Text: GG van Rooyen
When Gerry Bower and his travelling companion, Emil Millin, arrived in London on 4 June 1928, they were welcomed as heroes. Until that moment, no one had been certain whether a regular passenger vehicle could be driven from Cape Town to London. Indeed, the purpose of their expedition had been to establish the viability of a highway stretching the length of the African continent.
Because of this mission, they were forced to tackle central Africa during its rainy season. After all, the proposed highway would have to be negotiated in all seasons.
Needless to say, it added greatly to the difficulty of their journey. Many sections of the route were so waterlogged that traversing them was practically impossible. Villagers and animals were often used to rescue the Chrysler from muddy ditches and pull it through rivers.
Due to the difficult conditions, the team suffered a lot of delays. In fact, they had been on the road for only half of the 94 days it took them to travel from Cape Town to Cairo. And because of this, Gerry believed the journey could be completed in far less time during the dry season.
BACK TO AFRICA
Gerry left London on 22 August 1928. He would be travelling alone for most of the way, but his wife, Elaine, accompanied him to Folkstone. From there he would cross the channel to France by boat.
Getting out of congested London wasn’t easy. Gerry nearly missed the boat, but made it with one minute to spare.
In France he faced his first obstacle. His film camera was defective and had to be repaired. The problem was that he was on a tight schedule. To get to Africa, he had to be in Brindisi, Italy, within 80 hours to catch a boat to Egypt.
Fixing the camera took 10 hours. On top of everything, a guide he employed in Paris got him lost and delayed his trek even further.
By the time Gerry reached Geneva, Switzerland, he estimated he was 20 hours behind schedule. His only option was to travel through the night and cross the frightening Simplon Pass in the Alps by moonlight.
With 640km to go, he had 12 hours to reach the port. Gerry was exhausted, and predictably, fell asleep behind the wheel, and the Chrysler left the road. Thankfully he wasn’t injured and the vehicle wasn’t badly damaged, but the ordeal delayed him by another three hours.
In the end, though, he made it in time, setting a record for travelling between London and Brindisi in the process.
And once in Egypt, Gerry set yet another record – this time for travelling from Alexandria to Cairo in three hours and 40 minutes.
AN UNEXPECTED PARTNER
Gerry’s main challenge – driving from Cairo to Cape Town in 40 days – could now commence. However, his plans were about to change dramatically.
Who should be sitting on the steps of his hotel in Cairo but Elaine! She had desperately wanted to accompany him on the trip, but he felt the trek would be too dangerous for her. Frustrated by his refusal, Elaine had decided to force the matter.
While Gerry was blazing through Europe in his Chrysler, Elaine had flown to Rome, and then travelled to Naples, where she hopped on a boat headed for Egypt. She had arrived in Cairo a day before him and was ready to join him on his journey south. Gerry had little choice but to accept the situation.
The Bouwers left Cairo on 1 September and headed for Luxor. They completed the 960km route in 18 hours. From Luxor they drove to Aswan, where the Chrysler was transported by boat to Wadi Halfa. From Wadi Halfa they travelled across the desert to Khartoum.
Gerry and Elaine reached Khartoum nine days after leaving Cairo. Gerry had set aside 11 days for that section of the journey, which meant they were two days ahead of schedule.
However, their luck ran out as soon as they reached Khartoum. The only way to cross Sudan’s swamplands south of the city was by boat, so the Chrysler was loaded onto a ship heading for Mongalla. Once there, they could continue their journey.
Gerry had hoped that the boat would reach Mongalla within 10 days. It ended up taking 18. They were now significantly behind schedule.
The only way they could reach Cape Town in time was by travelling 650km every day. At the time, travelling from Mongolla to Cape Town by plane took about 10 days. Gerry and Elaine would have to cover the 8000km distance by car in 14 days. Things were not looking good.
Gerry was determined to make it, though, and set his sights on Nairobi. The route from Mongolla to Kenya’s capital was in a terrible state. Bridges had been washed away and impenetrable foliage blocked many tracks.
But despite the difficulties, the Bouwers completed the 1300km trip in 47 hours. They were making excellent time. They had been in Sudan on a Thursday, Uganda the next day, Kenya on the Saturday and Tanganyika on Sunday. Never before had anyone travelled overland through Africa so quickly.
Between Kasama and Broken Hill their fast and furious progress came to an end. While travelling at night, the Bouwers found themselves in the middle of a forest blaze. The Chrysler even caught fire, but Gerry luckily found a clearing where he could extinguish the flames. The wiring had been damaged, though, and needed to be fixed. The delay cost them 14 hours.
Gerry wasn’t too worried about the Chrysler – he was confident the vehicle would make it. More worrying was his own deteriorating condition. The furious pace was taking its toll.
“I am driving badly – worse than a novice,” Gerry wrote at the time. “It seems that the strain of speeding through the bush, hour after hour for over a week, has fogged my mind. Gear changing, which used to be an automatic process, is now a laboured effort, generally ending with a crash as gear wheels meet gear wheels at incorrect speeds.”
He was so exhausted that he started to hallucinate. While travelling on a narrow track at night, Gerry thought he saw a tree stump lying in the road, and swerved to avoid it. The Chrysler slid down a steep ravine and nearly rolled. When Gerry scampered up the slope to inspect the stump, it was nowhere to be found.
Worn out and understandably shaken, Gerry was forced to walk 6km to a nearby town to find replacement springs for the Chrysler.
When Gerry and Elaine eventually arrived in Bulawayo, a large crowd was waiting to welcome them. They couldn’t waste any time celebrating, though, because they needed to make up for lost time.
A HERO’S WELCOME
As with Gerry’s journey north, getting the Chrysler across the Limpopo required a team of 14 donkeys. And once again, crossing the river was a slow process.
But with the river behind them, their pace quickened. Being so close to the finishing point also gave Gerry a much-needed second wind.
When they arrived in Johannesburg, more than 3000 people were waiting for them. Their arrival created such a commotion that traffic was brought to a standstill. A few cars were even damaged as crowds stampeded to get close to Gerry and Elaine.
Initially, Gerry had intended driving all the way to the Cape without stopping, but he was in desperate need of sleep. The couple, now accompanied by a journalist from the Cape Times and a mechanic, left Johannesburg in the early evening. Two hours later, Gerry decided to stop in Potchefstroom and get some sleep. It was his first substantial break since leaving the Nile!
The team was back on the road very early the next morning. They still had 1450km to complete, and 32 hours left on the clock.
Although crowds along the route, as well as another unfortunate breakdown, slowed them down a bit, they managed to make it in time.
They arrived in Cape Town at 13h30 on 10 October 1928 – less than 40 days after leaving Cairo. Gerry had done it!
A route that had taken more than 90 days a few months earlier had now been completed in less than half that time. And, of course, many intrepid explorers would now feel the urge to reduce this time even further. The era of the African overland record att
empt had officially been born.
What made Gerry’s journey particularly impressive was that he had been the only driver. Although Elaine accompanied him, Gerry did all the driving.
Not that Elaine hadn’t played an important role, mind you. Gerry said afterwards that he probably wouldn’t have succeeded without her constant support. Together, the Bouwers had conquered Africa!
Thank you to Professor Floris van der Merwe for allowing us to use his book, Gerry Bouwer en sy Chrysler deur Afrika, while compiling these two articles.
We’d also like to thank Riaan Oberholzer (pictured here with his family) for telling us about Gerry’s historic journey. Riaan’s grandmother was Gerry’s niece.
Riaan is also an avid overlander, and is contemplating his own expedition through Africa.