SIAFU -- THE TIM BAILY STORY
CHAPTER TEN: BACK INTO AFRICA
Departure morning brought absolute pandemonium. People began arriving from all directions, piling up the entrance to the flat with rucksacks and holdalls, bags and suitcases, all of which spilled uncontrollably out on to the pavement and into the street. The telephone rang every single minute and crowds of friends and well-wishers had arrived to see us all off. The air was full of brave jokes, exclamations of “Good Luck,” and “Bon Voyage,” smiles, handshakes, slaps on the back, and a few apprehensive looks of doubt from the not-quite-so-optimistic.
We had five land rovers parked along Gloucester Road. Two were private vehicles that were joining our convoy for the sake of safety. The other three were Siafu’s vintage old ladies: “Matilda,” the Australian veteran, “Henry,” named after my mother, and “Sarah,” honouring one of the girls in the flat downstairs who had given us so much help.
Andy and I rushed around frantically, loading last minute baggage, making final adjustments, trying ropes and checking that everything and everybody had arrived. Jan was busy as always answering the telephone but at last we sorted out the confusion and had our expedition assembled and all the equipment loaded. We were all set to go except that already we were one land rover missing. Allan had taken “Maggie,” named after his girl friend, on a flying last-minute trip to Newcastle to say goodbye to his parents -- and had failed to return.
We waited for an hour, prolonging the goodbyes, and then “Maggie” came racing down the Gloucester Road with a fine show of speed. Allan was grinning at the wheel, “Just a small breakdown,” he reported, “Nothing unusual.”
We shoved some expedition members in to join him, a frantic flurry of last minute waves and kisses and then we were away. I started “Henry” and eased into the traffic stream which we had all but jammed. One by one the other land rovers followed.
When I paused to think about those five trailing vehicles and the thirty four young men and girls for whom I was now responsible my stomach was somewhat hollow. This would be a totally different trip from the one with Peter Hooper when we had only ourselves to please and could afford to take chances. My present companions had all paid their fares in hard cash so this was their trip more than mine, and although it was fully accepted by all that there were risks involved there could be no more deliberate risk-taking as there had been in the past – and definitely no more illegal running of borders. My first priority now must always be to get my passengers safely to their destination, and my second to ensure that they received full value and both saw and enjoyed as much of Africa as possible on the way.
The weight of my new responsibilities was heavy, but there was one bright, golden, redeeming feature – I was going with them, escaping the English winter, and returning to my beloved Africa.
Our journey through Europe, down the long arrow-straight roads of France and over the Pyrenees into Spain, was a completely uneventful but useful shaking down period. It gave the expedition a chance to knit together before we plunged headlong into Africa. The men rapidly learned how to handle the heavily-loaded vehicles with their swaying trailers, and how to erect the tents and set up the camp swiftly and efficiently. Smooth teamwork was the keynote, with no wasteful expenditure of energy. An important point for later in the desert when there would be little energy to spare at the end of a hot and exhausting day.
The girls shopped and planned menus and were soon adept at setting up their own open-air kitchen as rapidly as the camp itself. Our steel sand mats made ideal barbecue grills and any handy male could be press-ganged into digging a fire pit.
On the social side I made sure that every campsite we used had an adjacent bar, and the ice was soon broken by a series of noisy parties. The group were all good mixers and our community of strangers was soon one big happy Siafu family. The sing-songs and the jokes became increasingly relaxed and bawdy as we moved south and if there was any kind of music the evening inevitably ended with dancing. Couples began to pair off and characters began to emerge.
The workhorse of the group was Dick Jeffries, a tall, lanky chap from Northumberland. No matter what the job or the problem Dick was one of the first on the spot to lend a helping hand.
Another invaluable member of the team was Paul Jones, our poet, singer and fun-leader. Paul was one hell of a nice guy from Birmingham and had once sung for the Covent Garden Opera.
We had a sprinkling of Australians and New Zealanders and of course the inevitable bunch of Aussie girls. They were hard-working and cheerful and often put the men to shame with their willingness to get out and extract a land rover from the mud or change a wheel.
They were nearly all extroverts or optimists except one, and that was Ray, our pessimist for whom nothing could ever go right. He continually prophesied doom and was never satisfied with anything.
However, there was one totally unexpected character who came to light in Madrid where we were camped for a couple of days. Usually Jan acted as my liaison officer. People would bring their problems first to her and then she would pin me in a corner to talk them over. On this occasion Jan was by-passed and a serious but uncomfortable male drew me to one side and said quietly,
“I don’t quite know how to put this to you, Tim – but I’ve been approached.”
“Lucky you,” was my immediate reaction. “Who’s the girl?”
“That’s the trouble.” He looked acutely embarrassed. “It isn’t a girl. It’s another man.”
That really startled me, for a homosexual was the last type that I was prepared to find among my intrepid travellers. However, once the initial surprise was over I learned a double lesson. The first was that on an expedition like this Siafu would have to cater for the diversity of the most unlikely people; and the second, which came more gradually, was that in effect no two people are exactly the same but that they all have their own good qualities and values. It was soon common knowledge to the whole group that one of our number was gay but once he became known and accepted he contributed his own skills and brand of humour and did as much as anybody else to make the trip a success.
It was also in Madrid that we collected the thirty-fifth member of our expedition. Two of our girls were washing up beside the high wall that enclosed the campsite when they heard the sudden thump of something landing heavily on the grass. The sound was accompanied by a whimper and on investigating they found a tiny black and white mongrel bitch that had been thrown cruelly over the wall.
The puppy was in a pathetic state, starving and filthy and covered in fleas and matted hair. The girls cleaned her up and fed her and promptly fell in love with her. The puppy was obviously unwanted and they refused to leave her. “We need a mascot,” they insisted. “We ought to call her Siafu and take her with us to Africa.”
There was a vote on it, with all of the girls unanimously voting “Yes,” and most of the men voting “No.” The final decision was mine but how could I refuse them a pet. After all, I was the soft-hearted hero who had carried shimpy and Freddie all the way through the wilds of Ethiopia. The girls won the day and Siafu became our mascot. When we left Madrid the puppy came with us and at every border someone had to take her for a long walk to tire her out, and then we drugged her with aspirins to make that she slept under a blanket through customs.
We shipped our vehicles aboard the ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta, the small pinch of Spanish territory on the North African coast opposite the great Rock of Gibralter. Two miles away was the border with Morocco.
As we drove the fifty roundabout miles to Tangier the Mediterranean landscape was reminiscent of the rust-red, olive-dressed hills of southern Spain, but the people here were the people of desert Africa. The road passed through small dusty towns where it would suddenly become thronged with hurrying crowds; black-shrouded, veiled women with babies slung on their backs, bearded, grizzled old men looking like mediaeval monks in their coarse brown robes with great hoods shadowing their faces; men and boys in fezzes or knitted skull caps, on foot or riding bicycles or herding the innumerable donkeys that proved the biggest driving hazard; and hordes of ragged little brown-bellied children. The contrast between Europe and Africa was sharply underlined by one young woman feeding her baby as she sat on the kerbstone of a busy street. Her face was veiled to the eyes, which was very discreet and proper, but her brown breast was revealed to all with the contented baby clinging hungrily to the nipple.
We drove into Tangier late in the afternoon, passing through the wide modern streets but promptly losing ourselves in the old Moroccan quarter of the Kasbah. We needed a campsite but nobody in “Henry” spoke French and so we led the convoy round in circles trying to find an Arab who spoke English.
Darkness closed in on the maze of narrow, badly-paved streets, lined with mysterious cafes and romantic arched doors and gateways filled with moving shadows. For most of us this was our first taste of the exciting Arab world and no one really cared that we were lost. Our presence generated as much excitement as we felt ourselves and soon we had gathered a vast horde of infants who ran through the streets beside us to keep pace with our slow progress. They formed a pack of cheeky little monkeys and soon found that it was easier to ride than to run. They began to cling on to the sides of the rovers and climb on to the trailers. Once they had found a safe perch it was inevitable that their curiosity should lead them one stage further. They could feel all sorts of fascinating shapes bulging out from under the ropes and tarpaulins. There were warning shouts that the little blighters had started unfastening the ropes and were cheerfully thieving our food supplies, and so I had to stop and post two of the biggest men on the trailers to fend them off.
We made few more circles until I ultimately obtained good directions for a campsite. Then reluctantly I found our way out of the maze and left the excited crowds, the shadows and the colour and the sounds of fluted music behind. Our way led up into the hills behind the city where we found a reasonable campsite shaded by tall gum trees and a banana grove. Here we erected camp by starlight and the headlights of the vehicles. The girls prepared a meal and the men produced magical bottles of beer to celebrate our arrival in Africa.
The next morning the whole Siafu expedition, except for the camp guards, were let loose to savour the delights of exotic Tangier. My own first port of call was the post office to collect the expedition’s mail, and more urgently to collect one specific letter that was waiting from the Sudanese Embassy in London. During the past two months I had made repeated visits to the embassy in my efforts to get visas for the Sudan and before leaving England the First Secretary had promised to have a letter waiting in Tangier that would in effect give us permission to pass through his country.
There was a letter but it was the complete reverse of what I had expected. The First Secretary wrote that he had been abruptly posted to New York and that he could do nothing further to help us. There was no letter of permission, no visas, and only a warning that it would be very difficult indeed to get into the Sudan.
We had been less than twenty-four hours in Africa and faced our first crisis point.
I returned to the campsite to consult with Andy and Allan, and to call a general camp meeting of the whole expedition. The new facts were simple. Our London contact had failed us, and knowing the Sudanese so well from my past experience I knew that there was now no hope of getting a party of this size through the Sudan. Our planned Cairo-Sudan-Ethiopia route would have to be abandoned and the only real alternative was to strike down through the Central Sahara, Central Africa and then the Congo. There was much talk, discussion and doubt flowing freely around the camp fire but nobody had any other ideas that would bear a close scrutiny. It was the Sahara or nothing. However, I had picked a good team. The majority vote was to give it a try and only two people pulled out. They owned one of the private land rovers and decided to make a solo effort at the Sudan route, hoping that somehow they could wangle visas at the border.
The expedition headed east for Algiers where we set up camp two days later on a clean stretch of beach just outside the city. I had the rushed task of acquiring visas for thirty-two people for the six additional countries on our new route and it was just our luck that the whole of the Moslem population of Algiers were celebrating the Fast of Ramadan. This was a most significant event in the Islamic calendar and forbade amongst many other things the transaction of any business before five o’clock in the evening.
While I was thus engaged Andy and Allan busied themselves with a whole string of running repairs on the land rovers. It was fortunate indeed that both of them were in their element when covered with oil and grease and with their heads buried in an engine or wriggling under a chassis. They were happy at their work. The rest of the party who were not actively involved in helping me to chase down Embassies and Consulates were content to be lazing or swimming, drinking beer or exploring the High Kasbah of Algiers, once the haunt of the infamous Barbary pirates.
A week passed before we were ready to start again, and with our convoy reduced to five we headed south to towards the black iron-stone hills, the raw red mountains and the vast yellow sands of the deep Sahara.