77. Champagne for my horse, a bucketful!

By Peter Fraenkel

I had endured several boring sea voyages Cape Town – Southampton by Union-Castle Line (We called it ‘Union Cattle’).  Thirteen days without sight of land!  I swore I would never do that again.  In 1957 I determined to travel overland. I could not find anyone who had done this before and I, too, did not succeed entirely. Certain stretches I had to fly. I started keeping a record of the journey, but soon found that looking was more fun than writing, so I neglected my record-keeping. What follows is taken from my fragmentary record.

16.3.1957. Elizabethville, Belgian Congo [now Lubumbashi]– a bit of a disappointment after all the glowing accounts. Rather like Bulawayo but with a couple of kerb-side cafes     and better window displays that make it look a bit more continental.  Better food. Hotel Leopold II comfortable…. The oddest bath-(my first experience of a Sitzbad) you don’t lie in it but sit and fill it with water up to your chest.

Went down to the African town.  Impressive looking schools. Some pretty owner-built housing. Also mass-produced municipal housing. Better than the equivalent in Northern Rhodesia. Some pretty flats – four families per block – for better-off Africans, I guess. Some restaurant/bars. Everything a bit more pleasant than Northern Rhodesia.

Walked to the European area. Modern theatre in enormous monumental gardens. The stage seems to be two-sided. One side looks towards the theatre building, the other towards an open-air auditorium… Probably they play facing the open-air auditorium when the weather is fine but reverse the action when it rains and put the audience inside. Seems like a good idea.

A sunken garden with a monstrous monument to King Albert, bronze relief. Two bare-breasted Victory-figures, one negroid, one white, precede Albert wearing a tropical helmet, looking a little lost on his horse. Behind him, cheering naked African children, mothers pointing out the ruler on horseback.

[His father, Leopold II is regarded as the most brutal of profiteers in a century of ruthless colonial exploitation.]

Train to Port Franqui. 2 days, three nights. Magnificent carriages. Showers; fans; comfortable bed, a steward at the end of each coach. Ours is a Bemba from Abercorn so I can explain my needs – after a fashion.  Compartment mate speaks Flemish. I speak Afrikaans. We communicate. He leaves at Kamina, three new ones come in, none of them speaking any language I know. Dreadful!

Have to change trains at Luluabourg. Now have no dining coach from 10 a.m. until tomorrow morning. We leave our Bemba-speaking steward behind. Now I’m really cut off.  A really decrepit old coach now. Dirty. Old fashioned. We pass through proper tropical forest now – for about an hour. Lush, green, thick undergrowth. Then we come into the open again and most of the day travel through sparse bush, like Northern Rhodesia.

Consternation. Aron X [a Bemba speaker I found on the train]tells me there has been a derailment further up line. We’ll be stuck here for hours. No food!  Great sense of levity comes over fellow travelers. I can’t join in for lack of a language. After some shunting our passenger coaches are hooked off and we go back a few miles. A littledorp: a few stores, a small thatched hotel. A cheerful fat old lady makes us some sandwiches and we get some beer.

The European conductor calls us back. Much laughter. Some African passengers have gone off to a nearby village for beer. Our engine driver hoots – not once but some 20 times. Some come running but others are still missing.  In Rhodesia they would not wait for Africans. But then I am told it is our stewards who are missing. I see! We dine off sandwiches and some beer.  In view of the steward shortage we don’t get a bed until 11p.m.

We are told that although we will be some hours late [at Port Francqui,] the ship will wait for us.

21.3.1957. With Otraco (the Belgian Congo river shipping line) down the Kasai – a major tributary of the Congo River.

We go on board a large and comfortable steamer “Bogaerde” – a pleasant dining room-cum-lounge-cum-bar.  I wonder around the boat. Room on deck for deckchairs. The engine room is on a lower deck and not enclosed – just wire-mesh. Very sensible in this climate. Attached to our ship are four largish barges – two carry cargo and two are packed with African passengers though two or three Africans are with us on our luxury boat.  No colour-bar – unlike Northern Rhodesia. The front part of our ship also seems to be detachable. This carries a few cars. We meet an Otraco sister ship without such a front attachment.  Looks odd, this cut-off, flat-fronted ship.

They really have to drive this ship – not like an ocean liner which goes in straight lines. We zigzag… there are signals on shore and buoys in the water. Sometimes we turn sharply. Sitting in the ship’s lounge we feel the shudder. At night – fascinating: Two enormous searchlights from the bridge play on the river banks. One holds a signal in its beam while the other searches for the next (on the opposite shore). A minute of searching then the beam catches the glint of the next signal. Relief!

1.4.1957. Douala, Cameroon. Luxurious Hotel Cocotiers. [My first experience of air conditioning. I’d never come across it in Northern Rhodesia.  I shivered in bed. No blankets, only a sheet. Having no French I could not understand the control instructions. Suffered the cold for an hour or two – then had a counter-intuitive idea: I opened my window!]

I get up early to get to airport for flying to Lagos… A long wait as the plane’s engine is warmed up. Then a lengthy announcement in French. I understood only one vital word “panne”.  I get a translation into broken English from our pretty but dumb stewardess. Something wrong with the propeller. Will probably take 24 hours to fix. We should hang on at the airport in case it will not take so long. We wait, hour after hour. They press food and drink on us. Air France pays. Later we’re told we will have to stay the night. They ask what hotels we want to stay at.  I opt for last night’s luxury Cocotiers again.

2.4.1957. I observe the other passengers.One, a stocky little (European)man who came on the same plane from Brazzaville. When he arrived in Douala he was received by two officers in splendid white uniforms with much gold braid, one of them with three rows of medals. They usher him through controls ahead of everybody else. But who is he?  He wears a small red badge in his lapel. A trade union leader?  Maybe a [French] Communistparliamentary deputy on a tour of the colonies….?   Another remarkable (African) passenger is even harder to make out. Baddish teeth. Wears a mended lounge suite, badly worn shoes. On his head he wears a black knitted cap with a kind of cox-comb. But in his hand a beautifully carved walking stick and a riding whip. He is followed by two servants. Moves about as if he owns the place.  Europeans come up to pay their respects to him. Gallantly kisses the hands of the ladies. Orders his servants around continually. An elected representative for the Cameroons? Unlikely. He would be better dressed. Must have money. Even his servants are travelling first class.

At Lagos … I am left with a Hollander, van Hal. He speaks English and German and French. I ask whether he knows who the chaps who puzzled me were…. The one with the trade union emblem?

“No, no, no. You’d better wear glasses. That was the Legion d’honeur!  I’m told he’s a retired admiral. The African? He’s a local prince. Rather a fool but a gallant. They say he’s quite a playboy. Once took his favourite horse into a nightclub in Douala. He demanded – and got – a bucketful of champagne for it. He’s flying to Paris for the National Assembly. Did you see how he was dressed?

“Yes, very badly.”

“Exactly. Only the very rich and well-established can afford to dress like that. He made a great impression on our air-hostess. Asked her to come and have dinner with him in Paris. Gave her his card.  I tried the same” said van Hal, “but made no impression on her at all.”

I really must learn French.

Our plane left eventually six hours late so Air France did not have to pay for my champagne after all. And I had not even wanted to feed it to my horse!

We flew over this magnificent Cameroon mountain range.  Then over a labyrinth of rivers, little lakes etc. No wonder the early explorers could not penetrate these so-called “oil rivers”. They seem a maze even seen from an altitude of a few thousand feet.

Lagos! We arrive fairly late. After a battle I manage to get into the one and only allegedly good hotel – the Mainland – and settle down to dinner in the dining room. Lovely view over an inland lagoon and – on the opposite shore – the lights of moving cars and of houses reflected in the water. Orange streetlamps. I think of Hamburg.  The Hollander I had met on the plane says it reminds him of Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

Next morning the mirage of last night has disappeared. Instead there is an untidy messy slum. I walk to town. Town? I’ve never seen anything like it: one vast shanty-town. Mile after mile of it.  Is there no European-style centre… no core of decent shops, wide avenues? Only this twisting labyrinthine jungle of tin huts and crooked staircases and mammy-traders sitting all over the pavement offering goods and the odd Lebanese or Indian shop, hardly any better?

It is. Or almost. I find a fringe of big shops on the Marina. A veneer of Europe. But behind starts Africa. Quite unlike the Africa I know. More like, I imagine, the Far East. Every square-yard taken up with traders. Behind the streets through which a car could – if necessary – travel there are huge areas only accessible on foot. Twisting little lanes. Open storm water drains. All over the town you see men and women squatting and urinating. They lead to the lagoons and creeks that surround this town.

[Towns in Southern Africa were European creations. Lagos, however, was already a city before the British came – though it was the Portuguese who named it Lago de Curamo.]

I get a driver and a taxi and tell him to show me the town. He fiddles with his taxi meter.  It no longer registers. I ask “What’s the matter with your taxi meter?” “It is broken.” This is a trick I have been warned about. “Sorry,” I say, “then I’ll get another taxi.” I make as if to leave the car.  “No, no, no,” he protests. “Come” and he starts the meter. It works. There is a sheepish grin on his face.

He explains in a patois English what the various buildings we pass are. “The Supreme Court – this is where they send big cases like murder”. I ask “And taxi drivers who try to cheat their passengers?”   He roars with laughter.  There is something about these Nigerians that I like.

The children in these areas wear not a scrap of clothes until they are about 10. Very sensible in this climate.  I walk. My clothes are wet-through after ten minutes of walking.  I stroll through the slums. People are very cheerful and friendly. The children shout something like “bye-bye” at me. Nowhere except in Italy have I come across such obviously friendly people. Later I was told they are in fact shouting “oyingbo” which means “peeled one” – their nickname for a European.

 I see why our hotel only starts on the second floor. The bottom floors are taken up with a Coca-Cola factory and a car showroom. You take a lift up to reception which lifts us all above the smells and squalor and the noise and the milling crowd.  I stroll to a bus station: mammy-busses. They are often built on a modern chassis – Mercedes, Austin etc. but the body has been built by the local carpenter-cum-blacksmith – and it looks it. Almost each one has a slogan over the driver’s cab: “Charity begins at home”, “Go easy, boy”, “Only God can help”. (I suppose that’s what the owner tells passengers when something goes wrong.] “Thousand years is not for ever”.

 In Lagos I see my first beggars.  Not one beggar have I seen in the 2,000 miles or more that I have come. Here they hit you: the maimed, blind, crippled.  They shout something about Allah. To judge by their clothes they come from the Moslem north. A few days later an African welfare officer tells me they are indeed all Moslems. They wash alms received from infidels because they are unclean.  The welfare officer also tells me they are great gamblers – these blind beggars.  They put down a number of coins and say “How much have I put down?” The other has to guess. They check by touch. If the guess is right the money goes to the guesser.  If wrong, the guesser has to put in an equal amount.

And that ended my fragmentary diary of my cross-Africa travels.

Then came a 3-day flight to England by British Overseas Airways Corporation. Regular stop-over for refueling and lunch, then an early circa 4 p.m. night-stop at Accra, Gold Coast (Ghana) another at Bathurst (now Banjul) in Gambia and a last one at Tangiers. Eight [or was it 10?] passengers. Crew of two – a pilot and a co-pilot.  The co-pilot brewed tea for us and distributed biscuits. A relaxed way of travelling.