It’s not a good sign when you have boarded an aircraft, you’re waiting for the scheduled take-off time, but there’s a ladder standing against the intake of one of the jet engines, and a toolbox on the ground…
It was October 1994 and I had boarded an Air Afrique flight in Johannesburg at 10:45 on a Monday morning, hoping to depart towards Abidjan, in the Cote d’Ivoire. From there we were scheduled to continue on to Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, later that same evening. My colleague Andy and I were in good spirits, keen to spend some time on the ground to investigate the exploration potential of a little old gold mine in the north-eastern part of that country.
We didn’t take off on time, however, but were all kept waiting, without being told exactly why. Just some generic “technical issue” comments from the cockpit. After a few hours, and after watching a number of other aircraft land, taxi and take off, we were served lunch. The first and last time that I have been served lunch in a stationary aircraft while waiting for an overdue take-off!
In those early and exciting days of our business travel into African countries, we were still flying business class and we were seated quite near the front of the plane, so that we could look back out of the windows at that concerning view of a stepladder standing against the engine intake. Some guy in an overall had climbed that ladder and had a little look inside, but (fortunately!) had not attempted to use any of his toolbox contents there.
And so we waited a bit longer.
We used to jokingly refer to Air Afrique as “Air Tragique” or “Air Panique”, even though it was generally perceived as a good airline at the time. I found out later that the company had been in a slow decline since the early 1980’s, and that this decline accelerated in the mid-90’s, resulting in defaults on payments, seizure of aircraft by debtors, and a reduction in number of flights. Even though this was all happening during 1994, we were blissfully unaware and looking forward to good service towards Abidjan.
Anyway, at some point after lunch, the captain announced in his version of English that he was giving it ten to fifteen minutes, and after that “then we stop everything“. To this day I don’t know what he was expecting to happen in those few minutes, but we had not moved anywhere since boarding, so that “stopping everything” was not really a novel idea. By 16:00 it was decided that nothing was going to improve and we disembarked again, back into the airport. We were herded back through customs and immigration and into the airport Holiday Inn. By about 20:00 that evening we were settled in there, had been allocated rooms and were having supper and a few drinks, all charged to Air Afrique.
I called Marina with the news. She was surprised that I was not calling from Abidjan, but from … Johannesburg. We discussed whether I should go home that evening and come back the next morning. Our house was at least an hour’s drive from the airport, however, so we decided that I would just stay in the Holiday Inn until the next morning.
End of day one, but still stuck in Johannesburg…
We’d been told to be ready for departure early the next morning and we took that advice seriously, especially since our luggage was still in the hold of the aircraft, which was allegedly being repaired in a maintenance hangar. The resident manager of the airline claimed that he could not access our luggage since the aircraft was in the hangar, where his staff did not have access, and the airport people claimed to not have access without approval by the airline. Catch-22, but also…. holding on to our luggage also ensured that we were a captive crowd.
So, having woken up early and grabbing a good hotel breakfast, we were at the airport again before 08:00, where we rebooked our connecting flight from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, since the previous days’ connection was obviously long gone. At the same time, we tried to liberate our luggage from the airline. We had been told that we would probably depart at 12:00, but this was an estimate (and our trust level was running low). First, however, we had to check out of the previous day’s flight (that never departed) and check in again for the new flight.
Just a reminder: More than 24 hours had passed since we’d first checked in, but we were still in the same Johannesburg airport.
Eventually the news spread that our estimated take-off time had been postponed to 13:15, and then to 13:30. These seemed like a remarkably exact estimates, but they nevertheless all proved to be incorrect.
As you can imagine, a number of passengers, who had planned to be in Abidjan the previous afternoon, were getting somewhat agitated and accosted the airline’s manager, who was not only overwhelmed by all the protest, but also completely out of his depth in the English language. He promptly offered us all lunch vouchers before escaping from the airport. This was like adding fuel to the fire for some of us, especially for some large American businessmen who were apparently not used to this sort of treatment. (Which, come to think of it, is ironic – I always thought that American airlines had perfected the art of being rude to passengers.)
Anyway, we accepted the lunch vouchers and consumed a basic lunch (read: snack) in an airport restaurant. We then heard (accompanied by loud groans from all and sundry) that the departure time was now set for 22:00 and that engineers from Belgium were coming to work on the aircraft…
Air Afrique miraculously returned our luggage and delivered us to the Holiday Inn again. Customs and immigration officials were somewhat surprised by this crowd that was departing from and returning to South Africa (twice) without actually going anywhere, but they allowed us back into the country and we were back in the hotel by 16:00 for a few beers. By 20:00, however, we were rounded up again, this time with our luggage, and checked in again.
As you do when at all possible, we went to the business class lounge for a few drinks. I must admit that we were not really surprised when the estimated time for departure was adjusted to 23:00. Apparently, this was necessitated by the fact that the repairs to the aircraft had to be tested, for which we were grateful, of course.
Just a reminder, this would be the second evening after our initial scheduled departure time, but we were still (or again) in the same airport.
By now, all the passengers had somehow coalesced into a large family, if not a very happy one. We’d met a few fellow travellers (or perhaps I should say people hoping to travel) from all walks of life:
Andy and I were accompanied by another geologist, Francois, who was introducing us to the owners of the mine we were due to visit.
There was Dr. Karin, a young veterinarian who had been doing research in South Africa on ticks and the diseases they carry. She shared with us her remarkable experiences with South Africans who can sit at a bar, or around a campfire and just crack jokes, not feeling the need for serious conversation. This was something she was not used to in her native Germany, apparently. (Disclaimer: Before I get attacked by anyone, I must hasten to add that I have met many jolly and funny Germans in the years since then!)
There was a portly gentleman who was very fond of the champagne that was available in the lounge. We never formally met him, but we he was either Belgian or French, so we called him Monsieur Champagne.
We called one chap “Bob the Great White Hunter” because he looked like one and his name was, … well, Bob.
One young lady, Patsy, was flying via Abidjan to meet her fiance in Bamako, Mali, where he was a aeroplane pilot for a mining company. I think this was her first international trip. She couldn’t wait to see him again and was very excited by the whole international travelling thing. Or would be, once it actually started.
With a bit of subterfuge we managed to get some of these new friends into the SAA lounge too, and here we settled down, only to hear that the departure time had been postponed (again) to 23:59.
It was somewhat annoying to be joined in the lounge by some other businessmen who were very upset that their own (KLM) flight had been delayed for two hours. Amateurs.
End of day two of this remarkable “trip”, but … still in Johannesburg.
Day three, believe it or not, started with an actual take-off at 00:30. Suitably drugged by the considerably depleted contents of the SAA lounge in Johannesburg, I cannot remember much of this flight, except that we landed in Brazzaville, Congo, just after 03:00 local time. We expected to be there for fuelling and possibly to exchange some passengers.
One of our fellow travellers was the then Director of the Geological Survey in South Africa. He had planned to travel to Brazzaville and was one of the few lucky ones who had actually arrived at his destination! He was meeting the South African ambassador to the Congo, and also, across the Congo River, to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). So he wished us luck, disembarked and went off to his meetings, to deliver and unveil some geological maps that had been produced for the Congo.
I continued dozing in my seat, until Andy woke me by saying that “we appear to have a recurrence of the same problem…“. It’s a sentence that I remember perfectly, as if Andy said it yesterday. But at the time I found this difficult to believe and looked out of the window to see … a stepladder standing against the engine cowling.
I kid you not. What was it that they needed to keep looking at, in there?
After being kept waiting and wondering, we disembarked just before 06:00 and everybody was squeezed into the totally inadequate airport building, which was designed for people to be processed, not to be stored. Seeing the angry mob crammed together into stairwells and other small spaces, the airline realised that they would soon have a revolution on their hands and had us all transported to the Sofitel hotel in town.
We did not go through any customs and/or immigration procedures, just traded in our passports for plastic cards with “Air Afrique” printed on them. And we were warned not to leave the hotel, since we were legally “in transit”. Half an hour later we were enjoying breakfast in the Sofitel, which we charged to (you guessed it!) Air Afrique.
Andy and I were colleagues working for a South African mining house. He was (is!) a highly-qualified, very experienced geologist, at the time in charge of our geology department’s Research Unit. I was a young and much less experienced geologist who did have a passport that was acceptable in African countries at that time, and I had travelled to some of them before. In those days we still had an in-house “travel office” that made all our flight reservations and other travel arrangements. I remember that someone there once told me that they were so jealous of “all those exotic places you guys travel to” as she put it.
If only she knew. She thought Ouagadougou (which she pronounced “OW-gah-DOW-gow” when it should be more like “wah-gah-doo-goo”) was pretty exotic, but our trip so far had only taken us to the SAA lounge and the Holiday Inn at the airport in Johannesburg, a few times, and now also to the Sofitel in Brazzaville, where we were still not getting any news from the airline about progress with repairs to the aircraft.
So, by 11:00 or so we were debating whether we should check in at the hotel, or just continue life in the hotel lounge. No real hardship, we’d been told to “just charge everything to Air Afrique” but we were starting to wonder if we were stuck in some strange bubble of space-time, doomed to an endless loop of free lunches, too many drinks, and step ladders against engine cowlings. Faced with such uncertainties, we decided to have lunch.
We traded stories and translation skills with co-travellers and agreed that it was a pity that we did not have swimming costumes in our hand luggage. Friendships were being made and cemented, possibly lubricated by the hotel’s bar, but not to the extent that we felt ready to go daytime skinny-dipping in the hotel pool.
If I think back now, I really cannot remember any feelings of anxiety or annoyance. I felt that I was experiencing an Adventure with a capital “A”, was enjoying the company of current and new friends and I think any other feelings were more or less anaesthetised.
Later that afternoon, I sneaked out of the hotel (I was now in a capital city of another country, without passport, only documented with Air Afrique’s plastic strip) and walked to the airline offices. These were closed. I think that staff must have been diverted to find more stepladders for the airport maintenance people.
I made it back to the hotel without any diplomatic incidents by late afternoon and heard that we would “take off at 20:20!“. Of course we didn’t really believe that, but we were instructed to be ready to leave the hotel at 18:45. In the meantime, the SA ambassador and the director of the Geological Survey had returned to the hotel after their meetings and were somewhat surprised to find the rest of us still in situ. We celebrated the happy reunion with a couple of beers. The invitation to charge all meals and drinks to the airline was wearing thin and that is probably why we were actually taken from the hotel to the airport almost exactly on time.
We survived another scrum through the stairwells of the airport building, successfully exchanged our plastic strips for our passports, and boarded at approximately 20:00. However, we did not board the same aircraft that we’d arrived on. I have no idea where that was at the time, but I am sure a stepladder was involved, and possibly some Belgian engineers.
No, Air Afrique had diverted another flight from elsewhere to collect us. The passengers of that flight appeared unhappy with the delay that was causing for them, they were not as relaxed about that sort of thing as we were, by then. But then they’d had less anaesthetic. Anyway, we took off around 20:40, only 20 minutes later than the promised time, which was a minor miracle.
And so, into the third evening since our first check-in, and about halfway to Abidjan. Progress!
We arrived in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, shortly after midnight local time. Thursday morning. Since the re-booked flight to connect us to Ouagadougou had obviously departed the day before, we elected to proceed through immigration and checked in at the Sofitel in Abidjan. Patsy, our co-traveller whose fiance was in Mali, phoned her family and heard that he was quite sick with malaria. This news, on top of all the delays so far, was just too much for her and she had to be consoled and reassured before we could all go to our bedrooms. I think we might have settled into bed somewhere around 02:00.
Day four started with an early breakfast, and checking out of the hotel. Full of hope, we took a taxi to the airport and tried to check in for the Air Ivoire flight to Ouagadougou. This was not successful, since the flight, although listed on the Air Ivoire schedule, did not actually exist!
So, off to town, to find out more from the Air Ivoire office there. We used a taxi that was in a tremendous hurry for some reason, weaving through the traffic in a way that made me (in the front passenger seat) very uncomfortable. The more I told the driver to slow down (“lentement!!!“), the more he just grinned and kept going faster. It’s possible that he thought I was telling him that he was going too slow. Clearly, I needed to improve my French skills.
Anyway, we gratefully arrived safely at the airline office and heard that there was apparently another flight to Ouagadougou in the evening, so we reserved seats on that one. We then visited a bank and, probably since it was becoming a habit, we had lunch at the Sofitel. After lunch, we wandered around the Plateau area of Abidjan, had a few drinks, despatched Patsy to the airport for her flight to Mali, and we had a very good dinner at the Kim Hoa, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in town. Abidjan was known as “the Paris of West Africa”, and had a very French, cultured feel to it.
By 21:30 we were back at the airport to check in for our flight. For some reason, the flights to other West African cities were handled through the old domestic terminal of the airport, which had a colonial, dirty and run-down look. Something like an old railway station waiting room, with dark green and dirty cream gloss paint, a sagging ceiling and hard wooden chairs. Oh, and a sleepy and disinterested member of staff behind the counter. I had lots of time to study all this, since we were still waiting for the flight to arrive, by 23:00. About forty minutes later, we were told that “the flight will arrive at 00:30“. This news was provided with a smile, completely ignoring the fact that is was hours late, but we were getting used to that sort of thing, and didn’t believe it, anyway. Just a pity there was no Air Afrique lounge in this part of the airport.
The flight, an old Air Burkina aircraft operating as an Air Ivoire flight, actually arrived a little early (!) and we scrambled aboard, ending day four of the trip in an aircraft that was actually going to land in Ouaga!
According to my notes, take-off was at 00:47 and we landed in Ouagadougou at 02:00. It was now technically Friday morning, literally 89 hours after checking in on Monday morning (for the first time) in Johannesburg. But we had finally reached Burkina Faso! If you want to know more about this country, have a look at the relevant Wikitravel website. The name “Ouagadougou” means something like “the place where people get honour and respect”, while “Burkina Faso” (previously known as Upper Volta) means “the land of upright [read: honest] people”.
As I was putting together these little maps with our flights, I was reminded of that story of the frog who is facing a wall and jumps towards it, every time covering half of the remaining distance. The jumps get smaller, but he will never actually reach the wall…. (You may have to think about that one.) We were starting to feel a bit like that, even as we entered the Ouagadougou airport. Remember, we still had to get to that property on the border with Niger…
We were collected at the airport and transferred to the Hotel Nazemse in Ouagadougou. If you have never heard of this establishment, this is not surprising. It was not of the same quality as the two Sofitels and the Holiday Inn that we had been getting so used to. I remember yellow walls, small barred windows, an aluminium door that screeched when opening and closing and a noisy (but very necessary!) air conditioning unit. This was also where we would part ways with Dr. Karin, our German veterinarian travelling companion, so we had a few beers and cracked a few last jokes with her before we all went to bed, just after 04:00.
I can’t remember exactly how that Friday progressed (I don’t know why), but I remember that we met our Emirati contacts and that they’d chartered a helicopter for us to fly to the faraway minesite, since driving there would just take too much time. (We had already used up most of the time allocated for this mission and we had not even reached our destination yet.)
We made our assessment of the property, which was somewhat less exciting than the trip to get there had been. Then we flew back to Ouagadougou, where I can remember one more meeting with the Emirati guys, who also owned a shop selling various plastic goods.
The following days were also interesting and I’ll show you a few images that should give you a taste of what our lives were like in the days that we hunted for gold exploration opportunities in West Africa:
Andy and I had arranged for a local taxi driver to take us to some areas where there was artisanal and small-scale gold mining. We were surprised and a bit concerned that he arrived to collect us with a battered old Peugeot 504, but it managed to stay in one piece the whole day. These cars (“French warhorses in Africa“) can be found everywhere in West Africa, going places where you wouldn’t even want to drive with a 4×4. However, the tyres had obviously seen too much action already, and we had to stop twice to switch tyres, patch and vulcanize tubes, etc.
We eventually left Ouagadougou with a beautiful Air France aircraft, flying to Conakry in Guinea, where I had to negotiate a “three-hour visa” (!) with an immigration official in broken French while Andy guarded our luggage. Success on both fronts and we boarded Ghana Airways for the flight to Accra.
Here Andy and I parted ways, he went back home to Johannesburg, and I stayed in Accra to meet Marina. She had flown there so that we could have a look together at the house and the town that would become our home for the next few years. But that’s a different story, for another Rambling…