Chapter 25 – Iringa – Mbeya 243 miles 16 January 1939

Next morning we pushed the car across to the garage, dug out the old voltage control from among our spare parts, had the battery put on to be given a quick charge – it was completely flat, as we expected – and returned to the hotel for breakfast.

After breakfast Humfrey went over to the garage, insisting that I should lie on a sofa and do nothing. My leg was very painful, and I still felt very ill. I was very upset because I felt that I was holding Humfrey back, though actually it was the voltage control going wrong that had stopped us the night before. I was conscious that, partly due to the poisoning from the mixture of drugs, and partly to the nerve shock, I was quite unfit, and I was sure that I ought really not to have gone on from Nairobi. I was acutely miserable. Humfrey came back at intervals to tell me how the work was going on and, most characteristically, told me not to be an ass when I hinted at my feelings. He said, “I’m only sorry you aren’t enjoying it.” Not a word about the worry of having a sick whining co-driver, only that he was sorry I wasn’t enjoying it.

At 12 o’clock he came over to say that the work was nearly finished, and he thought we ought to have a quick lunch before we started. The proprietor agreed to give us something at once – we found these British hotel proprietors a very kindly and obliging lot – and at 12.42 we left Iringa. It was a sad waste of nearly a day, but it could not be avoided. Once in the car and underway, I felt better as I usually did. Heavy rain had been falling all night and most of the morning, though it had stopped now. This rain made a precipitous, winding descent immediately outside Iringa doubly dangerous owing to the slippery state of the road. But once down this we found a good sandy road that would have been a fast one if it had not been for the deep sand that made anything like high speed out of the question. We bemoaned our fate that we had not struck this road when it was dry.

The country soon changed and we began to climb again. Up and up wound the road till we reached the summit of 6600 feet. I think that I have forgotten to mention that after we left Nairobi we had re-set the carburettors to compensate for the high altitude and this had made a tremendous difference. The engine was twice as lively as it had been before and had quite regained its old rigour while our petrol consumption which had remained steady at 14½ to 15 mpg. all the way across Africa, immediately improved to 18½, 19 and later to 19½. With our 31 gallon tank, this gave us a range of over 500 miles without re-fueling and we felt much happier, besides enjoying the increased power of the engine. We went on and on through pleasant, wooded country, though the road was so winding and steep that we felt we were getting along very slowly. Our progress was not assisted by meeting several native-driven lorries, these carry on a goods service as a feeder to the German-built railway line running through Dodoma, eastwards to the coast at Dar-Es-Salaam, and westwards to Mwanza on that great inland sea, Lake Victoria. The drivers of these lorries were as utterly reckless as native drivers always appear to be and instilled such terror into us by their method of travelling as fast as they could go round every bend, blind or not, quite regardless of the possible approach of any other traveller from the opposite direction that we became reduced to a pitiful crawl round each corner with frequent blasts on our twin horns to give advice of our presence. Nevertheless, we had averaged over 30 miles an hour when we passed a delightful looking little hotel standing in beautiful wooded country on the banks of the pretty Tchimala River. The hotel was called the Tchimala River Hotel and we wished we could spare the time to stop. If it was half as delightful as its lovely surroundings made it appear, it was a shame that we could not stop there. But time pressed and we were anxious to get as far as possible over the mountains which separated us from Mbeya before darkness fell. We had no idea then of the terrors of that mountain passage and were enjoying the wooded glens and the beautiful hill views as we began to climb steadily into the gathering darkness. As we emerged from the forest line into the bare rock country, darkness began to fall and the road, wet from the heavy rains, began to get exceedingly slippery.

Driving very cautiously on a steep down grade, I rounded a shoulder where the narrow road swerved sharply to the left, with a precipitous and unguarded drop in front, when to my horror I saw about 100 yards ahead, stationary in the middle of the narrow road, a lorry with several men around it. I said to Humfrey “I can’t stop,” to which he replied in a calm conversational tone “You’ll have to.”

I changed down hurriedly but gently – for fear of starting the rear wheels sliding – into third and then into second and with a mere caress of the brakes, for I didn’t like the look of the slimy road and the hideous open precipice on my right, I managed to pull the car up about 10 feet short of the obstacle which was completely blocking the road. “Well done, Bertie,” said Humfrey as we got out to survey the prospect of getting by. The owner of the lorry, a German farmer, said” Ze road is very dangerous. I put on ze chains.” He had calmly stopped in the middle of this narrow road to put chains on his rear wheels!”

We had no intention of putting on chains – we trusted to our good Dunlop tyres. All we thought of was getting past. With Humfrey guiding me from in front, I managed to squeeze by with an inch to spare between the lorry and our Wolseley and not much more on the precipice side. We had no idea that the road was truly as dangerous as the German had said it was, but we were soon to know! Immediately beyond the lorry, the road shelved sharply down to a wide hairpin corner followed by a step ascent. Starting slowly in second, I braked gently to steady the car and immediately the tail slid round. This having been corrected, the car swung the other way, and so in a succession of broadside skids we reached the corner. It felt to me as though the car was travelling at 100 mile an hour and was quite out of control. Actually, I suppose our speed was about 15 or 20 mph and the car was obviously not completely out of control because I managed to slide her in a huge broadside skid, round the corner. Immediately I opened the throttle to pull her straight for a run at the steep climb ahead, she skidded across the road and I had to ease the accelerator. How we got to the top, I don’t know, but it took all the skill I had acquired in years of competition driving at home to get the car up that slope and to control the violent skids that anything more than a mere whiff of throttle produced. At the top I thankfully handed over to Humfrey for we had always agreed that if there was anything particularly difficult to be done, he as the skipper, was the one to do it. Anyway, if this agreement had not been made long before we started, I have no doubt that, as my confidence had been somewhat shaken by the crash at the bridge.

I implored Humfrey to go slowly and he replied, “my dear old chap, I have no intention of doing anything else,” and we crept slowly off along that perilous road. Humfrey handled the car like an angel as we climbed higher into the mountainous, rarely attempting more than about 10 miles an hour and frequently doing much less, while I sat beside him with nerves quivering.

At last, we came to one long ascent that still lives in my memory forever. It was not very steep, probably about 1 in 8, it was quite straight, and the surface was covered with slimy glutinous mud. On Humfrey’s side there was a sort of rocky hillside rising gently while on my side there was a smooth stretch of muddy earth sloping steeply downwards to a precipice edge and through the gloom, I could see the top of lofty trees 1000 feet or more below. Slowly we started to climb and almost at once Humfrey had to get into bottom gear. Then ensued a struggle between a magnificent driver and the vile road that was trying to send us hurtling down over that precipice to certain death. We ascended the hill at about 4 miles an hour, with the car first broadside on in one direction and then the other. The least hard touch on the accelerator pedal would have sent us sliding over the smooth mud and down into the treetops: the slightest insufficiency of throttle opening would have brought us to a stop and would have sent us slipping backwards with locked wheels and out of control, for the brakes could not have held the car on that surface.

It was a wonderful piece of driving and I sat, literally sweating with fear, as we gradually neared the summit. Backwards and forwards swung the tail of the car as we gained a yard at a time and each time Humfrey brought it back, panting with the intense mental strain but at last the summit was gained and he bought the car to rest.

“Bertie,” he said, “we must put on chains. It’s far too dangerous to try and get down the other side without the.” I agreed and got out of the car to find, to my utter astonishment, that I could not stand without holding on to the car for support. Humfrey, though decidedly shaken, was not so utterly unnerved as I was but we both felt the need of a good stiff drink of whisky.

Owing to Humfrey’s broken hand, he could not be of much assistance in fitting the chains, and I viewed with a feeling of considerable helplessness the task of fitting the chains to these 9 inch tyres single-handed, particularly as, even after the whisky, I was still so shaky that I was hardly able to stand. Just as we had spread one of the chains out on the ground and I was about to commence fitting it to the wheel, lights appeared over the crest of the hill and a lorry pulled up facing us. Humfrey went over to it, hoping to get some information from the driver as to the state of the descent and returned in a minute or two with a more cheerful expression. “Look here, Bertie,” he said “I can’t make the native driver understand what I mean, but I’ve had a look at his back wheels. He hasn’t got chains on and his back tyres are absolutely smooth. If he can get up like that, surely, we can get down without chains. What do you say?”

I said I was quite agreeable to try if he liked. I think at that moment, I would have been prepared to face anything rather than the prospect of attempting to fit those colossal chains single handed in the darkness. And of course, as usual, there was sound common sense in what Humfrey said. We replaced the chains in the car and took our seats. Edging past the lorry we started on the descent, noting at the same time, that the driver of the lorry and his mate were getting busy putting chains on their rear wheels. This convinced us that the driver, presumably a local, knew of the dangers ahead and confirmed us in our opinion that we should find the descent less bad than the climb we had accomplished.

Once again, I begged Humfrey to go slowly and he repeated his previous remark, that he had no intention of driving anything else. Slowly we crept down the steep winding road, using second gear all the time to obviate, as far as possible, the necessity for using the brakes. It was now pitch dark and we crawled slowly down, rounding corner after corner, but meeting with no serious difficulty. I was frankly terrified, but Humfrey, as usual, considerate of my unnerved condition continued to creep slowly along. He did not dare to take his eyes from the road, but from time to time he would ask me if I could see anything out of my side window. At first, I could see nothing but a dark cloudy sky, but as we descended, I told him I thought I could see, far below, hills and even trees. There was evidently still a considerable drop on my side. I asked him what the surface felt like and he replied “Quite all right.” We agreed that what would probably happen would be that we should continue to go crawling along over bone dry hard roads on level ground long after we had left the mud and the mountains far behind. Nevertheless, we decided to continue our invariable policy of “Safety first.” Eventually, it was clear from the view out of my window that we were definitely out of the mountains and back in the region of trees and vegetation and in a few miles, we turned off the southward road into the township of Mbeya, lying a mile or so off the direct road. We stopped at the hotel and I got out, still feeling my knees wobble. Humfrey, directed by the hotel proprietor, went off to find the Shell agent and re-fuel while I, after a wash, sat down in the comfortable dining-room to wait for him. I felt very ill and shaky. Soon he returned and showed me the telegram that had been awaiting us from the Shell representative at Salisbury. It read “Nyasaland Trail impassable. Great North Road probably passable with care.” This sounded ominous but it was clear that in face of this advice we should be foolish to attempt the shorter route through Nyasaland and Portuguese East Africa and we must make up our minds to the detour via Broken Hill and Victoria Falls.

When dinner was brought, I took one spoonful of soup and then my stomach revolted. Please don’t think that the soup was bad: it smelt and tasted most appetizing, but I was quite convinced that if I attempted to touch it, I should be sick. So, I sat smoking and sipping a whisky and soda while Humfrey ate a hearty meal and we discussed our plans for the night run. I was miserably conscious that I felt utterly unfit for it, but I was quite determined not to admit it.

After Humfrey had finished his dinner, he left the room rather hurriedly and returned in a few minutes with a serious face. He sat down. “Look here, Bertie,” he said, “I don’t think either of us are up to going on tonight and I booked rooms here. I felt perfectly all right and I feel perfectly all right now, but I have just been sick. I think we should be very unwise to go on. What do you say?”

I admitted then that I was not looking forward to a night journey and shortly afterwards we retired to bed. It was horribly disappointing. Each morning we would start off feeling refreshed and well after a good sleep, but, towards evening, we would both begin to feel that a night drive was undesirable, to say the least of it. I was in a much worse state than Humfrey, but I know that he was feeling the strain; the long, drawn-out strain of continuous travelling coupled with the after-effects of our crash was telling on our reserves of nervous energy more than we had appreciated. We deplored the waste of time, but, under the circumstances, time was not really of such vital importance, as we could not now, after having lost so much time – ten days to be exact – hope to put up the sensationally fast time from England to Cape Town that we had hoped for when we started. The important thing now was to get the car there and the only way to do this was to husband the reserves of energy still left to us.

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