Across Africa in an Austin 7

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sand. Jungle. Mud. Dust. Raging torrents. These are the elements that you must endure if you are to travel the length of Africa by land. Then there's the locals, the police, the petty officials, the fellow travellers, not to mention the army. So why do it at all, let alone in a knackered Austin 7? What on earth could be worth all that suffering and hardship?

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.

Brian Milton, 56, is the author of `Global Flyer', an account of the first microlight flight around the world last year. He took 120 days, and claimed the fastest-ever single-engine open-cockpit record

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