Chapter 24 – Through Kenya and Tanganyika. 14th January 1939

After all, it was 3 o’clock before we left Nairobi. The Wolseley agents had been having a lot of trouble with the voltage control, for when they fitted the spare one, the dynamo would not show charge. But eventually they satisfied themselves that all was well, and the car arrived at the door. The new knobbly tyres looked magnificent, and it was with the utmost pleasure that, after photographs had been taken, we took our seats in our good old warrior and followed Graham Bell, who was piloting us in his Bentley, out of town. It was lovely to have a windscreen again and everything seemed perfect, as having said goodbye to Bell with sincere thanks for all he had done for us at Nairobi, we set out on the unknown part of our journey. We now had about 3600 miles to go, and we were full of hope that we might, after all, put up a decent time from England to Cape Town. We had, so far, taken 23 days and we hoped to reach Cape Town in six days more, driving day and night: but we had received ominous warnings of bad weather, and worse roads, ahead. We had got Finn to wire to the Shell representative in Salisbury as to the possibility of using the Nyasaland Trail, but the reply had been utterly discouraging. The Shell people at Salisbury, however, had promised to wire us the latest road information to Mbeya – place just before the fork of the Nyasaland Trail and the Great North Road. We were anxious to use the former if possible as it was much shorter and saved the huge detour to the west via Broken Hill and the Victoria Falls. However, we didn’t bother about that as we drove steadily south from Nairobi. It was 850 miles to Mbeya, and we put all thoughts of the far distant future out of our heads.

Soon after leaving Nairobi, we entered the immense game preserve lying south of the town. It is wide open rolling country and driving through it is exactly like driving through an immense zoo.  We were thrilled to see here, feeding close to the road, huge herds of zebra, lovely fat tubby creatures with their beautiful striped skins and intelligent heads. It is a pity they are too intelligent to allow themselves to be trained as beasts of burden, unlike that stupidest of animals, the horse. They swarm in thousands in Africa but are utterly useless. They would not allow us to get near enough to get really good photographs of them, and we wasted a lot of time before we concluded that they were timid – or too wise! – to allow man to approach them. There were also quantities of antelope of various sorts, running with the zebra: one tiny species not much bigger than a large terrier, was so pretty that we wished we had someone with us who could tell us its name and that of the other varieties to be seen in the preserve. In addition to the zebras and the antelopes there were enormous herds of buffalo; I do not wish to exaggerate but there must have been thousands of them. They were not at all timid like the zebras but would stand close to the road and watch the car as it went by. We felt ourselves extremely ignorant of the habits of all this wildlife, but we presumed that the buffalos were viewing us with interest and not with malice! We were not quite certain about this however, so if any herd or part of a herd showed a disposition to cross the road we waited politely until its passage was complete before attempting to proceed. We did not consider that this showed cowardice on our part, but only courtesy – or perhaps prudence. We were disappointed not to see any lions, as we had been told at Nairobi that they are frequently to be met with in this game preserve. I believe that they are an awful nuisance to cars as they are fond of lying in the road and will not bother to move. There is, of course, nothing whatever to be feared from this most cowardly “King of Beasts”. Rhinos are frequently to be seen here and they are the most dangerous of all the wild animals in Africa, as they are apt to charge anything in blind rage. We were informed that a rhino has been known to charge a train! and cases of their attacking cars are not uncommon.

After about 30 miles of this wonderful passage through the game preserve the road enters a region of lush country with coarse grass, studded with small trees, and here we were delighted to see a pair of giraffes feeding on the trees. Seen like this in their natural surroundings, they are frankly incredible. We looked at them with astonishment hardly believing that they could be real. They were rather shy of the car and when we stopped to take a photograph they moved slowly away with their singularly ungainly action. They were enormous beasts and their silly little heads, on which a number of small birds were perched, at the top of the long necks, gives them a most idiotic appearance. They are most unfinished looking. Later, another pair with a baby giraffe moved slowly across the road in front of us and the baby did not look quite so stupid as its parents as it had not yet developed the enormously long neck and so did not look so out of proportion.

Watching these animals and eagerly looking out for others, we ceased to bother about time and drove steadily on over the not too bad road through the pleasantly warm afternoon. Personally, I felt wretchedly ill, but was better able to forget my troubles when it was my turn to drive. Humfrey’s left hand had been bandaged in plaster of paris and this made it awkward for him when he had to change gears, but he felt very little pain from it at other times.

Far away in the distance, there hung a white cloud, and we discussed the oddness of its appearance there: for there were no other clouds to be seen in the clear blue sky. Humfrey was studying the map and suddenly said, “I don’t believe that’s a cloud at all. I believe its Kilimanjaro. According to the map, it ought to be just about in that direction, but it’s a hell of a long way off.”

I asked how far, and when I was told that it was 120 miles away, I expressed disbelief as to the possibility of seeing it at that distance. We wrangled over this for some time, but eventually as the cloud persisted in staying exactly in the same place, I was compelled to agree that perhaps I was wrong and that it was Kilimanjaro after all. Anyway, for several hours it remained hanging white in the blue sky and as we drew nearer, we could plainly see the white capped snow crest towering up into the clear blue sky. I was then prepared to admit that it was Kilimanjaro, that huge mountain, perpetually snow clad, though within 300 miles of the Equator. Our route passed far to the west of the great peak and when we appeared to be abreast of it Humfrey stopped the car to try and get a photograph. It was about 60 miles away and the photographs did not show the white crest as clearly as we could see it with the naked eye. When Humfrey got out of the car and was stooping down to get the Wolseley into the foreground and Kilimanjaro’s peak behind it, he said “Bertie, you might keep a look-out. This sort of bush country looks to me like lion country and I don’t want a lion creeping up and biting me in the behind when I’m not looking.” No lion appeared, however, and the picture was duly taken.

For some time, having been suspicious during the first moments of our exit from Nairobi I had been watching the ammeter and at last I said, “Humfrey, I’m sure the dynamo isn’t charging. It’s been showing a small discharge ever since we started, and it ought to have shown a big charge directly after we’d used the starter at Nairobi and to be showing a small charge all the time.”

Humfrey replied that he was sure it was quite all right and that as the battery had been recharged at Nairobi it was probably well up so that the starting of the engine had taken so little out of it that a high rate of charge had not been necessary. I was not quite convinced but somehow or other, probably because I didn’t feel up to another argument, the subject was not pursued.

Soon after we had stopped for the Kilimanjaro photograph, it grew dark, and we drove steadily on through dull and uninteresting bush country. Eventually we arrived at a T road where the signpost arm pointing to the left said “Arusha” and to the right “Dodoma”. We turned the car to the left down the straight road to Arusha 3 miles away and stopped at the very comfortable Arusha Hotel. The host kindly went off with Humfrey to find the Shell representative at his house and get the car filled up, while I went inside. When Humfrey retuned and had had a wash, dinner was ready. I felt I couldn’t look at food, yet after a large whisky, but I was unable to resist a dish of strawberries. Strawberries in January were something I had not met before, and I managed to eat some of them.

We were in bed by eleven and were called at 5am. After drinking some coffee – I was still unable to eat anything – we started from the very hospitable and comfortable Arusha Hotel at 5.42 while it was still dark. The next stretch of 105 miles to Babali was one that we had rather dreaded. Before we left England, we had received grim accounts of its possibilities. The surface is comprised of ‘black cotton soil’: this is black fertile stuff, excellent for growing crops but unpleasant to drive over. After rain it becomes simply impassable, and if any readers want to realize what it is like they should take cars out to the nearest newly ploughed field after a week’s rain and endeavour to drive straight across it! We were afraid that we might have a lot of trouble if the road was wet and as we were now in the season between the ‘short rains’ and the ‘long rains’ – a period of a month or so – there was every possibility that it might be wet. However, we had faith in our Wolseley, in our great knobbed tyres, and in our ability to deal with anything we might meet with.

We met with nothing to give us any trouble. The road had been wet, and we found foot deep ruts cut by passing vehicles and occasional ‘grave-yards’ – oh shadows of the Sahara! – where they had stuck and had to dig themselves out. But ruts that the Germans must have put into the making of this road. For this was Tanganyika, lately German East Africa, and now British mandated territory. It was over this country that British forces from British East Africa – now Kenya Colony – and South Africa had chased and fought the Germans through that difficult campaign. Appalling country for fighting. At last, we reached the summit at 5500 feet and as we went on, we remarked on the curious fact that though we seemed to be always climbing these mountains, we never appeared to go down on the other side! Unfortunately, our aneroid barometer was out of action, not having appreciated its bath in the river and we were further annoyed to find that our compass now had an error of approximately 90 degrees. It had been functioning quite correctly since our crash and we concluded that some curious person either at Nairobi or elsewhere, had unscrewed the little cup below the case which holds the magnets to correct it for any masses of metal (such as the engine) that maybe in the vicinity. Anyway, we could never, after leaving Nairobi, rely on it again and we were to miss its help greatly at later stages of our journey. After reaching the summit at Pienaar’s Heights the country opened out and we saw a great deal of native cultivation being carried on in very fertile-looking ground. This cultivation is now being regulated under wise government control in order to correct the reckless native habit of growing crops for two or three years without giving the soil either rest, manure, or deep digging, and moving onto another piece when it is exhausted. It is this lazy practice that is largely to account for the so-called desecration of the land and the rapid encroaching of desert over large parts of Africa. The natives only scratch the surface of the soil: then, having exhausted it, leave it to be parched by the burning sun and finally blown away by the winds that spread it far and wide in the form of sand.

But the native cultivation in this part of Tanganyika seemed to be better organized and we saw natives industriously watering and digging deep trenches to reach the unburnt earth below. Their crops, mostly for immediate home consumption, looked in excellent condition and the men themselves are a fine hardy-looking lot.

Later the road climbed again round the shoulder of a rugged hillside, and the road was wide as it descended again, and a broad vista of country opened before us. It was bleak and bare and parched under the rays of a blazing sun. The heat was terrific as we sped over a good road towards Dodoma, and we gratefully sucked oranges as food and drink. Invaluable things we found them, these oranges, but we were annoyed that the oranges that Humfrey had bought at Leatherhead, and which were marked “Produce of South Africa” had been spoiled by their twelve hours of immersion in the river. We had childishly set our hearts on returning at least some of them to their native home!

It was 1.52pm on Sunday the 15th January when we drove into Dodoma. We had been worried about our re-fueling stop here, because it was a Sunday afternoon, Finn, the Shell representative at Nairobi had wired Dodoma before we left, that we expected to arrive at 5pm and to inform the Shell agents, an Indian firm, that they were to be ready to re-fuel us at that hour. We had covered 272 miles from Arusha, having taken exactly 8 hours instead of our schedule time of 10½ . We had averaged 35mph from Babati and we were nearly 3 hours early; we were afraid the Shell agents would not be ready for us and that we might have difficulty in finding them. We need not have worried. Shell organization is not thrown out by such a small detail as arriving 3 hours early! As we drove into the town past the aerodrome, a figure stood in the middle of the road, waving its arms. It was that of a gigantic native, dressed in blue shorts, and a blue jersey with a huge golden Shell emblazoned on the breast. Was Dodoma ready for us? He sprang on to the running board as I slowed down and waved me forward. He kept on urging me to greater speed till I was afraid he would be blown off the running-board! At last, we saw a Shell pump by the wall- side and the native waved me in towards it. We stopped. These Indian traders were princes. Everything was prepared for us and both partners were there (on a Sunday afternoon!) to ensure that arrangements were satisfactory. We re-fueled and put some oil in the engine while we drank cold beer that was waiting for us. Humfrey scribbled a cable to Thomas reporting our progress and a wire to Finn thanking him for the excellent arrangements: these the agents promised to dispatch early the following morning. And we were off. We had stopped at Dodoma for 16 minutes! Leaving Dodoma, the road remained good as we descended imperceptibly from nearly 4000 feet to 2200, where we knew that we had to cross the Ruaha River. This river is liable to flood in the rains, but when we reached it and crossed the majestic iron bridge, it was in its most innocuous mood. The floods sometimes extend for 10 miles on each side and there were traces of this in the markedly fertile appearance of the soil in the neighbourhood of the river.

Ten miles further on the road began to climb again through similar sort of country to that we had met with before, the steep narrow road winding up through a forest belt till we left the tree tops, far below.

Up and up the road twisted and turned, on our right a dizzy drop to the forest depths below. In 10 miles we climbed from the river level at 2200 feet to the 4000-foot line and 30 miles further on we were at 5400 feet. Just as darkness fell, we were disgusted to find rain – a steady downpour. Humfrey switched on the headlamps and immediately the engine cut out completely. Off went the switch and the engine took up again its steady rhythm. Several times he tried but each time with the same result. We cursed heavily as, after a discussion, we decided that there must be an exposed wire somewhere in the lamp circuit and that the rain had found its way in so causing a short. We certainly had no intention of starting to fiddle about with the wiring in the pouring rain. We were only 3 miles from Iringa so we decided to go on without lights and see if we could get a garage there to find the trouble while we had dinner. We were intending to drive on through the night; though I personally felt so wretchedly ill that I would gladly have welcomed almost anything which would have compelled us to stop, though I did not say so. As it was difficult in the growing darkness to see through the rain without lights Humfrey switched on the windscreen wipers. Immediately the engine misfired horribly but did not stop. Stopping the wiper brought back the engine’s normal smooth rhythm and we came to the conclusion that there must be a general short-circuit somewhere. We thought that perhaps rain had blown in through the now ill-fitting bonnet which, as I have said, was only held in position by one broad strap, all the proper fastenings having been torn out in the crash.

So, with no lights and no windscreen wiper Humfrey drove sedately through the already pitch darkness into the pleasant little town of Iringa and stopped outside the hotel. It was 12 minutes past 7. We had gained more than an hour on our schedule from Dodoma and had covered the 161miles in 5 hours, averaging 32 miles an hour.

Humfrey got out and went into the hotel where he interviewed the proprietor on the subject of dinner. This being satisfactorily arranged he asked if we could get the car under shelter as we wanted to examine the wiring before going on, for it was obvious we could not drive through the night without lights. He pointed out a shed and Humfrey told me to drive the car into it. When I pressed the starter button, nothing at all happened and we thought that the starter circuit must be also concerned in the trouble caused by the rain. We got several of the native servants to give the car a push. The engine started up at once and I drove the car into the shed. Humfrey said “Switch on the headlamps, Bertie; they’ll help us to see.’ I did so. A dim red glow appeared from the bulbs. The mystery was solved. The fact that the rain had started exactly at the same moment as darkness fell had misled us into thinking that water was the cause of the engine cutting out when the lamps were switched on. Of course, it was not so. If it had not been for the rain, we should have known at once where the trouble lay, and the dynamo had not been charging – our battery was flat. There was just enough current left in the battery to supply the coil for the ignition but not enough for lamps as well. Water had nothing to do with it and I had been right about my misgivings as to the ammeter reading when we left Nairobi. The spare voltage control fitted there was plainly faulty, and the dynamo had not been charging the whole time, so our long-suffering battery had now run down completely. Humfrey said at once, “That settles it, Bertie, we shall have to stay the night. We can’t do anything now but, in the morning, we must get the old voltage control put back. We know that that will let the dynamo charge even if it does charge at a fantastic rate.” I said, “Yes, I expect the battery will stand the over-charge. Anyway, it stood it from Juba to Nairobi.” Frankly, I was mightily relieved at the prospect of stopping for I had looked forward to the night’s run with much apprehension. I was not feeling well.

The hotel proprietors sent a message over to the garage, conveniently situated just opposite, where, he assured us, there was a first-class French mechanic, to warn them that there would be work for them first thing in the morning. We went into the very comfortable Iringa Hotel and after a drink or two I managed to eat something and went to bed, feeling literally like death.

We had really done quite well that day. We had covered 433 miles from Arusha and had taken only 13½  hours to do it, overall, in average speed being just over 33 miles an hour. We were particularly interested in Iringa, because when, in conversation with Thomas Wolseley’s General Manager, we had mentioned the name as one of our re-fueling points, he had laughed and said, “Iringa, eh? That’s the place where I ate the German Officer’s dinner.” Pressed for the story, he told us that while he was serving in German East during the war, he had got into Iringa just as the Germans left. At the hotel he had found on the table a meal, still hot, that had been prepared for a German officer who had left in a hurry as our troops came in. Thomas, being hungry, had wasted no time but had sat down and eaten the meal so thoughtfully left behind!

This is the route today from Google maps. It would take you 10 and a half hours. Bertie and Humfrey did it in 13 and a half hours. By my understanding that isn’t bad going.

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