Trans-Africa Adventure Chevrolet 1923, the second successful trip ever.

Edmund Salomons, the owner of Inkosana Lodge Backpackers in the Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa wrote this interesting story on a book published by General motors South Africa.

Cape Town to Stockholm

  A Chevrolet Adventure

 Today hordes of travelers, from backpackers and cyclists to those luxury 4x4s or overland trucks, make the epic journey from Cape to Cairo. It remains a pretty arduous journey, but I doubt whether anyone spares a thought for those magnificent men in their primitive motoring machines who blazed the trail about 100 years ago. John Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), former prime minister of the Cape Colony and mining magnate, had long envisaged a route from Cape Town to Cairo. Subsequently many myths had arisen regarding a “Great North Road”, and those whose courage and enterprise urged them on this trail.

Of four expeditions which had attempted the run from Cape Town to Cairo only one was successful. In 1913 a Captain Kelsey in an Argyll car was mauled and killed by a leopard. Major and Mrs Court–Treatt thereafter successfully crossed the Continent in 16 months in two Crossley cars in 1924. After them the Heller expedition attempted the trail on Douglas motor cycles, but Heller was drowned and that put paid to the attempt. Claude Fuller then set off on an Indian motorcycle which plunged down a cliff sans Fuller.

Enter A.N.Lawrence of General Motors South Africa who was manufacturing motor cars and trucks in Port Elizabeth at the time. Lawrence had for some time cherished a scheme for a great endurance test for Chevrolet vehicles, and felt ready. The year was 1926.

About that time a certain Clive Lacey, veteran Africa traveler, beat a mail train in a race from Elizabethville, in the then Congo, to Johannesburg by nine hours.  The make of the vehicle is not known but Lacey was behind the wheel for 106 hours. Lawrence decided that Lacey was the man to lead his planned expedition, and that it should include a crossing into the Middle East and follow a route from there through Europe to Stockholm, Sweden via London.

Lacey, who agreed, knew an excellent mechanic and radio man, Wallie Wilson, who had been with him in the Union convoys in the German West Africa colonial campaign. Wilson possessed an extraordinary mechanical mind which was essential on a trip of this nature. Then there was Billie Williams from London, who had been the official cinematographer for the British Admiralty during World War 1. His ready wit, charm and voice with an “echo of the Bowbells”, disarmed many a potential flare-up between expedition members. Lacey had a trusted servant, one Tonge Simon (Sallam), from the Mawenba tribe in the then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, who joined them as cook and helper. Sallam could rustle up a good loaf of bread with next to no ingredients or utensils, although his sense of hygiene may have left a lot to be desired. A terrier bitch named Polly, picked up by Billie in Messina (now Musina) on the border with Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), became the only female team member.

The fifth member was Gordon Makepeace, a journalist with the Argus newspaper in Cape Town at the time. Gordon is the author of the book, “CapeTown to Stockholm – a Chevrolet Adventure” which was published by General Motors South Africa Limited in 1929.

My father Teddie Salomons was no great reader, but he loved this book as much as he loved motors and caring for them. He did so for 58 years as a mechanic on General Motors vehicles and especially Chevrolets in Volksrust  with Lyon Brothers Garage, later Lyon Motors. In 1918  when he joined the firm they still made and sold wagons- and coffins during the great flu epidemic. Later they sold various brands of vehicles including ModelT Fords until Lyon Brothers became one of  General Motors’ agents. It seemed a shame that this great tale of adventure should be lost. I contacted General Motors South Africa to see whether they were interested in using this material for an advertising campaign. When they showed no interest, I decided to write this article to share the tale with fellow lovers of travel and adventure. “Capetown to Stockholm” contains beautiful black and white photographs of the motor vehicles which made the hazardous journey over seven grueling months.

They set off

Once the team was selected the usual chores relating to international travel got underway. Inoculations, passports and permits for the radio and so on took a great deal of time. The original idea was for sedan cars to do the trip, being lighter and easier to handle over sticky terrain. But it was finally decided that a truck would be required to carry the load which had grown alarmingly, albeit at the price of  maneuverability.  The author says Wilson cast frequent anxious glances at the truck springs. Neither the  models nor  their technical specifications are mentioned. The author also does not mention the actual taking of delivery of the Chevrolets at the factory in Port Elizabeth.

Great interest was shown in the trip as the departure day grew close and many farewell gifts were received from anxious friends, relatives and well wishers who feared for the lives of the expedition members. One such gift was a caul presented to Clive as a talisman.(A caul is a membrane covering the head of some babies at birth, this was long regarded as a good omen and a charm, especially against drowning). According to the author they all adopted it as their own and ascribed much of their good fortune to it.  He recommends that travelers in Africa acquire just such an object.

On March7 1928, a great crowd gathered outside the City Hall in Cape Town: the Mayor and the Administrator of the Cape Province as well as the Swedish consul-general were also present. The team carried letters of introduction to legations and mayors of the many European and Scandinavian countries they would be traversing.

They traveled via the diamond fields of  Kimberley to Johannesburg, the wet season was in full swing and  they were held up at crossings of normally dry riverbeds. In the city of gold they were treated to a performance of African dance at Crown Mines. Makepeace wonders whether dancers in a modern ballroom ever question the purpose of their movements around the floor, and reflects that the mine  dancers seemed to perform sagas which rang from their hearts. At the Johannesburg city hall the mayor wished them luck whilst the Crossley company, whose vehicles had made the first crossing, presented them with a miniature silver radiator for good luck.

Being pulled through the Khor Afin in the Sudan
Being pulled through the Khor Afin in the Sudan
The rugged terrain in the Nubian desert
The rugged terrain in the Nubian desert
Negotiating the narrow streets of Bethlehem
Negotiating the narrow streets of Bethlehem
On the St Gotthard pass in Switzerland
On the St Gotthard pass in Switzerland
On the Suez Canal at Katara , the boat had also travelled  from Cape Town
On the Suez Canal at Katara , the boat had also travelled from Cape Town

In Pretoria the mayor presented them with two of the new Union of  South Africa flags. (The brand new flag of the Union of South Africa, which came into being in 1910.) It was apparently the first time the flag would leave the borders of South Africa .

The party kept north via Warmbaths to the border at Messina, now Musina, passing two lads from Durban who were walking to Cairo. It is not known what happened to the them. It was at Musina that a fox terrier stood up on the running board and seemed ready to join in. She was adopted and named Polly.

The crossing of the Limpopo took a few hours. After negotiating tracts of sand they reached a pontoon which ferried the cars over. In Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, herds of roaming elephant bent on destroying crops were a frequent occurrence in those days. The team bumped into these as well as professional hunters out to get  the elephant.

The party paused at the Matopos to visit the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, and then the pushed northwards from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls. Wilson provided fresh venison with the .303 rifle whilst Polly made sure she stuck to the car seat after dark when leopard prowled. The falls, or Mosioa Tunya “the smoke  that thunders” did not disappoint. Passing into Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia conditions became worse with every conceivable type of bog and swamp imaginable. Vague signposts pointed in directions which may or may not have been the way of the Great North Road, some leading to farm houses, some leading nowhere at all. Every possible means was employed to secure progress, from using branches, to leaves and logs as well as many helpful local hands to heave the vehicles through difficult spots.

Along Lake Tanganyika are the Bahora flats: 100km of water-logged savannah where it was feared that the vehicles would have to be disassembled and carried on foot.  Here the radio really came to the rescue as on many other occasions on the journey. They were able to get information via South Africa that the flats were passable after all, even if it required great ingenuity and much improvisation. At one stage a swamp extended for eight km along each verge of the Ruvu River. The group encountered and managed to overcome, sand, mud and water, collapsing bridges and many other kinds of adversity.

They met interesting tribes with accounts of folklore and customs which brought many an H Rider Haggard tale to the mind of Makepeace. Whilst in Uganda they traveled for 500km without seeing another vehicle. In some parts of Kenya the roads were remarkably good and the odd vehicle did appear. They marveled at the ringlet of cloud around Kilimanjaro and the plains of Serengeti, the beautiful lakelands and forests in the highlands.

On entering the Sudan, the team rather naively imagined that things would let up, they by no means did: heavy rains had caused major flooding in this country, the size of central Europe. At other times sand made the going very slow and great patience was required at a time when team members were “battle weary” and anxious to reach Cairo. The area was known for its large lion population and each  man carried a firearm as protection. Eventually the marshes were conquered by teams of locals who dragged them for many kilometers through a small canal in the 4m high papyrus, to reach Tonga. This took them through the Nuba mountains. Here, as in many other places on the journey, they were feted and entertained by officials, expatriates and locals.

At Medani they met with the Chevrolet agent from Khartoum. Polly sadly strayed away and was never seen again. On the way to Khartoum they were engulfed in a black sandstorm, or “haboob”, and the dust penetrated into the most tightly sealed equipment. This 1600km section of the journey to Cairo is related in a chapter named  “A dash through the desert “. In fact it was anything but a dash, but in many ways the most arduous and dangerous part of the whole five months journey through Africa. At times, to avoid the treacherous sand, they resorted to traveling on railway lines. The final stretch took them down to Aswan inch by inch via a highly precipitous rock-strewn way.

Outside Cairo, at the pyramids of Gizeh, they were met by representatives of General Motors, Near East. They traveled in cavalcade to the Continental Savoy hotel where the governor was waiting.  They were the second team ever to travel across Africa from Cape Town to Cairo. The evening climaxed at the Kit–Kat cabaret and the celebration continued into the wee hours.

The team was understandably drained. As Makepeace states early in the book: “The bush is no fosterer of friendships. I have known men start off together as bosom friends on a journey through the African bush, and come back hating each other with a great bitterness.” I have personal experience of this on high mountains and am sure that if you could ask these people today what the most difficult part of the trip was, they would agree that it was the human relationships.

The Middle East

Understandably the team was under the impression that the most arduous section of their journey was over: after all they had traversed Africa during the rainy season. Ironically the greatest obstacle, the Sinai Peninsula lay ahead:  hundreds of kilometers of fine powdered sand and massive dunes to boot. It would take days to make a few kilometers. They were refused permission to use either the railway track or a military route where wire netting had been installed to make the sand negotiable. The only route open to them was straight through the desert. They employed an Arab guide and an Englishman volunteered to assist part of the way. Shortly after leaving Kantara the road petered out into a sand dune. The game was on. Due to constraints of weight and space they carried only 40m of wire netting which had to be re-laid time and again to make progress. On the second day the guide declared the venture hopeless and that he had enough wisdom to see that pushing cars though sand was contrary to his philosophy of life. He jumped on a passing camel and wished the team well, saying that Allah would be with them but not he.

Early one morning a figure stumbled towards them. It turned out to be a German who had deserted from the  French Foreign Legion due to victimisation caused by his nationality. He spoke German and some French and hoped to reach Cairo. Upon hearing that the Suez canal was guarded day and night he agreed to assist them in return for a passage back to Palestine where he hoped to find refuge with the English. He proved an invaluable aid and worked like a Trojan. After weeks of great tribulation and rationing the way eased up and they eventually reached the palm oasis EL Marish, on the Mediterranean. From here they traveled on good roads along a beautiful coastline, before turning inland to Beersheba, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth, through the Holy Land. They reached the Palestine frontier and entered Syria where French officials made a great show of officialdom, with much talk, gesticulation and stamping of documents.

It was decided to detour and visit Beirut where the American Consul and Governor met them. After a day of rest they proceded up the coast to Tripoli, crossing into Turkey at Payas, where Jonah was said to have been swallowed by the whale. The customs officials were courteous, not at all what they had been led to expect. It nevertheless  took five hours to complete the formalities.   The journey through Turkey was fairly uneventful and they were shipped by ferry over the Marmara sea to the then Constantinople.

Europe at Last

The team crossed into Greece at Adrianople. Unknown to them, the Greeks had been following this expedition with great interest. They were met by a huge cavalcade at the entrance to Salonika, this turned into something of a triumphant procession. Time was running out and they hastened to the Macedonian mountains and the border crossing with Bulgaria, though not before enjoying a roasted lamb as they had in South Africa.

So they passed into charming Bulgaria led by an officer in a white tunic with red facings and carrying a sabre. The author was reminded of the fictional Rurutania, of Rupert of Hentzau and the Prisoner of Zenda. He was convinced of all sorts of goings on in picturesque castles perched on lonely hilltops shrouded in romantic mists, candle light, the rustle of silk skirts and of clandestine treaties being forged at midnight. Not to mention vampires,witches and wolves in  the similarly charming, though much older state of Romania.

They entered Yugoslavia at Belgrade, made a detour to Zagreb where they encountered the worst mud since Tanganyika and passed into Italy at the beautiful bay of Trieste. The roads were marvelous, on the highway from Milan to Como, and they were doing a good rate of knots and congratulating themselves on this, their first taste of speed in months, when a Bugatti came past at more than twice their speed nearly taking their hats off. From Lugano they had to cross the St Gotthard pass into Switzerland.The way was downright lethal with icy tracks and thousand meter drops.

In France they paid their respects at Delville Wood to  the 3600 countrymen who lost their lives  in 1916. The ferry took them over the channel to Folkestone in blinding sleet. Here the accents were music to their ears. In London, Lacey explained to Sallam that this was the village of Bwana Billie. Sallam, suitably impressed went to Piccadilly and purchased a bowler hat. He relished spending an entire day underground on the tube and being addressed as “Sir” by the hotel pages.

From London to Antwerp, Holland and Germany with receptions in every large city, these souls-weary of the Chevrolet expedition- were heavily taxed and could barely face having any more bouquets thrust in their arms. After visiting Berlin and Hamburg they drove for 36 hours to meet a deadline in Copenhagen. A ferry from Malmo brought them to Sweden where Gothenburg’s merry maids in pantaloons bade them welcome. In Stockholm “the Venice if the North” they were received by the city council in the Golden Hall, and given a fitting feast as finale for a remarkable journey. They were loaded with bouquets for the last time and then it was over.  The date was December 7th, 9 months and 20 000km after they had left Cape Town. Makepeace says they felt like King Arthur at the breaking up of the Round Table. This must rate as one of the greatest adventures of all time, and I feel well worth the retelling.

Today very few of the climbers who pay large sums of money to queue up on the Hilary Step on Mount Everest, spare a thought for the pioneer climbers of that great mountain, men dressed in putties and tweeds and wearing hobnail boots.

Similarly, today’s overland travelers, with air conditioning, inbuilt freezers and 4×4 drives, should spare a thought for those who preceded them with rudimentary suspensions, over-heating engines and biscuit wheels.

 Reference:

Capetown to Stockholm  A Chevrolet Adventure
By Gordon Makepeace
Published by General Motors South Africa Limited
Port Elizabeth 1929