In the 25 years that I have been working and travelling as a journalist on this continent, some of my most memorable experiences have been on planes. For me, that precise moment when the wheels lift off the ground is always a thrilling experience.
As you hang in the sky in that first ethereal split second, time itself seems to be suspended, holding you in the thrall of the promise of the destination that lies ahead. But sometimes the flight itself is as much of an adventure as the place you are going to.
One of the very first flights I took as a journalist was from Wonderboom just outside Pretoria to Jamba, the secret headquarters of Unita in southern Angola. Unita had kidnapped a group of foreign mine workers and was going to release them in front of the world’s television cameras. Most of the country was very much an active war zone. It was my first trip to a combat area, so I was nervous, excited and curious.
Everything went off fine, though. The hostages were released. We got our shots and Jonas Savimbi laid on a big party that night at which not one of us dared refuse the invitation of the female rebel soldiers when they requested a dance. There was something weird and ominous about the whole event and we were glad to be flying out on our Dakota DC-3 early the next morning. I remember sitting on the uncomfortable military seats staring out of the old-fashioned square porthole as we swooped over the bush of southern Angola. We were flying so low – to avoid being picked up by the East German radar operated by the Cubans – that we were only just clearing the tops of the acacia trees. We were so close to the ground that a pair of kudu were startled by our plane and went careering through the bush. We were going home, and for the first time in my life I was experiencing that mingled sense of adventure and relief at leaving a war zone safely.
Suddenly a strange juddering filled the plane. Everybody sat up as the adrenalin shot through them. There was something wrong. The pilots were terse and said little. “We have to land,” one of them told us. The plane did a U-turn in the sky and began looking for a patch of empty grassland big enough to serve as a runway. I really was scared as the plane thumped and bounced over the rough veld. Finally, it came to a halt. The pilots leapt out and began tinkering, Biggles-style, with the engines. Finally they announced that we were ready to fly again. We all filed back into the plane and they began take-off procedures. The engines kicked into life, dust flew up from the ground, but we didn’t move. The engines roared again. Nothing happened. The pilots got out. One of our wheels was stuck in an antbear hole. The journalists poured off the plane and all lifted up the wing while the pilot revved the engine. It was funny but scary at the same time. There was a real possibility that we could have been stranded in southern Angola in the middle of a civil war with no food or water. Being one of the shorter members of the fraternity, I was delegated to taking the memorial photograph while the others shoved and heaved the wing above their heads. Finally, the wheel popped out of the hole and the “Dak” moved forward. We were going home. This time for real.
The adventure of flying in these kinds of situations is that everything depends on that area of life that exists within the delicate balance of luck and skill. The smaller the plane, the more uncertain the circumstances, the more you are aware of just how much you are in the hands of fate. It is a moment when you have to look into the mirror of your own choices and know that the consequences lie in your hands.
Comfort and even sometimes strict safety all too often come second to the desire to simply get there. During the Mozambican civil war I made arrangements to fly into the Renamo base camp. Again, it was a perilous undertaking to visit a notorious rebel group who had kidnapped journalists before. This was in the days before cellphones. After a series of crackling phone calls between New York and Rome and Joburg on dodgy intercontinental lines, including special code words to prove our contacts were good, I finally met Rodney the pilot in Blantyre.
Rodney was not much of a talker, and I couldn’t blame him. He was about to make an illegal flight into rebel-held territory. If any of us got caught the consequences were likely to include some time in jail.
Still, standing there rather uncomfortably on the tarmac watching him organise the loading of our luggage, sacks of rice, sugar and petrol into the plane, I thought we should at least try to make some small talk.
“What kind of plane is it,” I asked.
Rodney was checking something underneath the wing. He stood up and pushed his 1970s John Denver-style glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
“Piper. Aztec.” He bent down again to continue whatever it was he had been doing before.
I tried again. “And how old is it?”
Rodney looked up from the shadow of the wing. He crooked his lips into a half-smile.
“About 25 years old.”
He straightened up and clambered up on to the wing, his worn blue plastic flip flops squishing out from underneath his heels as he found his balance again. He opened the door of the scratched and yellowed perspex cockpit and looked down at me. He smiled again, more broadly this time: “Wanna see the bullet hole in the floor?” He relented when he saw my expression. “Don’t worry, if they try to shoot at us, unless they actually hit you, you don’t even know it has happened.”
Rodney was right. We made it in and out again, and if anybody shot at us, I never knew. At the time I was building a career and I couldn’t wait to get there. The flight in was unavoidable. It was a risk I had to take – or rather, wanted to take. Don’t ask me whether I would do it again.
Whether it is landing in southern Sudan or soaring over the Nile at dawn with the sun just creeping over the horizon, flying in the skies of Africa has left me with so many indelible memories. I once even had to navigate while getting out of the blazing heat of Djibouti. On my 39th birthday, I was part of a crew trying to get into Sierra Leone. It was no easy task in those days and we found ourselves stranded in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. There were no flights for days, if at all, but we wanted to get in. Somehow we met the crew of the president of Ivory Coast’s plane. They were on their way to another African capital to pick him up. The plane was empty now, on the inbound flight. A price was agreed, some few thousand US dollars, in cash. A freelance charter – no mention was made of a flight plan, but they dropped us off in Freetown. It was one of the best birthday treats I ever had.
What we feel about flying tells us something of what we feel about ourselves and our place in the world. A few years later I found myself sitting in somewhat different circumstances – in business class in a 747 on the tarmac in Lagos, Nigeria. Rain lashed the tarmac in a dark tropical night. Thunder rolled across the sky and the palm trees swayed crazily in the wind.
The pilot came on over the intercom. “We must take off. It’ll be bumpy, but I don’t want to stay on the ground any longer.” My fellow passengers were nervous too. In most countries, nobody would risk taking off, but the week before a plane was held up on this same tarmac. A gang had put logs across the runway and pointed AK-47 rifles up at the cockpit. The pilot was forced to open the hold while the gang ransacked the luggage.
The pilot accelerated and we climbed into the thunderstorm. My palms were sweaty. I could see the navigation lights reflecting off the thick cloud. As we climbed we were thrown about in our seats. Up and down, side to side, until I felt sick. There was an awful crash and the plane seesawed as lightning exploded outside. The plane shuddered and groaned as the heavy weather battered the fuselage.
Then, as suddenly as we had entered the storm, we were through it. The sky outside was quiet and still, and a full moon glimmered on the edge of the wing. The lightning flashes deep inside the clouds below were like fluorescent explosions under water. The stars gleamed in a clear sky above, and as far as the eye could see, the clouds stretched across the night horizon like a vast silvery desert swathed in moonlight. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen – a moment of fear transformed into an enchanted vision, a view of our continent I had never seen before, or have seen since. - Sunday Independent