IS THE AGE OF EMPIRE BUILDING OVER?
Ever since men built the first cities and accumulated the first benefits of collective wealth we have lived in the age of empire building. Wealth and power could be achieved but it was easier to steal than to create. Earth's history has become a succession of empires, most of them building on the fall of the one before. Western history records the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, The Egyptian Empire, the Empire of Alexander the great, The Roman Empire and many more. All leading up to the British Empire and the colonial empires of the other great European nations. Further afield there were a succession of Indian Empires, Chinese Empires, and in the Americas the great empires of the Inca, the Maya and the Aztecs. All were achieved or sustained by war, and the colonial empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the two devastating World Wars of the twentieth century.
Now Russia has launched another savage war on the Ukraine, trying desperately to rebuild the fading empire of the old USSR.
However, could this be one last major throw at the age-old tradition of empire-building? The world has changed and now it is imperative that all nations should unite to save our imperilled planet. Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine at this particular time is perhaps the most stupid move that any great power has ever made. Climate change threatens us all and the vast amount of wealth and resources that is being wasted on this insane conflict could have been invested in solar power stations or other renewable energy sources. The idea of harvesting solar energy from space stations and relaying it to Earth via microwaves has been around for a long time, but until now has been shelved because it was too expensive. Now modern advances in space technology have made such projects more feasible. The fact that we are running out of earth-based energy resources, plus the fact that the pollution they cause has almost irreversibly damaged our climate has made them essential.
Just when we need to pool all our resources into combatting climate change Russia has chosen to embark on this criminal waste, adding to the problem instead of seeking to resolve it. Every bullet, shell and missile fired in this insane waste of lives and resources is not only an opportunity cost in the fight back to save the planet, but it also actually adds to the waves of pollution being released to further wound our failing atmosphere.
Vladimir Putin and his KGB allies in the Kremlin are not the only deluded empire-builders who are blind to the real needs of our ailing planet. Al-Queda, ISIS and the Taliban have all waged wars and acts of international terrorism in their attempt to create a new Islamic Empire, again wasting millions of lives and trillions of dollars in the senseless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
It seems that there is always money, on all sides, to fight another war. The opportunity cost of these empire building adventures could, with the right kind of political will and determination, be measured in improved living standards, unlimited solar energy, a planet restored.
With climate change we face the end of life as we know it. As the climate changes we need to change the patterns of our own behaviour. Empire building and power wars are the struggles of the playground. We have to grow up and become something better that what we were. The survival of the planet, our own survival depends upon it. We do need an unprecedented, international, all-faith and all-race unity of purpose.
The latest reports from Ukraine say that the Ukrainians have counter-attacked and are re-taking territory captured by the Russians. So where do they go from here? Will the battles continue to see-saw back and forth, grinding the populations and turning the ground itself into a useless charnel house of burned earth and dead bodies of no practical use to either side. Will Putin give up or go to the ultimate madness of using his threatened nuclear weapons. A couple of nuclear weapons, dropped on Kiev and Kharkiv would obliterate much of Ukraine. Putin could even point to a precedent: the US dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end their war with Japan. Their rational was that fewer people actually died than the death toll would have been if they had launched a full-scale invasion of Japan. Putin could claim the same justification, that he would be saving a greater number of Russian lives than by continuing the war.
But would the West let him get away with it? We still live in the MAD world of Mutually Assured Destruction. One nuclear weapon could spark a full scale nuclear in which everybody loses. Would Putin be mad enough to take the risk?
The choices seem stark. Option One, nuclear Armageddon which would obliterate Russia and the West. If China could stay out of it they would be the dubious winners, of a catastrophic climate and a ruined world. Option two, a seemingly endless back and forth struggle of conventional warfare in Ukraine and increasing economic disaster and accelerated climate change. Option three, to let Putin win and then have Russia turn its belligerent aggression on its other neighbours with the same planetary nightmares.
Or option four, for Russia to give up her empire-building and return to the cooperation with the rest of the world as envisaged by the late president Gorbachev. The last option is the only one that offers hope, but it would mean Russia abandoning Putin. Putin does not stand alone but his ruling clique would have to stand back and let him fall alone. The nation would need a scapegoat and as President Putin is the obvious choice.
To return to the question with which we began, is this the end of the age of empire-building? We can only hope that this will be so. The impending disaster of climate change is perhaps the only cause and crisis that can now bring Russia and the West together in united purpose.
As the lands immediately north and south of the equator dry out and become uninhabitable whole populations will be forced to move further away from the new desert zones. Many millions of Chinese, Indians, Iranian and Iraqis will be pushing north into the thawing and gentler climate of Siberia. These swarming migrants of the future will only want to occupy the new lands that have opened up, they will not want to be ruled by the now dominant KGB clique in the Kremlin.
They cannot see it yet, but it is in Russia's interest to cooperate with the rest of the world and work to reverse climate change. It is not in Europe that the Russian Empire will finally crumble but along that seventeen thousand mile long and indefensible land border with China and Kazakstan.
The predicted doom-laden scenarios of the end of civilization as we know it may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise. They could be the imperative we need to take the next urgent step in human social evolution.
HERE RE A FEW MORE OF MY POEMS BASED ON THE CHAPTER HEADINGS IN
THE BASIC TEACHINGS OF THE GREAT PHILOSPHERS
SOUL AND IMMORTALITY
Is the essence of life
Is like a handful of salt
Sprinkled into water
It cannot be identified
It cannot be separated
Yet it is there.
Passes through many forms
Its arrival is birth
Its departure is death
Its continuance is eternal
And you find nothing
And you are nothing
THE NATURE OF GOD
Is the face of the heavens
With the face in the mirror
Is the Life Force
The patterns of eternity
The essence that men call soul
The Buddhist Wheel
The Mystic Way
The Aspects of One
That are particles of the Whole
Is the face in the mirror
With the face in the stars
Life is a river
That flows from the stream of birth
To the sea of death.
A man may pause on its sunny banks
to idle, and inhale the wild-sweet flowers
with slow-drawn breath.
Or he can fight its rapids
The tide race of its swirling currents
Kicking his feet through the dragging reeds.
He can explore its many side streams
Diverting from the left bank to the right
But to progress he can only follow.
Where the river leads.
The course is mapped out
Only the duration of the voyage
And the courage with which it is made
Are left to man.
All else is Kismet.
BASIC TEACHINGS OF THE GREAT PHILOSOPHERS was one of the first two philosophy books I read, The other was Will Durrant's THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY which outlined in historical order the stories of everyone from Plato to John Dewey. GREAT PHILOSOPHERS was the perfect alternative approach because each chapter focussed on one of the great philosophical questions and gave all of each philosopher's contributions to that particular debate.
For what it was worth I eventually added my own thoughts to each issue in verse.
THE NATURE OF THE UNIVERSE
Galaxies, Galaxies, Galaxies,
Each one a nebulous, drifting, starry mist,
Whirling pools of eternal light,
By God's unending energy kissed,
Matter blending into phantasies,
Vast starry sea,
Of fire and earth and life and air,
A multi-elemental flux,
A constant changing, changeless flux,
A timeless mosaic that vanishes to reappear,
In patterns of infinity.
Each pin-point flame,
Vast beyond all scope of human mind,
Matter enclosing knowledge,
Striving to attain its perfect form,
The Will of God that all must seek and find,
Or start the circle yet again.
A panoramic stage of strife,
For tragedy, for drama, and for mirth,
For love and fears,
For hate and tears,
Where every death begets a birth,
And conflict is the stuff of life.
A triad of balance,
Energy for thrust and growth and change,
Thought that expands,
Through realization of itself,
And threads of soul in order to maintain,
A universe of galaxies,
Patterns in the stars that shine,
Becoming and dispersing,
Fading and emerging,
Repeated through the paths of time,
The systems of eternity.
MAN'S PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE
In God's great universal chart,
Man is but a jigsaw part,
Not meaningless nor yet the heart.
His place is here upon this earth,
To play his part for all his worth,
And then dissolve through death to birth.
His flesh is naught but living dust,
Chained by pains and fears and lust,
But strive to reach the stars he must.
For through him runs the timeless thread,
That weaves the living and the dead,
To guide the future where the past once led.
Each man has from his mother come,
Each man is his father's son,
The timeless triad of the One.
GOOD AND EVIL
In the eyes of a man,
Life is good,
And evil the taint that mars,
But all is a pattern of shades,
In the eye of the stars.
All the evils of the world,
Greed and lust and hate and pride,
Are the limited views of a selfish mind,
Good is wisdom,
Understanding above intelligence,
And compassion for all mankind.
To live as you would have others live,
Tod do as you would have others do,
As Kant wrote, is the Golden Rule,
All opposite is evil,
But evil is necessary to the whole.
Intelligence must grow from ignorance,
Understanding from intelligence,
Compassion from understanding,
Good and evil' are but opposite ends.
Of the ascending scale.
In the eyes of a man,
There are extremes,
Where diverse forces wage their wars,
But all is a moving picture,
In the eye of the stars.
EVIL IN UKRAINE
President Putin's cruel, bloody and ruthless invasion of Ukraine has shocked the world and filled the headlines, but has anyone remembered the Cuban Crisis of 1962?.
The USSR had installed nuclear missiles in to communist Cuba, thus bringing them within easy range of mainland America. The USA was under direct threat. God-and-Russia-fearing Americans were appalled. Presidents Kennedy and Kruschev famously went eyeball to eyeball over the issue and for as brief period the whole world trembled on the brink of World War Three. At any second the Cold War could have become a Hot War, the nuclear holocaust that could have destroyed us all.
Then President Kruschev blinked and withdrew his missiles.
Now, sixty years later, Ukraine is the action replay of that crisis in reverse.
The West has been trying to coax Ukraine into joining NATO which would enable the West to install nuclear missiles within easy striking distance of Moscow. It is the Cuban crisis all over again but nobody has blinked. The sane solution would have been for Ukraine and all the other ex socialist republics to remain neutral, but the West insists that Ukraine must be “free” to exercise it's “Democratic” right to join NATO.
So the West is not quite as squeaky-clean as it likes to pretend about the whole horrible mess.
Putin has backed himself into a corner with his prolonged build up of his forces along the border, but the West steadfastly refused to give him any wriggle room.
Despite all his lies and bluster Putin must have had the same fears as the Americans back in 1962. The perceived enemy was getting too close and targeting him from his own backyard.
Sadly the merciless execution of the ensuing war and all its subsequent atrocities, plus the blatant lying and total suppression of all opposition within Russia, have totally negated all the sympathy it may have been possible to have for Putin's initial dilemma. Putin has gone power mad, not only risking but threatening nuclear Armageddon if he does not get his way.
For the atheist all thinking and discussion end there. It happens. Brute fact. That's the way it is.
For the theist this is not enough. To know how things happen and how circumstances escalate is not enough. To understand the eternal security dilemma, the need to maintain armies and defences you may hope never to need, but at the same time provoking the same fears and responses in your rivals, is not enough. If we believe that there is a God, and that He is all powerful and all good, then we have to ask WHY does He allow these things to happen?
The eternal problem of evil re-asserts itself. Why does evil happen? Why does history repeat itself in the form of endless wars that are insane, pointless and totally destructive? Why do the Adolf Hitlers, the Joseph Stalins, The Saddam Husseins and the Vladimir Putins keep reappearing? And why do they always rise to the very top of human society where their power hunger can do the most damage?
The problem of evil has been much discussed in philosophy and the prime defence of why God allows evil is the fact that wars and disasters always bring out the best as well as the worst of the basic impulses of humanity. In the blitz spirit, for example, the qualities of care and compassion for others come to the fore with many examples of selfless heroism and sacrifice.
We can see all this happening again in the heroic defence and suffering of Uktaine.
The atheist counter argument is always that this is not enough. The constant repetition of wars and disasters drowns out the examples of good that can come from these situations.
But can we take this argument one step further. Let us assume for a moment that the purpose of wars and disasters is to refine those better qualities of humanity. Could the constant repetition of such situations be because we all too soon forget what we have learned and return to the old patterns of greed and self interest, striving again for wealth and power and whatever form of empire building we can achieve. Every religion stresses the Golden Rule and any form of communal threat does bring the community spirit to the fore, but we forget too quickly and go back to the old ways. ignoring or using others for our own self advancement. Could it be that we need the constant reminders of our own vulnerability and the need to unite together.
In the science fiction novels of Julian May the evolved telepathic minds of humanity had to act in what she termed a metaconcert, working together as one, before the advanced mental community of the galaxy as she perceived it could accept Earth into their galactic community. Could these fictional pointers prove to be a clue to what God wants and why he allows wars and natural disasters to happen?
In my own book, God, War and Reincarnation, I came to the tentative conclusion that in all probability ours is a soul-building world. We are not a finished product. We are a work in progress. God is still shaping us and we are still evolving.
Also this is not a yet a perfect world in which God's Will is finally completed.
Think for a moment on the words of The Lord's Prayer as recounted in the Bible.
“.....Thy Will be done, Thy Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven....”
The clear indication here is that God's Will is not yet done here on Earth, but only in Heaven.”
In the meantime we have to steer in that direction, work for it, build for it, and help each other along the way.
We can only hope and pray that Vladimir Putin will not become totally insane and launch the nuclear holocaust he has threatened. The Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War. Their rationale was that a full scale assault on the Japanese mainland would have cost more lives than the two atomic bombs. Could Putin use the same kind of rationale to convince his Politburo that one nuclear bomb dropped on Kiev could save the lives of an even greater number of Russian soldiers?
It seems that we can only pray that the realpolitik of Mutually Assured Destruction will hold his generals and the rest of his inner council in check.
Sometimes, as in Ukraine today, the demands of war will be heart-breaking, but we can only hope that the human spirit will go on. And pray that sanity will prevail before our civilization can be reduced to the Stone Age, or obliterated altogether.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Christmas is a wonderful time. All over the western world thousands of happy people will gather in all our major towns and cities to watch the great annual switch on of the Christmas lights. There will be illuminated Christmas tress forming a glittering centrepiece to most of out main squares and all the main streets will be dripping with lights and sparkle. Stars and angels, reindeers and fantastic bells and baubles are all illuminated against the sky in wonderful feasts of light and colour.
In addition all of our cathedrals and many of our churches and public buildings will be beautifully illuminated with golden light. Their towers and facades brilliantly spotlit against the night sky.
Most of us will have a smaller Christmas tree in out own homes, alive with fairy lights or colour-changing LED lights, and many of us will have decorated the outside of our homes with cascades of white, blue or yellow icicles festooned around the eaves and gables. Some of us will even competing with the town centres by packing in as many light ornaments as we can, from illuminated snowmen and Santas to jolly elves and flying neon sleighs. Some of the private efforts are really magnificent, designed to attract visitors and collect money for charities.
It is no coincidence that Christmas occurs in mid winter, when the daylight hours are short and the nights are long and cold. Light has always been seen as a symbol of life itself. The sun is essentially a blazing ball of light and even the most primitive of men understood that it's warmth and light generated everything they needed to survive. When the bleak hours of darkness dominated their lives they needed to remind themselves and assure themselves that the brighter and warmer days would come again.
Pagan yule rituals celebrated the winter solstice when the days began to get longer, promising the return of the sun. Druid priests would cut the mistletoe from the sacred oaks to offer as blessings and burn bonfires of yule logs to banish evil spirits, conquer the darkness and welcome the light. It all helped to boost morale and promised good luck for the new year.
With the advent of Christianity much of the symbolism and substance of the these ancient rituals became incorporated into the new festive season of Christmas. Fixing the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December placed it close enough to the winter solstice for the celebrations to simply merge. Christmas is now the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but the birth of Jesus was marked by the star over Bethlehem which illuminated the spot and guided the shepherds and the wise men and so the symbolism of light was strengthened and maintained.
For centuries the celebrations were marked by the lights of bonfires and yule logs, by rush light torches, candles and the light of oil lamps. The Egyptians made the first candles with animal fat and later the Romans created wicked candles with beeswax. Candles are lit in the Catholic churches to symbolize Christ as the Light of the World, again stressing the symbolism of light.
Candles are also lit in remembrance of the departed. Candlelight processions at Lourdes create a moving river of candlelight. Candles and incenses sticks are lit at altars everywhere in every religion. In England at Christmas candlelight Carole services pack the churches.
The story of modern electrical Christmas lighting begins with Thomas Eddison in the United States of America in the 1980s. Eddison invented the first electric light bulb and displayed his invention by hanging strings of electric light bulbs around his laboratory in New Jersey. Later one of Eddison's employees used strings of electric light bulbs to decorate his Christmas tree in his home in Manhattan.
The idea was not an overnight success because those early lights were expensive and needed an electrician to install them. Gradually they were made safer and cheaper. The first Christmas lights to go on in London were lit up in Regent Street in 1954, and now of course they are everywhere. Modern technology creates the glittering pageants of light that we can now enjoy over the festive season of Christmas.
Recently the city of Norwich invested £300,000 to refurbish its array of Christmas lights. I have no other figures but that one is quite impressive. Electricity is not cheap and keeping the lights blazing through the whole of December and into the January sales is a huge commitment for councils and shopkeepers and everyone involved.
Christianity is not the only religion to display its faith and its hopes in glorious displays of light. Judaism has its own Festival of Lights in the Hanukkah, which is sometimes referred to as the Jewish Christmas because it can take place around the same time. The festival lasts for eight days and eight nights. On each day one branch is lit of the eight branched Hanukkah candelabra.
The festival celebrates the re-capture of Jerusalem during the Maccabees revolt of the second century BC. The traditional seven branch candelabra of Judaism, which also symbolizes the Tree of Life, was re-lit in the Holy temple, and the one available earthen pot of uncontaminated oil lasted for eight days. To celebrate that victory the Hanukkah candelabra now has one extra branch.
One of the most popular religious festivals of India is the Diwali, the five day Festival of Lights that is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. Diwali symbolizes the victory of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. Houses, temples and workplaces are decorated with oil lamps and elaborate rangoli art designs of coloured sand and powders and flower petals. There is family feasting and the sharing of sweets and gifts.
The Lantern Festival of China has marked the end of the traditional new year celebrations since the time of the Han dynasty which began 200 years before Christ. There are many legends attesting to its origins but the most popular seems to be that with the growth of Buddhism the Emperor Ming ordained that everyone should follow the custom of the new Buddhist monks in lighting the lanterns on the fifteenth of the first calendar month.
Thailand and Taiwan also celebrate lantern festivals when thousands of yellow lanterns are released to sail up and fill the night sky with artificial light. A delightful variation of these light festivals is to sail candle lit paper boats across lakes or down rivers such as the Mekong in North Vietnam.
The religious significance of light is universal. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the first words of God are “Let there be light.” God sees only darkness and his first act is to create light to divide creation into darkness and light. In our popular Christmas carols we sing of the “Star of Wonder, Star of Light.” In The Little Town of Bethlehem we sing of the dark streets shining with everlasting light.
In Christian art angels are forms of light and all the saints and all those that are blessed are shown wearing haloes of light. Christ is often portrayed holding a candle to light the way and is described as the Light and the Life.
In Hinduism light symbolizes Brahman, the creative force and all forms of divinity, purity and supreme bliss. It can symbolize any heavenly body, the world of Brahman and the power of the sky, and the illumination of the human mind. In the Bagavad Gita, when the God Krishna appears to the prince Arjun, he is described as too brilliant for the human eye to behold.
Islam does not allow any representation of God but God can be understood and described as the Light of the Heavens and of Earth. The source of uncoloured light is the source of all things when it refracts. Mosque lamps of enamelled glass are a reminder of the Light verse in the Koran, a parable which defines the divine light as a lamp which will guide whom He wills to His Light.
Light as a guiding force appears not only in Christianity and Islam but in all religions. Not only in life but also in death. People who have survived near-death experiences always describe themselves as being drawn or directed to the light.
Even atheists have to believe in the power of light, for what was the Big Bang except a gigantic explosion of light which gave birth to all the brilliance of the stars and the galaxies that fill our universe. Science agrees with the Big Bang theory but the idea that science is necessarily opposed to religion is untrue. Theists can simply believe that the big bang was kick-started by God. The Big Bang and evolution are simply the tools with which God worked. There is no logical need for a division between God and science.
Light is life. Ask any biologist about the principles of photosynthesis.
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