SIAFU -- THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER SIX: SHIFTA COUNTRY
We spent almost three weeks in Addis Ababa, giving the Land Rover a complete overhaul and trying in vain to get the necessary visas to continue through the Sudan. The assurance of the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi meant nothing to the Sudanese Embassy here in Addis. They too refused us visas and that was final. We studied the maps again and pored over our problem but in the end we had only two alternatives. We could abandon our journey and go back over that awful road through Soddu and Jinka – or we could take a chance and make an illegal sprint along the Red Sea coast to cross the five hundred mile stretch of Sudanese territory that separated Ethiopia from Egypt. Turning back was too bitter a pill for either of us to swallow and recklessly we decided to go on.
In the meantime we became familiar with Addis Ababa. The name means “New Flower,” and the city although somewhat under-developed is set in a ring of tall eucalyptus trees and has its own special brand of charm. The atmosphere is an intriguing mixture of Old Testament and new state. The Ethiopians were Christians before the English and although Addis is the capital of the world’s oldest empire is also the seat of the dedicated anti-imperialist Pan-African conferences.
The Ethiopians themselves are an eternal paradox. Their skins are copper brown but they prefer to think of themselves as white and describe Europeans as “pink.” They never discovered the wheel and yet now they have some of the finest pilots in the world. They support over a hundred thousand priests and more than twenty thousand prostitutes. They have few children at school than practically any other country in Africa, and yet they have some of the most learned and clever graduates. They are among the most kind and courteous hosts in the world, and yet in the urban areas they still hold public hangings. They are a people who could only have been spawned in their own violently paradoxical land of high, savage mountains and green and beautiful valleys. Here except for a brief occupation by the Italians in the Second World War they have maintained their independence for thousands of years. Yet it was remarked to me by one prominent Ethiopian that, “a few years of British Colonialism would have put us on our feet.”
We finally left Addis in mid-July and travelled north to Gondar via the spectacular Blue Nile Gorge. Almost five thousand feet deep between monolithic red cliffs of eroded sandstone the gorge rivals the Grand Canyon of California. The twenty mile road which plunges through it, subject to falling rocks and shifting earth movements which cause great cracks, is an engineering feat which cost one and a half million pounds to build.
Continuing past Lake Tana it was impossible for us to miss out on a visit to the even more awe-inspiring Blue Nile Falls. Three main cataracts take three fantastic two hundred foot leaps down from the lake, and then wind their way through a tremendous sequence of gorges through the highlands of Central Ethiopia before flowing down into the Sudan to join the White Nile waters on their last dramatic rush in Egypt.
Gondar, where we were to stay for the next week, was for two hundred years the capital of ancient Ethiopia and is today still famous for its mediaeval castles and churches dating back to that brief reign of glory. We found it a fascinating place, but what really held us there was the hospitality of our hosts. We had been given an introduction to Larry and Hebe Marsden, two English schoolteachers working there, and they allowed us to pitch a tent in their garden and entertained us to some wonderful meals. For Peter’s birthday they threw a magnificent “instant” party at which even Shimpy got thoroughly and gloriously drunk. It took us all three days to get over the after effects.
While we were in Gondar the weekly market day was held, a scene as old as time itself and an important occasion for the thousands of peasants from the surrounding countryside. They arrived by foot, mule or donkey to sell their wares. In one section we found old and young women selling spices, red peppers, ginger and a mystery of unknown roots and leaves. Nearby shy little girls were selling some of the scrawniest chickens I have ever seen and for them the top price of twopence or threepence for a hen would be a small fortune. Not far away cotton was being sold in loose, fluffy piles. The spinners would spin it into shanks for you and the weavers would weave it into any pattern the customer required.
Walking on we found the donkey stalls and hard bargaining was being done for these sturdy and indispensable little animals. Goats were for sale, vegetables, grain and salt mined from the red Sea in great blocks. There was dust and dirt and noise and a sea of smiling, haggling faces. Most of the stalls were on bare ground and only a few could boast the dignity of a tin roof. In the centre of the market was the inevitable fig tree, offering shade to the market judge who sat to settle minor disputes and collect the taxes on the tiny stalls and each laden donkey that was brought in to the market.
When we finally left Gondar it was a sad day, for we also left behind that irrepressible little imp who had come to mean so much to us over the past few months. Shimpy and his antics had helped to ease the tension over some of the roughest stretches of our journey, and he helped to win us innumerable impromptu friends among the Africans to whom he was an equal delight. However, our ultimate destination was England where he would hate the cold climate and the alien city life. There he would be regarded as a dangerous pet and would have to spend six months in the misery of quarantine, and I could not bring him to that.
These thoughts filled my mind on the afternoon before our departure as I watched him frolicking with the Marsden’s puppy on their lawn. He was happy here, with the puppy and with the Marsdens and I knew that the kindest thing I could do was to leave him here. With a heavy heart I asked Larrry and Hebe if they would like to take care of him for me and they were only too pleased to say yes.
When the land Rover pulled away Shimpy was tied to one of the tall gum trees, watching us depart with a bewildered blank monkey face, and no doubt wondering why I had betrayed our friendship. It was beyond his understanding, but I often wonder even now if in his own way he still remembers me?
The road from Gondar to Asmara, the district capital of Ethiopia’s northern province of Eritrea, led us through range after range of majestic purple mountains, through splendid rugged passes and deep sweeping valleys patterned with a sparkling mosaic of silver streams. This was Shifta country and the scene of a lively civil war being waged against the aristocratic central government in Addis Ababa. We were warned to travel this section only in daylight, to make positively no stops and if we were ambushed to make no resistance. The landscape was so wild and rugged that the Shifta could emerge from anywhere and disappear to nowhere.
We reached Asmara without mishap and there we soon learned more about the shifta, or the Eritrean Liberation Army, depending upon your point of view. There was a feeling of hatred and resentment from the Eritreans towards the Amharas, the ruling class in Addis Abba. We were told that Volkswagen had wanted to build an assembly plane here in Asmara but the Amhara government had insisted that it must be built near Addis. The end result was no assembly plant at all so neither province received the hoped-for economic boost. Also there was a gigantic American air base here in Asmara, bringing Ethiopia thirty million US dollars per year in foreign exchange, most of which drained down to Addis Ababa. It was the old, old story of an outlying province suffering while the central government made itself rich and strong and the usual guerrilla warfare was the result. The Liberation Army was very active in the mountains around Kerem, was well supplied with arms from Nasser’s Egypt through the Sudan and the Red Sea, and was reported to be extremely well organized and trained.
We heard numerous rumours during our stay, all of them unconfirmable due to government censorship. It was said that on one occasion twenty-one dead shifta bodies were brought into the Kerem market place and hung up publicly as a warning, but that in that engagement the shifta had managed to kill thirty-five of the government troops. We also heard that a police post on the Asmara-Massawa road had been attacked and wiped out; and that a pseudo informer had pretended to betray a shifta leader and led two trucks loaded with soldiers into an ambush in which they were all killed.
However, it seemed that the shifta were gentlemanly bandits who knew their enemies and did not make war on outsiders. We heard of two German hitch-hikers who were robbed, but a week later all of the stolen items were found on the steps of a police station with a note of apology to the victims. We ourselves were eventually to spend much time hunting in the hot shifta country and were never once molested.
We spent two months in Asmara, making pertinent but still futile last ditch attempts to get our visas for the Sudan and when we wearied of the whole frustrating business taking trips down to Massawa and the hot Red Sea coast. There we spent our days in temperatures up to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, swimming, skin-diving, beer-drinking and hunting in the blistering desert heat.
We found the waters of the Red Sea absolutely ideal for under-water exploration. There were no tides and everything was very still. Nothing disturbed the sandy bottom and to swim just below the waves and remain motionless was to be suspended above a vast, silent and ethereal cathedral of the sea. It was beautiful with only the rare shadow of a shark on the far rim of your watery dome of visibility to shatter the feeling of total peace. One monster caused me to break the hundred yards sprint record back to our boat.
Our hunting trips on land at that time were mostly on behalf of the huge American air base and satellite tracking station at Asmara. We had made friends with a number of Americans and ate occasionally in their mess. Eventually we had proposed to the Captain in charge that we would undertake to provide him with fresh gazelle meat at an agreed price. Hunting, in addition to writing and photography was the only way to supplement our funds and continue financing out expedition.
In Asmara we also made good friends with Graham Crossman and his girl friend Patricia, a couple of travelling Australians who had pitched their camp beside ours. We had some wild parties and barbecues and one particular incident comes to mind. We were making one of our frequent trips down to Masawa, Pat, Graham, Peter, myself and a couple of our American friends. The latter had provided a trailer complete with an icebox and a lavish stock of cold beers which we towed behind the Land Rover.
The road to Asmara from Massawa is a staggering descent from a high plateau to the flat strip of coastal desert, falling down a fantastic eight thousand feet over a distance of seventy miles. Peter was driving as we made our way down towards the sea and soon became exasperated by the repeated stops we demanded in order to extract more beers from the icebox. He suggested that we bring a worthwhile stock inside the land Rover but we all refused to drink cold beer. We wanted it straight out of the icebox. Peter refused to stop and we refused to go thirsty.
That trip down became one of the most drunken excursions ever, with the passengers taking it in turns to climb out of the speeding Land Rover and hauling ourselves back to the trailer and the icebox. Then we made the even more perilous return with an armful of bottles as we careered wildly down the steep, winding road. As we became more inebriated we became more brave. Our trips became more frequent. We climbed on to the roof and with revolvers and the.22 rifle we took pot shots at the passing road signs and any other likely target. The Devil must surely look after his own or we would all have ended up at the bottom of a gorge somewhere with broken necks.
Miraculously we reached sea level all in one piece, finished emptying the icebox, and somehow in the dim haze of events that followed Graham and I ended up doing a night on the town with an Ethiopian naval office we had somehow befriended. Our new companion led us on a slumming trip around all the local houses of ill repute and ultimately we ended up in an establishment that had the glorious title of the “Four floors of whores.” I might add that Ethiopian women, even the whores, can be very pretty, and although neither of us had any intention of letting ourselves in for a possible course of penicillin jabs we were not above a little whore-baiting. We began to tease and lead on the two prettiest belles in the place.
By this time we were really under the weather and eventually decided that it would be a good idea to take our new friends down to the beach camp and wake Peter and the others to get a real party going. Our Ethiopian naval friend had passed out but as he seemed to be in good hands we left him and stumbled out to the Land Rover. Graham got behind the wheel, the haze of events became confused again, and somehow we passed the camp site and parked some five or six miles further down the beach. Graham seemed to have decided that his girl was worth the risk and wandered off with her along the sand.
My own “girlfriend” was looking at me hopefully and I realized dimly that the fun was being carried too far. Also at that moment I needed fresh air more than anything else. I told her vaguely to wait in the Land Rover and that Graham would return and drive her home, and then got out and began to walk very unsteadily back along the beach to our camp.
The long walk helped to sober me up and I arrived to find that Graham had driven up in the Rover only a few minutes before me. He confessed that his belle had finally got annoyed at all his teasing and no action and so he had left her and returned to the Land Rover. Presumably my belle had wandered off in her turn looking for her friend, for he found the Land Rover empty and simply hopped in and drove back to camp. We had a few chuckles over the whole business and then decided that as it was almost dawn anyway we might as well go swimming.
The joke back-fired on us. As the sun came slowly over the horizon so did two footsore and very furious young Ethiopian girls. They recognized our Land Rover, tore into the camp and woke up the only two sleeping bodies there, namely Peter and Graham’s girl friend Patricia. They created one hell of a row that was probably heard all the way back to Addis Ababa, demanding all sorts of fees and compensation for their wasted time, ruined stockings and blisters. Peter, of course, saw the funny side of it, but Pat could only see the worst.
The two Ethiopian girls finally departed, still storming, but left behind them an equally furious Patricia, angrily demanding that two chastened and very subdued reprobates come out of the sea and face her.