Gavin Foster
Gavin Foster

A Buzz, a Whiz, a Cloud of Dust..

“A buzz, a whiz, a cloud of dust,
A wild blood-curdling yell,
A ghastly object floating by,
Then silence – and a smell!”

(Poem on the early days of motoring – source unknown)

It’s sad how, as cars have become more sophisticated, motoring has become less adventurous. Modern cars are quiet, smooth, fast, comfortable and, if driven within the constraints of the law, boring. The roads are cluttered, cars can easily travel 20 000 km between services, there are cameras all over to stop you driving at more than half throttle, and it’s very, very unlikely that you’ll be able to pull off the road and take a pot-shot at a lion, a rhinoceros or an elephant or two.

I have a copy of the 1938 Royal Automobile Club of South Africa’s Handbook and Guide, a 606-page tome filled with useful information about places to go and things to do for the motorist in southern Africa. There’s a 37-page guide to sea angling, there are listings for golf courses and bowling clubs throughout the region, and there’s even a section on shipping your car to Europe so you won’t be stuck for transport when you travel there on holiday. The RAC obviously catered for adventurers because there’s loads of advice on touring countries as far afield as the Belgian Congo and Tanganyika. Those who had wanted to could even hunt their way around the continent. Visitors to the Congo, for instance, could pay £14 for a general game licence that allowed them to slaughter hundreds of different species at will. There were limits though – general game licence holders could shoot but one hippopotamus, 18 buffalo and 52 antelope. Two adult male elephants with tusks weighing more than 5kg each would set you back a whopping £35 for a special permit, but when it came to those pesky leopards and lion that made a habit of eating the hired help there was no problem – spot ’em and pop ’em applied, as long as you had a general licence.

The RAC took motoring very seriously and the book is loaded with advice on the law and road safety. There’s a whole page advising drivers how to overtake tramcars, and a quarter page snippet tells motorists how to take off their cars’ windscreen wipers and soak the hinges in oil to improve blade tension and save money. There’s also some sound advice on brake adjusting. “To test brakes, run the car down a hill with the brakes on and feel the temperature of the drums at the bottom”, they recommend. “Obviously a cold drum is the best indication of a brake that is shirking its responsibilities.” It doesn’t suggest any course of action to be taken if the drums all remain cold.

If there were a modern equivalent of the old RAC Handbook and Guide it would most certainly have a section on using a satellite navigation system, or GPS. That would come in handy for people like poor old Sabine Moreau (67) who recently set off to drive the 61 km from her house to the railway station in Brussels, Belgium, where she had to pick up a friend. She punched in her destination and then followed the GPS instructions for two days and 1450 km through France, Germany, Austria and Slovenia before the penny dropped when she saw a sign alerting her to the fact that she was in Zagreb, Croatia. Then she had to drive just as far again to get back home, where her friend, who’d scrounged a lift, was waiting patiently. “I didn’t really notice anything was wrong until I suddenly arrived in Zagreb and realised I was no longer in Belgium,” Moreau said after her wanderings came to an end. “Weird? Maybe, but I was just preoccupied”.

A beep, a voice, some bad advice,
A feeling all’s not well.
Four countries’ borders floating by,
In Zagreb? What the hell!

Poem on modern motoring – Gavin Foster, 2013