Letters from readers, March 1943


I have followed with interest the recent reminiscences in Motor Sport, which I receive with surprising regularity, thanks to a kind motoring friend of old, who also keeps me well informed of motoring activities at home. As this world-wide war has brought about foreign travel to a far greater extent than ever before, I think it would be of interest, by way of change, to consider motoring in other lands. For my part, I would welcome contributions by others, probably more fortunate in their allotted venue, but certainly no more enthusiastic than myself in a desire to partake as fully as possible of the undoubted joys of motoring. Although opportunities are restricted and no motoring is done in these times without a background of duty, there is no reason why enjoyment should not still be derived. Indeed, the pleasures may become more intensified as the opportunities to indulge become less.

The sense of pleasure for me is limited, for there are no scenic splendours to enhance the charm of motoring in the land of which I write. I gain what joys I find from the smaller things—the feel of wind through the hair, the art of snappy gear-changing and the sense of freedom provoked by travelling unencumbered by the paraphernalia demanded by the changeable English clime. Thus, I seem to have found the very source of the enjoyment – yet only by forfeiting the convenience of home travel, with its better roads and higher speeds, the hills and dales of Derbyshire, numerous excursions to Donington, and the like.

In order now to gain a sufficient local atmosphere the better to appreciate the conditions of which the following makes mention, the doors and windows should be secured, all available heat turned on, and, preferably, the sand held in readiness for A.R.P. purposes scattered liberally over the floor. Come with me now, in imagination, to a desert wilderness where the sun beats down relentlessly upon a scene of unchanging monotony and the natives leave their work as frequently as possible to offer praise to Allah for the granting of such unbounded benevolence. Here the seasons are but two—hot and ruddy hot.

Yet despite this, one still contrives to find pleasure, and if no breeze is blowing, then there is more reason to create one on a motor-cycle or in an open car. Tarmac roads in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan—for it is that country to which I refer—exist only along main thoroughfares and are not defined in any way at the edges. They become begotten as they merge into sand. Other roadways are of sand only, and no surfaced road leads far from the boundaries of a town. No speed limit is necessary, for the nature of the surface imposes sufficient restriction.

The greater part of my travel here, as in England, has alternated constantly between two wheels and four, which suits the requirements of my rather taciturn nature admirably. My true love, I believe, is two wheels; especially when unrestricted by a lot of clothing and entirely certain of the weather.

I have ranged the country considerably from the Uganda frontier to the Red Sea, from Nimule to Khartoum, Atbara and Port Sudan. In all the time I have been abroad I have seen scarcely no rain, for I seem fated to go from place to place and miss the rainy season of each. As I have never felt too safe on wet roads, I am wondering just how I shall fare when again I face the changeable climate of England! At one time I was entirely fearless under all conditions, and I believe my present reaction to wet surfaces is due to the fact that the only times I have ever come unstuck were under really slippery conditions. During the summer months it is desirable to sit on something other than the seat of a car, which otherwise becomes unbearably hot, while one soon learns to leave a motor-cycle in any little shade which may exist. Experience soon teaches that if a motor-cycle proves difficult to start, it is advisable to investigate immediately and not sweat drops of’ blood in constant kicking. I have seen many unfortunate D.R.s kick until they have had no energy left and are dripping with perspiration. Before temporarily abandoning any vehicle, it is essential to ensure that nothing portable or detachable is left behind unguarded, for the natives are not beyond helping themselves to anything available. For this reason no tool kit is ever carried on a motor-cycle, or even a box in which to carry them. Even tyres are stripped from the wheels of vehicles left by the roadside due to breakdown. Once when driving an Opel “Kadet” I ran out of petrol, and after filling from a spare tin carried for such an emergency, I could get no sign of life from the battery. I searched in vain for a starting handle, and then, upon investigation of the front-end, found that no provision existed for starting on the handle. This seems a very misguided sense of economy. Nothing could be done, so I abandoned ship and sought the shade while awaiting assistance. Tyres constitute a considerable problem in more ways than one and pressures need to be attended to frequently, particularly with a motor-cycle. It is seldom that a tread becomes worn to the canvas, for before that can take place the tyre walls crack. Yet if the pressure is kept at anything like the maker’s figure, the front forks and links receive a terrific hammering—quite apart from the poor tummy—so that it is a ease of trying to hit a happy medium. During recent travel in Port Sudan I have been troubled at times with water in the carburetter, but whether this is due to a lower grade petrol or to the humidity of the atmosphere I do not know.

Apart from motoring in the towns, I have at times had to travel far from the beaten track across open desert and also in the hill country. Oh, yes! The Sudan has its hills, or “jebels”, as they are named locally. I once allowed myself to be driven from this hill area down past Suakin, to Port Sudan, by a Sudanni. I am a bad passenger at the best of times and on this occasion almost pressed the floorboard out of the Ford in which we were travelling. Like most Sudanese, he was a very irresponsible sort and tore around bends and down steep drops in a most frightening manner. On the straight sections his foot remained flat down as we bounced over the hard corrugations of the road, while one hand was constantly engaged in pressing the hooter, which seems to them absolutely essential to driving. Altogether the progress was extraordinary and rather terrifying. Pulling up at our destination the driver hurriedly asked the time and the miles clocked on the speedometer, and to make doubly certain asked for the figure in kilos as well, which made me think pretty hard for a while. I suppose he now claims the local record over cups of black coffee and handfuls of “mongareer”,in which case I, for one, would certainly not wish to deny his claim.

Often when accidents occur they involve considerable numbers, for they pack so many into the vehicles. At times as many as four can be seen sitting alongside the driver, with others clinging to the sides. A car had fallen over a particular drop we passed in the hills only the previous day, with death and injury to no fewer than 20 natives, while another accident involving 17 took place on my next visit to these parts, so that you need not wonder at my fear. I shall never be so lazy in the future, however, and my driver now takes his place by my side and not at the steering wheel.

Before arriving here I travelled by way of South and East Africa, and had a very interesting car ride from Nairobi to a farm in the highlands of Kenya, which necessitated climbing some 8,500 ft., mainly through bamboo forest. The road had been surveyed and hewn out by the farmer and his father before him, and, like many roads in Kenya, presented trials conditions unsought for. Even at this time of the year we were forced to make diversions and fit chains at various points. During the rainy season the road becomes altogether impassable. Most of the journey out was done at night, but instead of approaching headlights we were met by the gleaming eyes of animals by the roadside. This ride was quite one of the most unusual and exciting I have ever experienced, while the journey which later took me down to Lake Naivasha was through rugged and very beautiful scenery. It is scarcely necessary to add that the car was American, for cars of English manufacture are regrettably noticeable by their absence in all parts of South and East Africa, from Cape Town upwards. The number of garages in Durban rather astonished me; I think every other inhabitant must be a garage proprietor!

If our car manufacturers lack initiative the same cannot be said for the Singer Sewing Machine Co., whose machines are represented everywhere throughout the vast continent and are to be seen in the most remote spots imaginable, being treadled industriously by some dusky local. In Dar-es-Salaam I noticed a considerable number of German auto-cycles in use. There is little of the “Darkest Africa” touch remaining and bicycles are to be seen at the smallest and extremely remote marshland villages on the upper reaches of the Nile. It amused me to see the completely naked natives, proud owners of such machines, carrying out repairs by the side of their little domed huts near the northern Uganda border. I was dumbfounded one day, at Masindi, to be met by quite a horde of cyclists dashing in the direction of the native quarters. I was evidently witnessing the “knocking-off-time” exodus which even in remotest Africa is becoming mechanised. The roads of Uganda are highly complimentary to the responsible authorities, and are of a reddish nature, due to the ironstone which underlies the soil. To revert once more to the Sudan and to the heat which is so much a part of it, I find that on the hottest days it is advisable to start a motor-cycle in the approved textbook style. That is, to find compression, lift the exhaust valves lifter, and give a short jab before releasing the valve lifter and giving the long swinging stroke calculated to set things in continuous motion. Under less rigorous conditions I would never consider such pansy methods, but here it is necessary to conserve energy whenever possible.

I have previously had little to do with side-valve engines, another pansy creation, as I considered, but now, after sampling their more trouble-free and noiseless benefits, I am of changed opinion. O.h.v.s are certainly more efficient, yet require vastly more attention. One has to be more watchful than in England when driving in towns, for the natives saunter about with entire disregard for road users. That, then, contributes my lot to wartime travel to date, but for that of which I cannot speak. I have deliberately avoided an extensive use of place names for obvious reasons, for it is naturally impossible to write with entire freedom at present.

I am, Yours etc.,

E. L. Denman.

Sudan Government Railways, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.