If explorers want their names firmly inscribed in the annals of history they have to be the first to accomplish some daunting task. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, for example, will always be remembered because they were the first people to set foot on the moon. Few people, however, recognise the names of Charles Conrad and Alan Bean, who walked on the moon during the Apollo 12 mission.
But as an explorer, what do you do if you can’t be first? After all, most places on earth have been visited. There is no other source of the Nile to discover, no other Everest to climb and no other Antarctic conti nent to traverse. So what do you do? Simple: you pick a challenging task (like travelling overland from London to Cape Town in an automobile), and you accomplish it in less time than anyone before you.
And that’s exactly what Mac Mackenney, Steve Mackenney and Chris Rawlings did. On 16 October the trio of adventurers set off from the premises of the Royal Automobile Club in London and headed for the AA building in Cape Town. Their aim was to beat the record of 13 days, eight hours and 48 minutes, set in 1963 by Eric Jackson and Ken Chambers.
HEROES OF YESTERYEAR
Jackson and Chambers were not the first adventurers to take on the arduous overland route from London to Cape Town in an automobile. In fact, for a few decades during the early 1900s, the route attracted a large number of colourful British adventurers.
The first person to complete the trip was Chaplin Court Treatt , a major in the British military who managed to lead a convoy of Crossley trucks from Cape Town to London in 1924. It took him 16 months.
Once Court Treatt had secured the allimportant distinction of being the first person to accomplish the challenge, other adventurers set their sights on a time record. And considering that the first effort took 16 months, they were confi dent they could improve on it.
Few, however, were as optimistic as Humphrey Symons. Not only did he want to complete the trek in 17 days, but he also wanted to prove that the journey could be completed in a British passenger car. So on 22 December 1938, Symons and his co-driver, Bertie Browning, left London in a Wolseley 18/85.
It is fair to say that Symons underestimated African conditi ons. Not only were temperatures in the north scorching, but in many regions there were virtually no roads. Nevertheless, the Wolseley kept going. In fact, it set a record for crossing the Sahara by completi ng the 3 647km from Algiers to Kano in Nigeria in three days, four hours and 45 minutes.
But their progress came to a sudden halt in the Belgian Congo when Bertie steered the vehicle off a bridge and into the Gada River. The two men managed to escape the sinking car and hiked 6km to a Catholic mission. The next day, 150 convicts from a local prison were given the task of lift ing the Wolseley out of the water and carrying it up the steep riverbank. They succeeded, but the car was not in good shape. The chassis was badly bent and the rear suspension had collapsed.
But it was still drivable, so Symons and Browning kept going. Four days later they found a group of mechanics who helped them straighten the chassis a little and fit wire mesh where the windscreen had been.
On Saturday, 21 January 1939, they arrived in Cape Town. The broken and beaten Wolseley had completed the trip in 31 days and 22 hours.
In 1952, George Hinchliffe and James Pulman attempted the route in a Hillman Minx. And compared to Symons’ expedition, their journey was downright boring. Sure, there were terrible roads, flash floods and frustrati ng ferries to negotiate, but none of it could halt the Minx. According to Hinchliffe, exhausti on was their biggest obstacle, but a brisk walk, a splash of deodorant and a dash of British stoicism was all that was needed to keep the drowsiness at bay.
“During the day we made it a practi ce to each take two-hour spells of driving, varying this to one hour each during the hours of darkness. Bearing this in mind and the fact that on two occasions only in 21 days did we have a complete night’s rest, the preliminary work in ensuring real physical fitness and the long-distance preparatory drives for special endurance training were well rewarded,” Hinchliffe said after their trip.
“At odd times, of course, we both experienced the urge to sleep. It was inevitable; then we would stop, take a brisk walk or have a dressing of eau de cologne on face and neck, to put us right for another hundred odd miles.”
They completed the route in 21 days, 19 hours and 45 minutes, but Hinchliffe wasn’t happy. In December of the same year he hit the road again, this time in a Humber Super Snipe. When asked why he would tackle the route twice in one year, he said: “I was getting restless again, and one day at the motor show in October I decided there and then to have another go. This should get me away from the English winter for a time to enjoy plenty of sun and, with any luck, be back home by Christmas.”
He left London on 26 November 1952. “If anyone asks where George is, say he has gone to lunch in Cape Town,” he said as he drove off .
The only modifications to his Super Snipe were a roof rack, two extra headlamps and an auxiliary tank. His gear consisted of a compass, a camera, two rifles and a kettle “in order to make tea at any time of the day or night”.
Hinchliffe completed the trip in 13 days, nine hours and six minutes. In the final 24 hours of his journey, he travelled 1931km.
Predictably, the record stood for quite a while, but it fell in 1963 when Eric Jackson and Ken Chambers (in a Ford Cortina) completed the route in 13 days, eight hours and 48 minutes – a mere 18 minutes less than Hinchliffe’s time.
Initially, it seemed as if the duo might not beat the record. They had intended to drive from Egypt to the Sudan, but were informed at the border this wasn’t allowed. They would have to take the ferry, which would add 20 hours to their travelling time. Needless to say, they weren’t happy. Jackson refused to take the ferry. Eventually, an official escorted them into a small building where four bodies lay on the ground.
“There,” the official said, pointing at the bodies. “That’s what happened to the last people who tried to drive to Sudan. It’s too dangerous.”
Jackson and Chambers took the ferry. Their record attempt also nearly came to an end in Ethiopia. While the Cortina was being serviced, the mechanic mentioned that they should be careful if they came across a pile of rocks in the road, as this usually signalled an ambush.
Not long afterwards, they did indeed find a pile of rocks blocking their path. In a bid to beat the ambush, Chambers swung the vehicle off the road and down a steep slope. In the passenger seat, Jackson pulled out two Smith and Wesson pistols.
“That’s when it all kicked off ,” recalls Jackson. “They came at us from both sides, shots were fired and we just knew we had to get out of there.
“A guy came at Ken from the right so I shot at him, firing across Ken’s face. Ken was parti ally blinded by the gun-flash. Two guys came out of the darkness to our left and I let rip with both barrels, while Ken ran over two who had jumped out in front. Another jumped onto the boot, so Ken stamped on the brakes a few times to shake him off .”
The two adventurers escaped unscathed. They were badly shaken, but glad to be alive. And despite the ordeal, they decided to continue with their record attempt. They kept going south and arrived in Cape Town on 20 January 1963. Their record would stand for 47 years.
A CLINICAL ATTEMPT
Compared to the escapades of the early adventurers, the latest record attempt was a rather sober affair. No bullets were fired and no accidents occurred. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. But it does illustrate how things have changed over the last 50 years. Record attempts are no longer made by amateurs with limited experience and woefully inadequate equipment. Everything is now carefully planned and executed.
Max Adventure, the team behind the latest attempt, specialises in expedition logistics and has organised large expeditions to Everest and the Arctic. Mac Mackenney, the team leader, holds multiple long-distance driving records.
Prior to the trip, a lot of work went into getting everything ready. Firstly, a vehicle was carefully chosen. The team wanted a 4×4 that was exceptionally reliable, supremely comfortable, fuel efficient and safe. There was one requirement, however, that limited their options. The team would be raising funds for Help for Heroes, an organisation that supports British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, so they needed a vehicle that suited this patriotic goal. That left them with one choice: a Land Rover.
“As we are three British ex-servicemen helping British troops fighting in a British conflict, there was only one choice as far as we were concerned – it had to be a Land Rover,” says Mac.
But what model? A Defender would have been the obvious choice, but Mac wasn’t interested. “They are absolutely superb when the going gets really tough, carry a massive payload and, thanks to the many aftermarket companies out there, can be kitted out to whatever specification the customer requires. There’s one problem, though, if you plan to live in one for nearly two weeks – they are probably the most uncomfortable vehicles that have ever been produced!”
A Discovery made the most sense, but Mac was wary of the newer models. “New Discovery 3s and 4s are too technically complex to consider for such an expedition and you wouldn’t want to venture too far from a European breakdown truck.”
In the end, they decided on a Discovery Series 2. In Mac’s opinion, it still had too many modern gizmos for Africa (he would have preferred an older 300 Tdi), but the Disco 2 was big enough to accommodate a large bed in the back, and that sealed the deal.
Mac was also confident that the Disco would be able to reach Cape Town in standard guise. “If you talk to most overland vehicle preparation companies, they will tell you that it is physically impossible to drive a Land Rover across Africa without a winch, high-lift jack and two-inch suspension lift . We know for a fact that you can get a standard saloon car across the continent, so a Land Rover in its out-of-the-box form is more than able to tackle the continent.”
Once the vehicle was chosen, the team needed to learn how to fix it. For that they were sent to the British Army. Members of the Battle Damage Repair School showed them how it to fix the Discovery in a pinch, while seven instructors from the Army School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering helped to prepare the vehicle for its attempt. While no major changes were made, a few components received an upgrade. A King Springs suspension and Koni shock absorbers were installed, as well as accessories such as an inverter, diff guards, spotlights and a radiator protection mesh. New brakes and Pirelli off -road tyres were also fitted.
A NEW RECORD
When the Max Adventure team set off on 16 October, they had been planning the trip for more than two years. No detail had been ignored. For instance, the team had not only received first aid training but had also been given scientific advice by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory on how to stay psychologically strong and deal effectively with sleep deprivati on.
Predictably, everything went very well. Crossing border posts was the only real challenge. When the team arrived at the Zambian post, which they had been told operates around the clock, it was closed. They had no choice but to catch up on some sleep.
The team was in constant contact with its UK-based operations centre via satellite phone. The centre assisted Mac and his team in anticipating obstacles and also updated the Max Adventure website, which allowed the public to follow every twist and turn. Regular news updates and pictures were posted and all three adventurers “blogged” from the road. And because of this, it became clear quite early on that they would beat the record. When they arrived in Cape Town, a large crowd was waiting to celebrate their accomplishment. They had driven from London to Cape Town in 11 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes, beati ng Jackson and Chambers’ record by one day, 18 hours and 37 minutes.
To be sure, it was an admirable performance that undoubtedly required a lot of preparation, stamina and perseverance. But it also highlighted the incredible efforts of earlier adventurers such as Hinchliffe, and then Jackson and Chambers, who managed to complete the route in just 13 days without satellite navigati on in a two-wheeldrive passenger car.
How does Eric Jackson feel now that his record has been broken? He’s incredibly magnanimous. “I know how difficult the trip is and I have great admirati on for Mac and the team. While I’d like to have kept the record for a lot longer, I am delighted for Mac, Steve and Chris.”
And how does he feel about the fact they used a 4×4 and satellite navigation? “They broke the record fair and square. Believe me, if GPS, mobile phones, satellite tracking and so forth had been available in 1963, we would have used them too.
“Mac, Chris and Steve have done a splendid job. It’s a rough trip, and the guys generated funds for a worthy charity.”
Indeed, the team’s achievement deserves to be celebrated. But that doesn’t mean those early pioneers should be forgott en. Their records might have fallen, but that doesn’t diminish their accomplishments. Not by a long shot.