Tim Baily is more than just a safari operator, he is a man with a passionate love for his native Africa — and with some justification he can also claim to be an expert on the more violent side of African politics.
For in the past eight years Tim, in his efforts to get his trans-Africa safari company established, has continually found himself slap in the middle of whichever juicy African conflict seems to be simmering at that particular moment.
Tim led the first expedition to get through the Congo safely after the Simba War, and when his convoy of battered Land Rovers arrived at the Oubangui river which separates the Congo from the Central African Republic they found both banks swarming with trigger-happy African troops. The two countries were all set for war over a sudden disagreement on the future shape of “African Unity.”
Tim’s knowledge of Swahili saved them here. He borrowed a native canoe, paddled across the river to confront the astounded Congolese troops, and diplomatically persuaded them to allow the ferry across the river to collect the rest or his convoy.
Today the Siafu Safari Company is a thriving business. It is named after the Siafu ant which stops for nothing. If it cannot go round, over or under an obstacle it will simply eat its way through it. The original four battered Land Rovers are now replaced by whole fleets of shiny new vehicles, and the routes between London and Nairobi are carefully planned. Today the Siafu expeditions crossing Africa know that they will reach their destinations, but this was not always so.
Tim was born and raised on his father’s farm in Kenya until independence forced him to immigrate to South Africa. Seven years ago, with car salesman Peter Hooper and one short wheel base Land Rover, Tim left Durban on the start of what was to become a 20,000 mile journey through a turbulent new Africa. The trip was to take sixteen painful and dangerous months, and to fill Tim’s mind with the wild idea of running overland safaris on a commercial basis.
To pass through the newly independent countries of Libya, Tanzania and Kenya, Tim and Peter had to check every item of their equipment and clothing and remove all traces of South African origin.
Their real difficulties began when they tried to leave Kenya. The main roads into Ethiopia had all been closed due to bandits raiding across the border, the southern Sudan was also closed, and to the west the Congo was still a bloody battlefield contested by mercenaries and Simba rebels.
Finally they managed to find one border post into Ethiopia that was open at Kalem, near Lake Rudolph. From here it took them 42 days of grueling, sweating, back-breaking work to cover 170 miles of the foulest roads in Africa. They unloaded their Land Rover a thousand times to haul it through mud holes as large as the vehicle itself, or worked like slaves to widen tracks that had been intended for nothing larger than camels.
In Addis Ababa they were refused visas to cross the Sudan: but rather than make a return journey over those awful Ethiopian roads they chose to continue north without visas. They left Ethiopia, by-passed the Sudanese border post by driving through the desert, and then made a frantic non-stop dash along the Red Sea coast for Egypt.
They almost made it, but their outdated map had misplaced the position of the northern frontier by ten vital miles.
They arrived at the Sudanese exit post believing that they had won their gamble and were in Egypt — and were promptly arrested as they realized their mistake.
Fortunately they were not too closely guarded, and while the Sudanese officer in charge radioed Khartoum to ask what should be done with them they succeeded in stealing back their passports and making a frantic night escape into Egypt.
Almost immediately they were arrested again. Their Egyptian visas, which they had believed to be valid for three months, were valid for one month only, and already they had expired.
Wryly the two travelers explained that neither of them could read Arabic. They were taken under escort to Port Suez and held there in jail for two nights before their plea was finally accepted.
From there they crossed the deserts of North Africa to complete their journey to Europe.
For most men those sixteen months would have been crammed with enough adventure to last a lifetime, but not for Tim Baily.
“My ambition,” Tim says, “was to run expeditions for young people, offering them genuine adventure mingled with the romance of travel to the Africa I know so well. I wanted to show others the fascinating peoples and places I have seen, and give them the same opportunities to share in the experience: and excitements that have been my own.”
In England Tim Baily worked for a year with the South African immigrant organization, and was in line for grooming for a senior post when he gambled with hi s future once again. He felt that he had learned enough about office management and his next step was to learn the travel trade. So he took a big cut in salary to work as a tour operator. After eight months he resigned again and then rebuilt his finances with six months hard labor digging out the underground tunnel for London s new Victoria Line. Then he was ready for the biggest gamble of all: the purchase of four second-hand Land Rovers and his return to Africa.
“My friends and relatives all thought I was insane,” he recalls. “Only a fool, they said, would risk his career this way. I tried to explain that not all of us crave for the securities of modern-day life, and that for me there was a far greater sense of fulfillment in the type of life that I was planning. I believed also that there must be a great number or other young people bored with security and routine who might feel the same way, and who would be grateful and eager for the opportunity or shedding the shackles of civilization for a few months in Africa.”
“I tried to explain the comradeship of a camp fire by night, the majesty of a bull elephant with ears spread ready to charge, the dust-filled splendor of an African sunset, or the sounds or native music drifting across the night bush. The very uncertainty of Africa makes every moment a new experience. Africa, I told them, is like nowhere else on earth, and I must see every corner of it, and help others to see it, before it goes — for sadly, it is going.”
So, in November of 1968, Tim Baily launched that first Siafu expedition across Africa; 50 young men and women driving six Land Rovers, for two private vehicles had also joined his convoy. The Sudan was still a stumbling block in regard to visas, and so their route lay through the Algerian Sahara and the Hoggar Massif, heading south through black iron-stone hills, wild red mountains, and the vast yellow sands. On this pioneer trip the task of keeping their ancient vehicles running taxed all their combined mechanical skills, but Tim Baily was learning invaluable lessons in bush mechanics.
South of the Sahara this was a period or violence and upheaval. The Siafu party avoided the Biafra conflict but as they passed through northern Nigeria they found military checkpoints everywhere along the route and repeatedly the Land Rovers were stopped and searched by impolite soldiery who left the expedition members to repack. The delays were endless. On entering Chad they found more war tension. The last remnants of the French Foreign Legion were fighting a little-known war against rebellious tribesmen in France’s former colony and the northern part of Chad was a turmoil of raiding bandits.
Next came that dramatic crossing of the Obangui River into the Congo. The most recent waves of bloodshed in that unhappy land had been brought under control only a few months before, and at any moment it could explode again. The whole country was still nervous and trigger-happy, and the expedition had cause to sweat a dozen times over the thirteen hundred miles of troop-infested mud and jungle roads before they eventually crossed safely into Uganda.
In East Africa they were at last able to relax, to visit the great game parks, to cruise up the Victoria Nile to the Murchison Falls, and to simply laze and swim on the Kenya coast — activities which are still a major feature of every Siafu safari. When they continued south they encountered an angry political atmosphere as they crossed from Libya to Rhodesia, but it was their last moment of tension. Four and a half months after leaving London the first Siafu Expedition drove triumphantly into the South African city or Johannesburg.
Since that original hair-raising trip there have been a dozen and more successful Siafu safaris, and the Siafu ant emblem painted on the white door of a Land Rover is fast becoming a familiar sight on the desert and jungle roads of Africa, the toughest continent of them all for overland travel.
Today Africa has settled back into an uneasy peace, if you overlook the odd coup d’ etat here and there. But as Tim Baily warns all his clients, “With a lifetime or experience in Africa I feel there is little doubt that I can get you through to your destination — but I will not guarantee it. For after all, what good is an adventure without an element of risk attached?”
NOTE: This article was written in 1971 when the author made the trans-Africa journey with one of Tim’s Siafu overland expeditions.