The Wellyphant is the most colourful fellow,
His suit is bright red and his helmet is yellow,
His boots are as black, as black as can be,
And he grows fat on chips, and Fire Service tea.
He sleeps at the fire station, on his own little bed,
And he rides a fire engine, all silver and red.
At fetes and parades he can often be found,
Happily waving and fooling around.
He loves boys and girls, and he likes holding hands,
If they stroke his long trunk he feels ever so grand.
He’ll skip and he’ll sing, and sometimes he’ll dance,
And he’ll flirt with their mummies, if given the chance.
He teaches fire safety, when he comes to school,
Never ever play with matches, is his golden rule,
If you’re ever in trouble, just dial nine-nine-nine,
And his friends the firemen, will be there in time.
Yes, Wellyphant is really a very fine fellow,
In his suit of bright red, and his helmet of yellow,
So whenever you see him, just give him a wave,
Perhaps there’ll come a day, when it’s your life he’ll save.
I have been the Wellyphant but in this picture I was his minder. I'm the big kid with the fire service cap.
I have just published a new book of philosophy.
GOD, FAITH AND TERROR is now available on Amazon.
The first chapter is a free read below.
GOD FAITH AND TERROR
BY ROBERT LEADER
In God, God, Faith and Reason Robert Leader argued from a new working of the free will argument and a study of all the related fields of philosophy that in all probability God does exist. That book continued to argue that if God does exist then all faith must lead to God.
In God, Faith and Terror these themes are continued in a study of the all-too-often hostile relationship between Christianity and Islam. It covers the crusades, the trade wars in the Mediterranean, the creation of Israel, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of al-Queda and ISIS and the modern blight of international terrorism. It is a story of a conflict between faiths and civilizations.
At its heart is the question, can all this hatred, the murders and atrocities committed in the name of religion, really be what God wants?
LIST OF CHAPTERS
Chapter one: The dawn of the Age of terror.
Chapter Two: God, faith and Reason.
Chapter Three: The Perennial philosophy.
Chapter Four: John Hick’s Interpretation of Religion.
Chapter Five: Karen Armstrong and the Unknown God.
Chapter Six: The Holy Koran.
Chapter Seven: The Turn of the Tide.
Chapter Eight: The Crusades.
Chapter Nine: The Battle for the Mediterranean.
Chapter Ten: Israel.
Chapter Eleven: The First Terrorists, the PLO.
Chapter Twelve: Iraq.
Chapter Thirteen: Al-Qaeda.
Chapter Fourteen: ISIS.
Chapter 15: Science and Atheism.
Chapter Sixteen: Fundamentalism to Terror.
Chapter Seventeen: Mecca and Medina Muslims.
Chapter Eighteen: The Modernisation of Islam.
Chapter Nineteen: Religious Pluralism in Christian and Islamic Philosophy.
Chapter Twenty: The Golden Rule.
THE DAWN OF THE AGE OF TERROR
CARNAGE IN NICE
BRUSSELS IN LOCKDOWN AS THE HUNT FOR ISIS TERRORISTS GOES ON
MASSACRE IN PARIS TRIGGERS HUNT FOR ISIS KILLERS AMONG SYRIAN MIGRANTS.
RUSSIAN JET BLOWN OUT OF THE SKY, KILLING 224
LONE GUNMAN SLAUGHTERS 38 ON TUNISIAN BEACH
HOSTAGES BEHEADED BY JIHADIS
NAIROBI SUPERMARKET HIT BY TERRORIST ATTACK
TERRORIST ATTACK ON MUMBAI HOTEL KILLS 164
SUICIDE BOMBERS KILL 52 IN TUBE AND BUS STRIKES IN LONDON
ISLAMIC TERRORISTS ATTACK FOUR COMMUTER TRAINS IN MADRID
202 DEAD AS CAR BOMBS CAUSE CARNAGE IN BALI
HI-JACKED AIRLINERS TOPPLE THE TWIN TOWERS IN NEW YORK
The list goes on. It is not complete and is not yet ended. And it is all in the Name of God. The black-masked murderers with bloody hands do their killing shrieking and invoking the name of Allah.
The slaughter of English holidaymakers on the beach in Tunisia, beheadings in the streets of the UK and Europe, suicide bombers in mosques and mass murder throughout the Middle East, have all marked the rise and horror of Isis. Inevitably there are calls to send in the SAS, to pin-point targets for air strikes, to send in military boots on the ground to support the reeling forces of moderate Islam, to meet the new war of terror head on and fight back with everything we have got. All this may well be necessary but it misses one crucial point. This war will not be won on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, or in more effective counter-terror measures. It will be won or lost on the theological front, in the hearts and minds of those young Islamic men and women who are subject to intense radicalization, and by defeating the hate-preaching imams of ignorance.
Somehow we must play the madmen in the mosques at their own game. For too long the voices of philosophy and theology have been pushed aside by the relentless march of enlightenment and science leading to atheism and its reaction of religious fundamentalism, and finally god-inspired terrorism.
Except that the fundamentalists have got it wrong. God does not want bloody murder and the fanatical elimination of all who do not share one particular way of faith and worship. Every major faith and virtually all religious belief systems preach peace and love and compassion for all. They all see the ultimate godhead, from whatever their perspective, as ultimately benign.
Of course the perspectives differ, and the shape of every mainstream and tributary of faith and understanding will have its roots in its own history and culture. From time immemorial there have been philosophers and theologians of every creed, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, who have realized that in the final analysis God is unknowable. It has to be so to leave that essential gap for faith and free will.
So every culture and every society has developed its own definition and understanding of God. But these are only differences of definition and understanding. All over the world, at every time and place people have been aware that there is something above themselves, a spiritual dimension of which somehow they are an earthly part, and that sustaining and central to all of this there is something which for want of a better word we have called God. The names may change through time and place, the images, the perspectives, the understandings may all shift and dissolve and reshape through time, but through it all there is always the sense that something is ever-lasting, holding it all together, and loving.
If you want similes, think of a mountain. A mountain can have many routes to the top, approaching from any direction. Depending on how and from where you climb it the summit of the mountain can take on many different shapes and perspectives. Even as you ascend the outline of the summit can shift and reform. But it is always the same summit of the same mountain.
Or think of Uluru, the great red rock that is sacred to the aborigines of central Australia. Millions of people visit Uluru every year to witness the magnificent spectacle of its changing colours with every sunrise and sunset. The patterns of light and shadow, pink and red and orange and purple, shift and change every few seconds with the rising or setting of the sun. But the rock remains. However you perceive it, whatever colour of rock you see, the rock is the same.
Many philosophers and theologians now accept that God is somehow like this. The mystery is deeper, the substance or essence or life-force of that mystery is more obscure, but the mystery is there, even if we cannot see beyond our own shifting patterns of perceptions and understandings. For most of us one perception, one understanding and one path of faith is enough, whether it be Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism, it is all we need.
The terrible mistake comes when one fundamental religious group begins to believe that only one single path, one perspective, one understanding, its own understanding, is the one and only true path. The fanatics take over and preach the conversion or annihilation of the rest of the world.
The extreme elements of Islam are now pouring down this bloody path, crying out for more blood and murder and defiling the very name of Allah who they claim as their cause. However, we should not be too appalled and shocked by their fanaticism. Europe saw a Thirty Year War between Catholics and Protestants. The bitter Irish “troubles” were a result of religious schism. Christian bigotry and ignorance was the father of the Spanish Inquisition and saw the total destruction of the native cultures of Central and South America and the South Pacific. Burning and beheading was quite common in the Middle Ages and the headsman’s axe was the right of English kings who could condemn any man for treason.
The list of examples could go on and on, taken from any religion, but Christianity has now moved on from those dark and bloody days. It can be hoped that in time Islam too can learn and grow and move forward. But they need help. Not just with air strikes and military boots on the ground, but in the theological conflict between fundamental bigotry and universal care and compassion for all.
The perennial philosophy which sees all faiths as pathways to God is a possible answer. Love Thy Neighbour, in one form of wording or another, is a basic tenet of every major faith. We are all seeking God and no one religion owns Him or His exclusive patronage.
In this modern world of overlapping streams of faith it seems that we must accept the wider understanding of Perennial Philosophy. And we must always remember that Isis is not Islam. One Isis maniac perpetrated the Tunisian slaughter, but there were Tunisian hotel staff and shopkeepers who did all they could to shepherd potential victims to safety, and they too were Muslims. Islam is one of the great world religions, as true in essence as any other, and we cannot let it be hi-jacked by the relative minority who would turn their own Allah of Love, Mercy and Compassion into a Demon of ignorance, cruelty and Hate.
If God created this diverse world of faiths, races and cultures, then no single group has the right to re-shape his creation, or to advocate such a course with such appalling conceit in His Name. This truly is sacrilege.
This is the message that should be gate-crashed on to every Jihad terrorist website. It should be printed in Arabic and circulated in every possible Arabic newspaper. Allah is Great, but those who worship Him in other ways, or by another name, are also His Children.
God filled this world with a vast variety of flowers, of all shapes, sizes and colours. He made roses, lilies, marigolds, carnations, chrysanthemums, daffodils and tulips. Having made all this colourful diversity of blossoms it seems highly unlikely that He would want any single one of them singled out for sole survival and all the others destroyed.
God filled the rivers, the seas and the oceans with all manner of fish and aquatic creatures, from the great blue whales to the tinniest plankton. On any coral reef you will find a vast diversity of fish sizes and colours, and it seems highly unlikely that God would want all of this amazing display of life reduced to any single species.
On land He has created an equally stunning array of animals from long-necked giraffes and mighty elephants all the way down to meerkats and mice. He has filled the plains of Africa with zebra and buffalo, deer and antelope, and predatory lions and leopards. So it seems highly unlikely that he would want all of his animals to perish except for any one single kind.
He has made a multitude of bird life to fill the treetops and the skies, from soaring eagles to tiny sparrows. Again it seems crazy to think that He would actually want all this feathered, warbling diversity reduced to just one voice and one species.
He has created man in a variety of ethnic groups, Caucasian, Negroid, Hindu, Eskimo, Asian and Arab. Each group and each culture adds to the fascinating tapestry of humanity as a whole. Why would He do this if He wanted only one group to survive?
And finally He has allowed a wide diversity of religions to flourish. Each of the great mainstream faiths is a pathway to God. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism all have different definitions and understandings of God. They approach from different directions and from different bodies of experience, but they are all striving to reach the same goal. They could not exist if God had not willed their existence and shown them their own way. Again it seems totally unrealistic and insane to believe that He would actually want all other faiths and their followers eliminated except one.
The diversity of this Earth is a wonderful sight to behold, and if it was created by God as most people of religious faith believe, then diversity is God’s Will.
It cannot be the Will of God that all faith is reduced to one religion, or that men, women and children of other faiths should be indiscriminately maimed and murdered in God’s name.
The acts listed at the beginning of this chapter are atrocities designed to further political ambitions and the pursuit of political power. There is no way that they can be attributed to the Will of a Compassionate and Merciful God, the God in which all religions, despite their differences in definition and understanding, do firmly believe.
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I held a rose within my hand,
A crimson jewel of nature,
Each dew-fresh petal sparkling crisp,
And kissing back the golden sun of morning.
And I felt I held the Soul of God,
As God in Nature held the soul of me.
All is God,
And God is All.
My own small Soul.
I have recently been visiting a lot of churches and photographing the best of their stained glass windows. These glorious multi-coloured images usually tell Bible stories or represent Biblical themes, but many are memorial windows, to benefactors, lost lifboatmen or fishermen, or the dead of two world wars. My editor at Suffolk/Norfolk Life Magazine has agreed to run an occasional series of features on stained glass church windows and there is an amazing wealth and variety of material. Some of them are pictured below.
The Crucifixion at Aldeburgh St Peter and St Paul
"Peace, be still"
Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, St Stephens Norwich
Four Archangels: Gabriel, Fiel, Rafael and Michael, St Mary's, Bury St Edmunds.
The memorial window to lost driftermen, St Edmund, Kessingland
All three books of my FIFTH PLANET series, originally published by Samhain, are now available again from Amazon and create Space. I have re-published SWORD DESTINY and the first chapter is offered as a free read
On the Third Planet the Great War with Maghalla has begun. The ancient Hindu Kingdom of Karakhor is under siege and facing its darkest hour. On the Fifth Planet the insane arms race between the continents of Alpha and Ghedda has come to its catastrophic conclusion. Earth is now the only inhabitable planet in the solar system.
For Kananda, First Prince of Karakhor, and his sister the Princess Maryam, their homecomings are a mixture of pain and grief. For their lovers, Zela, Space Commander of Alpha, and Raven, the last Sword Lord of Ghedda, this final refuge is where they at last come face to face. Here, on the blood-soaked battlefield is where Zela demands her vengeance, and where Kananda must challenge Sardar the Merciless, the dread King of Maghalla.
A brief review of THE FIFTH PLANET
The story so far.
THE SWORD LORD: In the time between the last two earth ice ages Dooma was the Fifth Planet in the solar system. On two massive land continents, divided by the fearsome Sea of Storms there developed two rival powers, the Enlightened Civilization of Alpha and the barbaric Gheddan Empire. As they embarked on a catastrophic arms race with both sides building up huge arsenals of nuclear and lazer weapons they also created the means of destroying the entire planet. This prompted expeditions from both sides to visit Earth, the Third Planet and the only other inhabitable planet in the solar system, in search of possible allies or a refuge.
They came at the dawn of earth’s history when the first embryo civilizations had begun to form. They discovered the ancient Hindu city of Karakhor, which was then being threatened by the advancing hordes of Maghalla. A marriage had been arranged between Sardar of Maghalla and Maryam, the first princess of Golden Karakhor. It was a marriage that Maryam refused when she saw the bestial face of her intended husband. Such an insult could only be answered with war and Sardar the Merciless swore a bloody revenge.
As Sardar gatheres his forces the space ships from Dooma arrive. The first contact with the Alphans is made by a hunting party led by Kananda, the First Prince of Karakhor. Kananda and Zela, the Commander of the Alphan ship, find themselves unexpected allies in a savage battle with a sabre-tooth tiger that has been flushed by the hunt. Kananda finds himself immediately in love with this golden-haired goddess from the skies.
The Sword lord Raven, the commander of the Gheddan expedition, boldly lands his ship on the open plain at the very gates of Karakhor. A demonstration of their awesome battle lazer powers and the fact that they are blue-skinned leads the confused Hindus to believe that these men from the heavens are their gods. Maryam is smitten by Raven and sees him as a potential saviour for her people in the face of the coming assault from Maghalla.
Both Kananda and Maryam are unaware that the alien visitors with whom they have fallen in love are mortal enemies. Raven is the murderer of Zela’s brother Laton and Zela has sworn vengeance against the Sword Lord.
Kasseem, the High Priest of Karahor is tormented by the soft green eyes of Laurya, the second female member of Zela’s crew. It is only when he discovers his latent astral powers that he realizes that she is also Liane, his astral-travelling lover with whom he has shared many previous lives.
One of the younger princes of Karakhor tries to kill Raven by sending three assassins to attack him in the back alleys of the city. Raven cuts them down and then extracts more vengeance by executing the House Lord he believes is responsible in the great audience hall of the king’s palace.
Kananda and the Alphans return to Karakhor. Forewarned of the Gheddan presence they swim the encircling river and approach the royal palace through the back alleys. Kananda learns that Thorn, Raven’s second in command, has raped and killed his half sister, the princess Namita. He challenges Thorn to a sword duel, forestalling Zela’s intention to challenge Raven. A sword challenge is something no Gheddan can refuse. Their honor also demands that no one else can interfere.
Raven has to let the sword challenge take place. Kananda kills Thorn. The Alphans appear behind him and in the battle of lazer hand weapons that follows Raven is forced to retreat from the city.
In the confusion Maryam joins the fleeing Gheddans and boards their space ship. Raven has no time to throw her off and not knowing where the Alphan space ship might be lurking hurls his craft out of Earth orbit to return to Ghedda.
Kanada believes that his sister has been taken against her will and is determined to follow and rescue her. One of Zela’s crew has been killed in the lazer crossfire and there is a spare seat on her ship.
SWORD EMPIRE: On his return to Ghedda Raven is immediately plunged into the political intrigues of the Council of Twelve in the City of swords. His mentor Karn is a latent astral traveler who has learned the truth. The Alphans are not lying from weakness and a full scale war between their empires will destroy the planet. This sets Karn against the ruling council as he votes against the coming war. Raven is forced into a duel to protect his mentor.
Zela returns to Alpha and is immediately assigned another mission: to penetrate the Gheddan Empire and send warning when its final lazer battle station is launched into orbit. Her guide is Jayna, an experienced spy who needs a new protector to complete her cover. The two women will pose as dancers with Kananda as their guardian. Kananda accompanies them, hoping that somehow he will find Maryam.
Their skimmer craft is flown into the mouth of the Black swamp River and they make the dangerous journey inland until the river narrows in trackless forest. There they leave the craft and trek to the source of the Great Steel River that will take them down into the City of Swords.
Raven has to leave the city and travel north to where his home stronghold is under siege by two rival sword lords. Maryam goes with him and the harsh rules of this barbaric new world force her to quickly grow up. The sword games she had once played with her brothers become a grim new reality and she finds that she too has some skill with the blade.
On Earth the young lords Gujar and Kasim hunt through the drink dens of Karakhor, searching for whoever hired the three assassains who tried to kill Raven. The man responsible covered his tracks by making them wear the colors of House Gandhar and so caused Raven to execute Gujar’s father. Gujar learns that it was one of Karakhor’s princes, but his desire for vengeance is frustrated because he cannot identify which one.
In Alpha Laurya is reunited with another astral adept, Antar/Allan who is also the Commander of the Alphan Space Corps. Together they search Ghedda on the astral plane, watching the construction of the Gheddan battle stations and searching in vain for the astral form of the Sword lord Karn.
Raven returns to the City of Swords to find that Karn is dead. The ageing Sword Lord was a sick man and his death has been attributed to natural causes, but in the circumstances Raven suspects otherwise. However, he is immediately given another mission: to take a flight of six ships back to Earth and secure Karakhor for Ghedda. The war with Alpha is imminent and Alpha must be totally destroyed with no refuge anywhere in the solar system.
Zela and Jayna have also discovered that the war is about to be launched. They escape from the City of Swords in a stolen sky-car but are pursued by a three ship Gheddan patrol. By feigning surrender and then twisting into a surprise dog fight Zela’s supreme flying skills bring down all three of the enemy craft, but she cannot avoid taking a killing hit. Their sky-car crashes into the great Gar Desert.
The hosts of Maghalla filled the plain, swarming down from the hills and out from the forests like a vast plague of locusts, staining the grass black with a heaving mass of bodies, all bristling and bright steel flashing from all the arms and weapons of war. The smoke of their thousands of camp fires stained the dawn sky a sultry, dark-veined red. The stench and sound of their horses, elephants and men carried clearly to the very walls of golden Karakhor.
For weeks the vast conglomeration of Sardar’s armies had been on the march, slowly creeping down from the north, killing and devouring all that lay in their path, while the mobile forces of Karakhor had contested every inch of the way.
Kasim, the undisputed Master of the Bow, had taken a force of hand-picked archers and attacked the enemy at every river crossing, every narrow ravine, and every possible bottleneck where an ambush could be launched. They had killed hundreds with volleys of swift arrows before melting away to reform at their next chosen battle line.
Gujar, the young Lord of Gandhar, with a swift force of speeding chariots had harassed the enemy repeatedly on the open plains, cutting off sections of the far-flung horde with merciless hit-and-run attacks, slaughtering with javelins and swords. Like lightning bolts they came storming out of the sun, struck, killed, and were gone in a brilliant, blinding whirl of hooves and wheels, and blood and dust.
The Princes Ranjit and Salim of the House of Bulsar had circled to the rear of the enemy host with a group of their father’s horsemen to savage Sardar’s supply columns and slow his advance. They had left fire and terror in their wake, burning food stocks and destroying the supply camps. They had also succeeded in scattering and driving off large sections of the cattle herds that had been destined as meat for the monstrous horde.
Hamir, the head huntsman had infiltrated into the intervening forests with a handful of his best trackers, all of them skilled in wood lore and masters of stealth and cunning. They had poisoned the rivers and drinking places, and set a multitude of traps and snares that had broken enemy ankles, legs and spines, or pierced their feet with sharpened, poison-tipped spikes of bamboo. They had filled large straw baskets with trapped cobras and hurled them spitting into the circles of enemy firelight. Once they had captured a live leopard, starved it for a week, and then loosed it into a narrow valley where the Black Monkey Clan had made one of their overnight camps.
Kaseem had flown the astral heavens, night after night, reporting back to the uncertain and puzzled Jahan the latest advances of the enemy positions. Always he was alert for his astral enemies, but Sardar and Nazik were either both exhausted by the massive and complex task they were undertaking in the physical world, or else they were complacent and feared no threat or observation from the higher plane. Kaseem even wondered whether they might perhaps be afraid of him. In the physical world they were surrounded and protected by hundreds of mailed guards and champions. In the astral they were only two against one, and that one was Kharga, swordsman of Ghedda, now fully restored in his spiritual form with all his ancient skills and memories. It might even be that they believed him to be still in the company of Laurya/Liane, in which case they would fear that they were more than evenly matched. Whatever the reason, he did not fully trust their absence, and maintained his guard.
The awesome advance of the forces of Sardar and Maghalla had been frustrated and harried with every mile, but it could not be stopped. Every delay was only a brief postponement and never a reversal. Sardar had lost several thousand of his men, a thousand head of cattle, and scores of his food carts and wagons, and yet when his forces pitched their camps within sight of Karakhor, it looked as though every King and fighting man between the East and Western oceans had all aligned themselves beneath his unfurled banners.
Jahan, Warmaster of Karakhor, stood upon the ramparts of the white walls and watched them gather. He wore golden mail and the great ruby-hilted sword was belted at his side. His hair was tied back at the nape of his neck and he was bare-headed. His golden helmet, decorated with a snarling tiger on each cheek guard and with a high plume of purple horsehair, rested on the wall before him. Immediately below him lay the river which circled the city, and beyond the ranks of his own forces, the foot-soldiers, chariots and elephants. They were a formidable army in their own right, but they were outnumbered by the huge sprawl of Sardar’s ranks on the far side of the open plain.
Jahan turned, squinting his eyes against the sun-dazzle from the golden roofs and white walls of the palaces and temples within the city walls. That blinding glare was behind them, and gleaming in the eyes of Sardar’s warriors. Until noon that small advantage was theirs. His best archers lined the walls, bows in hand, with piles of sharpened arrows at their feet.
Kara-Rashna stood behind him, leaning against Kaseem. The two old men, King and priest, almost seemed to be holding each other up, they were both now so frail. On either side of them stood the Princes Sanjay and Devan, grim-faced but rock-solid. The younger Princes and House Lords were ranged in a half circle, all of them silent and subdued. Kasim and Gujar stood side by side, now battle-hardened young men who had proved themselves again and again. Kasim had been offered the command of the archers on the walls, but had chosen to drive his father’s house flag and chariot into battle. The brothers Ranjit and Salim had returned during the cover of darkness with the last of their surviving horsemen and were still stained with dust and blood. Ramesh and Nirad were both pale-faced boys who were still hardly trained. Both had begged to take part in one of the raiding parties and both had been refused. Rajar too was pale-faced, although most of his pallor was hidden by the black beard he had recently grown for that purpose. Rajar had not yet sought to place himself in danger.
“It begins,” Jahan said, and his voice was a somber growl. “Noble King and Noble Princes, we must take up our chariots and take our places.”
He reached for his helmet and led the way. The others followed. Sanjay and Devan stayed closed by Kara-Rashna, but the defiant King waved them aside. He dragged his left leg slightly, but descended unaided to his waiting chariot, where his sun-burst banner fluttered bravely in the breeze.
“May the Gods go with you,” Kaseem called after them. All through the night he had led the prayers and sacrifices, but now it all seemed pointless and his words rang hollow. Outwardly he was still High Priest and Brahmin, but inwardly all his senses raged against the looming horrors of the war. His faith in the Gods and in all the calm philosophies had ebbed and drained. He pulled his white robe around the dry husk of his numbed and useless body, and wished that he was Kharga again, and that he could go with them.
Slowly he turned to take the place Jahan had vacated at the wall, and looked down despairing at the coming battle. His ancient eyes failed him and the bitter tears squeezed through.
The bridge that Raven had destroyed had been rebuilt, and the cavalcade of battle chariots drove swiftly across the river to take up their positions in the vanguard of the Karakhoran lines. Jahan and Kara-Rashna formed the center, side by side. On either side of them Devan and Sanjay reined their chariots into place. Rajar placed his chariot beside his most powerful uncle, staking his claim to be a Prince of senior rank. Devan glanced at him doubtfully, and then gave an approving smile. Rajar smiled bravely in return. He had trained hard with his sword, and he knew that now it would be impossible to run away from the daily battles that faced them all. So he had decided that somehow he must swallow his fear, and fight as ferociously as he was able in order to survive.
Gujar, Kasim, Ramesh, Nirad, and the Bulsar Princes lined their chariots up in a second row, and looked for the banners of the younger princes in the opposing ranks. They all had strict orders from Jahan and their fathers to leave the older champions of Sardar’s forces to their own seasoned fighters.
Kara-Rashna peered forward through dim and blinking eyes. His heart was also beating painfully in his chest, as though at any moment it might betray him with the final stab of death. He searched the far, fluttering battle banners for the bright Golden Bear of the King of Khanju, and finally saw it flying proudly, close to the Black Leopard of Sardar of Maghalla. Kara-Rashna needed one hand to hold on to the brawny shoulder of his charioteer, but with the other he drew his sword.
On the far side of the plain Sardar of Maghalla straightened his squat bulk, squared his shoulders under his coat of steel mail, and raised a javelin in a glittering spear thrust to the sky. At the given signal trumpets blasted and the massed war drums began their beat. Horns blared and conch shells sounded, the great mass of men roared in one voice and smashed their sword hilts against their shields.
Jahan raised his sword and from the walls of Karakhor came a return blast of more trumpets and war drums. The two waves of sound met in one mighty thunderclap in the center of the still empty field, and then the ranks of Maghalla began to advance, and the massed chariots of the Maghallans charged.
Jahan let them come and cover half of the open field before he roared his own command, slashed his sword down in signal, and whipped up the reins of his horses. The sky overhead was suddenly black with the mighty thundercloud of arrows fired from the walls, sailing over their heads as Jahan led the counter-charge with the chariots of Karakhor thundering beside him. On the flanks of both armies the war elephants screamed and trumpeted as they began their own lumbering advance, urged on by their drivers with kicks and screaming cries. The warriors and foot-soldiers on either side hurled their own curses and challenges and ran in the wake of the chariots and tuskers.
The merciless rain of arrows hit the leading ranks of Maghalla seconds before the main clash of battle struck. The descending shafts bounced off the mailed coats and steel helmets of the leading princes and chieftains, but skewered the less protected flesh of the rank and file who fell screaming to be trampled by the mob behind. The front ranks of chariots swerved at the last moment to avoid headlong collisions, and then all was confusion as the two forces met. The champions of either side had each tried to swing alongside a worthy opponent, but most of them had been foiled almost immediately by the instant, swirling melee of the battle. Ranjit of the House of Bulsar had crashed his chariot with Tuluq, the son of Sardar. Both chariots overturned and the proud standards of the Blue Raven and the Coiled Cobra were trampled together in the dust. Ranjit was first on his feet, sword in hand, seeking his marked enemy, but already Tuluq had been hauled back to safety behind a dozen Maghallan warriors. Ranjit might have died then under those Maghallan swords, but the Black Raven of Bulsar crashed through the field as Salim forced his own chariot to his brother’s rescue. Ranjit swung up behind his brother and the two fought together for the rest of that hot and bloody day.
Sanjay had halted his chariot on a small knoll of raised ground and his personal guards had formed a ring of steel around him. His dead fingers could not grip the reins and so he had lashed them to his withered wrist. Now, with his sound left hand and arm, he began hurling the great bundle of javelins at his feet with deadly accuracy. Heavier than an arrow, the razor-bladed javelins could smash through chain mail, and Sangay’s eye sought out the Maghallan chiefs and captains who dared to come within his range. Kasim, more mobile in his fast flying chariot, was doing equally dreadful work with his bow.
Amid the fearful noise and bloody slaughter Kara-Rashna was still searching for Kumar-Rao, the King of Khanju, with the chariots of Jahan and Devan stoutly blocking him in and protecting him on either side. Foot soldiers flew aside before them or were crushed or trampled beneath their pounding hooves and flying wheels. Prince and Warmaster deflected the hails of arrows aimed at their King with their shields, and with their swords cut down any challenger who tried to stop their path. The earth shook beneath the heaving tumult, and the blood flowed all around them in gory streams.
Suddenly the proud banner of the Golden Bear rose before them, sharp and clear to Jahan and Devan, but swimming as though in a darkened mist to the smarting eyes of Kara-Rashna. On its left side flew the Black Mailed Fist of the Prince Zarin, and on its right the Red Fist of Bharat. Khanju’s monarch also had his protectors.
The two old Kings halted their chariots to face each. Their champions also reined in their horses and reluctantly held back. The warriors of both sides withdrew around them, yielding to the signs of single combat. A circle formed, an oasis of sudden deathly hush and stillness in the raging battle all around.
Kumar-Rao wore a mail coat of gold over his blue tunic, but he wore no helmet, favoring instead his white turban with a Golden Bear clasp above his forehead. His beard was equally white and his eyes were sad and rheumy. In his right hand he gripped a sword, but held it as though it were too heavy for him, pulling at his aching arm, even though the point rested on the floorboards of his chariot. His jowls drooped, and it seemed he had no words to say.
Kara-Rashna was not sure whether it was tears or dust that stung the back of his own eyelids. Slowly he removed his own helmet, revealing hair as white as Kumar-Rao’s beard. When he spoke his voice faltered.
“Kumar-Rao, King of Khanju, oldest friend of Karakhor, once we were brothers, united in Peace. Many times have I come to Khanju as your honored guest. Many times I have welcomed you in Karakhor. When you were young I came to celebrate your wedding, and you came to celebrate mine. Noble King of Khanju, oft-honored guest, beloved friend -- why are you here now, among the ranks of my enemies?”
Kumar-Rao flinched with every word, as though each one stung his heart. But he was a King, and answered with an almost steady voice.
“Prince Zarin, my beloved son, is now a Prince of Maghalla. He stands with his new father, and my duty binds me with my son.”
“Withdraw from the field,” Kara-Rashna begged him. “Take your unstained banner home, and so will I. Let younger men settle this battle. We are grandfathers and have no place here.”
“I cannot.” Kumar-Rao lifted his bearded chin with struggling pride. “I am here, and I must stay. You cannot ask me to turn like a jackal and slink away with my tail between my legs.”
“Not like a Jackal, you were never that. Go like a lion, old friend, proud and regal. Hold your head and standard high. I yield my honor to beg it of you.”
“A lion does not leave the field of battle. I cannot go.”
At last a tear trickled slowly down Kara-Rashna’s cheek. He raised his sword, slowly as though it were heavy lead instead of burnished steel. “Then one of us must die,” he said sadly. “Old friend, I salute you.”
“May the Gods be with you,” Kumar-Rao acknowledged.
Both monarchs touched the shoulders of their charioteers. The drivers whipped up their horses and the two chariots surged forward, skidding alongside each other with a scraping crash. Both old kings almost fell, recovered themselves feebly, and then began to hew ineffectively at each other with their swords.
It was a half-hearted contest, as though each willed the other to make the killing blow. Jahan and Devan glared at Zarin and Bharat, and those two stalwarts glared balefully back, but there was a code of conduct to be obeyed. Battles between champions were to be decided by the champions alone. They were subject to the will of the Gods.
Finally Kumar-Rao made one last despairing swing, as though at last he had decided to try and end it. His blade missed and cut deep into the side of Kara-Rashna’s chariot. For a moment there it was wedged. Kara-Rashna swung his own blade at his opponent’s head, but either he was still aiming to miss or his arm was now too weak and unsteady to take advantage of the opportunity. He succeeded only in knocking Kumar-Rao’s turban from his head, and then the still wildly swinging blade chopped into the bare shoulder of Kumar-Rao-s charioteer. The unfortunate man howled with pain, swung away from the blow, and inadvertently hauled hard on his reins. Both of Kumar-Rao’s horses reared high in sudden panic, the chariot was tilted backwards, and Kumar Rao tumbled out to land sprawling on the grass. Somehow he had retained his grip upon his sword and pulled it clear as he fell.
There was silence, except for the panting and scuffling of the horses as the wounded driver tried to control them. Kumar-Rao pulled himself to his knees, and then crawled painfully away from his grinding chariot wheels. After a few yards he stopped and looked up pitifully at Kara-Rashna.
Slowly Kara-Rashna dismounted from his own chariot, using a spear from the rack beside him as a crutch to steady himself. Sword in hand he limped toward his fallen opponent, and then stopped and leaned on his makeshift staff. He was breathing heavily and had to gasp his final pleas.
“Kumar-Rao, friend and brother, again I beg you -- leave the field.”
“You know I cannot.”
Kumar-Rao used his sword to push himself upright. In doing so he pressed the point deep into the earth and then had to struggle to free it. Kara-Rashna waited, still in hope, until Khanju’s panting monarch was again erect with his sword upraised. Then Kumar-Rao charged blindly forward. He made no more attempt to swing his sword, simply holding it aloft like a banner standard. He deliberately impaled himself on Kara-Rashna’s out-held, unmoving blade. The links of golden chain mail parted and the blue tunic and the soft flesh below the heart yielded just as easily. The blade plunged deep and Kara-Rashna stared in horror into Kumar-Rao’s dying eyes.
Kara-Rashna pulled back his sword, staggering as he did so, and then like something foul and distasteful he threw it aside. He knelt beside his fallen opponent and cradled Kumar-Rao’s head against his chest. The tears welled in his eyes and he could not see whether Kumar-Rao was still alive or dead.
“Why, old friend?” He asked bitterly. “Why did we have to come to this?”
“I had no heart for it,” Kumar-Rao croaked weakly. “But perhaps now Khanju’s honor is saved. I give Zarin and Bharat my leave to withdraw.” He coughed up blood and his last gasp was almost inaudible. “Let them take Khanju’s warriors home.”
Bharat had urged his chariot forward. He was a large man, black-bearded and black-hearted. The wide grin on his face was one of triumph and satisfaction. He had overheard the last words of his elder brother, but they meant nothing to him.
“Prince Zarin is ruler of Khanju now,” he flung out a mailed hand to grandly indicate his younger, grim-faced companion. “Khanju has a new monarch and will be stronger under his leadership. Khanju will not leave the field. Not until Karakhor has fallen. Then the spoils of war are ours when we share the victory with Maghalla.”
“And you are the King-maker,” Jahan snarled contemptuously.
The old Warmaster turned his gaze toward Zarin, although he knew that any appeal to any filial sense of love or duty in that direction would be an empty formality. However, Bharat was in no mood to permit any further discourse.
“King-maker and King-slayer,” he roared, mainly for the benefit of the watching warriors of Khanju. “Kumar-Rao will be avenged.” He snatched a javelin from his rack and hurled it at Kara-Rashna, and in the same moment charged his chariot forward.
Devan heaved his horses round, thrusting out his arm and shield to deflect the speeding javelin. The weapon tore through the hard, stretched leather, almost wrenching Devan’s arm from its socket, but Kara-Rashna was unharmed. In the same second Jahan leaped his horses forward, speeding between his King and the on-coming Bharat. Their chariots crashed and buckled, and their swords clashed in a fast and furious ring of steel.
For a moment the rules of single combat again prevailed, but the horses on both sides were rearing and plunging out of control. Bharat’s team suddenly bolted, dragging his chariot behind them, and then the tide of battle closed in behind him as Zarin too backed away, shouting for his warriors to kill them all.
Jahan found himself besieged by the men of Khanju, like some savage old lion of the forest trapped by jackals. His great sword whirled and cleaved around him, cutting back the pressing ranks of his enemies. He cleared a breathing space and then looked again for Zarin or Bharat. Both had fled, but then he heard a warning shout from one of his own captains.
He turned to see that Devan had jumped down from his own chariot. Now he was standing over the slumped bodies of the two old kings in the center of another savage fight, defending them both with his sword. Jahan turned his chariot and charged his horses into the fray, sweeping past the spot where Devan stood, and smashing the biggest knot of his opponents aside.
Kara-Rashna still held the lifeless form of Khanju’s King, held him as in a lover’s embrace, or as a drowning man might cling to his last slipping grip upon the shore. He was only vaguely aware of Devan fighting above him, and of the mighty battle raging all around. There was a red mist before his eyes and a fierce, stabbing pain in his broken heart. He felt as though he had been pierced by a spear or sword, but when his hand clasped at his chest there was no cold steel and no warm blood. There was no wound. The pain was all inside his chest, and it was slowly quenched by an all consuming darkness.
On Ghedda Kananda and his companions had survived two nights and two days in the desert. They had waited long minutes for their crashed patrol ship to explode, but nothing more had happened. Finally, when the frantic beating of their hearts had slowed and their shattered senses had regained some equilibrium, they dared to raise their faces from the sand. They could see glows of light where the remains of the three enemy ships still burned fiercely, but their own craft lay still and black against the dark slope of the dune.
“We need water,” Zela said grimly, her mind already racing ahead to the problems of survival. She stood up and Kananda moved to join her, but she pushed him back. “Wait here, I know where to look.”
She ran quickly to the wreckage and climbed back into the broken cabin. There were overhead racks for maps and documents and side pockets inside the doors where the crews usually stuffed any personal belongings. In the latter she found two half-filled water bottles and a few cakes and oddments of snack food. These she swiftly gathered up and then made another hasty exit.
They had already lingered as long as they dared and immediately began the long trek north, knowing that it was imperative to cover as much ground as possible under the blanket of darkness. Once the sun rose they would be more easily seen, and they would roast in the merciless heat. Zela led, half supporting Jayna who was now in considerable pain. There was massive bruising around the left side of Jayna’s rib cage, and she had been either more badly hurt than she had wanted to admit, or else she had suffered more damage from being thrown about in the crash. Jayna’s lips were pursed tight and bloodless and her face poured sweat, and Zela suspected that she now had at least one cracked rib.
Kananda brought up the rear, and with his bare hands carefully smoothed out their footprints from the sand behind them. The palls of smoke from the three Kaz-ar fliers gradually faded from the black horizons, but they all knew that eventually there must be more pursuit and that from the air the crash sites would be easily found. Zela guessed that they were now no more than an hour’s flight from Kaz-ar, and they would not get far in that time. Their only hope was to leave no clue as to the direction they had taken.
Mercifully, high clouds were filtering out much of the starlight, and only one of Dooma’s three moons was aloft, a stark, black-swirled grey satellite low on the eastern horizon which threw long dark shadows from the high dunes. Zela was using the stars to navigate, and fortunately her knowledge of the star patterns and the constellations was good enough for even partial glimpses of them to give her their direction. Kananda too knew most of the constellations, they were the same stars that he had so often seen from Earth, but here he had no way of relating them to the unfamiliar terrain. With only half the picture he could only trust to Zela’s skills and instincts.
Eventually they heard the first sounds of the second wave of pursuit from Kaz-ar, the faint, distant drone of more fliers circling the crash site behind them. They kept going until one of the drones became louder, and then dropped flat and lay motionless in the sand. Far to their left they saw a distant beam of white light weaving a zigzag pathway across the dunes. Above it hovered the searching flier, like some great black, hostile insect combing the sky. The flier and its searchlight beam passed several hundred yards behind them and flew on its way.
“They are circling out from the crash site,” Zela explained, her voice calm and matter of fact. “But the Great Gar is a huge desert and they have missed us on the first sweep. The further away we get the more they have to search and the better our chances. We must keep moving.”
Jayna nodded and tried to push herself upright. Her face contorted in pain and she collapsed again. Zela and Kananda helped her to stand and they continued as before. The soft sand pulled at their feet as though trying to suck them under the desert surface and their progress was slow. A strengthening wind was now beginning to blow, and although it flung fine sand to sting their bodies and faces, it was also helping to clear their tracks. Kananda decided that it was now safe to leave that task wholly to the wind and concentrated on helping Zela to support the near-fainting Jayna.
Twice more they heard the searching Gheddan ships and cowered down in the sand, but each time the ships passed at a distance and only once did they see the far glimmer of a searching light. They were tiring, and when the dawn began to bleed its pale light across the eastern rim of their harsh and barren world they were all beginning to stagger.
They paused for a brief rest and Zela allowed them each a mouthful from one of the water bottles. Then they began walking again. The sun became Zela’s only navigational aid as the stars and the low moon disappeared, but she was still confident that they were heading due north. It was not the direct route back to the swamp and the skimmer, but it was their shortest route out of the desert, and she knew that if they did not find tree-shelter and more water as soon as possible, then they would surely die.
The dunes at last gave way to a more hard and stony landscape, all brown and yellow with a few rust-red hills. It was a blistering world of heat and glare and dust devils, growing more cruel and deadly with every step as the sun rose higher. Zela pushed them on until they found a pile of rocks that afforded a few square feet of shade, and there they dug themselves into the hard sand and lay up for the rest of the day. Their bodies craved the rest, but the heat hammered them in savage waves and they lay exhausted. Their mouths were parched dry and Zela was sparing with the water. Even so, by noon one of their precious water bottles was empty.
Shortly after noon another Gheddan rotary flier appeared and flew almost directly overhead. All three of them lay still as death in their holes among the rocks, scarcely daring to breathe. The sound of the circling blades battered the stillness with waves of scorching heat and flying dust, but the craft did not land. Eventually it flew on to look for more patches of possible shade, and Kananda relaxed his vice-like grip on the hilt of his sword with a slow exhalation of relief.
“They know we have escaped the crash because they have found no bodies,” Zela croaked through cracking lips. “They also know that if we were still in the dunes we would by now be dead. So they are now sweeping the edge of the foothills beyond the dunes. After this they may give up.”
Jayna looked doubtful, but Kananda merely nodded. He had neither the energy nor the knowledge to argue with her line of reasoning.
For the rest of that awful day they lay up in their pitifully small shelter, and it seemed as though the killing white ball of the sun would never set. At last it began to redden and sink toward the western horizon. As the shadows lengthened Zela roused them and allowed them to share the few scraps of food and drink half of their remaining water. A little of their strength returned, the cooler air of evening revived them slightly, and again they marched toward the north.
The barren lands continued bleak and lifeless and a uniform grey in the clear starlight. The cloud that had partially covered their escape the night before had vanished, and the brilliance of the stars against the velvet blackness of space gave them some consolation. The moon of the previous night was higher now, and a second moon trailed it half hidden behind the horizon. They no longer had the soft sand sucking at their boots, but there were stones and small rocks underfoot that tripped their feet and constantly threatened to twist a knee or ankle.
After four hours they rested again, and each wetted their lips and throats with another mouthful of water. Then they moved on again, their bodies aching in every bone and muscle, and with Jayna now needing both Zela and Kananda on either side to support her. Sometimes her feet dragged and she was barely conscious.
Dawn found them struggling almost drunkenly in the low, bare foothills, but still there was no glimpse of green in the unrelenting desert landscape. Zela had hoped to get clear of the desert before the sun rose for another day, and now she began to fear that they would not survive. As the sun rose higher and lashed them again with its burning rays they found another patch of shade beside a sand-scoured hill and collapsed into a sprawling heap.
They dozed fitfully, and their half-waking moments were delirious with hopeless dreams and haunting nightmares. Their bodies were dehydrated and their tongues began to swell. Zela finally shared out the last of their water. She threw the empty bottle away, but Kananda crawled out into the merciless sun to retrieve it. His head was swimming, but he was not yet ready to die. He said nothing, but clung on to the hope that somewhere, somehow, they might be able to find more water and fill the bottle again.
When the sun dropped out of sight again they were still alive. Kananda struggled to his knees and crawled closer to Zela. He pulled at her shoulder and she opened her eyes and stared at him blankly. He couldn’t speak but tugged again at her shoulder, insistently, until at last she roused herself. Together they turned to Jayna who lay as though dead. Kananda slapped her face. Zela croaked her name, and finally Jayna too opened her eyes.
Somehow they got Jayna up between them, and in the cooler night air they began to move on. Kananda started them off blindly in the direction from which they had come, back toward the dunes and a certain death in the sands, but then Zela blinked her eyes and focused on the first stars appearing above. She recognized one of the constellations and with an effort pulled Kananda around to start them walking north again.
To Kananda all that mattered now was to put one foot in front of the other, to keep going forward, and to somehow drag Jayna and Zela along with him. He was light-headed and could feel his tongue growing larger in his mouth. Soon it would choke him and that would be the end, but until then he would not give up. More dead than alive they continued doggedly northward, step by tortured step.
Kananda closed his eyes and closed his mind, concentrating every effort of his will into the one task of moving forward. Jayna became a dead weight, her right arm curled around his shoulder and neck, gradually slipping back. And then slowly there came the realization that she was not just slipping away from him, but actually trying to pull him to a stop. She groaned aloud, and when he turned to look at her face he saw that her bloated lips were moving and she was trying to speak.
He stopped and stared at her. On her other side, Zela too stumbled to a halt. Jayna moved her arm from Zela’s shoulders and pointed unsteadily forward. They were in a hollow between two hills, and a few paces in front of them there grew a living bush, a plant of green, bulbous stems, protected by a fierce array of spiked thorns.
Jayna gave up her attempt to speak. She had their attention and slowly she disentangled herself from Kananda. She swayed on her feet and pulled at the hilt of his sword. Kananda understood. He pulled the blade free of the scabbard and gave it to her. Jayna tottered forward and sliced through one of the fat green stems of the plant. The sharp thorns gashed her hand and drew blood as she held the severed limb, but she was unfeeling to any pain. With two more cuts she sliced off some of the hard, outer rind, and then pushed the soft inner plant flesh into her mouth. She chewed with difficulty, but after a few minutes green juices were running down her chin and her eyes shone with delight. Deftly she cut another thick slice of the plant limb, halved it and gave them half each. With no questions asked Kananda and Zela crammed the soft centers into their mouths and sucked at the bitter juice.
“Not too much,” Jayna managed at last. “Too much will make us sick, but a little will keep us going.”
They sat down beside the strange plant of bloated, silver green stumps and shining thorns, and ate and chewed as much as Jayna deemed wise. The taste was not pleasant, but their mouths were refreshed and their spirits revived. Where their lips had started to crack the juices stung, but that was a small price to pay.
“The Cacti plant stores moisture,” Jayna told them. “But to find it we must be on higher ground, and we must be near to the tree line. I think we are going to live.”
After half an hour of rest they moved on again. They soon began to see more of the strange cacti plants, growing larger and making weird and grotesque silhouettes against the darkness. They moved out of the low, barren hills, and suddenly they were encountering tufts of sparse scrub bushes. When dawn broke they could see the first of the distant clumps of low woodland.
“Trees,” Zela tried to laugh but the sound came out as a hoarse cackle, “Shelter, water. We have won. We have crossed the Great Gar Desert.”
She clung to Kananda and kissed him, and then they included Jayna in their embrace. They had found the treeline, and now had to only turn east under the tree canopy and hope to strike the Great Swamp River. There, if they did not drown in the murky marshes, or fall foul of the giant crocodiles and lizards, they had only to follow the river upstream to find their hidden river and landing craft.
Despite their pains, exhaustion and hunger, hope flared again in all their hearts.
Have you seen the film DEEPWATER HORIZON yet?
It’s a fantastic fiery film about an oil rig explosion and the resulting inferno and environmental disaster. It would make a perfect prologue for a film of my novel SEASCREAM. In SEASCREAM the new warm water currents generated by an oil rig explosion penetrate deep into the ocean to disturb a colony of prehistoric plesiosaurus. The monsters move and eventually surface off the coast of Cornwall. The story is DEEPWATER HORIZON, plus the guys that ate jaws as a passing snack, with a Romeo and Juliet love story between two warring fishing families.
When the hungry horrors cause the wreck of a giant supertanker it seems as though setting fire to the oil spill might be the only way of driving them back where they came from.
The film rights are still available. (If you are an American producer you can always substitute Cornwall with the coast of Florida.) In the meantime you can read the first chapter of SEASCREAM for free below.
It was out there somewhere offshore in the thick swirling mist which filled the pitch black night.
It was a diffused sound which could have come from any direction, or from all directions
AS THOUGH THE SEA ITSELF WAS SCREAMING
The sea creatures were not unknown. They were frequently sighted and recorded in the days of sail when ships moved silently under wind power, or lay becalmed in remote parts of the world's vast oceans. The sightings stopped when the ships were fitted with noisy thudding engines and kept to direct but relatively narrow sea lanes which the creatures learned to avoid.
But the creatures were still there, far down in the abyss depths, where they might have remained, unseen and undisturbed, if Aztec Three had not exploded to turn the sea above them into a sea of fire.
The creatures moved east across the Atlantic. They were angry and they were hungry, and for those who had to live and work upon the sea it was the beginning of a savage, screaming nightmare.
The gas bubble had been born more than one thousand feet down below the bed of the ocean. For a millennium of years it had been trapped motionless under enormous pressure, but now the three hundred foot thick layer of hard, compressing cap rock had been drilled through to reach the vast deposits of oil in which the gas bubble floated. The bubble was pure hydrogen and after aeons in lifeless limbo in the stygian darkness it began slowly to move.
Its progress was invisible and unknown, drifting slow millimetre by slow millimetre through the huge undersea reservoir of oil. Time and its direction were meaningless. Another century or another thousand years were as irrelevant as the journey itself. The bubble simply moved, following the pull of the strange new forces which had broken into and changed its world, Ultimately it reached the drill hole where the two miles of steel pipe had penetrated from the surface.
On the last part of its journey the bubble was drawn faster, the sucking pull increasing and the pressures all building up inexorably behind it. No longer drifting it was hurtled into the upward swirling vortex to eternity.
The production rig straddling the new well had been named Aztec Three and was an offshore platform operated by Pemex, the Mexican State oil monopoly. During the late seventies the discovery of immense oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico had promoted the Mexican oil industry into one of the biggest in the world. Their own proven reserves were the sixth largest in any part of the globe, and encouraged by this veritable bonanza, together with eager American Investment, Pemex had expanded its operations throughout the entire Caribbean. Wherever the drilling rights could be bought or leased the Pemex rigs flourished, and Aztec Three was the most far‑flung outpost of a booming oil‑industry empire. It was also the first rig to step outside the Caribbean and be sited on the Atlantic side of the Windward Isles,
And Aztec Three had struck oil, another black gold bonanza with estimated reserves of up to a thousand million barrels.
For five months the rig had been bringing up oil at the rate of twenty thousand barrels per day, but on the day of the disaster the round‑the‑clock drilling operation had been stopped. The wellhead was due for its first routine overhaul and maintenance cheek. Various pieces of piping and safety valves had to be cleaned, checked for wear and efficiency and if necessary be replaced,
The first priority was to kill the well, which meant stopping the oil flow. This was achieved by pumping heavy liquid mud from the big side tanks on the platform down through the steel pipeline into the well. The density of the mud had to be finely judged until its sheer weight was enough to plug the well and hold down the upward thrusting pressure of the trapped crude oil and natural gases straining to escape from below.
The next step was to remove the Christmas tree, the gigantic fire hydrant arrangement of valves which was clamped on to the producing well, The Christmas Tree had to be removed for inspection, and while this was taking place the hard rubber mass known as blow‑out preventers would be snapped shut on top of the open tubes to seal off the well head. The changeover was the crucial moment the few vital minutes of real danger, and before making this move the engineers on Aztec Three had waited for five hours to be sure their well was stable with no sudden surges of unexpected pressure from below.
When the five hour safety delay was over the engineers began their work. They did not know ‑‑ could not possibly have known ‑‑ that the fatal gas bubble was lurking two thousand feet down in the volatile darkness.
By killing the well the fast, upward rush of the hydrogen bubble had been checked, but it had entered the pipeline and being lighter than the surrounding column of crude oil it had slowly squeezed its way upward. Finally it had by‑passed the oil and encountered the downward thrust of the liquid mud.
Slowly, infinitely slowly, the gas bubble continued to rise, pushing up against the mud, finding its way through and allowing the pressure of the bottled crude oil to build up behind it.
The first sign to reach the working platform of the oil rig was the slowly rising level of the liquid mud in the mud tanks. At first it was so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and for a full minute it was not noticed.
It was during this minute that the last bolts were removed and the Christmas tree was swung clear of the well head.
The mud level in the tank rose faster and bubbles began to appear. A roustabout watching from a higher level suddenly realized what was happening and uttered an urgent shout of alarm.
For the men working at the wellhead one look into the mud tanks was enough. The level was rising visibly and the first streaks of thick brown crude were showing through the heaving grey surface of the mud. Their luck was out and disaster was already overtaking then.
The engineer in charge of the operation yelled frantic orders and in panic the work team grabbed for the blow out preventer and tried desperately to manoeuvre it into position. They had less than three minutes and the seconds were fast running out.
The hydrogen bubble was gaining in momentum. The surge of mud and oil overflowed the tanks and slopped on to the platform. The well-head team found themselves fumbling, dropping vital bolts and tools, but right from the very beginning they had been given no chance at all. The first spurts of oil jetted out from the well head, spraying them with thick grey brown slime, and then they fled as the well blew out with a force which hurled the partially positioned preventer cap clear across the platform.
The blow‑out was uncontrollable and within seconds it was a hundred‑foot high geyser which was drenching the entire rig with its downpour of black rain. The alarms were already sounding as men ran from all directions to abandon the rig.
The rig master and his senior officers and engineers made hopeless efforts to maintain some discipline and order, but mostly they were ignored in the blind, yelling scramble to launch the life rafts. The men who had been working on the upper levels saw the very real possibility that they might be left behind in the general panic and became even more reckless and desperate in their race to reach the main deck.
One of these was a maintenance engineer who had been working to tighten up a wind‑loosened radio mast high up on the black steel derrick tower which topped the rig. With his heart thudding with fear he had tried to restrain the speed of his descent on the dangerously slippery ladder rungs inside the derrick. By the time he had climbed down to the upper catwalks his red overalls were saturated with oil. Somehow he had, lost his hard hat and the oil was flowing out of his hair and over his face, half blinding him and almost choking him. As he swallowed a mouthful of the filthy mixture he saw through the black downpour the first of the life rafts being launched far below. He still had a long way to go and a cry of anguish spilled up from his gagging throat as he broke into a fast run along the catwalk. The perforated steel planking beneath his feet was smothered in oil, but now the fear of slipping and falling was by far the lesser of two evils.
And inevitably he did fall, His feet skidded from under him and he screamed as he grabbed at a hand rail to stop himself from shooting out into space. His hands slipped along the rail, his body twisted painfully in mid‑fall and he hit down on the catwalk on his shoulder, slithering forward and groping for another hold as the top of the next gangway rushed to meet him. Somehow he braked, wedging his toes into the peroration holes in the steel planking. He stopped with his face thrust out over the top of the gangway but an object of black steel carried on past him and soared out in a slow falling arc to the decks below.
The scream froze on his lips as he watched it fall. He knew what it was and with sickening certainty he knew what was going to happen next.
He had been carrying the heavy steel wrench in the long thigh pocket of his overall, and the sudden absence of its weight against his leg helped him to recognise it as it had blurred past him. Everything was frozen now, time, the breath in his body, and even the wild pumping of his heart. He was suspended in that agonised second before death. For he knew he was dead. They were all dead.
As if in a slow motion dream he saw the wrench move in a circle and drop. The wrench started to spin, turning gracefully in mid air as it fell. And then it met the steel rail of another catwalk two decks down with a resounding clang.
It was steel upon steel, the fatal spark. The up-rush of hydrogen in the great geyser of escaping oil ignited, and Aztec Three was blown up into a million red hot fragments in the most spectacular rig explosion the oil industry had ever known. Not one man survived, and where the rig had been, a vast, spreading sea of flames leaped high on the bulging surface of the ocean.
With the rig totally destroyed there was nothing which could be done to control the raging fire-spill inferno. Within a matter of hours the monstrous red flame tongues were rising a hundred feet above the well site, and, within a week the blazing oil slick covered a, hundred square miles of ocean. And with every hour it was spreading wider. Until the pressure eased from below there was no hope of getting another rig close enough to drill a relief well, and even when that was achieved it would still take many more weeks before the oil reservoir could be tapped again and the flow diverted so that the wild well could be capped.
In the meantime the fire-spill continued to expand, a hundred foot high wall of creeping flames advancing on three fronts and blanketed by a pall of thick black smoke which turned even the days into perpetual, night. Mercifully the initial winds had been favourable, and instead of threatening the long chain of islands encircling the Caribbean the fire-spill was slowly pushed out into mid Atlantic.
For the peoples of the Windward and Leeward islands, and for the oil industry and the governments of Mexico the USA and Venezuela, this was a huge relief. The disaster was not as catastrophic as it might have been if the firewall had engulfed the inhabited islands, and the prevailing easterly winds had proved a blessing. Soon the ecologists and the environmentalists were the only ones left gnashing their teeth and making an ungrateful howling. The media made a seven day sensation out of the story, but with no coastline endangered it soon ceased to be news.
The governments and oil industrialists of three nations argued over the best ways to disperse or contain their fiery problem, while the rest of the world lost any immediate interest.
Unfortunately the ecologists and the environmentalists had some valid points. Their views were sought, debated and forgotten, but the dangers they feared did not go away. Vast areas of the ocean were being warmed up as the fierce heat radiated eastward from the gigantic fire blanket on the surface, and the violent changes in temperature and current movements began to have unseen effects.
The ocean waters are never still, but are constantly moving in a complex pattern of currents stirred by the forces of the winds, the rotation of that earth the gravitational pulls from the moon and sun, and the differing densities of cold and warm water. The superheated waters from beneath the fire-spill injected a new, random factor, some of it being circulated on the existing currents, and some of it causing whole new current patterns as it encountered waters of different temperatures.
The currents were not confined to the surface water. They curved deep through all levels, through sunlight, through twilight, to the abyss. Meanders from the main currents often broke away to curl back and form spirals toward their point of origin. Smaller eddies would spin off the spirals and gradually reach to all parts of the ocean. So it happened that one of the new currents of warm water generated by the fire-spill slowly made its way out into mid Atlantic, circled deeper through a thousand miles of ocean and finally curled back westward to penetrate into the freezing, abyssal darkness of the Puerto Rico Deep.
By the time the warm water current had completed its long involved journey from its source down through twenty‑seven thousand feet to the bottom of the Deep, it was capable of raising the sub‑zero temperatures at that depth by only a few degrees. But it was enough to disturb the creatures.
They were a prehistoric colony which had survived here for millions of years. Once, their ancestors had been warm‑blooded, flesh‑eating surface creatures, which had inhabited the upper surface waters of their world, then had come the great ice ages of advancing glaciers, which had brought doom and extinction to their land‑walking counterparts. Most of the surface‑feeding sea creatures of that long forgotten era had also perished, but a few had adapted by going deeper in search of food, and gradually evolving into the essential cold-blooded creatures of their new environment.
Now the slight temperature increase could not harm them, but it irritated them, making them uncertain. It moved them from their deep familiar haunts causing then to embark upon a lost, blind pilgrimage to nowhere. Their tiny brains could not know that they would have fared better to remain where they were. Instead they moved up from the depths and began to travel eastward across the Atlantic.
To buy and read the rest of the book follow the link on my Horror books page
I spent twenty years as a retained fireman on call with the Suffolk Brigade so when I started writing for the Suffolk Journal it was almost inevitable that I would write a piece on the Fire Service. It’s hard to believe now that this was more than twenty years ago.
BY ROBERT LEADER
It’s three o’clock in the morning and you are wrenched out of a cozy, dreaming sleep like death catapulted out of a coffin. It’s mid-winter and outside your bedroom window a full-scale blizzard is raging, and East Anglia is doing one of its credible imitations of the frozen Arctic. Your brain is shattered, and your multitone pocket alerter is shrieking its urgent bleeping.
Somewhere out there in the howling, hostile night, there’s a blazing inferno, or a piled-up road traffic accident with bloodied human bodies and mangled vehicles scattered over black ice -- or perhaps it’s just a slice of burnt toast setting off somebody’s over-sensitive automatic fire alarm. You won’t know until you get to the Fire station, and whatever it is, you have to respond to the call.
That was just one of the joys of being a retained fireman, on call 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. And it’s not just when your nicely tucked up in bed that the inconvenient call out comes. Emergency situations happen when they happen. The bleeper has no respect for those most intimate moments of your private life, no coyness about whether you’re in the bath, on the loo, or even making love.
Make no mistake, carrying a Fire Service bleeper is a definite pain, constant interruptions dominate your life, and elicit howls of frustration from your luckless spouse. And yet, most of those who carry one would not be without it. I’ve collected my own Twenty Years Long Service and Good Conduct Medal from the Suffolk Fire Service, and I have no regrets. In fact, now that I’m retired and bleeperless, I find I miss the damned thing.
Now I can actually finish every meal I start, take the time to soak and luxuriate in a hot bath, and sleep peacefully right through every night; but sometimes I would just rather be riding that big red engine again, with the blue lights flashing and the adrenaline pumping as I struggle into the harness of a breathing apparatus set. It was often hard, dirty, hot, and even dangerous work, alternating with the frustration of the “Mickey Mouse” calls, as we dubbed the false alarms, the routine of small chimney and grass fires, or the boredom of just waiting on stand-by. But in action or waiting you are always a part of an Elite Team, always ready for the Big One.
It’s hard to know precisely how many lives the Fire Service saves. A “Persons Reported” message gets the blood pounding quicker than anything, but mercifully live person rescues from burning buildings are relatively rare. The most common life or death situation is the road traffic accident. Here you work to free casualties as quickly as possible, without adding to or exacerbating the injuries they have already suffered. The final battle will usually be carried out by surgeons at the nearest hospital, but you have the satisfaction of knowing that if you have worked carefully and quickly enough, then you will have added to that person’s chance of survival as the ambulance ferries them away.
On one occasion we arrived on the scene just as one of the crashed vehicles burst into flames. The driver was trapped helpless behind the wheel, his feet crushed up between the foot pedals, and I shall never forget his horrified face, framed in the broken glass of the shattered windscreen and wreathed in tongues of leaping fire. Two of us hit the road running to whip the hose-reels, always the quickest means of attack, from either side of our machine, and I know for certain that on that day we did save a life.
Of course, for all of us Old Timers, our year of pride and glory was the hot summer of 1976. I was part of the fire crew at Brandon, and through July and August I never finished a single meal or slept a full night at home. We were in the heart of Breckland and ran till we were exhausted from one forest fire to the next. We finished that scorching summer with a plane crash. A Phantom jet from USAF Lakenheath nose-dived immediately after take-off with a full load of aviation fuel on board. In those tinder-dry conditions it set four square miles of fir plantations alight. Adrenaline-pumping stuff indeed!
In 1979 I transferred to Bury St. Edmunds, then a three-pump station, with the second and third pumps still manned by retained crews. In March the following year, at four-thirty in the morning of the 19th, the Bury St. Edmunds Sports Centre was completely destroyed by fire, an incident involving seventy men, fourteen major pumps and a turntable ladder. The fire had started in the cafeteria end of the upper building and when the first pumps arrived strong winds had swept the flames through the full length of the roof.
The first breathing apparatus teams to go inside were quickly pulled out again when the roof started to collapse. I went in twice with the second waves of BA teams allowed in after the roof was down, hauling a fire-fighting jet up the concrete central staircase that gave us some protection from any further collapse, but there was no way to beat that particular fire. Fifteen hours later we were still there, sweat-soaked and smoke-blackened, wearily damping down a huge pile of twisted girders and steaming debris.
But we didn’t really lose that fire. As any fireman will tell you, it’s still a good stop if you save the foundations!
So was it all worth it? Of course it was -- and there are always vacancies for those who can still do it. Most of East Anglia is covered by retained fire stations where crews are on bleeper call as and when they are needed, and even the few full time stations also need retained back-up. A full fire-crew is six fire-fighters, which means that to allow for sickness, holidays, and those times when you just can’t respond, the ideal is for twelve fire-fighters to be on call for each pump. However, the demands of most modern employers mean that not many people in full-time employment can make the total commitment needed for what is technically a part-time job so many stations are often short of crew.
Actually, it’s not quite a total commitment. It is recognized that even retained firemen are only human, so you will only be expected to make 65% of your station’s total number of calls. Training is usually an initial one week course, and then a two-hour drill night once a week.
So if you are a fit and healthy insomniac who doesn’t mind interrupted meals, and interruptions to all those other delicate activities which ordinary mortals expect to conduct in peace and privacy, then why not give it a go? Serving your community brings its own reward, and just one life saved, or one rampaging fire stopped in its tracks, makes it all worthwhile. Plus you’re almost guaranteed a cheerful, wise-cracking camaraderie that you won’t find anywhere else. London’s Burning got that part right at least.
I know that I’d do it all over again, if only they’d let me.
A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL MY READERS.
In December I put up the last chapter of SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY. Well, not quite the last chapter. The good news is that in putting up the book chapters on this blog I have again made contact with Tim. He is currently running fishing safaris on Lake Nasser in Egypt. (Look up the full details on his website at www.african-angler.com) Tim is keen to resurrect the book with a new third section on the highlights of all the following Siafu expeditions he organized through the seventies and eighties. We’re working on that together and hope to get the book published under a new title, OVERLAND THROUGH AFRICA.
In the meantime I have to decide how to continue this blog. Over the past eighteen years I have published over three hundred feature articles in the East Anglian county magazines, the old, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire Journals, the Essex Magazine, and currently the Suffolk/Norfolk Life. I realize that for people outside East Anglia this is a foreign country and so I intend to go back to the beginning and put them all up here, alternating with some of the poetry that originated in my travelling days.
My first article was LORDS OF THE DANCE, a feature on Morris Dancing which appeared in the May 1988 issue of The Suffolk Journal. It was published with the first seven of my photographs. Since then I have had over two thousand of my photographs published.
LORDS OF THE DANCE
By ROBERT LEADER
From May to September you will find them all over England, outside pubs, on village greens, at folk fairs and festivals, feet flying, bells jingling, thwacking sticks or waving handkerchiefs, flamboyant costumes whirling and weaving in circle and line dances that have evolved from the pre-Christian mists of pagan Britain. The dances are a celebration of the cycle of the seasons, for hunting and fishing, of Spring and Harvest, of fertility rites and rites of passage as ancient as Stonehenge and the druids. The dancers are, of course, the Morris Dancers, the modern day Lords - and Ladies - of the ritual dance.
Symbology abounds, greenery and maypoles for the resurgence of nature and the renewal of life. Circle dances to represent the changes of the seasons, the passage of the sun or the phases of the moon, or perhaps just the spirit of the community. Much of the true meanings are lost in the past, in the instincts, experiences and emotions of our long dead ancestors, and the explanations are now best guesses or logical deductions.
The themes are world wide, and in England Morris Dancing seems to have reached the height of its development around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Then most of the dancing would have been village based by agricultural labourers celebrating Christmas, Plough Monday (The first Monday after Twelth Night when the fields were ploughed and the crops were planted), May Day and the completion of harvest. Through the seventeenth century the dances were boosted by inter-village competitions, and by the injection of new factory sponsored teams, where clog-dancing was introduced in the new industrial towns. The clogs were initially the only footwear the mill working men possessed, but they were ideal for stamping out a heavy, noisy rhythm, and so many Morris sides still wear them today.
Morris dancing almost died out during the First World War, due to the vast numbers of young men who perished on the bloody battlefields of Europe, and it was only the introduction of female dancers which kept the traditions going, leading eventually to the modern day folk revival. A few areas such as the Cotswolds resisted the new mixed side trend, preferring to stay male only. All male sides can get much more robust, especially in the many stick battle dances that are possibly derived from the concept of summer beating back winter, and may deliberately try to break each other’s sticks. With ladies involved the mixed sides tend to be just as enthusiastic, but perhaps a little less aggressive.
In Suffolk alone there are almost twenty sides with strange names like Lagabag, Barley Brigg, Danegeld, Devil’s Dyke, Flying Tatters, Gyppeswyck Garland, Haganeth, Green Dragon, and the Haughley Hoofers, to name just a few.
Usually a Morris side needs around twenty members to be sure of fielding a regular dancing eight with at least two musicians favouring melodium and drums. Most of them will practice regularly in winter and dance out at pubs, festivals and street fairs at least once a week through the summer. Traditionally most of them will dance at the crack of dawn on Mayday, perhaps in a farmer’s field, although some prefer to wait to catch an early bird audience in the centre of one of our bustling market towns. The rest of the time they will dance for the fun of it, and perhaps the sheer joy of working up, and then slaking, a good thirst.
Most of the dance routines performed by the Suffolk Morris sides are derived from the more traditional dancing areas of England, but Suffolk ingenuity means that they are often given a new style and flair of their own. Danegeld, who are based at Woodbridge, wear black trousers or skirts and yellow shirts and socks, female waistcoats are green and the male waistcoats are red. Their vividly colourful dances are a form of North West clog morris which originated in Lancashire and Cheshire.
Some are processional dances associated with the ancient customs of well dressing, others celebrate rituals like the changing of the rushes, one of the many forms of dance that once took place within churches. Before Cromwell and the puritans it was not uncommon for folk dancers to perform inside the churches, or to dance around them in circles of unity.
Danegeld, who will celebrate their tenth birthday in October,(1988) take their name from Danish Gold, the extortion demanded by the Danes in the eleventh century as an alternative to their raping and pillaging your town or village. It was perhaps the first known protection racket. Danegeld’s tongue-in-cheek variation of the principle is that if you don’t put money in their hat they threaten to dance again.
Green Dragon Morris, who are based in Bury St Edmunds, dance in tatter coats and black faces. The tatter coats, jackets sewn with a complete covering of brightly coloured strips of rag, or tatters, represent the tattered poverty of the original dancers, the agricultural labourers or factory workers who had only rags to wear. Today the streaming tatters are also popular for their colourful whirlwind effect as the dancers leap and twirl.
The custom of blacking their faces is generally held to have originated from the dancer’s need in some circumstances to disguise their identities. Just as the modern day groups need to pass round the hat to cover their costs in transport, instruments, costumes, and hiring halls for winter practice, so many of the mediaeval dancers had to beg to survive. Blackening their faces meant that they were not so easily recognized when work became available again and they had to face their prospective employers. Also their pagan posturing became looked upon with disfavour when the puritans came to power, and it was not necessarily a good thing for the church and civic leaders to know exactly who the dancers were.
Most of Green Dragon’s dances come from the Cambridgeshire borders, although combined with any other style that takes their fancy, including the creation of “traditional” styles of their own. There is nothing static in folk dancing, like everything else that is alive and vibrant, it evolves.
One of the Cambridgeshire traditions is Molly Dancing. The “Molly” was a man dressed as a woman, who usually partnered the “Squire”, in dances that deliberately aped and ridiculed the more genteel, Mozartian waltzing of their betters. Many dances, and especially the mummers plays that go hand in hand with Morris Dancing, were cheerfully disorderly and satirical, reversing the rules and roles of rural society, and generally taking the mickey.
Today’s Morris dancing is a feast of colourful, traditional entertainment, of noisy music and dance that is joyful and vigorously energetic. Its devotees are drawn from all walks of life. Green Dragon’s dancers include a computer operator and a carpet-fitter, a radiographer and a schoolteacher, a nanny and a doctor. All they need in common is a little rhythm, a great deal of physical energy, a love of life and a great sense of fun.
And why do they do it. The obvious reason is to keep our national dancing traditions alive. It’s also a fantastic way of keeping fit. It’s a great day or evening out with convivial company. It’s an opportunity to dress up and play to the crowd. It’s the ultimate stress-buster, because dancing is an exhilarating and happy way to escape into the thrill of the moment.
It could lead to travel. Danegeld have danced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Luxembourg, Normany and Germany. They simply present themselves at the local tourist information office and ask if they can dance in the town square. To celebrate the inauguration of the new Stenna Line hover-speed service the side danced on the quayside in Holland.
And of course, there is always the possibility of romance. When Pip Conen, a lady dancer with the Green Dragon Morris, fell in love with Adam Garland, a male dancer from the long-established East Suffolk Morris, both sides turned up in full regalia to provide a ceremonial arch of honour, and then danced outside the church. Dancing at weddings, especially when it is one of their own, is one of the things Morris dancers do best.
If you fancy having a go, then contact a bagman. The bagman is the one who carries the bag with the paperwork and money, a sort of secretary-come-treasurer.
(Look up the sides on the internet to find their contact details.)
SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LADER
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: SIAFU IS BORN
There was only one way to pull Siafu and myself out of the red and that was to promote an immediate return trip to England using the same four Land Rovers. There was a tremendous amount of work to be done before my ancient indestructibles were fit to tackle the overland route again and I had to practically re-build each vehicle. At the same time I placed more advertisements in the South Africa Press. Thanks to these and the publicity I had been given in the Rhodesian press when we had made our jubilant entry into Salisbury I gradually began to pull together enough adventurous spirits to form a new expedition. Some of them were South Africans and Rhodesians, travelling of course on British passports, and there was the usual sprinkling of Australians and New Zealanders.
During the six months that I spent in South Africa organizing the return trip I stayed with the Hooper family who very kindly allowed me to use their home as the base of my operations. Peter was still working in London but during my stay he flew out to South Africa on a brief visit and I was very happy to met up with him again. My dept to the Hooper family is a very large one for they gave me support and encouragement at a very trying time when I needed it most. My fledgling idea for turning Trans-Africa into a viable business enterprise was struggling to survive and most people still considered that I was crazy. However, the Hoopers gave me moral support and allowed me to run my course. There was a standing joke between Mrs Hooper and myself that she was my Southern Hemisphere Mother, and indeed it was more truth than a joke.
Gradually the new expedition took shape and with the money paid by my new companions in fares I was able to purchase the necessary food and spares and pay off some of my debts to my original team. By this means I managed to reduce my total debt to eight hundred pounds.
I still had Andy Robertson to help me in running the show but my hardest task was to replace Allan Crook. Allan had continued his travels by sea to Borneo, where he had joined another Land Rover party driving overland to Australia, and so I needed a new mechanic. Not just any mechanic, but a good bush mechanic who could improvise and keep my vehicles moving under practically any circumstances. It was a headache, but one that was finally solved when Don Townsend, an old school-friend and another expatriate from Kenya answered my advertisement in the press. Don was working in South Africa but was keen to visit England. He was a big, stalwart character, an ideal man to have on the trip, and more to the point another brilliant mechanic. I signed him up immediately.
It was in October of 1969 that I set out with Andy to lead my battered convoy of reconditioned Land Rovers back across twelve thousand miles of Africa. We by-passed the delicate Rhodesia-Zambia border by circling through Malawi and here we stopped for a few days by the lake to remove every made in Rhodesia or made in South Africa label from every single item of our food and equipment. We cut the tags out of shirts and clothing, hacked the giveaway words from rubber tyres and clipped the labels from literally hundreds soup packets and food can wrappers.
That return trip proved much the same as the trip down except that the amount and the variety of mechanical breakdowns increased. However, I had again picked a splendid team who tackled the journey as an adventure and a challenge in which it was up to each one of them to help get the expedition through. They all relished every minute of it; the hard work and the campfire parties, the dust and the mud and the cold beer at every stop, the Congo roads and the Malindi nights, the difficulties and the delays, and the ever changing panorama of Africa with its diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna and people.
In the Congo we had trouble again at Monga. The Congolese officer in charge of the garrison there was blind drunk when we arrived and because he enjoyed the presence of our girls he refused to let the party cross the river. He insisted that we all stay to drink with him instead. We eased out of that situation by passing round a bottle of cane spirit drugged with sedatives from our medical chest. While we pretended to take sips he took hefty pulls and finally passed out.
In Tamanrasset we ran foul of our old friends the customs officers when they found that one of our party was smuggling a revolver. I had warned everybody of the folly of trying to carry a gun and now there was nothing I could do to help him. He was jailed for two months and had to pay a fine of four hundred and fifty pounds to get out.
Finally, after another journey of three months, “Henry”, “Sarah”, “Maggie” and “Matilda” all limped wearily into London. During the last few weeks the whole expedition had again been desperately short of money but again we had arrived safely at our destination. Reluctantly I put the four Land Rovers up for sale and with the proceeds I succeeded in paying off the last of my debts and breaking even.
Now I had to review my situation yet again. I had no debts but I had no assets either. Without my Land Rovers I had nothing except the fact that I had led two successful expeditions across Africa and proved that my project was feasible. I started to look around for someone who would back me financially and this time I found the support I needed. Errol Baker, a good friend and at one time my managing director at “Samorgan” decided to invest in Siafu. He was joined by Gilbert Brown, another old colleague who had worked for an associate firm during my “Samorgan” days. They put up the hard cash to purchase new vehicles and equipment and again with Andy Robertson I led two more successful expeditions to and fro across Africa.
We hit a new problem in crossing the Oubangui at Bangassou. The ferry we had previously used had now rotted through and sunk. Undaunted we hired a fleet of native canoes, placed planks across them athwart ships and gingerly drove our vehicles onto those make-shift rafts. It was a risky business paddling our own improvised ferry across the wide sweep of the river, but we made every crossing without mishap.
In other spheres the trip became easier. The civil war in Nigeria was over and both Central Africa and the Congo became much more settled. The Siafu ant painted on the white door of a Land Rover eventually became familiar over the whole overland route and past experience and old contacts helped to smooth our way. With new vehicles and a sound knowledge of the hazards and terrain each trip became a little less difficult than the last, although Africa itself remained the same magnificent adventure.
In May of 1970 we were at last able to open an office at Abbey House in Victoria Street as a permanent base. And SIAFU EXPEDITIONS was registered as a Limited Company with Errol Baker, Gilbert Brown and Tim Baily listed as directors.
From this point on Siafu Expeditions were making regular Trans-African safaris, each one lasting three months between London and Nairobi and vice versa. Each safari consisted of approximately twenty-five young people in four Land Rovers. Plus an experienced expedition leader and a competent mechanic as second in command. Our prices were all-inclusive of transport, all the necessary equipment for cooking and camping, and all game park fees, camping fees and ferry tolls. All the organization and planning was done by Siafu, but once the expedition left London or Nairobi the expedition members were on their own. It was their trip and it was up to them to run it, for it was our endeavour to offer adventure and a challenge. The men took their turns at driving the vehicles, carrying the water and erecting the tents; while the girls did the bartering in the native markets and cooked the meals. In the event of a real emergency or an expedition leader being taken ill I was always ready to fly out personally and take charge, but otherwise it was our policy to give our expeditions free rein to show their own mettle.
Now that Siafu had pioneered the way there were soon other companies moving into the exciting new field of Trans-African travel. The route was getting easier but Siafu continued to run expeditions the hard way, opening up new routes to avoid the advancing spread of civilization. We began running expeditions down through Tunisia and entering Algeria via Djanet, and from there making the wildly beautiful but unmarked crossing over eight hundred miles of vividly painted sandstone desert before rejoining the main through route at Agadez. The Djanet crossing took an extra three days and had to be made by compass bearings with the help of Toureg guides. Economically, we were told, Djanet is crazy. Those extra days mean extra costs and the passenger on his first Trans-Sahara trip will never know the difference if we take him by the cheaper but less spectacular main road. My answer always reverted to the basic principle of Siafu – our aim was always to offer young people genuine adventure and to show them the best of Africa. We were a part of Africa and not just another commercially-minded company selling holidays.
In the shifting moods of Africa it became Siafu policy to explore every new route that became politically possible. Wherever there was something new to be tried in African experience or Trans-African travel, then Siafu would attempt it.
As we grew we expanded our ambitions. In addition to our regular overland expeditions Siafu would also contact out to private expeditions with a definite purpose. We could arrange specialized climbing expeditions to tackle Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro, or short purely photographic expeditions in search of any specific animal. We were the experts with all the necessary knowledge, vehicles and equipment and the experienced personnel to outfit any type of expedition anywhere in Africa. We were ready, and able, to cater for zoological or archaeological, or any other scientific or university research teams who needed to penetrate into the more remote and difficult regions of the continent.
Siafu soon became linked with the Association of World Learning. For any group that wished to promote a greater understanding of Africa; whether it be by studying prehistoric rock painting in the Sahara, living with the Congo pygmies, or combing the Ruwenzories for those few remaining gorillas, Siafu was always ready to undertake the organization of such an expedition. We could guarantee the safe and efficient transport of its members to the site of their researches.
Siafu in the mid-seventies was a thriving company, with many thanks due to the early generosity of my fellow directors Errol Baker and Gilbert Brown. Our vehicles were the best and the personal contacts I had built up over the past few years had ensured reasonably smooth sailing through all the political frontiers we had to pass.
However, the overland journey through Africa is never certain and will never be easy. To make that trans-continental journey will always be a challenge and an unsurpassable adventure. In an age where man has left his footprints on the moon Africa can still offer untrodden regions of forest and jungle. Africa is mystique and excitement, freedom and peace and nature untamed and timeless.
And even in our safe, comfortable and insulated welfare state world, I believe there will always be young men and women ready to respond to the magic call of Africa. For the young man or woman who truly wants to discover his or her own capacity, strengths and weaknesses, there is no better testing ground than Africa. Under expedition conditions true character must emerge and be strengthened.
On a Siafu expedition there is much hard work to be done: sand, mud, dust, heat and tsetse flies to be faced. But on the credit side there is the experience of a lifetime: the close circles of talk and laughter lit by the red glow of the camp fires, the blue skies that burn above beautiful desert isolation, the mountain peaks whose snows dazzle under the equatorial sun, the vast grassy plains dotted with wildlife, the tangled forests with their green and mysterious depths, and the continuous pageant of fascinating indigenous peoples.
All these, I can testify, are the rewards of Africa. But most of all, he who discovers Africa the hard way, the Siafu way, will also discover himself.
So ends the original book.
However, the good news is that in putting these chapters up on The Far Horizons I have again been able to make contact with Tim Baily. Tim is now running fishing safaris on Lake Nasser in Egypt. You can check out his website at www.african-angler.net
Tim is still keen to see the book published and we are now working together on a third section telling all the highlight stories and dramas of the later expeditions that continued to run all through the seventies and eighties. There are some fantastic tales here for Africa never fails to surprise and delight.
So watch this space.
Look out for the Book.
It’s going to be called:
OVERLAND THROUGH AFRICA