Chapter 12 – Eastwards across Africa Kano to Masona 467 miles 29 December 1938

Chapter 12

“I woke with a start to find a NHS servant bringing tea and bread and butter. It was daylight and, glaring at my watch, I was horrified to see that it was past five. An hour late already! I woke Humfrey; we dressed, drank our tea, packed our belonging in the good Wolseley standing patiently outside our chalet and left as the dashboard clock showed six o’clock. Then ensued a really ludicrous half hour. As Humfrey let in the clutch I said “Do you remember the way out?” “I think I do,” he answered. “I’m sure anyway we start in this direction.”

 I thought we did, too, though we were neither of us very clear about it as, two years before in the Rolls-Royce, we had then been piloted out of the town by the District officer in his car and we had not paid much attention to where we were going. Anyway, we started off confidently enough. We crossed a wide sort of common divided in two by the tarred road; then we came to a fork. Did we go right or left? We thought it was right, that very soon the tarred surface ended in a rough sandy track. We knew this was wrong because we remembered that the tarred road lasted for at least five miles out of the town. So we went back and tried the other fork. We didn’t like the direction of this at all because our compass showed that we were going almost due south and we knew we should be going a little north of east. So we turned around and came right back to the hotel and restarted.

 For 20 minutes we tried road after road, becoming hopelessly confused and quite helpless with laughter. It seemed so perfectly ludicrous that we, who had crossed the Sahara without losing ourselves, should be quite unable to find our way out of this blessed town! At last Humfrey said, “Look here this is absurd. The only sensible thing to do is to go to Shean’s bungalow, wake him and get him to direct us.” I agreed. We turned back again, passed the hotel and drove to Shean’s bungalow. A few blasts on our horn brought this good chap out in his pajamas and much amused he gave as explicit direction which solved our difficulties. It was 6.30 am when we finely got leave of Kano. 

Bertie talks about how since the previous trip the road had been extended and how they were able to drive with ease. They were concerned about the summer rains and having to cross several river beds, but they were assured of their Woseley’s ability to surmount the challenges.

They crossed a ‘great iron bridge’ over a flowing stream that on previous trips had only isolated pools in it. The tarred road ended and they entered onto ‘native roads’ which were rutted, sandy and this made driving unpleasant. The Wolseley was up to the test and was able to maintain considerably high speeds – they were averaging 36mph along these difficult roads.

Bertie comments ‘This place was noted in our log-book as “impassable. ford. take to bushes.” imagine that you would be travelling along in a narrow rutted lane and have arrived at the crest of a long slope: in front of you the road slopes steeply down and up to another crest 400 yards ahead: in the hollow you see water, green water, standing across the road. If you go down to the edge of it you will find that the ground is marshy, that the water stretches for about 150 yards and that it is obviously very deep (in point of fact, at the deepest points it is 10 feet deep). It is obviously quite impassable to take any motor car. What therefore does one do? There is no assistance to be obtained so the obstacle must be circumvented somehow.’

They had prior knowledge of this area and were able to safely navigate through the riverlet – in the diary Bertie exclaims “Crash. Bang! We’ve bumped into the sandy bottom of the riverlet and then with the rush and a roar, flat out in bottom gear, we attacked the bank opposite. The bonnet reared up almost vertically, but our impetus carried us on to the narrow landing halfway up and once again the bonnet was in the air as the car tackled the second slope. It was of deep soft sand and our wheels clawed for a grip as the car clambered upward and over the top. It had looked so utterly impossible but our good Wolseley had made it seem very easy and it was certainly exhilarating. That roaring climb up that precarious bank will live long in my memory.”

“Three miles further on lay what the log called “Big Oned”,- you will remember that “oned” meant river bed – and we were afraid that this might be awkward. It was a really wide river bed, probably a quarter of a mile from bank to bank and, though it had been dry and sandy when we crossed it in the Rolls Royce, it was now so much earlier after the rain that we were not at all sure that it might not be full of water. There is a hard path across the middle part but on each side there was a depression and we feared these might be rivers.”

He describes how they managed to ford across. “It made fording a shadow stream about ten yards, driving almost 100 yards over a wide stretch of gravel which appeared to be quite bottomless, just like the shingle beach, to re-gain the road. It didn’t appear impossible, but the snag was that halfway across there was sort of a gravel ridge about 2 feet high, just as one sometimes see on the beach after the tide has receded. This appeared the danger spot, but I signaled to Humfrey to reverse and bring the car along. He did so and stopped on the edge to survey the prospect. “All right, Bertie” he said, after studying the best line to take, “jump in, I think we can get across here, but that ridge may be a bother. I should have to rush it and trust to luck.” Slowly he drove forward. With a terrific crash the front wheels plunged over the edge and the car more or less stood on its head. Humfrey accelerated for under these conditions it is necessary to use sufficient speed to ensure that the tail of the car clears off the edge of the bank and does not strike it as the back the wheels leave the edge. With a bump which made all the contents of the car leap into the air and which sent up a stifling cloud of Sahara dust from the floorboards, the back wheels landed in the stream, then Humfrey stamped on the accelerator and rushed across the water and up the gravel towards the ridge: the front wheels took this abuse head-on and ploughed deeply through it, so we were over with another leap like a horse taking a fence and a crash made all spares and tools leap in their places. Unfortunately, as we had feared, the ridge had taken off so much of our speed that the rear wheels began to dig and we slowed ominously as with wheels spinning in the loose deep stuff, we crawled left-handed towards the hard track. Slower and slower we moved and then, just as the front wheel reached the safe solid ground, with a jerk, the car stopped. Then Humfrey simply took out the clutch to prevent spinning rear wheels digging themselves deeper and “Damn” said he. Immediately the natives came running out, and with a little gentle help from the engine, in 30 seconds, we were on hard ground. After distributing largesse, we went on, Humfrey blaming himself because he said that if he had taken the ridge a little faster we should have done it but I consoled him by saying that he had made a jolly stout effort and anyway it was all thoroughly amusing. Eventually he agreed with a grin that he had quite enjoyed it.

Twenty miles on we reached Jainaari where there is a causeway built of reeds across a wide deep oned. We were relieved to find this already in place as we had been afraid that it might not yet have been built up after the rains. There is that gate across the road here where one is halted to pay a toll of 10 shillings for the use of the causeway. The gentleman in charge, and a native, came out and bowed politely. He was followed by a small native boy carrying a book of tickets, a pen and a puny ink bottle. I had been waiting for this and immediately went into convulsions, while Humfrey told me to shut up as we didn’t want to offend the old gentleman. Having made his bow, the old fellow squatted down in the road, took the book of tickets and the pen from the small boy, and, uncorking the bottle of ink, placed it deliberately on the ground beside him. I didn’t know why this procedure strikes me as being so essentially comic, but even now I cannot visualise that venerable white-clad figure squatting on the dusty road with a tiny bottle of ink beside him without internal spasms of laughter. I swear that if I even go to Jainaari again I will take that old gentleman the present of a fountain pen. And yet – wouldn’t it be a shame to spoil that picture?

Having deliberately filled in the ticket with the registration letters of the car, he handed it to us with another performed bow and majestically signed to the small boy to open the gate across the road. We drove through and on across the reed causeway leaving the venerable figure bowing his farewells.”

Bertie and Humfrey were very satisfied with the progress and were averaging just over 32mph from Kano to Jamaari and that the worst part of the stage from Kano to Maiduguri was over. From there the road improved and they were averaging 41mph and had gained 45 minutes on their time schedule.

They had 465 miles from Kano to Marona and that was just outside the safe range for refueling. They decided to refuel in Poliskum but encountered a problem with the petrol station not accepting the Shell coupons and having to pay cash for the 8 gallons of petrol which included much negotiating with the petrol attendant. This stop had cost them 26 minutes.

They passed through many villages and at Maiduguri  “At a crossroads in the middle of an open space we met a British car, a Humber, obviously belonging to tourists for over and upon every square foot were hung and balanced and tied various articles of equipment and baggage. We stopped and surveyed with some disapproval the untidy appearance of the outfit, the lack of proper provision for the storage of the various odds and ends, the cramped interior (they were four people in it surrounded by paraphernalia all sorts), the springs already bent down by the enormous overload into a reversed camber and the standard and grossly over taxed tyres. Compared with our beautiful Wolseley, with its huge tyres, its carefully planned equipment, and its roomy interior it looked about as fit for an African journey as some venerable rural motorbus. We had a word with the driver, who told us that they had come from England and were going to Nairobi. We only stopped a few minutes and left them, pitying them and the car. Bertie remarks by way of a later note the following: I may say now that, in spite of the ten days which we lost, they had not arrived at Nairobi when we left.

At Maiduguri we were still 40 minutes late on our original schedule. This meant that we had gained 50 minutes as we left Kano 1½ hours late: this in spite of our long delay at Potiskum for refueling. We have covered the 333 miles in 9 hours and 5 minutes of which 38 minutes had been spent standing still: 26 minutes for petrol, 6 minutes at the Jamaari toll gate, and 6 minutes we had spent extracting from our food locker some tinned provisions to eat as we went along, so our running time had been 8 hours and 27 minutes. Our average speed excluding stops had therefore been 39½ mph. I must confess that to me this figure seemed incredible: if we remember the bad condition of the early part of the road and the difficulties and waste of time in finding the streams. Nevertheless here it is. We left Kano at 6:30 am and we arrived at Maiduguri at 3:35 pm including all stops; we had average a fraction under 37 mph. In the Rolls-Royce two years before we took 10 hours and 23 minute including one stop of ten minutes to change a wheel and the same stop for the Jamaari toll-gate. We thought we had done well then, so we were more than satisfied with our performance in the Wolseley. We went straight through Maiduguri and out on the road for Mora, in the French Cameroons. The first part of this is a terrifying little track, just wide enough for the car and running between fields of corn which grow some 10 feet high. I was proceeding down this a very sedate pace when Humfrey said “Are you tired, Bertie?” I replied with some asperity that I was not the least bit tired and asked why he should suppose I was. He said, “I can’t think why you don’t get the move on then. The roads all right.”

Bertie gives an amusing description of the goats they encountered – which they called racing goats – and how they had to be careful not to hit them as they darted unexpectedly across the road in front of the car.

They were concerned that they may have been on the wrong track and considered turning back but their compass assured them they were on the correct course. Once they saw the sign “Frontiere’ they knew they “had emerged onto a broad hard road. The reason we remembered it so clearly was that one of us had said, quite reasonably, “Ah, now that we have arrive in French territory again, the French are determined to show what good roads they have!”

That this road wasn’t good at all: in fact it was most unpleasant. True, it was straight and wide and from edge to edge it was covered to the depth of some 6 or 8 inches with loose soft moist earth, which afforded no grip even for our huge Dunlop tyres, so that the car proceeded crabwise, first sliding one-way and then the other. Darkness had fallen and in the blackness it was a matter of some difficulty for me to keep the skidding car from slithering bodily off the road altogether. As we progressed sideways on this most unpleasant surface, we argued again as to whether this could be right, but at last we agree that we had seen another track, apparently now disused, bearing off to the right and concluded that this was a new road just made and not yet settled down. Anyway it was only 17 miles to Mora and we were bound to get there some time. Mora is the French Cameroon Customs Post and as the important place in the district, it was clear that this road must go there. So we proceeded crabwise at a steady 30 mph through the darkness.”

At Mora “we recognised the Customs Post and marched up the steps, to be greeted by the sergeant in charge who informed us that the officer was away in the hills and endeavouring to collect taxes. However, he stamped our papers in the best official style and then, in the delightful manner of Frenchmen the world over, having concluded his departmental business, he became a human being and a friend. He would not hear of our departing without taking a drink with him and, calling a black servant, he ordered a table and chairs to be placed in the piazza. He produced red wine and water and mixed drinks for us. When I tasted mine I was horrified to find it warm, for the water was definitely hot. I thereupon suggested, rather tentatively for fear of offending him, that as we had in our thermos flasks some iced water brought from Kano, which would be at least cold, perhaps he would do us the honour of sharing with us. He graciously agreed: I produced the cold water and the warm drinks were discarded. After some minutes of friendly enquiry as to our journey and after he had expressed his amazement on hearing that we had actually driven the whole 2800 miles from Algiers in 4½ days, the fact that he would only credit when we showed him the date on our triptyque, we managed to tear ourselves away and, with Humfrey at the wheel, resumed our journey.

There is one more thing about Mora that makes it memorable. There stands a large, square and white  “Bome Michelin” or “Michelin Milestone”: one of those handsome blocks giving distances to all the principal towns, so familiar to travelers in France and presented to the country by the great French tyre making firm of Michelin et Cie. And here, right away in the heart of Africa, stands one of these stones. Seeing it, before one’s eyes this brings into view those greats tree lined avenues spanning the wide open spaces of the country that is truly the motorists’ paradise. And here on the narrow earth tracks of Central Africa that stone spoke to us of the same things: great distances, freedom and France.”

They drove steadily through the darkness and stopped at the Unilever Company Store at Morano where their representative, Mr O’Hara was waiting and “he would supply us with a meal and the use of beds in his bungalow behind the store for a few hours. This had all been arranged before we left England and we had told him to expect us at 7.30pm on December 29th and behold here we were at 8:35 pm on December the 29th. Fairly accurate time keeping after a journey of 3850 miles!”

They replenished their fuel, washed and had dinner and hoped to be in bed by 9 o’clock “However, our one hour late in arriving coupled with the very natural desire of O’Hara for a talk with British travelers, (he is the only Briton here among Frenchmen and natives), made this wish unfulfilled and it was not until nearly 12 that our unhideable yawns showed him that we were ready for bed. We slept like dogs to be awakened in two hours, feeling much worse than when we had lain down, though I think our short sleep really did us good and by 2.25 am we were off again, after heartily thanking our kind host, who refused, much to our distress, to accept any payment for the use of his bungalow and for keeping him up all night. We found this spirit of helpfulness universal on our journey: everyone white, black or brown, did everything they could to help us and to them all, we owe more than we can ever pay: indeed, we owe to every one of them the success that we achieved at last when we drove into Cape Town.”


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