In 1969 the British undertook a Trans-African Hovercraft Expedition, under the leadership of David Smithers (UK), through eight West African countries in a Winchester class SRN6 hovercraft. It became the longest and most ambitious Hovercraft journey of all time. Between 15 October 1969 and 3 January 1970 they traveled around 8,000 km (5,000 miles) through West and Equatorial Africa mainly following rivers and waterways with the aim of opening up a water-way never explored before.
A hovercraft, also known as an air-cushion vehicle or ACV, is a craft capable of travelling over land, water, mud or ice and other surfaces both at speed and when stationary. Hovercraft are hybrid vessels operated by a pilot as an aircraft rather than a captain as a marine vessel.
The expedition was jointly sponsored by the International Publishing Corporation (IPC) and The Geographical Magazine, which IPC partly owned at the time. The accompanying scientists undertook a wide range of projects including studies of the rivers, flora, fauna and avifauna along the journey, and an evaluation of the use and design of the hovercraft. The late and greatly-respected Ronnie Harrison-Church was director of geographical research. Prince Philip was the project patron. The expedition started in St. Louis, Senegal and subsequently ‘hovered’ through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and Zaire (Congo). They followed a whole set of rivers, lakes and waterways including: the Senegal, Niger, Benue, Logone, Lake Tchad, Chari, Ubangui, Congo.
John Pilger, at the time reporter for the Daily Mirror was commissioned to follow the expedition aboard the hovercraft, together with photographer Peter Stone and a BBC television crew. He has written some great sections about the journey in his book “Heroes”. The day before the expedition embarked on its journey from St. Louis in Senegal, Pilger wrote about the group of people he would have to deal with onboard the hovercraft:
“From dawn the next day I would be incarcerated with Smithers (the expedition leader) of East Grinstead, with Captain Energy and a mysterious American called Bob, and with a detachment of the British Army who were meant not to exist and whose real identities I was sworn by my leader not to report. there were also the scientists: notably Hans Jergens, a German anthropologist whose speciality was the shape of human heads. The French had sent a parasitologist, the British a biologist/botanist and a geographer and an ‘aeromedical survival expert’. In addition, there was a United Nations guide who did reckonings with a twelve-inch school ruler, a German writer, a BBC television crew and photographer Peter Stone, whom the Daily Mirror had sent with me. In all there were nineteen of us assembled at St. Louis (the starting point of the expedition in Senegal) , where we were to fill a hovercraft”
About the hovercraft he wrote:
“It was a vintage hovercraft recently repossessed after punishing and unprofitable service on the Bay of Naples, and it would take us on ‘the most audacious inland journey since Stanley crossed the Congo and Mungo Park sailed the River Niger to Timbuktu’. At least that was how I reported our departure then and although I am tempted now to delete audacious and insert ridiculous, I believe the description was correct, though for reasons ofwhich I was completely unaware at the time I wrote it.
“The expedition was sponsored by the Ministry of Technology, and by Shell, the British Hovercraft Corporations, the BBC and Cecil King’s International Publishing Corporation, which not only published the newspaper I worked for but ran an ‘IPC Exploration Unit’ from the fifth-floor office of its Holborn Circus headquarters, headed by the enigmatic Smithers. I was assigned to report the expedition’s progress or, perhaps more to the point, to justify the money-raising and public relations campaign mounted by David Smithers.
In Lee’s office (the then editor of the Mirror), after Smithers had excitedly unveiled voluminous maps and charts of the rivers Senegal, Niger, Benue, Logone, Chari, Oubangui and Congo, and had finished his lecture, with the aid of a pointer, on what the exhibition would achieve – ‘We shall open up the great trans-African water route which eluded the explorers!….We shall now show the way for hovercraft hospitals!…..hovercraft schools!’
In hindsight this all appeared to be overly ambitious.
When the party set out to hover 7,000 miles from the Atlantic to the centre of Africa, and back to the sea, John Pilger humorously wrote: “This kind of route had never been traveled before in a hovercraft; neither, on reflection, had it ever been done on roller skates.”
“The commander of the hovercraft was Peter Ayles, a former pilot and a great, ruddy and genial bundle of professionalism, who , it seemed, was the only one on board who knew where we were going, having most of that year flown, rowed and walked over the route.“ Behind Ayles sat Smithers, son of a missionary and luminously palled. Smithers’ publicity handout for the expedition noted that he had walked from Benghazi to London and lived with cannibals in the rainforests of Brazil, and intended to stand as the Liberal candidate for East Grinstead. Whatever Smithers had been, his immediate past was known to Bob Saunders, the BBC’s producer on the expedition. Saunders, who made World About us programmes, had filmed the first Smithers hovercraft expedition up the Amazon against considerable odds.”
Pilger writes about the craziness of the entire expedition:
“At the first stop, a riverside town called Richard Toll, the expedition established a pattern of greeting. The Beast (the hovercraft) would thunder around a bend, up the bank and ease its remarkable flatulence with one almighty hiss, having showered the assembled municipal notables with dus and mud. Our departure would mean another brown cascade for all; and although the people in the towns and villages showed much good nature, it was clear that we left many of them in a state of confusion as to the precise nature of our mission.
“We would come in our hissing, heaving, detonating contraption, rather like a rich boy showing his noisy new toy to the poor boy next door; we would soad the citizens, disturb the fishing, ruin the washing, and disappear. The deeper into the continent we went, the sillier it all became. I shall not forget the faces of fishermen in one impoverished village, who might well have been interested in some assistance in improving the strain of their catch or in combating the river blindness of their children but instead were shown the wondrous irrelevance of a Polaroid camera. Meanwhile the eminent geographer took his notes and the Kew Gardens biologist/botanist pressed his flowers and the German anthropologist inspected the shape of heads and the French parasitologist jotted down the names of myriad parasites likely to be in the distended bellies all about him”
“David Smithers had a routine at each stop, to which I very much looked forward. He would leap ashore, grasp the local, now drenched mayor by the hand and, with his red baseball cap over his heart, make a little speech which went like this: ‘We have come only in peace! We have come from colder climes and your sun has warmed our hearts! We bring greetings from Her Majesty the Queen, and His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh! And we bring gifts all the way from Great Britain!’
The gifts were not quite beads. They included boxes of sweets called Spangles, boxes of teabags, and boxes of paper underpants, which were regulation issue to us; these were the expressions of our esteem.”
“Because a hovercraft is like an aircraft in design and temperament, its payload must be carefully weighed. At one instance Peter Ayles reckoned that we were overweight by a ton. After one overnight stop, and with the villagers convinced of our collective lunacy, we jettisoned tents, stoves, lamps, Spangles, paper underpants and teabags. Peter Stone and I (John Pilger) arrived at this ceremony just in time to see our leader about to cast off a crate of whisky, but our pledge to do extra Little Spade duty (toilet sanitation duty) went straight to his heart. He paused just long enough for me to wrest the whisky from him”
Not the entire 7000 miles were hovered across. Pilger continues:
“Early the next morning we hissed into Kayes, in Mali, reputedly the hottest point on the African continent. Here we would leave Senegal River and our four tons of capricious technology would be taken apart by the Army men and lifted, without a crane, on to a train that would carry it 250 miles to Bamako, Mali’s capital, and to the River Niger.”
“The hovercraft arrived in Timbuktu and was heaved out of the Niger and began its run toward the town and the Sahara, creating a sandstorm that blew over a salt-laden camel. It got almost as far as the ‘Bienvenue à Timbuctou’ sign when its great rubber skirts began to sag. ‘Sorry, old boy, she won’t do the desert,’ shouted the indomitable Peter Ayles to David Smithers. And there the Beast remained until the expedition turned south-east, toward lake Chad.”
The hovercraft subsequently detonated its way to Kinshasa on the Congo, and the following January it reached the Atlantic where it was wrecked by a large wave. This only happened when at the conclusion of the expedition in Zaire, the British Army took over the hovercraft and shipped it to the Ivory Coast for trials in heavy surf. The craft was wrecked and ended up in small pieces near Abijan.
When back in London after the expedition the team was welcomed with great respect and the expedition was considered a grant success:
“At a banquet in the Guildhall David Smithers celebrated his triumphant return to London. A telegram of congratulations from Prince Philip was read out and Harold Wilson made a speech in which he agreed with David Smithers that ‘the hovercraft will now be finding its place in developing countries in exploiting resources and opening new regions'”
This turned out to be greatly overstated as hovercrafts have not become the defacto means of transportation they hoped for. Pilger wrote about it years after the Trans-African expedition finished:
‘Sixteen years later no such thing has happened, or is planned, or is likely to happen. The expedition produced learned articles and learned lectures and a book about plants by Nigel Hepper, the Kew Gardens biologist/botanist. It also helped to fill the British Hovercraft Corporation’s order book for special, jungle-tested hovercraft for the US Army in Vietnam. Within a year I was to see this military version in action on the Mekong River, on other ‘audacious’ journeys, strafing villages, killing people, ‘finding its place’ in a developing country’