SIAFU -- THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER ELEVEN: THROUGH THE SAHARA
For the first six hundred miles as we drove south into Africa we enjoyed good tarmac road. The Land Rovers wound slowly through the Chiffa gorges of the Atlas Mountains, sprinted more boldly across the intervening plateau, and then climbed up to four thousand feet to cross the second range of the Oulad Nail, the last barrier before the desert. Seventy miles south of the mountains lay Laghouat, the first of a long chain of oasis towns flung out like a broken string of palm-green jewels to mark the Hoggar route down through Tamanrasset to Niger.
After Laghouat the noticeable French influence began to fade with the green foothills behind us. The towns were all white baked desert towns pierced with mosque towers, filled with old men in hooded cloaks, white-bearded like Old Father Time and usually straddled across the back of a donkey. The women were hidden behind all-enveloping white robes with just a tiny gap for one eye. We saw fewer flocks of goats and sheep and more camels, singly, in untidy herds wherever there were a few palm trees to offer shade, or strung out in laden, slow-plodding caravans in the sand beside the road.
We passed through Ghardais, a large town painted in pastel colours and set in a striking gorge with mosque-crowned suburbs climbing the surrounding hills. Further south the monotony of the desert road was only broken by the overflowing sand dunes. In places the road would be completely blocked, the Land Rovers would spin themselves in and united efforts were needed to pull them free. The sun blazed down from a dazzling blue sky and a hot dry wind blew continuously across the yellow emptiness. At times the grey ribbon of tarmac road looked more like a river bed with swirling ripples of wind-blown sand shimmering over it. Dust devils danced and once a small whirlwind whipped across our windscreens.
It was late in the afternoon four days after leaving Algiers that we swung through some high brown hills and saw the great lake of green palms that drowned the oasis town of El Golea on the plain below. There we stopped for a few beers, to fill up with petrol and water, and to report to the Surete Nationale who had a whole stack of the inevitable forms to be filled in. We made camp under the palms on the edge of the town and the next morning the testing part of the journey really began. Forty miles south of El Golea the tarmac road ended.
The road that remained was just hard corrugated dirt over flat desert, a wasteland of sand and stones until we reached Fort Mirabel, an old French blockhouse in the middle of nowhere. The fort was just a square, brown mud structure, four rows of small bare rooms with dome ceilings forming the perimeter walls around a central courtyard. The images of Beau Geste, the Foreign Legion’s last stand and hordes of camel-born Toureg sweeping out of the desert were all immediately dispersed by the reality of rusty tin cans and the debris of only yesterday. After a short stop we drove on across the vast Tademait Plateau, empty miles of flat black-brown sand. It was time to reduce tyre pressures and follow one of the innumerable sets of tyre tracks that ran parallel to the marked route. It was all the same wherever you chose to drive, for the road was a network of individual progress a mile wide.
It was now that breakdowns became a constant feature of the trip. We stopped time and time again to clear blown sand from the carburettors and fuel lines of one or another of our five Land Rovers, and to change wheels punctured by crashing over flints, stones and potholes. Also we had made the classic mistake that practically every private expedition makes on its first foray into the desert – we were grossly overloaded. The strain taxed the engines labouring in the fierce heat and springs and half shafts began to break with monotonous regularity. Andy and Allan laboured like Trojans to keep the convoy moving, aided by myself and anyone else with an inkling of mechanical skill, while the rest of the party sought what shelter they could around our remaining vehicles.
It was soon obvious to me that our party was far too large. The breakdowns were to a certain extent inevitable, but each time any single one of our vehicles broke down it brought the whole convoy to a grinding halt. I made a mental note for future reference that although two vehicles must be a safe minimum, three would have to be the maximum for any more expeditions of this kind. Too many vehicles meant too many delays, both with breakdowns and the increased time taken to get through borders, passport checks, and all the endless form-filling marathons at every major town.
Half way through the desert the second private Land Rover decided to leave us, hoping to make better time alone, and we also said goodbye to Ray, our prophet of doom. We found him incompatible and although he joined another group he eventually left them in Nigeria. We learned later that he had joined a third group but once again he had fallen out after another thousand miles or so in Chad. From there he abandoned Africa and flew back to Europe.
However, the rest of the expedition worked together extremely well. Every man and girl pulled his or her weight, contributing their own skills and humour, and despite the setbacks, the dust and the heat, everyone remained cheerful. They all worked with a will, cracked endless jokes, sang bawdy songs and drank great quantities of beer at every stop.
It took us two days to cross the desolate plateau and then the road twisted down abruptly into a vast canyon rimmed by flat-topped mesas of harsh, red-black hills. It was a Martian landscape littered with iron-hard, black rocks. The whole valley looked as though it had been ripped open by some long distant earthquake and gradually it flattened out into plains of yellow sand. The constantly changing colours never ceased to amaze and impress and it seemed that every colour of the rainbow could be painted into the succeeding patterns of rocks and sand and sky. There was a raw, scorching beauty about the Sahara that began to captivate us all as we pushed deeper into its vivid embrace. Despite the ever-present danger of losing the tyre tracks and the cairns of white-washed stones that were now our only guide, and despite the hard physical effort of digging and pushing our Land Rovers through the worst patches of soft sand, we were all falling in love with the desert. There was peace, loneliness and empty splendour here that were far removed from the rushing, crowded horrors of civilization.
Two hundred and eighty-four miles after leaving El Golea we entered Ain Salah, an interesting town with flat red mud buildings and wide sand streets. The architecture was an eye-catching arrangement of thick buttresses rising like pointed horns above the crenulated walls. Many of the upper walls and balconies were designed with a thick lattice work and the whole romantic effect was that of a pantomime town baked out of dark chocolate.
We had to refill once more with petrol and again I had to report our presence to the police and inform them that tomorrow we would be continuing to Tamanrasset. When I returned the rest of the expedition had located the chief blessing of Ain Salah, its swimming pool, and were rapidly turning the blue waters red as they slaked off the desert dust Afterwards it was beers all round and then we drove just out of town to pitch our camp.
We returned in the evening, en masse to accept an invitation to attend a local concert. We were expecting a program of Arab folk music but instead found that we were watching a singing contest. There must have been between twenty and thirty participants and the whole thing went on for two hours, a long procession of wailing voices, wailing flutes and banging drums. It was all terribly repetitious and ten minutes of Arab music is usually enough for anyone. Fortunately a couple of the lads had smuggled in a bottle of brandy each which helped to make it bearable. The bottles passed up and down the two rows occupied by Siafu, surreptitiously a first but then approaching a careless flourish. I began to get as happy as any of them and when the interval came I moved over to have a quick conference with Paul Jones and two of our other sing leaders.
Paul and the others promptly gave me their support and when I went over to the contest judges and told them that Siafu would like to enter a team in their competition they too were delighted with the idea. The four of us got up on stage when out turn was called, discovered that we really didn’t know any songs anyway and finally settled on Lloyd George knew my father, which we bellowed forth in various drunken octaves for five hilarious minutes. The Arab audience obviously hadn’t a clue what we were singing about but they broke forth with a thunderous round of applause. Flushed with success we gave them While Shepherds watched their flocks by night, inspired no doubt by the fact that they all looked like a flock of Biblical shepherds, and finished with a very tattered and broken encore of Greensleeves.
Again the reception was tremendous, the audience loved it, and Siafu ended the evening by walking out with two empty brandy bottles and second prize.
An early start is essential in the desert and the next morning there were bitter moans as I attempted to stir my reluctant expedition into life again. Coedine tablets were issued with the usual intake of vitamin pills and more black coffee was consumed than porridge. Despite the anguished grumbles we got under way again, only to run into the usual parade of breakdowns. Henry had developed too much play on the steering. Sarah had ignition problems. Maggie excelled herself by breaking another side shaft. Allan worked more miracles.
When we finally got moving again there was a gradual change of landscape. The Tademait Plateau was far behind us and we were now deep in the Central Sahara. We were back on a dirt road again with wide-spaced corrugations that made the land Rovers rattle and bounce wildly as we roared along in top gear. On corrugations the fastest speed possible is best so that you can flash over them without dropping into every single bump. It also needs constant concentration or a pothole or an unexpected deep rut can bring you crashing to a stop with yet another broken spring or half shaft. The road wound through low hills, through a long valley of black rock slabs, and then practically shook our teeth out as it began to climb into the low but violently rugged red peaks of the Mouydir Rharis Mountains.
One hundred and sixty miles south of Ain Salah we passed the first signs of life, the Tadjemout Oasis consisting of one brown mud building and a score of dusty palm and thorn trees. Soon after that the road plunged down into an ultimately fearsome canyon of sheer black cliffs that towered three hundred, four hundred, and then five hundred feet against a searing blue sky that vanished upwards into a vortex of white flame that was the sun. Half way along the canyon was another small oasis and the Algerian police post of Arak, a splash of green trees and long reed-like grass around another solitary mud building. Here we took advantage of the shade and stopped to brew tea, surrounded by the mighty red and black cliffs that would have made a classic background for Hollywood Red Indians to appear and stage an ambush.
The police post was manned by Touregs, the first of these once-fierce desert warriors we had seen close up. They came to greet us, two young men in long blue robes, their dark brown faces swathed in a heavy black head-cloth. Round their necks each man wore a small, tasselled leather pouch, brightly embroidered to contain a miniature copy of the Koran, and somewhere inside the blue robes I knew each of them would have a knife. A hundred years ago their ancestors would have regarded us as Infidels and would have swept down from the mountains to bring our expedition to an abrupt and untimely end with a rush of camel hooves and a whirl of heavy swords. Now the two Touregs merely smiled, their eyes revealing nothing, and then melted away to watch us more unobtrusively from the bushes.
When we drove on we saw more Touregs along the valley, eking out a Spartan existence in tiny square huts of reed grass. We drove clear of them and then made camp, watching the sun fade behind a splendidly jagged skyline in a glory of white, gold and then orange rays. We had collected a great pile of firewood as we came through the canyon and soon had a barbecue campfire blazing under the brilliant desert stars.
Dawn was an equally gay parade with the sun colouring the underbellies of the clouds pink and red and yellow before condescending to lift its rosy head above the eastern horizon. It was to herald another scorching hot day. We were changing drivers every hour, and an hour of driving and wrestling the wheel meant an hour of sitting in your own sweat. A glance over your shoulder usually showed the interior of the land Rover looking like a scene from a Roman orgy, with half-nude limbs scattered and inter-tangled in whatever positions gave the maximum comfort. Undue modesty is something that soon vanishes on an expedition where everyone has to live in close proximity with everyone else, and if there was an arm or a leg, chest or breast that couldn’t be moved, the usual thing was to use it as a pillow.
We began to pass more and more of the veiled Toureg, often proudly mounted on their high-saddled camels, with rifles slung over their backs or sometimes a sword in a bright red leather scabbard at the hip. A pair of frightened gazelle fled through the rocks, away from the approaching rattle and roar as Henry slugged up a hill, and we had a fleeting glimpse of the dappled brown forms with black tails and disappearing white bottoms.
One hundred and forty miles south of Arak we passed the grave of an Arab Chief who had been killed during a revolt against the French. It was a small white-washed shrine, draped with red and green flags at the foot of a great cliff, with a few smaller graves around it to make a miniature cemetery. The road made a complete circle here for it was a sign of respect to drive around the shrine.
We had seen several unmarked graves on our way across the Sahara and frequently passed the bleak skeletons of burned out cars and trucks that had presumably over-turned and exploded. Occasionally we had seen the bleached bones of a camel or a donkey and the trail of burst and shredded tyres made the marker beacons on some stretches of our route totally unnecessary. They were all reminders that the desert could be harsh and merciless to those who lost their way, and once while we stopped to replace a broken spring on Matilda a black and white Egyptian vulture circled hopefully above us on lazy wings.
It was late in the evening when we reached En Ekker, an old French fort now manned by Algerians, and the beginning of twenty miles of unexpected tarred road. The whole area was fenced off with miles of ugly, rusting barbed wire and at intervals there were signboards with the ominous legends, Contaminated Zone, and Entry Forbidden. Here in the vast desolation of the Sahara the French had maintained their atomic testing ground. From the road nothing was visible except a few buildings, the prison camp fencing, pylons carrying power cables and a huge dump of discarded oil barrels. The strip of tarmac ended at In Anguel, now another Algerian military base, and we had to turn off into the desert where night descended with its usual speed.
The next day we drove the last hundred miles into Tamanrasset, once the impregnable hold of the Toureg who ruled as Lords of the Hoggar Mountains and scourge of the desert until the arrival of the French. Today Tamanrasset is a sprawling town of red-mud buildings, shaded by palms and dusty gum trees against the rocky backcloth of the Hoggar Massif. The post office, customs buildings, police station and other public buildings were like something between toy forts and chocolate cakes, the dark brown icing scored vertically as though with a giant fork. The one main street was filled with strolling Touregs in their blue robes and great shrouding black or white head-cloths. Peaceful now, they were still arrogant looking men with sharp, scornful eyes.
We camped at the municipal camping site which offered a few reed-thatched huts and a shower, and it was in Tamanrasset that we ran into our next major hold-up. In the end we were stuck there for a whole week.
The problem lay in the two second-hand army radio transmitters that I had brought along. We had one in the lead vehicle and one at the tail end of the convoy, and although it was fun talking to each other when we occasionally got them working, they did weigh a solid seventy pounds each. They were excess weight and because we were so dangerously over-loaded I was determined to get rid of them before going any further. Trying to avoid any possible complications I first sought the advice of a customs officer and he suggested that the most like market for the radios would be the police force. I went along to the police station and chatted to a friendly police officer. It was a buyer’s market and he eventually agreed to take the two radio sets off my hands at a price very favourable to himself. Then the balloon went up.
It appeared that there was some pretty stiff competition between the customs and the police and while my deal was being made the senior customs officer was absent. Unfortunately the police officer who purchased the radio sets turned out to be the customs man’s keenest rival. They didn’t like each other and on his return the customs officer immediately saw his chance to get his enemy into trouble. He declared that the whole transaction was illegal. The junior customs officer whom I had first approached promptly protected himself by denying that he had ever given me any permission for the sale to be made and the whole Siafu expedition was held under open arrest with all our passports confiscated.
The whole situation was typically African but there was a little more to it than that. The girls in our party were a very attractive and independent bunch of young ladies and some of them were deliberately encouraging the Algerian officials to take them out, show them around town and generally give them a good time. So naturally none of the younger police and customs officers were in much of a hurry to let the expedition go on its way. Their own women were totally unobtainable before marriage and they obviously hoped that given time these less-restricted English and Australian girls would be more accommodating. I finally had to call them all together and put a complete ban on collaboration with the enemy. It caused a few groans and grumbles but most of them accepted the fact that while they continued to make themselves available we would be kept here indefinitely.
After that the delay became tedious for everyone and just to remind us of our predicament we had one shabby little half caste Toureg constantly hanging around our camp, whom everyone in Tamanrasset assured us was a police spy. Morale was sagging but a much-needed booster was at hand. It was Christmas, and it was Janet’s birthday.
Janet was extremely popular on the trip, not only because she was my girl friend and the usual channel for all the little personal worries and problems that needed to be brought tactfully to my attention, but also because she was so thoroughly cheerful. She was a completely natural person, with no complications or hang-ups, always smiling and always helpful. She had endeared herself to the whole expedition and they decided that her birthday far outshone Christmas and was the real cause for a surprise celebration.
The shops in Tamanrasset had little to offer in the way of ingredients and there was no way of baking a cake. Undeterred the girls put their heads together and by some magic recipe beyond my comprehension they succeeded in producing a fried birthday cake. The same inventive genius gave it a coat of sparkling white icing and the whole thing was wrapped in gay tinsel. Paul composed a special poem in honour of the whole occasion and other creative spirits set out to decorate the hut where the festivities were to be held. When the surprise was sprung on Jan she was thrilled and said afterwards that the warmth and thought that went into it for her benefit made it one of the happiest days of her life.
It was indeed a riotous and drunken party, held with true Siafu swing and spirit. As the revelry got wilder the music got louder, the beer flowed faster and the dancing became more and more abandoned. At the height of it one gyrating dancer accidentally smacked another on the nose with a carelessly flailing elbow. It was an accident that was soon put right with a towel and a bowl of cold water to stop the bleeding nose. However, one of my bright gentlemen turned triumph into disaster by throwing out the bowl of bloodied water, very carefully, straight over our police spy who was as usual trying to ingratiate himself into the outer circle of the group. Despite profuse apologies for this second “accident”, the victim departed and never bothered us again. The party went on with renewed hilarity until everyone collapsed.
When I sobered up I finally managed to beg an interview with the Prefecture who was the highest-ranking official in the area. I pleaded our case as tourists, pointing out that we had done nothing wrong and yet we were receiving disgusting treatment. I suggested that this was hardly the way to attract future tourists to Algeria. The Prefecture proved to be a well-educated man who recognized the truth of my argument. He promptly called in the senior customs officer and gave him a firm reprimand. Our passports were all returned and once again we were free to go.
After the Tedjerine Well forty miles south of Tamanrasset there were two hundred and twenty waterless miles to In Guezzam, the Algerian frontier with Niger. From there we faced a further three hundred difficult miles to Agadez. There was no petrol supply point in the whole stretch between Tamanrasset and Agadez and it would have been very easy to miss the road which was frequently buried or blotted out by sandstorms. Sand mats and shovels were essential and the Sahara code demanded that we carry sufficient petrol to reach the full five hundred and sixty miles plus a fifty per cent safety margin. We had to remember that due to the heat and soft going through heavy sand our petrol consumption would practically double. For drinking water the safe rule was four and a half gallons per person, plus an additional gallon per day for every day we expected to be in the desert. In addition we needed to carry a reserve of radiator water and a complete change of engine oil and every other lubricant. We required a police pass to leave Tamanrasset and we were warned that we were allowed only three days to reach In Guezzam; after that a search party would be sent out to find us and we would be expected to bear the cost.
We made an early start, not only to cover as many miles as possible before suffering the full blazing onslaught of the mid-day sun, but because the night-cooled sand is always more firm at dawn. We were heavily laden down but with Henry in the lead our vintage convoy lurched gallantly out of Tamanrasset and followed the narrow, winding dirt road south through close hills of piled rocks. After ten miles the rocks gave way to flat yellow sand where we raced along at a fairly comfortable 30 mph. When we hit a soft stretch the rule was to take it with a short rush and endeavour to maintain a steady speed straight through, in four-wheel drive if necessary. If the vehicle bogged down we stopped immediately. There was nothing to be gained by taxing the engines and digging in the wheels even deeper. Instead it was all passengers out and push with the aid of shovels and sand mats. By now they were all experts at the task.
The flat plains and low dunes stretched away on all sides, and the world was a silent infinity of gold and blue, broken only by our alien, roaring presence. The road, when it appeared at all, was so badly corrugated that it was easier to drive in the virgin sand alongside. We were all sharply aware of the very real danger of getting lost and so everyone kept his or her eyes open to spot the beacons and route markers which were all too often blown down and buried. The sun blazed and a cloak of dust masked the empty wilderness. We stopped frequently to let the over-heating engines cool down, to make endless running repairs, and to change our weary, sweating drivers. The desert glare was fierce on the eyes and sunglasses were essential.
Late afternoon found us half way to In Guezzam and we made camp among lonely, sand-banked hills. I refused to allow any of our precious water supplies to be used for washing purposes, an unpopular ruling, but a major breakdown on this stretch of the journey could spell disaster. We were all deflated after the dehydrating heat of the day and rather than eat most people simply wanted to drink soup, tea or coffee, or any other form of liquid. It was too hot to require a tent and as usual we all slept out under the stars.
The day that followed was almost identical, nothing but scorching heat, dust, glare and breakdowns as we battled on over the endless flat yellow plains. Again we stayed to one side of the marked road but took care to keep it in sight. As we drew near to In Quezzam we struck longer, deeper and softer patches of sand. The water in our personal water bottles was lukewarm and tasteless but at least it was wet. For a few seconds a sip would slake a parched throat, but almost immediately you could again taste the fine dust in the hot dry air.
Shortly before dusk we rolled triumphantly into El Quezzam. The Algerian border post was nothing but a few mud huts and walls and a few withered fir trees, looking more like a deserted ghost town than anything else. There was a well there with a dead bird floating six feet down below the surface of the sand. Otherwise the water was clean enough to haul up and throw over each other in an ecstatic communal bath. The Algerians checked and stamped our passports and then we drove on across twenty miles of perfectly flat sand to find the border post for entering Niger. It was another outpost of mud huts manned by black soldiers in green battledress and again we passed through the formalities of passport checks and customs. I noticed that they too had a well but the water there stank heavily of sulphur.
We drove out into the desert and camped again.
At dawn we began our third day and covered another one hundred and thirty miles of mostly flat desolation, spaced out by the inevitable breakdowns and delays. The metal marker beacons were placed approximately every kilometre but again many of them were missing. Towards late afternoon the landscape changed slightly and we began to pass scattered black thorn trees and dry patches of savannah grass. When we camped we were all filthy and caked with dust and sweat but to be safe I put another ban on using any of our water for washing.
Day four saw us making another grumbling start at dawn. The road was hard dirt, roughly corrugated but allowing speeds up to 35mph as long as you watched out for the vicious ruts that occasionally broke across the track. As the day wore on a cloud haze partially masked the sun, the air was more humid and we sweated even more than in the white blaze of the past few days. The road deteriorated into two deep ruts ploughed by heavy trucks and forced us to one side again. The landscape was monotonous and it seemed that the whole of Niger consisted of nothing but one vast plain of scattered black thorn trees.
Abruptly we rounded a slight hump in the road and found our way barred by a huge milling herd of between two and three hundred camels, all mixed up with goats and donkeys and a whole tribe of nomadic Touregs. It was a spell-binding scene, as old as time itself, and we left the vehicles to push right into this sprawling congregation on foot. In the centre we found a large desert well with a square of concrete water troughs built around it. Here half a dozen Toureg men were busily hauling up goatskin water bags and throwing the water into the troughs for their thirsty camels and cattle to drink. More of the tall, masked and black-robed men stood like sentries around the square, smiling but with swords at their hips. There were crowds of children with white teeth and spikes of curly hair, old women and grinning girls. The young men had smooth feminine faces, soft brown eyes and long black hair. Theirs was a homosexual society and several couples held hands. Some of the younger girls were quite attractive except for discoloured teeth and they all had happy smiles.
We drove on, elated at seeing human beings again, and drove hard over the last lap to Agadez. Before darkness fell we saw the tall mud pinnacle of the mosque tower, bristling with beam ends like some strange cactus, rising a hundred feet or more above the flat, dusty buildings of the town. We flashed straight into the heart of mud-walled streets and stormed the bar of the Bel-Air Hotel for some much needed beers.
We had arrived safely and the toughest part of the Sahara was behind us.