Irene & Dorothy Topping: Legacy

Cover of Legacy by Irene & Dorothy Topping

The feeling of the entire group was that, we might be stranded in the middle of nowhere, but it certainly wasn’t the end of the world, after all, most of us had endured worse hardships during the war and overcome. So, we made up our minds to make the most of our un-scheduled break from travelling, and just enjoy ourselves. I think most of us were relieved to have a couple of days off from bouncing around in the trucks, and after dinner we held an impromptu dance and sing song to get us all into the holiday mood. Having set the tone for our stay in Tamanrasset, our time there turned out to be quite eventful.

Syd Topping was demobilized from the army in 1946, and returned home to Blackpool to find that jobs and housing were in short supply, and food and petrol were still rationed. So he and his wife Dorothy decided to drive to Durban, South Africa, with a group of like-minded individuals that had been gathered together by a friend of the family. And of course their three-year-old daughter Irene would need to come along.

The group bought a pair of four-wheel-drive army surplus trucks, which Dorothy describes as “‘Chev’ Radio trucks”. From photographs in the book, the good people over at Britmodeller have identified these as being the Canadian Military PatternTruck 30-cwt Wireless”, manufactured by Chevrolet, which performed faultlessly throughout the 9000-mile journey. They also bought a caravan, to be towed by one of the trucks—an optimistic purchase, given they were planning to cross the Sahara Desert, and it would soon end up being shipped back to England from Algiers.

Dorothy kept a diary of her journey, assembled a photo album, and sent frequent letters home. Dorothy’s mother retained all the letters, and collected relevant newspaper clippings. Eventually, this trove of material was discovered by the grown-up Irene, who felt that the story of her mother’s epic journey needed to be properly told. And finally, after a bit more delay, Irene assembled her mother’s words into Legacy: Overland Trekkers—Blackpool To Durban 1947. This was published in South Africa in 2005, but I haven’t been able to track down any details of that edition, so my link takes you to the 2012 paperback edition, independently published through Amazon’s CreateSpace.

Now, frequent readers of this blog will be only too aware of my tendency to moan about proof-reading and punctuation. And this one certainly contains some eccentric bits of punctuation, as well as Inappropriate Capital letters and “surprising” quotation marks, but it gets a free pass—it’s the diary and reminiscences of a straightforward and stalwart lady from Blackpool having an extraordinary adventure, and the awareness that it has been set down just as she wrote it very much enhances the narrative.

Their journey took our travellers down the length of England, then across France and the Mediterranean to North Africa, landing at Algiers. From there, they crossed the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara, where they followed what is now the Trans-Sahara Highway, which at the time was little more than a series of white-painted cairns marking the way.

Arriving in remote Tamanrasset, they discovered that a previous party had bought up all the available petrol, and so they had to hang about for several days awaiting the next shipment. That’s the occasion for my quotation at the head of this post, which illustrates the spirit in which the entire journey was undertaken.

After arriving at Kano in British Nigeria, they turned left, crossed the neck of French Cameroon just south of Lake Chad, and headed across French Equatorial Africa into the Belgian Congo. From Stanleyville (now Kisangani) on the Congo River, their plan was to head due south to Livingstone on the Zambezi. But a rather mysterious event, involving the accidental discharge of a firearm, meant that they were obliged by the Belgian police to leave the country by the shortest route—east into Uganda. So a long detour ensued, taking in the Ituri Forest, the Mountains of The Moon, Lake Victoria and the Rift Valley before sweeping back into Northern Rhodesia to eventually reach Livingstone. Along the way, the party had gradually begun to shed members—some had had jobs waiting for them in East Africa, and some were offered posts. One was pregnant. Things finally came to a head in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, when most of the remaining few announced that they wanted to take up jobs, or stop and seek employment, at that point. Only the Toppings wanted to go on to Durban. So they completed the last stage of their epic journey by train, leaving the two trucks to be sold off for funds by those staying behind. They got off the train 97 days after their departure from a very snowy Blackpool:

So here we were, the Topping Trio, all alone on the Durban station late at night, undercapitalised according to the powers that be, yet enriched with wonderful memories, with about £30 in cash between us, and ready to start our new lives together.
On the whole I think we were reasonably successful, but that’s an even longer story.

I’ve put together a little map of their full journey through Colonial Africa, for reference:

Map of 1947 trans-Africa route travelled by Dorothy Topping
Click to enlarge
Source of base map. Edited from original by Milenioscuro and used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence

Topping is not big into describing the scenery, but chattily enthusiastic about the minutiae of her experiences—her first encounter with a bidet, in the bathroom of a hotel in the Sahara, which she not unreasonably decides must be intended for washing dusty feet; the mysteriously textured “pears” offered for lunch, which turn out to be avocado pears; the generous hospitality of missionaries and expat Brits encountered along the way; perilous river crossings on rickety ferries … and geckos falling into the soup.

Young Irene romps through the whole journey undaunted—there’s just one tantrum, and a couple of episodes in which she seems a bit under the weather, but on each occasion is sorted out by a single injection administered by a local doctor. (I’d love to know what they used—I could do with some of that.)

And there are interesting glimpses of the post-war world of 1947—parking the trucks overnight on “flattened bomb sites” in England and France; the residual hostility of Vichy French sympathizers to the arrival of English travellers; Topping’s astonishment at the ready availability of food and clothing in Africa, compared to the strict rationing still in force in the UK; and the lavish lifestyle of the expat Brits encountered in their colonial mansions along the way.

And then there’s this, as new recruits are arriving to join the group in Blackpool:

I particularly remember one instance when my sister May and I, were watching Harry Burnett re-tiling the fireplace in the living room, and the doorbell rang. I went to answer the door, and stood there was a young man of about 20, unshaven, peering through “bottle bottom” thick lenses, set in horn-rimmed frames, and wearing an oversized army great coat down to his ankles. I asked if I could help him, he replied, “I, I, I, wa, wa, wa, want to, to ap, ap, apply” (I of course finished the sentence for him by saying) “to come on the trek with us.” He nodded.

The young man was Desmond Bagley, who would go on to become a famous thriller writer—I’ve reviewed some of his work here. And lest you get the impression that Topping was merely mocking Bagley’s stutter, she goes on to explain that Harry Burnett (the fireplace re-tiler who so mysteriously opened this passage) also developed a stutter when excited, and had initially taken against Bagley because he thought Bagley was imitating him. Once it was explained to him that Bagley was a fellow sufferer, Harry judiciously advised:

Dorothy, if you take the lad on, make damn sure you don’t put us on guard duty together in the jungle. You’d all be bloody eaten before we could let you know lions were coming

If all this makes you want to hear more from Dot Topping (and why wouldn’t it?), there’s a very reasonably priced Kindle edition available, in addition to the CreateSpace paperback. I can’t vouch for how well the e-book will reproduce some of the photographs and newspaper clippings that enhance the print edition, though.

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