Sands of the Sahara
THE man with the Wanderlust upon him is forever turning up in unexpected and out-of-the-way places throughout the length and breadth of the world. Rarely he knows, seldom he cares, how or why he got there; but, nine times out of ten, it has been a map which has put him on the trail. He spots a place; it rouses his imagination; he starts building castles in the air. A whim becomes an idea; an idea a possibility; a possibility a plan; and three months later the harassed relations of this will-o’-the-wisp are glued to a map. ‘Where on earth is the place where Owen wrote his last letter from?’
I had a partner as much a will-o’the-wisp as myself. Captain Richard Crofton and I met in London last October. Both of us had plans for a winter in Africa, he to shoot big game in Southern Sudan, I to follow the Nile from Egypt to its source in Victoria Nyanza and thence to make a circular trip — Kenya, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Rhodesia, Belgian Congo, and Angola — to the Atlantic at Lobito Bay. I showed him my route on a large-scale map of Africa. He listened politely; and I then asked him, as politely, how he proposed to get home from the Sudan. My inquiry provoked a flash of real inspiration. ‘I’ve got a car for my shooting trip; I’ll be finished in March, and then I thought of driving across to the Niger, and then’ — a slight shrug of the shoulders— ’I was thinking of the Sahara.’ A pause. ‘I wish you could come too; it will be terrible fun.’
I picked up the pencil which five minutes before had been piloting me through Mozambique, Rhodesia, and Portuguese Angola. It moved slowly from Rejaf across the Nile Congo Divide into Belgian Congo and then northwest, across rivers which the pencil positively leapt, into French Equatoria and up to Lake Chad. ‘That is a place I have always wanted to see.’ The pencil proceeded inexorably across Northern Nigeria, to the Niger and toward Timbuctoo. ‘Is n’t there some motor-bus service which goes across the Sahara?’ Captain Crofton had details at his finger tips. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘ if they do cross the Sahara, there must be some sort of track.’ The pencil by this time was nearly at Algiers. Captain Crofton, who is an Irishman, knew that he was dealing with another Irishman as impulsive as himself. ‘I do wish you would come too; it will be terrible fun.’
And that is really all the plans we made. Five months later we met at Rejaf, the southernmost Nile station in the Sudan; and I found our traveling team completed by the addition of one Mohamed Boon, a fifty-year-old Swahili cook from Zanzibar, who had learned the ways of the wilds in the bad old days when elephant could be poached with impunity in the forests of Northern Kenya. The car turned out to be a ten-hundredweight, twentyhorsepower commercial lorry, small, unadapted for tropical travel — in fact, the sort of grocer’s van which brings tea and sugar, bacon and bread, to respectable householders in any country town. We proposed to live on the country for food and petrol; but, as the first garage on our route was 700 and the second 2500 miles on, we took a good supply of spare parts. In a word, we set out to travel as travelers and not as an expedition.
On March 13 — an ill-omened date which made us, as Irishmen, touch wood all day until the dawn of the fourteenth broke — we left, the Nile behind us and set our faces west. On April 13 we rolled into Gao on the Niger, wiser, thinner, and keener than ever. And behind us lay the 3500-mile route which my pencil had marked six months earlier. We had seen the jungle and the Negroid paganism of the Northern Congo. We had crossed northwest into French Equatoria, and, as we dropped into the great basin of the Shari which flows into Lake Chad, Islam had met us from the north and we were once again able to use Arabic as a buying medium for eggs at twenty for two cents, and chickens at a dime apiece. In Northern Nigeria and French Sudan we had fringed the southern desolation of the Sahara. And ahead of us lay the 850 waterless miles of desert which we must cross before civilization would be refound at Reggan, the southernmost oasis of Algiers.
Mohamed had long ceased to know or to care where he was; and he could not understand our trip. We had had adventures by field and river, mountain and vale; we had suffered discomforts of heat, of vermin, and of bad water. ‘Are you not rich? Why, if you have money, do you travel thus, like sons of poverty, when you could as easily reach your homes by the steamers of the sea and the railways of comfort?’
Mohamed is an Arab. He spoke the common-sense language of the Arab. But he was not grumbling. With the passivity of his race, he was now one of an efficient team. We and he had learned to stand long days on the road, fourteen hours on a stretch, over surfaces like bits of crocodile leather, doing, if we were lucky, ten miles an hour. We could pitch camp in a quarter of an hour and change a tire in ten minutes. And we were as hard as leather. We needed to be. For the only easement on the driving seat was a very thinly padded straw cushion covered with American cloth as hard and slippery as a skating rink.
Into the bargain, both Captain Crofton and I had, each of us in our own way, accomplished something. Captain Crofton had seen and explored a game country which few have ever penetrated. I had learned that there is a Trans-African Highway from Nile to Niger, and had had the interest and romance of studying Negroes and Arabs, paganism and Islam, in kaleidoscope.
Once at Gao, however, we were finished with thinking about other things and other people. With the Sahara ahead of us, our job was to think for ourselves. Like the chicken which crosses the road, our real object in crossing the Sahara was to get to the other side. It was a short cut and a cheap cut home, and we had on us the last-lap restlessness which possesses every traveler at the end of his journey. But we were also seriously preoccupied. The day before we reached Gao, we had met our first serious sand, overflowing from the Sahara and the north right across our track; and three times we had been hopelessly sand-bogged in great red shifting sand hills. True, there had been convenient natives to push us out, and a convenient Niger to replenish our radiator which in the sand boiled away its water about every three miles. But one thing which we did know of the Sahara — and we knew little else — was that it was made of sand, that it was waterless, and that it was uninhabited.
We recounted our sand experiences to the people of Gao and asked such of them as claimed — and nearly all of them did claim — to have first-hand knowledge of Sahara conditions ahead for comments on our prospects. In the light of subsequent events, we now know that Gao is entirely populated by a type of person who is best described in the title of a French magazine, Je sais tout. And the Gao ’I know everything’ had a marvelous dramatic power of investing his inaccuracies with a wealth of convincing detail. Our friends shrugged their French shoulders over the narrowness of our tires; but the reason why our wheels had sunk in the sand was really only that we were grossly overloaded. We must lighten the car drastically; for there were difficulties of sand and surface over the first 250 miles of our journey. ‘But, messieurs, after that you will find a billiard table (billard) where you can roll along as fast as you like to Reggan. Good luck and a pleasant journey!’
Our route lay roughly along the Greenwich meridian; our guide was to be the ruts of the six-wheel, doubledrive, thick-tired Juggernaut motor buses which during the three winter months ply fortnightly between Gao and Reggan; our confidence lay in the prospect of the promised billard and in the knowledge of our lightened load.
April the sixteenth dawned; we put out our fights and saw monotonous thorn-scrub country rolling ahead into a dusty horizon. But the grocer’s van, with great light-heartedness, carried two long drifts where cattle, camels, goats, and sheep had churned the sand into a morass round two hard-worked wells; the engine did not boil; and after seven hours’ running we sighted Tabancourt, the last post and the last well to the north in French Niger Province and 130 miles out of Gao.
We were warmly welcomed by a lonely sous-officier from Marseilles, who rolled his r’s in true ‘Rrrrue de la Canebièrrre’ style; he showed us all over the tiny fort, which might have been taken straight out of Major Percival Wren’s Beau Geste; and over lunch he talked to us of his life in the ‘Brousse’ and the ‘Bled’ just as others in other countries will speak of the Bush and the Far West. Of conditions ahead he knew nothing. But Tabancourt was an oasis of friendliness and the entire garrison of thirty — Senegalese, Hausas, Fellatahs, and Bornuese, all as black as pitch — saw us off with ‘Bonne chance! Bon voyage!’
That afternoon we met the difficulties of which we had been warned in Gao, and for two hours were embarked in a policy of rush-and-rush-again tactics, through grim miles of sand drifts. They were succeeded by a new and even more unpleasant type of country, a vast undulation of closely plotted grass hummocks through which progress was a veritable torture. There was a track, but so cut by the wheels of the Juggernauts that we took a line of our own. Now one wheel would tilt us thirty degrees to the right, now the other would nearly capsize us to the left; the grocer’s van lurched and bumped, creaked and boiled; our progress sank to a dismal five miles an hour; our necks wobbled and ached as we skidded and bounced on our now threadbare straw cushion.
And at last Nemesis descended upon us. Foolishly —it was my suggestion — we left the Scylla of the grass hummocks and fell into the Charybdis of the road. The car ran through its three gears in as many yards and subsided, a mass of mechanical inanition, with sand up to its axles. It was four operations before we had extricated ourselves, and each of these operations was a battle in itself. First, with our hands (for we had no spade) we dug the sand away—Mohamed and I under the wheels, Captain Crofton under the axle. The jack slowly raised the wheels one by one from the sand. Mohamed and I put a floor board under each and sacks on top of them and as far along the track as they would go; and then we were ready to move. Captain Crofton took the driver’s seat; Mohamed and I crouched behind the tailboard. As the bottom gear engaged, he raised his hand and we, under the tailboard, lifted and pushed like Burmese elephants. The wheels whirred, and if, happily, they engaged in the sacks, the car took a lurch forward; Mohamed and I redoubled our efforts to give it enough impetus on the sacks to carry it out of the worst of the sand to a place where the surface was sound. And so ad nauseam. We never got out in less than two, and often it was six operations before we were free; and we came to talk of sand-bogging in terms of the golf green. It was ‘out in one’ or ‘two’ or ‘three.’
Mohamed was a great colleague behind the tailboard. As a ‘true believer,’ he did not rely only on brawn and sinew. As we crouched, awaiting Captain Crofton’s signal, I would hear deep-chested ‘Bismillahs’ (‘In the name of God’). And when the Almighty answered his prayers and we were at last clear, he would raise his two hands to the sky: ‘El hamdul’lillah’ (‘The praise is to God ’).
Our excursion into Charybdis had involved us in four such operations; the sun was low; we were weary, and we opted for our first desert camp — 185 miles north of Gao. It was our first night in the desert, in a stillness which, even to us, despite our long traveling, was awesome; and it was our first night without beds. My old bones, especially my thigh bones, found the ground impossibly hard. The moon went down; Orion circled slowly overhead; I waited, wide-eyed, for the dawn. It came at last, and I rose without regret and told Captain Crofton that I had not slept a wink. Dawn is always a bad moment. ‘You woke me up with your snoring. You should try lying on your side.'
We broke camp, and as soon as it was light we rumbled off again into the same grass-hummocked land as we had experienced overnight, and the sun, which the day before had been slightly overcast, shone from seven o’clock with pitiless force. We boiled and boiled again. And then we were given one of those unworthy but none the less pleasant reactions which every now and then betray the frailty of human nature. At 7.30 we met one of the Juggernaut motor buses derelict with a broken differential. It had wireless, and help and spare parts were coming from the north; it had thick tires, six wheels, and a double drive. But it could not move. We could. And as we drew our little van up beside it we felt an ignoble glow of satisfaction and a superiority complex which was vastly soothing.
But pride goes before a fall. The Juggernaut faded behind us into the mirage and ahead of us opened a country more open, less hummocky, but a worse torment than anything we had previously experienced. Its surface, for all its smiling promise, was but a pie crust into which our narrow tires, with our still considerable load above them, cut ruts six and nine inches deep. We were thrice sand-bogged; and in this apparently bottomless sand mere digging and pushing were not enough. Before the car would make any show of extricating itself, everything had to be off-loaded. Eventually, thus lightened, it would consent to skate away over the pie crust; but it was always fifty, often a hundred, yards before Captain Crofton could find some solid ground on which it was safe to halt. And then three weary men had to manhandle everything in broiling heat across a hundred yards of soft sand before we should be ready to start off again.
We halted at noon. In seven hours we had only covered sixty-eight miles. A sand storm which had been raging for three hours had become a tearing tornado, beating against the curtains of our grocer’s van, in which we cowered and tried and failed to sleep; and our food was beastly, hot and full of grit. We could not move till the sun had gone down. The horizon had disappeared in a haze of flying sand. North, south, east, and west the maddening monotony of the same pie crust, broken only by a few stunted flat - topped thorn bushes; the only shelter or shade in the lee of the grocer’s van. It was a desolation of noise — the noise of tiny particles of sand scurrying before the storm over the uneven flatness around us, or pattering like hail against the car. It was a place where everything seemed dead, where death was triumphing in an exultation of noise, as though gloating over the impending doom of three dejected mortals.
We racked our brains for inspiration how to escape, how to avoid further sand-boggings; and then we remembered that Mohamed and I together weighed three hundred pounds. And out of that weighty conclusion emerged the gentle art of ‘lorry-hopping.’ On the slightest sign of faltering in the car, Mohamed and I were to get into the ‘alert position.’ If and when the car had to go down to second gear, we were to ‘ prepare to jump’; if and when bottom gear was called upon, we were to jump and rush behind the tailboard and push as though all the devils of Hell were behind us. Happily, it is possible to translate into Arabic ‘devils of Hell.’ Mohamed roared with laughter and became an expert lorryhopper.
And it worked. At five we packed and were off again, and for an hour we lorry-hopped and lorry-hopped over gravel-strewn sand which literally quaked under us. For mile after mile we cut deep ribbons in the sand. But we did not stick. And then conditions almost abruptly changed. As the short African twilight merged into darkness, we found ourselves literally bowling along a fine surface, and we were leav - ing no ruts. Could it be that we had struck at last the ‘billiard table’ promised us by the Gao folk? eight o’clock we had forty-five miles behind us; and, as we discussed some bully beef and tinned grapefruit, washed down with real black Irish tea, we talked of an all-night drive till nine o’clock next morning, and the possibility of being in Reggan in two days.
Night driving is an odd thing in the desert. We had dipped our lights so as to be alert for pitfalls, and they threw a short beam of whiteness into an inky gloom which blotted out all indication of the country we passed through. Every now and then there were short patches of rough sand; but until midnight it was fine going on a hard road, and by one in the morning we had 180 miles credited to us for the day’s run.
But the last hour had been less satisfactory. Mohamed and I had had to lorry-jump twice; we found it suddenly difficult to pick up the track after surmounting the sand drifts, which seemed to be more and more frequent; we had to swerve and swerve again when a hole appeared right under the nose of our bonnet. Eventually, we made the miscalculation which every night driver inevitably makes; and before Mohamed and I were behind the tailboard we were hopelessly stuck. After an hour and a half of digging and pushing, we were at last ‘out in six,’ completely exhausted and with thoughts only of sleep. But we were by no means depressed; for were we not now on the billard, and could we not look forward to miles and miles of good going on the morrow?
Dawn, when it came, dispelled all our hopes. Ahead of us the track twisted and turned, rose and fell, through a sandscape of treacherous whitish drifts and stretches of slabby shale sometimes white, sometimes a purplish blue. On we went, sideslipping and swerving over a surface which was no surface and where the sound places where our engine could rest and cool were few and very far between. And further to complicate our situation, the sand storm again began to blow shortly after 7 A.M. We were sandbogged twice; progress was a torture; the track became worse rather than better.
At half-past eight we found a momentary resting place on the crest of a sand hill over which the storm roared and swirled. Ahead of us lay an eight-mile valley of surging waves of shale and drift which seemed almost to move as we watched and wondered how on earth we, with our narrow tires, were to get across to the other side. We filled up the radiator and were off, and even going dowm the hill it was second speed — a rush, a swerve, a check to steady the engine; then another rush, a bump, a tear through a drift, and a pant up a tiny slope into which our wheels sunk one third of the way up their axles. Then we were on the flat, twisting through a grim crop of dirty yellow hummocky grass. We lurched and bumped; we lorry-hopped only to lorry-hop again in another twenty yards. It was like walking in ordinary boots on mud. And as we advanced, we saw the slope out of the valley. A long rampart of pale orange sand seemed to block our way for all time.
It was perhaps the most depressing of all the depressing views which we had on our journey. There was only one thing to be done — Mohamed and I would walk, and Captain Crofton, on his own, must make a dash and trust to luck. He drove off; and I confess that I had the feeling that I had just seen the departure of a forlorn hope. I could not watch, and turned my face to the south, and there I stood, for what seemed an age — to be suddenly disturbed from thoughts which are unprintable by a loud cry from Mohamed: ‘Allah Karim!' (‘God is merciful!’)
I turned. The poor old grocer’s van was almost at the top of the crest. It took a desperate swerve; collected itself like the nice old body it had proved itself to be; positively leapt on to a small stretch of red stone outcrop; gained on it an access of speed as its wheels met firm ground; and, just, as a well-trained hunter tops an Irish bank, disappeared over the crest of the hill. Such was our excitement that Mohamed and I ran all the way after it; and then again disillusion faced us. The poor little van stood firm on a slope of shale; but ahead of us to the north yawned what appeared to us to be a far worse valley. It was nine o’clock; the engine was boiling like a geyser, and despite the fact that we could not be on a more exposed spot we halted for the day.
And then we made an appalling discovery. Somewhere behind us we had dropped our crank. The effect was as though a doctor had told me that one of my lungs was gone. The other lung of a car is the self-starter. It alone remained — a creature of whims, a delicate bit of machinery liable at all times to dislocation. And for us dislocation would mean disaster. For in sand such as we now knew, never should we, on our own, be able to push the car into activity. We had to decide whether to go back and look for the missing handle or to risk the self-starter over the remaining 450 miles to Reggan. We looked back into the teeth of the storm. We had no idea where in that grim landscape of swirling sand our poor old crank lay. Probably it was already deeply buried. We might find it. We might not. Anyhow, time would be lost, and time with our limited water supply was all-important. ‘We’ll risk it!’
We retired preoccupied into the rumble of the car; we could not sleep; we hated our food; for the next eight hours we had only our thoughts to distract us. And think we did. And from our thoughts emerged yet another resolution. Lorry-hopping was not enough; we were still impossibly overloaded; the crank was gone. We must pay a bigger price for some certainty of progress on our road. We had combed out our gear at Gao; now we must jettison ruthlessly. Our decision had a curiously quietening effect on our nerves. We felt that we were up against Nature in her angriest mood — storm, heat, and sand — and that somehow we must propitiate her; and, since we were Irish, propitiation must be in the form of penance, of sacrifice.
When the time came, at five o’clock, to repack, we laid out, almost reverently, on the sand a red woolen blanket, which I had bought in Khartoum. On it we threw pell-mell: a ten-guinea rifle; three spare springs; an axle; all our spare parts except absolute essentials; our medical stores; a few books and an unregretted assortment of very inferior personal raiment. And then we dropped down the valley. As the crest of the hill disappeared behind a contour of sand hill, I saw, silhouetted against the southern sky, a pyre nearly three feet high which probably was covered by the sand storm during the night. There it will remain for all time, or until some explorer of the future, discovering it, wonders where are the bones of the men who were the central figures in this tragedy.
To our surprise, and entirely owing to Captain Crofton’s brilliant driving, we surmounted that valley without a stick; but it in its turn faded behind us only to open up more horrors ahead. And in them we stuck and stuck again — it was as though our sacrifice was of no avail. By seven o’clock we had only covered five miles; at half-past nine, four miles farther on, we literally fell into a hole out of which it took us two and a half hours to extricate the car. And then we looked at the speedometer: that day we had covered only thirty-four miles. But in our fatigue we really hardly realized the seriousness of this poolrun; all we wanted was sleep. We put the car on a safe bit of ground, took out sacks and laid them on the sand. I, for one, was fast asleep before I had had even time to pull my overcoat over my bare knees.
There is a saying somewhere in the Scriptures that the Almighty will not try the endurance of us humans beyond that which we are able to endure, and will in the end provide some means of escape. So it was with us. This dawn, the fourth which we had seen since leaving Gao, brought us hope. The country was still grim and undulating; but the undulations were wider and the track ahead of us less deeply furrowed with ruts, and therefore harder. We were obsessed with the inevitability of sand-bogging; it made driving anxious work; but on we went mile after mile; we were not bogged; our spirits revived, and by eight o’clock we had covered forty miles without incident.
We halted in the middle of a rolling depression to fill up with water, when suddenly, over the top of a crest to the north, appeared first one lorry and then another. This was the breakdown gang which had been sent from Reggan to repair the derelict Juggernaut which we had passed two days before to the south. They were as surprised to see us as we to see them; and there was something so odd that no words of mine can convey its oddness to be one of six Europeans standing in the midst of nowhere talking calmly of roads and petrol consumption and water. They gave us some water, which was good of them; but they carried away from the meeting a most gloomy impression of our condition. What we looked like I know not, save that I had a four days’ beard; but when that evening they reached the broken-down car they wirelessed from it to Gao that they had met two half-mad Englishmen, who looked as if they were dying, and — an arrant inaccuracy — that their car was sunk up to its axle in sand, out of which the two might or might not extricate themselves.
That meeting marked the turning point in our fortunes. They went south; we went north and in ten miles were on the Tannesruft, the desert of deserts, abhorred by all Arabs, until recently unexplored, but hard and good going. But Nature was still against us. Across a flatness which was absolutely unbroken, yet another sand storm hurled itself at sixty and seventy miles an hour; our engine boiled despite the goodness of the going, and when we found that it was necessary to fill up once every five miles we decided to halt for the day.
As cows turn their sterns to the rain, we turned our tailboard into the teeth of the storm; we unloaded everything and made a barricade under the back axle. Mohamed lay there and slept; we retired into the rumble to pass the time as best we could. We slept little because, owing to the terrific heat, we had to keep our topees on our heads; and the presence of a topee balanced across the bridge of the nose is not conducive to slumber. But during the morning’s run I had invented a receipt for bread and milk. We had brought with us from Gao some French rolls which by this time were as hard as bricks. I got out a hammer and broke one into comparatively small morsels, threw the result into the kettle, poured on it some water, and, to use the phraseology of the cookery book, ‘left to soak for four hours.’ At one o’clock it was reduced to quite a malleable mush, and on the top of it we decanted the contents of a small tin of condensed milk; we then ‘added sugar to taste, stirred well, and served in two tin mugs.’
But there were still three hours of utter boredom to pass before the sun was low enough to allow us to be off again. And three hours was a long time in a heat which defies description, in a scenery which was no scenery, and in a leisure which had nothing to relieve it except the depressing reading of the only book which had survived our pyre — Hints on How to Mend the Car in Cases of Emergency.
We packed for the road at five o’clock; the storm had completely died away and I stood away from the car to take a photograph. I have taken photographs in mid-ocean. The result is a line of horizon dividing sky and sea. So was it with my photograph; save that the car stood a pathetic blot of shade in a brown-gray flatness. There was no incident of scenery, no hills, no undulations. There was no life or signs of life — not a blade of grass or a stick of wood; no shelter and no shade save that given and cast by the grocer’s van. And in this ‘Erewhon’ where even the inspiration of a Butler would have failed I looked at our gallant car and all I could think of was a child’s bucket left derelict on a seashore where the sea was a mirage and the shore an emptiness of sand — an unbroken flatness such as I have only seen on the face of the moon when it is full. And all in a silence so tense and so impressive after the storm that even Mohamed talked in a half-tone.
But the self-starter still worked. In the cooling day we made fine progress hour after hour along the remaining hundred miles of the Tannesruft plateau. We met sand, but surmounted it, and though the three successive sand storms had obliterated all ordinary tracks we had to guide us the recent ruts of the lorries we had met in the morning. But after midnight, when we began to meet the sand drifts which the prevailing north wind had heaped up against the long slope down from the plateau, even they had disappeared for long stretches as a result of the morning’s storm. We would surmount a drift to find no traces of them on the other side. Then it would be an anxious range right and left until they again emerged deep and welcome in the glare of our lights.
These moments were nerve-racking. And we started being sand-bogged again. Twice we were held up for the best part of an hour, once with a long off-load and on-load and the fatigue of a hundred yards’ carry of petrol, water, and food, which was now all the load we had left. But we moved, and when the moon went down at four o’clock we had another thirty miles behind us, and when at six the sun rose we had the knowledge from our speedometer that we had gone over two thirds of the way, and that Reggan could now be talked of in terms of possibility. (‘Touch wood,’ we added hastily.) And talk we did; talk of everything and anything; and the reason why we talked was not that we had anything to talk about, but because if we did not talk we went to sleep. But when the sun was up we saw ahead of us a road which was far better than we had expected; and Captain Crofton, who had driven for ten out of the last twelve hours, settled down on the hard American cushion and slept soundly at my side; while I, for an hour, drove zigzagging along what was, happily, a good surface, falling asleep seven times, to wake up each time with that uncomfortable jar which accompanies a return to consciousness and responsibility after a moment of illicit relaxation.
By nine o’clock it was hot, and the car began to boil; but we would have pushed on, despite the heat, had it not been that suddenly and without warning there was a whirring in the bonnet — as it might have been a spasm in a grandfather’s clock. It was the first whimper the car had given, but it was such a loud whimper that we had the horrible fear of disaster to the selfstarter. We halted, examined, and found nothing amiss. We went on again. There was another whirring, another halt, another agony of suspense; but the self-starter still worked. Another whirr, another halt, and then we saw the figures of our speedometer spinning like a teetotum. The degree of our relief cannot be translated into words. Speedometers have nothing to do with the engine. We disconnected ours and thereby lost all contact with distance. But that mattered comparatively little. Two days before, our only watch had succumbed to an excess of sand in its ‘innards,’ so that we were already out of contact with time. But the self-starter was still working.
That day, our fifth midday halt, passed blankly in a blank scenery of sand and nothing but sand, rolling away to a horizon streaked with mirage. We had more bread and milk and more grapefruit, and before we left in the evening we each had a tin of bully beef; and with the same feeling that the cross-country runner has when he sees the straight leading up to the winning post, we were off an hour before sundown, heading due north for live last l50 miles into Reggan.
We intended to drive all night, but wc did not know then that the section of the road which lay before us was actually the worst of all. For an hour or two the going held good, and then we were in a type of going which can best be described in three degrees of badness. When it was bad it was as though we were ploughing over eight thicknesses of best eiderdown quilt; when it was worse the sand was of the consistency of powdered chalk, and as we churned our way through it our narrow wheels would throw up clouds of chalky dust which, in the beam of our dipped lights, looked exactly like powdered snow. When it was impossible it was a combination of the bad and the worse, with the further complication that there seemed to be no bottom to the quaking surface through which our narrow wheels churned ruts sometimes a foot deep.
On we went, zigzagging and swerving into the gloom ahead of the beam of our lights. We never knew what was coming next; we found ourselves in long twisting descents into gullies, rounding spurs at an angle of thirty degrees, and then sideslipping ten and sometimes fifteen yards into drifts. Three times we did not surmount by lorry-hopping. At two o’clock — or as near as we could calculate the hour by the moon — we were at the end of our strength, not knowing where we were or how much farther we had to go, and afraid to go on lest sleep at the wheel should at this eleventh hour involve us in total disaster.
So we slept where the car rested, a heavy sleep — so heavy, indeed, that for the first time on the journey the sun was up over the rim of the horizon before we had opened our eyes. But when we looked out we saw the goal of our pilgrimage. For the horizon was no longer a flat streak of nothingness, but an indented outline of hills which were not sand hills. They were the northern rim of the Sahara; and somewhere in them we knew that Reggan lay. It was near and yet so far. Ahead of us lay a Slough of Despond, as tortured and as full of ruts as is a motor parking field at a race meeting on a rainy day; and the only way our narrow wheels could surmount these ruts was by pursuing an S course, zigzagging across them rathor than running the risk of being engulfed in them.
At last we topped a rise and through our glasses we saw a white something in the hills which we guessed was a house and Reggan. Mohamed saw it first: and he saw it just after we had been badly bogged, and were all feeling rather desperate. He raised his hands to heaven. ‘God has brought us out of the desert; He will bring us out of this soup.’ The house slowly defined itself, a big square fortlike building. Soon we made out detail of its shape, the angle of the wall where its sunlit and shadowed faces met. Another two miles on, over another rise, and beneath the fort the oasis itself, a patch of green that crystallized into a grove of feathery palms. And the sight of green after the dirty grays and the insipid browns of the desert behind us was reaction so violent that we shouted with excitement.
And now we could drive on a landmark, and that landmark meant all that we had lacked since Gao — life, water, shade, and shelter. Then we saw a man. He was an Arab. He looked at us curiously, and Mohamed, now quite beyond himself, shouted, ‘Sabbagh el kheir!’ (‘The top of the morning to you!’) We were no longer lonely men in lonely places; we were leaving the Desert of Deserts, climbing out of it. A rough slope led under the palms. A flock of pigeons wheeled high and noisily into the blue sky. And at last, at 7.30 on Sunday morning, April 21, we drew up in front of the fort at Reggan. The tricolor of France was flying in the southerly breeze; beside it towered a wireless mast. We were back in civilization.
But when the twin gates of the fort opened and there streamed out to meet us a handful of French military officers, mechanics, and wireless experts, the garrison of this tiny outpost of empire, we were greeted as spirits returned from the grave. For the wireless had brought them news of the two halfmad moribund Englishmen who had been last seen up to their axles in sand; and orders had already been written for an expedition to our rescue. But, in fact, we were neither spirits nor madmen who had thus created a flutter in the dovecotes of Reggan. Nor were we lame ducks. Thanks to the self-starter, we had survived; thanks to Captain Crofton’s brilliant driving, we had still ten days’ supply of water to drink in case we had been lost, enough petrol to have carried us another 150 miles, and a starvation diet of food for ten days. But until we left, our friendly French hosts in Reggan persisted in regarding our crossing as a joke.
Mohamed has never seen the joke. He bore with us the long tiring days of our 1100-mile run north to Algiers; he smiled with us as desert gradually yielded to cultivation; he welcomed the more frequent oases, the superior comfort of hotels as compared with resthouses, the smoother roads, and the companionship of coreligionists when we stopped for the night. He was interested in the railhead at Djelfa, in the wonderful Swiss-like gorge of the Blida River, and in the luxuriance of the intense cultivation on the coastal plain. Then, to us, it was ’Thalassa, thalassa!’ — the Mediterranean, and home in ten days. To him it was but another problem as to where we were going to take him next.
What he feared, I know not; but I do know that he would only have been distressed, not surprised, had we said that our next halt was the moon. He thought — and in his Sudan village where he is now the great raconteur he still thinks — that we were mad. And the stories which he is telling to-day round the evening fire outside his cottage are stories which have no beginning or end, no geography or sequence. As such they will be passed down from father to son; and Mohamed will always be the hero who brought the two mad ‘ Inglizi ’ in and out of a great unknown somewhere to the west of the setting sun.