Chapter 18 Part 2 – Disaster – Bambili Ferry – Bridge at Niampara 159 miles 1 January 1939.

Disaster

With Humfrey at the wheel we set off from the ferry at 6.34pm. I remember distinctly, Humfrey saying “Well, Bertie, this has been the best days motoring we’ve had since we started,” and my cordial agreement. Rested after a good night’s sleep at de Boose’s house, we had not felt at all tired, the road surface had been respectable, we had had a good lunch, and the weather had been delightful, hot but not unpleasantly so. We were feeling very fresh and fit and were eagerly looking forward to reaching the Sudan border about 500 miles ahead, where we should enter British territory, never to leave it again, all the way to Cape Town, nearly 5000 miles away. As Humfrey drove steadily forward into the darkness and we compared notes as to our feeling, we saw ahead a distant flicker of lightening. “Oh Lord,” said Humfrey “I do hope we aren’t going to run into another storm and waste a lot more time.”

Waste a lot more time! I agreed. It would be maddening to meet with more difficulties after this pleasant day. Two hours after the ferry, Humfrey handed over to me. He put the seat into its sleeping position as he said he would get some sleep before we reached Nianpara where we were to re-fuel.

It was 8.35pm when I took over, and Humfrey dropped off to sleep at once. I have never felt less sleepy in my life and I was thoroughly contented as I drove steadily forward over the good road. I passed through a large village and just beyond it the road forked. There was a signpost at the fork. I was pretty sure that we ought to go to the left, but it was better to be certain. I stopped and, as I had slightly overshot the turn, I reversed a few yards to get the headlight beam on the sign. The right-hand arm said “Dingba” and I remembered that this place lay off to the right of our road, so I was just starting off again when Humfrey stirred and sat up, disturbed by my reversing. It is a curious fact that anyone asleep in a car is invariably awoken by the car being reversed: presumably the change in direction affects the subconscious mind. He said sleepily, “Where are we?” I said that we had just passed Tapili. He reached for the logbook, looked at the dashboard clock, wrote 10-7 opposite the name “Tapili” and, dropped back on the cushions, was asleep again at once.

Later I remember looking down at the dimly lit clock and noting that it was 10.35pm, in other words that I had completed my two hours turn. Then I looked at the mileage on the speedometer and, making a mental calculation, decided that as it was only about 15 miles to Nianpara where we were due to stop for petrol and as I was not at all sleepy or tired, I decided that I would drive on to that place and not disturb Humfrey.

Steadily, at about 40 mph, I drove on. I was doing sums in my head and reckoning that we should just about reach Nianpara at 11 o’clock. The road rounded a gentle left-hand curve, for which I slowed, probably to about 30; once on the straight again, I believe that I looked down at the speedometer or clock. Looking up again, I saw in front of me perhaps 100 yards ahead, two tall posts marking the entrance to a long narrow bridge while the road ran out on to a high embankment. I lifted my foot from the accelerator and braked to slow for the entrance to the bridge. The car, owing to the unequal pull of the brakes to which I have already referred, swerved to the right and I was startled to see ahead the blackness of a great abyss with the narrow entrance to the bridge away to the left.

One’s recollection after a disaster is apt to be rather blurred but I distinctly remember being startled to see the car heading to miss the bridge entrance altogether. I turned the steering wheel sharply to correct the swerve under the brakes and entered the bridge at an oblique angle. I must digress for a moment to describe the exact construction of this bridge as it is of some importance in what occurred. The bridge was about 140 yards long and spanned the River Gada, 40 feet below. It was narrow, just wide enough to take a lorry comfortably. The surface was of transverse planks and on each side, there was a huge longitudinal baulk about 10 inches square, while outside that there was a stout guard rail made of square timber about 4 inches square, carried on upright posts. To resume; the car entered the bridge at an angle travelling, probably, at 30 to 35 miles an hour. I felt a jar as the nearside front wheel struck the left-hand baulk of timber and there was a sound of splintering wood. To my horror I found that the car would not answer the steering, so that I was unable to straighten it out; there was more crashing of timber and a great jarring and bumping as our huge tyres climbed on to the baulk. While I wrestled with the wheel, the car ran along the top of the baulk for 40 yards or so, smashing down the outside guard and then suddenly and smoothly leaped bodily over the side of the bridge down into the black chasm below. I am not going to pretend that I remember anything of that hideous leap into the darkness. I am conscious of only one thought that flashed across my mind as the car fell. “This is the end. We are dead.”

Wolseley River

Oddly enough, after that awful plunge, I remember no crash as the car struck the water. I only knew that I was under water, inside the car, in a horizontal position and struggling, though with no hope of finding a way out in the blackness of the water. I knew that thoughts of Humfrey flashed into my mind, with deep grief that he was dead too, but for myself I was so convinced that I was already dead that, although I struggled to escape, I was not particularly worried about it. I had already begun to take in water as I could hold my breath no longer and it was easier not to bother, since I was already dead when, suddenly and incredibly, I breathed air. My head had risen above the surface, and I seemed to be standing up though I was still inside the car, and I heard a frantic voice calling “Bertie, Bertie.” It was Humfrey, so he was not dead either!

I saw a window near my head and put my head through. Humfrey clutched me and I climbed out; we were both crouching on the side of the car, as it lay on its side in about 5 feet of water, and high above our heads the bridge with its smashed guard rail was outlined against the starlit sky. We had come from there. Right down from there and we were still alive. It was incredible.

My nerves had utterly gone, and I was like a shell-shocked man. The horror of that rush across the bridge in an uncontrollable car, the noise of the smashing timbers and that hideous leap into the black abyss had temporarily deprived me of all self-control. Even now, after the lapse of many months, those ghastly moments are apt to creep into my mind so that I have to fight away the memory of them.

Humfrey, wonderful fellow, was as calm as though he were seated in his own drawing room at home instead of crouching on a wrecked car in an African river in the middle of the night. He had been asleep and dreaming. He was conscious in his sleep of a loud noise and much shaking: then he had dreamed that he was in the water and had thought “This is a damned unpleasant nightmare. I hope I shall soon wake up.” Suddenly he realized that it was not a dream that he really was in water, and under water. He thought, “Bertie’s driven into a duck pond. I must get out.” Finding an open window just above him, he had got out to find the car lying in the river and himself crouching outside; almost immediately afterwards, I had appeared and joined him.

He swears that the first words I uttered were “the brakes jammed on” – three times repeated. I have no recollection of this, but I will refer to it again when I come to the dissection of the cause of the accident.

The first thought that occurred to me when I arrived out of the window was, I am sorry to say, not thankfulness for our miraculous escape, but the fact that the trip, so marvelously began, was now ruined, that I was responsible; that Humfrey was my best friend and, well many other hideous thoughts of this sort, perhaps better forgotten.

Humfrey, as I have said, was perfectly calm and said, “We must get out of this – must get to he bank.” I, with some sort of insane idea that we were safe here, muttered “oh, no, no.”

“We can’t stop here,” said Humfrey, “All these rivers are full of crocodiles and we must get to the bank at once. The splash will have driven them away for the time being.”

I looked round. I could not see very well and discovered that I had lost my glasses in my struggle inside the car. We were crouched on the rear side of the car, which protruded some eight inches or so above the black oily water that streaked past the wreck.

The headlamps, under water, were still shining beneath the surface and threw a ghostly light into the depths. Humfrey said “We must go. I wish we had some lights to train on the bank.” Then, “Ah this spotlight!’ We had a spotlight mounted high up on the side of the car on the near side above the windscreen, and this, although the bracket was broken off, was still attached by the wires. “I wonder if it would work,” said Humfrey.

“I can reach the switch,” I uttered. I reached inside the broken window through which we had climbed to safety and found the switch. The lamp worked and Humfrey swung it round and pointed it to the bank. Meanwhile I remember that there was an electric torch in the cubby hole on the rear side of the car. I reached in and found it. It worked.

“Come on, Bertie, we must go,” said Humfrey, “before the crocodiles come and this spotlight won’t last long with the battery under water.”

We slipped down into the cool, fast running stream, and (we have often laughed over this since!), just as we were preparing to leave the car, Humfrey, in his most prosaic voice asked, “By the way Bertie, can you swim?” “Yes,” I answered. I wonder what he would have done if I had answered “No!”

Without glasses I am so shortsighted as to almost blind and Humfrey held me by one hand, with the lighted torch in the other as we battled across the rapid current towards the bank. We had about 50 yards to go and we landed a long way down below the bridge, so fierce was the stream. By the time we had swum the river, the spotlight on the car was out as the battery, short-circuited by the water, gave up the ghost. We lay panting in the reeds, but Humfrey gasped “We must get up the bank. The crocodiles will get us here or there may be snakes.” We climbed the steep bank to the road and lay exhausted for some minutes. Humfrey asked me what had happened, but I was so shattered that I could explain nothing and could only gasp that I had ruined the trip and him and everything.

Humfrey said, “Forget all that. It won’t do any good. We must find someone and get help.”

Then he asked me if I knew where we were. I could not remember, but said I thought we were 10 miles from Nianpara. He said that he remembered the bridge quite well and he thought it was only 2 miles from the town. We took stock then of our injuries. They were not serious. Humfrey was a horrible sight. His face was covered with blood which we found afterwards were caused by surface scratches from flying glass, but he looked ghastly. Also, he had damaged the little finger of his left hand: he thought it was sprained but afterwards it was found to be broken. I had some deep cuts on my left leg probably caused as I climbed out of the broken window and we were both cut about the arms. Otherwise we were uninjured. We set off to walk towards the town. Humfrey, who had been wearing his jacket to keep him warm as he slept, took this off and also his shirt as he had some idea that he would be less likely to catch a chill without them. As a result, his teeth were soon chattering, and he was shivering with cold. I was wearing only a shirt and shorts and was too miserable to bother about whether I got a chill or not.

We walked in the darkness and it was not a happy walk. All our hopes lay with the car in the bed of the river. Humfrey kept saying “Cheer up, Bertie. We’re alive anyhow.” That didn’t cheer me up at all. I felt I would be better dead. No, not a happy walk.

We found a native village. Humfrey had an idea we might get help here and insisted on explaining, though I urged him not to do so. I was afraid. He actually entered a hut and found an old native woman jibbering with fear in the light of the torch. Humfrey said “Homme blanc, homme blanc,” meaning that we wanted to find a white man, but she only glared in terror.

On again and another native village. This time in the first hut he tried, he found a young native woman, whom he described as “quite attractive”, but she also simply stared with horror at this frightful apparition of the night. Far away in the scrub on our right we could hear the beating of drums, that perpetual ever-recurring thudding that echoes in the ears of everyone who has visited the heart of Africa, the mysterious drums of night.

At last as we plodded along the road, we saw the light of a fire and natives dancing round it. We approached the fire and Humfrey said “Homme blanc, homme blanc.” They roared with laughter as though we were some tremendous joke got up for their benefit. Suddenly one of the men snatched a burning brand from the fire and held it up high. He saw Humfrey’s face covered with blood and the blood pouring from the wounds in my leg: at the same moment a woman touched my sleeve and said something. No doubt pointing out that it was wet. I think they realized that something had happened. White men do not as a rule walk about in the Belgian Congo in the middle of the night, at any rate not covered with blood and wet through. They listened attentively when Humfrey repeated “Homme blanc, homme blanc.” Then one of them said clearly “Mission, mission Romain.” A Roman Catholic mission! That was the idea. “Oui,oui,mission,” cried Humfrey and pointed north, south, east, west, as if to ask where it was.”

The natives went into committee on this and eventually the scene by the light of this blazing fire ended in our setting off towards the town escorted by a large part of the village. It would have made a lovely scene in a film, that procession. First came a native carrying a huge flaming torch, followed by Humfrey, clad in his shorts, walking so close to the torch in the effort to get some warmth into his body that he was almost scorching his bare chest, as he beat his arms round his body to try and get some warmth into it. Then more natives, then myself, leaning my arm on the shoulder of a young native girl who, seeing that I was limping from the pain of my cut leg, had taken my arm and placed it on her shoulder. A graceful action for which I am afraid I was not as grateful as I ought to have been. I was still too shattered in my nerves to be normal. Then a lot more natives followed, chattering gaily.

We went on for what seemed like a hundred miles till we saw a large sign by the side of the road, the most welcome sign I ever saw in my life. It said “NIANGARA. VITESSE MAXIMUM POUR AUTOS 20 KM”. Immediately after this sign, our natives turned off the road towards a large building on the right. They went up to it and one of them banged on the shut door. After some time, a sleepy voice asked in French who was there. Humfrey explained that we were travellers who had met with an accident. There was some grumbling and a sound of movement. Then the door opened. There appeared at the door an enormous bearded man dressed in pajamas. He shone a torch on our faces and arms. “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, mon Dieu! What has happened?”

Humfrey explained that we had fallen with our car into the river; also, that we were not seriously injured but needed some medical attention.

“My son,” said the large priest, “you are fortunate in that you have arrived at the very best hospital in the Congo. If you will go over to the building across the road, I will send the sister to you.”

Humfrey explained that we were wet and that of course all our clothes were in the river with the car. The reverend father produced at once pajamas of such a vast size that when I came to put them on the front part met at the back and the cord went twice round my waist! I saw on his table a packet of cigarettes and begged a cigarette. He thrust a packet on me. Then Humfrey said “Mon pere, these natives have bought us here and all my money is in the car in the river will you give them something for me?”: Assurement,” he replied. From his table to take a couple of packets of cigarettes and, going out, he divided them among the natives.

Apparently, there was some trouble; one of them said that it was not enough or something like that. Immediately, the enormous bearded priest, rushed madly at the party of surprised natives, slapped one of them across the face and kicked another’s behind as they all ran off screaming and laughing. “It is nothing,” he said returning, “they are used to it! Now I will fetch the sister if you will go across the road to the hospital.”

We went off towards a large brick building with a wide verandah. We were deadly tired after our walk following the shock of the accident, but in a very few moments the sister arrived clad in clean white garments. She introduced herself as Soeur Marice deBoose l’Annonciation’ but she was really an angel in disguise. She spoke English well. She opened the door of a clean white painted room with two beds and ushered us in, while native boys came running with basins of water, rolls of bandage and dressings. As she was washing our wounds and bandaging our various cuts, she asked what had happened. Humfrey explained that we had fallen over the bridge about 6 kilometers out and when at last she understood that it was indeed the high bridge over the River Gada she was amazed that we were alive.

While bandaging us, she told us that she was sorry she had no whisky, but she had ordered some tea to be got ready for us and wine was being brought. The hot tea soothed our jangled nerves and the wine was comforting. Humfrey wrote out a cable to Thomas at Wolseleys and she promised to have this dispatched first thing in the morning. The actual words were “Crashed through bridge in Congo. Car wrecked. Both unhurt.” (This was delivered to Thomas reading “crashed through brigade” but he did not believe that we were likely to have decimated the army of the Belgian Congo and correctly interpreted the word as “bridge”). She also promised to arrange for a sentry to be sent out to the bridge before daylight to ensure that natives did not swim out and loot the car. Humfrey was chiefly anxious because all our money – some £150 – was in the car.

Then, leaving beside each of us a glass of some sedative and a couple of aspirins in case we could not sleep, and lighting a candle which she sheltered behind a book, she wished us goodnight and left us.

I attempted stumblingly to express to Humfrey my regrets for what had happened, but he said “Forget all about it, Bertie. We’re alive anyhow.” And that from first to last was the only condemnation I received from him for what was undoubtedly my fault. He has never to this day said one word of blame or abuse for the ruining of our high hopes. One cannot but wonder what some men would have said!

I lay in the dim white painted room, listening to Humfrey’s quiet breathing for he fell asleep almost at once. For my part I left the sleeping draught and aspirin untouched. I was determined that at any cost I would not sleep. I was afraid of what I might dream. So all the remainder of that most bitter night I lay quietly in my bed, visualizing the consternation that would shake the Wolseley Works when the cable arrived, visualizing Thomas’s anger, the dreadful business of home-coming that we had cherished so long, the end of the attempt of the Cape Record. Every now and again the horror of these ghastly moments would come over me again, the black abyss, the blow, the crashing of timber during our uncontrolled passage along the bridge. The awful leap into the blackness below, the struggle for life in the black water, the hideous memory of crouching there on the side of the car just above the oily water streaking past and the great bridge with the eloquent gap in its rail towering above our heads against the starry sky. I fought these visions away, but they would keep recurring. But mostly the feeling of that ghastly leap down into the black night. I was not thankful for our miraculous escape; for Humfrey’s, yes, but not for my own. Bitterness flooded me so that I wished I was lying still and cold with our beloved Wolseley beneath the black river. For everything was lost now. Dreams and plans and visions of triumph. There remained only the hideous memory of that awful fall. That and the bitterness of Humfrey’s goodness. No, not a nice night.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s