Chukka Boots, Beggars & Coats (and camels)

I had been in Aden before. On troopships to and from the Far East.Hazy pictures clung to my mind of lots of sand,rubbish-strewn roads, goats jostling for space with Arabs in tatty, faded gowns, disabled beggars –and healthy ones too. Haggling shopkeepers wearing false smiles. Not forgetting an awesome sight – black-robed lepers shaking hand bells to warn off the fit.A small corner of the canvas, I told myself as the noisy “Whispering Giant” Bristol Britannia winged its droning passage down the Red Sea. Back in England, night still cloaked the green fields as we glided across Tawahi Bay,  sparkling in the early morning sunshine, in March 1964, to bump gently down at Aden airport. As the aircraft captain – a mythical figure no one ever saw – announced, Aden time is three hours ahead of the UK.

malla india

Malla, India

The first tangible thing to prove I had arrived came when the plane’s doors swung open. A wave of oven-hot air rushed into the cabin – just as if a furnace door suddenly opened in front of you. Off came the jacket and on went the sweat. The passengers looked ridiculous in thick tweeds, pinstriped suits and coloured braces.The first Aden serviceman to heave in sight was a RAF Movements corporal. My eyes popped and I shook my head in disbelief. He wore khaki drill and suede footwear. I had met my first pair of chukka boots. It was not long before I was wearing them myself but I still remember my military mind rebelling at that first encounter.

There followed an amusing interlude. All passengers were herded together behind locked doors in the airport buffet. Dumb talk and wild gesticulations went on through the windows between the “prisoners” and those outside who had come to greet them. The door flew open, a corporal of the Royal Engineers strode in and  planted himself ceremoniously behind a table. We waited, wondering where we had gone wrong. Sighs of relief were heard when the corporal asked for all officers to produce their vaccination certificates. Then it was the warrant officers’ turn, then senior NCOs, and then corporals followed by (I had a wide grin on my face by then) all sappers. The prestige of the Royal Engineers was on the line. Next came troopers, gunners, craftsmen and finally, almost as an afterthought, privates. It crossed my mind that the bloated corporal never mentioned RAF. I doubt if any of them on the flight ever escaped that room.Of course, the ridiculousness of the whole rigmarole was highlighted by the fact that no one was allowed out until all vaccination certificates had been produced. I never did work out the logic of running down the seniority list.

When freed, I tossed my baggage aboard a Landrover and set off. Next to the bronzed, fit-looking RAF driver, I felt as puny and white as a shelled hard-boiled egg. Heat wilted me; my trousers stuck to my legs and sweat patches broke out all over my non-iron drip-dry nylon shirt. I learnt, unsolicited, from the driver that I had landed at RAF Khormaksar, the busiest RAF airfield in the world.

Across a stretch of muddy water on the shore of the Gulf of Aden, Slave Island dozed in the heat. Dhows are built there, using the same methods as used in biblical  times. Which reminds me – Aden is reputed to be the site of the Garden of Eden. Someone’s idea of a joke, I reckon.Further on we sped along the concrete canyon of Maalla, a road lined with modern flats occupied by service families. Aden council built modern homes for the locals and the Arabs kept their goats in them. More useful than people, I suppose. Past Maalla, on towards Tawahi, one of Aden’s characters had made his home in a pile of rocks and tin sheets on the seafront, near the Mobil petrol station. He was the knight of Aden, with armour consisting of a punctured bucket helmet and a rusty oil drum breastplate. Hardly a knight in the old shining but amusing nonetheless.

A motor-cyclist in a white helmet and long traffic sleeves roared past. A speed cop, explained my driver. Considering the general malaise of Aden residents, they were the only drivers who speeded. We swept round a curve, past BP storage tanks and ran into Steamer Point, the Aden of my memory. Plenty of goats, listless Arabs, still some beggars; the higgledy-piggledly shops with soiled bargains and false-grinning owners. Stalls with bait to persuade occasional tourists and naïve servicemen to open their wallets. But something was missing…what? Of course – the sound of lepers’ bells could no longer  be heard. Now the state looked after them. Past the Prince of Wales pier, where tenders land ships’ passengers. Tarahyne looked new. Oblong utilitarian barrack blocks with air-conditioners dribbling brown stains down the walls, gaunt boxes of married quarters, the NAAFI Mermaid Club, rebuilt on strictly functional lines. You can never accuse the architecture of service buildings of being ostentatious.

Up and down, winding and horn-blowing at goats, the Landrover crawled along the twisting, narrow track to Fort Gold Mohur. Cable & Wireless, pink and white in the sun, passed by on the left. Across Telegraph Bay, the admiral’s roundhouse settled down on a finger of rock jutting into the sea.Through a cutting between harsh rock walls to the causeway which looked as if it couldn’t support a dog cart but survives anyway. Elephant bay danced and twinkled in the strong sunshine. We skirted a spit of crumbling lava, rolled alongside the white sands of Gold Mohur Bay where, a hundred yards out, porpoises played tag on the gently heaving surface. Finally negotiating a steep, bottom-gear slope I arrived.I wondered what Aden, hot, dusty, full of strange smells, stirring its loins to claim independence, had waiting for me. I would soon find out. END