What was the Champagne Safari?


Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy, and today we're going to be talking about an expedition with a very unusual packing list. Some of the items on this - champagne, French novels, truffles!

Katie Lambert: Silk pajamas.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, they sound pretty nice. We like them a lot, and we think that if we were going to go on a safari or a trip, we might bring similar items, but we'd also make sure that our trip was in cars and that it was also on paved roads, not packhorses in the mud.

Katie Lambert: Unlike the Champagne Safari, which was technically known as the Bedaux Canadian Subarctic Expedition, so for all of you people who have been clamoring for Canadian history, here you go. And we'd mentioned Charles Bedaux in our podcast about the Nazi king because he owned the Château de Candé, where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were married.But his life is far more interesting than just that one small episode, and the safari is part of that. So to talk a little bit about his life before safari, he was born in Paris in either 1886 or 1887, and dropped out of school fairly young when he started working with a pimp.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. He helped the pimp find girls for business, and the guy helped him wear flashy clothes and learn to fight and all that, until the pimp was shot -

Katie Lambert: It's hard out there.

Sarah Dowdy: And that's where their working relationship ended.

Katie Lambert: And that's when he moved to the United States. He was about 19 or 20. All he had with him was $1.00 in his pocket, and so he started working as a manual laborer and then as a dishwasher, until he took up entrepreneurship and he was really fantastic at it, apparently. He sold all sorts of strange inventions like a toothpaste that removed ink stains, and then we went on to become an efficiency expert and he worked with some huge companies like DuPont.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. He invents the Bedaux System, and employers and managers loved this thing. Employees and unions hate it because basically it establishes a Bedaux Unit, which is how much work you can do in a minute, and if you complete 60 Bedaux Units in an hour, well then, good job. You've done your job adequately.

Katie Lambert: And you can keep it, so we're really hoping our boss won't pick up on that because I don't even know what a Bedaux Unit would be for a podcast.

Sarah Dowdy: How many podcasts do we do in a Bedaux Unit, Katie?

Katie Lambert: I have no idea, but Bedaux made millions from this venture, so he was really living the American Dream. He'd shown up as an immigrant with a dollar in his pocket, and now he was a millionaire, hanging out with people like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Sarah Dowdy: And working with big companies, too.

Katie Lambert: Oh, yeah, but the money and the famous friends weren't enough for Bedaux, and he needed adventure. In 1929, he was the first man to cross the Libyan desert, he'd sailed the South Pacific, hunted big game, did all those thrilling, adrenaline rush types of activities, but then he had a big idea.

Sarah Dowdy: He's going to go through the Rockies and the Stikine Mountains, to the Pacific from Edmonton, Alberta. So this is a big trip all the way to Telegraph Creek, British Columbia.

Katie Lambert: And we've gotten different numbers for just how long that was, depending on what we're reading, anywhere from 2,400 kilometers to 1,800, so if you've got a more solid number, feel free to send it to us. But this trail hadn't been attempted since the Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie did it in 1793. Much of it had no roads at all and was unmapped, but Bedaux said, "It's fun to do things others call impossible."

Sarah Dowdy: So Bedaux brings along his wife, Fern, and his mistress, the Italian-Swiss countess Bellona Q uiesa.

Katie Lambert: The wife and the mistress, hello. It sounds like an awkward trip already, but he also had with him a bunch of other people, a Swiss skiing instructor, some cowboys, a dental student, a bush pilot, geologist, guides, a surveyor, his pet fox terrier, a game keeper and a mechanic.

Sarah Dowdy: And lots of cameramen, including Floyd Crosby, who eventually goes on to be the cinematographer for High Noon.

Katie Lambert: And win an Oscar for it. They also brought along with them five Citroën half-tracks. They were these all-terrain vehicles that had wheels in front, but caterpillar tracks in back, kind of like a tank. They also brought along 100 pack horses and 15 tons of supplies, some of which Sarah and I had already mentioned, the champagne, candied fruits, French novels, truffles.

Sarah Dowdy: Silk pajamas, flatware, one pack horse that just carries Mrs. Bedaux, Fern, her shoes, fur parkas, Devonshire cream, and chicken livers, which I think that's the one item I might leave off this list.

Katie Lambert: I don't know. I like my livers, but we were saying this reminded us of the Burke and Wills expedition podcast and all the bizarre things they brought with them, as well.

Sarah Dowdy: Things that are unnecessary for your rustic trek across the wilderness.

Katie Lambert: But on July 6, 1934, they set off for this big trip with all of their stuff. They've got a champagne breakfast and a big send off in Edmonton in the rain, which also starts off with two limousines escorting them, so this is not just any safari.

Sarah Dowdy: No. Well, they obviously ditched the limos pretty quickly because the roads that they're traveling on are made of something that the cowboys called gumbo. It's more like clay than mud, and it sticks to everything. It's impossible to get through, and it's kind of like a bog. They actually call it muskeg.

Katie Lambert: And these wonderful Citroëns, who were supposed to be so fabulous and so all-terrain, don't actually do so great on the terrain. They have to haul them through a swamp, they're so slow, they're gas-guzzlers, so things aren't proceeding quite as blithely as you might wish.

Sarah Dowdy: And it just rains and rains and rains. You should just imagine this rain for the rest of the podcast.

Katie Lambert: That's how I feel in Georgia right now, Sarah. I'm not going to lie. They do make it through 800 kilometers of mud roads, though, so despite their difficulties, they make it through. But that's the point when they hit the wilderness, and there are no roads anymore, there are no maps, and they're on their own.

Sarah Dowdy: This is Montney, British Columbia, and it's the last outpost from this depression relief-cut trail, so it's the edge of the wilderness.

Katie Lambert: And Bedaux turns out to be tough to deal with, perhaps not surprising considering who he is, but he likes everything done his way, he likes it done right then, even if that's not the way it needs to go, and when he was called on it, he said, "This is the sort of thing you must be prepared to put up with when you pack a millionaire through the wilderness," which I guess he had a point.

Sarah Dowdy: Not going to lie - that kind of reminds me of Gilligan's Island.

Katie Lambert: That's exactly what I was thinking, too.

Sarah Dowdy: Bedaux fires his radio operator, too, which makes his team mad, understandably, because without the radio, the surveyor can't get a Greenwich Time signal and do his job.

Katie Lambert: Bedaux's comeback for that was that they never heard anything from the radio other than the fact that John Dillinger had been shot, so there you go, you have his reasoning. And again, the Citrons are even worse in the mountains. They're always getting stuck, they're slow, they're eating all that fuel. They decide, you know what - we're going to pull the plug on this whole thing. It hasn't worked out for us, but we're not going to do it just any old way.

Sarah Dowdy: We're going to go out with a bang, if you will.

Katie Lambert: Oh, absolutely. So they get Crosby to start recording, and they send one of these vehicles down the river on a raft, and the idea is that it would bang into this cliff that had been rigged with dynamite, and then explode and you would have this spectacular filmed explosion. Yeah, it didn't really work out. The dynamite did not explode, and instead it just kept on going down that river, where a rancher found it and drove it for the next 30 years, so not a bad vehicle.

Sarah Dowdy: And two others were pushed off cliffs and two were abandoned. One ends up in a Saskatchewan museum. You can apparently see it today if you want to get a sense for the Champagne Safari.

Katie Lambert: I do want to. Bedaux told the New York Times that he'd lost the vehicles in a freak accident, which was a freakish incident, but not a freakish accident. So now they've just got their horses, and around August 4, their 100 horses cross the arctic Halfway River and then they all come down with hoof rot, which is a really, really painful thing for a horse to go through. And apparently from what I've read, if I'm wrong please let me know, once like a whole herd of horses comes down with it, you're pretty much screwed.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, once a few get it -

Katie Lambert: Right. You can treat them with antibiotics, but once it spreads through the whole thing, you're done for.

Sarah Dowdy: And of course, they wouldn't have had antibiotics with them.

Katie Lambert: No, they did have truffles, but antibiotics, no.

Sarah Dowdy: By September 8th, they crossed the Quidache River, and toast with champagne because what do you do when you've abandoned your vehicles and your horses are sick? But this is blown a little bit out of proportion. They have a case of champagne, which is 12 bottles, and actually one is sadly broken, but still, just something about toasting with champagne at this dire point.

Katie Lambert: Well, it just became one of those moments by which the entire expedition was known. When people were trying to paint him as being ridiculous, it was like, well, look what they did with the champagne. I don't know if that's fair or not. I guess we'll see because in mid-September, they start shooting their horses. They're exhausted, they're hungry, they've started running out of horse feed, and of course they all have hoof rot, and they start shooting two or three horses a day, which takes it's toll on everyone in the expedition. It was very difficult.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and it also gets the wolves' attention, and so packs start following them.

Katie Lambert: And they don't have any fresh meat for themselves, things aren't going well, and they finally get to the point where they decide they're not going to make it. They're going to turn around, go back home, even though they're several hundred kilometers from where they wanted to be, so they hire canoes and head back. The funny is that when Bedaux returned, he tried to paint the expedition as a success, but the public's reaction was more along the lines of, okay, so you spent $250,000.00 for what?What did we get out of this? It's just an ego trip, right. And after the trip, he got into some sketchy business. For one thing, he arranged for Hitler and the Duke of Windsor to meet, which we talk about in our other podcast.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and he did business with some pretty shady characters, and any Nazi connection during this time is rather disturbing.

Katie Lambert: He worked a lot with France's Vichy Government. He did one weird experiment in Roquefort, where instead of money; he suggested they all use a unit called the Backs.

Sarah Dowdy: Which was just defined in his head what that unit stood for.

Katie Lambert: I keep going back to the Bedaux Units. There was no commerce, and he thought of it, I guess, as capitalism within communism. He called it the theory of equivalism, and someone said it was a reaction to his Bedaux System. It really bothered him how many people thought his system was cruel to workers, and this was his answer to that, a more Utopian idea.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, especially from somebody who's coming from such humble beginnings, you can imagine how it would bother him that he was hated by the workingman.

Katie Lambert: Exactly.

Sarah Dowdy: Some of the shady business dealings we were talking about, too - he may have given financial information to the Nazi's about the companies he worked for, so remember these companies that we're talking about, DuPont and GE, huge American companies. And the Nazi connection goes even further - there was a bust of him shown with those of Hitler and Göring, so -

Katie Lambert: Not Company you want to keep, Mr. Bedaux.

Sarah Dowdy: No.

Katie Lambert: He also got in trouble for something we have yet to verify. Sarah and I keep finding different accounts. Some sort of trans-Saharan pipeline, either for - we found different things - edible peanut oil, actual oil, or perhaps a railroad, but either way, it was to be able to transport things to German occupied lands.

Sarah Dowdy: Kind of hoping it's the edible peanut oil.

Katie Lambert: Because that would be more interesting, yes, but he was seen in North Africa drinking brandy with a German officer, and on December 5, 1944, he was arrested as a collaborator.

Sarah Dowdy: And because he's an American citizen, he goes on trial for treason in Miami, and while he's awaiting trial, he kills himself with Phenobarbital on February 14th, Valentine's Day, in 1945.

Katie Lambert: But this is where it gets a little crazy again because he left a very cryptic note saying that he couldn't tell the truth about what happened because of powerful people, and said that he was a good American and that he loved his wife. And some think that maybe he was murdered because he wouldn't talk about the wartime activities of certain industrialists, or because he couldn't talk about the wartime activities of these very powerful people.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so we have a little history mystery there. He's ultimately buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and one other sort of strange little factoid about this is some people say that the Citroën half-tracks were being tested for military use.

Katie Lambert: So if you know anything about this kind of stuff, please send us an email at historypodcast@HowStuffWorks.com. From what Sarah and I were reading, it sounded like this was a particularly compelling period of Canadian history, or one of those fun stories that people know, so if you know anything more about it than we do, drop us a line.

Sarah Dowdy: Years after this whole thing went down, film footage from all of these filmmakers who were along on the trip, was actually found and a documentary was made, so Katie and I, I know we're interested in checking this out.

Katie Lambert: Oh, yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: Seeing this failed explosion.

Katie Lambert: We'll have movie night, Sarah. And it turned out the whole thing wasn't a wash. Some of the information from this trip was used to make the Alaska Highway, so it did indeed have a purpose besides the fantastic title of the Champagne Safari.

Sarah Dowdy: I think that's about it, and I guess it's time for listener mail now.

Katie Lambert: Sarah and I got a couple of corrections on our Haitian Revolution podcast about Toussaint L'Ouverture. The first one is from Doug, who might be my favorite because he starts off with, "Small correction, pun intended," and we do love a pun. He says, "During Napoleon's autopsy, it was concluded that he was 5'2". These measurements were, however, given in French feet, a measure that was slightly larger than a standard foot. Napoleon, in current terms, was about 5'6"."And we got another comment on the blog from David Markham, who is President of the International Napoleonic Society, who said the same thing, so we're sorry for saying that Napoleon was short. I would, however, like to say that he is shorter than the both of us.

Sarah Dowdy: Yup. Still short to us!

Katie Lambert: That's our story, and we're sticking to it. So if you'd like to learn more about the Champagne Safari and all sorts of interesting adventure stories, come to our website at www.HowStuffWorks.com.