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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Wheels Across the Desert

Africana Votes & Views #21

There are not many experiences that can compare with taking in a sunset over a vast arid landscape which dwarfs mountains and dunes; or lying down under a bejewelled black canopy that is only separated from one’s face by the thinnest sheet of an icy breeze; watching the fiery streak of meteorites – which once or twice in a lifetime you may actually hear arrive – in an explosion and a brilliant flash of light. Think of it as being a near neighbour to a cosmic catastrophe!

The other side of the coin is being squarely on the anvil of the sun-god, Ra, on a summer noon; no spot of shade except in, or under your broken-down or bogged motor vehicle; a little tingle of apprehension in the pit of your stomach; an extra measure of perspiration cooling your brow. Or while you wrap your face in stifling layers of cloth as you peer out at the ochre world of the sandstorm with slitted eyes poorly sheltered behind dark glasses. You love or loathe deserts; many people do both – just depending on the circumstance they find themselves in.

Back in 1967 I became the happiest man alive when my foreman woke me up after a long, cold night-shift on the drill, to ask me if I wanted to take on a job in the Namib. I spent the next three and a half years there, in the valley of the Khan River, being alternately fried and frozen, parched inland, or dripping in the coastal fog as we went on weekend fishing expeditions. I explored the mountains, the canyons, the dunefields and the saltflats. I drove my little Japanese station-wagon into improbable places – and mostly out again, though I had to walk once or twice, or wait an entire night for help on a deserted road. Then I was given a works Landrover, and I could choose even more difficult places to get stuck in. Finally I had had enough of the adventure and I came back to the Transvaal. Since then I have returned a dozen times or more to the Namib as well as the Kalahari, Namaqualand and Bushmanland. In addition I have read and collected dozens of books on desert travel, mainly through the Sahara and Sahel, the Northern Frontier District of Kenya and the Sudan, the Namib, Kalahari and Namaqualand, as well as the Australian and American deserts, the Gobi and Taklamakan in Asia and Arabia Deserta. So let’s have a look at some of what Africa has to offer by way of motorised travel.

In 1923 M et Mme Andre Citroën graced the departure of an extraordinary little mechanised column, consisting of five 10 hp ‘autochenilles’ or half-tracks from Touggourt in Algeria on a twenty-day epic first crossing of the Sahara to Timbuctoo in present-day Niger. At approximately the same time Prince Kamel el Din Hussein fitted out six ‘Box Fords’ and three of the Citroëns to explore the Egyptian hinterland and to establish a route to the oases at Dakhla and Kharga. They had less good fortune that the French to the westward – out of nine vehicles, only four made it back from the relatively short journey, as described by the British Transport OC, Major C S Jarvis in Three Deserts (John Murray, 1936), yet by the early 1930s a Hungarian nobleman, László Almásy, accompanied by three Britons was sent out by the Prince, and he had more success. He used an aeroplane as well as cars in his quest to find the legendary oasis of Zerzura, but instead discovered major prehistoric rock art sites, including the Cave of Swimmers in Jebel Uweinat, the highest mountain of the Eastern Sahara, and at Gilf Kebir. An English translation of his work was published under the title of The Unknown Sahara (1934), but I have only read a later German version. The film The English Patient is loosely based on some of Almásy’s wartime exploits.

Back to the Citroëns in Algeria. Once the possibility of this momentous north-south crossing had been confirmed, further plans were laid and another, larger and more ambitious expedition of eight of these tank-like little vehicles was dispatched in 1925. This time their target was to cross the Sahara and then the entire continent from West to East Africa. The two authors, Haardt and Audouin-Dubreuil, were each in ‘command’ of one of their fleet, and the book The Black Journey (G Bles, 1928) will give you disjointed chapter and verse, dreadfully ill-translated from flowery French, with numerous errors zoological and botanical (despite the presence of a naturalist and a geographer in the party). Of the great erg and hamada (sand & stone) desert they crossed, very little is described – due mainly to the inordinate respect the voyageurs had for the heat of the sun; they charged across the landscape mainly in the hours of darkness and spent the days huddled in a laager made with their vehicles and canvas for shade. On this trip they turned West at Gao and headed towards Lake Chad along the northern Nigerian boundary. The expedition’s subsequent adventures are described luridly as they progress toward the Indian Ocean in daylight, sparing the reader none of the indescribable hardships, dangers from cannibals and ferocious beasts. On the other hand one has to take into account that the administration of the Belgian Congo utilised some forty thousand of the locals ‘for a few months’ to chop a 700km open trail through the forests to facilitate the lads’ progress on their patch – for which much appreciation is expressed. Re-supply depots had been established by road, water and air during the previous two years, so the intrepids did not go without all home-comforts for too long. In Uganda they split up into four groups, who made their way down towards the coast at Mombasa, Dar-es-Salaam, Mozambique and even Cape Town, before they embarked to finish the journey triumphantly at Antananarivo. Altogether an ode to colonialism, mainly of the French variety, yet an important, but tedious little work to read.

As the authors mention, people were almost queuing up to repeat the experience. In no time at all a regular freight and mail service was instituted linking the Mediterranean and the French African colonies. The French geographer Emile Gautier commented in his classic work, Sahara, the Great Desert (Columbia University Press, 1935, rev ed) that the Western route was for people in a hurry to get to the Niger Bend, and he commented on the absurdity of camel trains being needed to establish caches of petrol in the early motoring years. Barely a year after the Citroën adventure, a 1,5 litre Bugatti four-wheeler made the trip. Sahara travel became all the rage; and as early as 1930, titles such as By Way of the Sahara: The African Odyssey of Three Men and a Grocer’s Van (Duckworth, 1930) by Owen Tweedy appeared, which heralded people assailing the desert with unlikely modes of transport and little hope of success – but the mere existence of the title does assure one of their survival of the experience. The charming book by Gordon West and his wife Joy, entitled By Bus to the Sahara (Travel Club, ca 1940) is in fact a misnomer, since they hardly got out of the Atlas mountains to Ouarzazate and Rissani – but it does prove that even public transport was to be had at the time. The allure of Tamanrasset and Timbuctoo, the splendid Ahaggar, Aïr and Tibesti Mountains, as well as great dunes, oases and achingly beautiful, empty plains brought the adventurous in droves. Once the minefields had been cleared or marked after WWII, a new wave of travellers hit the piste, and the fifties saw a number of quite entertaining titles appear in print.

One of these was W Macarthur, who whet his travelling appetite with a Cairo to Salisbury epic, as described in Auto Nomad Through Africa (Cassell, 1951) and an even more gripping book, describing a backbreaking slog he made with his wife in an elderly saloon car, entitled The Desert Watches (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954). Not all of these motorists were the stern martyrs of geography; an adventurous lady traveller, Barbara Toy, spent seven months puttering round the Lybian desert in her Landie, often with only the odd local as a companion. She visited battlefields, graves, avoided minefields and had the happy knack of being able to get along with the people she met despite a limited knowledge of the language. Her travels are well-described in A Fool in the Desert (John Murray, 1956). Another pair, the Marriotts, bought an ancient banger, an eighteen year-old taxicab with the best part of a million miles on the clock and attempted to coax the ailing beast from Algiers to Nigeria. As chronicled in their book, Desert Taxi (Travel Book Club, 1955), they almost made it, but the oomph went out of the car at Kano, and they had to leave it rusting in the savannah while they hitched a ride to the coast and salvation. A similar trip was embarked on by two friends in a little Wolseley 6/80 saloon – trying to break some sort of record, I seem to remember, which you can read about in Savage Sahara (A Wingate, 1956). Then there was a leavening of dotty sophisticates banding together with the likes of two Churchills, a scientist and six soldiers, who set out from Benghazi on The Great Saharan Mouse-Hunt (Hutchinson, 1962), taking in the Oasis at Khufra, Jebel Uweinat and the Tibesti in an extended U-turn. These travellers enjoyed getting lost, they didn’t mind getting bogged down in fech-fech and getting dirty – as long as the whisky, champagne and foie de gras was available at the end of the day – while for other travellers there was only a dwindling supply of water.

A classic of exploration of a different sort is Henri Lhote’s The Search for the Tassili Frescoes (Hutchinson, 1960). The author led a sixteen-month expedition to confirm a vague report of a soldier’s discovery of rock art in the Tassili n’Ajer. While he discovered a veritable gallery of Neolithic rock engravings, much of his work has been discredited, partly due to dubious recording methods, or due to the ‘alien influence’ theories he shared with his mentor, the Abbé Henri Breuil. The sensationalist publicity the art sites received was greatly to blame for the partial destruction by locals and souvenir-hunting tourists in subsequent years.

An enjoyable read is Jon Stevens’ book, The Sahara is yours (Constable, 1969). He describes a two-month ‘circumnavigation’ of this mother of deserts, accompanied by his wife and another couple in a second vehicle. Both cars were brand new four-wheel drives; the travellers chose their equipment with great care, though weight became one of their main concerns. Several chapters of the book are devoted to good, well-founded advice on travel conditions, advisable practices and precautions which would be useful to any would-be desert rat. In the preface he states:
‘Getting stuck in soft sand is no longer a nightmare – it is just an irritant. Carrying enough petrol no longer depends on monstrous tanks or heavy steel cans. By cutting down on the weight to be carried, the problems of long-distance desert driving have been halved, and you can travel in comfort and safety.’ 

That about sums it up – your comfort and safety depend your own planning, preparation, mechanical gear and the size of your wallet. One quality shared in almost every one of the above books is the insane urge to travel a certain number of miles/kilometers a day. Very few of the intrepid motorists seem to have stopped to sniff the desert roses, in a manner of speaking. Since the 1970s I seem to detect an almost nostalgic return to the modes of travel employed in the pre-mechanical era. There is a whole generation of books dealing with Saharan journeys by camel or even on foot; often in the company of Targui people with whom the traveller has no common language, retracing the almost forgotten caravan routes. Plenty of opportunity to get to grips with the sands of Sahara.

Now, south of the equator, we have the Karoo/Kalahari/Namib as our local equivalents of our great northern cousin. Perhaps not quite as daunting geographically; nor inhabited by fearsome tribes and lacking the sheer size of the Sahara. Nonetheless, a goodly number of travellers, both in earlier times and during the motorised era, have encountered similar travails. That great soldier, politician and adventurer, Deneys Reitz, tried his luck at entering the Kaokoveld by car round about 1930, after he had had a foretaste of desert driving in the company of one Carl Weidner of Goodhouse through South West Africa, Kalahari and Gordonia. By the time he reached Otyitambi, he had crumpled up his lengths of wire-mesh that were supposed to aid him through the heavy sand, and his vehicle was firmly bogged up to the axles. He had the good fortune to espy the smoke from the campfire of a Thirstland trekker nearby, and the latter helped him to make the rest of the trip more enjoyable by means of donkeys and light cart. The automobile was parked under a tree for a couple of months awaiting his return.

One has but to read the saga of the grounding of the Dunedin Star on the Skeleton Coast in 1942. A three-pronged rescue attempt, by air, sea and land was launched. The ships ran into trouble and couldn’t get near the beach in the rough waters; the Ventura bomber managed to drop much-needed supplies, but then made a forced landing on the beach and after some repairs got airborne only to crash into the waves, leaving the aviators no choice but to swim for it. Meanwhile a motorised column had been mobilised from Windhoek, and this little cavalcade of standard trucks, loaded to the gunwales with petrol and water, rode off into the sunset across a virtually unknown, trackless Kaokoveld. Amid much jubilation all hands and passengers were rescued and brought back to civilisation almost a month after the disaster. John Marsh wrote his ever popular book Skeleton Coast (Hodder & Stoughton, 1944) describing the whole episode. It has become part of the Skeleton Coast saga, and numerous reprints and enlarged versions are still readily available. In my schooldays, I happened to be great friends with the son of the radio officer on the ship, and you can be sure that I didn’t let that chance go begging to get a more personal reminiscence from Kilpatrick senior.

The ever-popular Lawrence Green took part in several desert odysseys, which he described in a number of his books. One was the University of Cape Town’s Kalahari Expedition of 1936, mainly dedicated to studying Bushman ethnography, during which Green drove one of their vehicles – when he wasn’t helping to dig them out of the sand! Much of the trip is covered in his book Strange Africa (Timmins, 1974 repr) Another scientific expedition, this time through Namib and Kaokoveld, is described in his book Lords of the Last Frontier (Timmins, 1952) – one of his most popular books on the then South West Africa. The leader was Bernard Carp, an adventurous businessman who loved the desert in all its guises, and he too wrote a book about this and several other excursions, I chose Africa (Timmins, 1961). There is a dearth of books about motor travel in the Namib proper – mainly, I suspect, because for almost a century the mixed blessing of the presence of diamonds made it illegal to set foot on most of the southern coastal desert, then there was a patch of Game Reserve No 3 between the Swakop and Kuiseb Rivers (nowadays known as the Namib-Naukluft Park) and north of Cape Cross you were back in another Sperrgebiet, where the powers that be didn’t want you to get loose in either; the southern part of Angola is only now becoming popular as a fishing spot. In the latter few years restrictions have eased somewhat, and numerous convoys of well-heeled and wheeled city folk head for the sandy wastes. I suspect we shall be reading about these good people’s adventures when they grow a little older, if books haven’t totally gone out of print by then.

The great Karoo has some truly desolate stretches, but one is never more than fifty-odd kilometers from a small village or town. In addition, the whole region, as well as the almost featureless plains of Bushmanland and the more rugged terrain of Namaqualand, have been broken up into farms. The ubiquitous windmill raises its signature head above the horizons – so it is unlikely the unwary explorer will perish of thirst, even if his trusty vehicle should desert him in his hour of need. An entertaining book on this whole region is Carel Birkby’s Thirstland Treks (Faber & Faber, 1936) in which the young journalist tackles numerous dusty trails in his faithful ‘three-year old baby’ (Austin 7), which at times lacked the horsepower to tackle hills front-on, and had to be reversed up the inclines instead. Another charming little book I read many years ago was by a Miss I A Loadsman, entitled Little Roads of Africa (Afrikaanse Pers Boekhandel, 1950) in which she describes her travels in company with another lady, using a similarly unsuitable vehicle as Birkby’s, as they explored Gordonia and the faint tracks along the Molopo – if I remember correctly.

The Kalahari is an unforgiving desert in parts, with vivid red dunes, which start even south of the great river in parts of Bushmanland, and extend up as far as almost into the Congo. But the arid plains are broken by linear oases; large rivers like the Gariep, the Okavango and its inland delta, and the Zambezi, to name but a few. In the rainy season you might never guess that you are in a desert. All about is verdant and vast herds of springbok and wildebeest graze the knee-high grasses. Six months later a stony or sandy parched and shimmering waste is all that remains. As far as I can establish, the first motorised breach in this desert’s defences came during WWI. As part of the three-pronged attack by General Botha on the Germans in South West Africa, Col. C A L Berrange set out with his ‘desert column’, made up of the 5th South African Rifles, the Kalahari Horse, Cullman’s Horse and the Bechuanaland Rifles from Kuruman. While his men marched and rode, and supplies went mainly by ox-wagon, he had an advance force of motor-vehicles, which were used to ferry water-supplies across some hundreds of miles between the widely separated wells. The traverse to Rietfontein took some weeks, and on crossing the SWA border, they immediately engaged and routed the Germans. After that little affair they presumably used the trains, and the trucks faded into obscurity.

The eminent geologist and geographer E H L Schwarz postulated a theory that proposed flooding a part of the central Botswana depression and creating large lakes, which would change the entire climate of the region and make the desert bloom, in his book The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption (Maskew Miller, 1920). It involved damming part of the Zambezi system and digging a canal across a slight ridge that natural forces had raised to create a waterway. The South African government was forced by public pressure to take his theory seriously enough to send out an expedition in 1925 under the aegis of the Irrigation Department, to investigate the possibility. While much of their equipment’s transport depended on animal-drawn vehicles, they did have a Dodge ‘screen-van with balloon tyres’ that did some sterling work. Although much useful cartographical work was done during the expedition, Schwarz’s theory was scuppered when it was found that his levels were faulty and that water would not flow uphill, and that creating another ‘Dead Sea’ in the centre of the Makarikari region wouldn’t necessarily turn the region into a land of milk and honey. Some of the work is described in Deneys Reitz’s No Outspan (Faber & Faber, 1943) as the author was involved in the aerial surveys in his capacity of Minister of Irrigation.

The year 1928 saw the Cameron-Cadle Kalahari Expedition, setting out, fitted out with two specially equipped Diamond T (Model 302) trucks. These two American gentlemen seemed intent on performing a battery of medical tests on the Bushmen they would encounter, but their way led them from Mafeking to Serowe, and from thence onwards to Francistown in a matter of two weeks. It is doubtful that they made much contact with any of the nomadic tribespeople, as they seemed to spend most of their time digging their vehicles out of the thick sand. During the same period W J Makin’s book, Across the Kalahari Desert (Arrowsmith, 1929) chronicled a trip made from Mahalapye to Ghanzi and from there up to Kazangulo. They employed Morris six-wheelers with success, and as far as I can recall, their main intention was to gather information on the Bushmen. In early 1930 a well-equipped museum expedition, named Vernay-Lang after its two leaders from the Natural History Museum in the UK and Field Museum in the US, explored a large chunk of inhospitable central Botswana and brought back thousands of biological specimen which were described in a number of Transvaal Museum Annals. Money was no object and the well-found project had a number of specially modified one and a half-ton Dodge trucks (which seemed to have been early desert favourites) as well as a Victory 6 Tourer, for the more luxurious conveyance of hunting parties in search of the large game of the region. None of the above can be called travel literature except in the broadest sense; they all had serious scientific or bellicose aspirations.

Two of the few books I have read dating back to the 1950s are the accounts by Frank Debenham, Kalahari Sand (G Bell & Sons, 1953) an American hydrologist who made two journeys into the depths of the central Kalahari to investigate water resources, and the wildly popularised The Lost World of the Kalahari (Hogarth Press, 1958) by that veteran spinner of tales, Laurens van der Post. The latter accompanied the former as guide and expedition leader, if my memory serves me right, although I seem to recall that our great explorer only had one previous experience of the Kalahari during a reconnaissance in 1950, and he had to rely heavily on local guides and translations across at least three languages. Debenham was utterly smitten by the desert, and his book echoes his enthusiasm. Van der Post uses the trip and its successors as a basis for a whole iconic mythology of the Bushmen, their culture, oral literature and dwindling status as a forgotten prehistoric people, as well as a number of novels on the theme. While there is a certain dreamy, poetic quality to his writing, I could never be completely reconciled to his books as being a factual account of anything – but the reader must make up his or her own mind about this ‘Bard of the Beyond’.

No doubt there are many more titles describing the passage of wheels in the deserts of Africa, so this is only a small selection of books that have impressed me in one way or another. If you need to broaden your horizons, there is a wide choice of reading matter available. The alternative is to find a few kindred spirits with four-wheel drives and the required wherewithal – and hit the sand rolling!