Snaking across the gravel deserts of Syria and Iraq, Algeria and the old Soudan in the 1920s and 30s were lines of oil-drums. Crossing the Syrian desert they were a mile apart: after Adrar, going south across the Sahara, they stood every fifty kilometres, marking water depots, and neatly numbered. They indicated motor-routes, on which first heavy-duty cars and then huge custom-built buses roared across the hard surface of the desert, making unprecedentedly fast land-links across empires and for a couple of decades competing successfully with nascent air services on price (and occasionally on speed). The Sahara was conquered by French entrepreneurs and drivers, the Syrian desert by New Zealanders. It is a wonderful story – or pair of stories. I had been dimly aware of the Amman-Baghdad buses run by the Nairn Eastern Transport Company, but only recently at a lecture on the French forts of the Sahara did I see a photograph of a massive, air-conditioned Renault bus built for the Compagnie Generale Transsaharienne, running between Colomb-Béchar and Gao, and I wanted to know more. Both stories are old stories, and I re-tell them with pleasure but not originality.
The Great War saw the Middle East and North Africa overrun with ‘modern’ transport, from aeroplanes to armoured cars and from motor-bikes to lorries. (I wrote a year or so ago about early post-war air transport, the disastrous Aerial Route Number One from Paris to Cairo, in a post called Biffy, the Bombers and Disorganised Morale.) Two of those left behind by the tide of war after fighting under Allenby in Palestine and Syria, with a fascination and an aptitude for motor mechanics, were a pair of New Zealand bothers called Norman and Gerald Nairn. Without capital but very determined, they set up and ran a transport business, first as a cross-country taxi route between Haifa and Beirut – in those days a very difficult journey of 19 hours with no road south of Akka, and stretches of driving along beaches and across ploughed fields – and later as a longer distance service running to Baghdad and eventually to Tehran. These last became the ‘Nairn buses,’ the famously safe and reliable express mail-coaches of the day which travelled off-road, for long stretches at 70 mph and more, mainly at night, across very hostile terrain and in the early days much attacked by Bedouin and Druze bandits for the gold they often carried – though as they liked to boast, they never lost a passenger.
Interestingly, both routes more or less coincided with projected (but unbuilt) railway lines. The British had planned a line from Haifa to Baghdad (the only other line into Baghdad was an Indian Army narrow-gauge line from Basra), but it was unfinanceable. As for the French, efforts to build a trans-Saharan line continued into the Second World War, when Jewish slave labour from Vichy France was used, but in the end the line consisted only of two stretches, Dakar to Bamako and Oran to Colomb-Béchar (1905) – with a big gap in the middle. Cars and trucks made better financial sense.
The Nairn business really got under way with an exploratory drive in April 1923, supported by the British representatives in Beirut and Damascus, the former, Captain McCallum, accompanying the expedition with his wife. Three cars – a Buick, a Lancia and an Oldsmobile – crossed in three days from Damascus to Baghdad, and the Nairns quickly tried more crossings, five that summer alone. The British authorities in Iraq were unwilling to support the service, though Nairn quite quickly won a five-year contract for delivery of Iraq government mail from the Baghdad Post Office, which underwrote a successful business between Haifa on the Palestine coast and Baghdad, a journey of 450 miles or so across some of the more hostile terrain on earth.
The route varied over time. To begin with their cars, carrying three passengers each as well as mail and sometimes bullion, crossed in convoy on a northern route from Damascus via Rutba to Baghdad, but after the 1925 Druze rebellion this anyway dangerous and bandit-infested route became unusable, and the longer southern route from Jerusalem via Amman, Mafrak and Rutba became standard for the Baghdad passenger service. By the end of 1923 the brothers had bought a fleet of six seven-seater powerful and indestructible Cadillac Type 63s, and quickly won the French government’s Damascus-Baghdad mail contract too. They then, over time, upped the stakes by buying larger and more powerful vehicles: six-ton, 16-seater Safeway buses in 1926, which drove at night and cut the time down to 20 hours. These were supplemented in 1932 by specially commissioned 70-foot double-decker Marmon-Herrington trailer-trucks which seated 38 and offered reclining seats, buffet meals and toilets. The buses moved fast, over 70 mph on firm gravel, mostly at night. Finally in 1937, the brothers commissioned two stainless steel Pullmans from Budd of Philadephia, air-conditioned, articulated and fast – they cut the journey time down to 18 hours. The Pullmans ate tires (they used 10 at a time), which had to be changed every 2,000 miles until Firestone developed special rayon-based tires for Nairn that could stand the heat much better than cotton-based tires, and lasted more like 18,000 miles each. These monster buses ran until the company closed in 1959, each clocking up, quite incredibly, over 2,000,000 miles. They were serious vehicles and even leaving aside the details of their mechanical excellence, they set new standards of luxury in surface transport, self-consciously imitating the airliners of the day. Here is a 1937 description of them by Edgar Jones:
The first trailer had luxurious accommodations for 19 seated passengers and the second for 14 travelers who would spend their long overnight journey in private upper or lower sleeping berths.
The plans incorporated Budd’s experience in building streamlined railroad car and auto bodies, with the Nairn need for an economical, speedy, lightweight, rugged bus which could travel the rough terrain with a minimum of difficulty. To guard against the extreme temperatures of desert night and day (zero at times and often as high as 140 degrees), complete insulation and conditioning of air were specified. Leg room to equal Pullmans cut passenger capacity to seventeen in the day bus and fourteen in the sleeper. Extra wide chairs limited double seats to one side of the aisle and singles to the other.
The new buses lop nine hours from former crossing time and make the six-hundred-mile trip over trackless waste in fifteen hours, while passengers comfortably sway on rubber cushions. Coach seats face the front, but the sleeper is divided into compartments with seats facing each other. At bed time, the seat backs swing up to form upper berths supported by tubular frames. The gap between the seats is filled with an extra cushion and the lower is made. Sheets, pillows, blankets and curtains make the berths ready for sleepy travelers. Lighting and adjustable outlets for conditioned air are provided for each berth.
Following a formula akin to the hostess or steward plan on American airlines, an attendant throughout the trip comforts passengers with ice water, tea and coffee as well as box lunches with wrapped sandwiches and fruit. Lockers for storing blankets, pillows, clothing and miscellaneous equipment are in the front of the trailer, while the rear has a dressing room which also contains wash basins and toilet facilities.
In 1926 the Nairns took over their only rival, the Arab-owned Eastern Transport Company, forming the Nairn Eastern Transport Co. The ETC brought with it routes it had developed into Persia, continuing from Khaniqin through Kermanshah and Hamadan to Tehran, though with a rail link from Baghdad to Khaniqin because the road was terrible. This route was eventually abandoned after disputes with the Persian government.
The whole ethos of the company seems to have been one of courage, extreme efficiency and a cowboy swagger. The convoys rode armed, but didn’t normally fight when attacked, putting the safety of passengers first. In the whole history of Nairn they only lost one driver. The drivers were tough men from all over the world. Gerald Nairn described the early Cadillac-drivers as
… a great bunch, tough but good. They never let their passengers down, and their fidelity and endurance were known throughout the Middle East. We all packed a gun in those days. There were New Zealanders, Aussies, British, Americans and Canadians. Among the characters was John Reid, with one eye, who once, in a Cadillac, chased a cheetah down and shot it, and of course Ryan, the Aussie, who was very fond of the bottle. Passengers often complained he had been drinking, but I could never catch him or find liquor in the car. Finmally I discovered that his chargals (water bottles with straws) were full of arak … He had wealthy parents in Australia who wanted him to come home but he refused, and eventually drank himself to death in Persia. Sometimes a car would get shot up by the Arabs and to get drivers to go out with a relief car and bring it in, we would have to drag them out of hotels or brothels. So we gave them a house to live in and a girl each …
They drove very fast into the night following the light of their hugely powerful headlights, coping with appalling conditions (there were impossibly boulder-strewn lava-fields between Amman and Rutba, and in winter, regular floods and snow). They handled their huge vehicles with precision, after long apprenticeships on smaller cars and trucks, and didn’t have careless accidents. There are regular references in accounts of the company to their proficiency at the ‘Gilhooley Manoeuvre,’ which sounds obstetric, but was in fact the emergency control of a vehicle spinning through 360 and more degrees (often several times) at speed on a flat, wet surface – impressive, but it must have worried the passengers.
During the rainy months of January and February, water collects in the hollows of the desert. Puddles and mud, hundreds of yards wide and several miles long, spot the trail. As there is no telling the extent of this area, it is impracticable to detour. Drivers with an acquired Oriental fatalism on coming to mud, warn passengers, then drive at full speed to slide across on the belly of the bus. As a concession to this practice, the new trailers (turtle-like) have completely enclosed bottoms. Sandstorms force a complete stop (seldom over an hour or so). The tight fitting doors and windows prevent discomfort.
That must have shaken the iced water and dislodged the sandwiches.
Like the French in the Sahara, but on a smaller scale, they catered for passengers at their stopovers. But where the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne built a chain of hotels, known as bordj-es across the interior to cater for tourists on long trips, the Nairn Co. with its much shorter single route needed only one, at Rutba, which like its French counterparts attracted a mixture of spurious exoticism and travellers’ needs:
The one and only scheduled stop between points is Rutbah which is the nearest thing in real life to the movie conception of a desert outpost. Grim walls, radio towers, and detachments of soldiers remind travelers of Beau Sabreur and the Foreign Legion. The hotel, a large restaurant, and an ice-making plant do a thriving business at this meeting point for air and motor travelers. Possessing the only wells which do not go dry during the hot spell, Rutbah attracts the Arabs who camp outside the fort with their camels and livestock.
Or, as Freya Stark described it,
…. the palace planted in the wilderness when Aladdin’s uncle rubbed the lamp; how else could it have got there? It is 200 empty miles from anywhere. It has beds to sleep in and waiters who spontaneously think of hot water. You walk into a room and dine on salmon mayonnaise and other refinements … the British, returning from summer leave, are all talking shop or shootings and look nice and clean …
Every Arabian traveller from Gertrude Bell to Philby, every diplomat and businessman used the Nairn bus. Writing in the 1930s, Stark (Baghdad Sketches) described the journey, with its odd mixture of excitement and banality, though she was travelling “the cheap way, being poor and also democratic by nature,” and her Armenian taxi-driver “spends the twilight racing the Nairn down an open wadi.” into Rutba Wells. The convoy is large and miscellaneous, “the long grey chassis of the Nairn, travelling in respectable seclusion; and in and out of all the greater monsters, the indiscriminate crowd of small cars, Chevrolet, Morris, Fiat, Ford in every stage of smartness and dilapidation, but chiefly the latter …”
Even now the crossing of the desert is an everyday affair, and although the Nairn Motor Transport do what they can, and cook your breakfast-sausage romantically for you in the open desert over a fire of camelthorn, with an old paraffin box ready to help in case of need, they do not quite succeed, one must admit, in giving the true nomadic feeling to any except the most innocent travellers. In the place where the old Arabian singers saw the three blackened hearthstones of the Beloved in the deserted camp, we now pass derelict skeletons of cars …
The Nairns retired in the early 1950s, with pressure building to localise the company. Rather than surrender it to the governments of Syria and Iraq, they left it to their employees and it operated until 1959. They had, as one Beirut newspaper put it, “done more to unite Syria and Iraq in a year than all the politicians in Arabia and Europe had ever achieved.”