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John Weston and family
John and Lily Weston with Anna, Kathleen (left) and Max, 1921
Born (1873-06-17)June 17, 1873
South of Vryheid
Died July 24, 1950(1950-07-24) (aged 77)
Nationality South African

John Weston (Maximilian John Ludwick Weston) was a South African engineer, pioneer aviator and aeronautical engineer, farmer and soldier. He was also a traveler and an overland traveller in a motor caravan (RV) that he designed and built himself around 1920.

He is famed as a pioneer of flight in South Africa, sometimes described as the "Grandfather of Aviation in South Africa".[1] A more recent author titles him "South Africa’s First Aviator".[2] Today, he is celebrated as the founder of the Aeronautical Society of South Africa which hosts a bi-annual memorial lecture in his honour.[3] It was founded in 1911.

Early life and career[]

John Weston’s origins are obscure. His father’s name is not known; his mother and father’s origins are allegedly British, but this cannot be substantiated; there is no record of his birth in the registers of the registrar of births, deaths, and marriages in Pretoria from 1868 to 1880. However, it is probable that he was born on 17 June 1873, in an ox waggon at Fort Marshall in northern Natal, some 80 kilometres to the south of the town of Vryheid.[1]

In his youth he is said to have travelled extensively: his family allegedly travelled to Somaliland before going on to America (presumably the USA), and when he reached his teenage years, he led a globetrotting and adventurous life.[1] However, all of this remains unsubstantiated, as are claims that he was involving aviation from an early age, including experiments with weight-lifting kites in 1879;[4] that around 1888 he experimented with gas-filled bags[5] and took his first flight in a balloon;[6] that in 1892 he had his first glide in America;[7] that in 1896 he helped the celebrated aviation pioneer Chanute[8]

It is known that he was in Liege in Belgium by 1888, beginning an apprenticeship as an engineer, first with J Jaspar and then with the de Puydt and Poncin lighting and power company. He was in Liege until around 1901. These events and dates are taken from the application he made for membership of the British Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1903.[1] The application describes a rapid rise to chief installation engineer with both companies ("during which he superintended over one hundred lighting and power plants in different countries") and then a further promotion to "Partner and Technical advisor". In 1900, he was still working with de Puydt and Poncin but had established his own company, M. Weston and Co, also known as Manufacture de la Lampe a arc 1900.[1]

Sometime between 1900 and 1902, Weston was in Birkenhead in England where M. Weston and Co had an office, and he returned to South Africa at an uncertain date during this period.[1] On 31 May 1902, the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed ending the Boer War. Like many other South Africans, he had lost in t all he possessed in the war[9] and so, with £100 borrowed from a friend, he went to America. Through contact with the Russian Embassy in Washington he obtained a post as engineer for the Chinese Eastern Railway.[9] This was largely complete by 1902, but one stretch around Lake Baikal was unfinished. Construction of this technically complex section began in the spring of 1902, with the aim of finishing it by 1905

On 8 February 1904 Japan declared war on Russia. This left Weston stranded between the opposing forces, but he managed to reach Port Arthur and escape.[1] During this time Weston had learnt to speak Russian.[10] Over the next few years, he is said to have travelled widely, probably for work, to the Netherlands, Kenya, and possibly France, the USA and Russia.[1]

By early 1905 Weston had returned to South Africa and in August of the following year he married Elizabeth (Lily) Maria Jacoba Roux in Bloemfontein. They were to have three children, Anna MacDougal (born 1908), Kathleen (1912), and Maximilian John (1915).[1]

Weston settled down to life as a farmer at Doornpoort, moving to Kalkdam (Hoopstad) and later, in May 1909, Brandfort.[1]

South Africa's first aviator[]

During 1907/1908, largely if not wholly while at Kalkdam, Weston built an aeroplane powered by a Panhard engine which he described as "successful" although it never flew. This, the first aeroplane to be built in Southern Africa was probably a basd on the designs of Gabriel Voisin It seems that the principal problem with this was that it was underpowered. and this was a major motivation for Weston to leave South Africa for France, then the centre of European aviation. He is said to have taken the Kalkdam machine with him.[1] He is recorded as arriving in England on 14 September 1910, presumably en route to France.[11]

In France Weston pursued his studies in aeronautics at the flying school of the famous aviation pioneer Henri Farman at Étampes.[1] A photograph of the two together exists.[10] The journal L’Aero of 1 January 1911 reported that Weston made a solo flight at Étampes on 30 December 1910 and, on 8 January 1911, it reported that he had passed his pilot’s test with ease on 5 January. He was granted Aviator’s Certificate No. 357 by the French Aero Club on 3 February 1911.[1]

The answer to the power problem in Weston’s first aircraft had been solved in France: the 50 hp (37 kW) Gnome engine.[1] The aeroplane called the 'Weston-Farman' was the result. However, doubt exists over whether the aircraft which was brought back from France was the Kalkdam original that had been modified. "[It] was probably built as a direct copy of Farman’s design, with very minor modifications made by Weston".[2]

After returning to South Africa in late February or early March 1911, he set up at his Brandfort home as an importer of aircraft and components, including Blériot monoplanes, Gnome engines, Farman and Bristol biplanes and Chauviére propellers.[1] Whilst he continued to do farm work his voters' roll occupation was now "engineer", not "farmer" as it had been in Kalkdam.[1]

From Brandfort, he "staged a spectacular re-entry into South African Aviation [sic]".[1] To spread the word about aviation throughout South Africa, he took the lead role in founding the Aeronautical Society of South Africa (on 17 March… by 9 May it had 100 members), and established the John Weston Aviation Company Ltd. The express objective of the company was to raise funds for the establishment of a school of aeronautics operated in conjunction with a permanent aerodrome. A further objective was to educate the people about flight, and to inspire them. Funds would be raised through a series of flying demonstrations in South Africa and neighbouring Mozambique. Weston found a group of affluent backers, and at each venue organising committees of similarly rich supporters were established.[1]

The first demonstration was at Kimberley in June 1911 when Weston flew the Weston-Farman for eight and a half minutes. This was not the first flight in South Africa – that was achieved in December 1909 at East London by the Frenchman Albert Kimmerling – but it set a South African record time for a sustained flight[citation needed]. Demonstrations at Johannesburg, Lorenzo Marques, Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Kenilworth, East London, King Williams Town and Queenstown followed, and Weston and his company showed off an impressive number of aircraft. It seems likely that five were owned in all: one Weston-Farman, three Bristols and one Farman.[1]

During this time Weston tried in vain to get the Bloemfontein Municipality to give him land for the flying school.[1] By the Spring of 1912, the pressure on the government to invest in military aircraft and trained pilots was increasing. In late March, Weston wrote directly to General Smuts applying for the (non-existent) post of aeronautical expert in the (non-existent) Aeronautical Department and for a government programme for the construction of military aeroplanes.[1]

In this, and in his quest for a training school and an airfield. Weston did not succeed. The demonstration flights might have generated large crowds, but key decision makers like Jan Smuts were not being convinced and they were not a financial success. By April 1912, they were all but at an end.[1]

Disaster then struck, not once but twice. In January 1913, arrangements were made for flying demonstrations at Brandfort but they did not take place. A large crowd had assembled on the racecourse when a terrific dust storm sprang up and blew a tent down with the aeroplane inside it. Tent and aeroplane were badly damaged.[1] Worse followed. Around February 5 or 6, fire gutted the Brandfort hangar and workshop, wrecking several aircraft. It is generally thought that the cause was arson, but the perpetrators were never identified.[1] Whilst Weston was recovering from his losses, a series of events took place that saw him lose all hope of becoming South Africa’s leader in aeronautics and pilot training, and chief advisor in the development of an air force.

Another aviator, Cecil Compton Paterson, was giving demonstrations at this time and wrote a sympathetic note to Weston regarding the fire. He also said "I should really like to have a chat with you soon as there are one or two things I should like to place before you which will lead to big business in future".[1] The nature of the proposal is not known, but Weston responded to it with little enthusiasm. However he did agree to meet Paterson a few weeks hence but then pulled out of the planned meeting because of other pressing business, and wrote a letter on 14 March killing the idea of a joint enterprise.[1] He concluded by saying "I also hear on very good authority, that it is definitely decided that the Govt. are not to acquire any machines for another 15 months, and that as far as the training of scouts during this year is concerned, the chance of carrying it out here is remote."

It soon became clear that Weston’s influence was inferior to Paterson’s. On 1 July 1913, the Paterson Aviation Syndicate was registered in Kimberley and on 10 September Paterson and the Union government entered into an agreement concerning the training of the first South African pilots.[1] In October, Weston wrote that this outcome was "very galling". However, his involvement with aviation did not stop. He arrived in Britain in June 1913 for unknown reasons, but in October he wrote to the Diamond Fields Advertiser "I am conducting my experiments, [and] work a few hours daily with Willow’s (sic) Aircraft Company Ltd., builders of military dirigibles".[1] In February 1914 he was granted the British Aeronaut’s Certificate No. 38 (for flying balloons) as well as Airship Pilot’s Certificate No.23[12]

Military service in the First World War and after[]

South Africa Campaign[]

On the outbreak of the First World War Weston joined the South African forces fighting the Germans in the South-West Africa Campaign,[1] being responsible for providing and maintaining airfields.[13] His military status at this time is not clear, but towards the end of the short campaign, on 6 February 1915, Weston joined the newly- formed South African Air Corps (SAAC) as a lieutenant.[14]

In early 1915 the South African forces held coastal positions which allowed troops to use ships to link up with the army led by General Louis Botha in the north of the country. Weston arrived when the tide was beginning to turn in favour of the South Africans.[15] It was not until 1 May that the first aircraft arrived. Two Farman biplanes came, and even then, they could not be used because they were found to be damaged.[16]

The major role of the SAAC was reconnaissance, although bombing raids were also flown. and the South Africans were able to "outmanoeuver [sic] the Germans, leading to their surrender three months later after the South African Aviation Corps entered the campaign".[17] The bombing raids are not mentioned by our troop diarist but the importance of reconnaissance is: by mid-June 1915, “[Botha had] the Aviation Corps in full working order – had aerial eyes wherewith to be guided through a subtropical bush country very full of possible dangers… On 24 June … [the] enemy had retreated. It had been predicted with the utmost confidence that the Germans would here put up a fight. So confidently was this expected that the Commander-in-Chief would hardly believe it when the aeroplanes returned and reported that there were about half a dozen Germans left in the place. Yet that proved to be exactly the fact, and so greatly impressed was General Botha with the accuracy of the observations on this occasion that he emphasised that the skymen were to receive every possible assistance for the future".[18]

In another account, we have the one specific reference to what Weston was doing. He was not flying, but was supporting aerial reconnaissance: “The first real flight [by the SAAC]…took place on Thursday, May 6th, when Lieut. Carey-Thomas, accompanied by Lieut. Clisdal, left Walfish [Walvis], for Garub, via Swakopmund. The erection of beacons as far as the latter place was in charge of Lieut. Weston and Sergeant Williams".[16]

The Germans capitulated on 9 July 1915 and this might suggest that the date "31-7-15" in Weston’s record was the end of his active service with the SAAC, but in mid September, a photo shows him at Hendon aerodrome, wearing the uniform of the South African Aviation Corps.[1]

Weston does not appear to have joined another fighting group until the middle of 1916. The SAAC changed and its personnel shifted location dramatically. It "ceased to function as a separate unit from the end of the South West African campaign in October 1915 [though it was not officially disbanded]… Members of the Corps were incorporated into 26 Squadron of the [British] Royal Flying Corps. The Squadron saw service in East Africa in support of South African forces under General Jan Smuts".[17] When the former SAAC personnel left for East Africa in December[19] there is no evidence that Weston was with them. Given his proud pose in the Corps' uniform, it seems likely he had a commitment to that regiment and even possible that he was given the option of serving under Smuts.

Western Front[]

Soon after the likely end of his active SWA Weston sailed to Britain, arriving at Tilbury on 9 September 1915, accompanied by his family, including 3-month-old Max.[11] On 1 July 1916, he was commissioned as a Temporary Sub Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, for duties with the RNAS. His first posting was to No.3 Aeroplane Wing, Manston.[20][21] On 28 September he was promoted to Temporary Acting Lieutenant.[22]

No. 3 (Naval) Wing] was assembled during the spring of 1916 and arrangements were made with the French for it to operate from an airfield at Luxeuil-les-Bains, in the Vosges region northwest of Belfort, within range of the heavily industrialized Saar area and northern Lorraine, where much of the German iron and steel production was concentrated".[23]

From 28 July 1916, Weston qualified for an allowance of one shilling per day for French/English interpreting duties[24] with the implication that, in the deployment to France described in the July instruction, he was one of the earlier departures from Manston to Luxeuil.

In a memo from him to No. 3 Wing Commanding Officer Elder dated 9 January 1917 he briefs the CO on “the efficiency of our… squadrons” and makes reference to many bombing raids on industrial and other strategic targets in Germany.[25]

This briefing must have been one of Weston’s first acts following his appointment on 5 January for compass and intelligence duties.[24] No doubt wearing his interpreter’s hat, he was sent out with an ambulance and doctor to find a pilot who had crash landed. This was not the only administrative work he undertook, no doubt utilising his excellent French. Between December 1916 and March 1917, he was involved in resolving a reparations dispute with a farmer near Auxerre. A Handley Page plane had (presumably inadvertently) landed in one of the farmer’s fields and remained there for nearly two months, necessitating the erection by British forces of a protective hangar. After the spreading of “two lines of very old wet manure” on the field, Lieut Weston and colleagues struck a deal with the muck spreader for compensation of 500 Francs.[25]

Weston’s core duties as compass and intelligence officer were of rather greater consequence. The calibration of aircraft compasses was an important task, closely linked to the provision and updating of the maps used. The intelligence task within a squadron was closely related to both the conduct of flying operations and, based on reports by pilots and observers, to the marking of maps with new intelligence (of both the enemy and the geography of the area of operations). It would not be unusual for a suitably qualified officer to be given some or all of the 'compasses, mapping and intelligence' tasks in a squadron. Weston, with his flying and technical background would have been well qualified for the role. He may have flown as an observer, but there is no evidence of this. He would certainly have been required to brief observers on what he expected them to achieve on a flight.[24]

Mesopotamian campaign[]

On 2 April 1917 Weston was posted to No.2 Wing RNAS at Moudros on the Greek island of Lemnos, again as compass officer.[20] Moudros had been an important military base during the Gallipoli campaign but was now being used to support other cpaigns against the Ottoman Empire. He was briefly stationed at the Seaplane Depot, Port Said for intelligence duties, but by 3 September he had returned to Mudros.[24] The confidential report on his service in early 1917 state that he was "A thorough and efficient mapping officer very energetic and hardworking". For the later part of the year, the report say that he was in charge of all "aerodrome constructional and draining work, roadmaking… A very capable "E" officer".[20]

Some time in the later part of 1917 he was recommended for the post of Technical Officer to the Paris Air Station,[20] but this came to nothing: in early 1918, the Admiralty recorded him at the Moudros Repairs Base.[1]

Hellenic Naval Air Service[]

There is evidence[26] that Weston's duties at Mudros went beyond those of compass officer. According to Thanos Murray-Veloudios, a pilot in the Hellenic Naval Air Service, Weston was also one of the two senior commanders overseeing the Greek air force at Mudros, training of pilot, crew, and engineers.

On 1 April 1918, on the creation of Royal Air Force by the merging of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps, Weston was became a lieutenant in the new force. In August he was promoted to the temporary rank of major “whilst specially employed”.[27] The special employment being his posting to the British Naval Mission to Greece as Head of the Technical Section.[1] On 9 January 1919 it was announced that he had been made a substantive major “in recognition of distinguished service”.[28]

In July 1919, Weston was awarded the Cross of Officer of the Royal Hellenic Order of the Redeemer.[29] Four years later, he was given the rank of Vice-Admiral in the Royal Hellenic Navy for services rendered to the (Greek) Ministry of Marine whilst serving as a member of the Mission and Weston basked in variations on the title ‘Admiral’ for the rest of his life, even dressing in an unofficial uniform and naming his South African property “Admiralty Estate”.[1]

Weston left the services on 22 November 1923 with the rank of major.[30] His RAF record concludes with “Willing to serve anywhere in any capacity”.[31]

World Traveller, by motor caravan[]

Between 1919 and 1921 Weston made two journeys to the United States. The purpose of these journeys is not known, but the fact his British contact address in 1919 is listed as “Air Ministry” strongly suggests that he was on military or diplomatic business.

While in America he took time off and went shopping for a motor vehicle, buying a Commerce one ton truck with a Continental N engine.[10] This consisted simply of a cab and chassis, allowing the owner to create a custom vehicle of their own choice. The truck was made in Detroit, and Weston went there to test its capabilities and to buy it.[10]

Weston's intention was to create one of the world’s first motor caravans. He shipped the chassis back to Britain and designed and largely built it himself, a task which took six months.[10][32] The vehicle was named "Suid Afrika".[33]

The completed motor caravan was dominated by the box-like living quarters, which dwarfed the relatively tiny front end which consisted of the hooded engine compartment and two wheels. The 'house' sides had few windows whilst the front end had a large expanse of glass – and the sides of the lantern (or saloon) roof which rose a little above the main roof line consisted of several opening windows.[34]

The rear of the vehicle was the 'house' entrance and inside, on the right, was the kitchen with a hob consisting two petrol burners, a copper sink, and a pump drawing water from a tank below. An inline filter meant the pumped water was passable if not potable: boiling was necessary before drinking. On the opposite wall were lockers and a wardrobe. Forward of this area, the interior resembled a railway carriage with leather upholstered seats, which converted into four bunk beds. The fifth member of the family slept across the cab which could be accessed from the rear or the front side doors. In the middle of the ‘railway carriage’ was a table which had its own storage location when dismounted and folded up.[9] Lighting and space heating was provided by oil lamp.[10][32]

The vehicle carried 16 gallons of fresh water (“a whole week’s supply”[34] – and could carry more if necessary[32]), more than 100 gallons of fuel (consumption was 5mpg[9]), and weighed 4 tons.[9][34]

An interesting feature of the design was “a special four-leg sling which passes through a trap-door in the roof and the four legs then pass through smaller trap-doors in the floor, two legs being connected direct to the rear axle and two to the chassis frame just behind the front axle”.[32] This allowed the vehicle to be “lifted bodily without disturbing its contents”[32] and a photo exists of this being done when the vehicle was hoisted onto a ship.[10]

The purpose of Weston’s project was not simply to satisfy his lust for travel but was also an expression of his idealism. “To travel from land to land, to mix with the people of all nations…, to speak to them and hear their views, to study their institutions and their customs, that is his aim”.[9] It was also a bold experiment in the education of his children: he wanted them to see the world, to be freed from the narrowness and prejudices of those who grow up among never-changing surroundings, who know nothing of life beyond the pale of their dorp or city, the beauties and the grandeur of the earth, or of the nations and races who people it, and adorn (or mar) it with their works. He is preparing them to be citizens of Planet Earth”.[9]

On the side of the yellow, black-lined vehicle was a disc with the inscription ROUND THE WORLD circling the following:[9]

Seven by Fourteen feet
The World

However, Weston was still attached to the British Naval Mission to Greece, and he decided to travel back to Greece with his family. Initially he did not envisage an overland trip. An old German friend had left him a large yacht in his will, and Weston imagined sailing the yacht with the motor caravan lashed to the deck: “The idea was to travel inland with the caravan from a port of call when sailing around the world”.[10]

When the conversion was completed, the family travelled around Britain after which, sometime in 1921, Suid Afrika was shipped to Belgium. From Antwerp the family drove to the mouth of the river Scheldt where the yacht was anchored. There they tried out the boat, only to discover that Mrs Weston was a bad sailor: they reluctantly decided to sell it and to drive overland to Greece. The journey would last four and a half months.[10]

Their route took them southward through France, down the Rhone valley to the Mediterranean coast. From there, they struck eastwards, crossing the Po valley into what is now Croatia and down its coast, then driving north-east into Serbia then south through Kosovo, Macedonia and into Greece. It seems probable they came to rest in Athens where the family were to live for two years. At some point, Weston made a solo trip without the van into modern Turkey.[9]

The 1923 and 1924 return journey, from Greece to Antwerp, took in Bulgaria (in September 1923, at a time of extraordinary revolutionary activity), Romania, Hungary (a photo shows them in Budapest on 6 November 1923), the Czech Republic (where they were snowed in for six weeks), and Germany (where they stayed for three weeks and the vehicle was repainted). By the time the vehicle arrived in Berlin, it had 12,000 miles on the clock.[1][9]

In early May 1924,[31] the Weston family, along with the Suid Afrika, left Great Britain[10] (or Antwerp?[1]) for South Africa on the Adolf Woermann. The date of Weston’s return was in part motivated by financial considerations: “To be demobilised w/e from 22 11 23 (Required to sail for S Africa by 22 5 24 in order to obtain repatriation benefits)”.[31]

In Brandfort, Weston changed the wooden body of the caravan to a “lath form because of the damage inflicted on the first body by narrow streets and rifleshots by brigands in the Balkans” and in 1925 extensive travels were undertaken in southern Africa.[10]

In 1924 Weston had declared that, his intention was to travel to North and South America and then to the Far East[9]) but this seemed to have been forgotten or on the back burner by 1926. It was time for the children to further their studies in England and they were asked how they wished to travel to London – by air, sea or overland. The unanimous vote was for travelling overland.[10]

The Trans-Africa journey was begun in 1927, leaving Bloemfontein and heading north.[10] However, the family soon found that their vehicle was too unwieldy to negotiate the rivers, pontoons and narrow paths through bush country: the road wa so poor that it was sometimes called the "Great North Rut”.[10]

They returned to Cape Town where it appears they now had a property, though the Brandfort house was not sold until April 1928.[1][10] Weston began work on a new body which was canvas covered and which the family called the Prairie Schooner after the famous wagons used by 19th century migrants overlanding westwards across the US.[10] The canvas was stretched over a wooden framework and the house made waterproof so that it could be floated across rivers with the baggage and equipment inside whilst the truck itself was dragged through with the aid of a winch:[10] Weston claimed that the body could be removed in ten minutes.[1]

The great expedition of 1931 to 1932 started at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa, and was planned to extend to North Cape, the northernmost point of Europe. There is no record of the precise route but an account which had substantial Weston family input lists the following places: [modern names/countries are in brackets]:

Cape Agulhas [South Africa] > Kimberley [South Africa] > Johannesburg [South Africa] > Bulawayo [Zimbabwe] > Livingstone [near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe] > Lusaka [Zambia] > Broken Hill [now Kabwe, Zambia] > Abercorn [now Mbala, Zambia] > Tabora [Tanzania] > Arusha [Tanzania] > Nairobi [Kenya] > Tororo [Uganda] > Kitgum [Uganda] > Mongalla [South Sudan] > Kodoc [Kodok, South Sudan] > El Obeid [North Sudan] > Omdurman [North Sudan] > Khartoum [North Sudan] > Atbara [North Sudan] > Abu Hammad [Abu Hamad, North Sudan] > Aswan [Egypt] > Luxor [Egypt] > Cairo [Egypt] > Suez [Egypt] > Beersheba [Be’er Sheva, Israel] > Bethlehem [Palestine] > Jerusalem [Israel/Palestine] > Jericho [Palestine] > Amman [Jordan] > Damascus [Syria] > Antioch [Turkey] > Aleppo [Syria] > Adana [Turkey] > Angora [now Ankara, Turkey] > Scutari [now Üsküdar, Istanbul, Turkey] > Constantinople [now Istanbul, Turkey] > Sofia [Bulgaria] > Belgrade [Bulgaria… after which point the map from which these place names are taken is silent].[10]

The four-year delay in departure was partly due to the time spent rebuilding the vehicle, but also to Weston’s absence overseas.[10] There are few records of these trips though there is evidence that he had been in Britain in 1926 – on 17 July, '[11] and it has also been said that in 1928, "Weston’s mother and sister Lucy died from cholera in China where they were doing relief work" and that "John went over to China to wind up their affairs".[1]

Even today this journey would be ambitious and demanding. It was all the more ambitious because it appears Weston planned to travel beyond the Arctic Circle to Nordkapp in midwinter. In Cairo, Weston told a reporter that "the great, bleak northern plain is… extremely rough and dangerous to vehicles except in winter… [The snow] thaws slightly during the day and then freezes hard at night and… by continual building up… forms a hard level surface which can be used as a road".[35]

"The difficulties encountered in traversing the African continent in those years were manifold and sometimes enormous. The crossing of rivers, for instance, was a problem which varied from one river to the next. Great ingenuity was often required. Sometimes a whole village of a hundred or more natives were needed to drag the caravan through a river and up its steep bank. Sometimes the caravan with all equipment and baggage could be floated across and sometimes pole bridges had to be used, but these often had to be re-inforced [sic] before the hazardous crossing could be dared.

In the swamp areas a careful route had to be plotted to avoid fever-ridden regions. The existing tracks in the forests in elephant country often had to be opened up first and cleared of the fallen trees where elephants had played. These tracks seldom ran straight or in the desired direction and therefore careful navigation by compass was very important.

The Sudd country in the upper Nile regions was a special obstacle to overcome. [Also known as the Bahr al Jabal, As Sudd or Al Sudd, this is a vast swamp in South Sudan, formed by the White Nile. The term 'sudd' has come to refer to any large solid floating vegetation island or mat. The area which the Bahr al Jabal covers is one of the world's largest wetlands]. The weight which could be supported by the ground varied so greatly that safe routes had to be found before an attempt could be made to move the caravan.

The greatest test for the reliability the vehicle was presented by the Nubian Desert in North Sudan]. As it was impossible to travel anywhere in the neighbourhood of the Nile because of the topography of the country, the desert had to be crossed at such a distance from any source of water that it would have been impossible for the members of the expedition to abandon their vehicle in case of any trouble and attempt to reach water on foot.

When the sand became too soft for the wheels to grip, rolls of wire netting were laid out which had to be carried to the front again after the vehicle passed over. This procedure had to be repeated until a harder surface was reached. Progress was often very slow: on one occasion it was found that after sixteen hours of hard labour only a mile had been covered. On another occasion a stick was placed in the sand to assess whether the caravan moved forward at all.

After crossing the Nubian desert the hope of finding easier travelling conditions was not realised, as the Sinai desert proved to be almost as difficult as the Nubian.[10]

However, the news was not all of great difficulties that had to be overcome:

“It can be stated without reservation that the indigenous people encountered on the African continent were all friendly and helpful, though often very frightened of the monster they could not comprehend. Hostility, as by marauding bands of bandits, was only encountered in Asia Minor and actually on the European continent.”[10]

Road conditions improved when the Roman road in what is now Syria was reached, and this also delivered one of the highlights of the journey: Emir Said al-Jazairi, who led the interim government formed in Damascus in September 1918 after the last Ottoman troops left[36] when told of the approach of the caravan, sent a guard of honour on beautiful white Arabian horses to greet the travellers outside Damascus and escort them to the palace. The relaxation of the travellers and their enjoyment of the amenities of the palace – especially the cool fountains – after the long desert travel can be imagined."[10] Reality struck later brigands became a threat, who had to be ready with their rifles to defend themselves, and then the trip to North Cape had to be abandoned, at least temporarily, since the children had to rurn to school[10]

What followed immediately afterwards is unrecorded, though there seems no doubt that England was reached and that John Weston returned to South Africa in 1932, as he was reported to be in the country in October on business and also in Eastern Cape Province on a trip to Durban by caravan.[1]

So the motor caravan too had returned home, and there it would stay. Used by Weston until his death, it was stored and then re-built according to the original design. In 1975 it featured in the International Veteran and Vintage Car Rally from Durban to Cape Town and later was donated to the Winterton Museum, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, by Weston’s son in law, Carl Rein Weston.[10][33]

It can still be seen there.


On his return to South Africa in 1933, Weston bought a farm in the Bergville district, near the Sterkfontein dam. On 24 July 1950 at the age of 78 both he and his wife were attacked. Weston survived for 3 days following the attack and then died. His wife recovered and lived to the age of 91 years with her eldest daughter, Anna, in the Transvaal.[citation needed]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 1.30 1.31 1.32 1.33 1.34 1.35 1.36 1.37 1.38 Oberholzer, Hannes. Pioneers of Early Aviation in South Africa, Memoirs van die Nasionale Museum, Memoir No 7, 1974
  2. 2.0 2.1 Illsley, John William. In Southern Skies A Pictorial History of Early Aviation in Southern Africa 1816–1940, Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003
  4. Murray, N T G. "History of civil aviation in South Africa" and Personalities in South African Motoring and Aviation, 1941
  5. Klein H. Winged Courier, Cape Town: Howard Timmins. 1955
  6. Sanchez-Rocha, José and Miquel Casado, Juan Antonio (Dirección técnica). Enciclopedia de aviacion y astronautica, 1972
  7. Rand Daily Mail 13 April 1911
  8. Rosenthal E. Suid-Afrika het sy eerste vliegtuig in 1912 in Die Huisgenoot, Cape Town, 15 January 1965
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 Anon. A Modern Voortrekker, Sunday Times, Johannesburg, Transvaal, 11 May 1924
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 10.15 10.16 10.17 10.18 10.19 10.20 10.21 10.22 10.23 Anon (but thought to be written by Kathleen and Karl Rein-Weston). The Caravan Story. Unpublished.Prepared for the 15th International Veteran and Vintage Car Rally 1975 from Durban to Capetown[sic] Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "story" defined multiple times with different content
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 The National Archives. UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878–1960. Accessible at
  12. Committee Meeting.Flight 7 February 1914
  13. L’Ange, Gerald. Urgent Imperial Service: South African Forces in German South West Africa 1914–1915. Ashanti. Rivonia, South Africa. 1991
  14. John Weston SAAC service record. (South African) Department of Defence Documentation Centre (Archives)
  16. 16.0 16.1 The S.A. Aviation Corps and their doings in S.W. AfricaFlight 3 December 1915
  17. 17.0 17.1
  18. Ritchie, Eric Moore. With Botha in the Field. Longmans, Green and Co. London. 1915
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Public Record Office File Airl/2512. Disposition of Officers of the Royal Naval Air Service 11 September 1916
  21. The London Gazette. 4 July 1916
  22. RNR Pay and Appointing Ledger. Fleet Air Arm Museum Archive Department and Research Centre
  23. Dodds RV. Britain's First Strategic Bombing Force: No. 3 (Naval) Wing. The Roundel, July–August 1963, Vol. 15, No. 6.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 Fleet Air Arm Museum Archive Department and Research Centre
  25. 25.0 25.1 No 3 Wing R.N.A.S. 1916–1917 Britain’s First Strategic Bombers Appendix O Part 1. Fleet Air Arm Museum Archive Department and Research Centre
  26. Weston J file, South African National War Museum
  27. The London Gazette, 2 August 1918
  28. Supplement to The London Gazette. 1 January 1919
  29. Flight. 31 July 1919
  30. The London Gazette. 4 December 1923
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 RAF record of service for John Weston
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 32.4 Anon. Free Staters See the World in a Caravan. The Friend, Bloemfontein.17 Jun 1928
  33. 33.0 33.1 Anon. Weston Caravan, Winterton Museum, South Africa, Date unknown
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 Rosenthal, Eric. A South African Caravans Round the Globe, The Outspan, 3 October 1930
  35. A.D.N. (author’s initials). Cape Agulhas to North Cape. Across Africa and Europe by Car. The Weston Family Expedition. Criticism of Egyptian Roads. Egyptian Gazette 24 February 1932

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