Africa 2013

Phase three - West Africa

From Dakar, we pushed on into West Africa. This was the wet season, and one could immediately see why. Most days saw at least a period of heavy rain, with other days saw almost no dry weather at all. It was not until we rounded the corner of Africa and started heading east that the rains subsided. Every flight here was carried out IFR, and with the cloud the way it was, that was the only way to make any progress.

Wednesday August 14th - Dakar, Senegal to Banjul, The Gambia

Our return to the airport was, as expected, not entirely smooth. We'd been told to go back to the flight planning office in the "Bloc Technique" but found that the airport police would not even let us into the carpark. Eventually we persuaded them to let me in, while Sophia stayed outside with the baggage, and as soon as I saw someone inside that I knew from the day before he told the police to let us through, bags and all. One of the first things we were faced with was a request from the director of the airport. He needed to travel to Banjul too, but the next scheduled flight was still 8 hours away; could we help? As much as we'd have loved to take him, it sadly just wasn't practical with the equipment loaded in the aircraft taking up all the space that a third person on board would have needed. He understood, and accepted the decision graciously.

Getting to the aircraft was not a simple process. We first were taken by bus back to arrivals, from the air side. They processed us into the country once again, and we then went through customs and straight back into departures. Here were yet more forms to deal with, and more confusion about our private flight status, although we had by now learnt that "C182" worked nicely as a flight number. Slowly, we made our way out to a departure gate and then finally on another bus ride to the aircraft, which we found the large local birds had been using as a perch to dismember their prey, and defecate on. Lovely.

We were held waiting on the shorter runway 21 for some time to wait for traffic approaching from the south, before being cleared for the one hour flight down to Banjul. We were IFR again, but although there was plenty of cumulus cloud around we were mostly in the clear. The flight was over water until the last few miles, so scenery was limited to the occasional boat. For the third time in a row were were given the VOR approach to the active runway, and while the descent was in plenty of cloud, we broke out into the clear well in advance of the runway. We'd arrived just in time, as a rain storm could be seen already starting to slowly encroach on the far end of the runway. Touchdown was straightforward, with a 10 knot crosswind, and just a short taxi into the apron where after waiting for a departing airliner we were marshaled to a parking space between the President's 727 and his Ilyushin.

We were getting used to the large crowds of people who would come out to greet us. We met the head of handling, the chief marshaler, and a few other members of the airport leadership. Passports and licences were examined, and the aircraft paperwork given a cursory and fairly disinterested glance. The rain had now set in and 7 or 8 people were sheltering under the wing; helpfully, they summoned a bus to take us to the terminal and avoid the weather. My New Zealand passport was, wrongly, rejected by immigration; The Gambia offers visa-less entry to citizens of the Commonwealth but I was not in the mood to argue and so simply swapped in my British one instead. This was apparently fine.

Things were going reasonably smoothly until we hit customs. Sophia's training mannequin, "Baby Anne", had already passed through Senegal customs with no raised eyebrows. Gambian customs was a different story. They were highly excited by Baby Anne, as well as my supply of the anti-marial drug Malarone, and things began to look a little like a scene from National Geographic's "Locked Up Abroad". Symbols were chalked onto Baby Anne's case, and my bag, and we were led off by an excited gang of Gambians to a small room behind the scenes. You could tell that they really thought they were onto something. One of the lower level guys sat down with me to search through my bag; Malarone was pulled out, along with some vitamin pills and ibuprofen, and it quickly became apparent that there was nothing illicit here. He took the results with good grace, and even carefully packed everything back into my bag for me.

The story with Sophia and Baby Anne was rather different. Before long Anne's head had been removed from her shoulders and dismantled, and the problem being starkly apparent. Inside Baby Anne's head was a highly suspicious, tightly wrapped clear plastic package of a powdery substance that, to be fair to the Gambian customs guys, looked pretty darned dodgy. I briefly started to wonder about this doctor that I was travelling with, before dismissing the idea as being a pretty weird way to smuggle drugs. Nonetheless, what was this package all about, could it have been slipped in somewhere without our knowledge? Hopefully, as the unsuspecting pilot, my sentence would be short...

The package was duly pierced, and samples spread out on some white paper. As this was going on, the head customs chap came across to me, and whispered into my ear. "You know what this is, this is very serious. If you tell me everything, we can help you, but otherwise you are going straight to jail. Turn in this lady, help yourself." To his chagrin, I had to simply answer with the truth; I know nothing abou the mannequin, and certainly not about anything inside its head! Meanwhile, the samples on the desk are being closely examined, rolled around between people's fingers, and for a while it even looked like someone was going to try tasting it. It had become fairly apparent by now that the package inside the head was, on a mannequin designed to be taken to the developing world for training, a supremely misguided way of weighting the baby's head properly by using sand. A chemical test showed, of course, no reaction, and Baby Anne was put together again in a fairly half-hearted fashion by a group of men clearly disappointed at missing out on their major drugs bust. They apologised for the inconvenience and sent us on our way.

We were staying at the Senegambia hotel. It was the rainy season, which is the low season for tourists, so everywhere was relatively quiet. Sophia had explained to me that The Gambia is quite well known for sex tourism of a different kind; middle aged European women coming to have fun with young Gambian guys. And so it was; even before arriving at the hotel we were passing these ladies walking arm in arm with their young local friends. Sophia hopped into a taxi and made her way fairly quickly to the hospital; it would be a public holiday the next day and she wanted to make sure she met with her contacts in advance of their day off. She also managed a stop at the Sierra Leone embassy who processed our visas while she waited.

While Sophia was out I decided to go for a walk and see what was around the hotel. The answer turned out to be, sadly, a few run down tourist streets of nondescript bars and nightclubs, and a great many locals hassling for money through the guise of being friendly and wanting to show you around. This was rather a shame, as it makes you automatically guarded and suspicious even against those locals that you meet who are genuinely friendly and interested in meeting their foreign visitors. On Sophia's return we elected to take a walk along the beach instead which was much quieter, the majority of people we saw being young Gambian guys working out; perhaps to pass the time, or get in shape for their middle-aged European female visitors. They were perfectly friendly and chatty without wanting anything from us, which made a nice change from the other side of the hotel.

Thursday August 15th - Banjul, The Gambia

With Thursday being a national holiday in The Gambia, we made the most of it and had something of a lie-in. Around 10am I made my way to the hotel lobby (the only place with internet access, which was unfortunately not air conditioned) and made myself comfortable at one of the tables. Moments later, I feel a tap on my shoulder, and a voice says "Hello, remember me?". This being a favourite tactic of the hasslers in the street, I was surprised to find that I did in fact recognise him; he was the chief handler from the airport. He explained that he had come to fetch me because they needed to move our aircraft. We'd been left parked between the President's 727 and Ilyushin, and the President had now decided he wanted to go on a trip. Unfortunately, his airplanes were blocked in by a Cessna 182!

A few minutes later I was squeezed into a small battered hatchback on my way to the airport. Along with the chief handler, the chief marshaler had come along to collect me, and we chatted about their work at the airport. Apparently the President rarely went away, but when he did it tended to be with little notice. This was by no means the first time they had been dispatched to hotels to find flight crew to move aircraft for them. Passing through the airport with the help of these guys couldn't have been easier, and before too long we were riding a baggage loading truck (there were apparently no vans) to the aircraft. It was the work of a few moments to push it to it's new parking space, tucked tightly under the nose of the 727 so that the Ilyushin could depart, and back we went to the hotel. My companions promised that they'd be there Saturday morning to collect us and help us through the airport once again, which would speed things up nicely!

Friday August 16th - Banjul, The Gambia

Sophia vanished early to spend the day at Banjul's main hospital. I would have liked to have gone, but had made commitments to work that needed to be kept, so I spent much of the day in the hotel lobby catching up on emails. Luckily, for the civil engineering work that I do, it was a low time of year with much of the work for the year's remaining projects already carried out, and an excellent group of colleagues to help back me up while I was working remotely.

As it turned out, the vast majority of the day was taken up by torrential rain; not a good day for sightseeing even if I had wanted to. The main entertainment came from a small pack of monkeys squabbling and playing in the trees around the building, and occasionally landing on the roof with an almighty "thud". Sophia returned from the hospital pleased with how the day had gone; the training and donations had been very well received. She was also happy that her high-vis jacket, previously comically huge on her, had been neatly tailored by the local clothes shop and even had pockets added and "Flight for Every Mother" printed on the back.

Saturday August 17th - Banjul, The Gambia to Bissau, Guinea Bissau

Our friends from the airport showed up just 30 minutes late, not bad going. While waiting I was treated to the spectacle of a retired English gentlemen being berated by his young Gambian "companion"; apparently he was leaving, and she did not consider that she had been adequately compensated for her companionship. Sophia, meanwhile, was being accused of food theft by the lady guarding the breakfast buffet for having the temerity to try and carry her coffee and slice of toast into the lobby to wait with me. Entertainment over, the car arrived and we sped back to the airport, secure in the knowledge that we'd be helped through security and so on with far fewer hold-ups than in Dakar!

In the terminal building, we were presented with two plastic chairs in the middle of the departures hall and told to wait while Lamin and Mr Ajatt prepared whatever things needed to be prepared. This was primarily the bill, which ended up being the second highest of the trip so far; the majority of this being a $250 "Navigation fee". An airport bus took me and Lamin to the tower to file the flight plan (which we managed to do after the security guard managed to track down the guy who does such things), while Sophia and Mr Ajatt went straight to load the aircraft and organise fuel. While in the tower, Lamin rather sheepishly presented me with another 250 euro bill, this time for handling, but before I could even reply told me that if I wanted I could talk to his boss to "make a deal". This we immediately did, and in no time at all they had caved completely on the idea of a handling charge and withdrew it, much to our delight. Lamin and Mr Ajatt earned themselves a generous tip.

We climbed slowly as usual to keep engine temperatures well within the acceptable range. We were in and out of cloud as we made our way up to 7,000ft, much of the time enjoying a spectacular view of the countryside below. The landscape was lush and green, as was to be expected in the rainy season, and fairly unpopulated. 40 miles or so south of Banjul we were handed over to Bissau, where the real fun began. We were informed that the clearance number we had listed was the same as that for another flight coming in the following day from Nigeria, and that they would therefore not allow us to enter their airspace. We spent some time arguing the point, all the more so because we suspected that they simply could not understand numbers; half the time when reading back our permit number he was saying "528" instead of "258" leading me to believe that the problem was likely to be a lack of numeracy in the tower.

The closest airport was Ziguinchor, in southern Senegal. They very quickly gave us permission to land, after explaining the situation, so that we could sort the matter out on the ground. Much friendlier people than Guinea Bissau! Within a matter of minutes we were on the ground and parked in what actually appeared to be a GA parking spot; most unusual to find things directed at small General Aviation around here. We were greeted at the aircraft, and guided to the tower where the friendly controller promised that he and the airport manager would help us get things sorted out. I also spoke to Mike Gray, of White Rose Aviation who had arranged the clearance; he promised to investigate and get right back to me.

The problem turned out to be as expected. Mike phoned back within 15 minutes, having spoken to the agents in Bissau and confirmed with the CAA Officer who issued the clearance that it was correct and valid. The Officer promised to call Bissau tower and inform them to let us in, and we followed up with a call via the tower at Ziguinchor to confirm that all was in order before we took off. Just as we were relaxing, of course, another problem showed up; despite being told by tower that they were not needed (as we were not leaving the airport), customs showed up and decided they needed to throw their weight around. They insisted on the entire aircraft being unloaded and all the baggage carefully inspected, before we were finally allowed to repack and go on our way. Thankfully, "Baby Anne" who had given us such trouble in The Gambia was no longer on board, after being donated to a hospital in Banjul.

The remainder of the flight to Bissau was smooth, with ATC proving to be very accommodating this time. The airport was small, with a single terminal building and parking for perhaps one airliner; evidently things were not going to be busy, as we were given a parking space right in front of the arrivals hall. This would be the first place that we had arrived in without a visa (and with "visa on arrival" not possible; but, we'd been informed that as pilots, an aircrew visa could be issued easily on arrival. This turned out to be true, and we made it through the airport in record time with Guinea Bissau stamps in our passports; it really could not have been easier. The bus from Hotel Azalai collected us and took us to check in; this hotel was an old army base, converted into visitor's accommodation, near the centre of town. That evening we decided to take a taxi and go on a tour of the town, so that we could at least say we had seen some of it. This started well, with interesting landmarks such as the Presidential palace, continued through a number of different country's embassies, and by the time it came to "and here is another petrol station" we decided it was probably time to call it a night.

Sunday August 18th - Bissau, Guinea Bissau

Today was to have been the day we flew onwards to Conakry, in Guinea. However, as the day dawned, things were not looking good. Mike Gray of White Rose had reported the previous day that permits were still not in hand, but that he was hopeful of getting them on the Sunday morning. We waited hopefully, but news came through that while overflight permits were being granted, landing clearances were not available. This was apparently a general issue, not specific to us, due to a "situation" in Conakry; no other information above and beyond that was forthcoming. We resigned ourselves to another night in Guinea Bissau.

Having been cooped up in the hotel for most of the day, we decided to try and eat in town. We had very little local money, but the hotel front desk assured us that it would be no problem to pay with dollars. The hotel shuttle dropped us at the restaurant, which turned out to be an Italian place; slightly incongruous but it came recommended as pretty much the only restaurant around. It turned out that dollars would not in fact be usable (and credit cards are pretty much unheard of in Bissau); the boss was away, and without being able to ask him, no-one was willing to go out on a limb. So, after a fruitless trip to an ATM machine (which accepted Guinea Bissau cards only) we returned to the hotel, where after some investigation we found a way to change money at a very poor exchange rate. Second time lucky; we returned to Papa Loca and had what turned out to be, surprisingly, a passable Italian meal.

Monday August 19th - Bissau, Guinea Bissau

Another day, another attempt to get to Guinea. We decided that whatever happened, we'd need to visit the aircraft; both to get hold of some clean clothes as we'd only taken enough for one night, and also to acquire some medical equipment; if we were to be stuck here, we might as well make the most of it and visit a hospital to make some donations. The airport was, like when we arrived, completely devoid of passengers; but like many of the airports in Africa, still teeming with guards. They didn't seem terribly interested in us and we were able to wander the wrong way through the arrivals hall and out towards the aircraft. On the way we met a gentleman in a smart suit who told us about the procedures for paying the fees, and also called the fuel truck for us.

Given the short flight coming up, I decided to take enough fuel to get us to Sierra Leone (just in case the Guinea permit never came). This boiled down to a mere 30 litres in each tank. The order was communicated to the fuel guys, who confirmed the amount, and then set about attempting to put 300 litres in each tank. They realised their error as Jet A started to gush liberally from the filler port in the first wing, and shut things off. Fortunately we were parked on a slope, and they had fueled the higher wing first, so I was able to open the fuel valve and let the excess cross-feed into the other tank. We ended up with rather more fuel than anticipated, but it could have been worse.

With no news about Guinea, we wandered back to the main road to try and catch a taxi. The usually busy road was suddenly devoid of cars for hire, and we stood for quite some time hoping the rain wouldn't start again and being harassed for money by an ever growing group of people. It is a sad fact in many of these places that if you're white it's automatically assumed you have a lot of cash to dole out; we had barely enough for the taxi to the hospital to donate the equipment. Moments later a 4x4 screeched to a halt alongside us and we were told to "get in the car" - this we did, deciding that the occupants (a middle aged man with crutches, and a bored looking teenage girl) did not look terribly threatening and were certainly preferable to our current companions.

Our saviours turned out to be just the people we wanted to meet. The driver's sister turned out to work at the main hospital, in the maternity ward, and he drove us straight there and introduced us to her. She in turn took us to see the chief of OB/GYN and some other doctors, who were extremely pleased at the equipment donations which included this time some equipment for the operating theatre. After the donations were completed we were given a tour of the maternity areas of the hospital; while apparently rather more pleasant surroundings than in Rabat, they were still a far cry from what we are used to in the developed world. Tour complete, we were driven the 5 minutes back to the hotel by the chief's driver.

Tuesday August 20th - Bissau, Guinea Bissau

Yet another day in Bissau. Having given up, with regret, on Conakry we tried to see if we could bring our permit for Freetown in Sierra Leone forward by a day and fly there early. Even this was not to be, however; going through standard channels produced no results, and enquiries from our handling agents in country brought the news that the permit could maybe be altered with payment of a $250 bribe. Disheartened by this abuse of position by a government employee (although not surprised, sadly) we told them we were not interested and would simply wait until the following day.

The evening brought another trip to "Papa Loca". Despite being almost the only restaurant in town, the taxi driver had no idea where it was, although he only made this clear once we were already in his taxi and driving away. Luckily Sophia remembered that the restaurant was close to the Presidential palace, which he did know, and from there we were able to direct him down a couple of side roads. The meal was once again fairly good, and the evening was brightened by the arrival of 6 European nuns, evidently keen for a pizza.

Wednesday August 21st - Bissau, Guinea Bissau to Freetown, Sierra Leone

At last, the escape from Bissau. We had received overflight permits for Guinea with no trouble, and the landing permission for Freetown had come in for the original day, having not paid the bribe. The hotel shuttle dropped us at the airport and once again we breezed out of the "Arrivals" door, stopping briefly to have our passports stamped on the way through. We wandered up to the tower, which was at a higher level alongside a large apron with more aircraft parking. A Nigerian private jet had been relegated up here, perhaps because a C182 was occupying the prime space next to the terminal. We paid our fees, a total of less than $50 for everything, and filed our flight plan before returning to the aircraft and stowing the baggage, something we were getting fairly competent at by now.

The flight to Freetown, a little over 250 nautical miles in length, was fairly short compared to a lot of the legs we'd been flying. The weather was reasonable, with a great deal of cumulus cloud around at low levels, and varying layers of overcast that we climbed through. Views of the ground were fairly limited; it was becoming apparent that this type of weather was fairly typical for West Africa at this time of year. We had a great view of Conakry as we passed overhead, and briefly regretted that we'd been unable to visit. The occasional inexplicable bureaucratic cock-up is inevitable when travelling through Africa, however!

From Conakry it was less than 70 nautical miles into Freetown. The cloud became thicker as we neared our destination, and we flew the VOR instrument approach to land in light rain. An instrument rating really is invaluable for this kind of trip; we'd have been stuck multiple times already due to weather if we didn't have it. We were told to park in a bay right in front of the main terminal, and moments later (having unloaded our bags) told that we actually needed to park half a kilometer away down the other end of the apron. Sophia elected to head for arrivals while I moved the aircraft; no point in reloading all the bags. Entry into the country was straightforward with no other passengers around and a helpful, if surly, escort from security.

Freetown airport is not terribly close to the city of Freetown. Due to a complete lack of flat land, the airport has been constructed north of the city, the other side of an enormous river mouth. There used to be multiple ways of crossing; water taxis, a ferry, a hovercraft, and even helicopters. None were what the West would classify as "safe". The latter two have now shut down, apparently due to lack of maintenance on the vehicles, and one is left with the ferry (a very long way around) or the ~40 minute crossing by water taxi, which is what we plumped for. Franklin, our handling agent, dropped us at the quay and after waiting for the other two passengers to arrive, we set off.

We had been informed that the water taxi had been shut down until noon that day due to stormy weather making the crossing unsafe. It was clear that conditions had improved only marginally; the rain continued (as it would almost non-stop until we left four days later) and there was a large swell running. The water taxi was a fairly modern, well equipped craft from the USA that had clearly been rather neglected by its new owners; lack of maintenance, once again. At $40 per person, each way, one would have thought they might be able to spend a little to keep the equipment running; especially when the boats could carry well over 20 people each.

We set off using only one of the two outboard engines, perhaps to save fuel, or perhaps because only one was working. Whatever the reason, the one remaining engine began to make some thoroughly peculiar sounds as we were about half way across, and completely out of sight of any land. The two crew wandered back and forth to peer at the engine, and conversed in a most animated fashion, but nothing was actually done and we limped onwards at half speed; luckily, it held out long enough for us to reach the other side. Our contacts from the charity "Health Poverty Action" were there to meet us and take us to their offices, where they had very kindly offered us free accommodation in their guest rooms.

The streets of Freetown were busy, rough, rutted, and soaking wet. The HPA offices were situated in their own gated compound with night watchman to ensure security. The rooms were basic, with a fan but no air conditioning, but clean. The lack of air conditioning and high humidity unfortunately meant that absolutely everything was dam, including all the bedding. There was a single sheet covering the mattress, but nothing else in the way of blankets, so I was glad to have brought my sleeping bag liner to have something to sleep in! There were a couple of bathrooms shared by the guest rooms, but no running water; large vats of water were kept in the room along with a bucket for filling the toilet cistern, and a smaller container for taking a bucket shower with! All in all, the rooms were just fine for a few nights and it was very generous of HPA to put us up; it was nice not to be in a hotel for once, too.

After dropping off our baggage we went immediately with Betty, from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, to a training session that they were conducting. The LSTM were a group that Sophia had often worked with, whose office was hosted by HPA, who provided training courses run by volunteer doctors for local medical staff. The session we attended was for midwives, and was being run by Alison from LSTM. We hung around while the session ended, before joining Alison for dinner at her guest house; she told us all about the work that LSTM were doing, and discussed her experiences with the organisation. Sophia had a lot to add as well, having been involved from the very beginning and seen the organisation grow to its current, multi-country role.

Thursday August 22nd - Freetown, Sierra Leone

Betty had done a superb job of putting together a program of activities for our visit. Our first stop was a local girl's secondary school, where summer school was in session. The students, 150 or so girls from age 10 to around 13, were assembled around a large open air stage in the school yard and Sophia was presented with a megaphone to deliver a motivational speech about the project, and the importance of female education. A cameraman from the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Company (SLBC) was also in attendance to record the visits. After the speech, the girls were invited to ask questions; the majority of the questions at first were about being a pilot, rather than anything to do with being a doctor! While most of the girl had probably met a doctor before, a pilot was someone new and exciting. The conversation did turn onto female health after a while, and Sophia's advice seemed to be well received and sparked another round of questions and comments.

After the talk, Sophia presented a "Flight for Every Mother" poster which was swiftly hung up on the wall of the school. As we were leaving, one of the younger girls was trailing us, but too shy to start a conversation. I chatted to her, and asked her what she liked most about school; she didn't answer the question directly, but pointed to Sophia and said to me "I want to be like that lady".

Our next stop was the Ministry of Health, where the Sierra Leone Health Minister had agreed to meet with us. The Ministry was housed in a large municipal building along with several other departments such as land, business and agriculture. The minister, a relatively young lady who was obviously passionate about her work, listened with interest to Sophia's explanation of the project before explaining to us some of the main challenges they face, and programs set up to combat these issues. Maternal health, and female education, were both high on the list. She expressed her appreciation of the work being done and the importance of support from other nations, and invited us back for a longer period whenever we could come!

That afternoon we were dropped at a small cafe within walking distance of our accommodation; the Oasis cafe. This seemed to be something of an expat hangout, not that Freetown has many expats as far as we could tell; there were maybe four or five other people around. The food was excellent, continuing a theme set the previous night; meals in Freetown turned out to be the best that we'd had so far. Sophia had been in the city a few years before, not long after the civil war, and apparently the difference in all areas of life, food included, was quite pronounced.

Friday August 23rd - Freetown, Sierra Leone

First on the agenda for Friday was a visit to the SLBC studios. Sophia was due to appear on the country's most popular morning radio show, "Tea Time". She was being interviewed along with a Muslim leader who was talking about the pilgrimage to Mecca, and a local health advocate who was talking about the problem of cheap alcohol in the community. The collection of speakers was a slightly strange mix, but still interesting, and over the hour long program there were a great deal of positive reactions from people calling in.

From the studio, we headed to the hospital where LSTM had arranged for Sophia to give a teaching session to a group of midwives. We were accompanied again by the cameraman from SLBC. This was the first time we'd actually been able to run a full training session and it was well attended by 15 or so hospital staff, with the department chief dropping in from time to time. The session was started off with a short lecture on causes of maternal collapse, followed by instruction on the resuscitation of newborns. To conclude, some practical training was carried out using the "Mama Natalie" birthing simulator to practice dealing with complicated births.

Our work at the hospital completed, we headed out to one of the local clinics in the city; this one was at "Ross Road". These centers were of course much smaller and more poorly equipped than the main hospital that we had been to visit in the morning. They dealt with all health issues here, preventative as well as curative, but also had two small rooms dedicated to maternity. Here more than anywhere they were particularly grateful for the equipment donations; although simple, the gear would clearly make a big difference to the help that they could offer to pregnant women.

That afternoon we once again found ourselves in the Oasis cafe. All the same people from the previous day were there again, including two girls who were in a state because they'd been kicked out of their rental accommodation and were frantically trying to find somewhere to stay. Apparently their only option so far had a landlord who disliked Brits, so they were working up a story about being from the Yemen; it was not yet entirely convincing.

Saturday August 24th - Freetown, Sierra Leone

The weekend, and it was time for a day off. Perusal of the Lonely Planet guide book to Sierra Leone the day before had identified plenty of interesting tourist activities to occupy ourselves with. My first choice of the chimpanzee sanctuary was shot down; perhaps due to uneasiness with the reported chimpanzee escape and murder spree that had happened there some years before. We settled instead on the apparently beautiful beaches at the evocatively named "River Number 2". A taxi driver was hired for the day and the three of us (we had been joined by Mel, the new project director for HPA) set off along the coast. It was, of course, raining.

A new highway along the coast was being installed, although work had been put on hold for the rainy season. In some locations the road was accessible, and we cruised at good speed along the smooth, albeit still dirt-topped, highway. In locations where work was not so advanced we were forced off onto the existing local roads, which had to be slowly and carefully negotiated by our driver, for fear of the deep rain-washed gullies and other obstacles giving the aging Nissan Sunny more of a beating than it could handle. Along the side of the road at irregular intervals were large stockpiles of boulders. It seemed that these were intended to become gravel for the new roadway, but instead of being mechanically ground down the occasional man, woman, or child was passed, chipping away at the rocks with sledgehammers.

The side road down to "River Number 2 Beach" was now more of a torrent, seeming to be the preferred drainage route for the highway. Much of the road was washed away and there were times, with the Sunny's wheels spinning and slipping, that I was fairly sure we'd be walking the rest of the way. However, we managed to get through and arrived at the gate where the local collective who run the beach as a tourist operation charged us each $1 for entry. Moments later were were settled at a table in the restaurant, watching the rain beat down on the empty beach and surrounded by stray dogs (or, as a local salesman informed us, dogs that were "raised under the free-range method").

As we sat down we were taken through the menu ("We have chicken or fish, with rice or chips") and ordered our meals; after no breakfast we were quite peckish. Three hours later, having talked at great length, bought a few things from the beach salesmen, and been for a walk up to see the river in the gaps between rainstorms, we were getting really very hungry and wondering if perhaps the fish had to be caught first, or they had simply forgotten our order. Even the dogs waiting by our table for scraps were starting to look bored. Never fear, upon returning from a stroll on the beach Mel and I were informed by Sophia that lunch had arrived! In keeping with the meals in Sierra Leone so far, the food was in fact exceptionally good; as one would hope after all the attention that must have been lavished on it.

After lunch we set off on the canoe trip that we had been persuaded to invest in, to see the waterfall "and the crocodiles". In retrospect this seems a little strange, but we completely glossed over the issue of the crocodiles and asked instead about the weather; surely, we thought, we shall be drenched? "No poblem", came the reply; "the tide is going out now, so it won't rain". When challenged as to why he was carrying an umbrella, he did admit that this method of predicting weather was not entirely foolproof.

The river was, due to the season, flowing fast and high. The first section of the river was run by the "Captain" (as he called himself) wading in front of the canoe pulling it. Eventually the river was a little deep for this, and the flow slightly slower, and we set off at a crawl up-river. The scenery was very reminiscent of the Florida everglades with mangrove trees lining both banks; the way that new limbs will occasionally plummet into the water and become new roots, instead of sprouting leaves, is fascinating. Eventually the roar of tumbling water could be made out, loudly enough that we were grateful to be travelling upstream, and not down.

The waterfall was flowing freely with the constant rain. No crocodiles were in sight, thankfully, as we stepped out of the canoe and set off up the waterfall, guided by our Captain. As a true Englishman I elected to take the umbrella which turned out to be a very handy aid for clambering over wet and slippery rocks. Things nearly went sour when Sophia slipped and went into the water; there was no danger to her but she had the camera around her neck! With impressive reflexes, even before she was half way down she had lifted the camera above her head and signaled for me to save it (through a kind of "Whueeerg!" sound). The journey back down the river was much quicker, and after a final drink on the sand to enjoy the brief moment of sunshine that had appeared we headed back to the city in our faithful Nissan.

Sunday August 25th - Freetown, Sierra Leone to Yamoussoukro, Cote D'Ivoire

We woke up early on Sunday morning, ready for a 6:30am departure from the accommodation, and a 7:30 water taxi across to the airport. It was, of course, raining hard. We had a little trouble leaving the building as the front door was locked from the outside and the night watchman had evidently forgotten that we were leaving early and was still asleep. Eventually we realised that the back door, from the kitchen, was open and that we could leave that way and walk around to the front. One hopes that we'd have worked this out a little faster in the event of a fire. On entering the taxi I was pleased to discover the sunglasses that I had lost the day before; not that it looked like I'd be needing them any time soon.

The office at the water taxi was heaving with people, and after a long wait we secured tickets number 41 and 42. Several boats were being prepared, and we didn't have to wait long before crew members with umbrellas hustled us down the ramps and on board. Despite being much more heavily loaded than on the trip into the city, the engines seemed to be working properly this team and the sea was calm, leading to a much smoother and faster crossing. We were discharged onto the jetty on the other side and packed tightly into a waiting bus that took us to the terminal where we were reunited with our luggage, and settled in to wait for Franklin and his handling team. Outside the rain continued to beat down and we started to wonder if we'd be leaving today...

Once Franklin arrived he escorted me up to the tower to check out the weather situation. Good news! The rain was already subsiding, and the satellite picture showed that the bad weather was part of a large weather system parked over the coast; once we flew a few miles in land we'd be, relatively speaking, in the clear. Wanting to take advantage of the break in the weather I headed through security to get to the aircraft and prepare for fueling while Sophia went to pay the fees. One of Franklin's less experienced assistants accompanied me, and we ended up stuck in a long queue with British Airways and Arik Air passengers; I later found out that Franklin had taken Sophia through a different route with no waiting at all. My bottle of water caused great consternation as a prohibited item, but as soon as it was explained that we were headed to a private flight then we were waved through without any hassle.

Before starting the aircraft up to taxi for fueling, I emptied the luggage compartment and removed the rear bulkhead. With the leak that had been causing the rear carpet to become soaked, and the non-stop rain, I was concerned about water getting behind the rear bulkhead and affecting the electrical equipment mounted there such as the battery and inverters. To my relief, everything was much drier than before, and the electrical area held no water at all. The leak seemed to have mysteriously fixed itself...

Sophia had had to pay for half of the airport fees in dollars, and so we were running a little low. Given that the fuelers would accept dollars only, we were forced to compromise on fuel and only load 60 litres. This was still enough to get us to Yamoussoukro with a safe margin, but was a little less than I'd hoped to take on board. The fuelers generously gave us an extra 10 litres free before posing with the aircraft for photos; they had not fueled something so small before. As we took the pictures, an ear-splitting roar came from behind us and we turned to see the British Airways flight becoming airbourne just a few 10s of metres from us, London bound. It made us both a little homesick! After another round of photos with Franklin, who had very generously waived his handling fee, we started up and taxied for departure.

The weather was typical, with rain showers and cumulus clouds all around but no thunderstorms or other hazardous weather to worry about. As usual we were being asked for our ETAs at reporting points along the entire route almost as soon as our wheels had left the ground. There was not too much in the way of other traffic around, although we did listen in to a long conversation with a military aircraft who had departed from Saudi Arabia and was on his way to Ascension Island; ATC were very keen to take down the name, address, and phone number of the operating company. We presumed that this was something to do with sending a bill for their services. It took a good 5 or 6 tries before they were able to read back the spelling of "Riyadh" correctly.

Yamoussoukro is the political, although not the economic, capital of Cote D'Ivoire. We approached the airport from the northwest, crossing a large lake before turning onto finals. Out the left-hand window could be seen the city's most impressive building, the tallest basilica in the world. Tower directed us to park about halfway down the large apron, which was empty apart from an old 737 which had evidently been parked there for a number of years now. The only people around at ground level were the fire brigade, who marshaled us into our parking spot and informed us that we were the only flight of the day. Despite being an international airport, it seemed that the immigration police were not present, and we were told that we should simply accompany the firemen around the end of the terminal building and down the road to try and find a taxi.

The complete lack of flights caused a corresponding lack of taxis. We waited at a crossroads for a while with two of the firemen until finally a taxi came past. It was full, but this didn't stop our friends. One of them managed to squeeze into the vehicle and accompanied it to its drop-off point, to ensure that the driver came back for us! Some time later they re-appeared and we loaded our gear before heading into the town. This city was bu far the most developed we had been to so far in West Africa, with good tarmac roads, very little litter, and a spacious, well designed layout. A problem soon became apparent in that the taxi driver had no idea where our hotel was, but after a couple of phone calls and a little bit of aimless driving around the correct location was identified and we checked in.

Monday August 26th - Yamoussoukro, Cote D'Ivoire

We awoke a little later than planned on Monday due to a problem with the alarm and a complete lack of natural light in the hotel room. As it turned out, the taxi that we had arranged to collect us never showed up, so we didn't need to rush. The morning was spent fielding emails and plans for the next few stops, as well as re-planning the following day. Sophia had been invited to meet with the World Health Organisation (WHO) whose offices were in Abidjan, a good three to four hour drive away. It was, however, just over an hour's flight. Some research turned up a flying club at Abidjan airport; an initial telephone call failed due to insufficient French language skills, but a follow up email secured contact details for a senior pilot who spoke good English, leading to an invitation to go and visit them the next day.

Later in the afternoon we decided to head to Yamoussoukro's top tourist attraction, the Basilica. This was constructed in the late 80s by the then-President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, at a cost of around $300 million. Clearly money that could not have been spent anywhere better, in a West African nation. The dimensions are astonishing; 158m tall, with the cross at the top being 9m in height by itself. The area is paved with 7 hectares of imported European marble, and the stained glass windows were imported from France. The basilica will seat 7,000, with room for another 11,000 standing. Flanking the main building are two large villas; one is the rectory, and the other a papal villa which has only ever been used once when the Pope came to consecrate the building in 1990.

Included in our entry fee was the services of a local guide, who spoke good English despite his modest protestations to the contrary. He took us first to the main building, explaining that photographs were not permitted inside. However, as soon as we stepped inside the main entrance he suggested we take some photos, and this practice continued throughout the visit. The Basilica was empty save for a handful of cleaning staff, and one or two other small groups of tourists. We were told all about the large columns that ringed the perimeter; apparently these were not structural but instead contained stairs, elevators, or rainwater drainage from the roof. We entered one of the columns, and took an unusual cylindrical elevator up to the gallery which offered a superb view of the interior and dome. A side room at this level contained a model of the Basilica along with photographs of the construction and comparisons of the building with cathedrals in France, and the Basilica in the Vatican.

Having already exhausted the dubious menu in the hotel restaurant, we decided to walk to the Hotel President, only a kilometer from our own lodgings. This hotel was clearly a grand old place in the 70s or 80s and was now a little tired, but still showed signs of its glory days. The restaurant was a circular construction perched at the very top, on the 14th floor, and was surprisingly good quality, with excellent food and drink. We enjoyed treating ourselves a little, still at a much lower price than we'd pay in Europe, before strolling back to our room. Seeing people walking down the road in that area was clearly a little unusual; every taxi that passed hooted their horn at us in an attempt to pick us up.

Phase Four - West Africa continued

Click here to access the fourth part of the trip report; the continued journey through West Africa.

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