Chapter 9 – Tammuasset – In Guezzam 244 miles 27 December 1938

Chapter 9 pic

“Having used up our secret time reserve, we could now take stock of how we stood with regards to the schedule”.

 “According to the original timing we ought to have left Tamanrasset at 2.30 am, but as we left Algiers an ½ hour late, our corrected schedule time for leaving Tamanrasset was 5am. Actually it was 6.32, so we were an hour and a half behind time. I must explain that our new schedule, based on our actual time of leaving Algiers, would, if we managed to keep to it, have taken the Algiers – Kano record by 4 1/4 hours: from this it was clear that at the moment, having only lost 1 ½ hours we were still 2 and three-quarter hours inside the record. So we could go on with quiet winds.”

They descended from the Hoggar Mountains feeling in fine form. They had now been driving for nearly two days and nights on their journey and had covered 1250 miles. They were feeling fresher than when they started, and were both looking forward to the real crux of the desert crossing, which they should reach 120 miles from Tamanrasset. Bertie commented “If I have not mentioned our good Wolseley, it is simply because there was nothing to say about it. It was amazingly comfortable over the appalling tracks we had covered, the engine was running as smoothly and quietly as when we left England, and both the engine and transmission had answered every demand we had made upon them. As it was so monotonously reliable and trustworthy, we became more attached to it with every mile we traveled. What higher praise can one give to a good car than that?

They stopped for breakfast after 67 miles at a convenient stopping place, and the log entry was “aerodrome / water notice”. They were now down to 2400 feet and well clear of the Hoggar Mountains. “Humfrey produced some excellent tea with the aid of a Primus stove and we had sardines on Ryvita, finishing it with jam on Ryvita.  Altogether the most satisfactory meal”. Bertie was ever conscious of time and mentioned that breakfast took 25 minutes to prepare and eat: he thought it seemed a waste of time but they felt that they needed the break.

Bertie was driving and noted that the track had deteriorated terribly since they came along two years before in the Rolls. He goes into great detail about the terrain and how the driver had to make instantaneous decisions while maneuvering over deep ruts of a foot to 18 inches deep or more while traveling at fairly high speed, of about 45 mph. He found this driving most exhilarating.

About 20 miles beyond ‘Dunes on left’ they stopped, as they had decided that Humfrey, being a much more experienced desert driver than Bertie, should drive all the way over the most difficult part of the desert crossing. Bertie felt that this was of course the sensible course to adopt and merely good team work.

“Rock outcrops were now beginning to appear, and it is these rock outcrops that made the next 120 miles tricky. It is not advisable to drive over these lower rocks, for the sake of both tyres and the chassis and, in trying to avoid them, one may find oneself penned in by a series of really sharp ridged rocks. There’s no room to turn, one is travelling in deep sand and if one turns sharply on soft sand, the extra resistance causes the rear wheels to dig in instantly and one comes to rest stuck,” ensable” the French call it (literally ensanded) a much more expressive term than stuck – and with the prospect of perhaps some hours of digging to get out again.” 

They couldn’t afford to lose even two hours if they were to beat their own existing record, so it was with a certain amount of pleasurable anxiety that they set off after having stopped for 8 minutes to lower the tyre pressures from 26 pounds to 20 with the idea of getting more bearing surface on the soft going. The Dunlop Company had told them that it would be permissible to make use of pressures as low as 12 pounds provided the surface was sand, but in view of the interspersed roughly outcrops they did not consider it wise to go below 20 pounds.

Bertie’s job on this stretch was to assist Humfrey by telling him roughly the direction taken by the bus track that they had decided to follow and to keep an eye on the line of cairns to ensure that they did not wonder too far away from them. At about half past ten it was very hot and the temperature inside the car was 100 degrees. Bertie commented that, “it was the true desert and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves.” They were reminiscing about their previous Sahara trips and passed an abandoned Renault saloon that they had examined 2 years earlier when on another trip.

Bertie recalls the story of General Laperrine’s Citroen: “A little further on we both exclaimed with one voice, “General Laperrine’s Citroen”. This is a burnt out wreck of an open touring car which caught fire owing to a short circuit and was completely destroyed. General Laperrine, one of the French conquerors of the Sahara, was a man who died an epic death in the desert, when, on his very first flight across the Sahara, the aeroplane crashed. He and his two pilots were stranded – they, not knowing how long, if ever, it would be before they were found and rescued. They had with them little water, very very little, and it is certain death to be caught the Sahara without water. This sun will burn the life out of one in a very short time and no human being can survive without water. General Laperrine refused point-blank to drink any of the water, saying to the pilots “no, you are young men with your lives before you. I am an old man whose life’s work is nearly finished; therefore you must divide the water between you in order that you may live as long as possible in the hope of the rescue.” When they protested, he said “there is no more to said. It is my order”. They were found three days later. The general was dead. As the general stood by his resolve and drank no drop of water during these three days. The two young pilots were alive and recovered.”

The track became more and more difficult as they neared what they called “Black mountains”. The track was so strewn with loose boulders and sharp stony outcrop that they were forced to follow the tracks of other vehicles with the result that the sand between the rocks was scored into deep ruts from which they leapt over rocky ridges and crashed down into the ruts. Bertie mentions how that “It is almost incredible that any car can survive such treatment”. This was the most tricky part of the crossing of the Tanezrouft: it was close by “Black Mountains”, where Humfrey and his crew had spent 23 hours digging themselves out of the sand on his first journey to Kano in 1935, so he was nervous and keyed to the utmost as they approached this spot.

They passed another landmark called “Curious rocks” and the desert became “the true desert at last, just as one sees it on film and as it so rarely is at any rate on the Hoggar route. Flat, empty and resolute, while the horizon with nothing to give it any prospective seems only a mile or two away and one has the illusion that one is in a great saucer of sand. We were down out of the mountains now, of course, and back at the normal Sahara level, about 1200 feet above the sea which is the usual height of the desserts all the way across Africa from the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean. The heat was appalling and one could not believe that only a few hours ago we had been shivering even in heavy coats at Tamanrasset.”

In Guezzam, was a tiny fort, of perhaps 100 feet square, with battlemented walls and a huge wooden gate; it was a desert post and once a desert fortress of France behind whose parapets the soldiers of the Foreign Legion stood guard, tri-colours floating above their heads. This is what Bertie wrote about In Guezzam; “What did In Guezzam mean to us? It meant simply another stage – and the most dreaded stage at that – of our journey completed. As I have said, on a record breaking trip like ours we longed ardently to arrive at each place on our route, not for the sake of the place itself but because it marked another stage completed. Once that stage was over we put it completely behind us and never gave it another thought, all our attention transferred from the name of the end of that stage to the name at the end of the next. A dull proceeding, you think? Not at all. Our arrival at each place was a thrill, eagerly awaited and lovingly savoured, but soon forgotten as we left it behind and transferred our hopes to the next stage of our journey. We were giving no thought as yet to end places as Cape Town, Nairobi or even Kano: the end of the immediate stage on which we were at the moment embarked was as far as we allowed our imaginations to travel.”

They were encouraged to find that the approach to the fort had a hard surface which alleviated the previous trips problems of sticking in the sand at the entrance. They were also delighted to be able to use a real full-sized Shell pump, which would obviate the necessity of re-filling by the very unhandy method of using cans refilled from a 50 gallon barrel.

Bertie speaks about “the horrible business; for the volatile spirit gives off the most noxious fumes in these very high temperatures – the temperature now was in the neighbourhood of 130 degrees in the full blaze of the sun – and the smell and taste linger in one’s nose and mouth for long after the re-filling process is completed: so we were delighted to see the new Shell pump. We stopped by it and confidently blew the horn. The white attendant and his native boys ran out to greet us with the devastating news that the tank of the pump was alas empty. Did this mean they had no petrol at all? We queried anxiously. Not at all, they had plenty but it was in barrels. So the hideous business of filling cans from barrels and tipping them into the tank had to be faced. I attended to this while Humfrey went off with the “Chef de Piste’ to send a cable to Thomas of Wolseley, who would, we knew, be waiting anxiously to hear of our progress. Cables to England from In Guezzan cost only 2s a word. While the tank was being refilled by this vilely tedious process – incidentally one barrel was soon emptied, another had to be loaded and the necessary implement was not of course to be found, except after a long search that drove me to a frenzy at the delay, for I was all impatient to be off again – I inspected the oil level and radiator and found no addition was required to either. Then Humfrey came back after sending his cable and, finding the re-fueling not yet completed, he invite me to come along and have a drink, for In Guezzan can supply whisky and reasonable cool water, but I had by this time under the appalling heat of the blazing sun thoroughly lost my temper with the slowness of the refueling process and I muttered something about not being able to waste time drinking if this – refueling was – well ever to be finished at all. Humfrey, like the supreme tactician that he is, made no answer but went quietly off to have his drink while I stopped by the car in the fiery sun, urging the Arab boys to get on with the job. Of course I should have been much more sensible to have one with him, had my drink in the shade and returned to find the job done but I was so frightfully hot and so fearfully cross that I was determined to stay where I was. Humfrey has the blessed gift of repose which I, regret to say, I do not possess, and the quality of never allowing himself to be flustered or antagonized by difficulties. He is the most patient of men and I one of the most impatient. Even when the tank was full, I would not go and join him but turned the car around ready for the re-start and sat stubbornly awaiting his return. He came back at last, cool and unhurried as usual, and we set off. All my rancour disappeared immediately we were on the move, again, and while I sat by his side, dripping with perspiration, I studied the log.”

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