Alexa: Life and Death of a 1937 Austin 7 in Africa

ALEXA – The Life and Death of an Austin 7 RubyBy Brian Milton
New Kindle edition
Published in paperback by Burning Daylight Books

In 1968 Brian Milton fell in love with a girl called Fiona Campbell, who lived in South Africa. She agreed to marry him and he resolved to drive a 1937 Austin 7 Ruby called Alexa across Europe, the Sahara Desert and the tropical Congo to claim his bride.

The car didn’t make it, but a great many adventures occurred.

Brian crashed Alexa in the Sahara after suffering ptomaine poisoning from a tin of sardines. He spent three days hammering the car back into shape, but was abandoned by his escort on the most difficult part of the journey after Tamanrasset – they wearied of pushing him out of sand-drifts. Brian was robbed of various pieces of equipment by desert Arabs, and ran out of water twice en route. He negotiated with other Arabs over a desert well, agreeing to pay two cigarettes and two aspirin for five gallons of water. The last desert scare was genuine fears over a broken half-shaft.

Brian ran out of money in Nigeria, then in the middle of a civil war, but was adopted by three Swiss travellers on promises that any debts he ran up he would pay with money from articles written for the Irish Independent for which his father had once worked. Brian sent his dispatches to Dublin by collaring travellers to Europe and asking for them to be posted through civilised postal systems. They all got through to the newspaper.

Driving into Chad in central Africa, a piston ring broke and Brian was forced to continue for the next 2,000 miles with just 3 working pistons, no plug at all in the 4th piston. Not long afterwards the three Swiss burned one of their two Citroen ID-19s, and one went down with jaundice and had to be air-lifted home.

In the Central African Republic, then ruled by ‘Emperor Bokassa’ – who was said to keep the body parts of children in his fridge as delicacies – a small safari formed around Alexa and the Swiss as they negotiated to get into the Congo. In Bangui the remaining two Swiss nearly lost heart and abandoned the journey, but eventually relented. They entered Joseph Conrad’s legendary ‘Heart of Darkness’, where four years previously bodies of white missionaries were floated down the river in sacks. A journalist famously toured surviving refugees asking, ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’. They set off to cross 1,200 miles of Congolese jungle over rotting bridges and broken tracks.

Most of the Safari went down with malaria in a town called Banzyville, but Brian was unscathed and invited to attend the consecration of a Congolese bishop. That night, among the few white men in the area, he was required to ‘Drink for England’.

By now Alexa had lost her brakes and was without lights, shock absorbers, starter-motor or –handle, and gradually falling to pieces. In this state, Brian drove her another 900 miles down to the Congo River itself, then east to towns like Aketi, Buta and Paulis with the most bloody of reputations at the time.

With 300 miles to complete to get to Uganda where everything, pre Idi Amin, could be repaired, Alexa was down to two pistons and a failing big end, and finally gave up the ghost in a town called Mungbere. However much he raged, Brian could not get permission to give Alexa a Viking funeral in flames.

The two Swiss took Brian through monsoon-raddled tracks to Kampala where he received his money, paid his debts, and had just enough funds left to catch an airliner to Johannesburg and meet his bride. They were writing their wedding invitations a few weeks later when – under Apartheid – the South African Special Branch arrived to expel Brian; they did this to six priests and six journalists a year at that time.

Alexa’s terrific struggle and eventual demise is told through diaries written at the time, on a 1948 Olympia typewriter called Brunehilde perched on one petrol can, the author on another, lighting provided from a hurricane lamp hanging off an umbrella stuck into the car roof-rack.

Brian’s route across Africa

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