SIAFU -- THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER EIGHT: ESCAPE INTO EGYPT
It was one fifty-five am. The rest house where we had been left to sleep was in pitch darkness. Halaib was wrapped in silence. Earlier there had been the chatter of voices, a dog barking and the harsh roar of an irritable camel grumbling as it settled its large body down somewhere beneath the palm trees. Now there was nothing. It was claustrophobic in the small room and I hated the ceiling that shut me away from the night stars. The air was cold and my nerves were on edge. Smoking hadn’t helped to erase the sharp tension of my body and mind. In the blackness I could dimly see the hands of my wristwatch moving up to two am. Zero Hour. It was time to wake Peter and make our maddest gamble yet.
When we had handed over our passports earlier in the afternoon the Sudanese policeman behind the desk had thumbed through them twice before looking up with raised eyebrows. He had found no visas for the Sudan and no immigration stamps to show the date and place of our entry. Weakly we began to explain.
The Captain in charge arrived, a courteous man named Shabani who spoke broken English. He listened to us and then regretted that he would have to confiscate our passports and hold us here until he had radioed Port Sudan to make further enquiries. In the meantime we were shown into the rest house adjoining the police post.
We were left to ourselves, for presumably the Captain thought that we would not be such fools as to run away without our passports. In that he was right, for we would be jumping from one disaster to another to present ourselves in Egypt, again illegally and with no means of identification at all. At the same time we had absolutely no desire to spend the rest of our lives in a Sudanese jail. We had landed ourselves in a frightful predicament and somehow we had to get ourselves out of it. We made desperate plans but all of them hinged on one vital factor – before we could make any kind of escape bid we would have to retrieve our passports.
I had watched Shabani place our precious blue books carefully inside the cover of a large ledger and so with luck we would only need a few seconds free in his office to steal them back. We discussed the idea in low voices and finally decided that an attempt would have to be made as late in the evening as possible. We would have to wait for nightfall to make the actual escape bid and if the Captain was to discover in the meantime that the passports had been removed then the game would be up. It would be close arrest for us until we were taken back to Port Sudan and no second chances.
We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to act casually, repairing punctures and doing other odd jobs on the Land Rover. As though everything was a bad omen for the future nothing went right. We worked in the hot sun to fix one puncture eight or nine times and each time we pumped up the tyre it promptly burst again. However, it kept us busy and after a while the policemen in the vicinity relaxed and lost their interest in what we were doing.
When we finally had that wretched tyre repaired to our satisfaction it was getting dusk. The sun was a dull red ball lingering for its last few minutes behind the silhouette of some palm fronds. We packed up our tools and waited for the shadows to lengthen, and then casually wiped our hands and strolled across the compound to the Captain’s office.
There was a policeman standing on duty outside the door and less than ten yards away a group of four policemen sat on the edge of the veranda playing cards. These were not the circumstances we would have preferred, but if we left our attempt any later there was the risk that the office would be closed and locked up for the night. Then we would have to add breaking as well as entering to our list of crimes.
We had already decided that Peter would be the decoy while I did the dirty work. We approached the man on duty and Peter began talking, asking how long we would be here, what was likely to happen to us and all sorts of other questions. As the policeman spoke practically no English it was possible to spin this process out in trying to make him understand. Peter was quite cheerful about it, smiling all the time and making sure he gave no offence. The card-playing group looked up in our direction for a few moments but then resumed their game. I edged carefully out of the guard’s range of vision and then, with my heart thumping and the breath frozen in my lungs, I slipped quickly into the office behind his back.
I had only seconds to act. The door was wide open and if the guard should turn his head or one of the card players relax his attention upon the game and look up then all would be lost. One stride took me to the desk. It took a split second to open up the ledger where Shabani had placed our passports – and then all our hopes blew up in my face. The passports were no longer there. Frantically I flipped through two other ledgers that lay on the desktop and again I drew a blank. There were no little blue books. I looked for a drawer below the desk but there wasn’t one. There was no other obvious place to look and I couldn’t risk another second inside the office. I moved out and began to breathe again but my heart was in my boots.
Peter was still engaging the guard. I caught his eye and indicated that I had had no luck. Peter allowed his conversation to tail off and then we shrugged and turned despondently away.
For the sake of appearances we stopped to watch the card game for a few minutes. It was an en grossing game for those who were playing and we were ignored. Then the policeman on guard beckoned Peter back and began to speak to him again. I was fed up and gloomy over the whole hopeless business and wandered back to the rest house.
Five minutes later we had been blessed with a miracle. I was sitting on the edge of the bed in the rest house and hardly daring to believe in the two dark blue passports that I held in my hands. The duty policeman had told Peter to wait in the office while he went to fetch the Captain and while the man was gone Peter had whole minutes and a clear field in which to search. Our passports were in an unlocked wall safe and Peter had slipped them into his pocket before Shabani appeared with the guard. The Police Captain had told him politely in his best broken English that there could be no answers to his questions until advice had come from Port Sudan. The answers to his enquiries were expected to arrive in a radio message tomorrow and until then could we please be patient.
We had made our first hazardous step and now we had to wait in suspense until we could proceed to stage two. We had agreed that the best time to make our escape would be two o’clock in the morning when everyone would be fast asleep. To make sure that we did not oversleep ourselves we set watches. Peter lay awake until midnight and then it was my turn to stay awake until zero hour.
One point on which we both felt badly was the way in which we had deceived Captain Shabani. It seemed to be our fate in the Sudan to meet nothing but polite and helpful police officers, and yet be forced to treat them shabbily with our lies and tricks. If only their damned government had not been so mean with their visas! To salve our consciences we felt obliged to write a letter of explanation to the Captain, hoping that it would ease any possible reprimand that might come from his superiors.
To the Captain of the police, Halaib,
This short note will explain why we have left and tried to get to the Egyptian border, and also why we came through your country illegally and went to the desperate measures of taking our passports from your office safe.
We are ordinary travellers who are touring Africa. In Nairobi your Consulate promised us that visas for the Sudan would be waiting in Addis Ababa. In Addis we spent three weeks trying to get visas but failed. We also failed in Asmara after trying for two months. As you know, the only way by road to England is through your country. Our money was running out so we tried to get through without visas. We know it was wrong but there was no other choice for us.
Thank you for conducting your duty in such a courteous manner.
Tim Baily & Peter Hooper.
Two a.m. I got up and moved outside for a brief reconnaissance. Everything was quiet under the pale stars. I returned to wake Peter and in silence we got ready. The letter we left on the pillow of the bed and then moved cautiously out to the Land Rover. Peter got behind the wheel and I into the passenger seat. We closed the doors gently and still Halaib slumbered peacefully in the surrounding darkness. It was all or nothing now and I looked at Peter’s tense face and nodded. He turned the key and the starter motor coughed and spun, sounding like a thunderclap in the hushed stillness.
The engine was cold and refused to start. Peter tried again. I was looking back frantically at the compound and the surrounding buildings of the police post, expecting lights to flash, voices to shout and even revolvers to spit bullets. Then the agony ended and the engine fired on the third attempt. Peter slammed her into gear and we were away like a rocket.
I don’t think either of us breathed until we were clear of Halaib and even then we did not breathe too easily for we expected to be pursued. Mercifully the road was well marked and except for a few patches of sand which caused us more agonizing delays we made good progress.
We came to what we were certain must have been the Egyptian border post, a few silent buildings in the night with no sign of life. We stopped and waited for a few moments but nothing moved. Here no traffic would be expected at this time of night and obviously everyone was asleep. We hesitated and then decided to push on. When we had to face the issue again we could always pretend that we hadn’t recognized the border post as such in the darkness and it seemed a good idea to put as many miles between ourselves and the Sudan as possible. Peter started the Land Rover again and we continued to follow the rough track that led north through the sand. It was very dark, with most of the stars obscured by cloud and we could only dimly define our way.
We had been going for perhaps fifteen minutes when I glanced back for the hundredth time to see if we were being followed. Immediately my heart did another racing gear change into top, for there were three sets of headlights closing in fast behind us. Peter cursed and wanted to try and out-run them, but I reasoned that in a strange country with our over-loaded Land Rover our chances were worse than nil, and by trying we would only aggravate our situation even more.
Bitterly Peter pulled off to the side of the road and switching off our lights we waited for the inevitable. The blaze of headlights caught up with us fast, the searching beams jerking and flickering as they swept over the desert. They seemed to be searching for us and in an effort to appease their ultimate wrath I switched our tail lights on again. Immediately they swung towards us and roared up out of the night. Then as they came closer we saw that they were heavy trucks. When they were a hundred yards short of us they suddenly pulled out and made a wide, sweeping circle to go round us. They rejoined the road without stopping and tore off into the night.
We sat there with sweat on our faces. It was not the police searching for two fugitives after all. It was just a convoy of Arab truck drivers who had temporarily misplaced the road.
After that fright we kept going non-stop, swapping places behind the wheel every couple of hours. Dawn came and the desert road continued reasonable. According to our map we should have turned left after ninety miles to head inland through the hills to Aswan but we never found the turning point. In any case we had lost all faith in that misguided map and when the road disappeared we simply followed a compass course north-north-west. We reasoned that if we stayed on the Red Sea coast then at least we would be able to distil sea water if we ran into trouble.
By nightfall we were in trouble. We had covered another seventy miles and were almost out of water and almost out of petrol. There was no town or road marked on our map for another ninety-five miles. On one side we had the sea and we were surrounded on the other three sides by the arid and empty waste of the desert. The Red Sea hills stretched away in stark, raw beauty and gradually darkened as the sun slipped behind them.
We stopped to camp and I climbed up on to the roof of the Land Rover to survey the landscape ahead. In the far distance, half shrouded in the gathering shadows, I could just distinguish a line of some sort running across the sand. An oil pipeline was my first guess, and then I saw a cloud of dust that marked a vehicle and realized it was a road. Following it I could just make out the shape of a town on the edge of the sea. The map was wrong again but this time it was in our favour.
We slept comfortably and next morning drove into the town. It was called Berniece, after a Roman Queen, and we were perturbed to find that it was a military base which the Egyptians were now building up as a port to serve Aswan. However, we had to have petrol and water, and putting on a bold face we drove up to the gates of the army camp and asked them to help us. They very willingly did so, suspecting nothing amiss in our presence and not even bothering to check our passports.
From Berniece on we had a beautiful surprise, a tarmac road for the rest of our journey through Africa. We motored along smoothly in high spirits and only had two awkward moments. These were two police roadblocks checking traffic. We were still unsure how our passports would be received with no immigration stamps and so we had to bluff our way through with more fast talking and jokes about the Egyptian beauties we expected to find waiting in Cairo. We got away without showing our passports each time but we knew that our luck just had to be running out.
In Mersa Allen we became unstuck. We needed petrol again and we had no Egyptian money. There was no bank and not even a black-market Johnny to help us out. We eventually had to go to the police. One look at our passports and we were placed under open arrest. Not only were the immigration stamps missing but our visas had expired. We had believed them to be valid for three months. “NO,” said the officer positively. “These visas are only valid for one month. Weakly we explained that we could not read the Arabic in which the visas were written.
A lengthy radio call was made to Port Suez and eventually it was decided that the matter would be decided there. We would travel on tomorrow with a police escort. In the meantime we spent the night at Mersa Allen police station and I woke up once during the night to find a chummy Egyptian rat sitting nonchalantly on my chest. I was damned glad that at least we did not have to stay here.
It took us two days to drive up to Port Suez, stopping overnight at another police station along the way. The policeman who accompanied us was quite a cheerful fellow who cleared us through all the remaining road blocks. The Egyptians seemed to be keyed up for their coming war with Israel and as we entered Suez we noticed heavy guns guarding the canal.
We were apprehensive again but although time-consuming our passage through the procession of customs and immigration officials was surprisingly easy. They were terribly corrupt and after listening to our stories and explanations they politely told us that our expired visas could be extended for another month for a payment of twenty pounds each. We paid up gladly and that evening we were free men again.
We spent three weeks in Cairo, servicing the Land Rover, visiting the pyramids and sampling the night life. We found that the bazaars offered a fascinating array of all the merchandise of the exotic east; the silks, the jewellery, the gold, the silver, the ivory and jade, all matched only by the equally exotic quality of the prices. This was the largest city in Africa, The Nile Cradle of all civilization, but Oh how the mighty were fallen. So much of it was poor and dirty, and it was impossible to buy anything other than the basics which did not have an immense government tax slapped on it. A bottle of Scotch whiskey cost over five pounds.
We would have stayed longer but our carnet for the Land Rover was expiring and we could not get it renewed in Egypt. We had to be out of the country by the thirtieth of November and finally left at the last minute on the twenty-ninth on an all-night drive to cross into Libya. The road was tarmac but in a poor state of repair, crossing semi-desert plains until it climbed up on to the Libyan plateau. After crossing the border we began to see more signs of life, vegetation and herds of sheep and camels.
My biggest worry now was Peter. In Cairo he had fallen seriously ill with an undiagnosed fever. A doctor had recommended that he should go into hospital for observation but this of course was impossible. I had done all the driving to get us into Libya but the travelling had done Peter no good at all. That night he had difficulty in breathing so I decided to head at full speed for the army hospital in Tobruk.
There an army doctor examined him for over half an hour, only to finally scratch his head and call for a second opinion. At the end of another half hour there were three doctors all scratching their heads and their unanimous verdict was summed up in four definite but very unhelpful words -- “You are very ill!”
They could only suggest that we drive on to Tripoli where there was a civilian hospital with better facilities. So off we went again, with Peter a very sick passenger with his baffling illness. Then half way over the three-day journey the fever broke and he began to regain his strength. By the time we had reached Tripoli he had recovered and so we did not bother to stop. We had been very short of water during our trip up the Red Sea coast and Peter decided later that he had probably been suffering from some form of dehydration.
The rest of our journey was somewhat tame after those hectic events in Ethiopia and the Sudan. We crossed Tunisia in three days and drove into Algeria where the country became mountainous and freezing cold at night. We spent Christmas Day of 1965 camped under another bridge, this one only sixty miles outside of Algiers. We wondered whether we could claim some kind of minor record for having spent two successive Christmases under African bridges.
We passed briefly through Morocco and then shipped the Land Rover from Ceuta to Spain. After thirteen months and twenty thousand miles our marathon African safari was over.