A letter from Auguste Pons on his last days in Gobi

This is great news… I found a letter from Auguste!

Dear Contal enthousiasts. A force de chercher, on trouve. We search the internet, so we are.

Some time ago I found the MOST interesting site on https://lestricars.es.tl/, made by Dominique and Hendrik Svenson. I never saw a more complete research on the subject of tricars. WOW! I can’t imagine how they did it but it is wonderful to read about what has been an obsession for 18 months now.

Somewhere in the site, I found a letter written by Auguste Pons on his last days in the Gobi desert. Only now it is clear to me how he and Foucauld suffered! It is with a lot of gratitude that I thank Mr Svenson for his permission to publish it here, in my own translation. Pardon my French… 


By AUGUSTE PONS  –  August 1907

Pons, an excellent pilot, who was driving a Contal Mototri in the Peking to Paris 1907 raid was forced to abandon in the Gobi desert. He tells the readers of ‘La Vie au Grand Air’ his moving adventures.

“I had great confidence in the outcome of the Peking to Paris raid. Alas! Fatality fell upon me. I had to give up in circumstances which proved to me that if the friendship of men is a blessing of the gods, it is because it is extremely rare, and the adage “it is necessary to help one another, it is the law of nature “is not often put into practice.

We left Peking on June 10 with a heart full of hope. All the drivers had a friendship that one might have thought sincere. We did not have enough words in the evening and in the morning to swear that we would never let go. Whenever one of us is out of order, the others would wait for it, etc … But we can not have everything: we had the beautiful promises, we did not have to push the demand until we asked them to act. Experience proved it to me, and it was not long in coming, since it was the 18th of June that began, which I can call without exaggeration, my ordeal.

At 4 o’clock in the morning we left Ta-Houng-Teou. Finding myself ready first and having a slower vehicle, my competitors allowed me to leave half an hour before them. Delayed by the ruts and puddles fairly frequent, I advanced only slowly, After an hour, the road suddenly stopped, I am forced to find another track on the side of the poles telegraph. A few minutes after getting back on the road, the two of Dion and the Spiker pass us and take a certain lead.

It was 5 pm. Stuck several times in soft ground where my mototri was bogged down, the wheels pressing so that my engine penetrated in the mud, I always lost a lot of time and proceeded only at the cost of the greatest difficulty. It was 9 o’clock  when Prince Borghese’s car arrived on us, just as we had stopped, arranging our loose luggage.

What do you have? says the prince, may I be useful to you?
Thank you, we’re done.

And he left, followed by us, who tried to distance us as little as possible. Later, I notice that we are moving away a lot from the posts. But having seen no other road than the one we followed, wide road and good enough besides, and following the footsteps of anti-slip, I continue without worry, thinking to find the telegraph poles a little further. After half an hour, no more tracks on the ground and we had not encountered any path.

I was getting very worried because the gas that I had did not allow me to make an extra trip.

Fortunately, I meet the Mongols and after much gesture to make me understand, I learn that he did not meet the four cars. I take a paper, draw as best I can telegraph poles and they wave to me to cut across the fields on the left. After 2 hours of efforts we found the road and traces of our companions. From this moment, we do not go astray and we drive at an average pace of 15 kilometer per hour.

Scary situation!

At 2 o’clock. I note, while refueling, that my supply of gasoline has decreased a lot, considering the extra terrain traveled and a very long run in first gear, but Ponghong having been announced to me at 170 kilometer from Ta-hing-Teou and having traveled about 140 kilometer on the right road, I do not worry about it. At 7 pm, still no Ponghong on the horizon and in my tank just 112 liters! As far as the eye can see, the immensity of the plain, not a tent!

The situation became agonizing. Wanting to preserve the petrol that remained to me, I decided to stop definitively next to a camp of Chinese who gave us water, because since the morning we had taken only two eggs and one little tea for lunch. The Chinese water was terrible: it was mud. But with what delights we drank it, so much had the heat affected us. A stale cook’s biscuit completed our dinner on June 18, it was a Lucullus feast compared to our meals of the following days. We slept under a tent. Sleep slammed us, but in spite of that, my companion Foucault and I each in our turn stayed awake, to hail our fellow travelers if they came to pass. We thought that by not finding us at the stage, they would look for us. We were encamped near the road, the night was very clear, hope was reborn in us.


The next day, at dawn, I leave again, decided to use to the last drop the gasoline that remained to me, certain to meet one of the four competitors, or otherwise to reach Ponghong located only 20 kilometers further, I thought. After a quarter of an hour… no more petrol, so we leave our Contal Mototri and we start walking. It was five o’clock. We marched for 6 kilometers. At 11 o’clock we could not see any companions nor village. And the thirst was on our heels, no water other than that found in a puddle, a mixture of mud and insects. We drank it with pleasure. As for eating, we should not think about it, we had nothing.

Our situation was becoming more and more critical. We decide to go back to where we left our machine and wait there.

Stunned by the sun, stupefied by fatigue, tormented by thirst and hunger, we turn back and hobbling we arrive at 7 o’clock in the evening at our motorcycle. Without eating, without drinking, and for that good reason, we lie on the floor. We had wrapped ourselves in our blankets, because the nights are as cold as the days are hot in Mongolia. And we fall asleep with hope again, but a hope that weakened more and more. On the morning of the 20th, nothing, still nothing.

I’m thinking :
Yesterday, we did 30 kilometers to Ponghong, and we did not see anything on the horizon. We were all mistaken about the distance. For two days, we have lost all contact with our companions. They forgot their promises. And, during this time, they do not suspect that we are alone lost in the desert without shelter and without food? They should understand that a competitor who stays 36 hours without joining, has a serious damage and the most basic humanity would command them to come to our rescue.

What to do ?

It was necessary, however, to take a descision. It was useless to ratiocinate further. No one on the road, no vehicle, no horses, no men! What to become? One cannot imagine the feeling of isolation and pain that seizes you at such moments.

We drove a few miles to realize if we did not see a Mongol camp on the horizon?! At that moment, it was useless to think that we could fall into the hands of robbers who would mistreat us, we had only one idea: to see human beings, not to feel alone anymore in this immense uncultivated plain, under that scorching sky that weighed on our heads like a leaden cap.

Suddenly, I utter an exclamation of joy.
What is it?Foucault asks me.
Look over there, there. Do you see these tents?

In the distance we could see the whiteness of the canvases. It was a camp. Despite the fatigue, we began to march courageously, pushing our machine. We were up a 500 m slope of about 5%; it was to arrive at the top. It was hard, I guarantee you, in the state of moral and physical decay where we were. However, we reach the summit. There, ruts absorbed the wheels of our machine and we struggled hard to get them out of it. This very painful task had betrayed our strength and we could not do any more. We rest for a moment. Suddenly, we see in the distance a Mongol horseman who is heading for us.

Did he bring us hope? Was it the end of our miseries? Or was it an enemy?

In a short time, he was on us and, jumping on the ground, hobbled his horse. Then he came to us and we immediately realized that he had only peaceful intentions towards us. He was an ambassador of the Mongols. They had seen us from a distance, had taken pity for us and sent us help.

I admit that it is a little humiliating to see that we receive help and assistance from savage tribes, while the so-called civilized people hated you in the desert.
We entered into conversation … by signs; two days before, our benefactor had seen the other cars pass by. I made him understand by gestures that we were dying of hunger and thirst. Immediately, he seized one of our cans, rode on horseback and went belly down to the tents. Some time later he came back, bringing us tea with milk that we drank.
I offered to buy him two horses that would take me to Pongh, but he answered me negatively, explaining that their animals could not get stuck and that they would break everything rather than run. So I told him that I wanted to take my mototri to his camp in the hope that once there, I might decide one of his companions to take us to the next refueling.

We are preparing to leave. The Mongol entrusts to me his horse. He starts running towards a herd of oxen nearby, takes one, climbs on it and takes him away. He grabbed a rope wrapped around him, attaching one end to the horns, the other to the machine and recovering astride his horse that he struck and stung, while I took place on my mototri, we head to the camp. Foucault follows us on horseback.

The return to Peking.

We spent the day with our new friends. And the next day in Peking, I take the very painful decision to abandon my mototri and return to Kalgan, from there, back to Peking. I thought then of the enormous sacrifices made by my house to reach that point, to all that had cost money and trouble to set up this machine, and all this is destroyed by the lack of comradeship of my companions of the road.
All our equipment, spare parts, camp, had to stay with our saviors with the machine. It was impossible to take anything with us since we had to walk. I explained to the Mongols that I would return in a few days and that I confided to them my mototri. Good people have to wait again and imagine that we are dead.

It was six o’clock when we set out. Our provisions consisted of troop biscuits and tea. We were walking fast enough because we wanted to get to Kalgan as early as possible, 300 kilometers away. In the afternoon, we see a caravan of camels. I speak to the Mongols who drove them. They start by offering us tea. They make me understand that they are going to Kalgan. I ask if they can transport us on camels. They show me that the animals are loaded and tired and that it is very difficult. I go out once more my two ruble notes and I explain to them that I would like to know how much they still want, that I do not have any more, but that on arrival I will give them to them. The chief picks up thirty stones and counts them to me: he needed 30 rubles. Contract concluded, payable to Kalgan.

On the fifth day of the walk, thinking we were only 30 kilometers from Kalgan, we dropped the caravan in the morning at 8 am, despite the advice of the Chinese and Mongolians who made us understand that it was very far, that we were already very tired and it was unwise to venture alone. But nothing worked. We leave them by giving them an appointment at the Russo-Chinese bank. At 6 o’clock in the evening we were there.

Mr. Dorliac, the amiable director of the Russo-Chinese Bank at Kalgan, welcomed us with the greatest cordiality and offered us hospitality. He informed us that the Chinese Government, having received a telegram from Cormier, announcing that we were lost, sent a detachment of soldiers to our search. We have never seen them …

But it’s already old history, we cheer those who finish the raid and I’ve already forgotten.”


This are the original pages of the magazine ‘La vie au Grand Air‘ where the letter of Auguste Pons was published.