Text: GG van Rooyen
In October last year, a British team succeeded in setting a new overland record from London to Cape Town. They managed to complete the exhausting 16 093km trip in 11 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes.
It was an impressive performance that deserved to be celebrated, and we published an article on the achievement in our January 2011 issue (issue 81, page 80).
While the focus of the article was on the latest trip, we also highlighted other adventurers who had attempted this difficult journey in the past. Men such as George Hinchliffe, who completed the journey in 1952, and Ken Chambers, who drove from London to Cape Town in a Ford Cortina in 1963. As we said, what made their feats so impressive was that they were performed when Africa was still a relatively “dark” continent, unexplored by westerners, and before the invention of four-wheel-drive SUVs, satellite phones and GPS navigation systems.
We have since received an interesting letter. It turns out that there was a much earlier Cape Town to London trip that has been largely forgotten.
Riaan Oberholzer, writer of the letter, is the grandson of Joan Bouwer (now Freund). And according to stories she had told him since he was a young boy, her uncle, Gerry Bouwer, drove from Cape Town to London in 1928. Gerry, with his companions GF Noble and Emil Millin, were the first people to attempt the journey, and proved that an automobile could accomplish it.
But that wasn’t the whole story. Once in London, Gerry turned round and headed back to Cape Town. His aim was to show that a trip from Cairo to Cape Town could be made in a relatively short time. Again he succeeded, and arrived in Cape Town a mere 40 days after setting off. The battle for the overland record between London and Cape Town had begun.
Riaan also told us about a book on Gerry Bouwer’s adventures, written by Professor Floris van der Merwe. We arranged to meet Riaan, and borrowed the book. We also got in touch with Prof van der Merwe.
Well, Gerry was indeed the first person to complete this arduous trek in a passenger vehicle. And the adventures he experienced were astonishing.
So here is the story of Gerry Bouwer and his Chrysler, as researched and documented by Floris van der Merwe in his book, Gerry Bouwer en sy Chrysler deur Afrika.
THE ALL-RED GREAT NORTH ROAD
While British imperialism was already on the wane in the late 1920s, dreams of opening up the “Dark Continent” still existed. And one way in which the British hoped to accomplish this was through the creation of a highway (the all-red Great North Road) between Cape Town and Cairo.
Sir Abe Bailey, a South African tycoon and politician, was an ardent supporter of this idea and wanted to prove that driving from Cape Town to Cairo was not a far-fetched idea. In fact, he intended to show that it could be done even without the existence of a highway.
Latching onto Bailey’s ambition, the Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Times organised an expedition that would involve travelling from Cape Town to Cairo in a passenger vehicle. Once in Egypt, the expedition would push on to London. The aim was to gather information on the viability of an African highway.
Emil Millin, motoring editor of the two newspapers, would write the reports and GF Noble, a cameraman for African Film Productions, would film the expedition. Gerry Bouwer would drive.
Why Gerry? Because by 1928, he was already a household name for his motoring exploits, having established several long-distance records. It was also clear that he possessed the adventurous spirit needed to undertake this journey. At the age of 21 he had attempted to ride a mule from Cape Town to Cairo. After nine months on the road, however, he gave up near Bulawayo.
For the automobile trip, Gerry chose a Chrysler 72. Needless to say, the fact that he opted for an American car for an expedition promoting British imperial aspirations created quite a stir, but Gerry refused to budge.
He was a big fan of the brand and would not settle for anything else.
CAPE TO CAIRO
When Gerry and his team set off on 8 February 1928, precious little was known about the route that lay before them. Sections of the continent had been explored in automobiles, but the trio had virtually no idea what awaited them north of Nairobi. They were truly venturing into the unknown.
And to make matters worse, they were travelling during the rainy season. At first, they had intended to make the journey while central Africa was relatively dry, but the point of the expedition was to prove that travelling from Cape Town to London in a passenger vehicle was possible throughout the year. And that meant completing the journey while it was wet.
They encountered their first obstacle on 15 February. They had to cross the Limpopo River, and to accomplish this, they would have to use a pont. But before the Chrysler could be placed on the barge, they had to travel through a shallow section of the river. Fourteen donkeys were used to pull the vehicle through the water.
Once over the river, they discovered that heavy rainfall had transformed the roads into near-impassable channels of water. Travelling the 30km to the Liebigsdrif border post took hours.
This trial set the tone for the rest of the journey. Mud would be a constant obstacle. On their way from Lusaka to Broken Hill they encountered extensive swamps that brought their journey to a virtual standstill. On Saturday, 25 February, they progressed less than 4km.
By the time the team reached Broken Hill, the terrible roads had taken a heavy toll. The Chrysler was in desperate need of a service and Noble suffered such severe backache from the corrugated roads that he was sent back to Johannesburg by train. Bouwer and Millin continued on their own.
When they set off from Abercorn to Tanganyika, they discovered that the Bohora Plain near Mbeya was totally drenched. Their only options were to wait for the plain to dry out (which would take two months) or return to Abercorn.
They decided to go back to Abercorn, cross Lake Tanganyika, and then head for Kigoma. From there they would travel to Nairobi through Tabora and Dodoma.
The route eventually got them to Nairobi, but they were forced to wait for two weeks before a large steamship could transport their vehicle.
The marshes near Rejaf in the Sudan brought an end to the road north. There was no way that an automobile could continue, and the only option was to travel to Khartoum, 1440km away, by Nile steamboat.
Once they reached Khartoum, they were told that the proposed route north was incredibly harsh, and probably impassable in a passenger vehicle. Their problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Chrysler’s radiator had been damaged. It was beyond repair and a new one had to be sent from Alexandria. Their departure was delayed by almost two weeks.
With the new radiator finally installed, Bouwer and Millin headed for Atbara. They had to contend with deep sand and intense heat. Millin reported in the Rand Daily Mail that temperatures in the sun reached 71C, though that tests the boundaries of credibility.
Somewhere near Wadi el Homar they got lost in the desert. After five hours of driving, they found themselves back where they had started, but eventually they made it to Dagash and Abu Hamed.
From Abu Hamed they travelled to Wadi Halfa, where they took a ferry to Shellal. Once in Shellal, the road to Cairo was fairly open. Traffic was quite a problem, but the worst was definitely behind them.
CAIRO TO LONDON
Gerry and Emil reached Cairo on 14 May, 94 days after leaving Cape Town. Significantly, though, they had been on the road for only half that time. The rest was taken up by floods, breakdowns and ferry crossings.
On 16 May they travelled to Alexandria and boarded a ferry for Naples. After Africa’s terrible roads, driving in Italy and France was a joy, and they reached Paris a week ahead of schedule.
The pair arrived at South Africa House,
Trafalgar Square, on 4 June. They’d made it!
The roads in Africa had been terrible, and they suffered countless breakdowns and setbacks, but they had proved that the trip could be done. You could set off from Cape Town, travel across the African continent and get to London with your vehicle still in working order, give or take a repair or two.
But Gerry wasn’t happy. He was positive that you could travel between Cairo and Cape Town in far less time than they had taken ? especially in the dry season. In fact, he thought it could be done in as little as 40 days, and he would prove it later that same year. Gerry Bouwer was heading back to Cape Town, but this time he would be travelling alone.