SIAFU -- THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
BOOK TWO: SIAFU IN EMBRYO
CHAPTER NINE; NEW BEGINNINGS
After fourteen months in the wilds of Africa it was exciting to arrive for the first time in London. I thought that I had had my fill of the bush, the deserts and the jungles. I felt ripe for the bright lights, the fast pace and the swinging city life, I flew up from Gibraltar, leaving Peter to motor slowly through Spain and France at his leisure in the Land Rover. It was late at night when I landed at London airport and I rook a hotel room near Victoria Station. I was tired and went straight to bed. The next morning I was up early, ready and eager to face the pulsating life and rhythm of the big city.
Practically the first thing I saw on that cold, grey February morning was the commuter crowds pouring out of Victoria station. It was the nearest thing I have ever seen to a gigantic mouth simply disgorging people.
What amazed me was the fact that they all looked so similar, slight variations in age, weight and height, but all wearing the same dark suits and all carrying the same brollies and briefcases. I watched them and thought, My God, what kind of an existence is this? Going to the same office each day, hanging your hat and coat on the same hook, catching the same train back to the same suburb, walking the same pavement to the same house; and at the end of it a frustrated wife who has had nothing to do all day except cook dinner and gossip to the frustrated wife next door, perhaps a bridge party in the evening for kicks. If this was the reality of city life then it was a million times more frightening than the hottest desert or the darkest jungle. In the short space of my first hour all my taste for the city had faded and my heart and hopes fled back to Africa.
I knew instinctively that somehow I would have to return. I enjoy meeting people as individuals, as people, but I wanted no part of this surging, suffocating mass of unidentifiable bodies.
As soon as possible I travelled up to Newcastle where my parents had made their home. On my way north I felt falling snow on my face for the first time. It was a new experience but one that I did not particularly want to repeat. I had seen snow before, as a dazzling white dome crowning Kilimanjaro, and it was my opinion that snow should always be restricted to the distant beauty of the mountaintops.
When I crossed the Tyne Bridge into Newcastle it was for the first time in nine years and only the second time in my life. I had made one short holiday visit here with my parents in my early teens and now I was returning with mixed feelings. It was the first time in three years that we were all together again and my mother and father were as delighted to see me as I was to see them. For a few days I could relax into the pleasure of being with my family and forget the atrocious English weather and the awkward vacuum that was my future.
My immediate need was for a job and after that first week the pattern of events provided one for me. The Trans-Africa trip had caused some ripples of local interest and led to a two-column item in the local press, which in turn brought me an invitation to appear in the news-magazine programme on the local television. I did a ten minute spot under the hot lamps, trying to pretend that the cameras were not there and chatting with the interviewer about Africa and the trip that Peter and I had just made.
The chain action continued for that interview brought me to the notice of the manager of Samorgan, the South African Immigrant Organization, and a few days later I received a letter inviting me to call round and discuss the possibility of a job.
Samorgan needed someone with knowledge of South Africa, someone who could answer questions on the climate, opportunities, facilities, health services and all the one-hundred-and-one other things that a prospective immigrant would want to know before committing himself and his family to a whole new way of life. The fact that I had been resident in South Africa and knew Africa generally was in my favour and eventually I took over their Newcastle branch office at a salary of seventy pounds a month. I worked hard on that job. Samorgan were pleased when their immigration figures started to rise and gave me a rise in salary up to ninety pounds.
Because I worked for Samorgan and helped many people to make up their minds to immigrate to South Africa, perhaps I should mention briefly the word that has sadly become synonymous with South Africa. I mean apartheid. There has been much clever propaganda on both sides of this issue, but as I have said before I am not a politically-minded person and I don’t listen much to propaganda and political speeches. However, I have travelled over practically the whole face of Africa and witnessed conditions everywhere, so I can form my own opinion. Employment opportunities and general living standards, even for the Bantu, were far superior in South Africa and Rhodesia to those in many other parts of the continent. I do not like apartheid and I do not think any human being does, even the old Afrikaaner, but as a short term measure it did seem a necessary policy for South Africa’s survival.
There is a difference between handing over to an African government the small towns and farms that existed in other parts of Africa, and the handing over of the giant, skyscraper cities and the high-powered technological and industrialized civilization that has been created in South Africa. I like the African people but I do believe they need time to become capable of handling such a highly developed society. Change must come gradually, and to try and force it now upon South Africa’s white population can only cause strife and bloodshed.
I feel that if the principle of apartheid were carried out to the letter, that is the separate development of the races leading to eventual cooperation in government, with all the races living in harmony, then apartheid would be a reasonable system. Unfortunately apartheid is all too often taken to cruel and ludicrous extremes, the hate-campaign against South Africa clouds the issues, and the principles seem to get lost in practise.
But to return to my job with Samorgan, one of my reasons for enjoying it so much was that I was working on my own. My nearest superior was far away in Johannesburg. Also this was the first time I had attempted to run an office and having been flung in at the deep end I was determined to meet this new challenge and put up a good show. I realized too that this was a valuable field of new experience which would serve me well in the future.
After less than a year I was invited to take over Samorgan’s Cardiff office, with the understanding that if I could boost the immigration figures there as I had done in Newcastle, then I would be in line for a senior post. It was even hinted that I might be groomed for a directorship.
My prospects looked good but I was not happy. My father had become seriously ill with lung cancer and so I found myself commuting between Cardiff and Newcastle, and to a great extent I was running both offices at the same time. The job was beginning to pall and although it was a matter of principle to do it to the best of my ability my heart was elsewhere. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life persuading other people to go to Africa. I wanted to return there myself, and not as a businessman in Johannesburg but as a free man in the primitive bush.
The autumn had passed, winter came round again and over the Christmas period my father died. It was a heavy blow to me and with part of my stability gone I did not care for the rest. I left Samorgan, taking a cut in my salary and a gamble with my future and after a few weeks took on a new job as a tour operator with the American Automobile Organization. I still had no clear cut plans but I had learned something of office management and I felt vaguely that there might be some kind of scope for me somewhere if I could add to that some knowledge of the travel business.
I left Samorgan on the best possible terms. Their London manager had just left them and while waiting for my new job to start I filled in at their London office for a couple of weeks. It so happened that Samorgan owned a large mansion-sized house in Belgravia which they were trying to sell and I was invited to live in it and to generally keep it in order until the sale was made. I eventually lived there rent free for six months and because it was so vast I had Peter Hooper living there as well. By this time Peter was also working in London and the two of us lived like kings in our grand palatial residence.
The only flaw during those days was my new job. Working for the American Automobile Association proved to be a bit grim for I found it impossible to respect my boss. He was a man with no imagination who did things by the rigid set of rules laid down by head office. My own outlook has always been one of nothing speculated, nothing gained and so our basic characters were in constant conflict.
I soon lost all interest in trying to achieve anything here and began more and more to dream my own dreams. Africa was on my mind. I wanted to return, to make another trans-Africa expedition. Was it possible, I wondered, that I could get enough people interested to help pay the costs? Was a company making trans-Africa trips a commercial proposition? I would need backing, finance, vehicles and equipment! How? When? Where? How much? The questions all revolved around endlessly in my head.
At that stage only one thing registered clearly, a word – SIAFU. Many times during my travels through Africa I had watched the wide brown columns of those determined, hurrying ants moving inexorably forward. When they began to march, there was nothing that could stop them and no obstacle that they could not overcome. The Siafu ants would never admit defeat and never failed to reach their ultimate destination. They had courage, tenacity and an inflexible purpose and will. The Siafu ant became a symbol and SIAFU EXPEDITIONS slowly became my own inflexible purpose.
I soon began to realize that I was wasting my time with the American Automobile Organization. I had become a white-collar worker earning a mere pittance and if I didn’t get out of it and earn some real money to back up my plans then all my fine dreams would come to nothing. I started making enquiries and eventually learned that there was big money to be earned on the new underground tunnel that was being dug beneath London’s streets to make the new Victoria line subway. I exchanged my pen and my white collar and tie for a pick and shovel and muddy boots and took on the sheer hard graft of the tunnelling job at sixty pounds per week.
It was while Peter and I were still living in magnificent splendour in our Belgravia mansion that Rob Crees appeared in London. We had last seen Rob when we stayed at the Crees’s farm in Raffingore and naturally we had left him a standing invitation to look us up anytime he arrived in London. He brought with him another young Rhodesian from a neighbouring farm, Andy Robertson. Andy was an excellent fellow, another wanderlust spirit, and soon to become a good friend.
We spent the evening in a Belgravia pub and as with so many other lofty enterprises it was against a background of beer and enthusiasm that SIAFU began to take firmer shape. The topic was Trans-Africa and the idea of running our own safaris with paying passengers. Rob was only generally interested. Peter, although he had enjoyed our own adventures, was too astute a businessman not to see that we would be taking a bad risk with only limited chances of success. The only man who was really keen to tackle the idea was Andy Robinson and the two of us began to thrash out the hard details.
Nothing was finalized in that first long discussion but the Siafu seed was definitely planted in Andy’s mind as well as my own. Shortly after that the house in Belgravia belonging to Samorgan was sold and I was obliged to take a flat in Gloucester Road. Andy was staying at Earl’s Court in between trips around England and Europe, working at odd jobs, washing dishes, driving tractors and even a short spell on the North Sea oil rigs. We saw each other occasionally and would talk over Siafu again and in the meantime I continued to work on the tunnelling job to build up my finances.
Gradually the first real Siafu Expedition began to develop. I found a businessman in Birmingham who was prepared to promote us with five hundred pounds, who also promised to run a London base from which we could organize future trips. I started looking for second hand Land Rovers and placed an ad in the personal column of the Times to attract prospective passengers. From a series of advertisements we received a staggering four hundred replies.
My spirits soared and the first hurdle vanished. There was no doubt now in my mind about the availability of passengers. The spirit of adventure was far from dead, even in grey and drizzly England. There were young people who only wanted the opportunity, the golden chance to escape into adventure, and they would rush to Africa. The very name Africa had a mystique of its own and I was not the only one who could feel its magnetic lure. I felt now that Trans-Africa was a practical and feasible business venture, one that would not only enable me to continue my own association with Africa, but one that would enable me to lead others to the splendours and beauties of that dark continent of limitless rewards.
I began to accumulate four vintage 1956 series one Land Rovers. They were the best we could afford, all of them twelve or thirteen years old and one of them had already made the overland trip to Australia and back. Each one needed a complete overhaul and a massive amount of work to get it ready, but then I had a massive stroke of luck. A Tynesider named Allan Crook answered the ad in the Times and I quickly realized that in Allan I had a brilliant mechanic. He had served his time at sea as a marine engineer and although he couldn’t afford to come on the trip I knew we couldn’t do without him. As soon as I got to know him and became friendly with him I offered him the position of mechanic with the expedition. It was already obvious that I couldn’t do the whole thing on my own and without Allan’s skill and tireless efforts at nursing our ancient vehicles throughout the whole length of Africa we might not have made it.
Events were moving now but I was still toiling away at the Victoria Line to get as much money together as possible. One night after a twelve hour shift I had just returned to the flat at Gloucester Road and was relaxing in the bath when Andy arrived with a bunch of his friends from Rhodesia. They were going out for a few beers he informed me through the bathroom door, and told me to hurry up and join them. I called back that I was tired and intended to go to bed but that wasn’t a good enough answer. There was some cheerful insistence from Andy and then a couple of strange female voices threatened to come in and drag me bodily out of the bath. At that I relented. When I emerged Andy remembered to introduce me to Janet, a very nice blonde girl with silky hair and a friendly smile, and then we all charged off to the pub.
I took to Jan immediately and from that night on we were never apart. Jan’s home was in Rhodesia and eventually she decided to come on the expedition with me. In fact she became an indispensible part of the original Siafu team, acting as our secretary and typing out endless lists of supplies and coping with the mass of paperwork. I think that perhaps right from the start I was in love with her, but I didn’t fully realize that fact until we were actually on the trip and a whole lot of tremendous qualities revealed themselves in her character. She was kind and thoughtful with a very nice personality and I really fell hard.
The pace began to speed up. We selected our group of thirty mixed young people to make up the first expedition. There were letters to be answered, visas to be obtained, and the telephone was ringing incessantly. Andy and Allan were working frantically on the Rovers, while I dashed to and fro between consulates and embassies with my head awhirl with cost figures and equipment lists. The flat became a stacked chaos of tins and boxes, spare parts, provisions, tents, cooking utensils, pots and pans, buckets and bowls, spades, sand mats, two huge ex-service radio sets, maps, guide books, medicine chest..... The list was endless and there was practically no room to sleep, just a narrow alcove leading to each bed.
The flat below was shared by a group of girls who frequently invited us down for meals, and each time we went down there we would gaze up in alarm at the sagging ceiling. The weight building up in our room was threatening to collapse it at any moment and we prayed daily that the landlord would not call before we were ready to leave. We were sure that if he saw what we were doing he would throw us and all of our junk straight out into the street, and be perfectly within his rights to do so.
I had to leave the tunnel job and concentrate all my time on this accelerating whirl of activity. We needed insurance for the vehicles and insurance for the passengers. We needed jerry cans for petrol and water and roof racks had to be welded on to the Land Rovers. We needed camp beds, mosquito nets, sleeping bags, axes, saw, tools for every eventuality, and codeine for headaches. Oh God, those headaches!
Somehow we had to fit in inoculations and vaccinations, and trips to doctors and dentists for personal check-ups.
The departure date was almost upon us and then came a financial crisis. Our Birmingham sponsor failed to deliver the promised five hundred pounds and our association with him collapsed. Desperately I tried other sources and old friends, but no one wanted to back such a hazardous enterprise as Trans-Africa. The Congo had only just quietened down, there was a civil war raging in Biafra, the Sudan and Eritrea were still question marks of revolution, and no large group had yet succeeded in crossing Africa since the Congo bloodbath had erupted. Everyone, even my own family and closest friends, thought that I was crazy.
I remembered the Siafu ant who continued regardless in the face of every adversity, the Siafu ant which stopped for nothing and never turned back. If I was going to use him as a symbol then I had to be worthy of him.
With my own savings from the tunnel job and the hard cash paid in fares by our passengers there was enough to initially pay for the vehicles and equipment and get the trip off the ground. I was prepared to go it alone but of course it wasn’t as bad as that. I had willing helpers in Allan and Andy and Jan, and in fact everyone who came on that first trip gave me magnificent support. We knew that this was in the nature of an exploratory run, nobody expected miracles, and they all worked damned hard to make it a success.
Our departure date was set for November the tenth, nineteen-sixty-eight.