Across Africa in an Austin 7 by Brian Milton
I fell in love with Fiona Campbell, the eldest daughter of a colonel in the old British Army in India, when she was 20, in 1966. I was four years older, a penniless writer who wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. So when Fiona went off to her birthplace in South Africa, I went to a stone cottage on the west coast of Ireland to write books. Every morning - after nights at my typewriter - I wrote letters to Fiona asking her to marry me. After a month she said yes. I proposed driving my 1937 Austin 7 Ruby saloon, called Alexa, from London to Johannesburg to claim my bride.
In the summer of 1968, I spent May in Paris, demonstrating with 10 million strikers; by autumn, I was working on Alexa to prepare her for the Sahara and the Congo. I knew very little about mechanics, but learnt fast.
When all my bills were settled, I borrowed the money from my parents to buy a ferry ticket to France so I could drive to Paris, where I had pounds 150 saved up (there were currency restrictions in those days). The Irish Independent agreed to pay pounds 10 each for articles about the journey, and on 13 November 1968, I set off to drive to the bottom of Spain. It took more than a week.
There were not the great motorways then that there are now, and it took me more than a week. At Algeciras I discovered a crowd of people full of dreams and illusions, who also wanted to travel across Africa. Throughout the trip, we would stumble across each other.
From Algeciras, I took the Virgin of Spain ferry to Ceuta in Spanish Morocco, and drove alone to Algiers, where the British consul kicked Alexa to convey how insane he thought I was. He recommended I join an organised safari of six Landrovers going the same way, but when I found them they were condescending towards Alexa. I set off south the next day alone, over the Atlas Mountains on the Hoggar Trail, determined they would not catch me.
I was, naturally, nervous about the Sahara Desert, 1,800 miles of rough track from El Golea in southern Algeria to Zinder in Niger. For days I drove on my own, and discovered that the Sahara was like a village. Drivers passed me going north and south, and told others later who I was, and I became part of a transient community.
Then one evening, north of Tamanrassat, I ate rotten sardines in the company of four young French drivers. They woke me by singing God Save the Queen, but I was terribly sick, and insisted on crawling on by myself.
Later that day, on a patch of tarmac, I hit a steel barrier erected by local soldiers; this ruined Alexa's good looks but did not hurt me. The soldiers helped me patch her up again over two days, but the radiator remained bent like a bow.
At Tamanrassat I met four young English boys in a Landrover who seemed keen - for I had achieved a small notoriety by then - to help me over the worst part of the Sahara. For two days they pushed, until the atmosphere became brittle on the second evening. They claimed their vehicle's clutch was becoming weak, and promptly left me to my fate. I remember watching them drive off into the dusk, leaving me surrounded by watchful Touregs, still 200 miles from the next town, Agadez. The letter I wrote to Fiona was shaky.
It cost me numerous cigarettes, along with stolen tow-ropes and clothes, to get out of the sand that night. And when I set off again next morning, truly alone, I did a lot of talking out loud.
Later that day a bolt broke on the radiator and I lost all the water. Smoke poured into the cabin. I patched the radiator as well as I could with rubber patches, but used all my stored water, even peeing into the radiator to give it enough coolant.
I later came across some goats and then a well, and negotiated for five gallons of water with a goatherd. It cost me two aspirins and two cigarettes; his girlfriends - or sisters - were upset I had no presents for them, and kept spitting into the well, but I didn't care.
I was towed the last four miles into Agadez the following evening by two passing Frenchmen, and spent three days grinding the valves in again and trying to fix the radiator. Then, taking a hitch-hiker called Claude as a passenger to push me out of sand patches, I drove the last 300 miles of track to Zinder, and found tarmac through to Kano, Nigeria. There was a civil war going on at the time, and few Ibos survived the local massacres. But there was also a sizable British community left over from the colonial days, and I had an interesting Christmas watching my money dwindle to nothing.
However, I did acquire some new companions. Three Swiss travellers, Arthur Lang, Werner Streiff and Hans Tanner, in two Citroens, had been arrested for being less than respectful to a Nigerian plain clothes policeman, and had spent ten days in jail. They came out on Christmas Eve, and they eventually agreed to see me through central Africa and the Congo to Uganda, against promises to pay them later.
We raced to Maiduguri, 305 miles in one day, the best I ever did in Alexa, in time for the New Year of 1969. Then we entered the jungle. Events in the Sahara had damaged Alexa's engine, and in Fort Lamy we found two piston rings had gone. I had no spares, so for a week we tried fitting those from a Renault car, but soon afterwards, heading south, the rings went again.
Arthur, the mechanic, removed the plug from number one piston, and I drove on 3 pistons, sounding like a coffee-grinder. One of the Citroens was being broken up by the dreadful track, and we could not find a way around the local corruption to sell it, so between Chad and the Central African Republic, we burnt it instead.
The following day I was surrounded by policemen in Bossangoa, all demanding gifts, when a local Frenchman, Nobert Roger, stepped up and invited me to lunch. The safari that had formed around me, a Scots couple called Derek and Vera Haldane in a landrover, and a huge German called Meinhard Wagenschein in a 2CV, bowled into town at that time, so the Frenchman invited us all around. That night we watched hippos rising while we ate rare steak and pizza, and Hans discovered he had jaundice.
We got stuck in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, during the period when that country's president was said to be eating children. Werner and Arhur sent Hans back to Switzerland by airliner, and considered driving back immediately with their dwindling money supply. That would have left me in a pickle as by then I was penniless. But after a fraught few days, they decided to join the rest of us on a makeshift ferry across the Ubangui River to the Congo. Not too many years earlier the chopped- up bodies of white missionaries were regularly found in sacks in that river, so we were all tense at the prospect of crossing 1,500 miles of the Congo before reaching the relative freedom of pre-Idi Amin Uganda. We made the crossing on 21 January, 1969, and set off into the jungle the following morning. Two days later, passing through Molegbwe, where they were preparing to consecrate a Congolese bishop, Alexa ran over a lump of hard mud and all the brake cables snapped. I was alone at the time - the others usually caught up with me later in the day - and resolved to drive on to the next Catholic mission at Kota Koli, 30 miles away (we always stayed with the Catholics because they had beer, of which the Protestants disapproved).
As the sun was going down, I found myself halfway up a hill with the mission in sight, not enough power in three pistons to make it any further, and no brakes to stop me tumbling downhill. As usual, a few shouts produced African help, and with six of them propping Alexa up, I offered to give one my frying pan if he could procure the missionaries. Soon, a landrover turned up with three white fathers, and a jeep with two white army officers, Captains Bebronne and Sonkt. Father Florentine towed me to the mission, forgot I had no brakes, and in the ensuing accident Alexa's timing case was split and oil started leaking.
Bebronne and Sonkt commanded 500 elite soldiers, honour guard to President Mobutu, and as Sonkt was celebrating his wedding anniversary, I joined them - in shorts and a pair of goggles - to drink champagne on the veranda.
The rest of the safari turned up the following day, but then everyone went down with malaria, and we stayed a week.
Bebronne, who had a secret yearning to be the TE Lawrence of the Congo, took a shine to me, and invited me to the consecration of the bishop.
Later that day, we joined a dozen white men drinking in a planter's hut. It soon became apparent I was drinking for England, and though not practiced at the job, I stuck at it while others dropped away, until there were three of us left and it was 4am, at which point some sort of line was drawn. I can still remember the luminescence of that hangover.
Bebronne stopped his jeep the following day to talk to a stunning young Congolese girl, while I lay like unwashed laundry in the seat next to him. After we drove off I asked him: "Is that your girlfriend?" "Good Lord no," he said. "I could never let my men know their captain fucks."
Two days later, we were discussing what I would do if I could not drive Alexa any further. Bebronne had been quiet all evening, but he had also drunk a whole bottle of whiskey. I said that if I could go no further, I would burn Alexa. "No, you won't," he said. "If you do that, I promise I will find you and kill you. The Congo needs everything, and that includes your car, if it breaks down." (It was an illustration of Bebronne's power that, 400 miles later at Bumba, as we were - yet again - being pawed by Congolese police, we mentioned his name and they drew back.)
Alexa was put back together at Kota-Koli. Arthur fixed the broken timing case with a piece of a tin can, but had to remove the starting handle. My car was in a sorry state: no starter motor or handle (we push-started it each day), no brakes, 3 pistons only, no lights, no shock absorbers, a damaged radiator that leaked water, and tyres which punctured daily. I was very tired, but determined that, so long as she could go, I would drive her.
The others - especially the Swiss - were rather stuck with me. When I had to drive at night, I would hang a hurricane lamp out one side, and steer by the lights of the Swiss behind me. I took to howling mournfully - it relieved my feelings - and groups of villagers attracted by the noise of our passing often scattered quickly as I passed.
Driving was difficult. There were endless hills, and the bridges were logs laid together, with the planks across them now removed. I lived in fear of putting a wheel down between logs and falling into the tumbling rivers below.
On the way to Aketi, a lorry would not move over as I hurtled down a hill, and I had to drive into the jungle and hope that whatever I hit to stop the car did not damage it too much. An hour later all the radiator water drained away, and Werner soldered the stud on, yet again, using an old screwdriver and a pressure cooker.
We struggled through towns whose names I had learnt in London - Buta, Titule, Paulis - towards Mungbere, Mambasa and Beni and the relief of
Uganda. Each day I wondered if Alexa would make it, and each day, with difficulty, she did. Siafu Safari, which I had met in Algiers, overtook us in Paulis, and the Scots couple, plus Mike the German, left to join them. There were just three of us left - me and my two faithful Swiss. Werner was always suffering headaches, while Arthur was a constant source of hope and cheerfulness, and the bill I owed them mounted. They had to stay with me to get their money back.
But the drive to Mungbere did for Alexa. Another piston ring broke, and a big end started to go, and I knew I could not drive her over the 7,000 feet of Mount Ruwenzori. Local officials would not give me permission to burn her, no matter how much I raged. I stayed for two hours in a house full of bloodstains where a planter and his wife had been hacked to death five years earlier. A planter called Von Wild now lived there, along with his mother, the widow of a wartime German Luftwaffe general. It was the evening of 7 February 1969.
I collected various pieces of Alexa and left without watching the locals descend on her. We drove through the awful roads of the eastern Congo, dozing when we weren't negotiating huge pools of mud, and got to Kampala before the Algiers safari. Without a car, I was redundant; the Irish Independent cabled me pounds 150, half of which I used to pay my two Swiss. The other half paid for an air ticket to Johannesburg, where Fiona met me shyly. I was laden with bits of car and my old typewriter, an Olympia 8 called Brunehilde, on which I had typed letters to her from all across Africa.
Six months later, the night we were writing our wedding invitations, the South African Special Branch came around and deported me. They used to do that to an average of six priests and six journalists a year during the Apartheid era; I was one of the Class of '69. I think they objected to one of the articles I wrote, but they never said which one. Fiona and I took a boat back to England to get married the following year.
Austin 7 cars don't seem to have much luck in Africa. The 1934 Austin Seven Special of David Aspinall & Ben Stevenson also broke into pieces on their African adventure in 2009-10.
A dark spectre of filth and misfortune has been hounding the duo from the start of their ill fated venture. For a long time their virtuous spirit has beaten off the beast without affecting their unbounding ability to carry on. The time is nigh, like a Shakespearean tradegy, to call time on their mission to Cameroon. The pairs vision is no longer tinted with rose, but instead, a blackness that blocks even the bluest of african skies.
Extract from Chocks Aways journal, 13-14th January 2010
The evening of the twelth, (oh to be back in that joyous ignorance) was spent playing crude American card games with scandinavian gentleman, we knew not the rules but soon found ourselves victorious, a royal flush indeed- just desserts. We spent our 3 viking grotes on a bottle of gin and retired to our balcony residence with the knowledge that our trusty steed was outside our door, fixed by The mavarick mechanic only hours before. The night was once more restful, filled with dreams of bountiful virgins whispering prosporous tales of our future.
On the morning of the thirteenth, we were repeatedly awoken by a neighbours permently on stereogram, which was spewing some European language we cared to ignore. A hammer later and we jumped into action and poured ourselves a poor excuse for tea, and ate our thousanth baguette. Sally was once more drawing her usual crowd and it was a good couple of hours before we pulled away from the screaming adorners. With confetti in our hair we set out for the promised land of bukino faso, the next stepping stone to cameroon.
A fortunate, but ultimately calamitous event occured when we stalled going up a treacherous twenty centermetre incline. The stoppage drew our attention to the fact that we were leaving a trail of black oil as dark and ominous as the river Styx. We are considerate folk and find no pleasure in dirtying Africas pastures with the unnecessary waste of our good oil, and so pulled over, just before the keepers gates at our mopti prison. We could go no further.
Our friend Bob the mechanic found us once more. To his absolute credit he promised to rectify the situation for gratis and invited us to stay in his family home. A litre of oil trail later and we arrived at his mansion. To our surprise he had two wives and twelve children, who were all well mannered in a non traditional way. We were treated to a feast and given pride of place on the only table. Bob was clearly a proud man. and took great pleasure in looking after his family, and treated us with the hospitality that is rarely found. The amount of food was quite overpowering, but all delicious.
After our luncheon we began work on the car, although David was dispatched to a dark room to keep an eye on proceedings from afar. Ben carried on and it was not long until Bob declared the situation was fixed. David's lack of excursion led him to think of home as he repeatably shreiked 'europe' into a bucket, it seemed the home cooking reacted badly with his finely tuned culinary nose. The rest of the details of that particular fellowes night shall remain a secret darker than that of dorian grey.
A wholely unrestful nights sleep on foam matresses and a stereogram blessed with the previous nights ones ailments meant that ben awoke at an early hour in a ravaged state. His mission was clear, to fix the automobile.
By lunch David was awake and wobbled into the passenger seat. We thanked bob and his two wives for their generous hospitality, then paid for it, and then drove off as fast as we could.
Bob was clearly looking out for his family, which we understood, even admired, but by now we were ready to support another charity oncemore. Oil was still pouring out. Each dribble was a death toll on our adventure. Sally was no better than before and we are now left alone- stranded as the stench of failure over takes evey pour of our being. We hope tomorrow brings a beacon of hope, as for now we are without.
SOS- Save Our Sally
Posted by David at 18th January 2010 at 18:49 in News
The intrepid two have been fighting back their demons for the greater good. Sally is in no fit state to continue and since they are all stranded in probably the remotest part of the whole 7000 mile adventyure, she must be saved. They leave no one behind, even one as problematic as an epileptic colostomy bag.
They are not sure how she will see the sights of Lagos yet, perhaps on the back of a cow lorry, or balanced upon 5 donkeys, but she will be returned to Englands fair shores- do not fret about that.
This unfortunate demise has led the pair to giving up their long term plan of reaching Cameroon, and as aforementioned will instead head for Lagos, Nigeria, the most dangerous city in the universe (apparently). From here the good folk at British Airways will fly here back to Christendom. Thanks be.
There are plans afoot- More exciting installments of this rescue mission are no doubt imminent