Consider for a moment the above title. Not many people alive – or for that matter, who have ever lived (108 billion and counting) – can claim to have uttered a phrase such as that, or been in a situation requiring it, let alone owning the presence of mind to say it. In French.
It sounds like something from a B-movie, but is in truth straight from an incredible chapter that Tusker Trail founder, Eddie Frank, actually experienced.
As you may recall from the last installment of Eddie’s Excellent and Slightly Absurd Old School Adventure (Tusker Geografica, 29 March 2013 issue), he was redeemed in 1979 of a potentially disastrous speculative business venture when, out of the blue, Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa, dictator of then-named Central African Empire (CAE), offered to purchase several German Army surplus trucks that, at the tail-end of a series of improbable mishaps, Eddie had planned to flog in West Africa.
As the story goes, when Bokassa had one of his minions offer up the full purchase price for the vehicles in cash, literally, on a golden platter, and asked Eddie if he wished to count it, that immortal line quoted above (“If His Majesty has counted, it has to be 100% correct”) found its way into Eddie’s brain, out of his mouth, and into the annals of adventure as one of the – until now – least known epic comebacks ever.
I’ll Take the Submarine
While it is still a mystery why Emperor Bokassa, a reputed cannibal, was buying worn-out army surplus from Eddie when, in truth, he was the recipient of French government largesse to the tune of billions of francs, including endless military materiel in France’s prosecution of the Cold War in Africa, the exchange between Eddie and Emperor Bokassa actually gets more choice than that.
Perhaps Bokassa was on a charm offensive, doing his bit to convince Eddie and all those Eddie would encounter, that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Or perhaps he may have just liked Eddie, or taken pity on this brave and enterprising young white man who, in the Royal Palace, had mustered so much poise and dignity – in French – while down to his last clean pair of undies and his last twenty bucks.
Regardless, Bokassa intimated to Eddie that he was interested in a little shopping spree. A deft improviser at all times, and acutely aware of the pomp and grandiosity native to Bokassa’s self-deception and comically “regal” gestures, Eddie reached into the bottom of his dusty rucksack and produced for the Emperor his “company catalogue” – which was actually a German reference book containing every piece of military equipment manufactured by Germany since WW I, including bi-planes, the notorious WW II aerial combat Fokker-Wolf, halftracks, Panzer tanks, DC-10’s and U-boats, commonly known as submarines.
Bokassa, in his landlocked jungle empire, went for – you guessed it – the submarines.
Eddie dutifully wrote up the order, knowing full well that he was merely Bokassa’s flavor du jour – while hoping, given the Emperor’s reputed predilection for human flesh, that status would not become too literal – and that no further business would come from his improbable new client. None would, of course, but the exchange generated much bonhomie between two most unlikely people, and to this day, much believe-it-or-not story fodder.
Then came Eddie’s problem of surviving the road trip back home through the badlands of West Africa and the Sahel with $70,000 in cash – in CFA (Central African Francs), to be exact, which back then, fortunately for Eddie, despite massive inflation in many West and Central African economies, was still a viable, tradable currency.
The Emperor, no slouch when it came to moving vast sums of money, had an elegant if not rather fantastical solution at hand: he promptly had his new “junior member” (Eddie) flown back to Paris in his own private jet – and this is where the story gets even more incredulous, if not downright Bondian, as in say, the recent Casino Royale: upon deplaning, ushered by an agent of the Emperor to an underground bank in Paris, Eddie was able to exchange his CFA into French Francs. The rest, as they say, is history.
Richer beyond any previous measure in his young life, Eddie then returned to Munich, where, being the decent and moral fellow that he is, he settled debts that his former partner in this woebegone surplus vehicle enterprise had incurred while holding up, in a manner of speaking, his end of the bargain (prodigious bar bill included), leaving Eddie with the fat net profit of $500.
Not much of a nest egg when you own ambitions of using your hard-won knowledge of the Sahel (including crossing the Sahara), and of West and Central Africa, as a foundation for your fledgling adventure travel company. But when you factor in the cultural education Eddie had acquired while gaining that paltry profit, not to mention the mechanical knowledge in having to overhaul several times the vehicles he sold to Bokassa, $500 is several magnitudes greater than the $20 with which Eddie started his sales cycle in CAE before he met the erstwhile cannibal, Bokassa.
Back in Los Angeles, that $500 was enough to pay for a rudimentary brochure, a 70-character classified ad in the Los Angeles Times – for those who do not know, a means of advertising a lot like Craig’s, but pre-PC, pre-InterWebs, and appearing in a physical edition of a newspaper – and buy yet again another surplus German Army vehicle and outfit it for 13 rugged paying customers, all of whom thought driving from London to Cape Town overland for the grand sum of $600, all while subsisting on dehydrated food, sounded like a good idea.
The ad read something like this: London to Cape Town via the Sahara. 16 weeks $600. Call 213-392-6423.
Though the grub by any measure sucked, and was a universe apart from the gourmet food Tusker serves up today, the journey itself amounted to the first of many countless epic adventures for Eddie and his fledgling Tusker Trail and Safari Co. (as it was then called), as partly chronicled in The Bangui Bottleneck (Tusker Geografica, 05 March 2013). It became the flag in the sand that Eddie would plant as he started building his lifelong dream into the world-renowned adventure travel outfit that Tusker is today.
None of this, of course, begins to explore Eddie’s first “paid-passenger” trip across the Sahara two years prior to meeting the Cannibal King, in 1977 – during the Algerian-Moroccan war over the Spanish Sahara – a journey he made through the land-mine laden desert on a dare.
That, as they say, is another story…