Chapter 8 – Arak – Tamaureasset 254 miles 26/27 December 1938

Chapter 8Up until now I have been editing and condensing each chapter. In this chapter I have decided to release it in it’s original format to give readers an idea of the detail that Bertie put into every moment of their epic journey. 

We left Arak, to the cheers of our friend, the lorry driver, and monsieur and madame the bordj-keepers, at 5 minutes past nine.  We had put down our bed before leaving, much to the delights of the assembled populace, and Humfrey retired to rest as soon as we started, as it was my turn to drive.  Directly I took the wheel and set off through the darkness, my attack of acute misery left me and I quite enjoyed my first hours driving.  The first 27 miles from Arak is a long gradual climb from the bottom of the gorge of Arak up to the plateau whence the track eventually climbs up into the Hoggar Mountains, in the centre of which is situated Tamaureasset our next objective.  The first 27 miles was not easy driving.  The gorge here is very narrow, its precipitous sides which tower almost vertically over 2000 feet were only about a quarter of a mile apart. Each of these crossings need a considerable degree of care as the drop or the bank onto the sand might be as much as a foot high with a similar climb out on the other side. There are many small trees darted here and there and the track winds in and out of these in quite bewildering fashion.

I found quite enough to keep me awake, but in one way this sort of driving was preferable to that of the night before: there were plenty of objects for the beam of the lamps to strike and therefore they appeared to be giving much more light. We had agreed before we started we would make no attempt to drive fast for, as this was our second continuous nights driving, we considered it imperative to ensure, as far as possible, that the one who was not at the wheel should get undisturbed sleep. I therefore made no effort to increase the speed and kept going at a very comfortable pace.

When you reached the top of the gorge, you felt above the level of the bordj of Arak, the country opened out and the character of the track alters completely. It becomes rocky instead of sandy and care is needed to avoid large boulders but it is, on the whole, much easier driving. As the driving became easier, I was able to lean back in the comfortable seat and, partially at least, relaxed. This brought on that terrible feeling, the bane of long-distance driving, longing to sleep. One’s head droops, one’s eye lids begin to close and vision becomes misty as one’s tired eye muscles are unable to hold objects in focus. To try to see clearly, one screws one’s eyes up tightly and, on opening them again, all is well. In a minute the horrible effect reappears: objects are visible but not clearly; they have hard outlines and it is hard to distinguish what they are. One’s eyelids droop and they feel so heavy that it seems as though no superhuman effort could ever persuade them to lift again. Fiercely one forces one’s eyes to open and savagely one attempts to focus to sharpen the blurred outlines of things: over and over again the hideous symptoms repeat themselves and the grim struggle goes on. The struggle to keep awake: the struggle to see. It needs experience to tell whether the attack of sleepiness is only a passing phase possible to fight through and out to the other side to wakefulness, or whether it will defeat one in the end. If the latter, it means that this one is conquered and suddenly one drops off to sleep, to be awakened, as with a resounding crash, the car left to itself, strikes some object or, may be one drops off to sleep never to awaken again. Almost every year: the Monte Carlo Rally, which entails 4 nights continuous driving and the winter condition in Europe, some car is wrecked; someone is killed, owing to the driver falling asleep at the wheel. If, in the light experience, the driver knows that he will be unable to fight down the longing to sleep, there is only one thing for him to do, and it is madness not to do it: it is that madness which has caused the deaths in the Monte Carlo Rally. The thing to do is to awaken one’s sleeping co-driver and hand over to him while one satisfies this craving for sleep. A few minute sleep will do it and every long-distance driver must learn to make this decision without hesitation as soon as he recognises that it is and unsafe for him to continue. I know, and understand, the reason why some drivers will not do this obvious thing. It is the feeling that they are showing the white feather, are doing something cowardly and unworthy of their manhood, acts, waking their partner and saying frankly “I can’t go on. I’m too sleepy too be safe.” They are wrong, bitterly wrong. It is far more commendable to know when one cannot continue and admitted, then to go on driving and cause an accident. It is absolutely necessary for partners on a really long day and night drive to have complete confidence in each other and to know that if the driver is dangerously sleepy, he would awaken the one sleeping. Without this confidence there is disquietude when one is not driving which saps the reserves of endurance that it is so necessary to conserve on a long journey. Confidence in each other then is an absolute essential to success in any undertaking such as ours. Humfrey and I had absolutely, complete confidence in each other in this respect, as, I may add, in all others! I was quite confidence in my own mind that my present attack of sleepiness was only temporary one and would pass off. Indeed, after about 20 minutes of torture it did so: my eyes cleared and I was able to see properly again. Meantime the track was still climbing and eventually at 2500 feet the “field of gray stones”, as we called it. I do not pretend to know what this really is but the name we have given it describes its appearance quite accurately. Stones, varying in size from six inches high to two or three feet, lie about all over this peculiar area: the stones are not touching each other, still less are they piled upon one another. They are for the most part from 3 to 6 feet apart, spread over rocky ground as though they had been scattered by some mammoth sower. All these stones are of a dark grey colour and, and seen in the light of the headlamp beams, the “field of gray stones” presents a curiously dismal and eerie appearance. The track has been cleared of stones, but it winds about in serpentine fashion to dodge the largest boulders which it was presumably found to be too much trouble to move. We had lost a lot of time in the 60 miles from Arak, mainly because the schedule was based on covering this stretch by daylight instead of in the dark: schedule speeds were always lowered when darkness fell as my experience has been that it is far too dangerous to attempt to drive fast across the desert in the darkness. At the field of gray stones Humfrey woke: I had done a little more than my two hours and I felt overpowering sleepiness coming over me again. He awakened refreshed from his good sleep and I took his place on the comfortable Dunlopillo cushions. Rolling myself up in the rug and my leather coat, for it was very cold now and I would be colder when we climbed higher to the mountains, I settled down to my first sleep since my two hours or so of troubled slumber on the steamer before reaching Algiers. This was nearly 48 hours ago and I was very sleepy.

At first I found my position in the car produced a very odd effect.  It seemed the car was shaking from side to side but in about ten minutes I had got used to this and dropped into a heavy sleep, from which I did not wake till I found the car stationary and Humfrey pulling at my shoulder. I woke with a start and sat up immediately. One’s first thought on being awakened suddenly when traveling like this is that something has happened and I probably said “What’s up?” Humfrey said that he was frightfully sleepy and asked if I was all right to drive. I replied that I was perfectly all right and took over the wheel. I found that he had done his two hours and he told me before he went off to sleep that the track was sandy and that it was quite difficult to keep in touch with the cairns. I started off, feeling very fit and refreshed after my good sleep, and found conditions exactly as he had said. There will wide stretches of deep soft sand that meant rapid changes down to the third, or even second, gear and full throttle. At first I was cautious over these gear changes fearing to wake Humfrey, but as he showed no sign of stirring I became less careful. These patches of soft sand give one the most peculiar feeling, particularly at night, as the change in the appearance of the surface is not noticeable. One is running comfortably along on smooth hard sand at perhaps 40 mph when suddenly the whole car swerves to sink, and giant hands clutch at the wheel is so that one’s speed diminishes alarmingly and quite suddenly, while the tyres give outs that queer shrill scream “Wheee Wheee”. Instantly one becomes alert, makes a snap change – down to third and stamps savagely on the accelerator (there is no fear of getting wheel-spin on sand so one can use full throttle); but at the same time staring anxiously ahead to try and pick the best course. It is really rather exhilarating, the sensation of racing across the deep holding sand with the screaming tyres singing their song and the engine giving out that hard deep notes that betokens a wide throttle opening. But it is hard work, because one can even let one’s attention stray for one instances, and all the time one’s eye on those little heaps of stones that of the only guide to one’s direction. After time, I saw tracks of the lorries tyres -probably the lorry of our friend at Arak – and noticed that sometimes, while I was keeping near to the cairns he seemed to have wondered away so that his tracks disappeared from the fan spread  by the lamps. I noticed that whenever this happened it seemed that I came to deep sand and gradually became clear to me that as he had come along here in daylight he had of course been able to see these stretches and swerved to avoid them. I was determined to experiment and the next time that his tracks swung away from the cairns I followed them, being careful, of course, to keep out of his actual wheel-marks – one never drives in someone else’s tracks in the desert for fear that he may have stuck or formed a ‘graveyard’. Immediately I had done is, I regretted it. It was horrible to feel that the guiding cairns were away somewhere else on my left and that it was quite impossible to find them again unless the track I was following led back to them. I must explain the statement because it might seem to anyone having no experience desert driving that all I had to if I wanted to get back to the cairns, knowing them to be on my left, would be to turn to the left and keep on going until I came to the line of cairns. It seemed obvious to do this is an almost certain way of getting lost and remember that is getting lost in the desert may mean death. The reason that this apparently obvious course is almost equivalent to committing suicide is this. Suppose, as in the present case, I am following a pair of tracks with the certain knowledge that the cairns are perhaps quarter of a mile away to my left and I decide that I will leave the tracks and return to the line of cairns. With the idea in mind I swing away to the left and immediately I lose the tracks I am absolutely lost. I do not know whether I am going straight or round in a circle, I do not know whether I am traveling north, south, east or west, I do not know in which direction the cairns lie, and worse still I do not know in which direction the track I was following lie now. I am absolutely, utterly, completely lost.

If this dreadful thing does happen, that one suddenly loses both the cairns and the tracks one has been following, there is any one thing to do. Remember that you cannot stop and think things out for if you are traveling over soft sand a minimum be speed of say 20 mph is necessary to prevent sinking in the sand, so one has to think while traveling. The only safe course to follow in a case like this is to turn one steering wheel say 30 degrees and hold it absolutely rigid at that. By this means one will, in due course, completed a circle of large radius which will bring one back to one’s own tracks in the sand. On striking them turn immediately and follow them religiously until one reaches again the point at which one turned off the tracks and one had been following before, cling close to these and don’t lose them. There’s no other way to avoid being completely lost and as I said, to the lost in the Sahara is to be dead.

On a Rolls-Royce trip, one night in a moment of carelessness I did this very thing. I suddenly realised I had lost the cairns, but was pretty sure they were on my left, so I made a wide circle in that direction holding the steering wheel absolutely firm and rigid. In time I completed the circle and came back to my tracks in the sand without finding the cairns. I was still convinced that they were on my left so I made a wider circle and soon enough I found the blessed cairns and mighty glad I was to see them! If I had lost my head and gone wondering about looking at the line of cairns, well one’s bones might now be whiting under the Sahara sun.

After this interruption let us return to where we were before the diversion occurred. I said that I regretted following the lorries tracks in the sand as soon as I lost sight of the cairns: nevertheless I stuck to them and after a mile or so they returned to the line of cairns not having led me into any very unpleasant places, so when they diverged again I followed them, acting on the theory that they must be some reason invisible to me why our friend on his lorry driving over this route in daylight had left the mark track. So my turn of driving passed: sometimes it was difficult, sometimes easy, that we were at any rate progressing. At last the bordj of In Salah loomed up by the side of the track. This is a comparatively new rest house built by the French and, though it exactly resembles, both in outline and in interiors, apartments in a real desert fort, in point of fact it was only built as a rest house and not as a military post, and has never been occupied as such.  I passed In Ekker without stopping and, glancing at the dashboard clock and doing a rapid sum, I found that we had lost 80 minutes on our schedule in the 144 miles we had come from Arak.  Well, considering that we had expected to be at In Ekker just after nightfall, that we had actually driven the whole way in the darkness and that we had been traveling quietly in order to ensure as far as possible comfortable rest for the off-duty man, it was perhaps not so bad we had always found this is a slow part of the Sahara crossing, particularly the early part when the track is winding and difficult.

Soon after passing In Ekker, I awoke Humfrey and handed over to him as I was beginning to feel sleepy again. It was now 3 o’clock in the morning and bitterly cold.  We had reached an altitude of 3000 feet and were still gradually climbing: we should continue to climb until we reached Tamauresset,100 miles on, by which time we should have reached our summit of 4200 feet.

I wrapped myself in everything I could find, lay down on the bed and was asleep in a minutes while Humfrey drove steadily forward through the night. As I slept, we passed to the village of In Amquel, the only purely native village between El Golea and Agadez. It is a queer place, as I remember it from our previous journey. It lies in the small depression in the mountains and past it runs a little water course, presumably fed at times of rain – for rain falls with some frequency here in the altitudes – from high peaks surrounding it. The little stream is usually dry but I imagine that it accounts for the presence of the village at this spot, as the nearby, infrequent, water supply makes the soil fertile.

In the bed of the stream reeds grow thickly and from these reeds the village is built. The huts are built of reeds covered with mud and they are thatched with reeds. There are in all, I suppose, about 14 of these huts and the passage between the two rows of them is so narrow that the overhanging eaves of thatch brush against the side of the car, I should like to congratulate the Town Planning Committee of In Amquel on their foresight in planning the entrances to their huts on the side away from the street! (British town-planning authorities, please copy!!) Though I can hardly think that the amount of traffic through In Amquel, the two vehicles a week, is sufficient to warrant this cultured modern feature! I was still sleeping soundly when Humfrey shook me. “Tamanraaset in sight”, he said.  I shook off the numerous covering that I had spread over myself and sat up. It was daylight and all around us the high peak of the Hoggar Mountains towered black and forbidding against the clear blue of the dawn sky.  It was very cold; the thermometer fitted inside the car registered just over 40 degrees.

We were travelling down the long straight sandy track which runs towards the town, between a double line of round red sandstone pillars, probably 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet high, that the French, true artists that there are, have erected as a kind of triumphal avenue leading into the town. It always gives me a thrill, I don’t quite know why, when one enters this broad avenue of trees (was the French designer thinking of the long avenues of trees on the great national highways of his beloved France, near the 2000 miles away?) and races between them over the smooth sandy road towards little town. Tamaurasset is a jolly place. The houses, built in the Moorish style, are of red sandstone: the wide streets are gay with flowers and trees, real green trees, are set in the garden. There’s plenty of water in Tamaurasset and desert sand, freely watered becomes very fertile. There’s the large French garrison here, housed in a fine red sandstone fort within the town and, in consequence, there is much social life. The climate, owing to the high elevation, is pleasant: it is hard, of course, but there is always a breeze, and nights are cool. Frost is not unknown. There is in addition an excellent Trausatt hotel, though we did not have time to visit it on this occasion.

It was 6.20am when we drove to the Shell pump, to where 3 Shell attendants were sleeping on the sand beside it. Again an evidence of the far reaching influence and perfect organisation of the Shell Company. While one of these attendants raced off to wake the Arab superintendent, the others expeditiously filled our tank from the pump.  When the superintendent arrived running, he apologised for his absence but said that he had waited for us for some hours last night, as he had been advised that we should arrive at ten o’clock.

He had then retired to his house near by leaving 3 men at the pump with instruction to call him when we came. We assured him as we quite understood, and that we were more than satisfied. We filled up, examined oil and water levels -, took a drink of brandy, we were shivering with cold, and set of on our next stage of 244 miles to In Guezzan. We stopped for 12 minutes at Tamaurasset, for such is record-breaking, alas!

Here’s an extract in Bertie’s hand writing.

Chapter 8 extract

One thought on “Chapter 8 – Arak – Tamaureasset 254 miles 26/27 December 1938

  1. My mother noted about the deep sandy soil and difficult driving on this route and in fact, Dad made an error and we had to put the sand mats into use! The other note is that there were very good shops in Tamanrasset where presumably they caught up with supplies. I do not remember this part! Diane


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