Chapter 18 – Part 1

Chapter 18“As we drove past the trunks of the mighty trees, strewn asunder and dragged clear by the working party, we decided that if we were ever again caught in a storm in a forest we would stop at the first convenient clearing. Everywhere along the road there were traces of the great storm, trees had fallen in the forest and were leaning against their neighbours, and debris of branches and boughs were scattered far and wide. The road was perfectly dry and the conditions perfect. We were very contented, feeling fit and refreshed after our good night’s sleep. Of course the delay was a nuisance and had upset our schedule completely. Whereas, at the ferry across the River Bibi, some 20 miles before we met the storm, we had been a mere matter of 2 hours 40 minutes late, we were now hopelessly behind. Actually about 16 hours and this meant a complete reorganization of our plans. We decided, however, to do nothing about it until we reached Juba in the British Sudan, about 800 miles further on. There we should be in direct telegraphic communication with Nairobi and could telegraph fresh instructions as to the time we shall arrive there. Meanwhile there was nothing to do except to plod steadily along. Only one thing we would have to do and that would be to send a telegram from Buta, 170 miles ahead, to the Governor of the Southern Sudan at Juba, to inform him of our delay. The reason for this was that we had expected to arrive at Juba in the early hours of tonight, about one in the morning, and he had kindly promised to arrange for the ferry which does not normally cross the river after dark to be waiting for us to take us over to the eastern bank. We could not now hope to arrive at Juba before the next afternoon and we felt that it would only be polite to send a telegram. Actually this telegram was never sent from Buta, because we were told on our arrival there that we should certainly get to Juba before the telegram! As events turned out, it was just as well we did not wire. While we were discussing these matters, we passed through a large native village which seemed, even to our not very interested eyes, to be in an unusual state of alertness.  A quarter of a mile on we found the cause. A huge tree, six feet across the trunk, lay squarely across the road, felled by the storm of the previous night.

We had hardly stopped, with a few hearty causes at the prospect of a fresh delay, when from the village there came running men, women and children. In this neighbourhood where storms are frequent and trees are often down across the road, the villagers are responsible, as a part of their dues to the Belgian authorities, for removing any such obstacles and keeping the roads clear. I hesitate to impart commercial motives to these untutored sons of nature, but I think there can be little doubt that they had known of this tree blocking the road and had been hoping for just an eventuality as had occurred, the arrival of a car, before they felt compelled to clear it away! Obviously it was likely to be more profitable to await the arrival of travellers rather than to clear the road without anyone having any knowledge of their good work!

I will say that those natives knew their job. Men, women and children attacked the tree. The men with swinging blows from their axes chopped the tree into three, while women and children tore away smaller branches. In 36 minutes they had finished the job, rolling away the centre portion to leave a passage for the car. Humfrey filmed the scene as they pushed the centre portion clear and I drove the car slowly through. After distributing the necessary largesse in the form of small change and cigarettes we drove on, hoping fervently that this sort of thing was not going to occur every 20 miles.

Shortly after, we drove down the slope to the ferry at the trading station of Bondo, an important place on the banks of the great River Wele. The ferry, a regular super-ferry this one with a crew of about 30, was on our side and we were over and away in 15 minutes. Here we left the great forest region and entered the fertile fields of the great Belgian colony, where the land was tilled and cotton was the staple crop. A cotton field is a pretty sight; cotton grown on long stalks about four feet high and each stalk is topped with a fluffy white ball, so that the field looks for all the world like a gigantic bed of white flowers. It is a smiling, pleasant, prosperous neighbourhood and every now and again we would pass huge red brick ginneries of the Cotton Co. It is a thickly populated country and we began to feel as though we had reached civilization at last. 30 miles after Bondo we crossed the river Likati by a most ingenious method, which filled us with delight because it saved so much time. Here the road climbs steeply up to the railway track, for there is an old railway here that , according to the map, begins nowhere and ends nowhere, a native comes forward, takes 10 francs as a ferry fee, opens the gate and one drives across the river along the bridge which carries the single line railway. Presumably his job is to see that one doesn’t meet a train on the bridge but – well, natives are not notoriously efficient!

Eight miles on, one crosses the Likati again, but this time by a normal type of native ferry. We had covered the 38 miles from Bondo in 64 minutes including the railway bridge ferry, so it can be judged that the road is not bad. The road – or track or whatever one likes to call it – is sandy and smooth and makes very pleasant and comfortable travelling. It is not, of course, a made road in the sense that roads in Europe are: by this I mean that it is not installed, but is simply the smooth beaten natural soil. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. It was a lovely day, not too hot, with a bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine: the country had a pleasant aspect and even record-breaking motorists have a preference for agreeable scenery! We were fresh after our good night’s sleep and the car, needless to say, was running perfectly. What more could the heart of man desire? We were very happy and contented. The date, January the 1st, then meant nothing to us except that it was New Years day. It bore no hint of the disaster ahead.

It was 1.39 pm when we drove into Buta, where we were due to re-fuel at the Shell Depot, here as throughout the Congo, known as SEDEC. We had only averaged 30m.p.h. from the Likati ferry, the reason being, I think, that we had been enjoying ourselves too much to want to hurry – all time motorists will know what I mean! After some little difficulty we found the Shell Depot where there was, a delightful surprise, an Englishman in charge. He said that he had been told to expect us the night before and had waited up for us. We had, therefore, to explain our delay. We refueled from a Shell pump, gave the steering a shot from the grease gun and drove to the hotel. It is a most swagger affair, this Hotel Vicicongo, one enters a large lounge on dining room with a shining bar in one corner and we felt suddenly that we needed lunch. Madame was agreeable to supply us although it was well past the usual hours and we sat down at a proper table, with a cloth and shining cutlery. Except for the fact that the servants were black one might have been in a comfortable provincial hotel in France or Belgium. It was all most sophisticated. After an excellent lunch we set off again, having spent 1 hour and 8 minutes at Buta. A grievous waste of time, but we were quite contented to loaf on this most delightful of days. It was a quarter to three when we left and we were anxious to reach the ferry – once again across the River Uele – at Bambili, our last Congo ferry, before it was dark as there was some doubt as to whether it could be persuaded to function after night fell. It was 132 miles to Bambili and the country became gradually less appealing and began to take on the dried up look that reminded us of French Equatorial Africa, but the road remained good and we covered the 132 miles in 3 hours and 23 minutes, exactly one minute under schedule (with which accurate forecast I was highly delighted). We reached the River Uele at 9 minutes past six and were unlucky enough to find the ferry on the opposite side bringing a lorry across. So it was 25 minutes before we were over and away on the other side. It was then quite dark, but the night of January the 1st meant nothing particular to us yet.”

 

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