a 5 Gallon water tank. Note the battery of thermos flasks in the partition, the huge 9 inch Dunlop tyres and the position of the filler for the 32 gallon petrol tank fitted inside the body.

Once there was day light travelling became much easier. They passed Fort Minibel which was one of the old disused desert forts which have now been turned into a boarding or rest house – for travelers. Humfrey made the necessary entries in the log book and took over the wheel. (Oh, how I’d love to find the log book.) They restore the passenger’s seats to its uprights position as Bertie had no inclinations to sleep.

We had left El Golea at 4.25 a.m. being then, one hour 55 minutes behind schedule.  We had come 89 miles to Fort Minibel and our schedule allowed 2 hours 10 minutes for this.  This was the time we had taken on the Rolls Royce for when the track had been hard and good, and we had been able to average 41 m.p.h.: now under the infinitely worse conditions we had taken 2 hour 45 minutes and average only 33m.p.h.  This meant that we were now two hours 30 minutes behind schedule.

We had now reached the dreary desolate waste of the Tademait proper which stretches for 120 miles in all its bleak hideousness.  It is the sea of black stones and the clear track runs straight to the horizon so that here at least the cairns are quite unnecessary.  When we crossed it before we had simply become bored to death with its dull ugliness.  Now we found it any thing but dull!  The

Unprecedented rain had apparently penetrated the iron hard soil beneath the stones and the buses passing over the track while it was still wet and soft had cut deep ruts in the surface, ruts a foot or more deep. The sun had then baked these ruts iron hard. No one would call our crossing of the Tademait dull! It was the continual struggle to keep the wheels from being trapped in one or the other of the cavernous ruts, which criss-crossed each other madly where some vehicles coming along while the ground was still soft, had rushed from side to side to try to avoid being caught in  the previous tracks.

No, crossing the Tademait Plateau under these conditions was very far from dull! Humphrey wrenched and struggles with the kicking steering wheel as he used every atom of his skill to choose the best path: sometimes in the middle so that if our course could have been plotted, it would have appeared somewhat like that of a war-time naval convoy! One single mistake might have meant hours of delay or a wrecked car. As he was compelled to concentrate all his attention on the track immediately in front of our wheels, I kept a sharp look out ahead for ‘graveyards’ or similar major obstacles so that I would sometimes say to him, ”Look out, there’s a graveyard 200 yards ahead on the right side,” in order that he could begin to work over to the other side and not be suddenly confronted with this on the path he was following. It wasn’t at all dull, but we were both very annoyed at what we felt was a hideous waste of time.

We were very pleased with ourselves and the good Wolseley and we thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast. It was now 10 o’clock in the morning and the sun was very hot, so that it is inadvisable to venture outside the car without sun helmets. So intense is the sunlight that if one dares to expose the bare head, even for a moment, to it one goes down with sunstroke as if one is clubbed: indeed, in an open car with the normal type fabric Lord! it is absolutely necessary to wear a sun helmet all the time for the fear of getting sunstroke through the fabric. We sat in the sunshine drinking our hot coffee brought from El Golea in a thermos flask and eating tinned bacon, finishing up with jam and Ryvita. A very good meal and, invigorated by our 24 minutes stop, we resumed out journey with Humfrey at the wheel.

This is Bertie’s description of the Sahara:-

Sand, red sand, rising in softly swelling dunes, as far as the eye could reach, nothing but sand, nothing. It was the moment we had both been eagerly awaiting: the desert, the real Sahara, lay below and our fantastic night journey over the Tademait was quite forgotten, for the long distance traveler must learn to forfeit past troubles, anxieties, and fears as soon as they are over and to be ever living in the present. We descended the escarpment and immediately, for the first time, we felt the full power of soft sand clutching at our wheels like some giant hand.

The musical singing shrieks that the tyres give out on this type of surface is oddly fascinating and as I write these words I can hear them again that shrill note “Wheeee – Wheee” and the nostalgia of the desert, the fascination, that once experienced is never obliterated, grips me again for vast spaces I see again the brazen sky, the red sand, the limitless horizon and a taste on my lips of the sickly sweetness and smell in my nostrils of harsh spray of the desert dust that boils up behind the flying car in a mile-long tail.  If the desert gets one, one never escapes every autumn till life leaves me, I shall feel again the drag of that is longing, for the desert has got into my blood.

Wolseley had prepared a dipstick for ‘Voortekker’ and Bertie describes it and the fuel consumption: Using the beautiful dipstick prepared for us by Wolseley’s marked both gallons and litres, we found, on working it out, that we were only doing about 14 1/2 miles to the gallon.  We had not reckoned sufficiently that the enormous amount of low gear work we were compelled to do with our heavily overloaded car was going to increase out petrol consumption to such a figure, and it meant that, with our 31 gallon supply, we could only reckon on about 435 miles on our tank and one of our stages without refueling was 465 miles!  Never mind, we should have to worry about that problem when it arose. Meanwhile, the car going so well, that we did not consider it is advisable to make any adjustments to the carburetors.

The Shell Company in London had made arrangements by which we merely signed for our petrol without paying cash and this obviate our having to carry large sums of money in all sorts of currencies, the arrangement standing for our whole journey except for crossing France.  I may say how that the scheme worked perfectly and we never had any trouble anyway in getting our signature accepted. It was a great boon and the Shell organisation must be, as is undoubted is, superb for a plan of this sort to work over such vast distances. While filling our tank we had a drink and studied our position.  We had gained 18 minutes on schedule over the last 62 miles from the escarpment and we were now just under three hours late.  We then drove to the hotel to report our arrival and arrange the depannage telegram to be sent on to Arak, our next stage.  The French manager wanted a chat with Humphrey, for he, poor devil, does not see many strange faces and this delayed us considerably while I sat in the car in the boiling sun, fuming with impatience to be off. At last Humfrey appeared, 37 minutes had been aimed at this stop.

From Symon’s book. Filling up from a carefully concealed Shell pump in In Salah, once a centre of Senussi rebellion, in the heart of the Sahara. The French have brought order, water, trees and flowers to this barren, troubled region. Note the wire trellis, useful for extricating the car from soft sand, on the back of the car.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s