Chapter 26 – Intro Northern Rhodesia. Mbeya – Mpika 398 miles January 17

We left Mbeya while it was still dark at 6 o’clock exactly. I asked the proprietor anxiously if there were any more mountains and he replied consolingly that the road southwards was quite flat. In five miles we were climbing into mountains again! This shows the incredible lack of knowledge about road conditions that everyone in these parts seems to possess. Over and over again we received wrong and misleading information from people who should have known better and eventually we came completely to disregard anything we were told. We then got on much better and did not delude ourselves with false hopes. We always expected the worst and we generally found it!

Daylight soon came. It made all the difference and, though the road winding through the hills slowed us, it did not terrify me as I had been terrified the night before. I even found the necessary courage to keep my eyes off the road and to study the log. Putting in the time had become so automatic that even in the shattered state in which I had arrived at Mbeya the night before I had not omitted to make an entry! We had got to the hotel at 9.25 pm, so we had taken exactly nine hours to cover the 243 miles from Iringa, an average speed of 27 miles an hour. The last 30 miles over the mountains had taken us nearly 3 hours! Nevertheless, we had gained 20 minutes on our schedule time of 9 hours 20 minutes. This was because I had concluded after pouring for days and weeks over maps, routes and travellers’ logs sent us by the A.A. and the Shell Company that the real difficulties would begin after Iringa. Events showed that I was quite right and the closeness with which we adhered to the schedule I had set for this next day’s run was to me, being possessed of an accurate turn of mind, a triumph! It was childish perhaps that nothing pleased me more than to find my forecast of our speeds borne out in practice.

Having left the mountains behind and descended into a country of scrub and low-pouring trees, we arrived at Tondumo where the Nyasaland Trail and the Great North Road fork: the former going to the left almost due south and the latter turning sharply off to the west towards Abercorn, situated at the southern extremity of the mighty Lake Tanganyika. This lake is 400 miles long and, like Lake Nganza, was the scene of unbelievable naval warfare during the Great War. Naval warfare in the heart of Africa!  Tondumo was 72 miles from Mbeya. These 72 miles had taken us 2 hours 48 minutes (3 minutes more than schedule!).

We turned sharply to the right at the signpost “Great North Road”. My readers may remember that, in the description of our preparations, I wrote “I can hardly write those words without smiling.  You shall hear the reason when we arrived there.” We have arrived there and here is the reason, Readers, please disabuse your minds of any visions of A1, disgustingly narrow little country lane that it is in some parts, with its smooth tarred surface, its milestones, its towns and villages, its smiling well-kept air. The Great North Road of Northern Rhodesia is not like this or like any road I have seen in England. Picture to yourselves a pass grown track, about seven feet wide, deep in liquid mud, winding its way through a deserted forest of stunted trees and you have an idea of the Great North Road of Africa. It is more like an ill-kept ride in a great wood on some impoverished estate than anything else I can think of, and it makes difficult and unpleasant travelling.  At frequent intervals it crosses small streams by crazy rotten wooden bridges that always caused us apprehension for fear that they would give way beneath us. Each time we came to one of these we would slow down to 15 miles an hour and survey it anxiously before venturing to cross it. Several times we had to stop and lift out of the way broken branches that lay across the road. It became unutterably wearisome and tedious, this creeping along down the muddy narrow track through stunted tress and coarse rank grass, with no distant views of hill or sky to break the monotony of the vista of undergrowth and the dirty little ditch we were following. The Great North Road! For hours we crawled along, 30 miles an hour seemed a reckless speed, as the bushes brushed the sides of the car – no gleaming paint on them now to be spoiled! – and the car skidded and slid on the slimy surface. Hours of boredom when we grew too fed-up even to talk but counted off the minutes till we reached the Abercorn Fork, 116 miles from Tondumo. This is 11 miles before the road reaches Abercorn and it is at this point that the road from the south runs into the one, we were following which goes due west.  It is actually a fork if one is proceeding from Abercorn and not towards it, as we were, and at this fork, if coming from Abercorn, one turns right from Mpika and the south and left for Mbeya and the north. 

At last, when we had come to believe that we should never reach it and that this endless track would continue for ever, we came to the fork and a signpost. We stopped. We had been full of hopes of this road southwards from the Abercorn Fork, for did not one of the guides I had consulted say that there was a bus service from Abercorn to Kapiri Niposte, nearly 500 miles to the south? We looked anxiously back to our left down the southward trail and our hopes were fulfilled. A wide avenue disappeared in the distance among the trees, a road, a real road at last. True, the surface was only of red earth and it was wet and sticky after the recent rains but it had any rate the semblance of a road. It was ten minutes past one when we reached the Abercorn Fork and we stopped here to verify the contents of our tank. We still had 200 miles to go to our next refuelling stop at Mpika and if for any reason we had used a lot of petrol we should have to run the 11 miles into Abercorn to fill up. We did not want to do this as it would mean an extra 22 miles, and we were glad to find it was unnecessary. We had plenty of petrol to go straight on. However, having stopped, we thought we would celebrate the appearance of the real road by eating something from our stock in the car. While we were eating, a Ford truck came along from the direction of Abercorn. There were two young Englishmen in it, and they stopped for a word with us. We asked about the road south, as they were heading that way, and they told us it was not too good as there had been a lot of rain. Once again, we had to explain the battered appearance of our car, a story that now flowed almost automatically from our lips. They went on and a few minutes later we followed them, their tracks being quite distinct on the soft, muddy road. The 116 miles from Tondumo to Abercorn Fork had taken 4 hours 22 minutes and we had gained 8 minutes on schedule (another triumph!). We stopped there 13 minutes before we were once again on our way.

The road was quite good, and we were in high spirits as we sailed merrily along at 35 miles an hour. In about 10 miles we came to a fork where a narrow little track forked to the right and our good red road swerved slightly left. We followed it. But some sixth sense made us uneasy. We stopped. We looked at a map. There was no fork shown. We went on again but very slowly as we both had a feeling something was wrong. I called out, “Stop, Humphrey.  Look, there’s a white man. We’d better ask.” He didn’t seem to hear us call so I got out and walked across what appeared to be cultivated land towards him. I asked him if this was right for Kasama, and he replied, “Oh no, this is a private road to the Botanical Research Station. You must go back about a mile and turn sharp to your left.” I thanked him and went disconsolately back to the car. So, our beautiful, good road ended here, and we had to go along that dirty narrow little track that we had seen turning off to the right! I told Humphrey and we turned round. We went back and when we got to the fork, we swung round sharp to our left. Our worst fears were fulfilled. Here was the road “not too good” that our friends at the Abercorn Fork had told us about and we found ourselves again travelling along the same sort of dirty little track, hedged in by trees, that we had followed from Tondumo to Abercorn Fork. The only difference was that this red soil was most horribly slippery and we had to exercise the utmost caution.

We relapsed into gloomy silence, even Humphrey’s mercurial spirits not being proof against our disappointment and our joint hatred of this unpleasant road. On and on down this endless track we went, with nothing to look at and no scenery to enjoy. The Great North Road! We passed through Kasama and went on. In the last 82 miles we had gained another 15 minutes on our schedule, and this cheered us up for a little time, as it made up for the time we had wasted over our stop at the Abercorn Fork. We had come 272 miles from Mbeya since our start that morning and we had been exactly 7 minutes faster than our schedule. I was quite pleased with that!

But we were worried about another thing. 54 miles beyond Kasama there was a ferry over the Chambesi River and it was now just after 5 o’clock. Judging by our past rate of progress we could not hope to reach the ferry before 7 and it was a question whether it would be still running. If not, it meant a return to Kasama where there was reputed to be a hotel or a night in the car on the banks of the river. It was imperative, therefore, to get along as the road would allow.

I hesitate to describe the conditions we met with, for fear that my readers, with the recollection in their minds that this was the Great North Road, will refuse to credit the truth. We had reached low lying country draining towards the Chambezi River and here and there the land was swampy and marshy. Across these marshes the track was apparently built on some sort of a causeway: I say apparently because the surface was quite invisible. Briefly, one description will do for all these swamp crossings, though there were many of them, varying in length from 50 yards to a quarter of a mile or more. The grass grown track would descend a gentle slope to where the swamp lay, and suddenly the road would disappear altogether beneath long coarse grass. The only way to follow it without plunging into the swamp on either side was to keep one’s eyes firmly fixed on two dark lines which showed where passing vehicles had pressed down the grass, through it had sprung up again as soon as the pressure was relieved. Believe it or not, the grass through which the track ran rose a foot or more above the top of the radiator! The embarking on one of these crossings was a most alarming experience: it was like driving through an unchartered sea and one proceeded with one’s heart in one’s mouth, as it was impossible to see any sign of the ground at all. In front the grass rose five feet high in an unbroken sea, and only the two dark lines showed where the track lay buried deep beneath it. As we went forward, the radiator pressed down the tall grasses immediately in front and Humphrey, looking out through the rear window, said that they sprang up again immediately the car had passed over. We were in terror in case the track, deep down out of sight might have broken away. If it had done so we should have plunged headfirst into the swamp, and it had to be taken on trust that the track was sound. On each side one could see nothing except this long coarse grass growing out of the stagnant stinking mud. These crossings, and there were many of them, precluded any speed above about ten miles an hour and the first few filled us with apprehension. Later we became inured and merely amused. The Great North Road! Can my readers wonder that I can’t help smiling when I write those words?

Between the swamps the road was not too bad, and I pushed on desperately in the failing light in an attempt to reach the ferry before it became quite dark, while Humphrey, watching the speedometer, counted off the miles. Soon it became obvious that it would be dark long before we got there: indeed, it was inevitable for here night falls at this time of year at about 6.30. Crossing the swamps through the deep grass was queer enough by daylight but it was even more eerie in the dark, as the headlamps taken from an old Hillman at Nairobi and fitted by the Wolseley agents there, were well below the level of the top of the grass, so that the beams shone strangely upward through the thick coarse stems. We were still hopeful that perhaps we should not be too late to catch the ferrymen and when Humphrey told me that we were only two miles from the ferry I began to blow long blasts on our twin(p.372) horns, hoping to warn them that a car was coming. It turned out quite all right in the end and undoubtedly, they had heard our horns and seen our lights. We reached the banks of the Chambezi River at 8 minutes past seven, having taken just two minutes under two hours to cover the 54 miles, and a pretty strenuous two hours they had been. So that, once across the ferry – which took 25 minutes – I was glad to hand over the wheel to Humphrey and relax in the comfortable seat while he dealt with the difficulties of the route.

As we left the ferry it began to rain, and we ploughed along through the darkness over the sodden track for what seemed like hours. This was the first time we had met with really heavy, solid rain and we were anxious as to the car’s waterproofness. We were relieved of our greatest anxiety, doubts as to water tightness of our sunshine roof. The roof itself was twisted in an extraordinary manner, just as if one were to take a sheet of stiff paper by opposite corners and bend one corner up and one down. It was something of a tribute to the steel body, that in addition to having undoubtedly saved our lives by withstanding the shock of our tremendous fall, the roof remained absolutely watertight except for one tiny drip that fortunately fell just behind the driver’s seat. The sliding roof was, naturally, immovable but we were saved from the cascades that we had feared might pour in through the edges.

Round the frame of the windscreen, which, owing to the rhomboidal shape of the opening, could not of course be got back into place, we had instructed the Wolseley agents at Nairobi to pack thick sponge rubber and very little water got in through this. But there was one thing that caused us a great deal of annoyance until, the next day, Humphrey found an ingenious solution. As the windscreen frame was fixed outside the front line of the body and not lying snugly within it, we had given evidence that holes should be drilled in the frame and that this latter should be held to the body by small bolts and nuts.  We had given special instructions that these bolts should be left slack in order to avoid any strain on our plate glass windscreen. However, some garage hand, with an excess of vigour, had pulled the nuts up tight and cracked the glass from top to bottom. There had been no time to cut another glass so the cracked glass remained. The crack ran diagonally from top to bottom of the glass just to the left of the driver’s line of vision and what drove us nearly insane was the action of the windscreen wiper when it was in use. Every motorist knows that a windscreen wiper, moving in a steady arc across the driver’s line of sight, is quite invisible because of its continuous and rhythmic movement. But every time our wiper, on its right handed swing, came to the crack in the glass, it hesitated at the ridge formed where one broken edge stood up above the other: hesitated as if to gain momentum and then swung rapidly across. On its return journey it ran smoothly over the crack, as it passed easily down the little ridge which it had had to jump on its right-handed swing. The intermittent movement, the pause, the accelerated swing, then the steady return, and the pause again drove us nearly crazy. We found it almost impossible to see the road: one’s eyes automatically focussed themselves on the erratic course of the wiper blade. It was not until the following afternoon, after many hours of torture from the wretched little cause, that Humphrey found a simple solution. Cutting off short strips of surgical plaster out of our first aid kit, he stuck them across the crack in a left to right direction, that is, horizontally. When the wiper blade reached the strips, it ran smoothly up and over the crack, and the problem was solved. True, after an hour or so of really torrential rain, the strips were washed loose but we kept a supply ready and replaced them as necessity arose. I have gone into this small matter in some detail because it shows the kind of petty difficulties that may arise and, although an erratically moving windscreen wiper may not sound very serious, I doubt if we should have been able to endure the long hours of driving in torrential rain that we had to put up with unless a solution had been found. The strain on our eyes was terrible and it was difficult to watch the road, past this infernal wiper blade, as intently as it is necessary to watch it on the type of road we were to encounter.

It was very late, 10.48 to be exact, when we drove up to the Crested Crane Hotel at Mpika. This, in addition to being the Shell Depot at Mpika, has the reputation of being one of the best hotels in Northern Rhodesia. It bore out that reputation. Our host, Marriott by name, is a true example of the excellent type of African hotelkeeper. He is an enormous fellow of a most cheerful and comforting appearance. He was in bed when we arrived. He was leaving first thing in the morning by air for Ndola, in the Rhodesian copper fields, but he made no fuss about turning out to greet us. The hotel, built in a mixture of English and African style, was beautifully furnished and equipped with lovely bathrooms. Our host the proprietor, wearing a wonderful silk dressing gown over his pyjamas, joined us in a drink and called out his boys to prepare a sandwich meal for us. Meanwhile we took it in turns to superintend the refuelling of our tank which had to be done by the awkward method of filling cans from drums and emptying them into the filler cap of the tank through a funnel. It took nearly an hour to do this job and why the whole place was not blown sky high by the ignition of the petrol from the hurricane lamps the native boys used is simply one of life’s mysteries. We had long ago decided to stay the night here, as we had had a long and hard day and felt very tired when we sought our comfortable beds some time after midnight. We had covered 398 miles that day and felt that we had not done so badly. We were exactly 2 minutes quicker than the schedule time I had allotted for the distance.

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