‘Three-wheeling through Africa’ by James C Wilson

A fantastic read, written in a tremendously energetic style, about a remarkable journey. There aren’t the superlatives available to do this adventure justice, and certainly not since we’ve become a nation that thinks a ‘legend’ is someone who brings you a cup of tea unexpectantly.

This is a tale about crossing Africa, from Lagos in Nigeria to the Red Sea in 1927-28, out of season, on a pair of Triumph outfits. That sounds challenging enough, but throw in the fact that there are no roads, the bikes are 5hp singles and that they planned the trip in barely a fortnight, and the enormity of the task still can’t be fully comprehended until you are in the midst of the direst of straits with them. And you really are with them because Wilson’s writing is so compelling. If you’ve ever had a bit of a difficult time yourself, maybe clearing a section of sand or experiencing a muddy track for a day, you can only begin to understand what Wilson and his friend Francis Flood went through. But for them there was no end of day relief.

They were actually sailing in a cargo vessel down the coast of east Africa, stopping at ports enroute to India, when they realised that a brief excursion inland provided them with more interest and intrigue than they’d had in total since leaving New York.

Remember this book is a product of its time – at the height of European colonialism – so you’ll find some of the misogyny and racism difficult to stomach, but it’s clear that although much of Wilson’s terminology is bound by period convention, his attitude is not. Both of the travellers treat everyone with respect and they challenge many social norms, such as insisting on travelling in public transport (in the early chapters) and engaging ‘natives’ in conversation as much as they can.

This is a challenge unlike any I’ve previously read, undertaken by the most determined and resourceful individuals I will sadly never have the pleasure of meeting. Would you consider melting down your false teeth to repair a magneto? What about creating an impromptu forge to enable you to remanufacture some of your bike’s components so that they can undertake a more essential task?

Much of this story is written with wit, and humour peppers the prose, but the reality of their situation means that on more than one occasion it’s hard to believe they simply didn’t die.

Perhaps it’s also important to note that Flood had never ridden an outfit in his life before, and when they had to jettison the sidecars because the sand was impossible to get through, he had to learn how to ride a solo as well, and with a broken foot. There are few books you really should go out of your way to source, but this is definitely one of them.

Review by Paddy Tyson

Hard Cover (priced at whatever you’ll pay!)
352pp, 5 B&W images
Published by Blue Ribbon Books (1936)