SIAFU -- THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER FOUR: INTO ETHIOPIA
It was mid-May when we finally tore ourselves away from the palm trees and white sands of Malindi., and when we continued our journey north towards Ethiopia we were three. We had been joined by Shimpy.
When I first met our new travelling companion he was dirty, thin and in a very bad temper. He was attached by his middle to a length of rope as thick and nearly as tattered as his own tail, for Shimpy was a young vervet monkey. His master was a cheerful Arab who pulled him along unceremoniously and from time to time whisked him struggling into the air to offer him for sale to passing Europeans. The Arab held him out at arm’s length but the angry black face and needle sharp teeth were keeping any possible customers at an even safer distance.
When the Arab spotted me he called my name and came running over. We exchanged the usual lengthy greetings and I casually asked how he had acquired the monkey. Immediately he offered me the rope and its struggling captive at the “give-away” price of only five pounds, but we were old friends and he was laughing through his beard. Unnecessarily I reminded him that I was no tourist and cheerfully we started to haggle. Somehow the pleasure of bargaining got the better of me and half an hour later I ended up the poorer by twenty-five shillings, but the richer in being the proud new owner of Shimpy.
I took him home where he promptly leapt for Peter with teeth bared. Peter departed muttering something about mad Kenyans and wild monkeys. The rest of the day was sheer chaos, the household disrupted, glasses smashed and friends bitten. Even the cottage cat followed the example of Peter and the others and left in disgust, taking her kitten to safety.
I began to doubt my wisdom in buying Shimpy. He was a furry, mischievous little menace, but it seemed that I was stuck with him. I could not imagine anyone else wanting to buy him from me and I knew that if I set him free then the other monkeys would instinctively try to kill him if he attempted to join a strange troop. He was doomed to be an unhappy, lonely little outcast for the rest of his life.
I lay awake that night with these thoughts in mind. Suddenly I heard a movement from the darkness and then a warm, furry body pressed against my cheek. Shimpy was tired after a day full of pranks and snuggling down in the crook of my shoulder he went to sleep. I was hooked and I knew it – for better or worse Shimpy and I were friends.
He responded well to food and affection, his coat acquired a soft sheen and his eyes sparkled with life. At first he was afraid of the Land Rover but soon he too fell in love with traveling and the safari life. He made friends with Peter and repaid us both by getting us into fits of laughter over his daily antic. When the time came to leave Shimpy was firmly established as a member of the expedition.
We had planned to take the north road from Nairobi through Isiolo to cross the Ethiopian frontier at Moyale and the follow the main route up to Addis Ababa. However, in Africa planned routes are all too often disrupted by local conditions and politics. We found that the whole of the Kenya-Ethiopian border west of Lake Rudolph was closed due to raiding excursions by shifta bandits. We studied the map of Africa, looking for another route through to the north but there was none. The Congo was still an impassable scene of bloody battles between the mercenaries and the simbas, and the Southern Sudan was a totally closed area where the African tribesmen were in armed revolt against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.
The only country for which we could obtain visas was Ethiopia and we were told by the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi that in Addis Ababa we would also be able to get visas to cross the Red Sea coastal strip of the Sudan. It seemed that our route had to be through Ethiopia and finally we learned that that there was one small border post on the eastern side of Lake Rudolph where we might be able to cross. It would mean traveling over the dry Turkhana country and then over some of the worst terrain in the whole of Africa but we determined to give it a try.
We set out from Nairobi in bright sunshine on the eleventh of May with myself driving and Shimpy sitting contentedly on Peter’s shoulder. We were all fit and rested and ready to tackle the second leg of our journey. The fast tarmac roads took us past the fresh green hills of the Aberdares and down into the vast, blue-horizon canyon of the Great Rift Valley. We drove into Nakuru, an attractive town with well-planned tree-lined avenues that were ablaze with re-flowering hibiscus and bright scarlet poinsettia, and here we stopped to take on supplies. We left Shimpy to guard the Land Rover and the result was an ecstatic half hour for him.
We returned to find the little devil sitting amongst the scattered ruins of two large cartons of matches and various other torn items that had aroused his insatiable curiosity. I took a fast, reprimanding swipe at his backside and with a scream of rage he tore past me and escaped into the street. He promptly scrambled up a tree and sat there gibbering at me with black-faced defiance. I found a banana and tried to tempt him down but Shimpy was in no mood to be appeased. Soon the crowds were gathering; an African policeman appeared to try and sort out the mounting traffic jam, helpful shop-keepers hurried out with step-ladders and even the local press arrived hot on the trail of a story. Nakuru came to a complete standstill as everybody joined in the great monkey hunt.
Shimpy was devious, cunning and resolute. He was enjoying this as much as all the on-lookers and was determined not to be caught. Obviously a military campaign was called for and I took command of the swelling army of Indian and African volunteers. I posted a man in every tree, cutting off the adjacent lines of escape and confining the runaway to the stronghold where he had taken refuge. Then into the attack –to the accompaniment of cheers and applause I climbed up to get him.
I almost broke my neck in the process, but Shimpy had spotted one bolt-hole that I had missed. I pursued him to the top of the tree and made a grab for him but in the same moment he took a flying leap and landed on the windowsill of the nearest building on the opposite side of the pavement. He paused only to give me another taunting grimace and a gibber of insult and then disappeared inside. The crowd below roared its approval, while an enterprising clerk inside the building entered into the spirit of things and rushed around dramatically slamming windows. At last the enemy was trapped.
I slithered down the tree and then half of Nakuru followed me inside the building and up the stairs to the third floor where Shimpy had vanished. Then abruptly there was more pandemonium and my valiant army turned around en masse and bolted back down the stairs. A few seconds later I realized why I had been deserted when I read the words on the office door wherein Shimpy had taken his last stand. We had stormed the offices of Nakuru’s Criminal Investigation Department.
I knocked on the door and entered bashfully, to find the strong arm of the law keeping the criminal bay. With capture inevitable Shimpy decided that surrender to me was preferable to being arrested by the police, and evading the out-stretched arms of two advancing detectives he fled into my arms.
Fortunately the policemen all had a fine sense of humour and we parted good friends without being thrown into jail. I descended to the street with Shimpy now clinging meekly round my neck to be greeted with thunderous, enraptured applause from the massed crowds. We hurriedly embarked in the Land Rover and Peter drove us away, pretending at the same time that he didn’t really know either of us.
We continued our journey through the White Highlands I knew so well from my youth, crossing the Equator at nine thousand feet and from there to Eldoret and Kitale. We were heading due north now and the road deteriorated into a rough dirt surface and strayed briefly across the border into neighbouring Uganda.
When the road brought us back into Kenya we were in Turkhana country, extremely hot and dry, desolate and semi-desert. The rainfall here is very low and game is almost extinct. We saw our first camels. The Turkhana tribesmen were some of the most primitive we had seen, building only crude shelters against the blazing sun. They were continually at war with each other and stock-raiding was the local pastime. The authorities here were permanently occupied with trying to sort out the endless fights and cattle-thefts between the tribes.
Shimpy had more adventures. Somehow he succeeded one morning in getting himself stuck in the only tree for miles around and we had to chop it down to get him out. He was also a great favorite with the desert Turkhana who had never seen a monkey before. They were fascinated by this strange, hairy little man. For his part Shimpy delighted in chasing the Turkhana girls who would run away screaming in all directions. Shimpy loved his new sense of superiority.
As we drove up to Lodwa the road became mere rough tracks in the soft sand. It was time to reduce our tyre pressures to avoid getting bogged down. Camels in increasing numbers were the only local transport that we saw.
In Lodwa we reported to the District Commissioner’s office but both he and the District Officer were away on safari. Instead we were entertained by two Goan clerks who painted us a very frightening picture of the country and the conditions ahead. They told us that the Ethiopian police were most unfriendly and that the roads were really shocking. Visitors were rare in this part of the world and it appeared that we were only the third party in two years to try and get through to Addis Ababa from this direction. Our predecessor was a white Kenyan hunter who had died of thirst somewhere along the way.
This was not particularly encouraging but the next morning we pushed on. From Lodwar to Lokitaung we covered eighty miles of arid, very rocky country, blistering hot and devoid of any game. The only signs of life were the exceptionally tall ant hills that made fantastic fairy-tale castles, spires and pyramids, rising red and stark out of the barren waste.
At Lokitaung we loaded up with supplies to take us over the next four hundred miles of empty wilderness: fifty-seven gallons of petrol, one and a half gallons of engine oil, fifteen gallons of drinking water, as much food as we could carry and a few bananas for Shimpy. We were loaded to capacity and the Land Rover was bulging at the ropes.
From Lokitaung to Naramaputh, the last outpost of the Kenyan police before the Ethiopian border, the road followed a dry river bed until it broke free of the stark mountains. It was a short run of less than thirty miles and once clear of the hills we came out on to a plain, fairly well-watered and with evidence of buck and other wildlife. We were approaching Lake Rudolph and Naramaputh proved to be situated on a slight rise only a few hundred yards from the lakeside. The blue water was windswept and empty.
The police at the outpost were expecting our arrival. They had been warned by a radio message from the Inspector at Lokitaung. This was a wild, trackless area where the frontiers of Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan all merged, and so they provided us with an escort to guide us the last few miles to the Ethiopian post at Kalem.
Kalem proved to be a cluster of mud and wattle administration buildings on the edge of a dusty parade ground, with the Ethiopian flag fluttering rapidly from a high pole cut from the bush. There was an armoury built of solid logs and a handful of crude huts where the three hundred troops stationed there were housed. However, most of these hardy men slept out in the open under mosquito nets. They were armed with an assortment of Italian and Czech rifles and had the tough task of policing this wild frontier and trying to restrain the bloodshed between the Turkhana and their own war-like Morelli.
We approached expecting the worst sort of reception, our minds full of the tales we had been told by the two Goans at Lodwar, and instead we were met with the friendliest welcome we had yet had at any border post in Africa. We were to find the Ethiopians the most polite and charming of people. The Police Captain at Kalem insisted on putting his own offices at our disposal where we spent an extremely comfortable night, lulled to sleep by some strange semi-eastern music being played somewhere amongst the lines of soldiers.
However, if our informers were wrong about the Ethiopian police they were one hundred per cent right about the Ethiopian roads. The following morning we faced our next challenge which stretched before us in a vast, barren plain of endless miles, vanishing in the distance into a shimmering heat haze. Known as the “Plain of Death,” this sun-scorched wilderness was inhabited only by the fierce Morelli, who, if they found us, would rob us and leave our bodies for the vultures. It was on the plain that our predecessor had run out of petrol, and then water – and then died. His Land Rover had been found and brought back to Kalem where it now stood forlorn and abandoned on the edge of the parade ground. It was a grim reminder.
We determined to go on and so the friendly Police Captain gave us an armed guide to take us across the plain and through the hostile Morelli country as far as Baco, one hundred and fifty miles away.
Our escort was a cheerful little man named Buckello, which we promptly shortened to Buck. He spoke no English but he proved invaluable in knowing the road and clearing our way through all all the local police posts. Radio messages were flashed ahead from post to post to warn of our coming and at that stage of our route our stops were always under police protection. The Ethiopians were a proud and handsome race and their hospitality was generous and uncalculated to an extreme.
On the second day it got worse. We crossed innumerable sand river beds where the road was completely obliterated. Only the tracks left by the few heavy lorries that supplied the frontier police posts marked the way, and they had often gouged great ruts in the soft sand which frequently left us high and dry in the middle ridge with all four wheels off the ground. We dug, sweated and pushed and heaved to get the Land Rover moving again. The road surface was only fit for mules, with great potholes two and three feet deep which had to be jumped; steep, forty-five degree angle rock-strewn slopes that had to be climbed, boulders blocked the way, ridges, ruts, gulleys and more soft sand. It was sheer bloody awful and at the end of an exhausting twelve hours we had covered only forty-seven miles.
Our third day on the “Plain of Death,” dawned as hot and blistering as the previous two. We started out wearily, entering steeper, more hilly but greener country which we barely had time to admire – and where incredibly the road continued to deteriorate. We were now permanently in four-wheel drive, winding in and out of small valleys and up endless boulder-littered slopes. The Land Rover lurched and tilted over the foul surface, sometimes with one wheel spinning uselessly high in the air and the engine roaring furiously in frustration. Sometimes only two wheels would touch the ground and one of us would have to jump out and throw his weight on to one side as a counter-balance to stop us tipping over. We rode her like a yacht in a storm and our shoulders ached from taking turns at wrenching the wheel to and fro. Again we were dust-covered, sweat-soaked and gritting our teeth to hold back the flow of useless curses.
Buck bore it all stolidly and Shimpy thought it was fun, but for Peter and me it was hell. After three hours we had managed to battle our way over a miserable five miles and then at the bottom of a deep gulley there was a sharp bang and we came to a violent halt. Our rear half shaft had snapped clean inside the back axle and our wheels would turn no more.
Bitterly we got out to survey the damage and to face the fact that we were stranded and totally immobilized. Peter and I looked at each other with the same thoughts uppermost in our minds. It was in circumstances similar to this that the white hunter had died and we were still in Morelli country. Then Buck brough us some relief by making us understand with sign language that there was another police post about eight miles down the road. He set off alone to get help and Peter and I turned to the task of jacking up the back end of the Land Rover and stripping out the broken half shaft.
When the job was done it was dark and we were too tired to pitch the tent. We ate a scratch meal and rolled into our sleeping bags with rifles and revolvers ready to hand. It seemed that we needed them immediately when we heard the rattle of disturbed stones and the crunch of gravel beneath approaching feet. Then we recognized Buck’s voice, if not his words, and a moment later his grinning face loomed up out of the starlight. He had brought with him another Ethiopian policeman to help guard us and so our sleeping positions were strategically re-arranged around the crippled Land Rover. We slept with all guns loaded and during the night it rained and all four of us were thoroughly soaked. The only dry spot on my body was just under my chin where Shimpy had made the best of a bad night.
When daylight came we decided that Peter would have to go on ahead and try to hitch his way to Addis Ababa to acquire a new half shaft, while I remained to watch the Land Rover and our equipment. Peter set off with Buck to escort him to the next police post while our new guard reluctantly remained with me. I busied myself with cutting back some of the long grass beside the road to clear a campsite and erect the tent, and then spent the afternoon hunting. I saw a few tracks and plenty of baboons but the grass was too high to spot anything else.
Shortly after dusk Buck returned with present from the captain of the police post where he had left Peter. The gift was a little black hen, intended for the pot, but when the hen took to roosting on my shoulder in a most trusting manner I finally christened it Freddie and decided to keep it as a pet until the situation got desperate.
I spent three days of waiting and unsuccessfully hunting while Freddie watched nonchalantly and Shimpy played monkey games in the nearby trees. My two guards did little except sit around looking worried and uncomfortable. At night they both loaded their rifles and refused to sit in the lamplight, repeatedly muttering the word shifta to each other and to me. They were continually alert and listening, and staring into the darkness with watchful brown eyes. They had me convinced and I kept my own weapons close at hand, my revolver never left the holster at my side.
On the second day the Morelli found us. They came into our camp driving a string of laden mules, six fierce-looking men all armed to the teeth with knives and vintage Italian and American rifles. I felt a moment of fear and I could sense the tension in my two guards. We were three against six, out-numbered and out-armed, but then the newcomers smiled and called out friendly greetings.
We relaxed and soon I had won our guests completely over with the tape recorder which they regarded with awe. I had them singing their tribal songs into it and then laughing and grinning at each other as they listened to the playback. Their women were shy and stayed at a distance, peeping at me curiously over the long grass that surrounded our camp. When I looked towards them they ran like startled antelope and caused their men-folk more laughter. Finally the mule train moved on and they all departed with cheerful waves.
On the fourth morning Peter returned unexpectedly in a police truck. He was well-pleased with himself and had brought with him a rusty but serviceable half shaft that he had managed to acquire on his travels without making the journey all the way to Addis Ababa. With a struggle we fitted it to the Land Rover and then spent a final night camped at the same spot. Over supper Peter told me the story of his adventures.
After he had parted from Buck at Baco, the police station eight miles away, the Police Captain there had provided him with an escort and two Africans to carry his kit bag and the broken half shaft over the next twelve miles to the larger police station at Jinka. After a meal provided by the Police Captain’s wife, Peter had set off again on foot. For an hour the small party had walked steadily under the hot sun and then an armed police truck appeared to meet them. They got a very welcome lift into Jinka where Peter stayed overnight in the local hotel.
Peter grimaced as he described the place. His room cost him the princely sum of three shillings and the whole building was only made of mud and wattle. His bed was like the valley of a thousand hills, the roof leaked and the number of gaps in the ill-fitting door and wallboards made windows totally unnecessary. He was very much a novelty there and swore that each time he tried to undress that night the room went two or three shades darker as hundreds of curious eyes glued themselves to the cracks to see what this strange white man was really made of. To add to his problems the Madame of the place had taken a positive fancy to him, invading his bedroom at every opportune moment and embracing him passionately whenever he got with arm’s reach.
This gorgeous vision of poor old Peter valiantly battling for his honour with some huge black Ethiopian mammy, and at the same time trying to be diplomatic and not offend her feelings was just too much. When I had finally finished laughing I had to persuade him to finish his story.
He had finally convinced her that he wanted to sleep alone and the next morning had come upon his stroke of good fortune. He had reported his presence to the Jinka Police Station and on hearing his troubles the Police Captain there had promptly chased his men around and eventually produced a very sorry looking half shaft that had come from a scrapped Land Rover. Peter had rubbed the worst of the rust off and cleaned it up as best he could, and although the bearing was grinding horribly he had decided that it was worth a try. He had thanked the Police Captain most warmly, spent a second night fighting off his would-be paramour, and returned as promptly as possible to me.