Chapter 22 – Juba – Nairobi 742 miles 11 – 12 January 1939

It was fifteen minutes after midnight when we reached Mbale. I stopped at a cross roads in the middle of the town, or village. There was a large obelisk there which I have since discovered is a war memorial, but I didn’t stop to look at the obelisk. I stopped to see if there was a signpost showing the way to Tororo. There was not. Humfrey sat up. “Grrrh” he said. “By Jove, I’m cold.” I said that I was frozen. Shorts and a shirt had been too ample a costume for the extreme heat we had met with during the day, but in the middle of the night, nearly 4000 feet up, and with no windscreen except a piece of wire gauze they were not nearly enough, even though I had on a jacket before leaving Soroti. But the immediate business was to find the way and we had simply no ideas. The obvious thing seemed to be to go straight on over the cross-roads. We did so and in 200 yards arrived at another cross-roads. Over this too we went slowly, to arrive at a dead end with native huts facing us. We turned back, and frankly we had no idea what to do. We went back to the big cross roads with the obelisk and as a venture took the right hand turning. We went down this for a quarter of a mile and found that it ended in a garage. We got out and tried to wake someone but apparently no one slept on the premises. Once more we turned the car. As we did so, we saw an Askari, a native policeman. We stopped. Humfrey said “Tororo?” The Askari smiled and made a long oration in what was probably Swahili, not a word of which we understood, of course. Humfrey tried again, saying Tororo in a questioning voice each time as he pointed north, south, east and west. This brought forth another long oration.

Humfrey tried again. He made a sign to show that he did not understand. Then he pointed in one direction, “Tororo?” he queried. The native shook his head. This seemed promising. Humfrey pointed in another direction “Tororo?” he questioned. The Askari shook his head again and then pointed and waved his hand along and the roads past the obelisk, with a lot of native words among which we caught the “Askari”. From this we concluded that that was our way and that if we went along there, we should meet another Askari, who would direct us further. We went off but we saw no other Askari. Perhaps he was busy in that dark silent hour with whatever is the native equivalent for a cigarette in a quiet corner! Anyway, we never saw him.

The road we were following left the town behind and we both had a hideous feeling that we were going in exactly the opposite direction to the correct one. One is apt to develop this sense after many journeys in strange lands such as both Humfrey and I have undertaken during the course of our motoring careers. I stopped. “I’m sure this is wrong,” I said. “I think it is too,” said Humfrey. He shone a torch on our Hughes compass. “East,” he said, “a little north of east.” Now we both knew well that for another 27 miles we should go due south on the Tororo road, where we were to turn off for Malakisi. A turning appeared to the right and unhesitantly I swung the car into it. “That’s better”, said Humfrey, “really due south.” It didn’t look a bit like the sort of road I had been following before I entered Mbale. It was altogether smaller, more sandy and unused-looking and not corrugated. It was more a track than a road. “I don’t like this,” I said.

“Neither do I,” said Humfrey, “but I think we’d better go on a bit and see what it does.”

Suddenly another track appeared coming from the left and crossing our track diagonally. Humfrey ejaculated “Steady, Bertie: a signpost.” I stopped with the light shining on the arm. ‘Tororo!’” we both exclaimed and turned off right. We went on for about half a mile and suddenly came to another road, coming from our right and going due south as our compass showed when without hesitation, I turned left into it. Half a mile farther on we found a stone by the side of the road on it was T 40. this we interpreted as “Tororo 40 miles” and we were quite happy again. Apparently, the main road from Soroti to Tororo does not go through Mbale at all but leaves it on the left, and by our circuitous centre and steering by compass and the sixth sense to which I have referred we had regained it beyond the town. We had wasted a lot of time and got worried. The only real difficulties that we encountered during our whole journey in finding our way were in such circumstances as these, generally in getting out of a village on the correct road.

I had stopped at this milestone to change over. Humfrey said “Look here, Bertie. We can’t go on like this. I vote we get out suitcases and find some more clothes. We are going up a lot higher presently and it’s going to be much colder.” It was as well we did so! We put on trousers, pullovers, jackets, overcoats and even then, we were frozen. Absence of a windscreen makes a lot of difference and in addition the nearside front window and one of the off side rear windows had no glass. Covering myself with everything I could find I lay down, but I was too cold to sleep and eventually I gave it up and sat up.

After Mbale we had a choice of two roads. Graham Bell had written a long letter from Nairobi which we received before we started advising us to go by Tororo and Kakamega but had told us of an alternative via Malakisi and Eldoret. On the Rolls Royce, travelling in a route to the south of our present one, we had gone via Malakisi and Eldoret and we thought it would be better to join this road from the north rather than try a completely unknown road in the darkness. So, we were going to turn off the road to Tororo 14 miles after Mbale and go across to Malakisi. It was a mistake because this road has fallen into disuse and is no longer kept up, but we did not know this.

14 miles after Mbale, a turning duly appeared on the left and we took it. Then our troubles began, for according to our map we had to make another turning to the right when we arrived at a  point due south of Mount Elgon. Mount Elgon towered up into the starlit sky and for what seemed like hours we circumnavigated it. When we reached a point where Mount Elgon was due north of us, we began to look out for our turning. We had felt we could not go wrong because the map showed the turning as the main road while the one straight on became a track and eventually ended at a small village. So, we had not anticipated any difficulty.

Exactly at the place we had expected to find it, there was a turning. We viewed it with some distaste and a good deal of disbelief. We agreed that that couldn’t be the main road, that narrow rutted little lane running steeply downhill. We stopped to look at it and then, by common consent, went on. We were not pleased because Mount Elgon, of the sight of which we were by now heartily sick, began to recede rapidly behind us while our road bent towards the north: in other words, we appeared to be completing our circuit round this now hated mountain. While we were discussing the unpleasing prospect of being lost, we ran into a native village and the road stopped. So that was that. We turned round and started back again. I was studying the map. “Humfrey,” I said, “I believe that was our turning after all. The map shows that the road crosses a stream soon after it turns off and you will remember that that turning went steeply down. It might have gone down to a stream.”

Humfrey agreed and when we got back to the turning, we stopped and had another look at it. It looked thoroughly unpromising, but Mount Elgon was in the right place, and, full of misgivings, we turned down the wretched little lane. Soon enough, at the foot of a steep hill, it crossed a narrow wooden bridge over a stream. But the road did not belie its appearance and our distaste for it grew. It was narrow, not much more than a path, winding and rough: in addition, it wound up and down considerable hills, so that it was altogether a very slow and uncomfortable journey. On and on we went through the darkness, round sharp corners where trees appeared to be growing out into the middle of the road, and eventually it seemed hardly worth while even to get into top gear at all, as the track twisted and turned, descending into little valleys and climbing out of them. At last, after carefully crossing a narrow bridge we came to a winding hill so steep that Humfrey, much to his disgust, had to have recourse to bottom gear. We looked upon this as a crowning insult and thereafter we frankly hated this road. In addition, we could hardly believe that this could possibly be the correct road, so badly marked on our map with a thick double line. While we were arguing about this, we suddenly arrived at a point where another road came in from our right and on a patch of grass stood an enormous signboard. After a good deal of maneuvering, Humfrey managed to get our lights to shine on it – owing to the low mounting it necessitated getting the front wheels up on to the verge in order to throw the beam high enough – and there we saw reassuringly CHEMALIL 27, ELDORET 85. We then knew where we were. This was Malakisi and the road we had joined was the one we had followed in the Rolls Royce. It was not a great improvement: if, in fact, it was hardly any improvement at all. It was perhaps a little wider, but the surface was worse: alternating between rough and stony going and soft deep earth. The cold was fearful and in spite of our warm coats, we were perished. It seemed incredible to think that yesterday we had been far too hot in a shirt and a pair of shorts! Humfrey, who had continued to drive as he said he was not tired, now caved in and said “I simply can’t stand the cold any more. Do you think you can drive a bit?”

I said, “I can’t possibly be any colder than I am now and if I drive, I might be able to forget the cold.”

I took over and Humfrey, wrapping himself in anything he could find, lay down. I had my leather coat with its fur collar buttoned right up round my neck and thick gauntlets on my hands, but I fairly shivered with the cold. We were over 5000 feet up and climbing slowly all the time. At last day broke and I hoped that the rays of the sun would make things a bit warmer. They did not succeed in doing this but only added another difficulty. We were now travelling due east and as the car topped each rise the level rays struck straight into my eyes, so that I could see literally nothing. I am not usually troubled by the sun, in fact I can drive comfortably into a setting sun, when other motorists are brought almost to a  standstill, but this morning fairly defeated me. I could manage to keep the car to the road, but I was afraid all the time of meeting some early morning lorry and running head on into it. For anything on the road would have been quite invisible to me. I could not use our green celluloid strips which were still in their supports fastened to the roof because there was no windscreen to stick them to and at last, in sheer desperation, I stopped, got my sun helmet from its straps inside the roof and pulled it right down over my eyes. I must have presented a most ludicrous spectacle if there had been anyone to see. Blue with cold and crouching over the wheel, muffled in a leather coat buttoned up to the neck and with a sun helmet topping the lot! But I didn’t care. I was too cold to care, and I could at any rate get along somehow: get along towards Eldoret, breakfast and, I hoped, warmth. Let us draw a veil over the rest of that hideous drive. At last Eldoret was in sight. Before we had considered it rather an unpleasant place and had always spoken somewhat disparagingly of it but now it appeared to us as the Promised Land must have appeared to the Israelites. It may have been straggling, unfinished-looking and tawdry, but it represented food, a hotel and shelter from the cold. We vowed that we would not go on again till the sun had warmed the air. I remember Humfrey saying, with chattering teeth, “It seems ridiculous to think that in 3 or 4 hours time, we shall be too hot!!”

The hotel was not very warming and had the definite appearance of a summer resort with its clean boarded floors and wide windows, but we were able to wash in hot water and I managed to put a fresh dressing on my leg which had been making itself most uncomfortable. We consumed an immense breakfast while we gradually thawed our frozen bodies. The 130 miles from Mbale had occupied us no less than 6 hours and 10 minutes, so we had averaged only just over 20 miles an hour! Of course, we had wasted a lot of time at Mbale trying to find our way through and also in our excursion round Mount Elgon.

However, in spite of our slow speed during the night, we had traveled 525 miles from Juba in 23 hours and we considered this quite satisfactory as a test run. And we had been far too cold to worry about time. After breakfast, when we had partially thawed out, we set out to find the Shell depot. This was one of our re-fueling points and we knew that they would have been advised to expect us 10 days before. Whenever possible we always made a point of calling at such depots in order to say “How-do-you-do” and to allay any anxiety they may have been feeling as to our whereabouts. After a lot of difficulty and wandering about over perilous railway tracks, we managed to find the Depot and were thankful that we had not arrived in the middle of the night, for in that case I do not know how we ever should have discovered its locality. We were warmly welcomed. The Shell representatives are a wonderfully picked crowd, where ever one goes – and had to explain again the cause of our delay and the battered appearance of the Wolseley.

We were annoyed to find that the engine appeared to have used some oil; not very much but the sump would take nearly a quart. At each re-fueling stop after our re-start from Juba we had to add a little oil to bring up the crankcase level and it was not until some days later that we discovered a slight leak from the top cover of the oil filter. As the cover appeared to be quite tight, we put this down to the immersion in water having hardened the washer, thus allowing a small quantity of oil to escape. The leak was so slight that we did not bother to attempt to fit a new washer but merely continued to top up the sump each time we re-fueled. It was moderately warm when we left Eldorek at 8.45 in the morning, having wired Graham Bell that we expected to arrive at Nairobi at about 3 o’clock: it was only 220 miles away and we felt that we were almost there.

The road from Eldoret climbs steadily towards the highlands of Kenya and the Equator. Eldoret itself is just above the 5000-foot line and at Equator Station the road has risen to 7700. It was not at all too hot and we continued to wear jackets, though we could dispense with our overcoats. Our eyes were getting very tired and ached badly from having no windscreen. It is a good road from Eldoret up into the hills, but we found that the altitude was seriously affecting the power output of our motor and we were compelled to have frequent recourse to 2nd and 3rd gears on the steeper gradients. We had noticed this, though of course to a lesser degree owing to its colossal reserve of power, in the Phantom III Rolls Royce but it had become a serious matter with our overloaded Wolseley. There are many sharp corners on this part of the road and the acceleration  owing to the over rich mixture was much worse than it had been at lower levels, so that we seemed to make very slow progress. Nevertheless, we averaged 35mph over the first 50 miles.

We had received explicit instruction from Graham Bell not to follow the old road to Nairobi via Eldama Ravine – a romantic name that hides the identity of a hideous place: heterogeneous collection of repulsive huts built of scraps of wood, corrugated iron and flattened petrol tins and air of wildness with its heaps of refuse and its generally undesirability. We had been advised that a new road had been built branching off the right across Mount Summit to join the southern road from Uganda and we were to take this at a spot which Bell called “Mile 66”. We did not discover, and have not yet discovered, from what place Mile 66 was reckoned but at 50 miles from Eldoret we saw a signpost to the right which “Londiani and Molo”. Londiana was slightly to the west of where our road should join the southern road, but Molo was on our route, so we turned blithely down this turning, expecting to find the grand new road we had heard about. We were disappointed. The road we were following wound about up and down and round and round steep mountainous country in most disconcerting fashion and while first Humfrey, and then I when I took over at the end of two hours, tried really hard to make a decent speed we were only averaging about 30 miles an hour still, it was a lovely day and the scenery was magnificent: great peaks soaring into the clean blue sky, the wine-like air and the wonderful cleanness of the atmosphere – I can think of no other term – that to me is characteristic of Kenya – made the motoring really enjoyable. After about 20 miles of this tiresome wiggling road, we suddenly joined a tremendously wide straight road that came in from our left and simultaneously we ejaculated “This is the road we should have been on.” Sailing along with this smooth wide road at 50 miles an hour – we did not consider it advisable to travel any faster in view of the strains to which our chassis had been subjected – was a joyful experience after the tortuous bye road we had been following before. So excellent was the road that we made up time fast, to find that we had averaged exactly 40mph to Molo. Where we turned off the Eldama Ravine road.

From Molo to Nakure is a truly lovely drive. Woods clothe the steep hillsides and the road twists and turns along a narrow valley, now climbing a steep shoulder, thus descending sharply to cross a stream and wriggling again with corkscrew turns towards the uplands while, against the clear blue sky, rise giant peaks of great mountains. A lovely country this Kenya, with its beautiful climate, its considerable altitude tempering the heat of the equatorial sun. At Nakure, a pleasant town, with wide streets, good shops and an excellent hotel, one reaches the semblance of civilization and the busy life of a now prosperous colony. Very many motor cars are to be met with on the roads and these brought us a new annoyance: one that caused us immense discomfort over this last 100 miles into Nairobi. Kenya roads are, to put it bluntly, atrocious, for deep potholes and horrible corrugations are their main features. But we could have put up with these. We were used to bad roads by this time. But what was a new feature to us was the appalling dust-cloud raised by each passing car. And remember we had no windscreen except some wire gauze. By the time we reached Nairobi our eyes were bloodshot and burning, and ever time our eyelids moved the accumulated dust under them scratched our eyeballs. It was, frankly, excruciating.

A minor incident just after we left Nakure annoyed us extremely. I was driving along this deeply potholed road when suddenly there was a crash and a sound of breaking glass. I stopped quickly. Humfrey said, “What about stopping on the side of the road, Bertie.”  I had quite forgotten. We were so unused to the possibility of these being any other vehicles on the road beside ourselves that I had automatically stopped in the middle of the road! I apologised and pulled in to the side. We got out to find that the front of our fog lamp had dropped off and the glass was broken as it fell on the road. We were annoyed because, as you will remember, this was the only one of our original lamps still left on the car after the crash and we had been proud of it as having stood the crash, immersion, and everything and as still remaining undamaged and even unmarked. Now it had suddenly elected to jettison its front and break its glass, which, we were quite sure, would be irreplaceable. We put the front back in position and, with the idea of preserving the reflector; Humfrey tied a piece of mutton-cloth over the lamp. This authentic piece of mutton-cloth was still acting as a front glass when I last saw the car, some six months after our return to England!

We passed through Gilgil and Naivasha, past the famous lake swarming with pink flamingoes so that it looks like a high bed of magnificent flowers (spelling?), and on along the road towards Nairobi. Many curious glances were thrown from passing cars at our Wolseley, battered and bent and it was a battle-scared warrior. It had not looked so bad until we reached civilization and began to see clean and polished cars: shapely cars retaining their true form and their elegant smartness. But we were not ashamed of our Wolseley. We were proud of it, for was not its mettle tried and proved by thousands of miles of rough treatment and the appalling catastrophe it had survived. None of these other shining cars had endured what it had suffered to come out alive and to bear us still swiftly and completely towards Nairobi and far-off Cape Town. Yes, we were proud of our Wolseley as it flaunted its wounds for all the world to see.

We had arranged with Graham Bell that we would stop at his father’s house some eight miles from Nairobi and he had given us by letter exact instruction how to find it. We kept a careful eye on the milestones as we sailed over the beautiful, tarred road, for one of these milestones was our mark for the turning. Graham Bell’s father is a well-known Nairobi horticulturist, who wins almost all the prizes for flowers at the Nairobi Show and never shall I forget the riot of colours in that garden: with their blue and pink and gold and scarlet. The flowers dazzled one’s eyes as they flamed under the African sun. The weather was perfect, like an unimaginably perfect English summer day, with a hot sun blazing in an azure sky and a cooling breeze ruffling the brilliant petals of a million flowers: and a paradise we felt it to be as we drove up at the door and heard Graham Bell’s cheery voice greeting us warmly. He exclaimed at the condition of the car and as we washed and bathed our burning eyes, scarlet and bloodshot from the maddening dust, we had to explain again what had happened. An English tea served in a cool room, with open windows giving a vista of the incredible riot of the flowers, made us feel as though we were at home and we could hardly believe that we were indeed 6000 miles away, with two thirds of our journey completed.

While we were having tea, Bell rang up the Wolseley agents, the Overseas Motor Co, to tell them that we had arrive and would be along in an hour. Shortly afterwards we left, Humfrey driving the Wolseley with Graham Bell in his 4½ litre Bentley acting as pilot. I went with him in the Bentley and for the first time saw what our Wolseley really looked like as Humfrey drove it along behind. The angle at which the body was leaning gave it a most extraordinary appearance and could not fail to attract attention wherever it went but I was more interested in watching the wheels with their great tyres. I watched them carefully, looking over the back of Bell’s open tower, because I wanted to assure myself that they were running true and in line. There could be no doubt that they were, and I marveled at the shocks and strains that good material will stand. Humfrey didn’t like me watching; he thought I was finding something wrong and waved me to turn round. But I gave him the well-known thumbs up signal and he grinned as he grasped what my idea had been.

Our procession pulled up at the New Stanley Hotel on the corner of Delaware Avenue and, in the manner that became so familiar to us in the days to come, a crowd immediately collected round the Wolseley.

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