Birthday in Zanzibar

Birthday in Zanzibar

After that day, I continued to travel far and wide on that trip.  A ferry ride to Zanzibar (where I celebrated my birthday), via Harare I spent a few days in Lusaka.  Via Lilongwe I travelled up, crossing Tanzania the other way to Nairobi.  When I flew in towards Nairobi Airport, the sun was already beginning to set, and the dusty haze that often shrouds the continent had settled once again, so I looked down on the Serengeti through a brown filter.  Reaching up out of that haze, the huge snow capped mountain of Kilimanjaro raised itself, its white tops tinged red by the falling sun.  Despite having passed it many times, it had always been on the wrong side of the aircraft, or shrouded in clouds, so this was my first ever sight of it, and it was magical.

 A day or two later I was back in England, and I phoned my father who was in hospital in Liverpool, suffering from more asthma and heart problems.  Mum said he was nearly on the top floor of the Royal Liverpool, and had a splendid view out over the docks to the Irish Sea.  I talked to him about the trip, one of the most eventful I had been on.  He was very appreciative, his own travels in various parts of the UK, his time in India and his holidays with mum all over the world in their retirement had been a great source of joy to both him and me.  He and I loved to travel, not necessarily going anywhere.  He had helped me learn to drive, but rather than concentrate on three point turns and emergency stops, we would travel down the back roads of Liverpool and South Lancashire, reluctant to turn our back on the horizon and head for home.  He always understood what it was like to travel and enjoy it, so he lapped up my stories from the recent trip and he shared my experience of seeing Kilimanjaro for the first time in such a wonderful way.

Kilimanjaro at sunset

Kilimanjaro at sunset

It was the last time I ever spoke to him as he died a couple of weeks later from a recurrence of his condition.  I was so glad I left him with a memory from my travels, as he had given me so much of the wanderlust, that need to keep heading for that horizon, that made those travels possible.


Airplanes – Reflecting on the African Transect

 The hotel Karibu was an amazing place.  Out in the northern suburbs of Dar,  on the Msasani Peninsula, the kind of twee, manicured and spacious neighbourhood that you find in any African city where colonists made their enclave, this hotel was nestled away.  Not on the coast, it was in amongst the residential district with no outlook to mention.  It was thirty minutes commute from the centre of town.  It should never have existed, but it survived quite well.  What was more bizarre was that it had a splendid entrance that would suit any five star hotel, a grand lobby with antiques adorning every part, a huge gleaming marble desk next to a gushing water feature, and alongside a marvellous restaurant with great food (but the AC was always too cold).  But once you were checked in, you rose up to the next level and found yourself in the squalid conditions of so many big African city hotels; dingy corridors with carpets that smelt of twenty years of abuse (their was cat crap on the stairs for two days), rooms with ancient TV’s that hardly worked, light switches that were lethal and bathrooms that had been plumbed by a mate’s uncle who had once read a book on the subject.

 I was starving, but the restaurant was only serving heavy stodgy dinners, so I wandered outside, ignoring the Tss..tss of the taxi drivers.  I set off down a quiet road towards the coast and came across the Oysterbay Hotel with a small shopping centre next door.  In amongst the shady squares here, I bought a few postcards and settled in a bright new café, had the most enormous hamburger and watched two white women discuss their quaint little social life on the peninsula while a small girl played with her food, her drink straw, her doll.

 It was then I reflected on the trip I had just taken.  From the throb of the electricity generator across from the Aqualodge, down the rutted sandy track to Kigoma Airport, past the refugee camps of Kibondo, the manic disorganisation of Mwanza, the tourist chic of Kili and the heat, dirt and mess of the centre of Dar, I was now in a modern shopping centre, enjoying a hamburger listening to idle European chit chat.  All in one day, all in one country.

Lake Tanganyika Sunset

Lake Tanganyika Sunset

Airplanes – Leg Four and Dar

We traced a ridge of mountains down to the coast and swung out over the Zanzibar Channel before coming down to land in the western sprawl of Dar itself.  The tempo of life had changed again and I was hussled and bussled in what appeared to be like a European airport; gleaming chrome everywhere, television displays, glass partitions and plastic seats.  The only thing was , none of it worked.  The TV screens were blank, the covered walkways to your plane did not extend and you had to deplane down steps, walk across the scorching concrete and wind up a set of service steps to get to the baggage reclaim.  At least I had no immigration to contend with.  I had travelled about 700 miles and for nine hours and was still in the same country.  My next thought was that if I didn’t know which flight I was on, how would my counterparts in Dar, but with the efficiency I found so often with this project, Salam the driver was there to take me into town.  A charming man, a gentle giant, he drove me round Dar for the next few days.  The journey into town took us down a wide dual carriageway, lined for mile after mile with industrial estates, factories and car showrooms.  On the road side were hundreds of small shacks with a range of businesses; bike repairs, tinkers, car parts, food stores.  The traffic was awful.  Instead of taking me to the hotel, I had to meet the project Leader, Andy Menz first.  We battled against the traffic for 45 minutes, before Salam drove into a small courtyard, escorted me up a narrow set of stairs and I walked into the nerve centre of this massive project, a small three-roomed office.  The accountant and Rhitesh the project administrator, were at one end, Marie, the secretary and receptionist had the centre where you walked in, and Andy sat in his glass cage at the front of the office.  I had a brief chat with Andy.  He warned me not to jump to conclusions about where to place the GIS and outlined the meetings he had planned for me, and then allowed me to go and freshen up at the hotel.

The Ferry Dock in Dar

The Ferry Dock in Dar

Airplanes – Leg Three

Some planes landed. Other planes took off.  Some were surprisingly large.  It was now approaching noon.  Apart from two chocolate éclair sweets, I had eaten nothing.  I didn’t like the look of anything at the café, so I held on to my hunger.  After about another hour, I heard the word Dar again, and launched forward to the gate, scrambling to get forward.  I was still way back in the queue; a dangerous place to be on an African flight with no seat allocation, but we all grouped together on the tarmac when our tickets had been ripped apart, and I managed to circle to the front.  We headed off towards a couple of brightly painted Air Tanzania aircraft.  Despite the stories I had heard of Air Tanzania, our craft was a rather clean and cheerful one, and despite my worries for a seat, I ended up with three seats to myself.  Once we had taken off, I could take no more of MMBA so settled down to catch up on some sleep.  I occasionally glanced out and saw huge dry tracts pitted with brown coloured lakes.  Later I realised I had crossed the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater, but it was difficult to be oriented from 30,000 ft.  I awoke about an hour later to find the aircraft in a cloud.  When we descended, rather than the Indian Ocean or a huge city, I saw wide plains, some plantations, a few scrubby patches of ground and the bottoms of mountains shrouded in clouds.  I realised I was not in Dar es Salaam at all.  I worked it out eventually, and I think it was the sight of seven-foot Masai herdsmen in their bright red attire, whose height seemed to loom up at us as we came down to land, that did it.  This was Kilimanjaro Airport, serving the resorts of Arusha and Moshi in the north east of Tanzania.  I was still around two hundred miles from Dar es Salaam, and had now been travelling for some seven hours.  I began to think I had got on the wrong flight, but at last I heard an intelligible announcement that told me that passengers for Dar should remain on the aircraft.  A mixed bag of people, tourists, businessmen and women, and travellers with their whole lives wrapped up in string and brought on optimistically as hand luggage boarded.  We were on our way and I managed to keep my eyes open for the last hour.  Once we cleared the clouds around Kilimanjaro, we left the green tea and coffee plantations behind and returned to the more common scrub.

Airplanes – In the Departure Lounge

I finally asked the UNHCR staff where the entrance was.  She pointed at an unmarked door where everyone seemed to be going in and out.  I thanked her and barged my way forward through the throng.  Beyond the door was a narrow corridor full of people talking and smoking.  At the end stood a dilapidated X-ray machine and the usual magic door that accompanies it.  I am always ready for these, after years of fumbling in front of a queue of exasperated fellow passengers, trying to sort out all your change from every pocket.  So I had all the money, coins and my pocket knife in one pocket.  I unloaded onto the table and went through.  The alarm bells rang but no one took any notice at all.  I put everything back in my pocket and sheepishly walked on to pick up the computer out of the machine.  I thought I was almost there, but a uniformed man stopped me and gave me a quick frisk, just for his own personal pleasure, and then I went through to the departure lounge.

 Departure lounge is a rather glamorous name for the Spartan room I now entered.  It contained several benches covered in plastic, but all these were taken.  To the left, a rather dingy bar area was selling Coke, tea coffee, revolting cooked buns and little else, and there were two doors out onto the tarmac labelled optimistically “Gate 1” and “Gate 2”.  Only Gate 1 seemed to be in use, as I could tell as most passengers were hovering at the exit (the width of a normal house front door).

 I realised that we were not all waiting for the same flight, and looking at my boarding card, I couldn’t really work out what flight I was supposed to be on.  I was still under the delusion that the UNHCR was taking me forward to Dar, but this boarding card was definitely of Air Tanzania, and it said I was on Flight Squiggle.  So I decide to wait until Flight Squiggle was advertised.

 No such luck there.  There were no electronic display boards, and no-one was using the small chalk board in the corner for the purpose.  But there were announcements.  “Far de far for de for for far de far de far de far far”.  So I did that, as Michael Flanders would have said.  And they were saying that in Kiswahili and English, but I could not differentiate.

 So, I just had to try and eye up someone who I thought was going to Dar and follow their reactions to the announcements.  Flights were leaving for Entebbe, Tabora, Dodoma, Tanga and Nairobi, but nothing to Dar.  Then I heard a stewardess mention Dar, but this was with Panther Airlines, no Air Tanzania, so you can see that I had several false starts.  I looked around at the crew of fellow passengers; huge fat Muslims in one corner, supping beer.  Several badly tanned whites, the cancers dripping off their mottled skin (southern Africans, Australians and a few E Africans among them).  A dog-collared priest talking to a few starched nuns, who looked remarkably cool in their light blue habits.  Several business men nursing their well-developed paunches while smoking hard, a few young college boys in their smart streetwise outfits; open necked shirts, perfectly creased slacks and sandals.  And me, a bedraggled Brit clutching a computer and worrying that he is about to be stranded in Mwanza because he couldn’t hear the flight being announced.

Airplanes – Processed in Mwanza

This was where the fun really started, and how Africa can really hit you.  One minute you are remote, you have the whole world beneath you and it is treating you to sights beyond your wildest dreams, and then it gets right back in your face, and Mwanza Airport did that for me.

 I managed to keep up the pretence for a few minutes after landing.  I thanked the captain for the flight and gathered my bags together.  I then went into the UNHCR office at the airfield and went to find Margaret, who had my onward ticket to Dar ready.  I found her easily enough, handed over the 90000 Schillingi and then came back out to find my aircraft.  I was told I had to check in in the usual manner (this turned out to be a bit of a lie, nothing about this airport was usual).

 The only way to check in was to go out, so I sidled with my computer, hold all and suitcase through a narrow metal gate and immediately found myself in the town.  A few Coke stalls were set up around a shady mango tree and a whole bunch of Taxi drivers spotted me within a second. “Tsssss Tssss”, they spat “you want taxi?”.

 I shook my head and tried to find the front entrance of the airport, which wasn’t easy.  Eventually I came across a covered pathway with grills and benches down each side, and about a hundred people sitting in the way.  Some were waiting for arriving flights, some waiting to depart, some were drinking, playing cards and smoking.  Most were just trying to find a bit of shade in the mid morning sun.  I shuffled my way through here, past the airways companies desks and to what I assumed was the check in hall.  It was a small square room crushed with passengers queuing in front of a single check in desk.  Beside the check in desk was one huge weighing machine, the sort with the large metal base and round dial.  The dial faced the desk so no passengers could actually see how much their luggage weighed.  I had already been overweight once that morning and was a bit short of Schillings now after paying for my ticket.  Next to the weighing machine , a conveyor belt led a short distance down to a hatch that opened up into brilliant sunshine.

 I parked my bags behind the queue of others and placed myself at the back of the human queue, which seemed to go nowhere fast.  There was some commotion at the front, totally unintelligible to anyone not directly involved.  We stood in the rising temperature, waiting our turn.  Time seemed to stand still for the people in the queue, while the area around was a hive of near pointless activity.  Several worried looking airport workers came rushing by, would look at the pile of bags on the floor, perhaps turn a couple of labels over and then rush off in a storming hurry.  A man forced a label in front of me and pointed at my hold all.  I filled out the relevant details and tried to wrap it around its handle, but it was ripped out of my hand before I got close and the same man tugged it into place.  We shuffled forward a couple of feet.

 I was behind a huge Tanzanian wearing a bright yellow shirt covered in sweat.  When we got closer to the desk, I couldn’t actually see round him, so could not tell what our progress now was.  From my ticket, I wasn’t sure what time my flight to Dar was, with whom I was flying and whether a plane actually existed that would transport me to Dar.  Eventually I reached the desk.  The bags were placed on the scales, I never saw the weight and a simple tag saying “DAR” was hooked around the baggage.  It then joined the pile of baggage on the disused conveyor-belt leading out onto the tarmac.

 I grasped my Air Tanzania boarding pass and looked around.  I couldn’t find an exit, only an entrance.  I saw a few of the people who had joined me on the flight from Kigoma in the room, one of whom was talking to an official who was taping up all her boxes clearly marking them “UNHCR”.  I could see an airline desk, and the hole where the baggage was going.  Looking closely, I could see that the luggage was shuffling down the conveyor belt by sheer weight of baggage loaded at the top end, falling out onto the runway, where a bunch of airport staff were loading it onto the same trolley, irrespective of its final destination.  I suddenly had vision of working for the next few days in Dar with nothing but the laptop in my hand; no papers, no washbag, no clean underwear.

Airplanes – Kibondo and Leg Two

Despite this being a tiny flight, we were told in his best hostess manner that for those passengers in transit we shall be on the ground for twenty minutes and please do not leave the plane.  So while he busied himself with the two passengers disembarking and the one coming on, plus the several boxes of paperwork which had to be offloaded here, I sat back and looked around the airport.

 I’ve already said that this was a UNHCR flight that services the refugee camps.  Kibondo is close to some of the largest.  The camps have been there so long that few really remember why they were set up.  I have seen malnourished people in Africa everywhere; the distended bodies of children who have had too much sadza against fruit.  Many Africans I have met have been lean but impressively strong; their taut bodies not honed in gyms or sport’s clubs, but from the balance between a minimalist diet and manual work. (I have also seen many overweight Africans, men particularly, who take it as a sign of their manliness to have a paunch).  But here, the children were different.  The four porters at Kibondo were all adolescents; somewhere between 13 and 18 I would guess.  But they had quite stunted growth, rather like slightly elongated 9 year olds.  And they had the faces of old men.  They had seen sights and experiences horrors that nobody, whatever their age, should have been exposed to.  They were truly undernourished.

 And twenty minutes later, I flew away from this place, forever.

 “You have an important job to do, Co-pilot”, the pilot said to me.  I dished out the Chocolate eclairs again.

 The flight was just as exciting second time around, and I noticed that the landscape began to change.  Soon after we took off, we started flying over some forested area.  Below, I saw a grid iron pattern with tin roofs nestling in among the trees.  This was one of the refugee camps, not so much the transient camps I had expected; tents and queues of people, but a rather settled, ordered, civilised city sheltering from the heat of the sun under a softening canopy.  However, one thing that did surprise me was its size.  We flew over it for a couple of minutes.  And finally when we reached the end, the remaining bush betrayed no sign of the human suffering behind it.

 The GPS on the dashboard continued to wink away, counting down our journey time to Mwanza.  The haze of the early morning did not lift, and from the plane it was difficult to make out what was land below.  Blue areas to the north looked like lake, but then dissolved to reveal more bush.  Then, finally great inlets of a huge lake, Victoria, struck into the bush beneath us, and we began our descent towards Mwanza.  Mwanza, the main port on the Tanzanian coast of Lake Victoria and one of the largest cities in the whole country, nestles on a series of peninsulas covered in bare rock, so that from a distance, the city looks much larger and grander than it really is.

 Below us, the shallow Lake Victoria, although clogging with water hyacinth still manages to sparkle blue, and several large ferries were plying in and out of the harbour.

 From a distance I could see the large tarmac runway, on a levelled piece of land perpendicular to the coast.  And on the runway were….some workmen, extending the strip just before where we were to land.  To the right, the terminal building with a few small planes.  We descended in a non-linear fashion, buffeted by the occasional wind off the lake, and he brought us down to the tarmac just beyond the workers.  It was when we reached the bottom that I thought we were safe, but when he reversed the engines, the plane skidded to the left and only because the runway was wide did we not fall off.  He kept us on our toes to the very last minute.

Airplanes – Looking for the strip

The GPS was now reading less than five minutes to go.  The pilot had already started to lower the craft out of the sky.  I put my hand to my forehead to shelter my eyes from the sun and peered out and saw more MMBA.  And now the pilot did something that worried me quite a lot.  He also put his hand to his forehead and looked out.  I thought that with all the modern technology at his fingertips he might have been able to pinpoint the airfield, but no.  He looked strangely lost.

 I saw it first, a strip of neat looking grass amongst the acacia thorn.  It was down to my right, nestled on the flat below another large hill.  Alongside a small concrete shelter, nothing more, nothing less, and a few 4×4’s glistening in the sunlight.  This really was the smallest airport I had ever been to.  He dropped the airplane in a series of sharp jolts, just like they do in the big jets that make you wish that you hadn’t had the final Danish.  And then he swung the craft round in a wide arc to face back towards Kigoma, and, more importantly, Kibondo airfield.

 This was another new experience.  So often when you fly, you only get to see out of one side or the other of an aircraft.  You often don’t have an inkling for how far away the runway is when you are landing.  Here, I could see the runway before the pilot and now, was able to see it getting closer and closer.  More frighteningly, I could see the tops of the trees in front of me getting closer and closer too, and the thought of crashing into one of these was also getting larger and larger.

 But, no, as ever, my niggling ghosts whenever I fly were laid to rest and we bounced down onto the grass and braked easily as the pilot pulled the engine lever back into neutral then reverse.  We braked in a straight line and he taxied to the waiting reception party.

Airplanes – Leg One

He handed me a small Tupperware box with several Cadbury Eclair sweets inside.  I passed them back into the cabin and everyone took one. “Breakfast” said the pilot.  He looked around the aircraft one more time and pulled the throttle right back.  We accelerated away and within a few seconds were airborne and the bounce of travelling in a different medium shocked us all, and the ground was left far behind.  To the right the sprawling suburbs of Kigoma and Ujiji diminished and the row of low hills to the west gradually revealed the lake.  We travelled for a short distance southeast, almost tracing the lake’s shoreline before swinging northeastwards still climbing.   The GPS told me we had 40 minutes to Kibondo, wherever that was.  The wonderful sight of thick African bush was below us, river valleys cut into soft rock and meandered between lines of hills.  Small groups of people scratched out a living on slopes of dubious soil quality,

The prospect of a 180 degree view was tempered by the fact we were heading directly into the rising sun, and a yellow haze and wispy clouds spoiled the vista in front.  I cursed the fact that I had left my sunglasses in my hold-all, now at the back of the plane. To the right of us, though, the land was crystal clear and I could make out the long straight dust tracks of the major roads, forested areas, huge vlei, probably part of the great Malagarasi Swamp. To the west, the mountains on the border with Burundi rose high, almost to meet us at eye level.  We were flying at around 8000 ft, and the ground below was over 3000.  The mountains to the west, bordering the western rift, are among the highest in Africa.

 Despite the awe inspiring views, and the once in–a-lifetime opportunity that this was, several things conspired to make me tire quickly of the experience.  Firstly there was the incredible noise of the engines.  The pilot has his earphones on, so was probably oblivious to the pain it was causing me.  A loud, badly pitched whine and shivering vibration that just continued, never changed for the forty minutes in the air.  Secondly, the view was not all that stunning.  The old adage of MMBA was holding out.  All I could see was Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa.  The bush was all the same, the rivers still meandered, and the people still scratched out a living on slopes of dubious soil quality.  The third thing was that it was still only 8 o clock in the morning and I had already been on the go since 5:30 , after not getting to bed till after midnight the night before (the American running the Nyanza project had kept me talking all night).

 I started to nod off and even I could tell I was snoring in time with the vibration of the plane (Ncrrr crr crrr crr crr).  I tried and tried to take a look out of the window, but each time I did the view that was obscured by the haze soon was also obscured by eye moisture and then eyelid.  I was almost asleep when we were bumped three hundred feet up into the sky.  I looked out and saw a long ridge, almost the same shape as the North Downs.  We had hit the already rigorous thermals that rose up from these bumps and the little plane had been tossed upwards viciously.  The pilot smiled at me and said “A good job we didn’t have too much breakfast” and went on to explain how you learnt to look for these features.

Airplanes – A very important job

I said goodbye to the driver, who had been a good ally over the last few days, and wandered as nonchalantly as I could manage around the nose of the plane.  I couldn’t suppress the wide eyed grin currently on my face but tried to make this feel like I commonly took my place next to a pilot on a plane when I fly around Africa.

 I worked my way up the steps into the front, one on the wing, one on the body of the aircraft and settled into the seat.  I could hear a few strange comments from the rest of the passengers about my being there (Jealous people, I thought) and tried to work out the seatbelt.  I couldn’t.  The pilot got in a moment later and buckled me in like a two-year-old.  (Ha ha, just out of practice….I haven’t seen one of these before in my many years of being up front in a aircraft….).

 This was awkward.  I had this thing between my legs.  A joystick I mean, which was connected to his side as well.  I had two foot pedals where I wanted to rest my feet, so I couldn’t relax in this position.

 The pilot got in and coolly started up the engines, using the big knob in the centre of the cockpit.  He then gave a final wave and moved off, no hands, turning the plane by the use of the foot pedals, which also raised and lowered themselves on my side of the plane.  While doing this, he set all his instruments on, including the GPS. Rather than Mwanza, which is where I thought I was going, he clicked on to Kibondo, and I realized this was going to be another up down, up down job.

 He turned to me as we were going to the end of the runway and said, “the co-pilot has a very important job”

 “Yes, yes” I said

 “Oh, yes”  He grinned at me, “You get to hand out the chocolate eclairs.”

Important Job

Important Job