A BLUEPRINT FOR PLANETARY SURVIVAL
The COP26 talks, the twenty-sixth round of climate conference negotiations, have failed. After all the hype and talk China and India have scuppered the proposals to fade out the use of coal because the growth of their economies is more important than saving the planet. So where do we go from here?
It was perhaps too much too hope that the use of coal and other detrimental fossil fuels could be phased out before there were adequate energy producing replacements. Wind farms, giant dams, tidal energy and ground based solar panels were always just nibbling at the edges of the problem. There are billions of us on this Earth and everybody wants to drive a car, watch television, cook food, play computer games and switch on the lights. Some of us already have all of these things and the rest of the world desperately wants them. It is too easy to blame China and India for being pig-headed and greedy when we in the west already have what they want.
So how do we replace a century of coal and oil fired energy. The nuclear option has lost favour after the tragedies of Chernobyl and the Japanese tsunami and consequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima. However, there is still one obvious and inexhaustible power source remaining. Our sun has generated and maintained life on this planet for millennia and can continue to do so. The sun pours unending energy into space, nurturing the earth with warmth and light. We only need to trap and focus a little more of it to supply all our energy needs.
Solar panels on earth are not enough. Although making it mandatory for every new house built to have a solar panelled roof would clearly help. The answer has to be solar power stations in space, vast arrays of solar panels capturing all that wasted energy that is passing us by and beaming it down to where it is needed.
The idea has been around for a long time. Isaac Asimov first envisioned collecting solar energy in space and transmitting it by radio waves to Earth in a short Science Fiction story published in 1941. In 1968 the first technical article appeared to describe how solar energy could be captured by a solar power station in geo-stationary orbit and then safely relayed to earth either as a microwave or a laser beam. Since then the idea has been actively pursued in the USA, the UK, China, Russia and Japan. The possibility has always been technologically feasible but economically unrealistic.
All that has changed now that we know the cheaper options of coal and oil are killing the planet. We have to put survival before cost and profit. Solar power stations in space have always been seen as a possibility for the future, when we can find new space launch technologies that make it affordable, or effective ways of gleaning the construction materials from asteroids or the moon to make the project cost effective. Now the future is overtaking us and the alternative cost is planetary catastrophe.
The money is there. The super-powers spend billions in annual expenses on ever more lethal military hardware. China has just demonstrated new hypersonic missiles capable of circling the Earth before descending to hit a target. Russia has demonstrated new space missiles that can take out space stations. Every side is developing new kinds of unmanned aerial killer drones and robotic killing machines for future military use.
We do not need more efficient killing machines and more sophisticated means of making war. War only kills people and climate change looks set to do that just as effectively if we do not tackle the climate problem now. If the world could unite and the top nations donate just a percentage of what they waste on military expenditure to a new focus on solar technology, then perhaps we could solve the energy crisis.
A precedent has already been set to show the way. At the end of the Cold war we had mutual and balanced force reductions to ease international tensions and reduce the risk of a nuclear war. The USSR and the USA both agreed to gradually scale down the number of armed forces they had facing each other in Europe. What looked like an inevitable nuclear conflict between the two great superpowers of the time was avoided.
Now we need a similar agreement between all the leading nuclear power nations, not just to scale down with mutually balanced reductions on military spending but also to divert that spending into a united effort to develop solar power to avert the present climate crisis. It has to be a united, shared effort, not a competitive race to see who can profit first. Profit and being the top superpower are no longer the priorities. The new priority is planetary survival.
The benefit to humanity will be doubled, because in addition to the climate crisis we also stand again on the threshold of a catastrophic nuclear war. The security dilemma and Thucydides trap both argue that war between America and China is inevitable. The two concepts are directly related. The security dilemma is that each nation, power or empire, sees the need to provide for its own security by preparing for war. But it cannot do so without alarming its neighbours and provoking a similar war footing response. This leads to Thucydides trap. When he wrote of the Peloponnesian war of ancient Greece, the Greek historian categorically said: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta which made the war between them inevitable.”
Today China is rising, and like Sparta of old America is fearful of being toppled from the world supremacy it has enjoyed for so long. This makes war between America and China a very real and terrifying possibility, providing that America does not go to war with Russia first. The challengers are both provoking the Alpha male of the superpowers as much as they dare. China by making expansionist moves in the China seas and threatening Taiwan, and Russia by cranking up the pressures on her frontiers with Europe. No doubt they both hope that the other will overstep or over sabre-rattle into a nuclear fight with America first, thus eliminating both their rivals.
Lowering military spending and uniting to the new challenges of planetary survival will be a double bonus to mankind. Nuclear war could be avoided and climate change does not have to be an inevitable disaster. The double danger could be a golden opportunity. It could be our last opportunity. It could be the crunch point where we have to put all our squabbling, national pride and empire building to one side. The point where we have to unite for the common good and take the next step in social evolution that will ensure our planetary survival and the continuation of the human race..
Every religion has always stressed THE GOLDEN RULE, in principle even though the wording may be different. In the Bible it is expressed as, “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” In the Koran it is expressed as, “Be good unto others as God has been good unto you.” Every faith expresses the same thing in its own words.
Perhaps the new Golden Rule should be “Love thy Planet, or you and your neighbour will perish.” And, dare I say it, perhaps going beyond profit and beyond, national, military and economic ambitions, will take us all closer to what God ultimately wants us to be.
SAVING THE PLANET
It seems to be generally acknowledged now that our beautiful planet Earth is on a one way ticket to disaster. The last century of unchecked industrialization and the wholesale burning of fossil fuels to power our billions of motor vehicles and aeroplanes, and to generate our vast and often wasteful need for electricity, have all damaged the protective ozone layer that enshrouds our planet beyond repair.
The inevitable result is climate change. Our Earth is getting hotter, the polar ice caps and the glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising, The weather is changing. Vast bushfires, fierce storms and drastic flooding are the result. Images of exhausted firemen battling the flames of huge forest fires, terrified commuters up to their necks in in flood waters on underground trains in China and similar dramatic scenes are becoming a staple diet on our television news screens.
The indomitable David Attenborough is making a series of films to highlight the dangers and raise awareness. His concern is for the natural world of which we are a part, although often we do not seem to realize it. He insists that it is nearly too late but not quite. Efforts are being made to reverse climate change. We have seen the introduction of electric cars to replace petrol engines and a whole new era of wind farms to produce energy but it all does seem too little and too late.
The problem is that the biggest polluters, China, The United States, Russia and Europe are still locked in a new cold war power struggle. They are all seeking to increase their military and political power and those powers can only be built on a solid foundation of economic power. Small countries with small economies cannot compete in building huge aircraft carriers, fleets of nuclear submarines and vast stockpiles of bombs, rockets and delivery systems.
The first cold war between Communism and the West ended with the economic collapse of the old Soviet Union. The old Politburo in Moscow spent so much of its wealth on the arms race that the supermarket shelves in its cities were empty and it had to fall. It was a much preferable conclusion than a nuclear war which would have devastated both East and West, but the same madness is now repeating itself with a re-arming Russia and a dominant, power-hungry China.
The old security dilemma is at play here. Each power fears the strength of the others and so each power strives for supremacy. Strength is security from attack, in our nuclear world the old détente of balance and assured mutual destruction. However, it is draining and wasteful of resources, and does demand the maintenance of that essential platform of industrial and economic strength which continues the pollution of out atmosphere.
Will the next act be not just the economic collapse of just one superpower but the economic collapse of the entire world? With energy prices ever rising due to the running out of natural resources and the ever growing demand for more energy, this does seem a stark possibility.
So where are we going, assuming that we can avoid a total economic collapse and a nuclear war between China and the West, in which, incidentally, Russia would be the only winner. Over the weekend I read a review of a new book called MOVE by Parang Khanna, on the subject of how mass migration will reshape the world. The author's argument is that although rising temperatures and climate change will make some areas of the Earth's surface uninhabitable, other areas will be freed up for potential human habitation. Rising sea levels may flood many coastlines and the equatorial belt may become barren desert but vast tracts of Siberia, Greenland and the frozen north of Canada will become warmer and more suitable for human settlement.
When I wrote THE GODS OF ICE, the first book in my THIRD PLANET trilogy, I imagined Antarctica as a once fertile continent that was slowly drifting southward on an infant Earth. The time was visualized as before the last ice age. Now, with global warming, is it possible that the continent of Antarctica could emerge from its ice cap and become habitable again?
Today we have the problem of battlefield migrants from the war torn Middle East trekking to Europe. Economic migrants from Africa are drowning as they struggle to cross the Mediterranean. Across the Atlantic migrants from Mexico, Central and South American are massing to breach the new steel fence that is the border with the United States. In the future Khanna sees these human waves being dwarfed by whole population mass migrations even further northward. The new targets will be Siberia, northern Canada and a genuinely green Greenland.
My imagination feeds on possibilities like these. As an author I can see the potential for a new novel or even a series of novels, Will Siberia become the new Wild West with gunslingers and outlaws and hordes of settlers, some struggling to build a new civilization and others fighting to make the quickest buck? Will existing governments collapse under the weight of these colossal changes or will they fight to control It? Are present nation states doomed as we are all forced to re-locate and become more mobile?
Or can it all be avoided. Ideally the four big players could abandon their political dreams of global domination and stop the arms race. The money spent on weaponry and its maintenance could be diverted to saving the planet. If all that wealth could be invested into providing solar energy we might be able to halt the damage that is still being perpetrated. Our sun provides unlimited energy that is simply beamed out into space. The idea for space stations which could harness that energy and beam it down to Earth for use as electricity to heat and power all our needs has been around for a long time. It just needs the political will and resources to develop the idea into a reality.
We can put a man on the moon, send rockets to Mars and send probes throughout our solar system, so it it cannot be beyond the technological capabilities of mankind to put solar power stations into space. There are already space stations and giant telescopes in orbit. All it needs is united effort and the diverting of wasted resources.
The stumbling block has always been cost. It has been cheaper to keep burning coal or oil, or to invest in wind farms or tidal energy, or even nuclear energy. But we are no longer talking about cost, about opportunity cost or balancing expenditure. We are at the crunch point of saving the planet. Now the cost of not developing the inexhaustible source of solar power could be the loss of this present world as we know it.
ROBERT CHARLES REBORN
FANTASTIC NEWS. I have just signed a contract with SAPERE PUBLISHING for new editions of all my old Simon Larren spy thrillers and for my Falcon SAS books.
The Simon Larren books were my first successful series, appearing at the same time as the first James Bond film when espionage was the big seller in bookshops everywhere. The books sold foreign translation rights in most European countries and if Bond had not captured the film world I am sure they would have made an equally great series of films. They were later reprinted by Thorpe in their large print Lynford Mystery series, and I am thrilled that they are about to be released again in brand new editions for today's online readers.
Sapere are an exciting new publisher with a clear vision of promoting vibrant voices, sensational stories and beautiful books. They plan to publish the first of the Simon Larren books in September and to have all of the series plus my two Falcon SAS books online by Christmas. The books will be available as e-books and as print on demand paperbacks.
They have also asked me to continue the Falcon SAS series and so I am now writing again as Robert Charles, which was my first pen-name. THE BAGHDAD BETRAYAL is in high speed progress and will be the first of the continuing Falcon SAS series.
Now that Covid has curbed my regular visits to the public library I have been re-reading many of the old books on my shelves, and one of them was Extra-terrestrial Civilizations by Issac Asimov. In it Asimov boldly states that “The number of planets in our galaxy on which a technological civilization is now in existence is roughly 530,000.
The book was written more than forty years ago and Asimov then supported this astonishing argument with impressive logic and mathematical reasoning. He started by calculating the approximate number of stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. He discounted the probable numbers of red giants and red dwarves and other unlikely stars and calculated the probable percentage of sun-like stars similar to our own sun.
Next he calculated how many of those sun-like stars might have evolved planetary systems like our own. The figures were diminishing but were still astronomical. (Pun intended.) from this figure he calculated a conservative number where one or more of those planets might be found in the now famous Goldilocks belt, neither too close nor too far from its parent star.
A whole section was devoted to analysing the generation and evolution of life and calculating the likely percentage of potential planets where life as we know it would have emerged. Allowing for the fifty per cent possibility that on reaching our nuclear level of technology many planets would have committed nuclear suicide, or perhaps be wiped out by population pressures or a fatal virus such as the Black Death or Covid, the figure was halved. That staggering final figure of 530,000 still remained.
To see the exact calculations and vast depth of reasoning you have to read the book but this is its conclusion in a nutshell. All of this was written before any planetary systems or earth-like planets were actually observed. Now our telescopes are much more powerful and the Hubble telescope operates in space above the Earth. The various methods of research and observation have magnified our ability to see further and see more and we now know that many earth-like planets do actually exist.
Forty years on there are no obvious flaws to Asimov's reasoning and movie franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have made us familiar with the idea that we are not alone. Man has always looked up at the stars and wondered what might be up there. Is there unreachable alien life looking back at us. We still do not actually know but the potentiality and the possibilities now seem endless.
Science fiction in movies and books has made us familiar with idea that there must be alien life out there. Usually this alien life is portrayed as war-like and hostile. They are predators seeking to enslave us or eat us, or to carelessly destroy us in order to steal our planet for a new home for themselves.
I reversed this trend with my series of EXTINCTION'S EDGE. My aliens, the Marregh/Riken, were a peaceful aquatic species of time travellers who were appalled at the senseless savagery and slaughter they observed in the Vietnam War. They were so horrified that they had to consider whether the human race should be exterminated before they could export their blind hatreds into the rest of the galaxy.
Isaac Asimov also concluded that any species that actually reached the ability to space travel would also be peaceful. The predators and the war-mongers would most likely destroy themselves along the way with their increasing weapons technology. Space travel would require such a huge expenditure of time, material and energy that it could only be achieved by full planetary cooperation. A species would have to outgrow petty politics, power-seeking and empire-building in order to work together for the common good and a common goal. A species that was still obsessed with internal wars and petty strife would reach self-extinction long before it reached another star.
This, to me, was the most fascinating part of the book. We live today in a world of multiple threats to the future of the human race. We survived the Cold War when the old Soviet Union and the USA came eyeball to eyeball on the brink of a nuclear war. Now those dangers are reviving again, Russian has rebuilt and regained its territorial ambitions. China is now a big and aggressive player in the nuclear game. In fact the players have multiplied and many more nations now have a nuclear arsenal. Again a nuclear holocaust seems to be only a matter of time. Fiction is full of mad dictators who can see gain for themselves in inciting the major powers to war, and fiction all to often inspires imitations in reality.
The end to humanity need not necessarily come in nuclear war. Over population and global warming may be the bigger dangers. Already these are combining with war and terrorism to force mass migrations where the well off rich fear that they are about to be swamped by the waves of the desperate poor. Drugs and drug gangs rule the worlds of organized crime. Borders are crumbling, or being reinforced by walls of steel.
Our planet is on a knife edge. The ozone layer is being destroyed. The glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. Wild fires are raging. Heat waves, hurricanes and giant floods multiply as our climate changes and the weather goes crazy. The current world is in pretty bad shape. We don't need a black hole to swallow us up or a meteor strike to finish us off. We seem to be doing a pretty good job of self destruction.
The Covid pandemic illustrates our difficulties most of all. As I write the total world death toll has passed four million, and that is probably a low estimate as many countries cannot count or wilfully deny the real numbers. There are too many of us and the ease of modern travel makes it too easy for the virus and its variants to spread. A world without air travel, foreign holidays and total freedom of movement seems to horrible to contemplate, but are millions more Covid deaths the only alternative?
Of course, that would ease the population problem and it could be that this is Mother Earth's solution to a parasite species that is suffocating the planet by sheer weight of numbers. Asimov foresaw all of this forty years ago, all of his potential disasters are looming and it does seem that we are now at that point of balance where extinction is a real possibility. Do we go on to possibly conquer the stars, or do we end here with a glorious big bang or a polluted, starving, over-heated whimper?
If we are to survive and continue then it would seem that we have only one choice. We must all work together. Cooperation must replace competition in every sphere of human activity. There is no point in vaccinating the western world against Covid if we cannot vaccinate everyone, everywhere. The alternative is that Covid and its variants will continue to come back and haunt us.
There is no point in some countries seeking to reverse global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer if others persist in building more coal fired power stations and insisting that they have the right to catch up with the production of petrol driven motor cars. It is no longer a question of industrial and economic equality but of survival in our over-heated, post industrial world.
Political and power dreams, the pursuit and passions of ideologies, religions and empire building all have to be consigned to the past. We can no longer afford petty distractions and periods of destruction. Wars no longer bring any gains and a nuclear war on any international scale would reduce the world to a pitiful radioactive rubble.
To face the huge issues and problems that confront us all we must all be united. Global problems need global solutions.
Anyone who has read my three books of philosophy will be familiar with my argument that all faith must lead to God. The great religions of the world are all pathways, starting from different cultures and sources but leading to the same spiritual reality. This understanding now seems essential for human progress. We must have tolerance between religions and focus on their basic similarities rather than their cultural differences. We must stop harnessing faith to war with the mistaken idea that god is on any one particular side.
Race, ideology and nationhood are the other great dividers. We must understand that ALL lives matter, black and white, red and brown. Race, creed and colour are an accident of birth, and not a cause for hatred and fighting. Ideologies are dangerous illusions, democracy and communism both offer the same promises and both seek power. All nation states have a right to their national pride but not to dominate all others.
They key to our survival as a species is now cooperation. All races, faiths, creeds and cultures need to work together and to save ourselves we must save the planet. We are intelligent beings, capable of forethought and planning. We can recognize the mistakes we have made and hopefully work together to put things right.
The signs are good. Faith leaders are moving together, acknowledging that all the great faith streams are seeking the same Undefinable Reality. The United Nations and the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, Oxfam and various other international groups are all working for international cooperation.
Issac Asimov calculated that perhaps fifty percent of extra-terrestrial civilizations would survive this threshold of potential self destruction, so perhaps we have a fifty-fifty chance.
APOLOGY TO ATHEISTS
Looking at my Amazon Robert Leader book page yesterday I found that I have received several reviews on my book THE SWORD LORD. Half of them were very complimentary, awarding me four or five stars and saying nice things about the originality of the plot and the smooth style of story-telling. These readers liked the way I had taken poetic licence with ancient earth history, mixing it all in with the heroic fantasy of the doomed fifth planet. One reader was so impressed that he couldn't wait to read the second and third books of the trilogy
The other half of the reviews all damned the book as historically inaccurate rubbish. They didn't seem to grasp that this was a fictional alternative history that was never intended to map exactly onto the known history of antiquity. They hated everything about the book, especially as they saw it as anti-atheist.
I have read one previous review which accused me of being biased against atheists, but I never realized that this view was so widespread. Perhaps it was amiss of me but I had never expected atheists to be so sensitive and, dare I say it, almost religiously obsessed with their anti-religious belief.
When I wrote The Fifth Planet series I was interested in the idea of contrasting a totally godless society against one which had developed the idea that there was one God behind all the Gods. That society, the Enlightened First Civilization of Alpha, found natural allies in the Hindu kingdom of Kharakhor as I envisaged it on my infant Earth. On the second major continent of Dooma, the once fifth planet of my re-imagined solar system which was destined to become the asteroid belt which now exists between Mars and Jupiter, the Gheddan Empire had appeared. The Gheddans were the godless ones who believed only in the power of the sword.
It seemed only logical to give the Gheddans all the bad character traits that religious belief would normally keep under control. They were short on compassion and hard on honour. Even in their space age they still prized a sword kill. Making them initially into the villains is what seems to have upset all the atheists.
If they had read on to the end of the trilogy they would have discovered that eventually Raven, the Last Sword Lord of Ghedda, would be elevated into a twin hero of the series. I wrote a second trilogy following the adventures of the survivors on the infant Earth in which Raven becomes the prime hope for saving the last life-bearing planet of the solar system from the same devastation that destroyed Dooma. A fragment from the ruptured fifth planet is on an a fatal impact course with Earth's moon.
So my apologies to the atheists. It was never my intention to hurt anyone's feelings. Please be warned and do not read any of my books of philosophy: GOD, FAITH AND REASON, GOD, FAITH AND TERROR, and GOD, WAR AND REINCARNATION, are definitely not for you.
For everyone else the full details of THE FIFTH PLANET and THE THIRD PLANET trilogies are all on my heroic fantasy page. Plus, you might even enjoy the philosophy books. Check out the philosophy pages.
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