WATCH: Bertie and Humphrey on tour... it's 1938 and the Sahara awaits them
Presumed to be a file filled with hand-written recipes, the notes lay gathering dust in a chest at a Westville bed-and-breakfast after owner Christopher Wilkinson returned from Zimbabwe having sorted out his great aunt’s possessions when she died in 1985.
Months later his wife, Claire, discovered it was in fact a firsthand account by Bertie Browning of a journey in a Wolseley car named “Voortrekker”, which he and fellow pioneering car racer Humphrey Symons drove from London to Cape Town 80 years ago (1938) to try to set a record.
Claire has now started a labour of love to decipher Browning’s account and edit it to what she has been advised is a publishable length.
“I love the story. I don’t want it not to be told,” said Claire, a life orientation teacher at Durban Girls’ College who trained in history. “They were trendsetters of their time.”
So far, she has written about the trip from London across France, over the Mediterranean to Algeria, across the Sahara and to the Nigerian city of Kano on the blog https://thecaperecord.com.
This has led to having daily correspondence with Wolseley fans and others interested in the adventure, including people in Algeria. The blog of the rest of the trip remains a work in progress.
According to the account, the adventurous duo focused on not losing time with their car, which was designed for desert travel with extra big tyres and a roof painted cream to keep it cool. They often had to navigate their way across the desert from beacon to beacon in a sea of tracks in the sand.
Then there was their relationship to make the expedition a success. Often one would sleep, while the other drove. “It is absolutely necessary for partners on a really long day and night drive to have complete confidence in each other and to know that if the driver is dangerously sleepy, he would awaken the one sleeping,” the blog reads.
“Without this confidence there is disquietude when one is not driving, which saps the reserves of endurance that it is so necessary to conserve on a long journey. Confidence in each other then is an absolute essential to success in any undertaking such as ours.”
“The human side around the story is what I love,” said Claire, whose blog includes stories behind the landmarks they passed, like a Citroen car wreck, between Tammuasset and In Guezzam (Algeria), captured in chapter nine.
“A little further on, we both exclaimed with one voice, ‘General Laperrine’s Citroen’,” it reads. “This is a burnt out wreck of an open touring car which caught fire owing to a short circuit and was completely destroyed.”
Her blog goes on to say how in later years, “General Laperrine, one of the French conquerors of the Sahara, was a man who died an epic death in the desert, when, on his very first flight across the Sahara, the aeroplane crashed.
“He and his two pilots were stranded - they, not knowing how long, if ever, it would be before they were found and rescued. They had with them little water, very, very little, and it is certain death to be caught in the Sahara without water. This sun will burn the life out of one in a very short time and no human being can survive without water.
“General Laperrine refused point-blank to drink any of the water, saying to the pilots, ‘No, you are young men with your lives before you. I am an old man whose life’s work is nearly finished; therefore you must divide the water between you in order that you may live as long as possible in the hope of the rescue.’ ”
When they protested, he said “there is no more to said. It is my order”. They were found three days later. The general was dead, as the general stood by his resolve and drank no drop of water during these three days. The two young pilots were alive and recovered.
Still to appear are their adventures in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The car fell into a river and inmates of the prison were brought in to help recover it and a bishop put them up them in a house, which was later used as headquarters in the 1960s by mercenary Mike Hoare during the war post-independence.
“They suffered malaria, bruising and broken fingers. But they carried on. They did their last leg, from Pretoria to Cape Town in 24 hours, almost getting washed away in floods at Laingsburg (a town largely washed away when the Buffels River flooded in 1981).”
Browning and Symons set a record of 31 days and 22 hours - having originally wanted to do the journey in 17 days.
In spite of Claire having pieced so much together, one missing link remains. How did great aunt Gwen Halford come to have this document?
The only link they can find is through Symons, who had been a motoring correspondent in South Africa and Britain and included the Wolseley trip in a book of three car expeditions across Africa, one of which was in a Rolls-Royce.
He died returning from Dunkirk during World War II and is remembered on a plaque at Runnymede in London, saying that his wife, Joyce Dorothy Cameron, came from Que Que in Southern Rhodesia.
The town is now Kwe Kwe in Zimbabwe and it is where Christopher salvaged the manuscript that he mistook for being recipes on a rushed visit.
“I had a day to find her dog a home, cancel the lease on her home, bury her and pile things into a trunk to come down in.”The Independent on Saturday