SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON
By dawn we had left the dark equatorial forest behind us, rolling away to the west in waves of dark green, blue and then misty purple. Ahead of us stretched the lush green foothills of the Ruwenzories, reaching up to the rugged outlines of cloud-wreathed peaks that separated the Congo from Uganda and the Great Rift Valley. From Mount Stanley at sixteen thousand feet the rays of the early sun struck a dim glitter of ice. It was a rare sight, for the whole of this volcanic mountain range is usually hidden behind thick banks of white cloud.
We stopped in Beni, a long street of Greek-owned general stores that opened out into neat thatched suburbs of African houses. Here was the best place in Africa to buy ivory at bargain prices and the skilled craftsmen were able to show us superb white tusks delicately carved with chains of animals, fish and birds. Smaller pieces were carved into crocodiles, beautifully smooth-faced heads and finally chessmen. Some of the party who were already shirtless from bargaining with the pygmies were soon moneyless as well.
Beni was our last town in the Congo and once we had bought our ivory we were keen to get away on the last fifty miles to the Uganda border. The road was white dirt instead of the red mud of the past three weeks, but it was rough and littered with stones so our best speed was still around ten miles per hour. The route was lined with tall trees and grasses and then a bend through the hills opened out into a panoramic view over a vast blue valley. Beyond were those forbidden Mountains of the Moon where giant gorillas still roam the upper slopes. The sky was piled with white clouds upon deep blue and the sunlight was bright enough to make our eyes ache.
We plunged down into the valley and on the far side the road passed through a forest of cassia trees that were smothered with yellow flowers. Butterflies flitted in white clouds by the roadside and there was a sudden profusion of brightly coloured birds.
As we began to climb out of the valley towards the border the air got cold and cloudy. Soon the wind was blowing strongly. The foul road was steep and winding and every time I tried to shift “Henry” out of four-wheel-drive we started to stall and slip back down the hill. The brake shoes were worn and wouldn’t hold and eventually I had to keep permanently in second-gear four-wheel-drive.
Late in the afternoon we reached Kasindi, the Congolese border post at the top of the pass. It took us an hour to get through and then the road began to descend to the Uganda border post at Mapondwe. We camped that night in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Game Park and as we put the tents up we heard the disturbed scream of an elephant, the grunting of hippo and the prowling rumble of a lion. We were very definitely back in the game-rich bush and plains of East Africa and I felt a romantic moment of pure elation.
We had made it through the difficult part of Central Africa and it was a splendid achievement to be the first expedition to re-open the overland route. I also had the satisfaction of knowing that my companions shared that feeling, and that despite the dangers and the doubt not one of them would ever regret it.
We could relax now, the war zones and the military roadblocks were all behind us, but there was still excitement of a different kind. During the night a small herd of elephant wandered up to munch the thick clumps of bushes near the tent and people were constantly waking up and flashing torches at real or imagined noise. We had all of those magnificent game parks before us and the whole camp was up at sunrise, ready and eager to be moving.
We packed up and drove along a line of scenic hills that wound between a series of volcanic craters that were now great bowls of bush and grass. The hill slopes were a rich pattern of green and brown and gold, rolling away to wide blue plains that were dotted with clumps of bush, elephant and buffalo. We passed masses of antelope, waterbuck and reedbuck and golden Uganda kob. Four grey wart hogs stared at us for a moment and then flung their ugly noses to one side and trotted away. On the blue plain the buffalo looked like hundreds of slowly moving ants and then abruptly we had to stop for six massive black elephants only fifty yards ahead. In Africa elephants always have right of way. The scenes tumbled over one another under a blue sky, faster than the cameras could click, until at last we reached the Mweya game lodge situated on a commanding headland that jutted into the silver-blue expanse of Lake Edward.
Here we stayed for three days, camped on the edge of the lake where the massed wings of the pelicans looked like a flapping snowfield. From the hotel veranda we could sip iced drinks and watch the hippos basking in the sun on the far bank while the buffalo and elephant wandered down to drink.
Almost as soon as we had unpacked the vehicles we were off game-viewing. As we drove down from the lodge to return to the mainland we passed a big black buffalo who stared at us nonchalantly from the bush. We passed more waterbuck and a distant herd of elephant and then turned down on to a dirt road that would take us past the hippo pools along the Kasinga channel that led into the lake. A handsome brown and white fish eagle gazed down at us from a lofty branch and one of his distant relatives circled the hot blue sky. We passed a group of five more big black water buffalo and then a whole herd of fifty or more who separated to watch us dubiously as we drove slowly between them.
We found the hippo wallows where scores of the monstrous red animals were half submerged like muddy sandbanks in the shallows. One by one they would raise their hairy ears and then squirt water through their large distended nostrils. They were surrounded by flocks of white egrets, while Egyptian geese, cranes, herons and sacred ibis stepped casually over the mud flats. When the hippos heaved their lumbering, five-ton bodies out of the water, glistening wet with mud, the egrets rode on broad backs like stately princes and somehow managed to keep each snowy feather perfectly white. One hippo yawned politely for the cameras, seeming to disappear behind the cavernous open mouth until the upper jaw overbalanced with its own grotesque weight and splashed back into the water.
A cow elephant came down to drink with a baby calf that wobbled unsteadily through the mud holes on short, stubby legs. Some of our girls became ecstatic at the sight. More waterbuck appeared; the males with fine slanting horns, the shy does with pretty white rings round their sensitive black noses. A malachite kingfisher darted through the air like a miniature flying rainbow. I had seen it all before and still found it enchanting, while for the rest of the expedition it was sheer delight.
Every single day of game-viewing brought new experiences and every twist and turn of the bush revealed a new marvel of nature. After three days we tore ourselves away from Queen Elizabeth and drove north to Uganda’s second largest game park at Murchison Falls.
There was a tarmac road up to Fort Portal and then good wide dirt for the rest of the four hundred mile drive. The landscape was all green hills, broken up with banana groves, native huts and fields of cotton and mealies. When we reached the park we went straight to the falls and our first glimpse of the Victoria Nile was of a rushing grey river swirling through a rugged green valley far below. A few more glimpses and then we seemed to be cork-screwing down straight into the heart of the flood. Then the road made an abrupt left turn at the bottom of the descent to follow the course of the river. Two hundred yards later we pulled up at the lip of the falls.
Here the Nile was a tumultuous fury of broken grey-green waves crashing over each other with accelerating power as the river banks narrowed to force them down into a twenty foot chasm that dropped sheer for a hundred and twenty feet. The torrent burst over the edge of the falls and fell in a continuous whit explosion of mushrooming water. The thunder was fearsome and the air above the falls was wet with an ascending rain of spray. Down in the cascade a thin curved rainbow reflected faint bands of red, green and blue in the morning sun.
There was a magnificent view looking down the Nile from a cliff edge down river but several hundred feet higher than the falls. From here it could be seen that the falls were actually two cascades, hurtling down over black rocks to merge into a gushing maelstrom of creamy white that did not become blue for over a mile. Close up it was nature at her untamed finest, carving a mighty path through sheer strength and power through the wooded green wilderness. From the distant ledge, away from the sound and fury, it was as aesthetically pleasing as a Japanese painting.
When we became satiated with the scene we drove on to cross the Nile by a ferry lower down the river. On the far side we stopped at the Parasa Game Lodge, pitching our tents in the camping area and then adjourning for more iced gin and tonics on the lodge veranda.
The next morning I was able to show the expedition their first lion, and a rhino lumbering across the grassy plains like an armour-plated tank. In the Land Rovers we had a great advantage over the ordinary tourists in their little minibuses, for our four-wheel drive could take us anywhere and we used the four rovers as a team to herd the animals where we wanted them. Later in the Serengeti we were able to get some superb photographs of a leopard with a kill because his meal was too heavy for him to drag away with speed, and we were able to block every move he made until he gave up in exasperation and sat down to eat his meal in front of us.
However, the highlight of Murchison was a three hour boat trip up the Victoria Nile to the very foot of the falls. It was a fascinating trip that showed us the multitude of animal and bird life. There were hippos galore, their snouts and ears sticking out of the water everywhere as they watched us go past. Beautiful long-necked white cranes, plovers, kingfishers, cormorants, sunbirds and storks all flashed their wings along the river banks. Two white-tusked bull elephants lurched away from the water’s edge as our launch approached. Black-horned buffalo, bristling wart hogs, antelope and golden hartebeest all made their appearances in the passing glades.
As we neared the falls we encountered crocodiles. The fish that are swept over the falls are all stunned by their terrible journey and so this stretch of the Nile had the highest crocodile population in Africa, all waiting to snap up this abundance of helpless ready meals. They basked along the river bank with their yellow jaws wide open, allowing the butterflies to pick their terrifying teeth. They were still as though frozen until our passage disturbed them and they slithered into the river with a swirling splash. Some of them were huge, scaly black monsters approaching twenty feet in length. The river was alive with crocodiles, and their long snouts gliding along half-submerged were soon as common as the as the even more bulbous eyes and hairy nostrils of the watching hippos.
Our next bit of excitement came when our African coxswain tried to manoeuvre the launch too close to a mother hippo with a baby. They both dived and then the mother surfaced again almost under the boat. Her massive, long-jawed and bloated face was only a few feet away as floundered around in panic, and then with a snort she dived again and the launch rocked wildly as her broad back skidded under our hull. She came up snorting and blowing on the far side, looking back very indignantly before playing safe and submerging for the last time.
By now the falls were a white thunder of descending water only half a mile above us. The river was running faster with the placid blue-grey surface now broken into swirls of white. Soon the launch was heaving and tossing as she butted her way forward and at last the coxswain turned her into a small bay sheltered by a projecting barrier of rock that broke the main force of the current. We were only a few hundred feet below the falls and enjoyed another superb view of the giant cascade of compressed foam bursting out into a devil’s cauldron of boiling froth.
On our return journey we ran into an unscheduled climax to our day of thrills. The skies darkened and before we were half way back to Parasa Lodge a violent storm broke with tropical speed and fury. The heavens opened and torrents of rain lashed down on the surface of the Nile and the jungle banks. Squalling winds screamed along the river and one of them tore off the small lifeboat that was tied to the cabin roof of the launch and hurled it away. The river was suddenly more turbulent than it had been at the foot of the falls. The launch was swept along until suddenly it collided with a crash against one of the sandbars where earlier we had seen half a dozen giant crocodiles dozing in the sun.
They were frightening moments for there was nothing that any member of the expedition could do except hold fast and get soaked by the raging storm. There was a very real fear that the boat might break up and leave us to the crocodiles, but mercifully the storm abated and passed on as suddenly as it had arrived. The sun shone on the dripping banks and our African coxswain succeeded in backing the launch off the sandbank. After that it was twenty six large gin and tonics please, just as soon as we got back to the lodge and the bar.
Eventually we cruised down to Nairobi, enjoying tarmac roads all the way and a new round of wild parties when we arrived. If the parties were not wild when we arrived then Siafu were by now adept at turning them into a riot.
It was at Nairobi that the Congo gave me my last delayed fright. I went out to the airport to collect the three girls who had been left behind and were now due to be flown in from Uganda. Their plane landed but only the two English girls stepped down. I went to meet them with a feeling of impending disaster.
“Where’s Rhonda?” I asked anxiously.
“Oh, she’s still in the Congo,” they told me sweetly.
“Oh God!” My heart hit my boots. “What’s happened to her? Why on earth didn’t she come out with you?”
“Because she’s engaged to one of the Belgians. She’s probably even married by now.”
I heaved a weak sigh of relief.
Naturally I looked for them when the next Siafu Expedition passed through Isiro but Rhonda and her husband had flown to Mexico for their honeymoon an d as far as I know they are both perfectly happy.
After we had tired of Nairobi and toured Serengeti for more fantastic game-viewing experiences and buffalo chases amongst the lions and the leopards I finally took them all down to Malindi. The coral lagoons remained as blue and as warm as when I had last seen them. The sand was as white, the sun was as golden and the palms were as green and shading; my coastal wonderland had remained unchanged. The cool, soft starlit evenings were a boon to the soul and we refreshed our tired and dusty bodies in the cleansing blue of the Indian Ocean. When we had our fill of simply lazing we swam, fished, dived or hired boats to go sailing. At night we had campfire parties with unlimited beer and fish barbecues on the moonlit sand.
Everyone agreed that for this alone all our adventures had been worthwhile and the romances that had begun to blossom during the journey now reached full flowering as Malindi wove its magic spell.
Now that I had introduced them to Malindi my hardest task was to get them to leave.
Eventually we did continue the last lap of our journey down to South Africa. The tarmac roads and the civilized atmosphere of Kenya ended at the Tanzanian border and we were back on to soft sand through mile after mile of tall palm groves as we followed the coast down to Tanga. We passed patches of sugar cane and sisal and frequent glimpses of the sea. The way was lined with little reed-mud thatched native huts and men and women came out to wave. This was Africa again and the women were gay in psychedelic frocks and headscarves of bright reds and yellows.
However, in the towns the people were less friendly than in Kenya and politics were in evidence again. Tanzania was full of Chinese building a new railway down to Zambia and once south of the game parks where tourists were welcomed I could sense the undercurrent of anti-white feeling. It was the same old suspicion and distrust.
We got on to the famous “hell run” where the big trucks roared to and fro between Dar Es Salaam and Lusaka and we too drove like hell. The roads were rough and smothered with red dust which plastered the bush for yards back on either side, but a new road was being constructed which when finished would be superb tarmac. In the meantime we bounced and rattled and churned up great clouds of choking dust with the rest of the heavy traffic.
When the dust occasionally cleared Tanzania was revealed as a dry, sunny country of golden bush and splendid golden valleys. The horizons faded into blue hills and sometimes pale-blue mountains. All the colours were a sun-washed pastel under a burning sky.
After four days of dust and sweat and three hours of delays at the border we entered Zambia and the road became smooth tarmac for the rest of the journey. The bush thickened into light forest but the red earth, the blue skies and the soft golden sunlight remained unchanged. We swept down through Lusaka over roads that were now familiar to me and finally arrived at Kariba. Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence was still a sore issue and the Zambian officials looked on us with disfavour for entering the land of their enemies, but at least they didn’t stop us. The next day we were in Salisbury.
“Henry” and “Sarah” ultimately went on to Durban and “Maggie” and “Matilda” to Johannesburg, but for me the trip ended in Rhodesia. We all felt that it was a splendid achievement and that in a way we had conquered Africa and come through with flying colours. We had a monumental sense of pride in ourselves and those four battered wrecks that were our vehicles. It was something that Hilary must have felt when he stood upon Mount Everest, or Livingstone when he first viewed the splendour of Victoria Falls. The close spirit that had carried us through now sang triumphant and we knew that in our terms we were an elite. For me personally there were invaluable lessons learned and I had made a magnificent set of friends.
However, from a financial point of view the venture was a disaster. Our trip had taken four and a half months, which was six weeks longer than I had anticipated, and the additional food bills plus the cost of the endlessly broken half shafts and springs and other necessary spares had left me deeply in debt. I had borrowed a total of twelve hundred pounds from my passengers to see the trip through the last six weeks, and had hoped to re-coup by selling the Land Rovers. Unfortunately all four of my gallant vehicles were practically falling to pieces. They were too old to make sales in South Africa and in Rhodesia I ran up against insurmountable customs restrictions.
I had also fallen in love – and lost.
On our arrival in Rhodesia the first thing I did was to take Jan home. Her father owned a large farm and we camped there for several days. The whole family were charming and gave us a warm welcome and they did a lot for Siafu for which I shall always be grateful. Naturally they had worried about Jan crossing the wilds of Africa so they were delighted to see her.
However, my presence gradually became an embarrassment. Jan was literally the apple of her father’s eye and he was very keen to see her happily married to someone who had position and money and most of all security. Instead here was this insane Tim Baily who had nothing but colossal dept and mechanical wrecks, and crazy ideas for forming a Limited Company to run regular overland trips through Africa. Like many others he rated my chances of success as hopeless and I definitely wasn’t a very good proposition for his only daughter.
With good grace I was quietly asked to leave and Jan was told that it would be best if she didn’t see me too often. I left with the same good grace but inwardly I was furious to think that I was losing Jan simply because I didn’t have the right kind of security to give her at the time. I was determined that come hell or high water I would make a success of Siafu, if only to prove everybody wrong.
There was a book that Jan had carried all through the trip, or more precisely one particular line in it, that has stayed in my mind ever since. It was a book of quotations and the line was simply –
“Quitters never win – winners never quit.”
Quitting was never going to be my style and as far as Siafu was concerned I intended to win.