Friday, January 8, 2016

Crossing Africa in an Automobile 1909: Paul Graetz in his 35 hp Suddeutsche Automobile Fabrik Gaggenau GmbH

May 1, 1909 in Swakopmund: Paul Graetz crosses Afrika in his 35 hp special vehicle produced by Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik Gaggenau GmbH.
Paul Graetz arrives in Swakopmund, German South-West Africa, to complete the first crossing of Africa in an automobile. His specially-designed 35 hp car is constructed at "Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik Gaggenau GmbH" and features a special body built by the Neuss coachworks in Berlin. The 9,500 km journey had begun on August 10, 1907 in Dar-es-Salaam, German East Africa. The construction of a 60 hp, 4-cylinder engine marks Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft's debut in aero-engine manufacture. Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft acquires the license for the sleeve-valve engine invented by the American Charles J. Knight.
The brave (some would say foolhardy) first lieutenant in the East African protective forces had to leave the German army before attempting his epic journey, not because he was refused leave, but because the army felt that - if he failed - it would be a national embarrassment. As it turned out, he not only became the first man to cross Africa by car, he later became the first to cross the continent by motorboat. But that only took 12 months.
The first real crossing of Africa was completed in 1908, by a well-supported German team, who aroused so much interest “national pride” was at stake to the point that even the Kaiser was to support the attempt. Oberleutnant Paul Graetz, of the Imperial German Army, had served in German East Africa in 1902, on a road building programme. It gave him the idea to become the first to cross Africa by car, and on the same day that the intrepid Prince Borghese rode across the finishing line of the 1907 Peking to Paris, Graetz set out in a 40 hp six-litre Gaggenaue, a vehicle very similar to Borghese’s six-litre Itala. Fuel tanks for 625 miles were fitted, giant wooden wheels, 48 inches in diameter, were specially made, giving 14 inches of ground clearance. Like Borghese, he startled the locals wherever he went – they had never seen a car before. His aim was to cross Africa from Dar-es-Salam to Swakopmund, on the coast of German Namibia, reckoning it could be done in just six weeks. 
First troubles were encountered in the crossing of the Rufuma river, the car sank and became glued in the mud at the bottom. Once on the far side, Graetz decided to ditch vast quantities of provisions and spares, learning lessons the hard way the car was stripped to just an emergency seat on the chassis, and an absolute minimum of personal gear. 
Then a chain of disasters struck. Crossing the Ugamberenga river, water got into the engine, and cracked all four of the separate cylinder blocks. They had now a useless car, after just one week on the road. The car was towed across the veldt to Kilossa, and a crew member despatched back to Germany to find new parts. The runner fell ill in Dar-es-Salam and decided against returning – it was three months before spare blocks were sent, and even then they were put on the wrong boat. A new chauffeur arrived, a man named Koch, who brought not just new engine bits but a whole new front axle – this was not needed so was left in Dar. 
Delays had meant the crew were now facing the rainy season. Most bridges were only designed to carry men in single file, or, the odd ox-cart, and the crew needed gangs of natives to rebuild bridges and haul the car with hours of back-breaking labour. When a fall bent the front axle, a runner had to be sent back to fetch the spare, causing more delays. Rocks were blasted away with dynamite. Four months in from the start, the car had covered 625 miles. 

Somewhere on the road to Lake Tanganyika, the car lurched into a sudden hole in torrential rains, and Graetz found that splitting the sump had caused the crankshaft to be twisted, all the bolts attaching the flywheel to the shaft sheared, and the clutch plate split. There was no hope of repairing it for 70 miles. A team of porters was assembled to pull the car – at one point 200 were needed. 
Their entry into British Northern Rhodesia was marked by almost a month of gruelling toil, with miles of swamp. Another set-back was running out of fuel – it took a month for supplies to find the crew. In the heat, the monotony got to the crew, who played draughts with nuts and bolts, when they were found they were living on small game they had shot themselves and were drinking out of stinking, muddy puddles. 
Crossing the Zambezi by using the railway bridge near Victoria Falls, the crew were put on the wrong road, and ran straight into a bush fire, the tyres were burned clean off the wheels before they managed to burst through a corridor of flames. Miraculously, the fuel tanks were unscathed. The crew limped on to Bulawayo, and then Palapye Road on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. It had now taken so long, the 1908 rains were about to set in so the crew altered course for Pretoria and Jo’Burg, to spend their second Christmas on the road in some comfort. 
The final 2,000 miles saw drifting sand and stony desert, and petrol consumption in low first-gear falling to less than two miles per gallon. With fuel dumps hidden in the ground marked by stakes with metal tags attached, the going was slow. They ran out of water, and co-driver Gould, racked with thirst and in complete despair, finally resorted to drinking petrol. Attacked by fever as a result, for four days he lay between life and death. Oxon towed the car and crew to Chansi, where they found fuel and supplies, and welded up a broken valve. One day, they heard an almost forgotten sound – a dog barking. The crew had discovered a lonely Boer farm. Milk, butter, eggs were greeted as luxuries. The following day, a patrol of German cavalry from the fort at North Rietfontein came across the car – as soon as Graetz spotted his flag, he knew his problems were now over. They entered Swakopmund 18 months to the day after leaving the Indian Ocean. The 5,625 miles had been averaged at just nine miles a day. 
It was an all-German triumph, but it was almost as if the horrors of African travel were to put off all other attempts – it was not until 1924 that a Cape to Cairo run was successfully achieved in something resembling a normal car.

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