Chapter 18 – Part 1

Chapter 18“As we drove past the trunks of the mighty trees, strewn asunder and dragged clear by the working party, we decided that if we were ever again caught in a storm in a forest we would stop at the first convenient clearing. Everywhere along the road there were traces of the great storm, trees had fallen in the forest and were leaning against their neighbours, and debris of branches and boughs were scattered far and wide. The road was perfectly dry and the conditions perfect. We were very contented, feeling fit and refreshed after our good night’s sleep. Of course the delay was a nuisance and had upset our schedule completely. Whereas, at the ferry across the River Bibi, some 20 miles before we met the storm, we had been a mere matter of 2 hours 40 minutes late, we were now hopelessly behind. Actually about 16 hours and this meant a complete reorganization of our plans. We decided, however, to do nothing about it until we reached Juba in the British Sudan, about 800 miles further on. There we should be in direct telegraphic communication with Nairobi and could telegraph fresh instructions as to the time we shall arrive there. Meanwhile there was nothing to do except to plod steadily along. Only one thing we would have to do and that would be to send a telegram from Buta, 170 miles ahead, to the Governor of the Southern Sudan at Juba, to inform him of our delay. The reason for this was that we had expected to arrive at Juba in the early hours of tonight, about one in the morning, and he had kindly promised to arrange for the ferry which does not normally cross the river after dark to be waiting for us to take us over to the eastern bank. We could not now hope to arrive at Juba before the next afternoon and we felt that it would only be polite to send a telegram. Actually this telegram was never sent from Buta, because we were told on our arrival there that we should certainly get to Juba before the telegram! As events turned out, it was just as well we did not wire. While we were discussing these matters, we passed through a large native village which seemed, even to our not very interested eyes, to be in an unusual state of alertness.  A quarter of a mile on we found the cause. A huge tree, six feet across the trunk, lay squarely across the road, felled by the storm of the previous night.

We had hardly stopped, with a few hearty causes at the prospect of a fresh delay, when from the village there came running men, women and children. In this neighbourhood where storms are frequent and trees are often down across the road, the villagers are responsible, as a part of their dues to the Belgian authorities, for removing any such obstacles and keeping the roads clear. I hesitate to impart commercial motives to these untutored sons of nature, but I think there can be little doubt that they had known of this tree blocking the road and had been hoping for just an eventuality as had occurred, the arrival of a car, before they felt compelled to clear it away! Obviously it was likely to be more profitable to await the arrival of travellers rather than to clear the road without anyone having any knowledge of their good work!

I will say that those natives knew their job. Men, women and children attacked the tree. The men with swinging blows from their axes chopped the tree into three, while women and children tore away smaller branches. In 36 minutes they had finished the job, rolling away the centre portion to leave a passage for the car. Humfrey filmed the scene as they pushed the centre portion clear and I drove the car slowly through. After distributing the necessary largesse in the form of small change and cigarettes we drove on, hoping fervently that this sort of thing was not going to occur every 20 miles.

Shortly after, we drove down the slope to the ferry at the trading station of Bondo, an important place on the banks of the great River Wele. The ferry, a regular super-ferry this one with a crew of about 30, was on our side and we were over and away in 15 minutes. Here we left the great forest region and entered the fertile fields of the great Belgian colony, where the land was tilled and cotton was the staple crop. A cotton field is a pretty sight; cotton grown on long stalks about four feet high and each stalk is topped with a fluffy white ball, so that the field looks for all the world like a gigantic bed of white flowers. It is a smiling, pleasant, prosperous neighbourhood and every now and again we would pass huge red brick ginneries of the Cotton Co. It is a thickly populated country and we began to feel as though we had reached civilization at last. 30 miles after Bondo we crossed the river Likati by a most ingenious method, which filled us with delight because it saved so much time. Here the road climbs steeply up to the railway track, for there is an old railway here that , according to the map, begins nowhere and ends nowhere, a native comes forward, takes 10 francs as a ferry fee, opens the gate and one drives across the river along the bridge which carries the single line railway. Presumably his job is to see that one doesn’t meet a train on the bridge but – well, natives are not notoriously efficient!

Eight miles on, one crosses the Likati again, but this time by a normal type of native ferry. We had covered the 38 miles from Bondo in 64 minutes including the railway bridge ferry, so it can be judged that the road is not bad. The road – or track or whatever one likes to call it – is sandy and smooth and makes very pleasant and comfortable travelling. It is not, of course, a made road in the sense that roads in Europe are: by this I mean that it is not installed, but is simply the smooth beaten natural soil. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. It was a lovely day, not too hot, with a bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine: the country had a pleasant aspect and even record-breaking motorists have a preference for agreeable scenery! We were fresh after our good night’s sleep and the car, needless to say, was running perfectly. What more could the heart of man desire? We were very happy and contented. The date, January the 1st, then meant nothing to us except that it was New Years day. It bore no hint of the disaster ahead.

It was 1.39 pm when we drove into Buta, where we were due to re-fuel at the Shell Depot, here as throughout the Congo, known as SEDEC. We had only averaged 30m.p.h. from the Likati ferry, the reason being, I think, that we had been enjoying ourselves too much to want to hurry – all time motorists will know what I mean! After some little difficulty we found the Shell Depot where there was, a delightful surprise, an Englishman in charge. He said that he had been told to expect us the night before and had waited up for us. We had, therefore, to explain our delay. We refueled from a Shell pump, gave the steering a shot from the grease gun and drove to the hotel. It is a most swagger affair, this Hotel Vicicongo, one enters a large lounge on dining room with a shining bar in one corner and we felt suddenly that we needed lunch. Madame was agreeable to supply us although it was well past the usual hours and we sat down at a proper table, with a cloth and shining cutlery. Except for the fact that the servants were black one might have been in a comfortable provincial hotel in France or Belgium. It was all most sophisticated. After an excellent lunch we set off again, having spent 1 hour and 8 minutes at Buta. A grievous waste of time, but we were quite contented to loaf on this most delightful of days. It was a quarter to three when we left and we were anxious to reach the ferry – once again across the River Uele – at Bambili, our last Congo ferry, before it was dark as there was some doubt as to whether it could be persuaded to function after night fell. It was 132 miles to Bambili and the country became gradually less appealing and began to take on the dried up look that reminded us of French Equatorial Africa, but the road remained good and we covered the 132 miles in 3 hours and 23 minutes, exactly one minute under schedule (with which accurate forecast I was highly delighted). We reached the River Uele at 9 minutes past six and were unlucky enough to find the ferry on the opposite side bringing a lorry across. So it was 25 minutes before we were over and away on the other side. It was then quite dark, but the night of January the 1st meant nothing particular to us yet.”

 

Chapter 17 A Narrow Escape

Chapter 17

“As we left Monga and drove towards the east, we saw in the sky ahead a flicker of lightening. I think that both of us saw this, but we each carefully refrained from making any remark about it. As we neared the ferry 9 miles beyond Monga the flashes became so frequent and so obvious that it was impossible to ignore them any longer. Humfrey said, “I do hope that doesn’t mean a storm ahead, Bertie.”

“Oh, no,” I answered as casually as I could manage, “only summer lightening.”

We went on kidding ourselves in this way as we drove the car on to the ferry, crossed over the small River Bili and landed on the other side. But soon it wasn’t any good pretending any more that it was only summer lightening. Darkness fell as we started off again from the ferry and ahead of us all across the black sky, brilliant flashes of lightening flickered. The lightening was not just in individual flashes, as we see in our English thunderstorms but it was absolutely continuous: in five or six different places in the sky at the same time the jagged streaks flared out, so that it was just like some giant pyrotechnic display or as if some small boy was playing with the electric light switch. When we had covered some ten miles or so, the storm seemed to roll away to the north and we began to hope that it might have passed before we passed its path. Suddenly, while we were discussing the possibility a roaring peal of thunder crashed out, and right across the sky, directly on our path, the lightening flared.

“We’re in for it, Bertie,” said Humfrey.

“I’m afraid we are, “I replied.”

They drove into the Congo forest with trees as tall as 80 – 90 feet in height. The storm was all around them with lightening flashing and thunder crashing as the rain came cascading down – the windscreen wiper was unable to deal with the torrential rain. They drove in second gear at 10 miles an hour. The thunder got louder and suddenly Humfrey jammed on the brakes so fiercely as to lock the wheels and we stopped just 100 yards from where, a huge great tree, 80 feet high or more, lay white-hot and smoking directly across the road. They only had a small axe and they needed help. Their log book had a record from the previous trips that there was “a European house on the right.” Humfrey decided to go and try to find the house armed with only a torch.  Bertie was quite nervous about Humfrey being in the forest on his own and he started to fear the worst. Finally Bertie decided to get out the car and call for Humfrey. At last Bertie saw the beam from the torch and was relieved to see Humfrey.

“I told him that I had thought of a gorilla. He replied that he was glad that hadn’t occurred to him, but he had decided, as he could see no sign of any village and it was most inadvisable to wander about Africa in the dark armed only with a torch, to return to the car. I said I had been terrified.”

They turned the car with some difficulty and decided to return the 20 miles to the ferry. They were creeping slowly along while feeling disconsolate “when I suddenly shouted “Look, Humfrey, the European house! there on the right! I remember it quite well.”

“We must have passed it in the rain storm,” said Humfrey, “without seeing it.” He turned in at the gateway, stopped in the compound outside the door, and blew the horn. A young Belgian by the name of de Boose appeared – he was home as it was New Year’s night. He invited them in for dinner and organized about 30 natives to go and remove the tree. de Boose exclaimed to Humfrey and Bertie “Good heavens! You took the most fearful risk in continuing to drive through the forest in the storm. If one is caught anywhere near here when the trees are so thick there is only one thing to do and that is quickly to find a clearing where there are no tall trees on either side that can reach the road if they fall and stop in that clearing until the storm has ceased”.

Later that evening the foreman sent back a message that there were in fact 6 trees that had fallen. “Six trees in half a mile! Humfrey and I looked at each other but neither of us voiced the thought that was in the minds of us both. We must have stopped on the very fringe of the storm’s path! Our tree was the first! There were five others down in half a mile! Suppose we had been a quarter of a mile further on, in the midst of those six falling trees! Well! We looked at each other and silently lifted our glasses.”

Bertie slept well but Humfrey had a buzzing in his ears. “He put this down to the effect of the continuous travelling telling upon his nerves.”

They woke early to find the sun shining in a cloudless sky and enjoyed a hearty breakfast. Humfrey thanked de Boose and his men and he paid the men a couple of hundred francs and some cigarettes for their assistance.

“Our good engine sprang to life at the first touch of the starter in spite of its soaking of the night before and at five minutes past eight we drove away with heart-felt thanks to our young host for his hospitality.”

Chapter 16: The Belgian Congo. 77 miles 31 December 1938

Chapter 16

“At last Humfrey arrived and we boarded the ferry for the long paddle across the river. We had arrived at Bangasson at 1.25pm and by the time we drove away from the Belgian side of the ferry it was 3.55. Actually our stop here had not occupied 2½ hours, but 1½, as we had here put our clock on 1 hour to compensate for the later time as we travelled east. None the less it was now 3.55. We had been due to leave Bangasson at 1.30, so we were 2½ hours behind schedule. Still, we had now travelled over 5000 miles, so perhaps it was not so bad.

It is worthy of mention that, in an account which I read lately of a journey across Africa by car, the author wrote “our passage across French Equatorial Africa brought us the worst roads of the whole of our journey from Rhodesia to Algiers and it took us six days of really hard driving before we reached the border of The French Cameroon.” Six days of really hard driving! It had taken us exactly 30 hours!! Such is the difference between touring and record-breaking! We left the ferry over the Ugangi River and drove, over a very indifferent and disappointing road, to Monga, a pleasant little place where is the Belgian Customs Post was. A Belgian flag floats proudly from a tall flag pole in front of a white thatched building where a cordial and efficient official stamped our papers, while expressing the usual amazement at the date of our entry at Algiers. “Ma Foi,” said he, “you arrive at Algiers on the 25th and it is now already only the 31st. Six days! Incoyable! Incroyable!” He repeated “Incroyable!” under his breath at intervals as he completed the necessary forms. Then “Combien de distance?” he inquired. We informed him that it was almost exactly 4000 miles or 6400 kilometres. “Mon dieu” said he “more than 600 miles” factually he said “1000 kilometres a day! Incroyable!”

He was going on with further questions when Humfrey politely interrupted him by informing him that we were anxious to get as far as we could before darkness fell and, shaking hands warmly with us, he let us go.

We drove off quickly along the – so called – Route Royale or Royal Road, which runs for 1000 miles along the northern border of the vast province of the Congo Belge. We heard in the distance the roar of the waterfall which had its being at Monga, but which we have never yet been able to spare the time to visit.”

This is  very short one page account. Chapter 17 is a narrow escape from danger going through the Congo forest.

Footnote by Bertie in his diary – written Tuesday night 5th Dec. (most probably in 1950)

Who was Bertie

Over the past several weeks I have had lots of help trying to put together a record of Bertie’s life. Many thanks to Jocelyn Martin and Richard Armstrong via Facebook and Sue Naylor for her genealogy skills.

So here’s what we know about him. His full name was Herbert Brooks Browning – born on 11th January 1884. His parents were Captain Hugh Edmond and May Browning. He was baptised on the 27th February 1884. (See below).

Bertie's birth notice

His family lived on the Clapham Park Estate in one of the lodges called ‘Woodlands’.

He was one of at least 6 siblings and the household had eight domestic staff, including a governess.

He attended Eton College from the Michaelmas Half of 1897 to the Michaelmas Half of 1901. His Housemasters were C. Lowry (until 1900) and J.M. Dyer. His tutors were C. Lowry and T.F. Cattley.

He married Hilda Harriet Mason in Chelsea in 1906. I have not been able to get any further details of their marriage. Hilda passed away on 2nd February 1958 at 31 Queens Gate Kensington. By 1911 he was living at 47 West Kensington and his profession was listed as ‘motor cab proprietor’.

HB Marriage (2)

Bertie served in France during World War 1 – many thanks to Eton College’s archivist, Georgina Robinson for his war record. (See below).

Eton

His service number was 32222. From his enlistment records he was 5 feet 7¾ inches in height.

From the 1933 electoral roll, he was living alone in a flat at 8 Raglan Court, Raglan Gardens (now named Empire Way), Wembley Park.

It appears that in 1938 he was living in Brad House, Bradpole, Dorest, which is the address given on his travel record when he and Humfrey returned from South Africa on the Capetown Castle.

In the 1939 Register Bertie was recorded as living in military quarters in Barrack Road, Weymouth, working as a ‘civilian transport officer’, probably under the control of the RASC. Six civilian lorry drivers and a chauffeur were also living at the same address.

In December 1948, Bertie travelled on the Edinburgh Castle from Southampton to Cape Town. Final destination was ‘SR’ which is presumably Southern Rhodesia. His last address in Britain – not necessarily permanent – was a hotel in Dorking. So that may be from where he emigrated to Que Que, Southern Rhodesia now Zimbabwe.

He passed away on the 28th September 1959 in Que Que. His death notice was published in the The Times (London, England), Wednesday, 7th October 1959.

Bertie's Death Notice

His estate wasn’t settled until May 1964 – he left £3259 in England.

Below are other documents relating to Bertie’s during World War 1.

Bertie War Record

Bertie Medals

 

 

 

Chapter 15 Bambaie – Bangasson 222 miles 31 December 1938

Chapter 15

“Away to the east dawn was breaking as I drove away from the Shell agents. It was 5.53 and we had spent an hour and 3 minutes here, including crossing the ferry. I had allowed one hour, so my estimate was fairly correct. We were now 2 hours and 3 minutes late.

The Shell agent had warned us to be careful as there had been heavy rain and the road would be wet and slippery. Humfrey was asleep again as I drove off over the hilly road towards the Belgian Congo and I was not at all happy. Here the country changed completely. It was green and fertile with high rolling hills, a contrast to the burnt-up flat desolation of the district round Fort Archambault. The reason I was unhappy was that the track wound up and down exceedingly steep hills, generally with a narrow track that was wet and exceedingly slippery. I wasn’t happy. I seemed to be crawling but I daren’t go any faster. 40 mph felt like a hundred and the car skidded under the brakes in a most unpleasant fashion. Eventually I developed the correct technique for the type of surface and contour. Racing flat out in third up a long straight climb, I would go into top gear at the summit and get up to 50 mph. When half way down the other side a change down to third, gentle braking and into second reduced my speed to about 25 mph at which I felt content to cross the narrow plank bridge: then accelerate hard and into third again for the next rise. But it was worrying work on the slippery surface.

Humfrey sat up and yawned “What the hell are you doing, Bertie?” he inquired, mildly. “You seem to be changing gear every 100 yards.”

“Sorry,” I said “But the road is wet and damned slippery.”

He sat up suddenly at that and looked out through the windscreen. “Gosh,” he said, as we shot across another narrow bridge. Then, “I’m feeling fine now; like me to take her?”

“Yes, rather,” I said, and we effected he desired change. I had no desire to sleep now that it was daylight and we changed the seat into its upright position for day travelling. I leaned back, snuggling down on to the comfortable Dunlopillo cushions, and enjoyed watching Humfrey cope with the conditions. His tactics were the same as those I had employed but we did not seem to be making very rapid progress. I said “I’m afraid I’ve been awfully slow but I was frightened of the wet roads.”

“I expect it’ll be all right,” said he “I wouldn’t worry.”

“I’m not worrying, “I said, “I’m as happy as a king,” and I sang a little song. I have as much ear for music as a cow. Humfrey laughed. “Shut up, Bertie” he said.

Down a steep slope we went and came to a stream running between tree-lined banks. This is the Banqui, which swells into a mighty river before it joins the Congo, 700 or 800 miles away south, down near the west coast, though here, near its source, it is only about 100 yards wide. We were again fortunate enough to find the ferry on our side and quickly were put across to the other side. This ferry is operated in a very simple manner. There is a wire rope stretched from bank to bank and natives, standing in the canoes which form the floats for the platform, pull hand over hand on this wire and so propel their craft across. This ferry only delayed us 14 minutes from the time we stopped until we were away again.

When we got on the move, I consulted the log and found that, whereas we were allowed 2 hours 1 minute for the 93 miles from Bambari we had taken 2 hours and 9 minutes. We had averaged 34½ mph so I need not have been so despairing at the slow progress I was making over the early part. We had saved 6 minutes at the ferry on the 20 minutes allowed, so we were only 2 minutes down from Bambari, though actually we were now 2 hours and 3 minutes behind on schedule time.

I gave these figures as a sample of the kind of calculations that were going on continuously inside our car as we travelled across Africa, for on a journey like ours, this matter of time-keeping becomes as absolute obsession. While we were still in French Equatorial Africa it was a matter of some importance, too, for the ferries here do not function during the hours of darkness, as they do in the Belgian Congo, our next objective. We had only 150 miles to cover to reach Bangasson, the eastern frontier of the huge territory of French Equatorial Africa: in this 150 miles there were 3 ferries and as it was only 8.16 in the morning when we left the Bangui ferry we were quite safe in reckoning that we should be out of French Equatorial Africa and into the Belgian Congo long before darkness fell and the ferries stopped running for the night.

It is jolly country, this eastern end of the huge French province, green and fertile, with great rolling hills: it was pleasant to see once again trees that really looked like living things and not like ghosts of some long dead vegetation, with bare withered trunks and brown dry leaves. We enjoyed our drive over the comparatively sandy road through this pleasant country under the as-yet-not-too-hot rays of the morning sun. It was comforting not to be thrown off one’s seat every 100 yards or so and we felt it was a nice rest for our much-tired chassis.

63 miles on, we arrived at Fort Ombala – a name which Humfrey loves, he says that it reminds him of a thunder storm! – a large village on the banks of the broad River Kotto. The approach to this seemed different, somehow, to what we had expected. We were sure that the road had led through pleasant shady avenues where large native houses stood far apart and the office of the administrator, to whom we had delivered a letter from his offices at Bangasson on our return journey in the Rolls Royce, was a delightful thatched bungalow.

This road we were on seemed quite definitely to be bearing away and leaving the village far away to our left. It was obviously new, surfaced with deep red sand and with its path carved deep out of the red banks of earth on either side. It was not only new, it was exceedingly slippery so it was in a most cautious fashion that we descended to the river by the new Ombala bye-pass.

The Kotto is wide and lazy as it floats serenely between its tree-lined banks, and the blue water looked most tempting under the now rising heat of the African sun. It was seven minutes past ten when we arrived at the bank. We took a long 31 minutes to get across, when we left our log showed us to be 2 hours and 20 minutes late on schedule. We didn’t care much. The road was at least respectable, the country was pleasant, the car was running well, the sun was shining, though too fiercely perhaps! At Bangasson we should enter the Belgian Congo where the road, sandy but smooth, we knew to be better than anything we had found since we left the tarred road away back in Algeria. In addition, throughout the Belgian Congo territory, even though at fairly long intervals there are really comfortable hotels – at the one at Buta there is even a bar! -, there are telegraph offices (though cables cost a fortune), there are many places with white inhabitants; in a word, there is civilization, so we were eagerly looking forward to our arrival in that civilized country. We had no inkling of the tragic disaster that the Belgian Congo held for us.

On and on under the rising temperature as the sun climbed to its zenith and the thermometer inside the car rose to 100 degrees: through a big native village where the inhabitants gazed at us curiously, till we arrived at another ferry over the river Korro. They are an efficient lot, these natives of the Korro ferry and a cheery crowd to book, for they sang a cheerful song – after Humfrey had held up a 10 franc note with the magic word “Cadeau” – we were soon across in 17 minutes we were off again on the 11 mile run to Bangasson.

This is a large and important place. A big native settlement and the seat of the local administration, with fine white buildings in the native style, looking cool and clean with their reed thatched roofs and wide shady verandahs. It was very hot in Bangasson at 1.25pm and we fairly sweated under the brassy sky as we re-fuelled at the Shell agency. The engine appeared to need a little oil to bring up the level, so I attempted to remove the gallon can which we carried in clamps under the bonnet. After several tries, using large quantities of rags as insulators. I desisted. The can was far too hot to touch even through half a dozen thicknesses of rags! We therefore took a supply of Shell oil from the agency though it was thinner than the kind we were using. We felt that our good engine would not resent such a minor detail as the use of Double instead of Triple.

The re-fuelling completed we drove to the administration office to have our triptyque stamped on leaving French territory for Belgian. Humfrey went in while I sat in the car outside. Minute by minute the interior of the car, already like a furnace, grew hotter as the sun blazed down on the roof and I sat, dripping with perspiration. For half an hour Symons endeavoured to get away while the administrators to whom of course time was no object chatted away about the European situation! Humfrey is always polite under these circumstances: indeed, in my opinion, ultra-polite, though we always made appoint of making ourselves as civil as possible to all the officials and indeed to anybody else we met as we looked upon ourselves, in a very humble degree of course, as ambassadors from our own country to Frenchmen and Belgians. It would be better for the reputation of Englishmen and, may I add Englishwomen, if other travellers adopted a similar attitude for we have been told, in conversation with many of these most helpful dwellers in  far off places, the most grisly tales of the way in which they have been treated by people of our nationality. We have many times blushed with shame at these stories, told without resentment or rancour, of the ill manners of travellers. It is an attitude that I do not comprehend – this unpleasantness to foreigners (though in fact we are of course the foreigners in French or Belgian territory). Civility costs nothing – that is something more than a cliché and my experience is that there is nothing that anyone, Frenchmen, Belgian, Englishmen, or South Africa, white, black or brown, will not do to assist a traveller who appealed to for help in a civil friendly way. I do like to think that wherever Humfrey and I have travelled, we have perhaps left people with a better impression of Englishmen than they appear to have had before.

So Humfrey inwardly itching to get away but outwardly thrilled by the conversation of the French official, for half an hour while I remained outside sweltering in the sun and frenzied with impatience. At last he managed to excuse himself and to tear himself away. We drove down to the ferry across the great River Ubangi, already here, some six hundred miles from its union with the mighty Congo, a quarter of a mile wide – we found the interior of the car so appallingly hot that we took refuge under a tree on the river bank while awaiting the arrival of the ferry which is manned by natives from the farther, the Belgian Congo shore.”

Chapter 14 Fort Archambault – Bambari 335 miles 30/31 December 1938

Chapter 14

“We left Fort Archambault at 4.27, having stopped there 48 minutes, instead of our scheduled 19 minutes. This made me very cross because it meant that we were now 27 minutes late, and I hate to be late. We knew that our next stretch of 335 miles to Bambari comprised some of the worst roads we should meet with in the whole journey; but we were glad that we were to cover this stretch by night, because the country is monotonously uninteresting and we remembered the awful heat we had endured here in the Rolls Royce. Our schedule allowed us 11 hours for the 335 miles, that is 30 miles an hour and we looked forward to jogging quietly along through the night without any attempt to hurry. The track did not seem as bad as before, which was no doubt due to the superlative springing and general comfort of the Wolseley. We made very good progress until darkness fell and for some time after, but soon after passing Ndipi, 148 miles from Fort Archambault, we suddenly came to a barrier across the road. This was a wide piece of board, supported on two trestles: chalked on it were the words “Port detruit: route barrée”, and that was all. Nice! The bridge over a wide stream was down and the road was closed. Very nice indeed! So what does one do next? There were two obvious courses. One was to remove the barrier and proceed, hoping that we might find some way of circumventing the broken bridge: the other was to find some way of avoiding the obstacle altogether. We got out our French military maps and studied the matter. The result was not promising for the maps shows no other route from here to Fort Crampel. We had just established this fact and were contemplating an assault on the barrier when Humfrey’s luck, to which I have previously referred, came to our rescue. It didn’t look very promising at first, this bit of luck. It took the shape of a native, dressed in ragged trousers, an even more ragged pullover, and a battered hat, but it was really Humfrey’s good angel looming up out of the black night. The native approached the car, gravely raising his hat with true Gallic politeness. Humfrey addressed him, not very hopefully, in French, for neither of us speak a word of any native language. “Did he speak French?”  “Que, monsieurs.” (Humfrey’s Good angel!) He explained in broken African French that he was the foreman of the bridge-repairing gang and was at our service. Could we get over? Alas, not for many days would the bridge be passable. Was there any other way of getting to Fort Crampel certainly, we must go down this narrow track to our right for 40 kilometres, there we would turn sharply left and rejoin another track that would lead us to Fort Crampel.

That seemed sufficient for us. To find a bridge irreparably broken, to meet with the foreman who could speak a few words of French, to be told by him of a way of avoiding the broken bridge: all this is child’s play to Humfrey’s good angel and is an instance of the kind of providence that watches over its chosen. We were to meet with other instances of it in circumstances that meant the difference between life and death. But those circumstances were, at the moment, fortunately wrapped in the mists of the future. Thanking our good friend and bestowing upon him the largesse much appreciated by natives, a handful of my cigarettes – Humfrey does not smoke – we turned off down the narrow track to which he had pointed. It was no worse than the one we had quitted and we made good progress, running at a steady 35mph while Humfrey, having done his part by conjuring up the vision of the native foreman, slept serenely in the bed by my side.”

Bertie drove and finally he was delighted to come to a sign “and there fastened to a tree – oh joy of joys! was a dirty piece of board on which were chalked the words “Fort Crampel” and an arrow.”

“It always gave me an eerie feeling, this night driving; for with the long white path of the headlamps, shining ahead, the windscreen gave the impression that one was looking out at a lighted landscape from a dark room; inside the car it was inky black with only the faint yellow glow from the illuminated dials on the instrument board to make one realize that one was actually driving a car: dimly I could see, or rather sense, Humfrey’s recumbent form as he lay beside me wrapped in rugs. It seemed so  intensely lonely. There were no signs of life such as one sees when driving at night in England, dogs, cats and rabbits with, now and then, a belated pedestrians, cyclist or motorist. Here there was nothing, no sign of life of any kind, nothing. Only the night breeze raised by the car’s passage through the air and the steady whisper of the engine. Everything seemed very silent and it was hard to keep awake. There were no features to mark the passing of the miles; the scene was always the same as it rolled across the lighted screen of the headlamp beams. Eternal scrub and a few trees and more scrub: the yellow sandy track and the scrub. One had the illusion that one was not moving, that in spite of the evidence of the lighted speedometer dial with its hand pointing to 30mph,one felt that in reality the car and the eternal scrub were standing still and that when dawn broke, one would find oneself still in the same place”.

“As I was driving along, semi-somnolent and struggling with the desire for sleep, suddenly the trees receded and the line of telegraph poles ran across a little clearing. I was following them quite confidently, being convinced that they would lead me across the cleared space to pick up the track again on the other side. Then I got an awful fright. From the blackness of the car, a voice screamed out “Look out!” in a tone of horror and a vice like grip clutched my left arm. Heart in my mouth, I stamped violently on the brakes and brought the car to rest. “What is it?” I gasped.

Humfrey was sitting up beside me. “I’m most awfully sorry, Bertie” he said, “I must have been dreaming. I could have sworn you were heading straight for a great tree.”

“My God.” I replied, “You frightened me to death,” for my heart was beating like a  hammer. 

“I’m terribly sorry, Bertie,” he said. “I’ve never done such a thing before. I can’t think why I did it.”

I said, “I simply can’t drive anymore. I was frightened to death. Frightened to death,” I repeated stupidly.

“Here,” said Humfrey, reaching behind him in the darkness, “take a drink of this,” and he held out a cup of whisky. I drank it down but I was shivering so that I thought I was going to faint.

“I can’t go on,” I uttered.

“You must,” said Humfrey. “I promise you I shan’t do it again.” He was quite right, of course, though I was so shaken that I couldn’t see it. If I had given up that wheel then, I should never have been the same again while driving at night. The only thing to do was to go on now while the incident was still fresh in my mind and drive through the nervous attack bought on by the sudden shock. After a well known racing driver had had a narrow escape from death while practicing at Brooklands, a wise friend forced him to get into another car immediately and do five or six really fast laps and though his shattered nerves cried out against this brutality, his friend was right. After completing his fast laps, he regained his confidence and the narrow escape never affected him again. The well-known racing driver was the late Comet Zborowski and the wise friend that old hand, Lionel Martin. The story is well-known to all Brooklands habitués. So Humfrey was right and, with quivering nerves, I went on driving. For a short time Humfrey sat erect by my side, but when he sensed that I had recovered and was no longer shaking with apprehension, he quietly lay down and, when next I gave a thought to him, he was sleeping like a child. I never thought of the incident again but the experience was an unpleasant one. Desire for sleep had gone and I quite enjoyed the driving. We never attempted to do anything but crawl during the night hours when one of us was asleep, content with the knowledge that the miles were slipping away behind us and this quiet night driving would have been really pleasant if it had not been for this awful battle with the desire for sleep. We realized now, for the first time, what an immense additional strain we were to undergo, owing to the fact that when one of us was sleeping the driver had no one to talk to. A third driver would have made all the difference as two would have been awake while the third slept. We had, in fact always when discussing an attempt on the Cape Record contemplated having three drivers for this very reason, but lack of space and the wish to save the additional, not inconsiderable, weight had forced us to abandon the idea for this run. The lack of a third driver was to prove a very heavy additional strain on our nerves throughout. But it was unavoidable”.

Bertie handed over to Humfrey and slept like a log. The detour had added 29 miles to their journey.

“Before taking over from Humfrey, I took a glance at the log to refresh my memory because I remember that at a place called Moronbas, we had on a previous trip been in some doubt as to which track to follow, as there was a fork with no sign. I wanted to be sure now far ahead this place lay. I can only say that I never saw it. Whether we were following a different track, I don’t know, but the one we were following did not agree in any particular way with my recollection. However, I arrived at a T road and found an immense sign board on which, among the names, I was able to pick out Bambari, though as I swung round the corner I was not able to see how far away it was. I did not want to stop unless I could avoid it, as I have learnt by experience that to stop the car almost invariably causes a sleeping passenger to awake. I wanted Humfrey to stay asleep. Several times after this, the track turned or joined others and I followed blindly a series of these enormous sign boards, on each of which I discovered as the bottom name the word “Bambari”. At last, I came to one facing me so that as the headlamps illuminated it some 200 yards ahead I as to get a good look at it. It said Bambari 50; that meant 50 kilometres or about 31 miles. It was now four o’clock in the morning, so we should be in Bambari by 5. I couldn’t remember what time we were due there and couldn’t really be bothered about it. All I knew was that another hour would see us there. Soon it would be daylight and another of these torturing nights with its amazing longing for sleep would be over”.

 “Suddenly the track sloped steeply downward and rounded a sharp bend to the right. Oh yes, I remember this. It was called in the log “Steep descent” and as I braked for the corner, Humfrey woke, sat up, yawned, and asked the inevitable question “Where are we, Bertie?” he said. “About 25 miles from Bambari,” I said. “O.K.” he replied, “are you all right? If so, I shall go to sleep again.”

Bertie had ‘beastly doubts’ that they had strayed off the track and then they may have insufficient petrol to get back and reach their next refueling station. As he said – “Ugh! These worries frayed the nerves and gave us moments of acute and quite unnecessary misery.”

They eventually found the track and checked “The dashboard clock said 4.50 and the log told us that we were due here at 2.50 so we were 2 hours late: ½ hour late leaving Fort Archambault, say an hour for our discussion with the foreman and the 29 miles detour: this meant that we had only actually lost ½ hour and this was due to our slow speed through the night.”

They had arranged with the Shell Company that they would be re-fueling at 2.50 in the morning and they were wondering if the instruction had arrived from England. They stopped on the river bank with the Wolseley’s headlights throwing a powerful beam across the river and woke the sleeping crew of the ferry.

“They had been sleeping in their canoes awaiting us. It was a triumph for our organization and for that of the Shell Company. We drove on to the ferry and set off for the farther bank, blowing several lusty blasts on our twin horns to warn the Shell agents that we were coming.”

Once they drove off the ferry, they found the Shell pump and were greeted by a young Frenchman who had been waiting since 2am for their arrival.

“We told him that we were sorry to be late and thanked him for the arrangements he had made for the ferry. We refilled our tank while the Frenchman kindly produced for us coffee and biscuits. Then I spied a jug of water and at our request he bought out a large basin. We stripped off our shirts and had a much needed wash, the first we had had since leaving Marona 1000 miles back.”

Keeping in touch

Hi to the Cape Record blog readers.

I can see that there are many people from all over the world having a look at the blog and I’d love some feedback about how you are enjoying Bertie’s diary. I’m busy with Chapter 14 Fort Archambault – Bambari 335 miles 30/31 December 1938.

You can email me at cwilkin@iafrica.com

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