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).


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.

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Chapter 13 Masona – Fort Archambault 384 miles 30 December 1938

Chapter 13

“I slept like a rock for an hour after we started, as Humfrey had another hour’s driving to do, and afterwards he slept while I drove steadily on in the darkness over rough track. The character of the country was now changing from the Cameroons with its plentiful rainfall induced by the lofty peaks of the Cameroon mountains and its ample vegetation. We were now to enter that bleak desolate region known as the French Equatorial Africa, a huge bare country stretching for 800 miles from east to west. And the character of the road, or track, alters also. In the Cameroons the surface is mostly comprised of earth, soft and yielding, but in French Equatorial Africa it is hard, rocky and appallingly rough. The tracks in French Equatorial Africa are as bad as, or worse than, those of any other parts of the journey from Algiers to Cape Town and one is liable, unless one is cautious, to break something at almost any minute by hitting rock or gully in some inattentive moment, so the watchword was caution.

It was 5.25 in the morning, and still dark, when I pulled up on the bank of the great Logone River, a mighty stream that rises far away in the mountains, 800 miles to the south, and eventually discharges into Lake Chad, 150 miles to the north, that swamp like lake that has no outlet to the sea. The Logone River is a sluggish stream, wandering through almost flat country and at Bongor its width would be about a quarter of a mile.

Humfrey awoke as I stopped the car and we stared across the river at the village lying on the far side. Not a light was to be seen and it was obvious that we were too early. It was 5.25. Humfrey suggested trying the horn and the headlamps, so for some minutes I blew piercing blasts on our twin horns and switched on and off our brilliant lights. There was no result and the village lay black across the river.  At last away down to our right, we saw this sparkle of flames which soon revealed itself to be a blazing fire. Once again I tried the horn and lights, with no result. We had hoped that someone, hearing the noise and seeing the lights, might call the crew of the ferry but the village lay wrapped in darkness, except for a few dim figures that we could see against the flames of the fire.

At last we became philosophic. It was clear that nothing was going to bring the ferry across for us until the crew considered that their working hours had commenced so we decided to employ the time by having breakfast. We made a hearty meal in the growing light of day, occasionally breaking off to send a few more rousing blasts on our horn across the silent river. Breakfast finished and packed away, we sat staring at the village. It was now full daylight and just as we were beginning a new assault with our horns we saw signs of life down by the stream, but in a place quite different from where we had expected the ferry to put out. We watched eagerly and at last it was clear that this was the ferry boat’s crew launching their craft. Soon we saw the crazy affair creeping slowly across sluggish water towards us and as it drew nearer we recognised it. We recognised the “Capitaine” a native who wore the same ragged blue trousers, the same tattered brown overcoat, and the same solar toupee as when we had passed here two years before! We recognised too, the colossal four-cylinder outboard motor which projected far out over the stern.

This ferry, except for the outboard motor, is typical of all the ferries in Central Africa, so one description will do for the lot. It consisted of four or five dug out canoes, wooden logs almost 60 feet long, pointed at the bows and square at the stern, the inside hollowed out by fire. The canoes are fastened side by side to a wooden platform resting upon them across their width: this platform being about 20 feet long and eight feet wide. And that is all. The crew stands in the dugout canoes and propel their crazy craft by means of paddles, one of them usually giving the time by means of a chanted song. The crews vary considerably in temperament: some are light and merry, chanting in unison and laughing like happy children, others are somber and rather miserable-looking. The Bangor crew were a gloomy lot and the “Capitaine” a born pessimist.

As they slowly drew nearer, for the river, though seeming to be sluggish has a considerable current and the journey takes a long time; we saw that the outboard motor was not motoring. “Ah” we said laughing, “he’s up to his old ticks again,” for when we crossed here before, the “Capitaine”, in response to him to start it has made signs that he had no oil and it was not until we had supplied him with some of our spare oil that he would start his motor going.

At last the ferry arrived at the bank and the crew, began to hoist up the precarious plank access on which one has to drive onto these ferries. When all was ready, Humfrey drove the car on and we found at once that with our high ground clearance, we had no anxiety about anything. The difficulty is that the slopes down to these ferries are so steep that when the front wheels mount the planks, the tail of the car is apt to strike the ground with a tremendous bang. Almost every time we drove the Rolls Royce on to or off one of these ferries, the tail of the car, beneath which was the exhaust fishtail, used to strike the ground, until eventually the fishtail was so flattened that there appeared to be no egress for the exhaust at all. Our Wolseley’s steeply cambered springs completely obviated this trouble and by degrees we became utterly careless how we drove on and off the ferries. As I anxiously watched Humfrey driving on to this first one it was amusing to see the huge tyres flatten when they came to the cross baulks of timber on the staying, roll themselves lovingly round them and clamber over them. I saw for the first time how much, from the point of view of absorbing shocks, we owed to these tyres and their enormous capacity for swallowing obstacles.

The natives pushed off from the shore and began to paddle. When we pointed to the motor and signed to the “Capitaine” to start it, he shrugged his shoulders and patted the oil tank. We burst out laughing and apparently that made him recognize us, for though he did not manage to raise a smile to his saturnine countenance, he gravely shook us each by the hand. We handed him a tin of Shell oil and, winding a strap round the flywheel, he set the motor going. It was a colossal affair and must have been at least ten horse-power. He dipped the whirling propeller into the water and the ungainly craft shot off at redoubled speed while the paddlers ceased their efforts. Eventually we came alongside and disembarked up a similar narrow plank gangway. The charge at some of these ferries is 10 francs while others are free, in which case one is expected to give 10 francs to the “Capitaine”, so the result is exactly the same whether it is  a free one or not! In addition, we always used to give 5 or 10 francs as a present to the crew. Humfrey would hold up the note so that they could see it and say “Cadeau”. This is a word that they all understood and while the gloomy crews would raise a difficult smile the cheerful ones would burst into a merry song, calling out “mercy monsieur, mercy monsieur.” When we landed, a native soldier saluted and came forward. He climbed on the running board and signed to us to proceed to the Customs House. Humfrey and I had often discussed what would happen if we decided to rush the Customs here, to avoid delay. Suppose that, instead of stopping to pick up the soldier, we were to drive straight off! We were pretty sure that his rifle would not be loaded and, if it were, we were equally sure that he would never hit the car. It was least half a mile to the Customs post from the river and long before he arrived there, we should be past. Bongor is not in telegraphic communication with any other place, though the T.S.F. (Telegraphic Sans Fil – or wireless) was expected to be installed shortly. Well, how would they do anything about it?

It was five minutes past seven when we left the ferry and 7.28 when we got away from the Customs Post, after exchanging the usual remarks when the official noticed with blank astonishment the date of our entry at Algiers. “Messieurs, is it veritably the fact that you did not leave Algiers until the 25th December?” We assured him that it was so “And it is now the 30th December?” We reassured him on this point. “My faith, it is formidable, Formidable!” he would utter, looking at us if he doubted our very existence. This little scene became so familiar to us that we ceased to take any notice of it after a few repetitions, but it was a measure of the amazement created by all out record breaking passage through Africa. We had expected, according to our log, to leave Bongor at 6.30 so we were just an hour late, owing to the dilatoriness of the ferry men.

Bongor was a desolate, gloomy spot only redeemed from sheer ugliness by the neat river Logone that sparkled under the early morning sun like a neat silver ribbon. It is dry, arid and hot. The stunted trees and dried-up vegetation give no shade or air of coolness. I should not like to be an official stationed at Bongor. The natives were a wonderful crowd, most of them, women and men alike, seem to be about six feet tall: they are completely nude except that some of them wear a small piece of string under their waists and the women smoke short pipes. They do not seem a very nice people, as they are inclined to be solemn and uninterested.

It was already hot when we left Bongor by the wide straight sandy track that was beside the great river. The surface of the first part is quite good, though the dust clouds we left behind were terrible – our big soft tyres were demons for raising dust, as we had notice before – and for sheer decency’s sake we felt compelled to slow down for the numerous native villages through which we passed to avoid obliterating them completely. The population in this neighbourhood appears to be fairly plentiful and the country is cultivated for a mile or so on each side of the villages, but it is not an agreeable part of the world. After 94 miles from Bongor, 2 hours and 27 minutes, we had averaged about 38mph and here we had decided to make a deviation from the track we had followed in the Rolls Royce. Our maps showed another track cutting off to the left and joining the one we had previously travelled about 100 miles from the Customs officer at Bongor as to the practicality of this route and we had decided to take it as it saved 30 miles. We found, in fact, that it was no worse than the other and we made quite good speed. The heat was terrific and we were both getting rather peevish when Humfrey gave me an opportunity to vent some of my wrath. The track we were following was comparatively straight when suddenly there loomed up before us a right angled, right-handed bend. It was plain to me that this bend was deep in loose sand, and exceedingly sharp, and that it was quite impossible to get round it at the speed at which we were travelling, some 45 mph. To my unutterable astonishment Humfrey made no move to slow down and we skidded round it in a huge broadside which carried us within inches of the rough bank at the side and which bought my heart into my mouth. I let fly in some of my choicest language and Humfrey retorted in kind. Finally, after some terse exchanges, we simultaneously burst out laughing, and having recovered, Humfrey explained that he simply had no idea why he attempted to get round that corner at an utterly impossible speed. He assured me that he was not sleepy, that he had seen the turn miles away, that he could see it was deep in loose sandy gravel and that, in fact, he had made a bloody fool of himself. After such a hands on admission there was, of course, no more to be said and I think the incident really did us both good. I may add that through the whole of our journey this was the only time Humfrey did a foolish thing and it was the only semblance of a mistake he made in an amazing exhibition of absolutely perfect driving. If one considers that a possibility of making a mistake arose perhaps five times in a mile and that he drove some 5000 miles of our journey to Cape Town, only to make one mistake out of all these opportunities argues a performance which, in most drivers, would be nothing short of miraculous. But not in Humfrey, who is the complete and finished perfect driver.

We plodded on through the uninteresting barren country that is French Equatorial Africa under the blazing heat of the midday sun. The thermometer inside the car was standing at 102 degrees. We were delighted with the green celluloid strips across our windscreen for through the narrow slit between them we could look ahead without screwing up our eyes, but when one looked out of the side windows the whole countryside seemed to be white-hot and burnt colourless in the blinding glare, so that it seared the eyes to look at it. Though we were continually longing to drink we pursued the policy on which we had decided at the start and which we had been advised to observe, the policy of not drinking at all while we were on the move. For it is quite certain that the more one drinks the more one wants to drink and the act of drinking does nothing to assuage one’s thirst but only gives one a momentary gratification of the senses. Occasionally we would eat an orange, the passenger at the moment feeding the driver with quarters and we would suck acid drops, which really quench one’s thirst, at any rate, for the moment. We felt no inclination to eat and indeed only ate to order, so to speak, as a means of keeping up our strength. It is for this reason that I have made no mention of stops for lunch: on rare occasions we would perhaps consume, while still travelling, a tin of fruit, but the contents were usually so warm that any refreshment we might have obtained from them was lost. More and more as our journey proceeded; we cut out any thought of food during the day and only ate either in the early morning or after the sun had set. We were hardly hungry but always thirsty.

As we went on, we found that the steering was again getting stiff and the car again losing its automatic sense of direction. Eventually this became so bad and so tiring that we decided to stop and try the grease gun. It was about 2.30 in the afternoon, the very hottest part of the day, and as we stopped a great wave of heat rolled over us so that every breath scorched the lungs, for with the cessation of forward motion the draught we created by our movement stopped and we felt the full force of the blazing African sun. Even now I can feel that searing heat and see the picture of our car standing in the wide sandy track, the low scrub colourless and withered by the white hot rays of the sun, and Humfrey lying beneath the car while I handed him rags and the grease-gun. He found it impossible to get and grease through the lower nipple on the off side steering post, so I filled an oil gun with oil, already hot, from the spare can under the bonnet and he squirted this all over the steering connections, hoping that some of it would get to the dry place.

Then, quickly replacing oil and grease guns in their clips under the bonnet, we set off again, gasping for breath and steaming with perspiration. It was a relief to be on the move again after our ten minutes stop and particularly as, suddenly, the steering grew light again and the car would retain its direction without continually hauling it straight.

Just after three o’clock we reached another ferry and were fortunate enough to find canoes on our side of the stream, so that in little more than a quarter of an hour we were across and away. We seized the opportunity while crossing to climb down into one of the canoes that form the support for the platform and to splash the water over our faces and arms. It was not easy to make a decent job of washing one’s face because it was quite impossible to remove one’s solar toupee for an instant for fear of sunstroke but at any rate the cool water gave us momentary gratification and we felt cleaner. It wasn’t necessary to dry faces or hands for the sun did that for us almost instantaneously and the rapid evaporation brought a sense of coolness, – for the moment.

Just after leaving the ferry, we had our first encounter with a swarm of locusts. At first we did not realize what the few flying insects were as we had never seen them before, but suddenly we saw in front a black cloud and simultaneously exclaimed “Locusts.” Hurriedly we shut the side windows as we approached the swarm and, as we rushed through them at 40 miles, an hour it was like a hail of bullets striking the windscreen. We were almost afraid that it would break and so thick was the air with the flying bodies that it was difficult to see where one was going. Suddenly the air cleared and the banging against the windscreen ceased. We were through for the next few miles. We were thoroughly amused by the antics of some fifty or sixty locusts that were left on the bonnet. Clinging to the louvers on the top, they would be whirled round by the current of air created by our passage and suddenly one of them unable to retain his hold would go skidding along the smooth central ridge between the louvers. Sometimes he would manage to cling to another louver or body of one of his pals, and sometimes as he went spinning along he would sweep other locusts from their hold, so that a dozen of them would come whirling along the smooth metal to be swept of sideways when they struck the vertical windscreen. It was five miles or more before the last was swept away by the wind and we laughed heartily at the involuntary antics by our visitors. When we stopped at the store at Fort Archambault, 13 miles beyond the ferry, there were locusts stuck in every crack and cranny of the front of the car: the radiator was covered with them and as there was no way of getting at them through the grille in front, we had to leave them there.

We arrived at the Portuguese store which was the Shell agency at Fort Archambault at 3.39, out schedule time of arrival being 3.41; so we were exactly 2 minutes early after a journey of 4200 miles! We were quite proud of that, as we take a certain pride in keeping to schedule. We had come 4274 miles from England in less than 8 days, averaging about 550 miles per day, and we had averaged over 600 miles per day from Algiers. We were now 820 miles from Kano, and it had taken us 33 hours to cover this distance, but out of this time we had stopped ½ hour at Mora for the customs, 6 hours at Morona and had wasted 2 hours at Bongor through being too early for the ferry. So our sum time had been 24½ hours, and we had averaged 33½ mph

We refueled our tank from 50 gallon barrels. This is a laborious process as it entails decanting the spirit into 4 gallon tins and pouring these into the tank. While this was being done by a horde of natives, we went into the store and consumed large quantities of cold lemonade. The oil refrigerator is the greatest boon that modern invention has brought to dwellers in the tropics and makes the difference between life being bearable or utterly insupportable. Linked with the oil refrigerator, I should place the wireless: not so much for the purpose of entertainment, though this phase is of course of value, but as a means of communication. Think what it must have meant to a place like Fort Archambault. Previous to the coming of the wireless, it meant that an addressed letter to France would have to be carried partly by native runner, partly by canoe where a river was available for more than 6000 miles to reach the coast, which might or might not be in cable communication with Europe. Even, if it were, it would probably mean at least eight months or more before a reply from the home country could be received. The wireless now brings the home country within a very few days of the centre of tropical Africa. A few days? A few hours, perhaps you think! Wait and you shall hear.

Leaving me consuming cold drink at the store and talking to a Dutch chap and his sister, who were touring Africa in their Ford and were duly amazed to hear that we had left Algiers 5 days before; Humfrey went off to find the Port Office as he felt he must cable news of our progress to Thomas at Wolseley’s. In twenty minutes or so he returned, grinning broadly, and told me what had happened. He had asked the French post office clerk if he could cable to England: the Frenchman was aghast. “Monsieur,” he said, after consulting tariffs, “it will be very expensive. It will cost you 57 francs a word; six shillings certainly did secure a lot, but Humfrey said “I can’t help it. I must send a message even if it is only six words.” So he set to work to write out the message. But the frugal mind of the Frenchman apparently revolted at this waste of money and, after a struggle, his natural native economy triumphed. He came across to Humfrey and said “Monsieur, I cannot see you waste your money. This cable will take many days to reach England. It has to be relayed may times and there are often long delays. Now tomorrow morning an aeroplane bound for France is passing through here and you can send a letter by this for say few francs which will reach England at least four days before your cable.”

Humfrey decided at once not to send a cable and as he felt that to write  a letter would mean that he ought to write a long one, he decided to do neither and he returned to me at the store without having communicated with Thomas at all. As it happened, this was unfortunate in the last degree, but we had no suspicion then of the disasters that were to befall us in the near future.”

Chapter 12 – Eastwards across Africa Kano to Masona 467 miles 29 December 1938

Chapter 12

“I woke with a start to find a NHS servant bringing tea and bread and butter. It was daylight and, glaring at my watch, I was horrified to see that it was past five. An hour late already! I woke Humfrey; we dressed, drank our tea, packed our belonging in the good Wolseley standing patiently outside our chalet and left as the dashboard clock showed six o’clock. Then ensued a really ludicrous half hour. As Humfrey let in the clutch I said “Do you remember the way out?” “I think I do,” he answered. “I’m sure anyway we start in this direction.”

 I thought we did, too, though we were neither of us very clear about it as, two years before in the Rolls-Royce, we had then been piloted out of the town by the District officer in his car and we had not paid much attention to where we were going. Anyway, we started off confidently enough. We crossed a wide sort of common divided in two by the tarred road; then we came to a fork. Did we go right or left? We thought it was right, that very soon the tarred surface ended in a rough sandy track. We knew this was wrong because we remembered that the tarred road lasted for at least five miles out of the town. So we went back and tried the other fork. We didn’t like the direction of this at all because our compass showed that we were going almost due south and we knew we should be going a little north of east. So we turned around and came right back to the hotel and restarted.

 For 20 minutes we tried road after road, becoming hopelessly confused and quite helpless with laughter. It seemed so perfectly ludicrous that we, who had crossed the Sahara without losing ourselves, should be quite unable to find our way out of this blessed town! At last Humfrey said, “Look here this is absurd. The only sensible thing to do is to go to Shean’s bungalow, wake him and get him to direct us.” I agreed. We turned back again, passed the hotel and drove to Shean’s bungalow. A few blasts on our horn brought this good chap out in his pajamas and much amused he gave as explicit direction which solved our difficulties. It was 6.30 am when we finely got leave of Kano. 

Bertie talks about how since the previous trip the road had been extended and how they were able to drive with ease. They were concerned about the summer rains and having to cross several river beds, but they were assured of their Woseley’s ability to surmount the challenges.

They crossed a ‘great iron bridge’ over a flowing stream that on previous trips had only isolated pools in it. The tarred road ended and they entered onto ‘native roads’ which were rutted, sandy and this made driving unpleasant. The Wolseley was up to the test and was able to maintain considerably high speeds – they were averaging 36mph along these difficult roads.

Bertie comments ‘This place was noted in our log-book as “impassable. ford. take to bushes.” imagine that you would be travelling along in a narrow rutted lane and have arrived at the crest of a long slope: in front of you the road slopes steeply down and up to another crest 400 yards ahead: in the hollow you see water, green water, standing across the road. If you go down to the edge of it you will find that the ground is marshy, that the water stretches for about 150 yards and that it is obviously very deep (in point of fact, at the deepest points it is 10 feet deep). It is obviously quite impassable to take any motor car. What therefore does one do? There is no assistance to be obtained so the obstacle must be circumvented somehow.’

They had prior knowledge of this area and were able to safely navigate through the riverlet – in the diary Bertie exclaims “Crash. Bang! We’ve bumped into the sandy bottom of the riverlet and then with the rush and a roar, flat out in bottom gear, we attacked the bank opposite. The bonnet reared up almost vertically, but our impetus carried us on to the narrow landing halfway up and once again the bonnet was in the air as the car tackled the second slope. It was of deep soft sand and our wheels clawed for a grip as the car clambered upward and over the top. It had looked so utterly impossible but our good Wolseley had made it seem very easy and it was certainly exhilarating. That roaring climb up that precarious bank will live long in my memory.”

“Three miles further on lay what the log called “Big Oned”,- you will remember that “oned” meant river bed – and we were afraid that this might be awkward. It was a really wide river bed, probably a quarter of a mile from bank to bank and, though it had been dry and sandy when we crossed it in the Rolls Royce, it was now so much earlier after the rain that we were not at all sure that it might not be full of water. There is a hard path across the middle part but on each side there was a depression and we feared these might be rivers.”

He describes how they managed to ford across. “It made fording a shadow stream about ten yards, driving almost 100 yards over a wide stretch of gravel which appeared to be quite bottomless, just like the shingle beach, to re-gain the road. It didn’t appear impossible, but the snag was that halfway across there was sort of a gravel ridge about 2 feet high, just as one sometimes see on the beach after the tide has receded. This appeared the danger spot, but I signaled to Humfrey to reverse and bring the car along. He did so and stopped on the edge to survey the prospect. “All right, Bertie” he said, after studying the best line to take, “jump in, I think we can get across here, but that ridge may be a bother. I should have to rush it and trust to luck.” Slowly he drove forward. With a terrific crash the front wheels plunged over the edge and the car more or less stood on its head. Humfrey accelerated for under these conditions it is necessary to use sufficient speed to ensure that the tail of the car clears off the edge of the bank and does not strike it as the back the wheels leave the edge. With a bump which made all the contents of the car leap into the air and which sent up a stifling cloud of Sahara dust from the floorboards, the back wheels landed in the stream, then Humfrey stamped on the accelerator and rushed across the water and up the gravel towards the ridge: the front wheels took this abuse head-on and ploughed deeply through it, so we were over with another leap like a horse taking a fence and a crash made all spares and tools leap in their places. Unfortunately, as we had feared, the ridge had taken off so much of our speed that the rear wheels began to dig and we slowed ominously as with wheels spinning in the loose deep stuff, we crawled left-handed towards the hard track. Slower and slower we moved and then, just as the front wheel reached the safe solid ground, with a jerk, the car stopped. Then Humfrey simply took out the clutch to prevent spinning rear wheels digging themselves deeper and “Damn” said he. Immediately the natives came running out, and with a little gentle help from the engine, in 30 seconds, we were on hard ground. After distributing largesse, we went on, Humfrey blaming himself because he said that if he had taken the ridge a little faster we should have done it but I consoled him by saying that he had made a jolly stout effort and anyway it was all thoroughly amusing. Eventually he agreed with a grin that he had quite enjoyed it.

Twenty miles on we reached Jainaari where there is a causeway built of reeds across a wide deep oned. We were relieved to find this already in place as we had been afraid that it might not yet have been built up after the rains. There is that gate across the road here where one is halted to pay a toll of 10 shillings for the use of the causeway. The gentleman in charge, and a native, came out and bowed politely. He was followed by a small native boy carrying a book of tickets, a pen and a puny ink bottle. I had been waiting for this and immediately went into convulsions, while Humfrey told me to shut up as we didn’t want to offend the old gentleman. Having made his bow, the old fellow squatted down in the road, took the book of tickets and the pen from the small boy, and, uncorking the bottle of ink, placed it deliberately on the ground beside him. I didn’t know why this procedure strikes me as being so essentially comic, but even now I cannot visualise that venerable white-clad figure squatting on the dusty road with a tiny bottle of ink beside him without internal spasms of laughter. I swear that if I even go to Jainaari again I will take that old gentleman the present of a fountain pen. And yet – wouldn’t it be a shame to spoil that picture?

Having deliberately filled in the ticket with the registration letters of the car, he handed it to us with another performed bow and majestically signed to the small boy to open the gate across the road. We drove through and on across the reed causeway leaving the venerable figure bowing his farewells.”

Bertie and Humfrey were very satisfied with the progress and were averaging just over 32mph from Kano to Jamaari and that the worst part of the stage from Kano to Maiduguri was over. From there the road improved and they were averaging 41mph and had gained 45 minutes on their time schedule.

They had 465 miles from Kano to Marona and that was just outside the safe range for refueling. They decided to refuel in Poliskum but encountered a problem with the petrol station not accepting the Shell coupons and having to pay cash for the 8 gallons of petrol which included much negotiating with the petrol attendant. This stop had cost them 26 minutes.

They passed through many villages and at Maiduguri  “At a crossroads in the middle of an open space we met a British car, a Humber, obviously belonging to tourists for over and upon every square foot were hung and balanced and tied various articles of equipment and baggage. We stopped and surveyed with some disapproval the untidy appearance of the outfit, the lack of proper provision for the storage of the various odds and ends, the cramped interior (they were four people in it surrounded by paraphernalia all sorts), the springs already bent down by the enormous overload into a reversed camber and the standard and grossly over taxed tyres. Compared with our beautiful Wolseley, with its huge tyres, its carefully planned equipment, and its roomy interior it looked about as fit for an African journey as some venerable rural motorbus. We had a word with the driver, who told us that they had come from England and were going to Nairobi. We only stopped a few minutes and left them, pitying them and the car. Bertie remarks by way of a later note the following: I may say now that, in spite of the ten days which we lost, they had not arrived at Nairobi when we left.

At Maiduguri we were still 40 minutes late on our original schedule. This meant that we had gained 50 minutes as we left Kano 1½ hours late: this in spite of our long delay at Potiskum for refueling. We have covered the 333 miles in 9 hours and 5 minutes of which 38 minutes had been spent standing still: 26 minutes for petrol, 6 minutes at the Jamaari toll gate, and 6 minutes we had spent extracting from our food locker some tinned provisions to eat as we went along, so our running time had been 8 hours and 27 minutes. Our average speed excluding stops had therefore been 39½ mph. I must confess that to me this figure seemed incredible: if we remember the bad condition of the early part of the road and the difficulties and waste of time in finding the streams. Nevertheless here it is. We left Kano at 6:30 am and we arrived at Maiduguri at 3:35 pm including all stops; we had average a fraction under 37 mph. In the Rolls-Royce two years before we took 10 hours and 23 minute including one stop of ten minutes to change a wheel and the same stop for the Jamaari toll-gate. We thought we had done well then, so we were more than satisfied with our performance in the Wolseley. We went straight through Maiduguri and out on the road for Mora, in the French Cameroons. The first part of this is a terrifying little track, just wide enough for the car and running between fields of corn which grow some 10 feet high. I was proceeding down this a very sedate pace when Humfrey said “Are you tired, Bertie?” I replied with some asperity that I was not the least bit tired and asked why he should suppose I was. He said, “I can’t think why you don’t get the move on then. The roads all right.”

Bertie gives an amusing description of the goats they encountered – which they called racing goats – and how they had to be careful not to hit them as they darted unexpectedly across the road in front of the car.

They were concerned that they may have been on the wrong track and considered turning back but their compass assured them they were on the correct course. Once they saw the sign “Frontiere’ they knew they “had emerged onto a broad hard road. The reason we remembered it so clearly was that one of us had said, quite reasonably, “Ah, now that we have arrive in French territory again, the French are determined to show what good roads they have!”

That this road wasn’t good at all: in fact it was most unpleasant. True, it was straight and wide and from edge to edge it was covered to the depth of some 6 or 8 inches with loose soft moist earth, which afforded no grip even for our huge Dunlop tyres, so that the car proceeded crabwise, first sliding one-way and then the other. Darkness had fallen and in the blackness it was a matter of some difficulty for me to keep the skidding car from slithering bodily off the road altogether. As we progressed sideways on this most unpleasant surface, we argued again as to whether this could be right, but at last we agree that we had seen another track, apparently now disused, bearing off to the right and concluded that this was a new road just made and not yet settled down. Anyway it was only 17 miles to Mora and we were bound to get there some time. Mora is the French Cameroon Customs Post and as the important place in the district, it was clear that this road must go there. So we proceeded crabwise at a steady 30 mph through the darkness.”

At Mora “we recognised the Customs Post and marched up the steps, to be greeted by the sergeant in charge who informed us that the officer was away in the hills and endeavouring to collect taxes. However, he stamped our papers in the best official style and then, in the delightful manner of Frenchmen the world over, having concluded his departmental business, he became a human being and a friend. He would not hear of our departing without taking a drink with him and, calling a black servant, he ordered a table and chairs to be placed in the piazza. He produced red wine and water and mixed drinks for us. When I tasted mine I was horrified to find it warm, for the water was definitely hot. I thereupon suggested, rather tentatively for fear of offending him, that as we had in our thermos flasks some iced water brought from Kano, which would be at least cold, perhaps he would do us the honour of sharing with us. He graciously agreed: I produced the cold water and the warm drinks were discarded. After some minutes of friendly enquiry as to our journey and after he had expressed his amazement on hearing that we had actually driven the whole 2800 miles from Algiers in 4½ days, the fact that he would only credit when we showed him the date on our triptyque, we managed to tear ourselves away and, with Humfrey at the wheel, resumed our journey.

There is one more thing about Mora that makes it memorable. There stands a large, square and white  “Bome Michelin” or “Michelin Milestone”: one of those handsome blocks giving distances to all the principal towns, so familiar to travelers in France and presented to the country by the great French tyre making firm of Michelin et Cie. And here, right away in the heart of Africa, stands one of these stones. Seeing it, before one’s eyes this brings into view those greats tree lined avenues spanning the wide open spaces of the country that is truly the motorists’ paradise. And here on the narrow earth tracks of Central Africa that stone spoke to us of the same things: great distances, freedom and France.”

They drove steadily through the darkness and stopped at the Unilever Company Store at Morano where their representative, Mr O’Hara was waiting and “he would supply us with a meal and the use of beds in his bungalow behind the store for a few hours. This had all been arranged before we left England and we had told him to expect us at 7.30pm on December 29th and behold here we were at 8:35 pm on December the 29th. Fairly accurate time keeping after a journey of 3850 miles!”

They replenished their fuel, washed and had dinner and hoped to be in bed by 9 o’clock “However, our one hour late in arriving coupled with the very natural desire of O’Hara for a talk with British travelers, (he is the only Briton here among Frenchmen and natives), made this wish unfulfilled and it was not until nearly 12 that our unhideable yawns showed him that we were ready for bed. We slept like dogs to be awakened in two hours, feeling much worse than when we had lain down, though I think our short sleep really did us good and by 2.25 am we were off again, after heartily thanking our kind host, who refused, much to our distress, to accept any payment for the use of his bungalow and for keeping him up all night. We found this spirit of helpfulness universal on our journey: everyone white, black or brown, did everything they could to help us and to them all, we owe more than we can ever pay: indeed, we owe to every one of them the success that we achieved at last when we drove into Cape Town.”


Chapter 11 – The London to Kano Record Agadez – Kano 460 miles 27/28 December 1938

Chapter 11

“We crept silently down the narrow sandy lanes between the high white-wash walls surrounding the sleeping houses till we came to a T road where Humfrey obstinately turned to the left although I shouted “RIGHT”. I cannot account for his momentary aberration particularly as facing us was one of the world’s largest signboards with arrows pointing to the right against the names Aderbissinet and Tessaona among other places. However, amid caustic comments from me, he turned the car and we left Agadez behind.

 I was pleasantly sleepy after my good meal and champagne and immediately fell into a deep sleep on my comfortable Dunlopillo bed. From this I was awakened some time later to find the car stationary and Humfrey peering through the windscreen. I sat up and, seeing nothing in the light of the lamps but low bushes, I asked mildly and sleepy “What happened?””

Humfrey had been driving round for twenty minutes unable to find the track. He tried to wake Bertie but the champagne had dulled Bertie’s thinking and Bertie simply said “That’ll be all right. You can find your own way out,” and he then contentedly fell asleep again.

For safety, they took turns driving for an hour instead of the two hourly stints that they drove during the day. While driving Bertie reflected back to the trip they did in the Rolls Royce and drew comparisons between driving in 1935 and driving in the Wolseley in 1938.

They decided to put the extra 4 gallons that they had brought with them into the petrol at 3 o’clock in the morning!

“We decided now to put into the tank the 4 gallons of petrol that we were carrying as a reserve. I can’t think why we decided to do this because it would obviously have been much easier to do it in daylight rather in than the dark. However, we did so decide and a rotten job it was. These 4 gallon cans are huge square tins with a lever cap as used to be fitted to old type cans of oil. This entail extracting a screwdriver, leverage up the cap and punching a hole in the top of the can to let the air in as the petrol flowed out. We did it in a rather messy sort of way for we were not exactly feeling our best; after all, at 3 o’clock in the morning on one’s third consecutive night of driving to say the least of it – fairly strenuous motoring one is perhaps not at one’s highest. We couldn’t be bothered to get out our funnel that was buried somewhere in the rear locker amongst the spares and lifting that 40 pounds can and trying to pour petrol into the orifice of the tank which projected from the side of the body just below the rear window was a fairly awkward job. We got some of it in but a good deal of it went over ourselves, the side of the body and the ground. However, we chucked the empty can into the bushes and considered the job well done. Sixteen minutes it took us. It was a magnificent night, warm and still with the extraordinary stillness of the desert – a stillness so intense that it seemed almost tangible: – myriads of brilliant stars twinkle in the sky like black velvet. In a muzzy sort of way we felt very happy, for the first part about job was nearly done and our first objective, the Algiers – Kano record, nearly obtained. I set off again in very good spirits but the memory of that hour’s journey is almost completely gone. I remember consulting our mileage indicator and, after doing the difficult sums in my not very clear brain, coming to the conclusion that Humfrey was right – he usually is right on matters of the sort – in saying that we had passed Aderbinissinat. Our next objective according to the log was ‘Soc-Soc village on right’”

Bertie continued to battle sleepiness and “was indeed thankful when the dashboard clock told me my hour was up.” He woke Humfrey who was refreshed after his sleep and the next hour Bertie slept like a rock and was woken by “Humfrey shaking me by the shoulders, saying “come on, Monsieur Browning, your turn.”

“I felt very fresh and well as I arose. I asked him where we were and he replied that according to the mileage we should have passed Aderbissenat but he had not seen it. Aderbissinat is a fort built by the French but never used and allowed to fall into disrepair. There is also a well here which is used for desert camel caravans. We had some vague idea, as we discussed, that we remembered a sort of cut-off track, (shall we called it a bye-pass?) which left Aderbissinat to the left. Possibly this accounted for his not having seen it, but one is always nervous if one misses a landmark for fear that one may have strayed off on to another track. Personally and privately I thought he was a bit optimistic in saying that we should have passed Aderbissinat, because that would mean that we had covered more than 100 miles in 3 hours which seemed to show an unexpectedly good rate of progress.”

“This was not the place for any excursion away from the direct line of cairns: there are too many bushes about to make it safe to miss one cairn, for it would be a nasty job looking for one’s track here where the leafy bushes formed avenues full of unexplored possibilities. I was far too brain weary to attempt to be clever; it was safety first. And I was just living for the moment when my turn was up and I could sleep again. These are the times when it is well, indeed it is imperative, that one should be an ‘automatic’ driver; one’s brain is numb with weariness and it is one’s subconscious self that, trained by years of long-distance driving, continues to function, to avoid obstacles, to pick the course best for the car and occupants.”

Humfrey took over the driving and Bertie woke to the sun streaming in through the window. Humfrey was in fine form and Bertie was himself again and the night’s struggles were forgotten. “Breakfast” said Humfrey “what about it?”

“He was in very good form. He said that he had not felt at all sleepy and that he had carried on for nearly two hours as I seemed so dead asleep. This was a practice that he adhered to throughout the nights: if the driver felt able to go on and the other was sleeping, they went on but there was no obligation on him to do so. The arrangement worked admirably with a well-balanced crew like Humfrey and me. It might not work so well in all cases.” They breakfasted on a coffee brought from Agadez in our thermos flasks, on bacon and jam and Ryvita. Humfrey told Bertie about a group of natives who had pitched their tent in the middle of the road and when they saw the headlights of the Wolseley approaching they scurried around to remove the tents, babies and animals off the track.

“We enjoyed breakfast under and the warm sun and refreshed by our 23 minutes stop we set off again. The track was a most annoying one.” He goes on to explain how narrow and sandy the track was with continuously round sharp corners.

“However, there was nothing for its but to keep plodding along and we were not uncheerful. It was pleasantly warm in the early morning sunshine, it was definitely nice to see vegetation again, even if that vegetation was rather brown and arid looking; we were in no danger of sticking in the sand, the track was passable even though the gullies made it troublesome and we were cheered also by the sight of native villages whose inhabitants, stark naked and shining like ebony in the bright sunlight, ran to wave delighted greeting to us as we passed. The car was running beautifully and given no single cause for anxiety. In addition, we were feeling exceedingly fit and not at all tired as the Algiers – Kano record was already in our pockets: so that we counted ourselves among the fortunate ones of the earth. We both love long-distance driving and had we not 7000 miles of Africa still before us? What more could ardent motorists’ desire? The sunshine, a good car, and the whole length of Africa in front? We were very well content with life.”

cross africa 1939

“So we progressed, chatting cheerfully, Humfrey munching away on Ryvita and oranges, till it was time to change drivers at the end of two hours, for with day light we had to reverted to the normal 2 hour shifts, and I was glad to surrender to him the doubtful pleasure of those wearisome gear changes. In spite of them we made good progress, averaging steadily about 30 mph and at 9.15am we ended at the considerable village – or small town – of Tessaona. This place is notable for two things, there is here the French commissioner, answering to our British district officer, so that we could reckon that the far-flung hand of civilisation was now holding it in keeping and gone were the vast open spaces of the Sahara with its absence of life of any sort, animal or vegetable. From now on we were to travel the whole of the rest of the way to the Cape through regions inhabited by men and, in part at least, cultivated by them, so that we should never be completely out of touch with human beings, black, brown or white.”

 “The second thing that made Tessaoua a landmark for us was that here we came to a road. 1850 miles back at Laghouat, faraway in Algeria we had left made roads and embarked upon tracks or the virgin soil of the desert itself and here again the road met us. In that 1850 miles we had met a single vehicle, and beyond the town of Ghardaia, few inhabitants of the desert posts: we had neither met with nor seen one single human being with the exception of the English party who had greeted us at In Abbangarit. It is almost staggering to think of that great track of barren earth, blank, vacant, empty. Imagine, for instance, a journey from London to Constantinople in which one saw human beings at only 7 places throughout the whole distance! And if all the majority of the distance, there were no rivers, no trees, no grass, no animals, nothing. That is the horror crossing.”

Bertie gives more insight into the Rolls Royce trip and how he nearly collided with a truck. He made this comment:-

“No such contretemps on this occasion and we exchanged reminiscences of that unexpected meeting as we jolted along the uncomfortable road.”

The steering began to play up and was getting stiff again “it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the car in the centre of that ridge, which alone made practicable travelling. The steering happens to have lost all its natural sense of direction, the car seemed definitely inclined to wander and when we were beginning to fear that, by hitting rocks or gullies, we had bent and damaged something to such an extent that it had affected the caster action. With each mile, also, the steering became stiffer, till it was a matter for the exertion of considerable physical strength to hold the car straight. We tried to pretend to each other that it was mainly imagination caused by a steeply cambered road, but when we arrived at Zinden Corner, when the fall to Kano turns abruptly right for British Nigeria and Kano, leaving the direct road for Zinden and French Nigeria, and we turned off onto a broad flat sandy road to find that the difficulty of keeping straight was even more accentuated, we could kid ourselves no longer. Something was definitely wrong and we began to picture a long delay at Kano while the front axle and steering connections were dismantled and straightened. This was a picture that filled us with dismay and it seemed a calamity if the success of our journey, so brilliantly began, was to be jeopardised by trouble at this early stage. We were, of course, rather stupid to take this doleful attitude and to visualise cabling Thomas “Delayed while axle is straightened”, coupled with gloomy visions of further stops at intervals along our route for some unexpected weakness to be remedied. Our brains were probably not as keen as they were when we started from Algiers 3 days before or we should not have made ourselves miserable by the hidden foreboding.”

“At last the steering became so bad as to be almost dangerous: I found the utmost difficulty in keeping the car to anything like the straight course and the steering was so stiff that all my strength to turn the steering wheel. Suddenly Humfrey, who had been silent for moment or two, said, “Look here, Bertie. If you’ll stop a minute, I’ve a good mine to try something. You know we’ve got that can of spare oil clamped down by the engine: I’ll try squirting some of it over the kingpin and steering connections.””

“I didn’t think it would do any good for I was so deeply sunk in my melancholy visions that I could have seen no good in anything, but I was glad to stop, even if it was only to rest my aching arms. Humfrey jumped out, opened the bonnet, filled a large squitter that we carried in clips on the forward side of the dash with the hot oil and squirted it again and again all over everything he could reach.”

“”Any better?” Queried Humfrey when we had started on again.

“”No”, I answered gloomily, “it’s just the same,” the deepening conviction of some serious damage becoming more firmly embedded in my brain.”

“So I struggled on another five miles or so when suddenly all my gloom departed and the sun shone again. For the steering was now perfect! No doubt some of Humfrey’s hot oil had reached the vital dry spot and the whole trouble was completely cured. The steering immediately recovered its normal feather-lightness, all the casters actions suddenly returned and the car would hold itself to its course, hands off the wheel, almost indefinitely! I was so delighted at the confounding of all my grim foreboding that I rushed on along this not-too-good road at such as beat that Humfrey was constrained to expostulate “Steady, Bertie” said he, and I became sane again and relapse to our normal 45 miles per hour.”

They were eagerly looking out for the dirty little piece of board which said “Nigerie Anglaise” but missed it and they plodded steadily along this dull and featureless bit of road towards Kano. Humfrey was sleeping and with the rolling of the car he ended up on resting on Bertie, and Bertie having to push him back into his corner of the car. They reached their milestone which Bertie describes as “which spoke of silent British respectability after the raffishness of French rule. One would say “Kano 25 miles”, and then I would perhaps miss one or two to see with delight “Kano 22 miles.”

“At last, when the latest milestone said “Kano 12 miles,” I woke Humfrey. He had been asleep for a couple of hours, I was thirsty and very hot, and anyway he always insisted that he, as skipper, drive into any of the major halting points.”

“He was now quite re-invigorated by his rest and I sat by his side, contentedly sucking oranges and occasionally feeding him with a quarter, while the silver dome of the mosque of Kano grew larger above, through sparse trees, shining like plate glass beneath the boiling African sun. The inside of the car was like a furnace, 102 degrees the thermometer read, as it didn’t matter at all that we were very hot and very dirty because we were now on the tarred road leading into Kano and we had crossed the Sahara faster than any vehicle had ever crossed it before. The first part of our objective had been obtained. As we drove up to the premises of the United African Company, our good engine was purring as silently as when we left England, and we marveled at the excellence of the British mass produced car that had carried us across the rough rocky paths and the deep sandy waste of the Sahara, and after that grueling test, was now as perfect as the day it left the works.”

 “It was 2.40 pm Greenwich mean time (3.40 by local time) on the 28 of December when we stopped the Wolseley outside the United African Company’s premises in Kano and three minutes later we were shaking hands with Shean, the genial and efficient manager of the company’s motor section.”

 “The net result of our 2266 mile run from Algiers was that we had arrived at Kano exactly one hour and 25 minutes behind schedule. Our exact time with the 2266 mile was three days, four hours and 40 minutes beating the existing record (held by Symons in the Rolls-Royce) by two hours and 50 minutes under infinitely worse condition. Our average, including all stops was 29.6 mph. We had covered rather more than 700 miles per day.”

They were tired and exhausted. Shean, an old friend from their previous trips, was there to meet them and informed them that the wheels and tyres had only arrived at 11.30 that morning. It was decided to overnight at Kano and depart the next morning. The car was re-fueled and left over the pit in the workshop where the mechanics drained the sump and refilled with fresh Shell oil. They joined Shean in his office to inform him of what attention was needed on the Wolseley.

“Meanwhile we sat in Shean’s office gradually getting hotter and hotter, while the tea which he produced made us simply steam with perspiration. We were filthy dirty with unshaven chins and dressed in dirty flannel trousers and dirtier flannel shirts while Shean was immaculate in clean white shirt, light shorts, clean stockings and brightly polished shoes. We felt an intense dislike for our hot and repulsive bodies.”

Finally Shean took them to their accommodation at the railway hotel in Kano. Bertie describes the accommodation and how he “left Humfrey wallowing in a cold bath in our chalet while I went over to the hotel and consumed an enormous iced orangeade, one of the memorable drinks of my life: then I carried two more of these back to our room, I turned and handed one to Humfrey as he sat in the bath.”

 “After we had bathed and change into clean shirts and trousers we felt a lot better. Humfrey sent a cable to Thomas, giving the news of our breaking of the Trans-Sahara record and telling him that we were leaving first thing next morning: he also wrote and dispatched a message to the “Sunday Times” giving the full story of our journey. Then we walked across to the United Africa Company where we arrived and found the Wolseley quite ready. We drove back to the hotel, had a drink and went over to Shean’s bungalow. I’m afraid that we were not very good company. The warmth of the evening and the potency of the cocktails complete with the fact that, except for the two hours so on the ship crossing the Mediterranean and our snatched sleep in the car en route, we had not slept for 4 nights made us inclined to go to sleep without any warning. Personally I was sleepy while we were talking to Mr and Mrs Shean before dinner but recovered afterwards, while Humfrey was quite awakened then, but after dinner relapsed into one of those hopeless fits of slumber that are apt to overtake him. At last we got away and that we were to be called at four o’clock, we fell into bed exactly at midnight.”

Bertie finishes the chapter describing Kano and its inhabitants and the gentle lifestyle of the British who were living there.

Chapter 10 – In Guezzam – Agadez 296 miles December 27 1938

Chapter 10

I have decided to post Chapter 10 in its entirety – I didn’t know what to leave out and I found this to be a delightful Chapter.

“The position was that we were due to leave In Guezzan at 12.30 and we actually left at 2.16, so we were 1 hour and 46 minutes behind schedule.  We had spent 28 minutes at In Guezzam. I allowed half an hour so I need not have been so needlessly enraged at the delay!  We were now starting on the 290 miles stage to Agadez, and this marks the end of the desert crossing proper; we felt that we were quite near our primary objective, Kano. Actually it was 750 miles away and we reckoned such distances seemed quite close and anyway we knew that the worst part of the crossing was over.

The track from In Guezzan to In Abbangarit, of which the latter consists quite simply of a well and nothing else, is the part of the Hoggar crossing which is most subject to sandstorms and we were quite prepared, in view of the appalling conditions we had met with thus far, to be involved in one of these pests of the desert at any moment. So liable is this part of the track to be swept by sandstorms, that the cairns marking the track here are replaced by iron stakes with the flags, exactly like those to be seen on the greens on a golf course. The track is perfectly flat, nothing but a bare expanse of sand with, here and there, dunes of sand rising from its surface; though the lines of flagged stakes stretching away into the distant are easy to follow. It is not an easy track to make good speed on, because patches of really deep sand abound and these are cut into deep ruts by passing vehicles. One would be travelling at a comfortable 50 mph on smooth sand, when suddenly the appearance of the surface changes to a kind of greyish colour, the wheels would sink and one’s speed would fall off immediately: then one would make a lightening change to second and stamp on the accelerator, up to third again and the engine speed rising, and then perhaps quickly down to second again for another deep patch. And so on. Always ready to swerve away to right or left sometimes half a mile or more from the line of flags to avoid stretches of deeply rutted track. Occasionally one found that these detours lead one in all sorts of difficulty; I remember that once Humfrey, going off on a line of his own, became embroiled with a lot of sand dunes which are of course if not exactly unclimbable, at any rate not conducive to ease of mind: having arrived in a neighbourhood where we appear to be completely surrounded by these unattractive objects he had, most abjectly, to make a complete circle and return on his tracks to where he would strike off in a new direction. This to the accompaniment of irate remarks from me about people who know better than the Trans-Sahara white marker! This sort of criticism he always took with a cheerful grin, as I may say, did I when the occasion arose for him to make the same sort of commentary on the course I had chosen!

However, we progressed pretty well and were quite satisfied with the progress when In Abbanjait drew near. This, as I said, consisted of a well and nothing else but suddenly a surprising spectacle was presented to our astonished eyes. At first we simply could not make out what these objects were that loomed up above the horizon in the light of the setting sun, but as we approached, we became convinced that we were suffering from hallucinations. No, we weren’t though by Jove, these objects were tents, large lordly European tents not the ramshackle tents of the Negro or the black camel Lais tents of the Tuareg, but real proper white canvas tents. Two of them, and near them cars and lorries. Intrigued by the spectacle we slowed down and were hailed as we stopped to look at them. Two white men approached the car, quite unmistakably Englishmen, and one of them said “Hello, are you Symons, by any chance?” Humfrey admitted that he was and a stranger went on, “I’m Colonel ___ (I am afraid I’ve forgotten his name) and we were told at Kano that you were expected.” He went on to ask how long we had been, what sort of journey we had and how pleased he was to have met us. Then he called to the black servants and asked what we would have to drink but, the devil of urgency seizing us, we explained that we were sorry but we were most anxious to get on. He accepted our apologies and called out “Cheerio and good luck” as we sped off again across the desert. In spite of our missed drink the little encounter had cheered as up. They were so thoroughly, sweetly British with clean shaven chins and immaculate clothes, their tents, their deck-chairs, their servants, their keen interested welcome, even their prompt offer of “Have a drink?”, that it makes one feel as though, after crossing this vast expand of French territory, one was indeed approaching Britain across the seas: and it heartened us for the long journey still ahead of us. We had done, and were still doing well; we had made a substantial gain of time since we left In Guezzam; we were well ahead of record time, and perhaps our luck was going to change and Africa give us a warmer welcome than it had vouchsafed up to date. It was. After darkness fell, suddenly with a bang as it does in the tropics, we rushed through the cool evening air, very grateful after the blazing heat of the day, with our Lucas lamps throwing a great path of brilliant light far ahead; the track was hard and good, smooth baked earth and we were cheered, too, by the appearance of vegetation, coarse grass, bushes, even trees. These were welcome sights after the barren emptiness of the great Sahara, now dropping behind with every revolution of our good engine. We were at the place which our log called “Teggeda Tecum” which Humfrey swears is a town but of which I have never seen any sign except a T turning off the straight track with a dirty piece of board on which is scrawled the word ‘Agadez’ with an arrow pointing down the left-hand track. We turned down this and sped on, our speed rarely dropping much below 50 mph though we did not consider it advisable to drive faster in case we came suddenly on some gully across the track. It was on this part of the track that, on the occasion of our record run to Kano two years before in the Rolls-Royce, we lost two hours, and pretty grim two hours they were. But that is another story. On this occasion there was no getting lost and in what seemed an amazingly short time, the imposing tower of the mosque of Agadez rose up against the black starlight sky and we were running quietly into this considerable town. There is a French garrison here, a hotel, and a large native population. The inhabitants are Seuussi who were stirred up by the German agents during the war to revolt against the French and they gave a lot of trouble before they were defeated. The palace of the Senussi chieftain is now the hotel, to whose hospitable portals we now directed our course.  As we drove up to the entrance, the manager, a Frenchman of course, ran out to meet us, “Monsieur Symons?” he queried “Ah Mr Symons,” he went on when informed “I was expecting you some hours ago, but I have heard nothing from In Guezzam (as usual, we had beaten the depannage telegram) nevertheless, everything is prepared if you will come this way.” He pointed us round to the side of the hotel when we saw six or seven Arab boys, cans of petrol, cans of oil, cans of water, funnels of various shapes and sizes “But how did you know exactly when we were coming?” we asked, surprised and delighted at his display of efficient organisation.

“Ah, Messieurs,” he exclaimed. “I was told to expect you at 6.50 and since then I have had a boy stationed on the top of the hotel to watch your lights. He had seen them coming for the last hour, so all is prepared.” French efficiency at its best!

Like lightning the petrol tank was full and, as we were rather dubious of being able to cover the 465 miles to Kano on our tank capacity of 31 gallons we took on board as precautionary measure a spare 4 gallon can. Although we had intended to go straight on and eat something as we travelled we were so impressed with the efficient arrangements made by the hotel manager that is we decided to have a meal here, feeling quite sure that it would be served promptly. We therefore asked him if we could have something to eat quickly. “Assurement Messieurs,” he replied, as if being asked to supply dinner to unexpected travellers at 10.30 at night was a perfectly normal procedure, “it’ll be ready in one little minute.” Before we went in, we put down the bed in the car as I, whose turn it was to be off duty, intended to sleep when we restarted. And went inside, into the lofty vaulted room with the carved Moorish columns meeting in an arch high above our heads, clean and white in the brilliance of the electric bulbs, for Agadez has its own town electricity supply. Hot water and cleaned towels were produced and, pulling off shirts, we indulged in the first wash we had had since we left Arak 1300 miles back in the heart of the desert. It felt good to be clean again, even if we did not waste time by shaving our three days growth of beard (fortunately both of us are fair, so we do not look quite so disreputable when unshaven as dark men do). We sat down at the cleaned, washed wooden table and prepared to enjoy our meal, and a good meal it was, though I do not remember of what it was comprised. We had bought in with us from the car a couple of half bottles of champagne, part of the store we had bought from England, as we felt that a little jollification would do us no harm and we deserved it after having crossed the desert faster than it had ever been crossed before.

As we sat, enjoying our meal and the champagne (this was decidedly warm but very comforting!) we studied the log, as we were entitled to consider that the main difficulty of the journey from Algiers to Kano was now over. We knew all about the track on from Agadez and though the first 100 miles or so would not be easy going, it was child’s play compared to what we had been through already. We were due at Agadez at 9.20 and we had actually arrived at 10.21, so were only one hour behind schedule. Our schedule time from In Guezzam to Agadez was 8 hours 50 minutes: so we had gained 45 minutes: we had actually average 36 1/2  mph for the 296 miles: after darkness fell we had averaged a fraction under 40 mph from In Abbanjait.

Once again I should like to point out that the ordinary traveler, driving an ordinary car, and the ordinary tourist could not hope to equal these speeds: and would do very well if he averaged 25 mph over this stretch. Our huge tyres and the superlative springing of the Wolseley, the careful weight distribution to which we had given an immense amount of thought, coupled with the fact that we are both expert long-distance drivers and experienced desert travellers, alone made such speeds possible. A commentary on the kind of travelling that a record breaker has to accomplish. I may say here that we left Arak at 9:05 p.m. and we arrived at Agadez at 11:40 p.m. the next night. We had covered 794 miles in these 26 ½ hours and our only stops had been 12 minutes at Tamaurasset and 28 minutes at In Guezzam, 40 minutes in all. Note that in 794 miles and, with the exception of the last 170 miles, this was over the most difficult part of the crossing!

That fact, which we had elucidated from the log book, meant that, provided we did not make abject asses of ourselves during the next 100 miles or so, either by losing our way or sticking in the sand; we had the Algiers – Kano record, our objective number one, in our pockets. Humfrey wrote out another cable for Thomas which the manager promised to dispatch in the morning, we paid our bill and were just preparing to leave when an unexpected and wholly delightful interlude occurred.  Seated at a large table was a party of ten or twelve French officers, obviously from the garrison of Agadez: these officers had changed from their service uniforms and were now taking their ease in the short jacket and the loose baggy trousers of the Arab. We had of course greeted and been greeted by them when we came in; they had, with the true courtesy of the race, left us in peace to consume our dinner. Now, as we prepared to leave, the man who had been sitting at the head of the table rose and came across to us. He was a magnificent figure of a man, well over six feet, straight as a ramrod and lithe as a deer: young and exceedingly handsome, with dark wavy hair and bold dark eyes, he was very picture of a dashing French officer with all the fire and elan of his race, a splendid type, the ideal lean saber.  In his right eye, he wore (of all things) a monocle and this completed the picture: he was an Onida guardsman come to life. He made a graceful bow to us, “Messieurs,” he said, “we have been told what you have done. Your performance in driving your car from Algiers to Agadez in 2½ days is altogether ‘formidable’. My companions and I will consider ourselves honored if you will take wine with us in celebration of your magnificent achievement.” What could we say? We were anxious to be on the road again but in the face of this handsome gesture, what was there for us to do? Humfrey, who speaks French like a native, replied that we should be only too delighted to comply with the invitation, and that we felt highly honored that our performance had met with their approbation. We moved over to their table, where room was made for us and bottles of champagne made a miraculous appearance. They were experienced desert travellers and discussed eagerly with us technical details of our journey; while our bold, laughing cavalier seized each bottle of champagne by the neck as it was emptied, and with a dexterous twist of the wrist sent it flying across the paved floor where it halted, unbroken to rest in a corner. This was evidently his star performance and never failed to arouse a huge applause from his boisterous companions. They were a grand, cheery crowd, perfectly sober, but brimming with high spirits, and the terrific, almost overpowering, personality of the handsome leader – whom they called “mon Capitaine” – made the whole scene almost too good to be true.

At last Humfrey remembered that we really must be going, and instantly they all rose to their feet, drank one last toast to our continued good fortune and trooped out to see us off. They were most interested in our Wolseley and they pronounced our huge tyres and our bed in the car, ‘tries practique’. We were proud of our good Wolseley when Humfrey pressed the starter and the engines sprang to life, murmuring its quiet song and murmuring as sweetly and silently as when we had left England 3000 miles back. A roar of cheers broke from the French officers and Humfrey let in the clutch and we slid off into the darkness on the last 460 mile lap of our journey to Kano.”

Chapter 9 – Tammuasset – In Guezzam 244 miles 27 December 1938

Chapter 9 pic

“Having used up our secret time reserve, we could now take stock of how we stood with regards to the schedule”.

 “According to the original timing we ought to have left Tamanrasset at 2.30 am, but as we left Algiers an ½ hour late, our corrected schedule time for leaving Tamanrasset was 5am. Actually it was 6.32, so we were an hour and a half behind time. I must explain that our new schedule, based on our actual time of leaving Algiers, would, if we managed to keep to it, have taken the Algiers – Kano record by 4 1/4 hours: from this it was clear that at the moment, having only lost 1 ½ hours we were still 2 and three-quarter hours inside the record. So we could go on with quiet winds.”

They descended from the Hoggar Mountains feeling in fine form. They had now been driving for nearly two days and nights on their journey and had covered 1250 miles. They were feeling fresher than when they started, and were both looking forward to the real crux of the desert crossing, which they should reach 120 miles from Tamanrasset. Bertie commented “If I have not mentioned our good Wolseley, it is simply because there was nothing to say about it. It was amazingly comfortable over the appalling tracks we had covered, the engine was running as smoothly and quietly as when we left England, and both the engine and transmission had answered every demand we had made upon them. As it was so monotonously reliable and trustworthy, we became more attached to it with every mile we traveled. What higher praise can one give to a good car than that?

They stopped for breakfast after 67 miles at a convenient stopping place, and the log entry was “aerodrome / water notice”. They were now down to 2400 feet and well clear of the Hoggar Mountains. “Humfrey produced some excellent tea with the aid of a Primus stove and we had sardines on Ryvita, finishing it with jam on Ryvita.  Altogether the most satisfactory meal”. Bertie was ever conscious of time and mentioned that breakfast took 25 minutes to prepare and eat: he thought it seemed a waste of time but they felt that they needed the break.

Bertie was driving and noted that the track had deteriorated terribly since they came along two years before in the Rolls. He goes into great detail about the terrain and how the driver had to make instantaneous decisions while maneuvering over deep ruts of a foot to 18 inches deep or more while traveling at fairly high speed, of about 45 mph. He found this driving most exhilarating.

About 20 miles beyond ‘Dunes on left’ they stopped, as they had decided that Humfrey, being a much more experienced desert driver than Bertie, should drive all the way over the most difficult part of the desert crossing. Bertie felt that this was of course the sensible course to adopt and merely good team work.

“Rock outcrops were now beginning to appear, and it is these rock outcrops that made the next 120 miles tricky. It is not advisable to drive over these lower rocks, for the sake of both tyres and the chassis and, in trying to avoid them, one may find oneself penned in by a series of really sharp ridged rocks. There’s no room to turn, one is travelling in deep sand and if one turns sharply on soft sand, the extra resistance causes the rear wheels to dig in instantly and one comes to rest stuck,” ensable” the French call it (literally ensanded) a much more expressive term than stuck – and with the prospect of perhaps some hours of digging to get out again.” 

They couldn’t afford to lose even two hours if they were to beat their own existing record, so it was with a certain amount of pleasurable anxiety that they set off after having stopped for 8 minutes to lower the tyre pressures from 26 pounds to 20 with the idea of getting more bearing surface on the soft going. The Dunlop Company had told them that it would be permissible to make use of pressures as low as 12 pounds provided the surface was sand, but in view of the interspersed roughly outcrops they did not consider it wise to go below 20 pounds.

Bertie’s job on this stretch was to assist Humfrey by telling him roughly the direction taken by the bus track that they had decided to follow and to keep an eye on the line of cairns to ensure that they did not wonder too far away from them. At about half past ten it was very hot and the temperature inside the car was 100 degrees. Bertie commented that, “it was the true desert and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves.” They were reminiscing about their previous Sahara trips and passed an abandoned Renault saloon that they had examined 2 years earlier when on another trip.

Bertie recalls the story of General Laperrine’s Citroen: “A little further on we both exclaimed with one voice, “General Laperrine’s Citroen”. This is a burnt out wreck of an open touring car which caught fire owing to a short circuit and was completely destroyed. General Laperrine, one of the French conquerors of the Sahara, was a man who died an epic death in the desert, when, on his very first flight across the Sahara, the aeroplane crashed. He and his two pilots were stranded – they, not knowing how long, if ever, it would be before they were found and rescued. They had with them little water, very very little, and it is certain death to be caught the Sahara without water. This sun will burn the life out of one in a very short time and no human being can survive without water. General Laperrine refused point-blank to drink any of the water, saying to the pilots “no, you are young men with your lives before you. I am an old man whose life’s work is nearly finished; therefore you must divide the water between you in order that you may live as long as possible in the hope of the rescue.” When they protested, he said “there is no more to said. It is my order”. They were found three days later. The general was dead. As the general stood by his resolve and drank no drop of water during these three days. The two young pilots were alive and recovered.”

The track became more and more difficult as they neared what they called “Black mountains”. The track was so strewn with loose boulders and sharp stony outcrop that they were forced to follow the tracks of other vehicles with the result that the sand between the rocks was scored into deep ruts from which they leapt over rocky ridges and crashed down into the ruts. Bertie mentions how that “It is almost incredible that any car can survive such treatment”. This was the most tricky part of the crossing of the Tanezrouft: it was close by “Black Mountains”, where Humfrey and his crew had spent 23 hours digging themselves out of the sand on his first journey to Kano in 1935, so he was nervous and keyed to the utmost as they approached this spot.

They passed another landmark called “Curious rocks” and the desert became “the true desert at last, just as one sees it on film and as it so rarely is at any rate on the Hoggar route. Flat, empty and resolute, while the horizon with nothing to give it any prospective seems only a mile or two away and one has the illusion that one is in a great saucer of sand. We were down out of the mountains now, of course, and back at the normal Sahara level, about 1200 feet above the sea which is the usual height of the desserts all the way across Africa from the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean. The heat was appalling and one could not believe that only a few hours ago we had been shivering even in heavy coats at Tamanrasset.”

In Guezzam, was a tiny fort, of perhaps 100 feet square, with battlemented walls and a huge wooden gate; it was a desert post and once a desert fortress of France behind whose parapets the soldiers of the Foreign Legion stood guard, tri-colours floating above their heads. This is what Bertie wrote about In Guezzam; “What did In Guezzam mean to us? It meant simply another stage – and the most dreaded stage at that – of our journey completed. As I have said, on a record breaking trip like ours we longed ardently to arrive at each place on our route, not for the sake of the place itself but because it marked another stage completed. Once that stage was over we put it completely behind us and never gave it another thought, all our attention transferred from the name of the end of that stage to the name at the end of the next. A dull proceeding, you think? Not at all. Our arrival at each place was a thrill, eagerly awaited and lovingly savoured, but soon forgotten as we left it behind and transferred our hopes to the next stage of our journey. We were giving no thought as yet to end places as Cape Town, Nairobi or even Kano: the end of the immediate stage on which we were at the moment embarked was as far as we allowed our imaginations to travel.”

They were encouraged to find that the approach to the fort had a hard surface which alleviated the previous trips problems of sticking in the sand at the entrance. They were also delighted to be able to use a real full-sized Shell pump, which would obviate the necessity of re-filling by the very unhandy method of using cans refilled from a 50 gallon barrel.

Bertie speaks about “the horrible business; for the volatile spirit gives off the most noxious fumes in these very high temperatures – the temperature now was in the neighbourhood of 130 degrees in the full blaze of the sun – and the smell and taste linger in one’s nose and mouth for long after the re-filling process is completed: so we were delighted to see the new Shell pump. We stopped by it and confidently blew the horn. The white attendant and his native boys ran out to greet us with the devastating news that the tank of the pump was alas empty. Did this mean they had no petrol at all? We queried anxiously. Not at all, they had plenty but it was in barrels. So the hideous business of filling cans from barrels and tipping them into the tank had to be faced. I attended to this while Humfrey went off with the “Chef de Piste’ to send a cable to Thomas of Wolseley, who would, we knew, be waiting anxiously to hear of our progress. Cables to England from In Guezzan cost only 2s a word. While the tank was being refilled by this vilely tedious process – incidentally one barrel was soon emptied, another had to be loaded and the necessary implement was not of course to be found, except after a long search that drove me to a frenzy at the delay, for I was all impatient to be off again – I inspected the oil level and radiator and found no addition was required to either. Then Humfrey came back after sending his cable and, finding the re-fueling not yet completed, he invite me to come along and have a drink, for In Guezzan can supply whisky and reasonable cool water, but I had by this time under the appalling heat of the blazing sun thoroughly lost my temper with the slowness of the refueling process and I muttered something about not being able to waste time drinking if this – refueling was – well ever to be finished at all. Humfrey, like the supreme tactician that he is, made no answer but went quietly off to have his drink while I stopped by the car in the fiery sun, urging the Arab boys to get on with the job. Of course I should have been much more sensible to have one with him, had my drink in the shade and returned to find the job done but I was so frightfully hot and so fearfully cross that I was determined to stay where I was. Humfrey has the blessed gift of repose which I, regret to say, I do not possess, and the quality of never allowing himself to be flustered or antagonized by difficulties. He is the most patient of men and I one of the most impatient. Even when the tank was full, I would not go and join him but turned the car around ready for the re-start and sat stubbornly awaiting his return. He came back at last, cool and unhurried as usual, and we set off. All my rancour disappeared immediately we were on the move, again, and while I sat by his side, dripping with perspiration, I studied the log.”