In Praise of Overlanders All
In noting with interest my fellow bloggers’ fascinating overland experiences, I was reminded of my overland days. In the 1950s we ran an overland campsite in the grounds of our current Hardy, Langata house, dealing with two or three north or southbound truckloads of overlanders every week. We also had shares in a company bringing eighteen overlanders a month from South Africa to Nairobi from whence we flew them to London via Cairo. I have done three London-Nairobi overland trips and have inspired my wife, son, daughter, a brother-in-law, three cousins and countless friends to make the same journey. My first trip was in the early 1950s only a few months behind that infamous almost criminally negligent one with four people and their equipment in a Mini Minor which hadn’t even been prepared, and on which half the participants died of thirst while broken down in the Sahara. Compared with the experience of the modest Martin Moulder and his partner, currently residing in Karen, I am a non-starter. He arrived in Nairobi on horseback from South Africa and has literally spent all his life on overland travel and must have made over 100 Trans-African trips.
I have found overlanders the most interesting of travellers and it is a fact that all who enter Kenya overland after months on the road, as opposed to those who arrive having taken only eight hours to get here, invariably fall in love with Kenya and will only return to their lands of origin as a visitor. This holds true from Lord Delamere, who first came to Kenya overland from Somalia, to the latest New Zealand overland company driver
There is however one overland record I can claim which I am certain has never been nor ever will be surpassed. My three travelling companions and I are the luckiest overlanders there have ever been. The excitement of the North to South Sahara crossing was behind us; our beloved ex-army ambulance ‘Kitty’ was running beautifully with no fault with her engine or transmission. Then we encountered the non-roads of the Central African Republic, often almost impassable because of the mud At that time the republic was ruled by a psychopathic maniac called Bokassa who gave his embassy guests human brains for hors d’ouvres.
On board the ambulance were myself, my wife, my brother-in-law David Lockwood and an Australian hitchhiker whose name I forget. ‘Kitty’ was developing a serious dynamo failure. To attempt to correct this we had wired the dynamo output directly to the flat battery and the resulting illumination was a ten-foot diameter circle of yellow light on the muddy track ahead. It was pouring with rain and we were looking for a friendly mission station where a genial Catholic Priest would extend extraordinary hospitality.
We had been given directions in Bangui on how to reach our hopefully hospitable mission. We were to turn right at a track in 10 miles time, which was marked with a signpost to the mission. At 7 pm it was already dark and, as always, pouring with rain. My wife was holding the battery leads onto the battery and had to lean outside the canvas door in order to do so. I was driving and had not noticed the small signpost and my wife only caught a fleeting glance of it although we were travelling less than 30 miles an hour.
“I think we have just passed it,” she shouted. The roar of the engine and the claps of thunder drowned her voice. I subconsciously slowed a little and replied, “Say again.”
She repeated, “I think we may have missed the post.” Slightly intolerant I heaved a sigh because I was visualising that if we had missed the sign I would have to do a U-turn, which would be extremely difficult in a narrow wet track. At that moment a glimmer of moonlight emerged from behind a thundercloud just enough light to show that our track had turned in to a fairly empty wide expanse of mud, which I imagined must have been a parking or even a picnicking area. Kitty’s brakes not having been 100% since Dover and Kitty having a non-syncromesh gearbox, I double-declutched down to second gear and came to a very gentle stop. I then selected reverse gear, backed left-hand down in to what I now knew was a mass of flat area behind me and then proceeded forward right-hand down and so with one manoeuvre identified the track on which we had been driving and sure enough three minutes later came to the turning now on our left which we should have taken. Ten minutes later we handed over the mandatory bottle of Johnny Walker to the missionary Father and five minutes after that were all enjoying the steaming hot bath. Our stay was most pleasant and the sight of fifty orphaned African children between the ages of five and ten giving a tuneful and enthusiastic unaccompanied rendering of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ the following morning as we drove away was a sight and sound none of us would ever forget.
We soon retraced our tracks to the major track where we turned right for the Stanleyville route. Shortly after the turn the major track did open out into a very large open area cleared of the inevitable bush and trees typical of that area of central Africa and we noticed that the main track we wanted was a fairly major track bearing right whereas our tyre marks from the previous evening carried straight on through the huge open area. Guessing there must have been some viewpoint of interest ahead I followed the tracks for another 200 yards. When we had transversed half this distance we could make out what in fact was ahead. When we completed the next hundred yards we clearly saw the turning arcs Kitty had made the previous evening in the soft mud. I stopped and we all disembarked. The sight that met our eyes instilled terror and amazement as we realized that we had stopped the previous evening not feet but inches from the sheer 500-foot drop in to the River Bangui below!