At the end of the UK spraying season.
I departed South-end airport,flying a thrush single engine turbine for the Sudan.
I flew over France and down into Italy and across to Greece, spent one night on a Greek island, then I flew directly up the middle of the Med and into Egypt and landed into Cairo." Hallo pyramids."
I then suffered for two days, getting my paperwork cleared from the immigration police, they did this every year, they never let you leave until they had delayed you as much as they possible could! then they just gave you your paper work and let you leave,( bastards!)
I flew south, staying west of the Nile, passing over lake Nasser and into Merowe in the Sudan, the next day I flew on to Khartoum, a shower! meal! and a beer. Heaven!
There must have been over 30 crop spraying aircraft parked on the parking bay, most of them from Europe.
I parked up and headed for the Custom office. Which only took 4 hours? to get through.( it drives me crazy"!) then off to the hotel, I met up with a few guys I knew, who by the way, me included, Said "This is the last time I will come back to this place!"
Of course you may have gathered this wasn't my most favourite place on the planet, but I missed the night spraying in the Windward Islands due to my commitments. So here I am.
I was sent South to the furthest spaying area from Khartoum.
The spraying cycle usually took around 10 days to complete, then we had a few days off, with nowhere to go! so it was read, read, read?
One day whilst on a break, I was approached by a Sudanese guy, he introduced himself, saying he was Coptic Christian Priest at the local church, he invited me to visit his church as I would find it interesting? I thought to myself, I that doubt that!
So with nothing to do and a keen interest in anything ancient, I went along to his church for a look, it was in the centre of a mud village with only one level above ground, I banged on a small door which was on two great doors, it was like striking iron but it was wood? so old! the Priest opened it and gave me some sort of blessing and thanks for visiting them , the inner part of the church was very old as well, but not so big, to tell the truth? I expected more, the priest guided me to a large wooden door at the end of the church and opened it, on to stairs, which went down into darkness.
It reminded me of Ethiopia, cut directly into the sandstone, even the smell was the same, musty and heavy with in-scents. The down going steps were heavily worn, just a little bit dangerous?
I followed the Priest down the stairs he had some sort of oil lamp and he lit others in alcoves as we descended, I was getting excited, at the first level there were 3 rooms without doors and were full of ancient artifacts placed around an altar I saw a Pharaohs style with his cartouche on it! set in a piece of granite rock. (unbelievable!) Made me think that maybe! the stairway and all below it was built by a passing Pharaoh? who knows?
I made a mental note to come back with a pad and take a rubbing copy of the cartouche, and find out the name of the "Pharaoh" who passed this way, all them years ago.
I would never be able to explain the great privilege I felt being here, All my bitching about being here, was forgotten, I saw a suit of armour laying as if in state! at the side of the altar and by the smell of it! he was still in it! It had to be a Knight Templar he still had the red cross in rags on his rusting armour, just amazing! I wonder what his story was.
The whole place was hanging in old woven cloths with stories on them, (I could just move in here?)
Whist I was overwhelmed by seeing all these sights, the priest was talking away to me, I just wasn't listening to him, I just thought he was giving me the tour guides sales talk! plus he said some think about helping the church ? Which would lead to money as it always does! these people are desperately poor.
The deeper we went down the stairs, that feeling that a presence was here! got stronger, I'd felt it before on entering the Pharaohs tombs and the pyramids and other ancients places.
I am aware its my imagination? but the feeling of standing on the edge between time and eternity with its own humming noise is very emotional.
I am really going to enjoy my stay here now, with access to this mystery of life for me to visit? in my spare time! I was making plans in my head, of what I would do? the priest said "we had to go up where they had made Arab tea"!( part camel and 60% sugar, yuk!) I couldn't believe it? we were down there two hours, seemed like just a few minutes and the Priest never shut up, he sure worked hard for his donations?
We drank tea and he asked me "what did I think of helping him and our church"? I miss-understood!
I took 5 American dollars from my top pocket and giving it to him, "thanked him for the tour, I loved it and with his kind permission, I would like to visit every day I was off ! bringing my camera and note pad and spend more time looking about?"
I noticed a suspicious look come over his face, I felt maybe I was a bit hasty with my request and regretted my pushing the point !
I quickly apologised for my bad manners, explaining "it was due to all the marvels I had seen, and of course it was entirely in his hands! maybe when he got to know me better".
I also offered to pay a reasonable fee for each visit, and gave him my word that I would not touch anything,or remove anything what so ever! or ever divulge the where-abouts of the church.
He still looked very suspicious of me, I was close to panic (to lose such a great opportunity) But why had he shown me? his churches wonders and not expected a reaction from me.?
Well that was all I could do! He looked deep into my eyes.I'm sure he could see right through to my boots! as for me I could see no further than the brown oil pools he had for eyes.
He asked me if "I was willing to help him"? I said "yes of course, in what way can I help you"?
He looked a bit frustrated and said " I explained it all to you in the Holy of Holy chambers"
I said " please excuse me I was distracted in the chamber, tell me now, how can I help you"?
He told me of a Christian Mission of theirs, run by two devout nuns doing good work, that operated to the south of here, close to the border giving medical aid and schooling to the locals and how it was raided by rebel forces and everybody who never got away, was murdered, most of the women were raped and butchered! the two missionary nuns were taken prisoner and over the next few days were beaten and stripped and continually raped in front of all the rebels?
All the bed patients were killed where they lay and before departing the rebels butchered the two nuns.
Weeks later a worker from the mission sent word, of the raid on the mission saying" he ran and hid and went back to the mission after the rebels left, others joined him from their hiding places and they began to gather up the dead for burial, he separated the nuns and placed their bodies in sheets from the hospital, placing their Rosary beads with them, they had a pray meeting for them all."
I jumped in then? not knowing where this was going ,saying "What can I do? they're all dead" he acted like I hadn't spoken.
They are going to carry the nuns back to their church, and we will have a high mass and praise them and pray for them, before burial within the sanctuary of the holy chambers as a testament of their faith!
I said "you're crazy, they could never walk that far! How could they ever cross the Sudd"? ( this a place where the constant flooding from the white Nile has created a floating swamp, full of things that like to eat you) he said " they will find a way, they have faith that God will show them the way."
I thought to myself, do these guys really know what will happen to them if the survive the Sudd? and enter rebel held country, carrying two dead bodies nearly 200 miles? in just crazy they are walking to their deaths! "
Well I said "good luck to you, I can't see how I could help you, sorry!"
He said in a soft voice "You could fly your aeroplane down and pick them up. you could land on the track easily, I have seen you land your aircraft, I'm sure you could do it".!
"The local people have been caring the holy sister's for weeks now and are tired, every night they pray to Jesus to guide them and show them the way? they are going to wait at the only small tree on the track, roughly 50 miles south in rebel held country, there should be 5 of them, and they should be there in 3 days time, they will be short of rations and water, please let us give you food and water to take with you?" after loading the holy sisters on to your plane they will pray and rejoice and return back to their homes"
"Then you can land on our mission strip 20 miles south of here, we will remove the holy sister and you can return to your strip"!
"Then we will hold a high mass and ask for forgiveness for our Sudanese brothers who committed these cruel crimes against our God and his children, I openly invite you to attend the Mass, as my guest, for we are of the same faith and church, I will also grant you access to the holy Chambers"?
I could just imagine the high Mass? it will go on for hours! he certainly likes to preach.
But now is the time for common sense and the truth.
I said " I don't know where you got your information about me from? and what ever made you think? I would join you in this crazy scheme"? "But I certainly am not going to fly over rebel held country! where they have surface to air missiles. and by the way? high calibre machine guns! to meet up with 5 guys who have carried two dead nuns, over 200 miles and meet them under the only small tree on a track in the bush! without proper water and food?, Bollocks forget it! I'm sorry but there are surely, dead weeks ago".. I walked away.
He placed his hand on my shoulder and said "where is your faith?"" I picked you because you have a good Catholic name and you did good work in Vietnam? I turned to him looked him in the eye and said " I have not been a Catholic since I was 15 years of age, and I walked away.
The next day I was on my strip and a white guy approached me, he looked a bit familiar? he said "hallo Terence! how goes it? I looked at him, it was the preacher I met in Vietnam, I said " so your the fellow who, made the priest believe I'm some sort of hero? that was wrong of you? have you any idea what they want me to do? they're crazy! You know my record I'm a mercenary pilot in Vietnam. and yes I had more than my share of luck, but I never flew on faith? I believed in the reasons for being there, and I had faith in the maintenance system of the aircraft plus the intelligence before a sorty. The empathy If I had any! it was in the aircraft."
"I only flew for the buzz and the bucks! and never on one way trips. end of story"!
He changed the subject and we talked about general things he mentioned that "I would be flying an upgraded version in Columbia later in the year", I thought to myself that's OK?
Then he turned and faced me , I saw his small gold cross twinkle at me from on his lapel and he said " look I know you can do this? so what will it take? what do you want?
Its not much more than a 5 hour sorty! so come on now" ?
I looked at him; he really knew how to push my buttons.
I said "$1000 paid into my Aussie account and I need a current map of the area and a fistful of GPS coordinates, for my flight plan,
plus I do no loading of dead bodies?
If I don't see them! when I get there ? I fly away!
If I see any rebels ? within 10 miles, I fly away! and I will need a reliable fire-arm with ammo and just one other small point! "
"I'm sorry! but the nuns have to go into the chemical tank?
If I get stopped by government forces for a check, for any reason, I know they will not go near the poison tank! Are we agreed?".
He nodded and returned to his vehicle, and returned with all I'd asked for, including an M1 with 3 full clips, ( I told you he knew me! ) I told him I would leave the M1 at the mission strip.
I loaded the gear into the cockpit, "He said they should have been there two days by now"? "OK" I said "I'm going to go now."
"Please don't tell the priest yet, I don't want to give him false hope, because I have none! that I will see them?"
"I should be back over the mission strip in 6 hours just on dark, give me a flash from a hand strobe ? if it looks like I'm having trouble finding it" ?
I climbed aboard and engaged the start cycle, the turbine lit up and was running.
I gave him the thumbs up, and he waved, I reduced the power and completed my take off checks and input all the GPS coordinates into my GPS, I then took off and flew over the mission strip, it was deserted and as I flew straight down it, I dialled in the direction and updated the GPS position, for when I come back.
I took up a heading West to take me out over the open plains away from the white Nile, there is nothing out here but open bush plain, no villages or people only plains animals. so there is less chance of being seen or heard.
I trusted the GPS coordinates that I had received from the Yank, he had never let me down; he was one of the good guys, all though, I don't really think I knew him?
I never saw anybody out on the plains only a few animals, I had flown a big loop to go away and come back back on a northerly heading 150 miles south of this"small tree"!
I found a track close to the GPS track and followed it north" it was more like a footpath really, as I got closer I reduced my speed, I still saw no anybody, as I closed with the yanks coordinates I saw the small tree which by the way was a bush, three guys laying under the bush and one of them had placed a piece of cloth on the bush (good move)! unbelievable, they made it!.
I turned and set myself up for a landing on the best spot I could see, it was bumpy, but not so bad
I jumped out of the plane and ran over to the men with water, but unfortunately they were all dead, maybe 1-2 days, shame after such an effort? I had to make a move just in case, company was coming.
The nuns were placed near them, so I picked up one of them and carried her over and placed her on the wing and went back and got the other nuns body, I climbed onto the wing and opened the chemical tank, I let them in best I could! I remember "saying excuse me ladies" but I had to drop them a couple of feet into the chemical, I closed the lid and grabbed my camera and I quickly washed the dirt from the faces of the men and took a few photos of them, I thought they deserved it.
15 minutes later I was chasing my GPS on a loop away from the small tree heading south west back over the safety of the plains, 2 hours later I dialled in my go-to function, the mission strip was 29 miles straight north on my nose. Back on the ground, they unloaded the nuns like they were royalty.
I gave the Yank back his M1 and his maps and they washed my plane, I returned to base, next day nobody seem to know or be interested in my being away. so that was good.
Well a couple of days later, they had their big mass I was invited to attend, which I did.
The Nuns had been sown into what looked to me like new marine corp blankets both rosary cross's were attached and on display, the Yank told me he got their names from the cross's and he would get a DNA test, and at the right time send them home to Eire, seems like they were Irish/Colleen's
For the whole service they were laid out in front of the altar after the ceremony the nuns were interned somewhere down those stair's..
The pictures I took ! thanks to the Yank were blown up and the quality greatly touched up and improved,
(The real hero's of this adventure)? and was placed on the altar, the two who died on the journey nobody knew who they were? maybe some survivor's at the border mission will know, and remember them for what they did?
I had one of the most interesting and rewarding times of my life doing that spraying season and exploring the Holy of Holy Chambers, when it was my time to leave, my priest with his dark brown eyes, reminded me of my pledge to him to protect the location of his church, which I have always and will always do.
When I was preparing to leave, the priest and the yank came to see me off,
I took a deep breath and I handed over my camera to the priest and all my drawings, I gave him my rubbing of Pharaohs cartouche a priceless connection across time.
The priest smiled at me and said he would place my belongs on the stairway of the Holy of Holy Chamber for the next time.
What a strange old world! I have become a keeper of secrets?
I often wonder if the Nuns made it home. ?
A couple of years later I ran into the yank in the states, he told me "our Irish colleen's had been spirited away back home to their families" now that's good news.