THE GODS OF BLOOD
On the third planet, between the last two great ice ages, the quest continues.
Raven, the last Sword Lord of Ghedda pursues his dream of leading a new military empire. He journeys from the southward drifting continent of Tar-Tika to the land of the Maytecs, where a blood stained pyramid is the scene of brutal human sacrifice.
Raven is pursued in turn by Kananda and Zela who must bring him back to Karakhor. Only Raven can help to repair and fly the damaged spaceship he has abandoned. Only with Raven’s help can the last life-bearing planet in the solar system be saved from total annihilation.
But in the jungle city of Chaxal Raven must first face a cruel and terrible enemy, an astral adept who is the reincarnation of a historical monster.
The great pyramid of Kukulcan rose high above the surrounding city of Chaxal and the outlying blanket of thick green jungle. At this height, above the bright red and gold rooftops of temples and palaces and the radiating rings of fine noble houses and the lesser dwellings of the warriors and artisans, the air should have been sweet and clean, but it was not. Instead there was the reek of death, the stench of sweat and fear and most of all of blood; old blood, young blood and new blood. The ultimate temple platform and the sacrificial altar that crowned the great pyramid was a place of copious blood-letting.
The man they knew as Chac-Mouel stood impassive at the head of the stained, black granite slab which formed the altar. His flowing robes of red and black, the colours of blood and death, failed to hide his tall, skeletally thin shape, which was a direct contrast to the short, squat bodies of the priests and their patiently waiting assistants. He wore a high serpent headdress over a domed skull of down-like short white hair. The serpent was fashioned from gold with black and silver scales. Its eyes were two vivid red rubies which seemed to glow with an inner fire. The man’s skin colour was grey-white, another contrast to the red-brown bodies of his companions. His eyes were cold grey with large black pupils, like those of a cruel predatory bird.
Chac-Mouel was different from the native Maytecs who populated this central part of the long, tight-waist continent of Mer-Rika. He was not from Earth. Spiritually and psychologically he was rooted in the past of what had once been the fifth planet in this solar system. His biological origins were in the stars, in the constellation of Orion. He was an alien even among aliens.
He was flanked by the two High Priests of the Jaguar and Eagle warrior castes. Calacmu, the Jaguar Priest-King, Lord of the Shadows and Night, held the sacrificial knife, an ancient artifact with a handle wrapped in thin coils of golden wire and encrusted with precious stones. The crude blade was shaped from razor sharp black obsidian. It was a heavy tool, designed to smash as much as cut its way into a victim’s chest.
Calacmu wore a black-mottled cloak made from the flayed skins of seven of the big jungle cats. The empty head of one of the beasts formed a cap with yellow eyes and snarling jaws above his brow. His face was hidden behind a close jaguar face mask of polished black jade where only his eyes gleamed through the eye-slit holes.
Tuluc, the warrior priest of the Eagles, Lord of the Sun and Sky, wore a rainbow cloak of multi-coloured feathers, gathered from all the birds of the forest and the far distant mountains. They included tribute from every city in the lands between north and south Mer-Rika. On his broad chest there hung a long gold pendant that portrayed his Eagle God, the Sun God, the Serpent God, the Jaguar God and the Rain God in descending order. Above his head rose a mask of black and white eagle feathers. His dark cold face looked out from its open beak of hooked yellow gold. His expression was sour because on this day he did not hold the sacrificial knife.
Behind the motionless triad of priests there stood a single priestess. Her name was Tayasal and she represented the Serpent Goddess. Her robes and head-dress were similar to those of Chac-Mouel, although slightly less resplendent. The Serpent priest was the embodiment of Kukulcan, the Creator God. The Serpent Woman was his consort. The relationship between this current pair was not purely symbolic.
Four assistants completed their retinue; four strong young men in simple white robes, their hands and faces were painted a bright vermillion red. The robes were pure and spotless for the first victim had yet to be hauled to the top of the pyramid.
There was one more presence on top of the pyramid. Inside a stout wooden cage a live jaguar restlessly twisted and turned. There was no room to pace and prowl but the animal was constantly on the move. It was a strong muscled adult male, sleek and well fed, but frustrated and angry. Its eyes were hot fire, glowering at the Jaguar priest as though it recognized the dangling pelts of its slain brothers and desired only vengeance.
Sunrise, sunset and high noon were the most precipitous times for the ritual of human sacrifice, the key points in the daily passage of the highest god. Blood, specifically human blood, was necessary to petition the gods, to welcome the Sun God at daybreak, to honor him at his highest point, and to petition for his return before he disappeared below the edge of the world at the end of the day.
The sun now was at its zenith, a scorching orb in a brilliant blue sky. The priests were hot in their heavy robes but they showed no sign. They waited, hearing the first sounds of movement from the steep flight of steps that led down to the great plaza below.
The plaza was crowded, almost the entire population of Chaxal had gathered to witness the daily ritual. At the base of the pyramid a line of bound prisoners stood with their hands tied behind their backs, each one wearing a simple white shift over his loincloth. Their feet and heads were bare. A few stood straight-backed and proud, the rest slumped in various stages of resignation and dejection. They had been captured in a Jaguar clan raid into the territories of a neighboring city. Each of them was flanked by two armed warriors of the Jaguars.
The first prisoner was already half way up the flight of steep brick steps which cut through the nine terraces of the pyramid. Nine was the believed number of layers of the underworld, and thirteen layers of the heavens were believed to ascend invisible above them. The prisoner on the steps was a nobleman who climbed between his two guards with slow dignity and his head held high. A third guard followed behind with an obsidian blade spear but he was not needed. The captives were sacrificed in order of rank and usually only the last few in line would have to be dragged or pushed up to meet their fate.
There was a hushed silence in and around the plaza. The vendors who sold sugared fruits and drinks, corn cakes and roast meats of dubious origin, were briefly silent. The great roar of approval would go up when a bleeding heart was presented, held aloft for all to see, and the corpse was thrown down the side of the pyramid.
The prisoner reached the top level of the temple and stood between carved square columns that were richly decorated with depictions of the gods. The columns supported no roof. The temple was open to the sky. The sun was directly overhead, sending down hammer-blows of heat. The prisoner stared into the grim visages of Serpent, Jaguar and Eagle. His body trembled slightly. He was a young man of prime fighting age but he did not attempt to resist. By his code it would have been shameful to do so.
The three guards turned and began their descent of the pyramid. The four attendants moved forward and quickly stripped the prisoner of his single garment, leaving him naked but for a brief loincloth. They turned him with his back to the altar and carried him swiftly backward by his arms and legs. The prisoner closed his eyes and grimaced as his shoulders thumped down on the hard black granite. The attendants knelt two on either side of the altar, pulling hard on the four spread limbs and crouching in positions of supplication.
Calacmu moved forward, gripped the thick black blade knife in both hands and raised it above his head. His eyes blazed, his lips compressed. He plunged down with all his strength, hacking and twisting to open the shattered chest.
The prisoner died without a sound except for the crunching of his broken sternum. The Jaguar priest turned and handed the bloodied knife to the Serpent priestess. Tayasal cleaned it reverently with a cloth, ready for the next victim. Calacmu pushed both hands into the chest cavity he had created and tore out the still beating heart. The red blood sprayed and spilled and ran over the still warm corpse and the altar table.
The heart had one more duty before it was displayed to the crowd. Chac-Mouel stepped back from the head of the altar and away from the square of white cloth that had been laid ready upon the stone tiles at his feet. Calacmu held out his prize and deliberately dropped it.
The dripping heart splashed down on the crisp white cloth and sprayed more blood from its severed arteries. The Jaguar priest leaned forward to study the patterns of bright scarlet that now stained the purity of white. One long streak ran like a broken river to the top edge of the cloth. It stopped short of one large splash stain and four smaller splashes.
“A stranger comes from the east, from the sea. He brings danger and four companions.” Calacmu spoke slowly, as though mystified and uncertain. He looked up into the eyes of Chac-Mouel for confirmation.
The Serpent priest nodded slowly. He knew this already, but he was intrigued. He had watched from the astral plane as the blue warrior who threatened his fledgling empire had embarked with his friends. Their ship was now at sea, midway between the continents of Tar-Tika and Mer-Rika. What he could not understand was how Calacmu could interpret these events so accurately from his own crude method of divination.
“They come,” he agreed. “One is a blue-skinned stranger who is very dangerous. Two are of another earth race from beyond another ocean, they are similar to you. And two are Tar-Tikans.”
Calacmu’s unblinking eyes stared at him from behind the jaguar mask, almost as black and evil as the jade mask itself. “Your people we know,” he said slowly. “Another earth race we can understand. But who is the blue-skin one?”
Chac-Mouel could have explained. The blue-skinned man was named Raven. He was a warrior of Ghedda, perhaps even a Sword Lord, from the planet Dooma which had recently disappeared from the night sky. How he came to be here on this planet was a mystery and it was too hot for a long session of question and answer. There was other business to attend and the crowd below would grow impatient. They had to be kept both fearful and appreciative.
“I will deal with him when they arrive,” he said enigmatically, and gestured for the ritual to continue.
Calacmu was still for another moment, his eyes still staring but with his face unreadable behind the black beast mask. Then he stooped and picked up the bloodied heart. He carried it to the edge of the platform and held it high above his head. A great cheer rang up from the massed thousands in the plaza below. The four acolytes, their robes now splashed with red had already pulled the corpse from the altar and dragged it to the edge of the platform. Now they rolled it over the edge and watched it bounce down the steps in a cartwheel of flapping limp limbs. The continuing cheers from below were ecstatic.
There was a receptacle for the extracted hearts. A seated stone statue of Kukulcan was positioned on the edge of the platform where it could be seen from the plaza below. The god’s harsh, grim face was carved from grey granite and in his lap he held a stone bowl. The bowl had a deep centre and there was room for many offerings.
The hearts were symbolically offered to the god but most of them would be roasted later to provide a feast for the priests. The discarded bodies would be cooked and eaten to provide yet more strength and courage for the Jaguar warriors who had captured them in battle.
Calacmu hesitated with the dripping organ still in his hand, but the jaguar snarled from within its cage. It was a deep-throated, threatening sound. Calacmu turned, held the heart for a moment over the cage and then dropped it though a gap between the wooden bars. The jungle cat caught it neatly between its fearsome jaws, chewed, shook its head and swallowed. The living god also had to be fed.
In the meantime the next sacrificial victim was already being escorted up to the top of the pyramid.
As the killing continued, Chac-Mouel lost interest. Instead he was thinking of what he had seen on his last disembodied flight in the astral realm. He had seen the large reed boat captained by the black man Karuba as it sailed across the vast ocean from the southbound drifting continent of Tar-Tika. The ship’s course was bringing it directly to this part of Mer-Rika.
On board was the man Raven, his brown-skin woman and the brown-skin warrior who was their companion. With them were Kel-Khotal and his sister Oriana. Chac-Mouel knew the latter pair well. They were of his own race, fifth generation descendents of the crew of the starship that had crashed long ago into the ice of Tar-Tika. Kel-Khotal still saw their mission here as Teachers and it was Kel-Khotal who had helped him to first establish himself among the Maytecs. Now Kel-Khotal was coming to investigate his achievements and that meant that the interfering Kel-Khotal and his sister must die.
Chac-Mouel had tried to kill Kel-Khotal before, using his powers of coercion from the astral plane, but each time he had been foiled by Raven. The Gheddan was a worthy swordsman full of reckless courage. Chac-Mouel knew that he would kill Kel-Khotal and that he should kill Raven. But the mystery of the lone Gheddan intrigued him and he saw that although they were enemies now they could well be allies.
Raven might well be the last biological Gheddan to survive in this solar system but Chac-Mouel was Gheddan in spirit. He had been reborn into the body of a Tar-Tikan but once he had been Strang, the First Sword Lord, the man who had forged the Gheddan Empire, the man who had built the City of Swords. He had ruled by creating rivers of blood. They had called him Strang the Bloody and Strang the Butcher, Strang the Conqueror.
Chac-Mouel was merely a flesh vessel. He was truly Strang. He would be Strang the powerful, Strang the tyrant yet again. The Maytecs were ideally malleable to his purpose and their obsession with blood rites was more than he could have hoped.
It was a glorious vision that any true Gheddan must share and if the blue man could be suborned he would make an able lieutenant.
He was briefly brought back from his thoughts by another triumphant bellow of voices from the plaza below. Another uplifted heart was being shown to the mob before being dropped into Kukulcan’s bowl.
Strang, he was thinking of himself as Strang now, returned to his meditations. There was another group, he knew, following the first. This second group was led by a brown skin swordsman who styled himself a king and included four gold skins who could only be Alphans who had also originated on the lost planet of Dooma. The fifth planet was gone forever but it seemed that a small group of its inhabitants had somehow escaped to earth.
Strang did not know if the second group were friends or enemies of the first or what part they intended to play in whatever events were to come. However he had become aware that three of the Alphans and the earth swordsman were also astral travelers. They were weak, mere children compared to his own abilities which were honed through many reincarnations, but they would bear watching
Another sacrificial victim died beneath the plunging knife, this one kicking and screaming in terror. The intrusion of noise and struggle dispelled Strang’s thoughts once again. The white cloth with its red splashes of divination was still at his feet and he kicked it to one side.
Tayasal saw the movement and smiled at him briefly, her teeth a flash of gleaming white in her dark shadowed face. Then she turned her rapt attention back to the blood-letting on the altar. She was breathing rapidly and he could smell her sexual excitement.
The serpent priestess was aroused and that meant another duty he had to perform as soon as possible once the present spectacle was over. In his imagination he could already taste her hungry mouth and feel the sharp, long talons of her fingernails raking his back.
I hope you have enjoyed this free read first chapter. To buy the book go to my Heroic Fantasy page and follow the link to my Amazon page.
KING’S LYNN AND THE HANSEATIC LEAGUE
BY ROBERT LEADER
The undoubted highlight of the 2009 Kings Lynn Maritime festival was the appearance of the reconstructed 15th century caravel the Lisa Von Lubeck. The sturdy little two mast sailing ship with her high wooden bows sailed into the Great Ouse and moored up at Boal Quay. The two headed black eagle with its out-spread wings, the proud symbol of the old German Hanseatic League, was gallantly displayed on the stiff white canvas of her mainsail.
The ship was a World Heritage project built in the old Hanseatic city of Lubeck, her German home port, and took five years of dedicated construction work between 1999 and 2004. Approximately 350 people worked on the ship and two thirds of those were young adults who were previously unskilled in any knowledge of carpentry, engineering, sail-making, or any of the other skills in boat building.
It was an impressive accomplishment when you saw her in full sail on a fine, sunny morning. The high castles fore and aft were originally designed to enable soldiers and crew to ward off attacking pirates. However, on this passage through The Wash there were only smiles and waves to greet her.
Ships like these were regular visitors to King’s Lynn during the 13th to 15th centuries when Lynn was one of the major ports in England and the Hanseatic League of Germany virtually ruled the North Sea and The Baltic. During this period the German Merchants of this great maritime guild were the dominant political and economic power. Their trading empire covered more than eighty ports and towns, including Lubeck, Hamburg and Bremen in Germany, with trading outposts in Holland and Scandinavia and in Russia at Novogrod and Vladivostock.
In England they had trading posts in Lynn, Boston and Steelyard in the Port of London. Lynn and Boston were particularly important because of their direct sea links to Northern Europe.
Hanse was the German word for guild or association and the German Hansa was initially formed to protect German ships and German trade from robbers and pirates. It built lighthouses and trained pilots. However, it soon expanded to organize and control trade for its own benefit by negotiating commercial privileges and establishing trading bases overseas. It’s aggressive and protectionist trading practises, the use of embargoes and blockades and occasionally the alternative ploy of threatening to withdraw its trade, soon gave it a monopoly that swamped all foreign competition.
The League traded in grain and timber, fish and furs and flax and honey, carrying cargoes between Russia, Germany, Norway and Flanders, and in England to and from Boston and Lynn. The cargoes that flowed outward from the wash ports were usually grain and salt, cloth and wool.
The League ships also carried passengers, many of them pilgrims disembarking at Lynn to make the last part of the journey overland on foot to the great Abbey shrine at Walsingham. The Augustinian abbey which cared for those mediaeval pilgrims is in ruins now, although modern pilgrims still come to visit the new church at what has always been known as England’s Nazareth.
There are still many parts of King’s Lynn that would have been familiar to the visiting German sailors and the resident German merchants.
Foremost would be their former Kontor, or trading post, which was the old warehouse complex fronting the quay beside the narrow cobbled street of St Margaret’s lane. It was close to St Margaret’s Priory Church, the Old Saturday Market Place, and the Holy Trinity Guildhall, all of which would also have been familiar sights in mediaeval times.
The property was purchased by the League in 1475, soon after the treaty of Utrecht had ended several years of Sea Warfare. Commercial relations between England and the League had deteriorated after English privateers seized the League’s Bay salt fleet which operated between south-west France and the Baltic in 1449. Several years of conflict ensued before the Urecht treaty restored peace and gave the Germans most of their commercial aims. These included the free gifts of their former trading posts at Steelyard and Boston and a new one at King’s Lynn.
Here the German merchants now had their permanent lodgings, warehouses to store their goods, their offices and stalls and shops. They redeveloped the site in the late 1470s when the two warehouses were built and occupied their new trading post until the late 1560s.
The Port of Lynn was now the key crossroads of the Anglo-Hanseatic trade between East Anglia and Prussia. Lynn merchants were also active in the same trade routes and in the Greenland whaling and the Iceland cod fisheries, but the Hanseatic traders were always the largest group of foreign merchants in the town.
The wash ports of Boston and Lynn were now ranked only slightly below London and Southampton among the four greatest ports in England. These were the days when the quaysides at Lynn were jam-packed with ships, and the skyline became a swaying forest of tall masts and rigging.
The magnificent Holy Trinity Guildhall was rebuilt in the 1420s. It stands facing the old Saturday Market Place and St Margaret’s Church. It has a tall, monolithic porch front beside a high gable over a massive arched window more befitting a cathedral. The whole frontage is splendidly decorated with chequerboard flints.
In November of 1473 the King’s representatives stood in the main hall of the Holy Trinity Guildhall to announce to Lynn’s merchants the details of the new Treaty of Utrecht. Once established in their new krondor the German guildsmen would have been frequent visitors here.
Prior to establishing their own trading post the visiting German merchants had always preferred to find lodgings in King Street which in those days was known as Stockfish Row. They would have been familiar too with St George’s Guildhall, which still survives and is now an Arts Centre. King Street would have been their first choice to establish their new trading post but at the time there was no land there available for sale.
The quays and the river have all shifted and changed since the 13th and 14th centuries. The Purfleet harbour would have been about three times its current width, extending as far as Baker Lane where excavations in 1968 revealed the remains of timber supports of the old quayside.
The old Custom House with its white timber lantern tower that now stands on Purfleet Quay was not built until 1683. It would become the prominent landmark for ship’s sailing into Lynn for the next three hundred years, but before that, during the Hanseatic period, the major landmarks would have been the Greyfriars tower and the twin towers of St Margaret’s Church.
The Greyfriars Tower is all that remains of the Franciscan Friary that flourished here through the 13th to 15th centuries. It points a single, tall red brick finger to the sky and stands in a small tree lined park that is an open green space in the old heart of the town.
St Margarets is one of the largest town churches in the country, close to the river where the twin towers rise above the cobbled streets around the warehouse site of the old krondor. It was founded in 1101 by Bishop Herbert de Losinga who also built Norwich Cathedral. The priory’s fortunes went hand in hand with the mediaeval growth of the town and the two massive towers were begun about the middle of the 12th century. They were not complete until almost a hundred years later.
The priory was dissolved in the 1530s and in a ferocious storm in 1741 the spire and the top of the North West tower came crashing down into the nave. Today this historic church is restored and rebuilt, and still continues its 900 year old tradition of welcoming visitors and pilgrims.
The German Hanseatic League began to decline in the sixteenth century and British and Dutch Naval power grew. There was also a shift in trade routes as the new colonies were discovered beyond the Atlantic. The seaports on the west coast of England took the lion’s share of the new trade, and Liverpool and Glasgow replaced Boston and Lynn as the key players.
The League’ trading post at Lynn was finally leased back to Lynn merchants as the Germans withdrew. By this time the river itself had receded and the old trading post was sold for £800 in 1751. It was then remodelled to become St Margaret’s house, the fine Georgian mansion that we see today. The second warehouse nearby that still faces the South Quay is now restored as the Green Quay café and the Wash Discovery Centre.
The original Hanseatic League’s diet, its assembly of guild associations, met for the last time in 1669. However, a new Hanseatic League has now been revived. Mercantile domination has been replaced with the fostering of business links and the promotion of culture, heritage and tourism between the member towns and cities. It boasts 177 members and the only English town listed is King’s Lynn.
The wind moans softly from the lonely sea
Like the lost souls of sailors
And drowned fishermen
The waves roll in from the silent night
Rising and falling without end
Like men and empires
Becoming and dying.
The sea shares its secrets with the ice-bright stars
Timeless eyes a million light years distant
Eternal, knowing, watching
Through dark clouds flying.
All the patterns of life are sown in the restless sea
Never still, yet never changing
The face of God is sketched within the stars
The wind is sighing.
And I am but a mortal man, microscopic, insignificant
The Truth is hidden wisely from my eyes
I know nothing -
But I am trying.
I recently watched an episode of the TV series Ancient Aliens. I can’t subscribe to the heavily hammered view that everything our forefathers achieved was the work of ancient aliens, or that all the gods of every religion were actually alien visitations on Earth. However, the series does range over our ancient civilizations and religious worlds which do interest me and some of its speculations are interesting.
This particular episode focused on Erich Von Daniken and his best-selling book Chariot of the Gods, which first raised the possibility that alien visitors in the past could explain some of the mysterious art work and mythology of the ancients. I read that book when it first appeared, and later the works of Graham Hancock with books like Fingerprints of the Gods, and I must confess that they did influence the creation of my own fantasy trilogies, The Fifth Planet and The Third Planet.
I began to wonder, if they came at all, did these other world visitors have to have come from another solar system or even another galaxy. Then I learned that the asteroid belt which orbits between Mars and Jupiter could have been another planet which never completely formed or a planet which was somehow destroyed. I visited India and read the great Hindu epics of their mythology and suddenly all these ideas came together. I created Dooma, the lost fifth planet of our solar system and set the story between the last two Earth ice ages.
Recently scientists have discovered a large asteroid in the asteroid belt which was composed of solid iron, possibly the iron core of a planet which had somehow suffered some catastrophic means of destruction. Now it is difficult to tell where reality and fact come to an end and the fantastic fiction of my imagination begins.
Read the books and find out. The Sword Lord, Sword Empire and Sword destiny tell the story of The Fifth Planet. The Gods of ice, The Gods of Blood and The Gods of Fire, tell the continuing story of the survivors on The Third Planet.
Greed for power, and greed for glory,
The double curse of mankind‘s story.
Since life first crawled and time began,
And earth was marked by steps of man,
The patterns of progression range,
Through dynasties of changeless change,
Heroes rise, dictators fall,
And heroes turn dictators all,
Each crashing down as each one must,
Dissolved by death, returned to dust,
And so through all eternity,
This torn world must divided be,
The only limit of the creeds,
The power-seeking men who lead,
Each King and Priest, Hero and knave,
Lusting for his share of fame,
Raising noble swords on high,
Fluttering banners to the sky,
Cries of Liberty and right,
When Liberty is only Death,
And right is only might.
And yet --
Through the curtained veils of sleeping time,
When life dwelt in primeval slime,
When all was helpless, groping, blind,
All one mindless, bestial kind,
The creature first to raise his eyes,
Towards the sun and stars and skies,
The first upon two legs to stand,
Was power-seeking, striving man,
Those who led us from the swamp,
To dignity and pride and pomp,
Who wrote our history's golden page,
And gave us all our heritage,
Who made our empires soar and flower,
In their lust for glory and for power,
Who showed us what a man is worth,
And made us masters of our earth,
Are those same kings and priests and knaves,
Who slumber silent in their graves.
The strive for power, the strive for glory,
The shining light of mankind's story.
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