Chapter 14 Fort Archambault – Bambari 335 miles 30/31 December 1938

Chapter 14

“We left Fort Archambault at 4.27, having stopped there 48 minutes, instead of our scheduled 19 minutes. This made me very cross because it meant that we were now 27 minutes late, and I hate to be late. We knew that our next stretch of 335 miles to Bambari comprised some of the worst roads we should meet with in the whole journey; but we were glad that we were to cover this stretch by night, because the country is monotonously uninteresting and we remembered the awful heat we had endured here in the Rolls Royce. Our schedule allowed us 11 hours for the 335 miles, that is 30 miles an hour and we looked forward to jogging quietly along through the night without any attempt to hurry. The track did not seem as bad as before, which was no doubt due to the superlative springing and general comfort of the Wolseley. We made very good progress until darkness fell and for some time after, but soon after passing Ndipi, 148 miles from Fort Archambault, we suddenly came to a barrier across the road. This was a wide piece of board, supported on two trestles: chalked on it were the words “Port detruit: route barrée”, and that was all. Nice! The bridge over a wide stream was down and the road was closed. Very nice indeed! So what does one do next? There were two obvious courses. One was to remove the barrier and proceed, hoping that we might find some way of circumventing the broken bridge: the other was to find some way of avoiding the obstacle altogether. We got out our French military maps and studied the matter. The result was not promising for the maps shows no other route from here to Fort Crampel. We had just established this fact and were contemplating an assault on the barrier when Humfrey’s luck, to which I have previously referred, came to our rescue. It didn’t look very promising at first, this bit of luck. It took the shape of a native, dressed in ragged trousers, an even more ragged pullover, and a battered hat, but it was really Humfrey’s good angel looming up out of the black night. The native approached the car, gravely raising his hat with true Gallic politeness. Humfrey addressed him, not very hopefully, in French, for neither of us speak a word of any native language. “Did he speak French?”  “Que, monsieurs.” (Humfrey’s Good angel!) He explained in broken African French that he was the foreman of the bridge-repairing gang and was at our service. Could we get over? Alas, not for many days would the bridge be passable. Was there any other way of getting to Fort Crampel certainly, we must go down this narrow track to our right for 40 kilometres, there we would turn sharply left and rejoin another track that would lead us to Fort Crampel.

That seemed sufficient for us. To find a bridge irreparably broken, to meet with the foreman who could speak a few words of French, to be told by him of a way of avoiding the broken bridge: all this is child’s play to Humfrey’s good angel and is an instance of the kind of providence that watches over its chosen. We were to meet with other instances of it in circumstances that meant the difference between life and death. But those circumstances were, at the moment, fortunately wrapped in the mists of the future. Thanking our good friend and bestowing upon him the largesse much appreciated by natives, a handful of my cigarettes – Humfrey does not smoke – we turned off down the narrow track to which he had pointed. It was no worse than the one we had quitted and we made good progress, running at a steady 35mph while Humfrey, having done his part by conjuring up the vision of the native foreman, slept serenely in the bed by my side.”

Bertie drove and finally he was delighted to come to a sign “and there fastened to a tree – oh joy of joys! was a dirty piece of board on which were chalked the words “Fort Crampel” and an arrow.”

“It always gave me an eerie feeling, this night driving; for with the long white path of the headlamps, shining ahead, the windscreen gave the impression that one was looking out at a lighted landscape from a dark room; inside the car it was inky black with only the faint yellow glow from the illuminated dials on the instrument board to make one realize that one was actually driving a car: dimly I could see, or rather sense, Humfrey’s recumbent form as he lay beside me wrapped in rugs. It seemed so  intensely lonely. There were no signs of life such as one sees when driving at night in England, dogs, cats and rabbits with, now and then, a belated pedestrians, cyclist or motorist. Here there was nothing, no sign of life of any kind, nothing. Only the night breeze raised by the car’s passage through the air and the steady whisper of the engine. Everything seemed very silent and it was hard to keep awake. There were no features to mark the passing of the miles; the scene was always the same as it rolled across the lighted screen of the headlamp beams. Eternal scrub and a few trees and more scrub: the yellow sandy track and the scrub. One had the illusion that one was not moving, that in spite of the evidence of the lighted speedometer dial with its hand pointing to 30mph,one felt that in reality the car and the eternal scrub were standing still and that when dawn broke, one would find oneself still in the same place”.

“As I was driving along, semi-somnolent and struggling with the desire for sleep, suddenly the trees receded and the line of telegraph poles ran across a little clearing. I was following them quite confidently, being convinced that they would lead me across the cleared space to pick up the track again on the other side. Then I got an awful fright. From the blackness of the car, a voice screamed out “Look out!” in a tone of horror and a vice like grip clutched my left arm. Heart in my mouth, I stamped violently on the brakes and brought the car to rest. “What is it?” I gasped.

Humfrey was sitting up beside me. “I’m most awfully sorry, Bertie” he said, “I must have been dreaming. I could have sworn you were heading straight for a great tree.”

“My God.” I replied, “You frightened me to death,” for my heart was beating like a  hammer. 

“I’m terribly sorry, Bertie,” he said. “I’ve never done such a thing before. I can’t think why I did it.”

I said, “I simply can’t drive anymore. I was frightened to death. Frightened to death,” I repeated stupidly.

“Here,” said Humfrey, reaching behind him in the darkness, “take a drink of this,” and he held out a cup of whisky. I drank it down but I was shivering so that I thought I was going to faint.

“I can’t go on,” I uttered.

“You must,” said Humfrey. “I promise you I shan’t do it again.” He was quite right, of course, though I was so shaken that I couldn’t see it. If I had given up that wheel then, I should never have been the same again while driving at night. The only thing to do was to go on now while the incident was still fresh in my mind and drive through the nervous attack bought on by the sudden shock. After a well known racing driver had had a narrow escape from death while practicing at Brooklands, a wise friend forced him to get into another car immediately and do five or six really fast laps and though his shattered nerves cried out against this brutality, his friend was right. After completing his fast laps, he regained his confidence and the narrow escape never affected him again. The well-known racing driver was the late Comet Zborowski and the wise friend that old hand, Lionel Martin. The story is well-known to all Brooklands habitués. So Humfrey was right and, with quivering nerves, I went on driving. For a short time Humfrey sat erect by my side, but when he sensed that I had recovered and was no longer shaking with apprehension, he quietly lay down and, when next I gave a thought to him, he was sleeping like a child. I never thought of the incident again but the experience was an unpleasant one. Desire for sleep had gone and I quite enjoyed the driving. We never attempted to do anything but crawl during the night hours when one of us was asleep, content with the knowledge that the miles were slipping away behind us and this quiet night driving would have been really pleasant if it had not been for this awful battle with the desire for sleep. We realized now, for the first time, what an immense additional strain we were to undergo, owing to the fact that when one of us was sleeping the driver had no one to talk to. A third driver would have made all the difference as two would have been awake while the third slept. We had, in fact always when discussing an attempt on the Cape Record contemplated having three drivers for this very reason, but lack of space and the wish to save the additional, not inconsiderable, weight had forced us to abandon the idea for this run. The lack of a third driver was to prove a very heavy additional strain on our nerves throughout. But it was unavoidable”.

Bertie handed over to Humfrey and slept like a log. The detour had added 29 miles to their journey.

“Before taking over from Humfrey, I took a glance at the log to refresh my memory because I remember that at a place called Moronbas, we had on a previous trip been in some doubt as to which track to follow, as there was a fork with no sign. I wanted to be sure now far ahead this place lay. I can only say that I never saw it. Whether we were following a different track, I don’t know, but the one we were following did not agree in any particular way with my recollection. However, I arrived at a T road and found an immense sign board on which, among the names, I was able to pick out Bambari, though as I swung round the corner I was not able to see how far away it was. I did not want to stop unless I could avoid it, as I have learnt by experience that to stop the car almost invariably causes a sleeping passenger to awake. I wanted Humfrey to stay asleep. Several times after this, the track turned or joined others and I followed blindly a series of these enormous sign boards, on each of which I discovered as the bottom name the word “Bambari”. At last, I came to one facing me so that as the headlamps illuminated it some 200 yards ahead I as to get a good look at it. It said Bambari 50; that meant 50 kilometres or about 31 miles. It was now four o’clock in the morning, so we should be in Bambari by 5. I couldn’t remember what time we were due there and couldn’t really be bothered about it. All I knew was that another hour would see us there. Soon it would be daylight and another of these torturing nights with its amazing longing for sleep would be over”.

 “Suddenly the track sloped steeply downward and rounded a sharp bend to the right. Oh yes, I remember this. It was called in the log “Steep descent” and as I braked for the corner, Humfrey woke, sat up, yawned, and asked the inevitable question “Where are we, Bertie?” he said. “About 25 miles from Bambari,” I said. “O.K.” he replied, “are you all right? If so, I shall go to sleep again.”

Bertie had ‘beastly doubts’ that they had strayed off the track and then they may have insufficient petrol to get back and reach their next refueling station. As he said – “Ugh! These worries frayed the nerves and gave us moments of acute and quite unnecessary misery.”

They eventually found the track and checked “The dashboard clock said 4.50 and the log told us that we were due here at 2.50 so we were 2 hours late: ½ hour late leaving Fort Archambault, say an hour for our discussion with the foreman and the 29 miles detour: this meant that we had only actually lost ½ hour and this was due to our slow speed through the night.”

They had arranged with the Shell Company that they would be re-fueling at 2.50 in the morning and they were wondering if the instruction had arrived from England. They stopped on the river bank with the Wolseley’s headlights throwing a powerful beam across the river and woke the sleeping crew of the ferry.

“They had been sleeping in their canoes awaiting us. It was a triumph for our organization and for that of the Shell Company. We drove on to the ferry and set off for the farther bank, blowing several lusty blasts on our twin horns to warn the Shell agents that we were coming.”

Once they drove off the ferry, they found the Shell pump and were greeted by a young Frenchman who had been waiting since 2am for their arrival.

“We told him that we were sorry to be late and thanked him for the arrangements he had made for the ferry. We refilled our tank while the Frenchman kindly produced for us coffee and biscuits. Then I spied a jug of water and at our request he bought out a large basin. We stripped off our shirts and had a much needed wash, the first we had had since leaving Marona 1000 miles back.”

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