Chapter 21 (Part 1) – Juba – Nairobi 742 miles 11 – 12 January 1939

It was already hot when, at 6.30 on the morning of 11th of January, we started off to follow Stanton, who had insisted on coming down to the ferry to see us off. It was the first time I had been in the car since the crash and, except for the wetness that continually soaked through the cushions and the appalling smell of stinking river water that pervaded the interior, everything seemed perfectly normal. The car, having a fair amount of rattle from the ill-fitting doors, was as quiet as before and ran as smoothly. I was frankly nervous. It seemed to me that something must have suffered from the appalling crash and the subsequent immersion. I had not yet an opportunity of driving the car and I think I was a little afraid that I might be unable to forget the crash and find myself too nervous to drive.

The Nile here, 3000 miles from its delta far away in Egypt, is about half a mile wide and the current runs very fast. The ferry is an extraordinary contraption. It consists of a wide flat pontoon tied up side by side to an antiquated-looking old steam boat, which conveys it backwards and forwards across the river. The ferry was waiting for us, having received warning the night before, and after taking several photographs and parting sadly from our good friend Guy Stanton, we set off.

It took about 20 minutes for the strange craft to arrive at the other side, as it had to beat up against the current and at 7.25 exactly Humfrey drove off the ferry and away along the sandy road. Unfortunately I found that I was still terrified and sat huddled up while Humfrey, always considerate, drove steadily along at 30 to 35mph I kept asking what things felt like and he replied that it was perfect but that didn’t comfort me. The road was good but the country was an uninteresting scrub covered waste.

After about an hour and a half Humfrey said “Well, Bertie, feel like driving now?”

Although there was nothing in the world I would have not have preferred, I said that I did. I had the same sort of feeling that one has when one is about to sit down in a dentists chair. I started off gingerly, gripping the steering wheel like a novice. In a mile, I was doing 40 miles and hour!  All my nervousness was gone, (what a fool I’d been to endure those tortures!) for the car was indeed perfect. The steering had its old feather light feel and one could place it to an inch on the road. The car was a joy to drive, as always. Humfrey said, “All right now, Bertie?” for he saw that all my tenseness had disappeared. I looked at him and laughed. “Yes, thank you,” I said. He laughed too. The road continued good: it had been indeed newly opened and was in excellent condition.

When I handed the wheel back to Humfrey, I was glad to find that I was able to relax in my seat in the old comfortable style and enjoy myself, just as I always did when Humfrey was driving.

The country remained scrubby and dull but we had been assured that we were certain to see elephants here, and we kept a keen look-out for them. They were not kind enough to be on view, a fact which disappointed us very much. I had just taken over the wheel again when we began to descend o precipitous winding hill towards the low ground where in the distance we could see the Nile, which having made a huge detour had now returned to its southward course towards Lake Albert. At the foot of this hill we expected to find Nimule, a place renowned as a starting point for hunting expeditions. But before then we were to meet trouble. It was intensely hot as we reached the foot of the hill and the sun blazed down in the narrow cutting in which we found ourselves. Humfrey had been craning out the nearside window and, suddenly drawing in his head, said, “You’ll have to stop, Bertie. There’s a funny noise in this front wheel.” I stopped and Humfrey got put. “Let her run forward slowly” he said, “so that I can listen.” I did so and he said, “there’s no doubt about it: a wheel bearing’s gone.”

I stopped and got out also. My word it was hot in that airless valley as the heated air rose in waves from the burning ground! We got out the jack, the grand new jack we had bought at Kano, and raised the front wheel. Turning it slowly we could hear an ominous clock! clock! as the wheel went round. We had brought spare wheel bearings with us – it was just as well, as we were about 675 miles from Nairobi, nearest place we could have hoped to get a new one – and we set to work. We got the wheel off the nut holding the hub and then suddenly realized that we had no hub-drawing tool. However the hub had to be got off somehow and we employed heroic measures. Using a piece of wood as a punch we hammered the brake drum from the inside, running the hub continually to get a fresh place. We were almost giving up in despair when suddenly the hub moved and we were able to pull it off and to see that it was undoubtedly the small outer ball race that had gone. It was plain that the blow the wheel had received when it struck the baulk of timber on the bridge had cracked a ball and that had chewed up the race completely. We got it off and fitted the new one. Then we realized that we had no grease to pack it with. By this time we were so frightfully hot and so appallingly dirty that we became utterly callous. We got as much grease as we could out of he old broken half race and pushed it in. then we replaced hub and wheel and drove off. The whole job had taken us 1 hour and 23 minutes. I should add that we thought it would be a good thing to change the same ball race in the other front hub in case that had been damaged, but having removed the wheel, we failed completely to shift the hub and, after trying for some time, gave it up as hopeless. It was fortunate that the bearing that gave trouble was in the hub that we were able to get off, as the other gave no trouble and was never changed.

We were exceedingly hot and filthily dirty when we had finished our repair and we had certain misgivings. We were afraid that perhaps the damage to the car had been more deep-seated than we thought and that we were in for a lot of trouble. I may say that our misgivings were completely unfounded as the car behaved perfectly thereafter except for one small electrical trouble.

We ran down to the foot of the range of hills that we had been descending when the bearing went and come out on the level plain at the foot – momentarily we were expecting to arrive at Nimule, a place with so attractive sounding a name that we had pictured it as a pleasant village on the banks of the Nile. Where, under the shade of tall leafy trees, we would sit at a little table by the cool water and consumed cold drinks brought to us from the hotel. We could have dealt with a good many!

However, when we came out on to the plain we saw a road turning off to the left with a signpost “Attiak”. As this was our next point, without hesitation I swung the car down this road. We never saw Nimule at all, or had these cold drinks, or ever knew if our mental picture was a figment of the imagination! The road we were following appeared to be newly made and a little further on we came to a party of roadmen at work on it. Their efforts gave us some little trouble, as the approved method of roadmaking appeared to be to spread loose earth on the surface to a depth of perhaps a foot and leave it there in the hope that sometime it would be beaten down hard. Meanwhile we had to plough through this soft stuff which was not too difficult a task for a car that had crossed the Sahara and dealt with the difficulties in northern Nigeria.

Eventually we rejoined a harder road and concluded that the new road was a bye-pass avoiding Nimule. The country was utterly deserted and very uninteresting. Low scrub and occasional belts of trees made it terribly monotonous in its dull flatness: there were no signs of cultivation and the only thing that kept us from utter boredom was our continued hope of seeing elephants. It looked to our inexperienced eyes the sort of country that elephants might fancy but apparently we were wrong, for no elephants appeared.

In due course we arrived at Attiak, a native village of absolutely no importance except that to us it marked a point where we could check up our position and get an idea of how we were going on. It was 139 miles from Juba and we had taken 5 hours and 50 minutes of which we had spent 1hour and 23 minutes changing the wheel bearing so that we had actually taken 4½ hours, and had averaged just over 30 miles and hour. This part of our journey represented a trial run for our car after Hetchen’s masterly work on it. We had made no attempt to press the pace, rather the opposite in fact, and we were quite satisfied. More than satisfied indeed! Actually we were delighted. Because the result showed that, given no further trouble and a continuance of the excellent road surface, we should have no difficulty in keeping up the same sort of average speeds that we had made before our crash. We went straight on through Attiak, consuming a lunch of Ryvita and sardines without stopping. We had become quite expert at this. The procedure was that the passenger-for-the moment partially opened a tin of sardines, then poured the majority of the oil out of window, afterwards opening the tin completely. We had developed this technique in the Sahara, ever since I had received an unwelcome bath of oil from the sardine tin in my hand when the car struck at unexpected gully at the critical moment. A sardine was then placed on a biscuit and devoured, but we never attempted to eat while driving. The driver waited till it was his turn to act as passenger before he had his lunch. Driving in Africa needs both eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead because one never knows what unexpected snag may make its appearance without warning. It may be a huge boulder in the exact centre of the road, or the sudden appearance of some animal, a jackal or a hyena, that attempts to commit suicide under the wheels. Wild animals in Africa are at about the same stage as regards judgment of speed as domestic animals in England were in 1910!

The road remained quite reasonably good all through that long, and very hot, afternoon and welcome signposts made their appearance: one of them round a corner only just in time to prevent our proceeding at speed down what appeared to be the straight road ahead instead of taking a sharp turn to the left for Lira, out next point in the log book, where we proposed to re-fuel before we started our run through the night towards Nairobi.

Eventually, at 4.13 we drove into Lira, a considerable town where there is a British District Office, a rest camp, and several shops. All these shops were kept by Indians, and one of them was our Shell re-fuelling depot.

We had covered the 102 miles from Attiak in 3 hours and averaged 34mph It was exceedingly hot and we were extremely thirsty when we stopped outside the Shell agents. While Humfrey was dealing with the re-fuelling I took two of our thermos flasks and went off to see if I could find some filtered water anywhere, for in these parts it is inadvisable to drink anything else. I saw a neatly dressed elderly Indian and approached him. Tentatively I asked him if he could tell me where I could get some filtered water. “Come with me,” he said, and led me up the road to a large Indian store. There he took me round to the back, through a courtyard and into a sitting room behind. He clapped his hands and a native boy appeared to whom he gave some orders in a language incomprehensible to me. I had gathered by this time that this gentleman was the proprietor of the store and having happened to see a basin of water in the courtyard as we passed through I asked him if it could be possible for me to have a wash. In a few moments my shirt was off and I was indulging in a much needed clean up. Feeling refreshed after this, I re-entered the sitting room to find the table in the centre laid for tea. “No doubt,” said my host, “you would like some tea?” I replied that it was the one thing in the world, now that I had had a wash, that I really longed for and begged his permission to call Humfrey. I rushed off down the street and found Humfrey wondering what had become of me. “Come on,“ I shouted “Tea and a wash.” He wasted no time in inquiries but followed me.

Behold us then, seated at a table spread with a white cloth while black boys brought us relays of tea, more and more bread and butter and excellent jam. Our host sat with us. He told us that he owned a chain of stores all over Kenya and Uganda and that his headquarters were at Jinja, a detectable spot on the shore of the great Lake Victoria. We had been there in the Rolls Royce and were eager to hear more about it.

At last we could eat and drink no more. We said that we must really be going and asked our host if we could take with us some filtered water. He said something to a native servant who re-appeared carrying, of all things, two quart of Whitaways Cider! Our eyes goggled out of our heads at the sight and I may say now that this as the most refreshing liquid we had discovered on our while journey.

Humfrey then rather diffidently, asked our host how much we owed him. After all, he was a trader and had to live. He waved it aside and his exact words are worth quoting “Gentlemen,” he said, “you are travellers. Every year I go on safari” (East African for touring, or travelling) “20,000 miles. I look on it as a duty and a pleasure to do what I can for other travellers.”  After that there was no more to be said. We thanked him heartily and shook hands warmly. For all his black skin he was a white man and a gentleman.

Another little instance of the same kindness was in evidence when we returned to the store where our Wolseley was standing by the pump, surrounded by the crowds. Its battered appearance always drew when it was at rest and which became familiar to us as we made our way southwards to Cape Town. Realizing that I had very few matches left, I asked one of the Indian partners of the store if he would present me with a box as we had no small change in Kenya money, and it seemed absurd to offer a five pound note for a box of matches. He produced a packet of a dozen boxes. “How many do you want?” he said. “Could I have two boxes?” I answered. With a smile he pushed the packet of a dozen boxes into my hand. ”Take them,” he said, “Thy may come in useful.”

So it was with pleasant memories of kindness that we drove out of Lira. It was 7 minutes past five and we had spent 54 minutes there but we felt all the better for our wash and our tea. The road after Lira was a sad disappointment. We had anticipated that the good roads we had encountered for all the 240 miles we had travelled from Juba were going to continue. But alas, we met immediately with that hideous bugbear of African motoring, corrugations.

I have attempted to describe the horrors of motoring on corrugated roads in the part pf my story dealing with pre-Sahara days, and these, though not as bad as the corrugations in Africa, were sufficiently unpleasant to make motoring a torture. In addition, the appalling vibration that shook the car now made our ill fitting doors rattle in a manner that drove us nearly to a frenzy. I was glad when my two hours was up (I had still had an hour to go when we left Lira) and I could hand over to Humfrey. So we rattled our way over this hideous road as darkness fell and over our sufferings, let us draw a blank.

Suffice it to say, that it took us 2¾ hours to cover the 75 miles to Soroti which we reached at 7.54. We had made the magnificent average of 27 miles an hour! We knew of course that if we kept up a sufficiently high speed, say 40 to 45mph, we should escape the dreadful vibration of the corrugated surface but, in view of the strains to which the car had already been subjected in our crash, we did not feel justified in travelling at such a speed over this terrible road. So that we sat and suffered at a comparatively low speed, trying to dodge the corrugations by keeping one wheel running in the gutter where traffic had not run and where therefore the surface was comparatively smooth. But constant endeavour to keep within as inch of the grass verge made driving very exhausting.

We had already decided to stop at Saroti and have a proper sit down dinner from our store of tinned foods before embarking on the long night run and as we drove into it we kept a sharp look out for a suitable place. We found it at once in front of a large garage – as usual in these parts, Indian–owned – there was a wide open space and in front of the garage were two glaring electric lamps. Obviously the place! It would be far pleasanter to eat our meal here in the brilliant light of the lamps rather than in the darkness further on. We stopped and got out. An Indian came across from the garage and when we explained to him that we wanted nothing except permission to stop there and eat some of our tinned food he agreed immediately. Further, calling native boys, he sent them out to us carrying a table, two chairs and a carafe of cold iced water!

I regret that I do not know the name of this Good Samaritan for I should like to have paid some of our debt of gratitude by mentioning it, but his kindly forethought remains a precious memory of Soroti.

We opened the drawers in the luggage locker which contained our tinned provisions and were faced with a ludicrous dilemma which had not occurred to us until this moment. The tins, having of course been immersed in the river for 12 hours, had lost all their labels! So we had no means of finding out what each tin contained! We had already decided to have cold tomato soup, which we used to drink as a kind of teetotal cocktail and found most refreshing, meat and fruit. We were able to identify the tomato soup as the tins were smaller in diameter than all the others, but how to find the meat was a puzzle. We took out tin after tin, shook them, listened to them, at last “That sounds like meat,” we said. I opened the selected choice: it contained tinned strawberries! “Never mind” we said, “we’ll have that for the sweet course” and we tried again, after more shaking and listenings.  The second one we opened was also fruit, raspberries I think. By this time we were becoming helpless with laughter. I wanted to give it up and have ham or sardine which we could recognize by the shape of the tins. But Humfrey was quite determined to have meat, so we extracted more tins, shook them, listened to them, held consultations over them. We opened another. Cheers! It was jugged hare and vegetables. We therefore ate hare and strawberries, giving the second tin of fruit that we had opened to the garage hands. A jolly good meal and a pleasant one. It was really comfortable, sitting in chairs at our table, with the cool evening wind whispering through the trees and refreshing us after the heat of the day. We were not dissatisfied. We had travelled 316 miles from Juba and, though we had taken 12½ hours, we had tested out our car and found it perfect. We were correspondingly elated and toasted Hetchen and Stanton in weak whisky and water. Only one thing was not functioning normally: and that was the voltage control. This, as most of my readers probably know, is an electrical device which allows just so much charge to pass from the dynamo to the battery as needed to keep the latter fully charged. For example, after using the starter motor, which takes a great deal of current, the voltage control allows the dynamo to charge the battery at a high rate until the deficiency is made up, when it automatically reduces the charge to a degree sufficient to replace the quantity being used either for the ignition only or for the lamps in addition, if they are in use. Now, our voltage control was apparently not doing its job and throughout the day the ammeter had been showing a very high rate of charge, a rate which varied with the speed of the car. At moderate speeds, say 25mph the charge rate was about 20 amperes – too high but not abnormally so –, but at 40mph the needle of the ammeter left the scale altogether and jammed itself against the side of the instrument. We didn’t like this but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. Neither Humfrey nor I pretend to be electrical experts though we are both competent to deal with normal running adjustments to a car’s electrical equipment. But a voltage control gadget was beyond us and we had decided that our battery, long suffering piece of mechanism that it was, would probably not object to this additional strain being put on it as far as Nairobi. There we hoped to get an electrical expert to rectify the trouble. We packed up, said goodbye to our kind friends at the garage and left Soroti at 8.35: we had spent 41 minutes there. It was Humfrey’s turn to drive and before we left we put down the bed, as Humfrey was anxious that I should get some sleep. So, having got safely out of the town on the road to Mbale, I lay down. I had not felt a semblance of a re-occurrence of my nervousness since I had taken the wheel for the first time that morning, not even after darkness fell, but as soon as I lay down I got the horrors. Every time I felt the car swerve slightly I imagined that we were going off the road, down, down, into the black depths, into water, to death – I lay quivering. At last I could stand it no longer but sat up, holding my head in my hands and trying to blot out those horrid visions.

“What’s the matter Bertie?’ asked Humfrey.

I think I answered that I was terrified. Instead of trying to reason with me, as some men might have done and which would have only made me worse, Humfrey promptly stopped the car. “Poor old thing,” he said. “Look here, take a big drink of whisky and a couple of aspirin out of the first aid case and you’ll be quite all right.”

I think I muttered that I shouldn’t, but he forced me to do as he said and to lie down again. In ten minutes I was fast asleep and these horrors never attacked me again, to the same degree at least, though I did have minor re-occurrences later. But I was able to deal with those by a little mental firmness. Humfrey always told everyone, and I think there was probably a modicum of truth in it, that one reason why I was more affected than he was, was because I saw the crash coming during those awful moments of the race along the bridge, with the car out of control, heard the smashing of timber and experienced that hideous plunge down into the blackness. Whereas he was asleep and knew nothing of it till he woke to find himself in water and was able to emerge of the window without any particular difficulty. All the same, I know that that is only partly the truth and that I do not possess his incredibly phlegmatic mind.

After about an hour’s sound sleep, I woke and sat up. “How are you feeling, Bertie?” asked Humfrey. “Fine,” I answered, for my sound sleep had done me a lot of good. “Can you take over?” he asked. “I’m getting sleepy.’

He stopped the car and we changed places. Almost before I had set the car in motion, he was asleep and I marveled at his complete confidence with which he left the car to me, considering that the last thing I had done while he was sleeping was to put the car over the bridge!  When he stirred and woke, some time later, I voiced these thoughts. “How the devil you can sleep with me driving, after what I did last time you were asleep, passes my comprehension!”  I said.

Humfrey sat up. “My dear old Bertie,” he said, “how many years have you been driving?”

“Thirty-three,” I answered.

“And how long is it since you had a crash?”

“I think it’s thirty-two,” I replied, with an inkling of what was coming.

“Quite so,” said he “Well, it’s hardly likely you’re going to have another one tonight, is it?’ He relapsed on to the cushions and was asleep in an instant. Iron nerves and understanding of one’s co-driver are invaluable assets on a journey like ours!

The road remained ghastly. Horrible corrugations seemed to shake the very brains loose in one’s head as we crept soberly along, and I tried my hardest to avoid the worst places so that Humfrey should not be awakened. It was not a pleasant drive, though our front headlamp with its 60 watt bulb threw a brave beam ahead, but the fog lamp on the nearside was not really adapted for anything except use a s a fog lamp. Nevertheless, at the slow speed at which we were travelling the driving light was ample. At last we drove into Nubale. We had taken 3 hours and 40 minutes to cover 80miles, a magnificent average of 22mph! But time was of minor importance now. The important thing was to get our battered car first to Nairobi and afterwards, if the Gods smiled, to Cape Town.

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