Africana Votes & Views #16
It was of course Cecil John Rhodes, whose lifelong ambition it was to colour the map of Africa with a broad splash of red from north to south, signifying a string of British colonies, and thus hegemony, stretching from the Cape to the shores of the Mediterranean. It was a goal he pursued by fair means and foul through the latter part of his life – and he all but succeeded. More importantly he inspired generations of would-be Empire-builders.
Whenever great endeavour, courage and persistence is the subject of talk among travelers, sooner or later the name of Ewart Scott Grogan is almost certain to be mentioned. This epitome of British imperialism was the man who is mostly credited with the phrase From the Cape to Cairo (also the title of his book published by Hurst & Blackett, 1900) – and his epic trek has become the Holy Grail of large numbers of would-be explorers and travelers, who have followed in his footsteps on foot, by boat, by automobile and by aircraft. So let us have a closer look at the gentleman.
Grogan was born in 1874 into a well-off family with numerous siblings. From tender years onwards he showed much promise and achieved some impressive results in his sporting and scholastic career. During his short stay at Cambridge, his ‘high spirits’, practical jokes and escapades brought him into conflict with this august institution as well as the law and finally caused him to be expelled, after which he spent a short time at Slade Art School – which he left on a whim. At age 22 he arrived in Rhodesia, where he found ‘well-bred Varsity men rubbing shoulders with animal-faced Boers, leavened with Jews, parasites, bummers, nondescripts and every type of civilized savage’ – obviously not people to his delicate taste, but then, he ‘knew that it is good to be an Englishman’. He was just in time to throw himself enthusiastically into the fray of the Matabele Rebellion, which introduced him to the atrocities of war. He survived and before departing back home, he distinguished himself in Beira by knocking down and killing an armed assailant in a dance hall. Feeling in need of a little diversion, he went to visit a friend in New Zealand, where he met his future wife, as well as some stiff opposition from her stepfather, who did not fancy him as son-in-law material. This became the impetus for the great journey. If he made it, he would have proven himself and he would get his girl. Grogan’s biography, The Man from the Cape (Evans Bros, 1959) written by an adoring nephew, Norman Wymer, gives all the background, as well as the subsequent role he played in the colonisation of Kenya and the application of vigilante-justice to errant servants on the steps of the colonial legislature.
Back to the Great Affair. Funding for the journey was provided in the main by Harry Sharp, a mere acquaintance at the time, but a man who had some means, and who wanted a hunting trip and some adventure. It is a misconception that the pair set off on foot from Cape Town; in fact they took the train to Bulawayo and a coach to Beira. A number of months were spent in pursuit of lions in Mozambique, and the pair managed to bag a dozen or more, and left at least another score wounded cats in the bush before setting off towards Lake Nyasa. This was the real start of the trek, which was to take them over a year to reach the sources of the Nile, mostly on foot, but also by boat and later by machila as both men were brought down by malaria and dysentery. The Central African region had been ravaged by internecine struggles between the tribes, as well as expeditions from the Belgian Congo, who were trying to establish their king’s suzerainty over the uncertain border country of no man’s land. The pair struggled on across and past the Great Lakes, until Sharp had had enough by the time they reached Katwe. He returned to the coast and Grogan carried on alone. One can’t fault his courage in attempting the daunting task he had set himself; so our man muddled through by virtue of sheer effrontery, judicious application of the kiboko (shambok) and boot. His trials did not prevent him from taking out a license to shoot two elephants ( after which in some mysterious fashion he seems to have become entitled to shoot a few dozen, though not all fatally – as would be expected from our marksman). He had a fairly narrow escape from the clutches of the Dinka tribe in the Sudan, but thanks to the judicious application of dum-dum bullets at ranges up to six hundred yards, as he relates with some relish, he survived the journey as far as Sobat, where he once more met up with the British gentry and could continue the trip in the comfort he so appreciated – by boat to Cairo.
The book is well-written in a self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek way, full of sarcastic remarks and opinions, which present the author in a less than favourable light according to present-day standards. He remains a legend, whose trek has been imitated in one way or another by hundreds of adventurers who have taken to the roads, waters and winds on foot, by boat, by automobile, by motorbike, by aeroplane and by seaplane and for all I know even by balloon or dirigible. Certainly there are dozens of books I have either seen or read on the subject.
Now the behemoths of the steel tracks would tackle the route. The railway, as probably visualised by Rhodes, and certainly advocated by Grogan at great length and with some intensity in his book, also steadily made its way up and down the continent, ever trying to join up. Leo Weinthal’s record of every bit of information, be it geological, geographical, engineering, technical and human, was contained in five volumes entitled The Story of the Cape to Cairo Railway and River Route from 1887–1922 (Pioneer Publishing Co, 1923) – a rare and precious work, which I have never yet held in my hands in its entirety. Even the few fragments I read in the odd volumes that have crossed my path; the painstaking detail shown in the whole volume of maps that accompanied the work – spoke volumes of the Great Affair, the romance that attaches itself to grandiose works such as the Suez Canal or the Three Gorges Dam.
A book which sought to follow in Weinthal’s footsteps, and to bring the history of this great line up to the end of the 20th century was George Tabor’s The Cape to Cairo Railway (Genta Publications, 2003). Unfortunately it failed dismally, mostly due to an unpardonable number of errors of fact and sloppy editorship, though it did provide some interesting anecdotes about the grand hotels that were dotted along the route.
The early flyers also eyed the continent covetously in the years just after the Great War. There were huge obstacles that needed to be overcome; the terrain was virtually uncharted, there were no known landing fields or refuelling depots. However the idea got momentum and the Daily Mail offered a ₤10 000 prize for the first successful flight; even Winston Churchill gave his stamp of approval in the British Parliament. Eventually, in January 1920 the first plane, a Vickers Vimy piloted by Cockerell and Broome, were off, but could not last the distance, and had to abandon the flight at Tabora in East Africa. The South African entry, flown by the pioneers Sir Pierre van Ryneveld and his co-pilot Sir Quintin Brand, sponsored by Smuts’s government, were successful and landed at Cape Town some 45 days after their departure from Brooklands. These early pioneering flights, as well as the number of notable crashes, are ably described by John Godwin in his book Wings to the Cape (Tafelberg, 1971). Another worthwhile book, which deals with the development of civil and military aviation in South Africa is H Klein’s Winged Courier (Timmins, 1955), though it doesn’t deal primarily with Cape to Cairo flight. That notable long distance aviator, Sir Alan Cobham, crowned his flight round Europe by doing the Cairo to Cape in several long-hops using a De Havilland 50 – and for good measure, back again. This resulted in a slim volume entitled My Flight to the Cape and Back (A & C Black, 1926) which was remarkably devoid of incident; but then, all one could say of flight in the early days was that it was noisy, dangerous and gave you a lot of time to say your prayers. A few years later Sir Alan was back again with the largest seaplane in the world, a Short Singapore, in which he flew right around the continent of Africa, only landing in British Colonies for good measure. This little jaunt was described in Twenty Thousand Miles in a Flying-boat (G G Harrap, 1930) and proved to have a little more meat on the bones. Sandwiched between these two books was the effort by Messrs Mittelholzer, Gouzy and Heim, who flew their Dornier-Merkur seaplane from Switzerland down the Nile, thence via the Great Lakes to the Cape and recorded their findings, as well as some fine aerial photography in their book Afrika-Flug (Orell Fuessli, 1927).
Surprisingly, automobile transport is only third in line. Once motoring became the vogue, there was no stopping the Cape to Cairo crowd. I won’t pretend to know the authors and titles of all the books dealing with the dragging of underpowered and unsuitable four-wheeled conveyances through the swamps of Africa, but a couple do come to mind. The intrepid Stella Court-Treatt relates the epic of one of the early traverses in her book Cape to Cairo: the Record of a Historic Motor Journey (G G Harrap, 1927), in which their party of six Britons boarded a Crossley automobile and with the aid of several dozen spans of draught animals and a number of whole tribes of indigenous peoples, actually made the trek. This historic journey took them all of seventeen months – which though an improvement on the thirty-odd months of Mr Grogan, was not exactly at breathtaking speed, even for cars of the day.
Just a few years later G Makepeace tells in his book Capetown to Stockholm (General Motors, SA Ltd, 1929) of slogging it out with the aid of a pair of Chevvy's. This was intended to be a publicity stunt worthy of a 21st century advertising agency for General Motors products, but it turned into a real adventure. So it went on through the decades that followed. Every form of the machine you could think of was used; from aged London taxis, to Baby Austins and ancient VW Kombis in later years. I actually met a few of these intrepid people between 1959 and 1980 – but most of them had very little fun along the way, and if they had written books, why, I think they might have been very little fun to read as well. Of course, there were other means of transport, and also some well-told tales.
One of these was Anthony Smith, who tells us in his book Smith and Son (Hodder & Stoughton, 1983) of buying a Triumph Tiger Cub motorbike in Cape Town in 1955, taking three months to reach Cairo, and then parking the beat-up old crotch-rocket in a damp, downstairs corridor among the household junk, while he married, fathered a son, and generally got on with life. So one day he and his youngster met up with this mechanical marvel and dad is coaxed into telling sonny that he drove the thing all the way through Africa. ‘Past lions and things – at about sixty miles an hour’ – a phrase that obviously would intrigue a child of tender years, who would like to test the bike at that speed there and then. So father stalls a bit and makes a half-promise that maybe someday they could take it out and ride down Africa; past lions and things at sixty miles an hour.
So when Adam, the son, finishes his schooling in 1983, dad utters that fatal question, ‘OK, so what about Africa?’ To which son replies, ‘Yup, why not’ and the rest, as they say, was history. The book is not just a wearisome enumeration of miles and miles of heat and dust; nor is it about the feeling of freedom of the road that biking and the wind through your hair is supposed to bring, nor the difficulties and the breakdowns; rather it is an exploration of a relationship between a father and his son, with the aid of two elderly machines and several thousand miles of hot, wet, dry, dusty and colourful continent. A thoroughly enjoyable book, even for a person like myself, who has hated the two-wheelers cordially since mounting my first moped at 13, graduating in stages onto a Lambretta at 19 and then having a looong gap until I once more climbed onto a Chinese imitation British 1950’s military sidecar combo with my sister and a chauffeur for a celebratory outing on my sixty-somethingth birthday. My eyes still water and my backside hurts at the memory of our trip round the peninsula – but hey, it was something I had promised myself one day – just like Smith and son.
One other mighty traveler I cannot omit: some dozen or more years ago a man rang me to enquire whether I had a copy of Livingstone’s great work Missionary Travels – I did have a poor example, but he was quite happy to come and collect it. My tiny shop was invaded by a much larger-than-life Kingsley Holgate, a man who had to turn sideways as well as bend his head to come in through the door. He had just done his first traverse of Africa, and needed to read up a little on the great traveler who had preceded him. I was able to help with a couple of books and we had a lively conversation. In the ensuing years I followed his adventures around the African continent by means of television documentaries, and finally his book appeared, entitled Cape to Cairo, (Struik, 2002), being his whole family’s adventures along the waterways of Africa. While it is not a great feat of literature, nor an epic journey, since they had boats, outboards, 4x4s galore and all the kit that goes along; they did have to battle the demons of bureaucracy, the shadows of war and the zing of malarial mosquitoes. For that I salute the great man and his companions.
One of the latest offerings in the genre is Sihle Khumalo’s book Dark Continent – my Black A*se (Umuzi, 2007). The irrepressible 30-year old from Durban decides to celebrate his birthday in style. He gives up a well-paid job, perks, and comfortable flat in a secure complex, leaving his girl and 16-month old daughter to brave the public transport system and potholes between the Cape and Cairo. Almost at once his venture runs into trouble when the airline staff went on strike at Durban, necessitating a very lengthy bus-journey to Bellville to catch his pre-booked connection to Namibia. From there on things can only get a*se-numbingly worse. Khumalo describes his travel companions, the differences in culture and infrastructure with insight and good humour. The further he gets away from home, through Zambia, then Malawi, up into Tanzania, the slower his progress, and the more difficult it becomes to communicate.
Yet there are many unforgettable moments along the way. Victoria Falls and the memories of a prior bungee jump off the steel bridge; sundowners overlooking Lake Malawi after an impromptu barbecue on Lizard Island; the basic honesty of some of the poorest people on earth, and the dawning realization in the hell-holes of the slave dungeons of Zanzibar, that the ‘[Arabs had] screwed Africans in a big way. They took away our dignity and pride and converted our forefathers, including women and children, into goods with a monetary value. Not that the African kings and chiefs were innocent. It is well-documented that local traditional leaders used to barter their own subjects or captive members of other clans with the Arab slave-traders’. I have heard local academics denying that bit of truth quite vehemently a short while back.
The further north our lad gets, the more difficult it becomes to communicate with first the Swahili speakers, then the Amharic and later Arabic linguists. Until he passes out of Ethiopia, the women also got more beautiful by the mile it would seem – or was that in obverse proportion to his distance from home? His luck holds, and he manages to get his visas for the war-torn Sudan and Egypt and lurches over some abominable tracks in matolas, boksies and buses (one made from an amalgamation of a bus-body and a truck-front) with some astounding bureaucratic hold-ups into the bargain until he can board the train for Khartoum. From there on it was almost plain sailing except for a sandstorm in the two-day desert transit. The antiquities of Egypt fill him with wonder and he reads a book in the Bibliotheca Alexandria to end off his momentous experiences. He looks back on the continent’s starving, sick, dying and naked poor, and he struggles to understand how the so-called liberators have been turned into dictators or heads of one-party states, how they have allowed their countries to deteriorate so much and how they could neglect their people in such a fashion.
On a much lighter and entertaining note I would like to end this contribution by paying tribute to a distant relative of Grogan – yes, the artist/cartoonist Tony Grogan – who authored and especially illustrated the book Between the Cape and Cairo (Central Africana Ltd, 1995). The artist spent two lengthy holidays in Malawi, and his humorous portrayals of the people and scenes of the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’, are interspersed with cartoon comparisons to some of the scenes he envisaged his illustrious precursor to have encountered, as well as what the modern equivalent situation would look like. A lovely work to page through at the end of an exhausting journey along the length of a continent.