Chapter 13 Masona – Fort Archambault 384 miles 30 December 1938

Chapter 13

“I slept like a rock for an hour after we started, as Humfrey had another hour’s driving to do, and afterwards he slept while I drove steadily on in the darkness over rough track. The character of the country was now changing from the Cameroons with its plentiful rainfall induced by the lofty peaks of the Cameroon mountains and its ample vegetation. We were now to enter that bleak desolate region known as the French Equatorial Africa, a huge bare country stretching for 800 miles from east to west. And the character of the road, or track, alters also. In the Cameroons the surface is mostly comprised of earth, soft and yielding, but in French Equatorial Africa it is hard, rocky and appallingly rough. The tracks in French Equatorial Africa are as bad as, or worse than, those of any other parts of the journey from Algiers to Cape Town and one is liable, unless one is cautious, to break something at almost any minute by hitting rock or gully in some inattentive moment, so the watchword was caution.

It was 5.25 in the morning, and still dark, when I pulled up on the bank of the great Logone River, a mighty stream that rises far away in the mountains, 800 miles to the south, and eventually discharges into Lake Chad, 150 miles to the north, that swamp like lake that has no outlet to the sea. The Logone River is a sluggish stream, wandering through almost flat country and at Bongor its width would be about a quarter of a mile.

Humfrey awoke as I stopped the car and we stared across the river at the village lying on the far side. Not a light was to be seen and it was obvious that we were too early. It was 5.25. Humfrey suggested trying the horn and the headlamps, so for some minutes I blew piercing blasts on our twin horns and switched on and off our brilliant lights. There was no result and the village lay black across the river.  At last away down to our right, we saw this sparkle of flames which soon revealed itself to be a blazing fire. Once again I tried the horn and lights, with no result. We had hoped that someone, hearing the noise and seeing the lights, might call the crew of the ferry but the village lay wrapped in darkness, except for a few dim figures that we could see against the flames of the fire.

At last we became philosophic. It was clear that nothing was going to bring the ferry across for us until the crew considered that their working hours had commenced so we decided to employ the time by having breakfast. We made a hearty meal in the growing light of day, occasionally breaking off to send a few more rousing blasts on our horn across the silent river. Breakfast finished and packed away, we sat staring at the village. It was now full daylight and just as we were beginning a new assault with our horns we saw signs of life down by the stream, but in a place quite different from where we had expected the ferry to put out. We watched eagerly and at last it was clear that this was the ferry boat’s crew launching their craft. Soon we saw the crazy affair creeping slowly across sluggish water towards us and as it drew nearer we recognised it. We recognised the “Capitaine” a native who wore the same ragged blue trousers, the same tattered brown overcoat, and the same solar toupee as when we had passed here two years before! We recognised too, the colossal four-cylinder outboard motor which projected far out over the stern.

This ferry, except for the outboard motor, is typical of all the ferries in Central Africa, so one description will do for the lot. It consisted of four or five dug out canoes, wooden logs almost 60 feet long, pointed at the bows and square at the stern, the inside hollowed out by fire. The canoes are fastened side by side to a wooden platform resting upon them across their width: this platform being about 20 feet long and eight feet wide. And that is all. The crew stands in the dugout canoes and propel their crazy craft by means of paddles, one of them usually giving the time by means of a chanted song. The crews vary considerably in temperament: some are light and merry, chanting in unison and laughing like happy children, others are somber and rather miserable-looking. The Bangor crew were a gloomy lot and the “Capitaine” a born pessimist.

As they slowly drew nearer, for the river, though seeming to be sluggish has a considerable current and the journey takes a long time; we saw that the outboard motor was not motoring. “Ah” we said laughing, “he’s up to his old ticks again,” for when we crossed here before, the “Capitaine”, in response to him to start it has made signs that he had no oil and it was not until we had supplied him with some of our spare oil that he would start his motor going.

At last the ferry arrived at the bank and the crew, began to hoist up the precarious plank access on which one has to drive onto these ferries. When all was ready, Humfrey drove the car on and we found at once that with our high ground clearance, we had no anxiety about anything. The difficulty is that the slopes down to these ferries are so steep that when the front wheels mount the planks, the tail of the car is apt to strike the ground with a tremendous bang. Almost every time we drove the Rolls Royce on to or off one of these ferries, the tail of the car, beneath which was the exhaust fishtail, used to strike the ground, until eventually the fishtail was so flattened that there appeared to be no egress for the exhaust at all. Our Wolseley’s steeply cambered springs completely obviated this trouble and by degrees we became utterly careless how we drove on and off the ferries. As I anxiously watched Humfrey driving on to this first one it was amusing to see the huge tyres flatten when they came to the cross baulks of timber on the staying, roll themselves lovingly round them and clamber over them. I saw for the first time how much, from the point of view of absorbing shocks, we owed to these tyres and their enormous capacity for swallowing obstacles.

The natives pushed off from the shore and began to paddle. When we pointed to the motor and signed to the “Capitaine” to start it, he shrugged his shoulders and patted the oil tank. We burst out laughing and apparently that made him recognize us, for though he did not manage to raise a smile to his saturnine countenance, he gravely shook us each by the hand. We handed him a tin of Shell oil and, winding a strap round the flywheel, he set the motor going. It was a colossal affair and must have been at least ten horse-power. He dipped the whirling propeller into the water and the ungainly craft shot off at redoubled speed while the paddlers ceased their efforts. Eventually we came alongside and disembarked up a similar narrow plank gangway. The charge at some of these ferries is 10 francs while others are free, in which case one is expected to give 10 francs to the “Capitaine”, so the result is exactly the same whether it is  a free one or not! In addition, we always used to give 5 or 10 francs as a present to the crew. Humfrey would hold up the note so that they could see it and say “Cadeau”. This is a word that they all understood and while the gloomy crews would raise a difficult smile the cheerful ones would burst into a merry song, calling out “mercy monsieur, mercy monsieur.” When we landed, a native soldier saluted and came forward. He climbed on the running board and signed to us to proceed to the Customs House. Humfrey and I had often discussed what would happen if we decided to rush the Customs here, to avoid delay. Suppose that, instead of stopping to pick up the soldier, we were to drive straight off! We were pretty sure that his rifle would not be loaded and, if it were, we were equally sure that he would never hit the car. It was least half a mile to the Customs post from the river and long before he arrived there, we should be past. Bongor is not in telegraphic communication with any other place, though the T.S.F. (Telegraphic Sans Fil – or wireless) was expected to be installed shortly. Well, how would they do anything about it?

It was five minutes past seven when we left the ferry and 7.28 when we got away from the Customs Post, after exchanging the usual remarks when the official noticed with blank astonishment the date of our entry at Algiers. “Messieurs, is it veritably the fact that you did not leave Algiers until the 25th December?” We assured him that it was so “And it is now the 30th December?” We reassured him on this point. “My faith, it is formidable, Formidable!” he would utter, looking at us if he doubted our very existence. This little scene became so familiar to us that we ceased to take any notice of it after a few repetitions, but it was a measure of the amazement created by all out record breaking passage through Africa. We had expected, according to our log, to leave Bongor at 6.30 so we were just an hour late, owing to the dilatoriness of the ferry men.

Bongor was a desolate, gloomy spot only redeemed from sheer ugliness by the neat river Logone that sparkled under the early morning sun like a neat silver ribbon. It is dry, arid and hot. The stunted trees and dried-up vegetation give no shade or air of coolness. I should not like to be an official stationed at Bongor. The natives were a wonderful crowd, most of them, women and men alike, seem to be about six feet tall: they are completely nude except that some of them wear a small piece of string under their waists and the women smoke short pipes. They do not seem a very nice people, as they are inclined to be solemn and uninterested.

It was already hot when we left Bongor by the wide straight sandy track that was beside the great river. The surface of the first part is quite good, though the dust clouds we left behind were terrible – our big soft tyres were demons for raising dust, as we had notice before – and for sheer decency’s sake we felt compelled to slow down for the numerous native villages through which we passed to avoid obliterating them completely. The population in this neighbourhood appears to be fairly plentiful and the country is cultivated for a mile or so on each side of the villages, but it is not an agreeable part of the world. After 94 miles from Bongor, 2 hours and 27 minutes, we had averaged about 38mph and here we had decided to make a deviation from the track we had followed in the Rolls Royce. Our maps showed another track cutting off to the left and joining the one we had previously travelled about 100 miles from the Customs officer at Bongor as to the practicality of this route and we had decided to take it as it saved 30 miles. We found, in fact, that it was no worse than the other and we made quite good speed. The heat was terrific and we were both getting rather peevish when Humfrey gave me an opportunity to vent some of my wrath. The track we were following was comparatively straight when suddenly there loomed up before us a right angled, right-handed bend. It was plain to me that this bend was deep in loose sand, and exceedingly sharp, and that it was quite impossible to get round it at the speed at which we were travelling, some 45 mph. To my unutterable astonishment Humfrey made no move to slow down and we skidded round it in a huge broadside which carried us within inches of the rough bank at the side and which bought my heart into my mouth. I let fly in some of my choicest language and Humfrey retorted in kind. Finally, after some terse exchanges, we simultaneously burst out laughing, and having recovered, Humfrey explained that he simply had no idea why he attempted to get round that corner at an utterly impossible speed. He assured me that he was not sleepy, that he had seen the turn miles away, that he could see it was deep in loose sandy gravel and that, in fact, he had made a bloody fool of himself. After such a hands on admission there was, of course, no more to be said and I think the incident really did us both good. I may add that through the whole of our journey this was the only time Humfrey did a foolish thing and it was the only semblance of a mistake he made in an amazing exhibition of absolutely perfect driving. If one considers that a possibility of making a mistake arose perhaps five times in a mile and that he drove some 5000 miles of our journey to Cape Town, only to make one mistake out of all these opportunities argues a performance which, in most drivers, would be nothing short of miraculous. But not in Humfrey, who is the complete and finished perfect driver.

We plodded on through the uninteresting barren country that is French Equatorial Africa under the blazing heat of the midday sun. The thermometer inside the car was standing at 102 degrees. We were delighted with the green celluloid strips across our windscreen for through the narrow slit between them we could look ahead without screwing up our eyes, but when one looked out of the side windows the whole countryside seemed to be white-hot and burnt colourless in the blinding glare, so that it seared the eyes to look at it. Though we were continually longing to drink we pursued the policy on which we had decided at the start and which we had been advised to observe, the policy of not drinking at all while we were on the move. For it is quite certain that the more one drinks the more one wants to drink and the act of drinking does nothing to assuage one’s thirst but only gives one a momentary gratification of the senses. Occasionally we would eat an orange, the passenger at the moment feeding the driver with quarters and we would suck acid drops, which really quench one’s thirst, at any rate, for the moment. We felt no inclination to eat and indeed only ate to order, so to speak, as a means of keeping up our strength. It is for this reason that I have made no mention of stops for lunch: on rare occasions we would perhaps consume, while still travelling, a tin of fruit, but the contents were usually so warm that any refreshment we might have obtained from them was lost. More and more as our journey proceeded; we cut out any thought of food during the day and only ate either in the early morning or after the sun had set. We were hardly hungry but always thirsty.

As we went on, we found that the steering was again getting stiff and the car again losing its automatic sense of direction. Eventually this became so bad and so tiring that we decided to stop and try the grease gun. It was about 2.30 in the afternoon, the very hottest part of the day, and as we stopped a great wave of heat rolled over us so that every breath scorched the lungs, for with the cessation of forward motion the draught we created by our movement stopped and we felt the full force of the blazing African sun. Even now I can feel that searing heat and see the picture of our car standing in the wide sandy track, the low scrub colourless and withered by the white hot rays of the sun, and Humfrey lying beneath the car while I handed him rags and the grease-gun. He found it impossible to get and grease through the lower nipple on the off side steering post, so I filled an oil gun with oil, already hot, from the spare can under the bonnet and he squirted this all over the steering connections, hoping that some of it would get to the dry place.

Then, quickly replacing oil and grease guns in their clips under the bonnet, we set off again, gasping for breath and steaming with perspiration. It was a relief to be on the move again after our ten minutes stop and particularly as, suddenly, the steering grew light again and the car would retain its direction without continually hauling it straight.

Just after three o’clock we reached another ferry and were fortunate enough to find canoes on our side of the stream, so that in little more than a quarter of an hour we were across and away. We seized the opportunity while crossing to climb down into one of the canoes that form the support for the platform and to splash the water over our faces and arms. It was not easy to make a decent job of washing one’s face because it was quite impossible to remove one’s solar toupee for an instant for fear of sunstroke but at any rate the cool water gave us momentary gratification and we felt cleaner. It wasn’t necessary to dry faces or hands for the sun did that for us almost instantaneously and the rapid evaporation brought a sense of coolness, – for the moment.

Just after leaving the ferry, we had our first encounter with a swarm of locusts. At first we did not realize what the few flying insects were as we had never seen them before, but suddenly we saw in front a black cloud and simultaneously exclaimed “Locusts.” Hurriedly we shut the side windows as we approached the swarm and, as we rushed through them at 40 miles, an hour it was like a hail of bullets striking the windscreen. We were almost afraid that it would break and so thick was the air with the flying bodies that it was difficult to see where one was going. Suddenly the air cleared and the banging against the windscreen ceased. We were through for the next few miles. We were thoroughly amused by the antics of some fifty or sixty locusts that were left on the bonnet. Clinging to the louvers on the top, they would be whirled round by the current of air created by our passage and suddenly one of them unable to retain his hold would go skidding along the smooth central ridge between the louvers. Sometimes he would manage to cling to another louver or body of one of his pals, and sometimes as he went spinning along he would sweep other locusts from their hold, so that a dozen of them would come whirling along the smooth metal to be swept of sideways when they struck the vertical windscreen. It was five miles or more before the last was swept away by the wind and we laughed heartily at the involuntary antics by our visitors. When we stopped at the store at Fort Archambault, 13 miles beyond the ferry, there were locusts stuck in every crack and cranny of the front of the car: the radiator was covered with them and as there was no way of getting at them through the grille in front, we had to leave them there.

We arrived at the Portuguese store which was the Shell agency at Fort Archambault at 3.39, out schedule time of arrival being 3.41; so we were exactly 2 minutes early after a journey of 4200 miles! We were quite proud of that, as we take a certain pride in keeping to schedule. We had come 4274 miles from England in less than 8 days, averaging about 550 miles per day, and we had averaged over 600 miles per day from Algiers. We were now 820 miles from Kano, and it had taken us 33 hours to cover this distance, but out of this time we had stopped ½ hour at Mora for the customs, 6 hours at Morona and had wasted 2 hours at Bongor through being too early for the ferry. So our sum time had been 24½ hours, and we had averaged 33½ mph

We refueled our tank from 50 gallon barrels. This is a laborious process as it entails decanting the spirit into 4 gallon tins and pouring these into the tank. While this was being done by a horde of natives, we went into the store and consumed large quantities of cold lemonade. The oil refrigerator is the greatest boon that modern invention has brought to dwellers in the tropics and makes the difference between life being bearable or utterly insupportable. Linked with the oil refrigerator, I should place the wireless: not so much for the purpose of entertainment, though this phase is of course of value, but as a means of communication. Think what it must have meant to a place like Fort Archambault. Previous to the coming of the wireless, it meant that an addressed letter to France would have to be carried partly by native runner, partly by canoe where a river was available for more than 6000 miles to reach the coast, which might or might not be in cable communication with Europe. Even, if it were, it would probably mean at least eight months or more before a reply from the home country could be received. The wireless now brings the home country within a very few days of the centre of tropical Africa. A few days? A few hours, perhaps you think! Wait and you shall hear.

Leaving me consuming cold drink at the store and talking to a Dutch chap and his sister, who were touring Africa in their Ford and were duly amazed to hear that we had left Algiers 5 days before; Humfrey went off to find the Port Office as he felt he must cable news of our progress to Thomas at Wolseley’s. In twenty minutes or so he returned, grinning broadly, and told me what had happened. He had asked the French post office clerk if he could cable to England: the Frenchman was aghast. “Monsieur,” he said, after consulting tariffs, “it will be very expensive. It will cost you 57 francs a word; six shillings certainly did secure a lot, but Humfrey said “I can’t help it. I must send a message even if it is only six words.” So he set to work to write out the message. But the frugal mind of the Frenchman apparently revolted at this waste of money and, after a struggle, his natural native economy triumphed. He came across to Humfrey and said “Monsieur, I cannot see you waste your money. This cable will take many days to reach England. It has to be relayed may times and there are often long delays. Now tomorrow morning an aeroplane bound for France is passing through here and you can send a letter by this for say few francs which will reach England at least four days before your cable.”

Humfrey decided at once not to send a cable and as he felt that to write  a letter would mean that he ought to write a long one, he decided to do neither and he returned to me at the store without having communicated with Thomas at all. As it happened, this was unfortunate in the last degree, but we had no suspicion then of the disasters that were to befall us in the near future.”

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