Chapter 7 – In Salah – Arak 180 miles 26 December 1938

Chapter 7

It was now 12.53 and the sun was high in the sky: the heat was terrific and the glare from the sand seared our eyes.  We decided to try a new gadget which Humfrey had got Wolseley to make up.  It consisted of 4 strips of green celluloid about six inches deep and the width of half of each of these strips was fitted with two suckers the idea being that they should be stuck on the screen, two above the line of sight and two below, so that we would look through the narrow slot.  They were an instantaneous success and as we looked through the slot between the two green strips we congratulated ourselves on a complete solution of the glare problem.  Sun glasses are a fearful nuisance as they impaired visibility to such an extent as to be almost dangerous where it is absolutely necessary to have really clear vision in order to avoid obstacles.  We never used them at all on this journey but made continual use of our invaluable green celluloid strips.

The first few miles after leaving In Salah were much like the last 15 miles into it, deep soft sand and dunes, but here and there interspersed with patches of gravel, which promised better things for the future and we were feeling very cheerful, rather dirty, as we had not had a wash since we left El Golea.

After about 27 miles, the surface improved and we were able to get along better.  This position appears in our log-book as “Get on the gravel” and readers may be amused to hear the names we have given to the next four logging points.  They are “Descent escarpment (zig zag)” “Well on left”, “Climb slate hillocks”, and “High cliff with two Cairns on top”. They are, of course, no villages so one is reduced to using this kind of language in order to identify places and distances.  We descended the “escarpment (zig-zag)” and passed to be “Well on left” and it was at “Climb slate hillocks” that we struck trouble. The slate hillocks are noticeable for the fact that the slate outcrop – it may not be slate but it looks like it! – does not lie flat on the ground and like the tiles on the roof they stand up on edge, so to speak; thus presenting the unfortunate tyres with a series of sharp cutting edges to run on.  Actually when we examined the damage we saw that the tyre had been cut crosswise of the tread with deep a gash right through the canvas.  The heat was sweltering and a thermometer inside the car registering 102 degrees, when we set to work to change the wheel.

Bertie explains the difficulty they had in trying to get their “much prized hydraulic jack” to raise the car to change the tyre. It was not able to do the job. The next option was to unpack the rear locker of the car where they had packed a “small triple lift screw jack” which they had packed for emergencies. It too was not “man enough” to do the job. The problem was the tyre was flat and the car had to be lifted high enough to fit the new tyre.

There were problems with the jack and finally they built a ramp of stones that the car was pushed up – Bertie said “we must build up a ramp of stones: then we must push the car off the jack, and drive it along so that the punctured wheel climbs the ramp: then jacket up as far as we can with a rock under the jack and demolish the ramp so that the wheel will be suspended high enough.” He explains in great detail how they eventually “lifted the wheel (which with its monster tyre weighed 82 pounds) in that terrific temperature and with the tenderness of a man handling a baby; was a grisly difficult job but at last it was done and the wheel on.  We went to lower the jack but found that this last lift was its expiring efforts and nothing would induce it to budge.  We weren’t going to let a little thing like that bother us now and we pushed the car off the jack again without a semblance of caution.  The thing was bust anyhow, so what did it matter?

After repacking the car both Humfrey and Bertie were “not looking our best” and they decided to wash using water from the water tanks – with soap and plenty of rags.

Bertie explains the fear they had of sunstroke and why they kept their shirts on “It was too risky to take off our shirts – one can get sunstroke in the desert through one’s spinal column, as we both knew”

The wheel change had taken 45 minutes and they now had 1400 mile from Kano where they were to collect their new tyres but with no usable jack.

From traveling in the Sahara numerous times, there were many places they passed and never actually went to see and Bertie pondered about these places: “At last we reached our next logging points “Gap in hills, Monument on left” this is the sort of thing that makes record-breaking so exasperating. This is the fifth time that Symons has passed this intriguing object, yet he has never been able to spare time to investigate it.  Nevertheless, there it stands, open for examination. The rocky hills, perhaps 200 feet was so in height, are broken in a kind of saddle and they perched on another hill in the distance and visible through the gap is what is unmistakably a monument. It is a tall obelisk of stone; in memory of what or of whom? Shall I ever know? I wonder.”

The track changed in character from sand to slate, outcrops to the “fech–fech” and at times driving at 15m.p.h. over large loose stones where conditions were “altogether too bad”.

At the gorge of Arak they came to a tiny fortress that was “converted to cater for more peaceful needs, nestling close under the 2000 feet high cliffs at the deepest part of the gorge. Travelers arriving here are greeted by a cheery Frenchman and his wife who are only too anxious to do all they can to make this a little bit of France. They greeted us with enthusiasm; they were of course expecting us some hours earlier having been warned by the Shell Company at Algiers of the probable time of our arrival, though once again we had beaten the depannage telegram. We replenished our petrol tank, no oil or water being needed, and then proposed to embark on a job which we viewed with some distaste. For some time we had been gradually becoming convinced that our steering was getting stiff and we had decided that when we reached Arak we would give it some attention with the grease-gun. Here Humphrey’s proverbial knack of falling on his feet to which I have already referred, came to the fore. We were definitely not looking forward to the job. We were tired and hot and dirty and hungry and very, very thirsty. We wanted a wash and food and a drink. We did not want to lie about under a motor car pushing grease into the nipples. We didn’t have to.

Parked in the yard of the bordj, there was a colossal French lorry which had arrived that day from Tamaurasset on its journey with its driver, a typical burly French man, with all the not exaggerated fabled politeness of his race, put himself immediately at our disposal when he heard what we proposed to do. He organised the whole thing, showed us where to place the front of the Wolseley over a pit, produced from his lorry the world’s largest grease-gun, ordered us off and, descending into the pit, and got to work.

We were due at Arak, according to a new timing, at 3:05 p.m. and we had actually arrived at 7.28, so we were now four hours and 23 minutes behind our schedule.  When I told Humphrey this he was filled with horror. “Good Lord!” he said, “what time were we due at Kano?” “At 1.15” I replied. “And what time have we got to be there to beat the Algiers Kano record?” he asked. I did the necessary sums.” Before 5:30 p.m.  tomorrow,” I said. “Good heavens” he exclaimed after thinking for a minute or two, “then if we are four hours and 23 minutes late now and do our average from here, we shan’t be there till 5.38.  That’ll be too late.” I smiled at his face of consternation. “Don’t worry” I said. “We are quite all right. You see, I had allowed for a stop of 4 1/2 hours, at Tamaurasset, as it’s no use leaving there before 2:30 a.m. (I will explain why later) “So it means that instead of being four hours and 23 minutes late here, we can cut the stop at Tamaurasset to a quarter of an hour and we shall therefore only be a few minutes down on schedule.”

I explained carefully. “If we are here at nine o’clock, we shall be there at five o’clock tomorrow morning, and can leave at 5.15 after refueling.  Now on our new time from Algiers, we’re due to leave Tamaurasset 4.30 so we shall only be three-quarters of an hour down, and well ahead of record”

He lightened up at once. “I thought probably it wasn’t as bad as it sounded”, he said “I know your trick of keeping secret reserves of time some way up your sleeve.” I laughed. “Anyway,” I said “we haven’t done so badly, considering the awful conditions.  We had come 1014 miles and have taken 33 1/2 hours, so we had averaged roughly 30 mph including all stops.”

Humfrey and Bertie returned to the car to find the lorry driver had greased the steering and he had cleaned the windscreen. He commented that “It had been a pleasure to meet the messieurs” and to be able to do a little to help them; he was, in fact, more than proud to have been of some small assistance to them in their so “sportif” undertaking. In the end, he almost made us feel as though we have been doing him a favour in allowing him to work for an hour on our car!” He also informed them that the track to Tamaurasset was in very good condition which “was a very excellent piece of news”.

One thought on “Chapter 7 – In Salah – Arak 180 miles 26 December 1938

  1. I have noted that my mother has made a note in our 1949 Trans-African Highways book that Arak was very clean.
    Guess these two never had time to take it all in. 😊 Diane


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