In 1955, one brave Frenchman’s thirst for adventure took him on an epic 25,000 mile road trip through Africa that would test his wrenching abilities to their fullest. Stranded in a 120 degree barren desert, the options were: wrench or die. He chose to wrench.
David Galand posted the tale of “L’EXPEDITION SAUTERELLE” (“The Grasshopper Expedition”) onto a French military forum called Vehicules Militaires in 2015. The story, sent to me recently by a reader, is all about Galand’s grandfather, Guy, and his amazing 300 day journey through Africa in 1955 and 1956 behind the wheel of a surplus World War II Jeep.
David told me via a translator that the reason his grandfather, who was working for Italian wine company Cinzano at the time, chose to go on such a crazy trek was for “discovery and adventure, nothing else.” He wanted to explore Africa, and follow in the footsteps of Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, a general who fought in North Africa for the Free French Forces during World War II (Guy, like Philippe, had also been part of the French resistance).
What makes this particular story so fascinating is that Guy Galand kept a journal describing every day of that nearly year-long voyage, and paints a portrait of an ordeal more harrowing than most could ever fathom.
Just look at the four journal entries between October 25, 1955 and October 28, 1955, which describe what must be the most high-stakes wrenching ever, as this man finds himself stranded alone in the middle of the desert, with wrenching as the only means of survival (these have been translated from French):
October 25, 1955...
In the afternoon I find myself in a great depression of fech-fech, where I fight for hours. It begins to be dark when the Jeep was finally coming out of this ditch, when it happens that the clutch slips. I try to tighten it, nothing to do, it keeps slipping.
This time I’m really broken down, I do not know exactly where I am, but in my opinion the mountain of Murizidia should not be very far ... but still, it does not change my situation. Tomorrow I will have to change the clutch, that’s less fun in every way!
To top it off, the car has consumed today nearly 20 liters of water, this because of getting stuck so often, but especially because of the tailwind I had all day. I also don’t want to stay here too long to play mechanic !! Otherwise it may go wrong.
And my god does it go wrong. The journal entries for the following three days paint a picture of truly grueling, hot, and just downright miserable wrenching conditions:
October 26, 1955
After a night where the clutch and gearbox populated my dreams, I make myself a very strong and big Nescafé to get myself in shape. I lose a bowl worth of water, but to hell with water conservation, its not everyday you break down in the middle of the desert!!!
I also take, while I’m at it, a bath, imaginary this time!! All this done, I prepare the campsite. I cover the fuel cans and water under a tarp with sand over it, as its quite warm in this sector. I unload the tools and all that is heavy as the jack is too weak to lift the Jeep with that load. Then I dig a trench across the Jeep as a mechanic’s pit, but I couldn’t make it very deep as more sand falls in than I can remove. Next time, I should find more firm soil to play the service station!
At random, I go on a mound nearby and take a look with the binoculars but there is absolutely nothing on the horizon, on this mound I plant a red flag you never know it could attract attention a camel caravan passing by, I do not count on it (because it’s not their place of passage) but it’s always fun to dream!To get more chances, I fire two rifle shots every half hour.
With all these measures done, I start disassembly. Everybody knows that disassembly is the easiest and fastest thing in car repair, but to make it harder, on a jeep everything’s in twice! Two axles, two gearboxes (gearbox+transfercase), etc. Pity we don’t have two clutches, I wouldn’t be stuck here! In short, lots to do, I’ve got the tools but I’m missing certain wrenches for american bolts which makes me lose a lot of time.
At noon, with my leftover bread, I eat small peas and some canned beef. I’m thirsty more than hungry as it still 47 degrees in the shade here, and in this ditch, theres not a breath of wind. With barely one liter of water for the next 24 hours in my water ration, I stay thirsty. The night is falling when everything is finally disassembled. I struggled to remove the gearbox and I’m wondering how I’ll manage to reinstall it all by myself.
Already, my back’s skin is burning from the sun, no way I’m working in work clothes in this heat. I’m dirty after sliding under the car so many times, in the oil and grease and sand that sticks everywhere and gets everywhere. I couldn’t shave or bath for the past few days, I mustn’t be very nice to look at, but its not important. I’m worrying about tonight, my eyes hurt already but at least I’m not hungry. I’m going to bed without eating tonight.
Things just get worse from there for Guy, who eventually realizes that he’s got to either fix the Jeep, or he’ll die in the desert:
October 27, 1955
I slept really badly, my eyes being the cause. This morning, I feel as tired as when I went to bed, but its not the time to go sleep. After dabbing my eyes with water, I start reassembly.
Around noon, I still haven’t reassembled anything and I stop completely exhausted. For six hours straight, I tried to install both gearboxes at the same time, but it was impossible. My skin on my back, knees, and chest is raw, with a few more or less significant scratches and cuts.
I tried by all means with rocks to hold the jack, nothing to do!
I stop to eat a few potatoes baked in oil but its not going down too
well and without realizing it, I fell asleep. It must be 4pm when I
wake up, with a terrible pain to the eyes which worries me as I don’t
know what’s causing it.
Near 6pm, a sandstorm begins but blows near the ground where I work, which makes it painful and impossible. I can barely breath and I cannot see anything as the trench fills up with sand. I must redo the trench two or three times, but I must continue. I must get the Jeep out.
I try everything until very late at night with the flashlight, but I can’t do it. After dropping the gearbox in the sand, I stay laid down, exhausted and in pain in the trench
I have also been crushed with rage and despair because I know that if I do not put the jeep back in the running as soon as possible, I’m sure to finish here, it’s hard to digest and thinking about all this I have the tear at eyes but fatigue being stronger than all I fell asleep under the Jeep.
The intense pain wakes me up, theres a kind of pus oozing from my eyes. I crawl out from under the Jeep, covered in sand and cover my eyes with a watered cloth as it helps a bit. I lay down more comfortably near the Jeep and fall asleep.
Then something truly amazing happens: Guy MacGyvers up a pulley system using a bottle and his transfer case as a counterweight. That, along with a special strength-enhancing potion, yields great results:
October 28, 1955
With dawn creeping up, I wake up, weakly. I can hardly stand on my legs and my eyes hurt more than ever. With the sun rising, I must close one eye at a time to get going. I must keep going as I decided no matter what, the Jeep must come out today and I must do most of the work while I am still somewhat in shape.
This morning there is no more sandstorm, so I dig the trench once more, and I make two holes on the top of the Jeep’s roof. Using these holes, I install some sort of hoist with ropes, with a bottle acting as a pulley. At one end, I fixed the gearbox that must be put back in place and at the other end the transfer box, which serves as a counterweight to help me better support the weight of the box to be installed first.
Until about 10 A.M. I tried a number of things, but all were fruitless despite my counterweight device. And between the heat, my thirst, and the pain in the eyes, I am quickly at the end of strength. I must find strength, and having no other stimulus on hand, I absorb about a quarter of the bottle of Ricard (offered by the legionnaires), like that, straight!!
Needless to say, a few moments later I feel like a new man!! This stimulant gives a serious boost, and the gearbox does not seem so heavy. In short, between the straight-up Ricard and the pulley, or maybe it was just luck, towards noon, I manage to install the gearbox but I guess I’m loosing the gains from the Ricard as I’m loosing efficiency and fall asleep like a drunkard under a bridge!
Guy’s sense of humor during this whole incident is just incredible. Here he was in a 120 degree desert about to die because he can’t bolt up his transmission and transfer case, and he’s making jokes! (Either that, or he’s going a little mad out in the desert by himself).
Amazing stuff, and what’s also amazing is the awesome overlanding rig he’s put together. He describes the setup in his journal, saying:
“I’m going with a Jeep Willys in perfect mechanical condition but not new, and that I myself equipped, I’ve modified it so I can lie in it with a little comfort, but it’s still a bit cramped, because in addition to the bed it is equipped to carry 280 liters of gasoline, 60 liters of water, about 150kg of spare parts, 60kg of living and equipment, 50kg of tools. Moreover I carry 50kg of various things. The set gives a load of about 600kg without the driver.”
That’s quite a huge load, but Guy made sure to toughen up the little Jeep before journey:
“This is a lot for a 350Kg payload jeep, but I reinforced the spring, doubled the rear damper, short, it must hold up, I can have everything planned, so I also put a second motor pulley that leading to a second battery, this installation will make me think I’ll be of great service later.”
But despite these reinforcements, the Jeep took quite a beating. David Galand looked through his grandfather’s logbook, and compiled a list of replacement parts (also translated):
16 main leaf springs
28 secondary leaf springs
3 steering parts
3 ignition coils
2 distributor caps
21 leaf spring U-bolts
1 engine block
6 various piping
9 sets of points
2 front axle pieces
1 rear axle piece
6 miscellaneous bearing
3 manifold gaskets7 cylinder head gasket2 regulators11 dampers
2 valve seats
1 cylinder head
10 chassis welds
2 engine pulleys
“I do not count in this the 2 complete overhauls made during the trip, nor the small problems of ignition, braking, or fuel delivery etc etc plus the rest “
David also put together a few more other cool statistics about the trip:
- nights spent in the car or on a camp bed 278
- nights spent in a real bed 22
- the hottest day, chad 59 ° C in the shade [note: this is likely a typo from 49]
- day the most cold 16 ° C in the shade
- the longest step in 24 hours 600 kms
- the longest step without refueling in gasoline 1220 kms
- [longest part of the trip] in water 900 kms
- approximate kilometres done in bins or boat 298 kms
- total of sands 37kms
- distance in soft bogs 35 kms
- total of kilometers on road tarmac 7930 kms
- total kilometers on sandy track 7649 kms
- total kilometers on bush track, savannah, or forest 19519 kms
- total kilometers without track or road 1560kms
- bridges in bad condition (requiring consolidation) 742
- number of fords more than 30cm; 32
- days of rain; 3
- amount of gasoline used 6275 liters
- amount of oil used 330litres
- day stop to work 79
- days of stop for rest, breakdown or wait of authorizations 75
- number of signature collected on roadbook 298
It’s a truly incredible story about how the harshness of nature brought a man and his Jeep to their knees. And then about how sheer will power and some wrenching ingenuity allowed them to stand again.
All photos provided by David Galand. Translations by Google Translate and Étienne Boisseau (who sent me the forum post—h/t!).