The flight over to Burundi was incredible. Leaving the Athi Plains behind, we crossed the Masai Mara and out over a huge peninsula that teased out over southern Lake Victoria. Dotted with smaller islands, boats ploughing back and forth, this huge blue splodge on the plateau between the west and east Ridge Valleys stretched off into the haze. Then we climbed into the hills of the north western edge of Tanzania, and over the border into Burundi. Even though it was still only 8 in the morning, the clouds were blooming over the highlands, giving us some unwelcome turbulence and obscuring the views for much of the time. The tantalising glimpses through the gaps in the clouds showed a verdant rugged landscape, packed with fields and crops.
Then all of a sudden the land fell away from us, and the clouds cleared. The wide Rift Valley spread below us, and the huge wall of the Congolese side was directly in front of us. The rift is too deep to be able to turn jets to the left in one go and land in Bujumbura….or else it was unsafe for us to fly over certain zones, so we circled steeply over the Ruzizi River, round once, round twice, lowering all the time, and finally turn south for our final approach. I grasped glimpses of the Lake, my first sight of the lake I had been working on for two years, the city and the airport.
The first thing I saw as we landed were a series of large guns at the edge of the runway trained on our aircraft as we braked hard. It was what I expected, this was still very close to a war zone. We also passed what I presume was Air Burundi’s only jet…it was in a semi-collapsed state, rusting to glory and with paint peeling off it, just to the right of the terminal building.
At this point, my preconceptions of Burundi evaporated. There were only about forty of us on the flight, you could see why Kenya Airways did not want more than two flights a week – it was nothing to do with security; there just wasn’t the trade. We walked from the plane to a clump of large eggshells that formed a rather airy terminal building. I had the proper visa for Burundi with its five shiny US Dollar stamps across the top, and was whisked through immigration and customs with unusual efficiency. I was supposed to meet Mamert, the Administrative fix-it man for the project in Burundi. No-one came smiling towards me. I sat on my suitcase and waited. Although about third through the customs table, all the other passengers passed by me, picked up by relatives, hiring taxis or setting off walking out of the airport. Still I sat there, occasionally getting up and looking back through the customs area to see whether I had missed Mamert. This being the only jet plane through the airport that day, most of the officials started packing up and making their way home (now about 9:30 in the morning). No-one seemed bothered that I was stranded there. I began to believe I might be thrown out onto the streets. With little French and no clue as to where the project office was, I was now getting quite disturbed that my first day in Bujumbura might be an unpleasant one.