SIAFU -- THE TIM BAILEY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER SEVEN: A DASH THROUGH THE SUDAN
By the beginning of November it had become crystal clear that there was nothing we could possibly say or do to persuade the Sudanese to give us visas. We would have to cross their country illegally or not at all, and we had already decided that we would not turn back. So once more we loaded up the Land Rover with petrol and supplies, said goodbye to a multitude of new friends and drove north.
From Massawa our route lay along the Red Sea coast, one of the hottest places on earth, and even before we reached the Sudan we faced two hundred and twenty miles of blistering heat, choking dust and unreliable roads. We had been warned against quicksands, the shifta and the Ethiopian Army who patrolled this “restricted area.” There was no water or petrol available along our route and if we broke down or became stranded we could not possibly call upon the authorities for help. This time we were really on our own.
The road was immediately very rough and dusty and we threw up great clouds of it which must have marked our tracks for miles and when we camped we were only nineteen miles north of Massawa. The jackals welcomed us back into the wilderness with a special rendering of their fifth symphony to the moon, which looked down on the parched and arid scene.
We made an early start the next morning, for we had to drive slowly and carefully in case of quicksand and at times the crude track we were following vanished altogether and we had to search for it again. Shortly after noon we passed a secluded bay where two Arab dhows were anchored just off-shore. They made a pretty picture with slanted masts against a blue sky and sparkling sea but we did not stop to admire it. There was no water or civilization for miles around and we could only think of one reason for the presence of the two dhows in this isolated spot. We remembered the Communist supply line of arms that was said to flow down to the Eritrean Liberation Army from Egypt via the Red Sea. We had no desire to be shot at by nervous gun-runners and kept going, fast!
That night I managed to shoot a small desert gazelle and we made camp on a deserted beach. In the morning we had company for I awoke to find three pairs of exquisite green eyes peeping at me over heavy veils. They were Reshida women, two married ladies in plain veils and a younger girl with a beautifully embroidered veil to indicate that she was still seeking a husband.
In normal circumstances they would have been most welcome but this morning they were an acute embarrassment. Because of the heat I had been sleeping under the stars, naked under a thin blanket, and now it was impossible to get up. The three women watched me with fascinated eyes and showed no signs of leaving. After half an hour I was pleading with Peter, who had been up and dressed before they arrived, to do something to spare my blushes.
If it were not for the fact that we had to get moving I think he would quite happily have left me there all day. He was enjoying the fun of my discomfort but at last he consented to act. Going over to the Land Rover he drew out the panga, our heavy African chopping knife, and then uttering fiendish shrieks he began running up and down the beach waving it above his head. The startled women backed off and then began to walk rapidly away into the desert. It was a pity really, for they were very pretty girls and we were probably the first white men they had ever seen. Now they would return to their tents and their people and tell them sadly that all white men were totally mad.
Later that afternoon we drove into Kavet, mid-way between Massawa and the border. The name was marked in bold type on our map but Kavet consisted of one lighthouse, one hut and three tents. It was an oil field base and weather station operated by Mobil. However, the three Ethiopians nursing the station made us welcome and persuaded us to stay the night. We did so willingly because there was a Reshida camp nearby.
We had seen more of the Reshida during the day, they were a people who are a law unto themselves, hardy nomads whose sole means of support are their fabled white camels They are directly descended from the Saudi Arabians on the opposite side of the Red Sea and the later blending of Ethiopian blood has produced a very attractive race. Their women are small and graceful and are often sold into marriage at the age of eleven or twelve. A really pretty girl will bring her father twenty or thirty of those superb milk white camels whose ancestors were also transported from Arabia.
That evening we went over to the Reshida camp in the hope of tape-recording some of their songs and music. They were quick to oblige, for their women although shrouded and veiled except for their laughing eyes, needed very little excuse to sing and dance. They didn’t even need to get up on their feet, performing a delightful version of the twist while kneeling on the sand. Before we left them we also succeeded in hiring one of their menfolk to act as our guide on the next vital stage of our journey.
We left Kavet the next morning, following a set of tyre tracks left on the coarse rocky sand by an oil exploration team five months before. However all too soon the tracks ran out and we hit loose soft sand that made heavy going. The road had petered out again and now we were travelling across country. When we camped again we were only fifty or sixty miles from the border and the next day we turned inland over rough, scrub grassland to avoid the border posts where we dared not be seen.
The landscape was empty, the sun hammered down on us, and the distant mountain by which we were navigating did not seem to get any closer. I could not help realizing how easy it would be to die of thirst if we broke down here and we could only trust our Reshida guide to get us through. We were aiming for the road linking Karora with the Red Sea village of Torkar inside the Sudan. If we found it we would know that we had crossed the border and could then follow the road back to Torkar and the Red Sea coast.
When we eventually found that road it was with a feeling compounded of relief and apprehension. We were in the forbidden Sudan but from here on every policeman was an enemy and we could not safely rest or relax until we were through the country and into Egypt. We left our guide on the outskirts of the first village we encountered. He was happy with the money we paid him for his services and confident that he would soon be able to join up with a camel train that would return him safely to his family tents at Kavet.
We continued alone and as we drove fast through the village practically the first man we saw was a Sudanese policeman who tried to wave us down. Peter kept on going and I did what seemed on the spur of the moment to be the only possible course of action. I leaned out of the cab, shouted a cheerful “salaam” in greeting and returned his wave.
We might have worried about the encounter except that very soon we had far more worrying problems on our hands. As we left the village we were immediately back into one-hundred percent desert, a searing emptiness of red and yellow sand hotter than the interior of a furnace, and within a matter of miles we had run into a full blown sandstorm.
It was like driving full tilt into hell, with the wind screaming like a banshee and the blown dust howling across the plain. The road vanished in a swirling yellow fog and we could only follow the telegraph poles, straining our eyes to find them in the murk. There was sand driving everywhere, in our eyes and ears, caking up our nostrils and building up into a foul-tasting mud in our mouths. We were continually into low ratio four-wheel drive with the engine over-heating. The Land Rover was battered on all sides and the flying dust stung fiercely. We struggled through this nightmare for some fifteen miles until even the yellow blur of the shrouded sun was fading, and then by sheer good fortune we found a couple of small abandoned huts, half filled with sand where we stopped for the night.
With darkness the wind at last died down, the stars emerged, and the peace of the desert returned to normal. We moved out of our hut and slept where we always preferred to sleep, under the stars. I can never tire of lying on my back on the sands, watching, wondering and trying to unravel the gloriously bejewelled mystery of the desert night. Soon sleep drifted over me but shortly after midnight I awoke to see the white beam of headlights flashing along the distant horizon to the east. The lights vanished so I went back to sleep.
At about one-thirty in the morning I was awoken again. The Sudanese police had arrived and we were well and truly caught napping. We learned that the policeman we had passed in the last village had radioed ahead to Torkar to inform them that we had vanished into the dust storm. A bunch of policemen had set out from Torkar to meet us but had bogged down in the sand only a few miles away, which explained the flashing lights I had seen earlier in the night. They had been obliged to walk the seven miles back to Torkar to get another truck and now that they had found us they were none too pleased.
Mercifully they were not yet aware of our true crime of entering their country illegally. We were just two stupid Europeans who had not had the sense to stop for a police weather warning, and were consequently the cause of dragging them out of their comfortable beds to search the desert. Their sense of humour at that stage was nil and they fired question after question at us in angry barks. However it only occurred to them twice to ask for our passports, and thanks to quick talking, frantic evasions and an earnest flow of helpful apologies we managed to switch the subject each time. We knew that the moment anyone in authority examined our passports we would be in trouble right up to our necks.
They finally took us into Torkar, insisting that I rode in their truck while Peter drove the Land Rover with an escort of police passengers. On the way we stopped to retrieve their Land Rover which was both bogged down and out of petrol. We supplied them with petrol from one of our jerry cans and then helped to pull them out of the sand. Thanks to this little effort a slightly better relationship was cemented but we still spent the rest of the night at the police station in Torkar under armed guard. Needless to say we got no more sleep. It was our first night in the Sudan and already we were under arrest.
We spent the hours before dawn worrying and discussing tactics, all in muttered whispers. We both remembered a traveller we had met in Asmara. He had come through the Sudan and his visa had expired a few days before he could get out. He had to face a trial, had all his money confiscated and was then fined twenty pounds. If the British Embassy had not bailed him out he would probably still have been in a Sudanese jail. With our far more serious crime we would be lucky to get away without life imprisonment, especially when a close examination of our passports showed that Peter had been born in South Africa and that I had been resident there, the main reasons that we had been refused visas in the first place.
At seven o’clock in the morning the Police Captain in charge of the police station arrived on duty. We had to face him and so we presented ourselves immediately, desperately playing the part of helpful and over-excited tourists. We apologized for any trouble we had caused his men and producing photograph after photograph we began to relate the whole of our experiences throughout the length of Africa. We were blessed with good fortune for the Captain spoke excellent English. Our ready conversation must have provided a welcome break in his daily routine and only once did the interview take a dangerous turn. He remarked that it was strange that he had not been told of our presence as the Ministry of Interior usually informed the local police stations of any passing tourists. Somehow we skated over this conversational patch of thin ice by inferring that we too were at loss to explain and that perhaps there had been a delay in communications. The Police Captain went on to add that he would telephone through to Suakin and then Port Sudan to expect us. If we got lost they would come to find us so on arrival would we please report to the respective police stations.
By some miracle we had got through without being asked to produce our incriminating passports. In fact the captain was such a sociable and well-meaning man that we felt very badly indeed about deceiving him. However, the fact that he intended to report us to the police stations ahead, even though it was a service designed to ensure our safety, gave us another headache. We knew that our luck could not possibly bear repetition and that it would be fatal to show our faces in another police station. When we failed to appear they would be out looking for us. The only answer was to go hell-for-leather up the coast and try to get out of the country quickly with some non-stop overnight driving.
We said goodbye to the Police Captain, thanking him and sweating at the narrowness of our escape as we drove out of Torkar. For a few miles we travelled a rare strip of tarmac road, for it must have been one of the few stretches of tarmac anywhere to require four-wheel drive. Loose sand had blocked it in high, impassable dunes that had to be circumnavigated. We were travelling the flat strip of desert and semi-desert that varies between five and twenty miles in width all the way up the Red Sea coastline. On one side was a range of barren rocky hills and on the other the glittering sea.
It was a hundred miles to Suakin, the ruined Turkish port that had been practically abandoned when the British built Port Sudan another thirty five miles to the north. We drove straight through, sweating again but we were not stopped. However, we knew that we must have been seen by some of the townspeople and as soon as the word reached the police then we would become hunted fugitives. We hurried on and then disaster struck. The front suspension on the Land Rover collapsed.
We hauled the Rover off the road and worked frantically to make repairs. With the suspension adjusted we still had an hour before nightfall and so Peter decided to lubricate the whole vehicle and change the engine oil. We would have to stop in Port Sudan to fill up with petrol and water but after that we could not afford another stop or breakdown on our final dash for the border.
We entered Port Sudan under the cover of darkness, a dubious precaution for the centre of the city was a blaze of bright lights, swirling with traffic and hundreds of people. We saw Arabs, Nubians and Europeans, all thronging the city cafes and pavements, drawn out by the night life and the comparative cool of the evening. Every policeman we saw in his distinctive khaki shirt and shorts with black cap and revolver holster made us jump, for we were sure that by now the police at Suakin must have raised the alarm.
We found an inconspicuous petrol station and hastily filled up with petrol and water and then ran into a new problem. The attendant refused to take our foreign money. We dared not start an argument but even our gentle pleadings were attracting attention. I felt that we were trapped and at any moment a policeman must appear to see what all the fuss was about. Then a very fat Nubian in a western suit pushed out of the crowd and asked politely whether perhaps we wished to change some money.
I have never been so pleased to see a black marketer in all my life. We followed him to a large restaurant where Peter accompanied him inside to change some of our pounds sterling into pounds Sudanese. We returned to bail out our Land Rover from the petrol station and at the same time I risked putting another proposition to our fat friend. We had to find the road leading out of Port Sudan to the north, but we knew from the affable Captain back in Torkar that there would be a policeman there checking traffic, whom we would have to avoid. I asked our god-send of a black-market Johnny if he would care to make himself another pound by guiding us out on to the north road.
He expressed surprise that we wanted to leave immediately and travel at night. The road was impassable, he warned us, and we would need a guide all the way and not just to the outskirts of Port Sudan. He pointed to the gathering clouds blotting out the stars to the north and added that it was almost certainly raining in the Red Sea hills, and that heavy rain would turn the desert into a sea of mud.
However, we had no choice and finally he agreed to take us out of the city for a price. He had done his human best to describe the conditions ahead and could do no more, and like any good businessman he saw no point in losing his profit. If we were determined to go then that was our own affair.
He put us on the right road, or perhaps I should say that he headed us in the right direction, for soon after we had left him the road vanished again. We were heading into flat country with the lights of the city fading into darkness behind us and soon we had plunged into a new version of hell. We caught up with the flooded aftermath of the storm and found that the desert literally was a sea of mud. For hours we floundered through it and now the petrol pump began to give trouble and packed up with every mile. We repeatedly waded out into the clinging muck to strip the pump down and clean it and very soon we were as wet and be-spattered as the Rover. Everything was a mess and eventually we had to abandon our all-night drive and bed down to get a few hours rest. Peter repaired the petrol pump yet again before we slept and despite the fact that we were smothered in mud we could not spare the water to wash. To add to our misery as soon as we had rolled into our blankets it began to rain.
When we moved again with the first light of morning I took new stock of our situation and in daylight it didn’t seem quite so bad. The storm had passed, the track was only a few yards off to our right, and we appeared to have struggled through the worst of that infernal mud. We got going again and made good fast progress over the next ninety miles to a handful of shanty huts marked on the map as Mohammed Gol.
We spotted a police post which we were sure would have a radio but again we got through without being pulled up. We sped on, feeling elated with the border within our reach, and then the rain fell again, turning the desert into a lake. For miles we splashed blindly through a continuing sheet of water twelve to eighteen inches in depth, and although there was a reasonably solid foundation it was still a slow petrol-consuming business. However, that night we camped a few miles short of Halaib, which our map placed as being twenty miles inside Egypt. We felt sure that we must have crossed the border somewhere after Mohammad Gol and our spirits were high and dancing.
The next morning the sun was bright and the road was fair. Halaib appeared, a typical oasis town built under date palms and surrounded by empty miles of desert sand. We drove up to the customs post, parked and exchanged smiles of relief before we got out of the Rover. We walked carelessly into the police post to display our passports, legal now with our Egyptian visas all in order.
The first thing I noticed was that the politely waiting policemen were not Arabs, they were all jet black Nubians. The second thing was that their cap badges all looked exactly like those worn by the Sudanese. With a sudden sense of alarm I realized that I hadn’t bothered to look up and see what flag was flying over the building. Hesitantly I asked if we were in Egypt.
One of the policemen smiled and replied in broken English that Egypt was still twenty miles to the north. This was Halaid right enough, but we were still in the Sudan.
Our map and our Trans-African Highways Guide had both placed Habaib on the wrong side of the border, and the Sudanese policeman was calmly holding out his hand and asking for our passports.