Chapter 11 – The London to Kano Record Agadez – Kano 460 miles 27/28 December 1938

Chapter 11

“We crept silently down the narrow sandy lanes between the high white-wash walls surrounding the sleeping houses till we came to a T road where Humfrey obstinately turned to the left although I shouted “RIGHT”. I cannot account for his momentary aberration particularly as facing us was one of the world’s largest signboards with arrows pointing to the right against the names Aderbissinet and Tessaona among other places. However, amid caustic comments from me, he turned the car and we left Agadez behind.

 I was pleasantly sleepy after my good meal and champagne and immediately fell into a deep sleep on my comfortable Dunlopillo bed. From this I was awakened some time later to find the car stationary and Humfrey peering through the windscreen. I sat up and, seeing nothing in the light of the lamps but low bushes, I asked mildly and sleepy “What happened?””

Humfrey had been driving round for twenty minutes unable to find the track. He tried to wake Bertie but the champagne had dulled Bertie’s thinking and Bertie simply said “That’ll be all right. You can find your own way out,” and he then contentedly fell asleep again.

For safety, they took turns driving for an hour instead of the two hourly stints that they drove during the day. While driving Bertie reflected back to the trip they did in the Rolls Royce and drew comparisons between driving in 1935 and driving in the Wolseley in 1938.

They decided to put the extra 4 gallons that they had brought with them into the petrol at 3 o’clock in the morning!

“We decided now to put into the tank the 4 gallons of petrol that we were carrying as a reserve. I can’t think why we decided to do this because it would obviously have been much easier to do it in daylight rather in than the dark. However, we did so decide and a rotten job it was. These 4 gallon cans are huge square tins with a lever cap as used to be fitted to old type cans of oil. This entail extracting a screwdriver, leverage up the cap and punching a hole in the top of the can to let the air in as the petrol flowed out. We did it in a rather messy sort of way for we were not exactly feeling our best; after all, at 3 o’clock in the morning on one’s third consecutive night of driving to say the least of it – fairly strenuous motoring one is perhaps not at one’s highest. We couldn’t be bothered to get out our funnel that was buried somewhere in the rear locker amongst the spares and lifting that 40 pounds can and trying to pour petrol into the orifice of the tank which projected from the side of the body just below the rear window was a fairly awkward job. We got some of it in but a good deal of it went over ourselves, the side of the body and the ground. However, we chucked the empty can into the bushes and considered the job well done. Sixteen minutes it took us. It was a magnificent night, warm and still with the extraordinary stillness of the desert – a stillness so intense that it seemed almost tangible: – myriads of brilliant stars twinkle in the sky like black velvet. In a muzzy sort of way we felt very happy, for the first part about job was nearly done and our first objective, the Algiers – Kano record, nearly obtained. I set off again in very good spirits but the memory of that hour’s journey is almost completely gone. I remember consulting our mileage indicator and, after doing the difficult sums in my not very clear brain, coming to the conclusion that Humfrey was right – he usually is right on matters of the sort – in saying that we had passed Aderbinissinat. Our next objective according to the log was ‘Soc-Soc village on right’”

Bertie continued to battle sleepiness and “was indeed thankful when the dashboard clock told me my hour was up.” He woke Humfrey who was refreshed after his sleep and the next hour Bertie slept like a rock and was woken by “Humfrey shaking me by the shoulders, saying “come on, Monsieur Browning, your turn.”

“I felt very fresh and well as I arose. I asked him where we were and he replied that according to the mileage we should have passed Aderbissenat but he had not seen it. Aderbissinat is a fort built by the French but never used and allowed to fall into disrepair. There is also a well here which is used for desert camel caravans. We had some vague idea, as we discussed, that we remembered a sort of cut-off track, (shall we called it a bye-pass?) which left Aderbissinat to the left. Possibly this accounted for his not having seen it, but one is always nervous if one misses a landmark for fear that one may have strayed off on to another track. Personally and privately I thought he was a bit optimistic in saying that we should have passed Aderbissinat, because that would mean that we had covered more than 100 miles in 3 hours which seemed to show an unexpectedly good rate of progress.”

“This was not the place for any excursion away from the direct line of cairns: there are too many bushes about to make it safe to miss one cairn, for it would be a nasty job looking for one’s track here where the leafy bushes formed avenues full of unexplored possibilities. I was far too brain weary to attempt to be clever; it was safety first. And I was just living for the moment when my turn was up and I could sleep again. These are the times when it is well, indeed it is imperative, that one should be an ‘automatic’ driver; one’s brain is numb with weariness and it is one’s subconscious self that, trained by years of long-distance driving, continues to function, to avoid obstacles, to pick the course best for the car and occupants.”

Humfrey took over the driving and Bertie woke to the sun streaming in through the window. Humfrey was in fine form and Bertie was himself again and the night’s struggles were forgotten. “Breakfast” said Humfrey “what about it?”

“He was in very good form. He said that he had not felt at all sleepy and that he had carried on for nearly two hours as I seemed so dead asleep. This was a practice that he adhered to throughout the nights: if the driver felt able to go on and the other was sleeping, they went on but there was no obligation on him to do so. The arrangement worked admirably with a well-balanced crew like Humfrey and me. It might not work so well in all cases.” They breakfasted on a coffee brought from Agadez in our thermos flasks, on bacon and jam and Ryvita. Humfrey told Bertie about a group of natives who had pitched their tent in the middle of the road and when they saw the headlights of the Wolseley approaching they scurried around to remove the tents, babies and animals off the track.

“We enjoyed breakfast under and the warm sun and refreshed by our 23 minutes stop we set off again. The track was a most annoying one.” He goes on to explain how narrow and sandy the track was with continuously round sharp corners.

“However, there was nothing for its but to keep plodding along and we were not uncheerful. It was pleasantly warm in the early morning sunshine, it was definitely nice to see vegetation again, even if that vegetation was rather brown and arid looking; we were in no danger of sticking in the sand, the track was passable even though the gullies made it troublesome and we were cheered also by the sight of native villages whose inhabitants, stark naked and shining like ebony in the bright sunlight, ran to wave delighted greeting to us as we passed. The car was running beautifully and given no single cause for anxiety. In addition, we were feeling exceedingly fit and not at all tired as the Algiers – Kano record was already in our pockets: so that we counted ourselves among the fortunate ones of the earth. We both love long-distance driving and had we not 7000 miles of Africa still before us? What more could ardent motorists’ desire? The sunshine, a good car, and the whole length of Africa in front? We were very well content with life.”

cross africa 1939

“So we progressed, chatting cheerfully, Humfrey munching away on Ryvita and oranges, till it was time to change drivers at the end of two hours, for with day light we had to reverted to the normal 2 hour shifts, and I was glad to surrender to him the doubtful pleasure of those wearisome gear changes. In spite of them we made good progress, averaging steadily about 30 mph and at 9.15am we ended at the considerable village – or small town – of Tessaona. This place is notable for two things, there is here the French commissioner, answering to our British district officer, so that we could reckon that the far-flung hand of civilisation was now holding it in keeping and gone were the vast open spaces of the Sahara with its absence of life of any sort, animal or vegetable. From now on we were to travel the whole of the rest of the way to the Cape through regions inhabited by men and, in part at least, cultivated by them, so that we should never be completely out of touch with human beings, black, brown or white.”

 “The second thing that made Tessaoua a landmark for us was that here we came to a road. 1850 miles back at Laghouat, faraway in Algeria we had left made roads and embarked upon tracks or the virgin soil of the desert itself and here again the road met us. In that 1850 miles we had met a single vehicle, and beyond the town of Ghardaia, few inhabitants of the desert posts: we had neither met with nor seen one single human being with the exception of the English party who had greeted us at In Abbangarit. It is almost staggering to think of that great track of barren earth, blank, vacant, empty. Imagine, for instance, a journey from London to Constantinople in which one saw human beings at only 7 places throughout the whole distance! And if all the majority of the distance, there were no rivers, no trees, no grass, no animals, nothing. That is the horror crossing.”

Bertie gives more insight into the Rolls Royce trip and how he nearly collided with a truck. He made this comment:-

“No such contretemps on this occasion and we exchanged reminiscences of that unexpected meeting as we jolted along the uncomfortable road.”

The steering began to play up and was getting stiff again “it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the car in the centre of that ridge, which alone made practicable travelling. The steering happens to have lost all its natural sense of direction, the car seemed definitely inclined to wander and when we were beginning to fear that, by hitting rocks or gullies, we had bent and damaged something to such an extent that it had affected the caster action. With each mile, also, the steering became stiffer, till it was a matter for the exertion of considerable physical strength to hold the car straight. We tried to pretend to each other that it was mainly imagination caused by a steeply cambered road, but when we arrived at Zinden Corner, when the fall to Kano turns abruptly right for British Nigeria and Kano, leaving the direct road for Zinden and French Nigeria, and we turned off onto a broad flat sandy road to find that the difficulty of keeping straight was even more accentuated, we could kid ourselves no longer. Something was definitely wrong and we began to picture a long delay at Kano while the front axle and steering connections were dismantled and straightened. This was a picture that filled us with dismay and it seemed a calamity if the success of our journey, so brilliantly began, was to be jeopardised by trouble at this early stage. We were, of course, rather stupid to take this doleful attitude and to visualise cabling Thomas “Delayed while axle is straightened”, coupled with gloomy visions of further stops at intervals along our route for some unexpected weakness to be remedied. Our brains were probably not as keen as they were when we started from Algiers 3 days before or we should not have made ourselves miserable by the hidden foreboding.”

“At last the steering became so bad as to be almost dangerous: I found the utmost difficulty in keeping the car to anything like the straight course and the steering was so stiff that all my strength to turn the steering wheel. Suddenly Humfrey, who had been silent for moment or two, said, “Look here, Bertie. If you’ll stop a minute, I’ve a good mine to try something. You know we’ve got that can of spare oil clamped down by the engine: I’ll try squirting some of it over the kingpin and steering connections.””

“I didn’t think it would do any good for I was so deeply sunk in my melancholy visions that I could have seen no good in anything, but I was glad to stop, even if it was only to rest my aching arms. Humfrey jumped out, opened the bonnet, filled a large squitter that we carried in clips on the forward side of the dash with the hot oil and squirted it again and again all over everything he could reach.”

“”Any better?” Queried Humfrey when we had started on again.

“”No”, I answered gloomily, “it’s just the same,” the deepening conviction of some serious damage becoming more firmly embedded in my brain.”

“So I struggled on another five miles or so when suddenly all my gloom departed and the sun shone again. For the steering was now perfect! No doubt some of Humfrey’s hot oil had reached the vital dry spot and the whole trouble was completely cured. The steering immediately recovered its normal feather-lightness, all the casters actions suddenly returned and the car would hold itself to its course, hands off the wheel, almost indefinitely! I was so delighted at the confounding of all my grim foreboding that I rushed on along this not-too-good road at such as beat that Humfrey was constrained to expostulate “Steady, Bertie” said he, and I became sane again and relapse to our normal 45 miles per hour.”

They were eagerly looking out for the dirty little piece of board which said “Nigerie Anglaise” but missed it and they plodded steadily along this dull and featureless bit of road towards Kano. Humfrey was sleeping and with the rolling of the car he ended up on resting on Bertie, and Bertie having to push him back into his corner of the car. They reached their milestone which Bertie describes as “which spoke of silent British respectability after the raffishness of French rule. One would say “Kano 25 miles”, and then I would perhaps miss one or two to see with delight “Kano 22 miles.”

“At last, when the latest milestone said “Kano 12 miles,” I woke Humfrey. He had been asleep for a couple of hours, I was thirsty and very hot, and anyway he always insisted that he, as skipper, drive into any of the major halting points.”

“He was now quite re-invigorated by his rest and I sat by his side, contentedly sucking oranges and occasionally feeding him with a quarter, while the silver dome of the mosque of Kano grew larger above, through sparse trees, shining like plate glass beneath the boiling African sun. The inside of the car was like a furnace, 102 degrees the thermometer read, as it didn’t matter at all that we were very hot and very dirty because we were now on the tarred road leading into Kano and we had crossed the Sahara faster than any vehicle had ever crossed it before. The first part of our objective had been obtained. As we drove up to the premises of the United African Company, our good engine was purring as silently as when we left England, and we marveled at the excellence of the British mass produced car that had carried us across the rough rocky paths and the deep sandy waste of the Sahara, and after that grueling test, was now as perfect as the day it left the works.”

 “It was 2.40 pm Greenwich mean time (3.40 by local time) on the 28 of December when we stopped the Wolseley outside the United African Company’s premises in Kano and three minutes later we were shaking hands with Shean, the genial and efficient manager of the company’s motor section.”

 “The net result of our 2266 mile run from Algiers was that we had arrived at Kano exactly one hour and 25 minutes behind schedule. Our exact time with the 2266 mile was three days, four hours and 40 minutes beating the existing record (held by Symons in the Rolls-Royce) by two hours and 50 minutes under infinitely worse condition. Our average, including all stops was 29.6 mph. We had covered rather more than 700 miles per day.”

They were tired and exhausted. Shean, an old friend from their previous trips, was there to meet them and informed them that the wheels and tyres had only arrived at 11.30 that morning. It was decided to overnight at Kano and depart the next morning. The car was re-fueled and left over the pit in the workshop where the mechanics drained the sump and refilled with fresh Shell oil. They joined Shean in his office to inform him of what attention was needed on the Wolseley.

“Meanwhile we sat in Shean’s office gradually getting hotter and hotter, while the tea which he produced made us simply steam with perspiration. We were filthy dirty with unshaven chins and dressed in dirty flannel trousers and dirtier flannel shirts while Shean was immaculate in clean white shirt, light shorts, clean stockings and brightly polished shoes. We felt an intense dislike for our hot and repulsive bodies.”

Finally Shean took them to their accommodation at the railway hotel in Kano. Bertie describes the accommodation and how he “left Humfrey wallowing in a cold bath in our chalet while I went over to the hotel and consumed an enormous iced orangeade, one of the memorable drinks of my life: then I carried two more of these back to our room, I turned and handed one to Humfrey as he sat in the bath.”

 “After we had bathed and change into clean shirts and trousers we felt a lot better. Humfrey sent a cable to Thomas, giving the news of our breaking of the Trans-Sahara record and telling him that we were leaving first thing next morning: he also wrote and dispatched a message to the “Sunday Times” giving the full story of our journey. Then we walked across to the United Africa Company where we arrived and found the Wolseley quite ready. We drove back to the hotel, had a drink and went over to Shean’s bungalow. I’m afraid that we were not very good company. The warmth of the evening and the potency of the cocktails complete with the fact that, except for the two hours so on the ship crossing the Mediterranean and our snatched sleep in the car en route, we had not slept for 4 nights made us inclined to go to sleep without any warning. Personally I was sleepy while we were talking to Mr and Mrs Shean before dinner but recovered afterwards, while Humfrey was quite awakened then, but after dinner relapsed into one of those hopeless fits of slumber that are apt to overtake him. At last we got away and that we were to be called at four o’clock, we fell into bed exactly at midnight.”

Bertie finishes the chapter describing Kano and its inhabitants and the gentle lifestyle of the British who were living there.

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