In his book, Angel in a Thorn Bush, Rob Fynn recounts his life as an African adventurer and recollects the deeds of his ancestors. The book takes its reader on an epic journey through the harshest, yet most beautiful parts of Africa. This tale is accompanied by insights and first-hand experience of living and fighting to survive in an extraordinary continent that continues to baffle the world. Here is an extract from the book, which focuses on Rob and his cousin John (both 25) crossing the Omo River plains in Kenya into Ethiopia. A journey that took place 44 years ago in a Series II Defender…
At the top end of the lake, we set a compass course for Todenyang, the last Kenyan police post, on the border of Ethiopia. Blue mountains on the Ethiopian escarpment hovered on the distant horizon, cradling our most exciting and uncertain adventure of the entire journey.
There were conflicting stories about what we might expect at the border post, if we could find it. We had avoided official permissions for our trip, fearing time consuming and inevitably expensive sessions with the authorities who would have little understanding of our quest.
30km crossing the grassy plains, we sighted the Todenyang police post, who dashed to their defence positions with machine guns and ammunition boxes, weapons levelled at us approaching. On seeing our un-military attire, in spite of the jeep, one opened the gate, through which we rolled shouting “Jambo” in exchange for salutes from the guards. Formalities were few once packets of tea and sugar were received. Paperwork nil. Noting advice from the captain about Ethiopia’s dubious security, we drove on across the border in the direction they indicated.
Towards evening we spotted a village sporting a flag pole on the horizon. A jovial captain in huckleberry hat ran the Ethiopian police camp and border post. The officers’ Roman features and well-spoken English fascinated me, the first time for me to meet these in Africa.
‘We are getting used to you tourists. Two years ago, another expedition with two white men in a Land-Rover came through to explore our Omo Reserve.’ They explained after hearing our story.
One of them drew a dramatic flower on the ground with a stone, tracing each petal showing how the vehicle had driven out, and around and around, and back to the centre, and then off again as he outlined a second petal, and back, until finally, he screwed the stone into the centre of the flower.
‘They vanished, never to be seen again.’
He described how they found the Land-Rover, deserted, out of fuel. Their verdict on our mission was predetermined.
‘Very sorry. We don’t want more lives on our hands. You may not proceed.’
Not easily deterred, we camped with them, intending to befriend and change their minds in the course of time. We moved the landy (Series II diesel SWB) to a shady tree to strip and service our starter motor which was still giving trouble after the Turkwel crossing.
‘Don’t worry, we are quite used to tourists.’ They commented again as they helped to push us. We talked with them as we worked, building up much useful information about the terrain ahead. They in turn were fascinated by our vehicle, not having one themselves, and our journey.
On the second night, a group of Galla tribes people strolled into camp, dressed only in loincloths with bundles on their head, armed with machetes and knobkerries, accompanied by their cattle. Much discussion arose. We heard they were using ‘our’ road to move their beasts through the mountains. A guide volunteered to show us the track.
The Police were sceptical, but grudgingly approved. Elated, in the early hours before anyone changed their mind, we motored out with our man perched behind the seats. Painted face, fine feather sticking out from his mud caked head, with his collection of walking sticks, a stool and a machete, he made something of a figurehead.
Graphically pointing the direction, as if signalling a cavalry charge, big toothy smile from ear to ear, he was clearly happy to be riding with us. Four wheel drive engaged, chains on the front, we left a track in the mud stretching as far back as we could see.
We stopped for the mandatory porridge and mid-morning tea. After enjoying a cup with us, our guide collected his belongings, waved cheerily, and started off back down our track. He had enjoyed his ride, clearly fulfilled his obligations of setting us enroute, and was heading back to join his companions.
We were happy too, to be on our own again, as we had originally expected to be. Continuing in the indicated direction, our RAF map of the area looking as blank as ever. The woodland we were driving through was becoming more and more dense, when suddenly the track we had thought must be the original road became impossible to penetrate further. We backed off and looked for another route to follow. This, too, closed in on us. We reversed and repeated the process further down.
‘The flower petals?’ We looked at each other.
That deadly pattern that had snookered the last expedition. We talked about our options.
‘We could try pushing our way through this thorn bush – it may be just a narrow band across the track?’ John voiced his thoughts.
‘Your call, Johnno. I’m with you, whichever!’ I was happy not to be in the chair for this one.
It was an uncomfortable feeling driving straight at a wall of thorn trees, forcing our faithful friend into such hostile territory. John engaged low ratio – the landy pushed, growled and climbed over the barrage. Trees sprung up immediately behind us, sealing off any exit. We couldn’t even turn in the tightly packed forest.
We were committed.
The thorns screeched and scraped their way down the side and underneath of the jeep. Anything not securely attached would be ripped off. Leaves, thorns, caterpillars, stinging and crawling insects, angry bees, wasps, even a snake, dropped off the trees and filled the writhing cab to our waists. It was hot. Bitten and stung, we sweated, looking grimly ahead, trying to make out thinner tracts through the trees.
Our unbelievably stout vehicle continued to crawl forwards. Thoughts wandered. What if something broke? Or punctured? It would have been difficult to open the door, let alone fix anything. Nor would we be able to walk out.
After an unimaginably long three hours, we suddenly broke out of it. Ahead of us, as far as we could see was a golden grassy plain, game scattered across, the blue mountains still breaking the horizon, the landy still chugging, in the right direction. A beautiful Ethiopian carmine bee-eater flew in formation with us, swooping for insects disturbed as we travelled. We had arrived in a Garden of Eden, the Omo River reserve.
In this euphoric state, elated with our unexpected expansive freedom, so happy to be out of those thorns, we bumbled through the knee-high grass for a couple of hours, hardly saying a word. Herds of eland and oryx, zebra, distant hartebeest, buffalo and giraffe wandered through the sparse acacia, vultures circling down onto a far-off kill.
Suddenly, we crossed a vehicle track. Backing up, sure enough, a long-disused track headed off at right angles to ours making for some foothills over to our left.
We turned and followed, climbing into the hills, through dense forest, rounding a bend into a small valley. There before us lay a tented military-looking camp.
Uniformed men approached from all directions, apparently surprised to see us, their friendly approach quite a relief. ‘Welcome! Where have you come from?’ They asked
‘England.’ We beamed.
‘Please, join me for some tea.’ A senior man graciously invited us, introducing himself as Daniel, the warden of the Omo game reserve. Welcoming us to his headquarters, he told us he hadn’t seen a visitor in the two years he’d been there, and had never heard of anyone crossing the plains through the thorns.
Daniel, gently aristocratic in his bearing, had read Conservation Management at Oxford. A renegade in the political system under Haile Selasse, he was effectively exiled to this wilderness, which he had now come to deeply appreciate. He treated us as royal guests.
We woke in the morning to four punctured wheels. Not too surprising. Pulling out the tubes, we repaired 46 punctures, cutting our patches into small quarters to stretch our supply. The long thorns had somehow sealed themselves in the rubber. Had one of them deflated a tyre yesterday, we would still be out there.
Mr Angel, again, in the thorn bush.
Now identified as ‘mechanics’, we assisted in various maintenance problems. John managed to get their Unimog, that had sat immobile for years, going again while I sorted out their solar battery charger system. We spent a few exhilarating days patrolling with Daniel in his game reserve. His dream was to see tourist camps develop there.
One evening, we sat on a hill overlooking the vast plains, a leopard coughed in the trees behind us, game and breath-taking scenery filled our view, mountains majestically preening in the last of the sun, the great Omo River splashed silver on the horizon. Overcome with the grandeur of it all, I made a pact with Daniel.
I’d be back. We would set up a safari company together and bring people to see this magnificence. With no real idea how this would happen, we were both excited at the prospect. My safari career was conceived.
The Omo National Park, as it is today, 4,068 km2 of wilderness, one tenth the size of Switzerland, is bordered by the Omo River, and home to an amazing range of wildlife. 300 plus species of birds have been identified here. Large herds of a wide variety of game roam the great plains.
The river tumbles its 350km way through a steep valley before slowing as it nears the lowlands and then meanders through the flat, semi-desert bush of the plains, eventually flowing into Lake Turkana. Open forests of tamarinds and figs, alive with colobus monkeys and the exquisite birdlife including blue-breasted kingfishers and white-cheeked turacos, run into hippos grazing on the savannah slopes against the mountain walls, where Abyssinian ground hornbills may hop across the riverine trees. The abundant wildlife, spirited rapids, innumerable side creeks and waterfalls, sheer inner canyons and hot springs all combine to make the Omo one of the world’s classic river adventures.
However, for the moment, we had a mission to get back on that road, down which no vehicle had travelled in anyone’s memory. All personnel and supplies for the Park were flown into the game reserve.
Before dawn broke on the fifth day, we headed out, with fond farewells and commitments for the future. 2,500m to climb, condition of trail unknown. One of the most extraordinary adventures either of us ever lived lay ahead.
The massive mountain range was home to few people other than remote villages along the route. They still wore large wooden disks in their ears and lips, beauty being in the eye of the custom, great hanging earlobes, deformed lower lip and all the front teeth missing when disks were removed. A deterrent to being sought as slaves.
A policeman had requested a lift to his post in the hills. Two old buffalo bulls appeared in the headlights. His immediate reaction was to shoot them, with his Kalashnikov, a light automatic military rifle totally unsuitable for big game. We spent a few uncomfortable moments restraining our trigger-happy passenger.
Before the sun was up, we’d straddled the Land-Rover on the middle hump in the badly eroded track, all four wheels hanging. We worked in a light rain, building up stones under the wheels, for an hour before we were able to move on. And this was just the beginning…the track became increasingly difficult, with steep stony gullies, constantly climbing, strewn with boulders, muddy water running down every crevice. We dropped our policeman in his village, all we could do to dissuade him from loading us with more passengers. We settled with carrying the mailbag on to Maji, his headquarters further up.
Progress was slow, constantly in low range gears, seldom exceeding 15 kph. We admired the courage and skill of the British and South African army in making this road through such country. Looking back across the plains as we climbed, we could see the route we’d travelled from Lake Rudolph. The thorn tree belt stretched right across the plain, forming a natural barrier protecting the Omo plains from poachers and tourists.
On reaching Maji late afternoon, a large group of children escorted us to the police station, where we delivered the mailbag. The policeman’s astonished gratitude was touching. The track out was down a steep, rock strewn and badly eroded incline, over which we slipped and slid, hitting the landy’s undersides too hard and too frequently. We bumped and crawled across a long-disused ford at the bottom, and back up the other side, so steep we strained to see over the bonnet to make out the route through the boulders.
Camp that night, sitting on the tailboard of the landy dead in the middle of the track, ended one of the hardest days driving we’d had, fourteen hours of concentrated mountain trail.
Early next day we continued, with the track climbing up rocky steep hills, testing our driving skills to the utmost. The landy fell, front right wheel deep in a gully, the opposite wheel off the ground. Both John and I were underneath on our backs holding it from rolling over, trying to fit our standard Land-Rover jack, not daring to let go in case it rolled.
Fortunately some Galla tribesman on their way to Maji, dressed in their customary loin cloth, added to by long earrings and bundles on their heads, walked down the trail. They jumped to assist holding the vehicle while we hooked up our rope, which others pulled, taking us up the loose rocky hill. Puffing and coughing on our cigarettes, they parted as great friends, having satisfactorily helped a fellow traveller.
We crossed a stream where the track climbed precipitously for several hundred metres, so badly eroded, there was now nothing left except rubble. We’d have difficulty walking up it, let alone driving.
Our eighty-metre nylon rope wrapped around the front bumper was unravelled. We took the bight to a tree further up the hill, each end turned around our front wheel hubs as capstans. These protruded, designed for just such an occasion. Inch by inch, yard by yard, the wheels slowly turning, regulated on the hand throttle, the landy pulled itself up. Wheel by wheel, boulder by boulder, Johnno and I were outside the vehicle each tending to a front hub, carefully feeding on the rope, under terrifying tension. Avoiding being run over was our prime challenge, the landy grunting and moaning, sliding, rising and often falling back over the wildly undulating loose rocks.
We had pulled everything out of the back to lighten the load. Every now and then, we would miss-feed the rope onto the hub, when the taught line would whip off. We would jump smartly to the side as the vehicle crashed back down the slope, settling several metres below in the pile of stones that went with it, the grinding wheels now going nowhere.
It took us eight hours to climb two hundred metres of track. Exhausted, we counted ourselves fortunate to have made it without casualty. After bathing in the stream we heated up some soup and fell asleep like dogs on top of the landy.
At sunup next morning the slope looked like a typhoon had hit it, our belongings strewn up and down the ascent, boxes, jerry cans, tins and bottles scattered about in the rocks. All this had to be collected and carried up, the trusty rope tied round our waist while the other fed and pulled from a tree above to assist the one carrying.
There was no going back down that slope. We were now absolutely committed to continuing, in no man’s land in the middle of this massive mountain range – no sign of another human to ask for help or information.
Often the road was so overgrown that one of us would walk ahead, enjoying the exercise and checking the track, the landy following like an overgrown puppy. Cavernous drops gaped off the edge with staggering views across valleys and wild mountains.
Tiring of walking, we were quietly rumbling along in the waist high grass, both in the cab, one standing on the passenger seat peering ahead, when suddenly the landy dipped into a hole and slid off the edge. It fell, jamming against a tree, teetering on the verge of rolling down into the valley below.
I sat on the door on the high side trying to keep the delicate balance, ready to jump, while John uncoiled the rope and took it round a tree above us, securing the ends to each top side of the vehicle to hold it from rolling. Using the tree as a pivot to revolve around, we tried to pull ourselves back on to the road. We came close to losing it on several occasions, all to no avail.
‘Gonna be a long walk out, Rob,’ John contemplated as we camped that night. 300km to Jimma, our nearest town.
‘We’ll be okay for water, just have to decide how well we want to eat?’ I was thinking about our heavy, but delicious, tinned stews. The kit would be safe locked up in the back. The vehicle certainly wasn’t going anywhere.
Next morning, planning our exit, we were astonished to hear voices coming down the trail ahead of us. A dozen Galla, naked as ever, long haul bundles on their heads, travelling sticks in hand, appeared round the corner. They took one look at us, dropped their bundles and ran, yelling, into the bush.
Clearly, we were the last ‘things’ they expected to see.
An hour later, we coaxed them back, mainly thanks to our precious oranges, which we rolled down the path, and they retrieved, but apparently didn’t know what to do with them. John and I ate one, showing them how it was done. A brave member of their party munched into his, skin and all. He approved, and we soon had them all tucking into more and sucking on our cigarettes as if their life depended on them. Shamefully, they were our best currency and we weren’t going to disillusion them.
They listened intently while we tried to explain what we’d like them to do. We demonstrated tugging on the rope, now attached to the front of the vehicle, whereupon one of them pulled out a big knife and slashed off a length. Remonstrating, he gathered it was NOT for sale. We tied the slashed piece back on. More explanations and demonstrations. At last they got the message, pulled on the rope, to great hilarity and jeers amongst themselves, much resembling a ‘strong man’ tug-of-war competition.
Starting the engine to assist the pull prompted another exodus. Finally we were together, and they pulled us up onto the road with a strength belied by their small wiry bodies. One of them asked for a lift, more excited about riding with us than continuing his journey. We’d encountered this great status symbol before, so laughed with him as he happily climbed in between the driver and the door, wanting to be right in the action. He rode with us to the next village, shouting excitedly at everyone we passed, tapping the top of his head…a sign that this was now his Landrover?
The countryside became gentler, as did the track gradients, although still muddy. Lush green uninhabited hills rolled on forever. The worst seemed behind us. We were in a happy mood. One of us standing on the passenger seat as lookout was now obligatory, watching the road ahead as the driver nudged through the long, tall grass rustling its way either side of the vehicle, like water against a boat’s hull.
The engine was quiet, until we came to a hill, when it would growl and groan and grapple with the gradient, emerging at the top like a prize bulldog, when hackles would fall and the motor subside to its workman like tick. Always the smell of grass being ploughed into moist earth and broken roots brought to the surface by tussling tyres. On and on, day after day.
We felt like a migrating animal bound for ripening pastures in some distant land. Strangely, there were few animals. Our sole sighting was a family of warthogs, snorting and crashing through the greenery, tails like upright antenna. Fortunately, not too many aardvark diggings.
Tsetse fly played their usual trick of stinging you just as the driving needed full concentration, droning off in time to miss your slap, always at a critical moment, disrupting a crucial limb controlling some vital system like the steering wheel, brake, accelerator or clutch, leaving the driver in dangerous disarray, teetering on the brink of some bottomless gulf.
We stopped to watch the climax of a gigantic meteorological process. A black cloud had been steadily building into a cumulonimbus pillar, its dramatic appearance straining to balance a column of water 10,000m high, darkening the entire landscape. The sombre and formidable accumulation, its base purple-black, totally oppressed the underlying mountains. Our own progress halted like an animal sensing a bushfire, or a stalking predator. We watched the cloud’s hatch open, as though the bottom had fallen out, and a solid column of water fall on the mountainside in a density that conveyed a drowning right across the valley. Thankfully, not on our track.
We stayed that night in a policeman’s hut in a small village called Jomo, and delivered another letter. His wife served a traditional dish of njera and watt, a pancake with spicy hot relish, accompanied by raw, red hot chilli, eaten like peanuts. We drank too much tej, wine made from honey.
‘You what to them?’ John was asking in a lazy voice, a gentle smile spreading behind his misted glasses.
‘I shoota them!’ The policeman emphatically ensured us, a quizzical look almost popping his eyes out.
The officer was telling us, under increasing ease of more tej, that he ran a very tight ship and shot anyone he found drunk, a drunken grin rolling across his own wizened face.
A gentle rain fell on the thatched roof through the night, lulling us to sleep, happily contemplating our not being in our leaky tent.
A beautiful dawn spread across the pink sky, heralding a fine day until the policeman appeared to tell us a baby had died that night from cholera. He and half the village requested a lift to Jimma, the nearest town. On our declining, they stoically accepted our limitations and accompanied us down to enjoy the spectacle of our crossing their log bridge, which they maintained was broken and impassable. This was not in fact true, but was by the time our ‘Land-Rover-crossing-greasy-log’ trick nearly toppled us into the water, saved only by a good number of them hanging onto the upper side of the vehicle, the lower side of which had slid off the logs into the riverbed. We left them in a jovial mood eyeing the debris of a now very broken bridge and our slippery progress up the other side of the valley.
The track was often reduced to the width of a pig’s path, forcing the lookout to duck down as we pushed through undergrowth, branches and creepers wrapping round everything, including ourselves. The cab was again full of biting, crawling insects and caterpillars. Judging the edge of the road was quite a challenge; we frequently would have to abandon our course and head downhill at an alarming angle, finding our way back further along the track after a recce and some serious ‘bundu bashing’ lower down.
We passed a village where we saw men carrying soil in bundles on their heads. We decided to do our bit for the community project, carrying a couple of loads for them in the landy, to their huge delight and amusement, our bonus being a great meal of njera and watt, washed down with tej, and an improved road thereafter. We could actually see where we were going and reached a phenomenal 40kph on one stretch.
We met a team of surveyors in a Unimog, the first vehicle we’d seen since leaving Kenya, apart from Daniel’s. They informed us of a five-year plan to rebuild the old road. Enthralled to hear of our journey, we all agreed they’d be lucky if it worked out in fifty years.
I recently heard that it was completed in 2002. Thirty years. Not bad.