Hacks, Shifts & Contrivances

The ‘net is full of ‘hacks’: Simple and (sometimes) effective solutions to everyday problems (or ‘problems’). Often quirky or inelegant. Here’s a typical geek hack:

dirty dishes

I found some camping hacks: Shoe holder kitchen; Eggs in a bottle; toilet paper jar; etc.

camping hacks

But here’s what really got me going: An 1872 book on hacks for going on a long expedition into Darkest Africa called The Art of Travel, or Shifts and Contrivances available in Wild Countries by Francis Galton, grandson of the famous Erasmus Darwin and cousin of the even more famous Charles Darwin.


Travelers must be healthy, adventurous, and have “at least a moderate fortune”. If your fortune isn’t quite large enough, shoot elephants for their ivory or collect insects, birds and plants and sell them to fund your travels.

Washing Clothes

Here’s how to wash your clothes after you have worn them night and day for six weeks: Kill an animal – any animal – take its gall bladder and add it to boiling water full of ash from the fire. Peel off your greasy clothes and soak them in this mess overnight. Next morning, take them to water and wash and beat them with a flat piece of wood. To get rid of the vermin with which you are infested by now, take half an ounce of mercury, mix it with old tea leaves reduced to pulp by mastication and add saliva (not water) to make a paste. Infuse this into a string which you hang around your neck. The lice will be sure to bite at the bait, swell, become red and die.

Making Soap

Save up the fat from the cooking till you have half a bucket-full. Collect as much wood as you can and wood ashes from plants whose ashes taste acrid. Get a man to make two very large clay pots, ‘which is a very easy thing to do when proper clay can be obtained’. In one pot place the ashes. In the other, under which a fire has been lit, place the fat. Now employ a Damara of sedentary disposition to supervise the process to the end, he or she simply having to keep up the fire under the grease-pot night and day, and from time to time ladle into it a spoonful of the ash-water or lye. This ash-water is sucked up by the grease and in only ten days of constant attendance the stuff is transformed into good white soap.

Make a Boat

If you need to cross a river with your belongings, a make-shift boat is useful: Kill two bulls, skin them and sew the skins together. Cut down ten small willow trees, fourteen feet long. Lash the willow poles as shown, wrap the skins around them. Two men can make this craft in a mere two days.

Galton shift boat

Theory of Loads and Distances – and Women

You need to take a lot of stuff along, so Galton works out how much you can get animals and men to carry. He does this ‘partly by theory and partly by experiment’!

“Let d be the distance the beast or man could travel daily if unburdened; Let b be the burden which would just suffice to prevent an animal from moving a step; Let b’ be some burden less than b and let d’ be the distance he could travel daily when carrying b’.”

He comes to a magic formula b’d² = b(d – d’)² which ‘proves’ the pack animal can carry 4/9 of his maximum staggering load! From this he works out that a man can carry 119lbs a distance of 11 miles a day.

He also confidently states that – unlike many travelers – he believes taking women along is an asset, for they work hard and can carry ‘double the load men can’. Mind you, this man did once use his expertise in trigonometry to discreetly measure the posterior development (her bum) of a South African woman at a distance. Taking along the wives of the hired hands “gives great life to a party,” and they can endure a long journey “nearly as well as a man… and certainly better than a horse or a bullock.” Women were also “invaluable in picking up and retailing information and hearsay gossip” which the traveler might otherwise miss. Plus, they were cheap to run, as Samuel Hearne of the Hudson’s Bay Company had pointed out: “Women were made for labor, and though they do everything, they are maintained at a trifling expense, for, as they always cook, the very licking of their fingers, in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence.”

Noisy Donkeys

Just tie a heavy stone around the ass’s tail. “When an ass wants to bray, he elevates his tail, and, if his tail be weighted down, he has not the heart to bray”.

Solitary Travel

‘Neither sleepy nor deaf men should think of traveling alone’.

On Being Held Up by Brigands

When the robber orders you to lie down, draw your own gun and yell, “If this were loaded, you should not treat me thus!” Then lie on the ground as ordered. As the robber approaches to relieve you of your belongings, “aim quickly and shoot him dead – the pistol being really loaded all the time. It’s a trick that has been practiced in most countries, from England to Peru”.


After giving long lists of necessities per day and per person and per six months, he comes to a final rough formula for ‘Stores for Individual Use’: You need 7lbs a month for every white man and 3lbs a month for every black man.


You need to take aperient, cordial, quinine, camphor, carbolic acid, Warburg’s fever drops, glycerine, mustard paper, and emetic. Or, for an emetic you could use a charge of gunpowder in a tumblerful of warm water, then tickle your throat.

Boots Pinching?

‘A raw egg broken into the boot before putting it on, greatly softens the leather’.


Your bedding must be warm and windproof, but not airtight, as ‘sleeping clothes that are absolutely impervious to the passage of the wind necessarily retain the cutaneous excretions. These poison the sleeper, acting upon his blood through his skin, and materially weaken his power of emitting vital heat: the fire of his life burns more languidly’. He also advises you to sleep outside, a tent is too much like home.

Always Keep a Diary

Keep a daily travelogue: “It appears impossible to a traveler, at the close of his journey, to believe he will ever forget its events, however trivial. They seem branded into his memory. But this is not the case – the crowds of new impressions during a few months of civilised life will efface the sharpness of the old ones. I have conversed with . . many men . . the greater part of whose experiences in savagedom had passed out of their memories like the events of a dream.”

Galton camp SWA
Galton’s camp in Damaraland

To Raise and Move a Heavy Body

When a violent hurricane had driven his 80 ton schooner several hundred yards inland, Mr Williams, a missionary in the South Sea Islands, said, “The method by which we raised and moved the vessel was exceedingly simple and we accomplished the task with great ease”. They raised her out of the 4ft hole she had worked herself into by levering her out with long levers and stone weights. Then they filled the bog that lay between her and the sea with stones and logs as rollers. Then they used a chain cable and “compelled her to take a short voyage upon the land before she floated in her pride on the sea”.

Oh, and he did mention, “the united strength of about 2000 people” was used to do this.


Galton’s first trip was as a student from Germany through Eastern Europe to Constantinople. He rafted down the Danube and swam naked across the harbour in Trieste in order to avoid the hassle of quarantine procedures. In 1845 he went to Egypt and traveled up the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan. In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and over the next two years mounted a long and difficult expedition into then little-known South West Africa (now Namibia) where he met the Damaras mentioned above.

Francis Galton (from the introduction to his book by anthropologist & historian GT Bettany): Mr. Francis Galton, the third son of Samuel Tertius Galton, a banker in Birmingham, in whose family the love of statistical accuracy was very remarkable; and of Violetta, eldest daughter of the celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin, author of ‘Zoonomia’, ‘The Botanic Garden’, etc, was born on February 16th, 1822, and educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where he gained no great admiration for “the unhappy system of education that has hitherto prevailed, by which boys acquire a very imperfect knowledge of the structure of two dead languages, and none at all of the structure of the living world”.

What a delightful book of days gone by. Days of adventure, of knowing everything, including what other people and women thought and wanted – without ever asking them!

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