SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER FIVE; NIGHTMARE ROADS
We continued our journey the next morning. And within a matter of miles the country became more green and fertile. We were steadily climbing away from the semi-desert plain, crossing a series of crystal-clear streams flowing down from the mountains where swarms of brilliantly coloured butterflies rose in sparkling clouds. Shimpy gazed longingly at the tall, lush green trees, thick with creepers and festooned with flowers that now hemmed in the road. Here the very air was vibrating with life.
However, beauty has its price, and the rains that had brought life to the swarms of butterflies and birds also brought life to the anopheles mosquito. When we reached Jinka that night I was knocked flat on my back by a violent attack of malaria. We made camp there for four days while I fought off my fever-ridden dreams, and in the meantime Peter overhauled the Land Rover with the help of the police workshop. They told him that the road ahead was even worse than those over which we had already travelled for the next one hundred and thirty kilometres to Soddu, but after that it was well-maintained ad should give us no more trouble for the rest of the way to Addis Ababa.
When I felt stronger we started out again, saying a reluctant farewell to our faithful friend Buck who could accompany us no further, and to all the other helpful Ethiopians at Jinka. Our first obstacle was a mountain range as we climbed up towards the high central Ethiopian plateau. It was a late afternoon start and after four hours we had covered six toiling miles. On top of the endless ruts and gulleys and rocks and ridges we encountered a new enemy – mud. Even in four wheel drive the wheels of the Land Rover were constantly spinning and bogging down.
That night we pitched camp as the sun sank slowly out of sight in a blaze of colour, bringing slow darkness to a fantastic view of rugged, weather-beaten mountains spaced by deep valleys. The gathering shadows changed the valleys from golden green to shades of blue until they were dark scars between the silver mountains, fading in turn to purples and then merging into the all enveloping blackness. As the sun sank so did my heart for I felt my fever returning with renewed violence.
The next five days were a nightmare of more mud and rain, recurring fever at night when I alternately froze and burned, and heart-breaking, back-breaking work by day.
On our second day out from Jinka we made only two miles in five and a half hours, and then ran into a hundred and fifty yards of thick mud. It took us eight hours to get through this short stretch, digging, bailing mud, jacking, cutting branches to put under skidding wheels, desperately heaving and pushing and trying every other trick we knew. We got her out on the third day and covered four more hard-won miles. On the fourth day we made only two miles and then came up against an impassable mud hole over three feet deep. The heavy boulders lining the road left us no way round and so I tried to blow them apart with a petrol bomb that refused to explode. There was no other way but to use the axe and spade and after hours of blister-making work we managed to cut a narrow road around the obstacle. It was late in the afternoon when we tried to take the Land Rover through and the bank promptly collapsed and toppled the Land Rover into the mud hole. Bitterly we slept on it and spent the whole of the fifth day in draining the mud hole and digging a ramp to get her out. Nightfall saw us stuck in another deep gulley that slashed across the road, but mercifully we were over the top of that first mountain range.
On the morning of the sixth day my fever had abated and when we rounded a corner we suddenly found the earth dropping away from our feet and falling into the shimmering depths of a gigantic valley. Far below on the valley floor we could trace the courses of rivers wending their way through lush tropical trees that were like huge cabbage patches. For a while we just sat there and gazed at it in admiration and relief, and then we began the descent. The road dropped in great curves and there were a few heart-stopping moments as we manoeuvred the steeper places with the Land Rover balanced precariously on the very point of toppling out into space. We ended up that evening with our rear wheels bogged down in yet another gulley and the bonnet pointed up at the stars, but we were nearly down and had made five miles in ten hours. We felt that this at last was progress.
It was dark when a bunch of five young Ethiopian students appeared. They helped us to unload the Land Rover and with seven shoulders behind her we heaved her up on to solid ground again. Our new friends stayed for supper and the next morning we gave them a lift. The road improved and despite being over-laden with the extra passengers we made an exhilarating thirty-mile run to the next village, a small place called Bulki. And we only had to push the Land Rover out of potholes twice!
In Bulki it was market day and we found a crowd of up to three hundred people clustered under a giant fig tree. They were surrounded by laden horses, mules and donkeys, and the air was full of noisy haggling as they bartered their goods. When we stopped we became the centre of interest as they flocked around us, only to be scattered almost immediately by the arrival of a boisterous giant in the uniform of the Imperial Ethiopian Police. He wore sergeant's stripes and a holstered revolver and wielded a borrowed staff which he laid about him with a grin, carefully missing with every swipe while the screaming women fled in mock fear.
After this little display of authority he came striding back with a huge, beaming smile on his face and invited us to follow him to his little one room hut on the edge of the market place. There his wife poured us glasses of tej, a delicious honey wine. His son brought in a leg of raw goat's meat and a small bowl of hot chilly sauce. The Sergeant cut off a small portion of the raw meat, dipped it into the sauce and ate it with relish. Then, smacking his lips to indicate that it was good, he offered us knives and invited us with signs to join him in his raw meal. Hesitantly we did so and found the meat palatable and tender. After we had eaten a beautiful young Ethiopian woman, naked from the waist up, came in with a bowl of lukewarm water and washed and dried our hands for us.
After this spontaneous display of hospitality it was difficult to take our leave, but finally we explained through elaborate gestures that we must continue our journey. The Sergeant looked crestfallen but then managed to convey in the same manner that if we must go then perhaps we could do him a favour. He had captured two criminals who he had to take to jail in the next village.
We could hardly refuse and neither could we turn away our five students who were waiting patiently by the Land Rover. The Sergeant brought out his manacled prisoners and climbed on to the roof rack with them, and off we went again. This time we had ten people on board and how we made it to the next village without breaking our springs I shall never know. However, we did make it, and when we had unloaded all of our assorted passengers there we were informed by an English-speaking African that from here we were again heading into “much wilderness.”
The information proved to be correct and the next day we made fifteen miles, back in the old routine of digging and pushing, sweating and swearing, and practically rebuilding that accursed road as we went along. The day that followed gave us another fifteen hard-fought miles and then disaster struck us again. The half shaft that we had replaced started knocking badly and we knew that we had only a few miles to go before the wheel came off. Our calculations put us only a few miles short of Soddu where we expected the road to improve so after a grim council of war we decided to push our luck and keep going. We drove on into the night with the grating of the worn wheel bearing growing louder every minute. I kept an eye on the back wheel from my window and when it suddenly started to twist at a grotesque angle from the chassis I yelled out sharply to Peter. He stopped not a second too soon. It was night and once again we went to sleep on our troubles.
The next morning it took all our mechanical skills to rig up a temporary repair job that at least gave us front wheel drive. However, the heavily laden Rover could now barely move and we struggled to cover a bare four miles in the next two days. The evening of the second day saw us helplessly stuck at the bottom of a deep gulley and although we unloaded everything for the thousandth time our limited front wheel drive could do nothing but spin up clouds of dust. At this stage two trucks passed us on their way to Soddu and informed us to our dismay that we still had well over a hundred kilometres to go. We realized that back at Jinka the helpful Police Captain must have given us the distance in English miles and not in kilometres as we had supposed.
This was a blow for our food supplies were almost gone. We were living on handfuls of rice, Ryvita biscuits and unsweetened tea. Our drinking water was exhausted and we were now reduced to living on river and rainwater, and because Shimpy had helpfully dropped our purifying tablets into one of the many mud holes we were continually ill. On top of that we had to face the fact that it was now utterly impossible to reach Soddu with our badly crippled vehicle.
Food was our immediate need and we grimly spent the next two and a half days stalking the surrounding wilderness in opposite directions with our rifles, hunting desperately for meat. It was bad country for the high grass made it difficult to spot any game and the loose rocks and gravel made it difficult to move silently. I managed to shoot a couple of yellow-necked spurfowl but that was all.
Then on the third day our luck changed. Two heavy trucks roared up from Soddu on their way to Jinka. They were driven by Italians who spoke no English, the first Europeans I had seen for over a month, and one of their African crew boys spoke Swahili. We managed to converse, and with the generosity so persistent in this otherwise inhospitable land the two Italians filled my arms with packets of spaghetti, potatoes, onions, sugar and two bottles of wine. They must have depleted their own stores badly and I did not know how to thank them, and then Peter turned up trumps and provided the answer. He appeared triumphantly out of the long grass with bloodstains on his bush jacket and the dead weight of a heavy reedbuck slung over his shoulders. That night we had a huge feast with our new friends and felt human again.
We spent the next two days in manhandling our Land Rover a little further down the road, and then our Italian friends passed through again on their return journey to Soddu. Peter hitch a ride with them on yet another search for a new half shaft. They were in a tearing hurry for the tropical rains were soon due which would make the whole country totally impassable for any sort of vehicle. They paused only to let Peter jump aboard and to tell me that it was very dangerous for me to remain here alone. However, I was adamant that one of us must stay to protect our equipment and so they all departed in a cloud of dust.
A week passed and although game was scarce I shot enough antelope to keep myself alive, supplementing the meat with a thin trickle of spaghetti and rice. I found water by digging for it in the sandy bed of the gulley and my only problem was to keep it from being fouled by the jackals and hyenas. I spent the time that was left on domestic chores, salting and drying the meat I could not eat into biltong, and turning the antelope skins into seat covers for the Rover
During this time a few more of the big Italian trucks roared past and two foot caravans of Ethiopian tribesmen driving donkeys. The latter regarded me with surprise and some suspicion but then passed on their way with a few cautious greetings and left me alone.
On the sixth morning a group composed entirely of women came into my camp. They had finely chiselled features and large curious eyes, and were not quite as shy as I had come to expect. Perhaps the fact that I was alone gave them courage, or perhaps it was just the hunger veiled in their eyes when they looked at the fine mountain reedbuck I had shot only a few minutes earlier. At that moment I had more meat than I could eat and also I was feeling lazy. I indicated to the women that if they would glean and skin the buck then they could have part of it as their share.
The animal was promptly cleaned and dressed and then they begged a few coals from my campfire to start up their own fire a respectable distance away where they proceeded to cook up their share with a few mealies. I forgot them and began to write up some notes in my diary, but their interest was still centred on me. They held a murmured conversation amongst themselves and obviously they felt that skinning and cleaning the meat was not sufficient payment for this marvellous free meal. There was only one way of which they knew to show their appreciation to this poor, solitary white man sitting alone in a tent in the middle of the wilderness, and all too soon I was facing a repeat of Peter's problem in his hotel room in Jinka. The youngest and most comely of the girls came over to where I sat and shyly lifted her blouse to show me her breasts, and then pointed meaningfully to me, the tent and then again to herself.
I had an embarrassing few minutes declining and she looked surprised and hurt as she returned to her friends. To her the offer had been a natural act of gratitude and to her bewilderment I had refused and shamed her. I was sorry for her and hoped that he friends would put the fault to this peculiar white man and not ridicule her too much.
That night it was very dark and overcast and as I sat over the glowing coals of my campfire I felt strangely ill at ease. There were no stars and I was alone with a few tiny flames in the darkness. I had spent hundreds of nights alone in the bush and it had never bothered me, but I found myself wishing for company now. It was an uncanny feeling, perhaps the old sixth sense at work, and suddenly the pregnant stillness was shattered by the close roar of a lion.
I felt my heart miss a beat. The previous night I had heard lions far in the distance and sub-consciously I must have known that they were moving closer. I had heard and encountered lions many times before, but always on the lush plains of East Africa where the zebra, the buck and the hartebeste, the natural food of the carnivores, had always grazed in profusion. There was no need there for a lion to attack a man, but here in Ethiopia I knew that the same rules did not necessarily apply. Game here was scarce, the lions were hungry, and if they had had as much trouble as myself in locating the odd reedbuck or antelope then they might well be desperate enough to overcome their natural fear of man.
I drew myself closer to my dwindling fire and threw on what twigs were close at hand to make it blaze. All too soon it had died down again and I knew it was not enough to protect me. The tall grass around my camp pressed in too closely and the circle of firelight was too small. The night was so quiet that I could almost hear the metal of the Land Rover contracting with the cold. I sat with every sense alert, hardly daring to breathe, while Shimpy pressed nervously against my thigh.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck begin to prickle. I was being watched from behind the dense screen of grass. The fire was holding him back but the fire was dying and I no longer dared to move away and collect more fuel. A low, menacing snarl warned me that he had the patience to wait. I preferred to take my fate into my own hands and snatching up Shimpy I ran desperately for the tent.
It was the shortest and fastest sprint of my life and every second I expected to be torn down. Mercifully the tent was only yards away and once inside I turned with breathless hast to pull down the flaps and secure them. Shimpy hampered my movements by clinging terrified to my leg. I stepped back and drew my .45 revolver from my hip, standing in pitch darkness in the centre of the tent – waiting.
After a few moments that seem like years of agonized anticipation I heard another low growl, and then an answering grunt. There were two of them and it sounded as though they were now standing between the tent and the fire. I knew now that these lions must have had several days of unsuccessful hunting. They had moved up from the area where Peter and I had hunted without seeing anything for two and a half days. Now, at last they had found food – me!
I could hear them moving closer. They could rip my flimsy tent to shreds with their claws but as yet they didn't know that. The tent baffled them but at any moment one of them might decide to spring on top in search of a way in. Then the tent would collapse and they would realize that it was not solid, and their meal was trapped inside. In the inky blackness of the interior I could see nothing. I could only strain my ears and listen. Then a guy rope twanged as a tawny shoulder or flank nudged against it.
I lifted my revolver and fired through the tent, high, because the last thing I wanted on my plate was a wounded lion. The heavy bellow of .45 blotted out the sounds of stealthy advance and I fired again and again. When the last echoes had died away and the ringing ceased in my ears there was nothing, just silence. The lions had fled from the sound.