“Away to the east dawn was breaking as I drove away from the Shell agents. It was 5.53 and we had spent an hour and 3 minutes here, including crossing the ferry. I had allowed one hour, so my estimate was fairly correct. We were now 2 hours and 3 minutes late.
The Shell agent had warned us to be careful as there had been heavy rain and the road would be wet and slippery. Humfrey was asleep again as I drove off over the hilly road towards the Belgian Congo and I was not at all happy. Here the country changed completely. It was green and fertile with high rolling hills, a contrast to the burnt-up flat desolation of the district round Fort Archambault. The reason I was unhappy was that the track wound up and down exceedingly steep hills, generally with a narrow track that was wet and exceedingly slippery. I wasn’t happy. I seemed to be crawling but I daren’t go any faster. 40 mph felt like a hundred and the car skidded under the brakes in a most unpleasant fashion. Eventually I developed the correct technique for the type of surface and contour. Racing flat out in third up a long straight climb, I would go into top gear at the summit and get up to 50 mph. When half way down the other side a change down to third, gentle braking and into second reduced my speed to about 25 mph at which I felt content to cross the narrow plank bridge: then accelerate hard and into third again for the next rise. But it was worrying work on the slippery surface.
Humfrey sat up and yawned “What the hell are you doing, Bertie?” he inquired, mildly. “You seem to be changing gear every 100 yards.”
“Sorry,” I said “But the road is wet and damned slippery.”
He sat up suddenly at that and looked out through the windscreen. “Gosh,” he said, as we shot across another narrow bridge. Then, “I’m feeling fine now; like me to take her?”
“Yes, rather,” I said, and we effected he desired change. I had no desire to sleep now that it was daylight and we changed the seat into its upright position for day travelling. I leaned back, snuggling down on to the comfortable Dunlopillo cushions, and enjoyed watching Humfrey cope with the conditions. His tactics were the same as those I had employed but we did not seem to be making very rapid progress. I said “I’m afraid I’ve been awfully slow but I was frightened of the wet roads.”
“I expect it’ll be all right,” said he “I wouldn’t worry.”
“I’m not worrying, “I said, “I’m as happy as a king,” and I sang a little song. I have as much ear for music as a cow. Humfrey laughed. “Shut up, Bertie” he said.
Down a steep slope we went and came to a stream running between tree-lined banks. This is the Banqui, which swells into a mighty river before it joins the Congo, 700 or 800 miles away south, down near the west coast, though here, near its source, it is only about 100 yards wide. We were again fortunate enough to find the ferry on our side and quickly were put across to the other side. This ferry is operated in a very simple manner. There is a wire rope stretched from bank to bank and natives, standing in the canoes which form the floats for the platform, pull hand over hand on this wire and so propel their craft across. This ferry only delayed us 14 minutes from the time we stopped until we were away again.
When we got on the move, I consulted the log and found that, whereas we were allowed 2 hours 1 minute for the 93 miles from Bambari we had taken 2 hours and 9 minutes. We had averaged 34½ mph so I need not have been so despairing at the slow progress I was making over the early part. We had saved 6 minutes at the ferry on the 20 minutes allowed, so we were only 2 minutes down from Bambari, though actually we were now 2 hours and 3 minutes behind on schedule time.
I gave these figures as a sample of the kind of calculations that were going on continuously inside our car as we travelled across Africa, for on a journey like ours, this matter of time-keeping becomes as absolute obsession. While we were still in French Equatorial Africa it was a matter of some importance, too, for the ferries here do not function during the hours of darkness, as they do in the Belgian Congo, our next objective. We had only 150 miles to cover to reach Bangasson, the eastern frontier of the huge territory of French Equatorial Africa: in this 150 miles there were 3 ferries and as it was only 8.16 in the morning when we left the Bangui ferry we were quite safe in reckoning that we should be out of French Equatorial Africa and into the Belgian Congo long before darkness fell and the ferries stopped running for the night.
It is jolly country, this eastern end of the huge French province, green and fertile, with great rolling hills: it was pleasant to see once again trees that really looked like living things and not like ghosts of some long dead vegetation, with bare withered trunks and brown dry leaves. We enjoyed our drive over the comparatively sandy road through this pleasant country under the as-yet-not-too-hot rays of the morning sun. It was comforting not to be thrown off one’s seat every 100 yards or so and we felt it was a nice rest for our much-tired chassis.
63 miles on, we arrived at Fort Ombala – a name which Humfrey loves, he says that it reminds him of a thunder storm! – a large village on the banks of the broad River Kotto. The approach to this seemed different, somehow, to what we had expected. We were sure that the road had led through pleasant shady avenues where large native houses stood far apart and the office of the administrator, to whom we had delivered a letter from his offices at Bangasson on our return journey in the Rolls Royce, was a delightful thatched bungalow.
This road we were on seemed quite definitely to be bearing away and leaving the village far away to our left. It was obviously new, surfaced with deep red sand and with its path carved deep out of the red banks of earth on either side. It was not only new, it was exceedingly slippery so it was in a most cautious fashion that we descended to the river by the new Ombala bye-pass.
The Kotto is wide and lazy as it floats serenely between its tree-lined banks, and the blue water looked most tempting under the now rising heat of the African sun. It was seven minutes past ten when we arrived at the bank. We took a long 31 minutes to get across, when we left our log showed us to be 2 hours and 20 minutes late on schedule. We didn’t care much. The road was at least respectable, the country was pleasant, the car was running well, the sun was shining, though too fiercely perhaps! At Bangasson we should enter the Belgian Congo where the road, sandy but smooth, we knew to be better than anything we had found since we left the tarred road away back in Algeria. In addition, throughout the Belgian Congo territory, even though at fairly long intervals there are really comfortable hotels – at the one at Buta there is even a bar! -, there are telegraph offices (though cables cost a fortune), there are many places with white inhabitants; in a word, there is civilization, so we were eagerly looking forward to our arrival in that civilized country. We had no inkling of the tragic disaster that the Belgian Congo held for us.
On and on under the rising temperature as the sun climbed to its zenith and the thermometer inside the car rose to 100 degrees: through a big native village where the inhabitants gazed at us curiously, till we arrived at another ferry over the river Korro. They are an efficient lot, these natives of the Korro ferry and a cheery crowd to book, for they sang a cheerful song – after Humfrey had held up a 10 franc note with the magic word “Cadeau” – we were soon across in 17 minutes we were off again on the 11 mile run to Bangasson.
This is a large and important place. A big native settlement and the seat of the local administration, with fine white buildings in the native style, looking cool and clean with their reed thatched roofs and wide shady verandahs. It was very hot in Bangasson at 1.25pm and we fairly sweated under the brassy sky as we re-fuelled at the Shell agency. The engine appeared to need a little oil to bring up the level, so I attempted to remove the gallon can which we carried in clamps under the bonnet. After several tries, using large quantities of rags as insulators. I desisted. The can was far too hot to touch even through half a dozen thicknesses of rags! We therefore took a supply of Shell oil from the agency though it was thinner than the kind we were using. We felt that our good engine would not resent such a minor detail as the use of Double instead of Triple.
The re-fuelling completed we drove to the administration office to have our triptyque stamped on leaving French territory for Belgian. Humfrey went in while I sat in the car outside. Minute by minute the interior of the car, already like a furnace, grew hotter as the sun blazed down on the roof and I sat, dripping with perspiration. For half an hour Symons endeavoured to get away while the administrators to whom of course time was no object chatted away about the European situation! Humfrey is always polite under these circumstances: indeed, in my opinion, ultra-polite, though we always made appoint of making ourselves as civil as possible to all the officials and indeed to anybody else we met as we looked upon ourselves, in a very humble degree of course, as ambassadors from our own country to Frenchmen and Belgians. It would be better for the reputation of Englishmen and, may I add Englishwomen, if other travellers adopted a similar attitude for we have been told, in conversation with many of these most helpful dwellers in far off places, the most grisly tales of the way in which they have been treated by people of our nationality. We have many times blushed with shame at these stories, told without resentment or rancour, of the ill manners of travellers. It is an attitude that I do not comprehend – this unpleasantness to foreigners (though in fact we are of course the foreigners in French or Belgian territory). Civility costs nothing – that is something more than a cliché and my experience is that there is nothing that anyone, Frenchmen, Belgian, Englishmen, or South Africa, white, black or brown, will not do to assist a traveller who appealed to for help in a civil friendly way. I do like to think that wherever Humfrey and I have travelled, we have perhaps left people with a better impression of Englishmen than they appear to have had before.
So Humfrey inwardly itching to get away but outwardly thrilled by the conversation of the French official, for half an hour while I remained outside sweltering in the sun and frenzied with impatience. At last he managed to excuse himself and to tear himself away. We drove down to the ferry across the great River Ubangi, already here, some six hundred miles from its union with the mighty Congo, a quarter of a mile wide – we found the interior of the car so appallingly hot that we took refuge under a tree on the river bank while awaiting the arrival of the ferry which is manned by natives from the farther, the Belgian Congo shore.”