Africa 2013

Phase four - West Africa continued

After leaving Freetown, the rains subsided. The countries we visited on this next leg were noticeably more developed than those since Dakar, generally with tarmac roads and a slightly cleaner feel to them. The medical stops too were becoming more organised; from Freetown onwards we generally had great medical contacts to meet us on arrival, who had prepared something of a schedule of visits. It made a huge difference to the efficacy of the training efforts.

Tuesday August 27th - Yamoussoukro, Cote D'Ivoire to Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire

Tuesday morning Sophia and I split up for efficiency. We took a taxi from the hotel that first dropped her at the hospital with the equipment to be donated to local hospitals. From there, it took me and the baggage to the airport to organise payment, flight plan, and fuel. Given how easy things were when arriving at the airport, I was not expecting much bureaucracy when leaving, and thankfully I was proved right. On arrival I was taken straight to the airport office where I paid our total fees of $10, and filed the flight plan. I was then allowed to wander out to the aircraft and wait for the fuel truck (or, as it turned out, fuel tractor), with no security or other hassle. Questions about finally having our passports stamped as officially entering the country were waved aside, with a vague "Maybe in Abidjan".

I had originally planned to fuel fully, and avoid the need for fuel in Abidjan. However, it turned out that fuel for flights in-country was 30% more expensive, and additionally our tires were looking rather low on air; I did not want to add more weight than I had to. So, we put in enough fuel to get us to Abidjan where we could air up the tires and take our fill of cheap, export-ready Jet-A. We had been informed that we were, yet again, the only flight of the day at Yamoussoukro and we took our time starting up, taxiing, and doing the engine checks before departure. As luck would have it, the departure instructions that we were given took us right over the city, putting us in the perfect position for views of the Basilica and other interesting buildings that the city has to offer.

Shortly after overflying Yamoussoukro, we were into the clouds for our slow climb up to 11,000ft. This altitude tended to keep us above the majority of the clouds, which led to a smoother and less tiring ride. It also slightly improved the range at which we could send and receive on the radio; in this part of Africa we often found ourselves out of radio contact for quite some time between control centres due to the distances involved. The flight down to Abidjan was not long, and shortly after takeoff we were given clearance "direct to Abidjan", eliminating a dogleg in the route to get onto the standard airway routes and cutting a few minutes from the flight.

We were directed to fly the ILS approach into Abidjan, although with only scattered clouds around we had no need of flight on instruments. After landing we were directed down to the far end of the airport, past the fairly busy commercial ramp to the flying club apron. We squeezed in between two hangars, one of which was full of light aircraft, and Sophia jumped out of the aircraft to find someone who could tell us where to park; moments later we were shutting down and introducing ourselves to the aero club staff.

The staff and members at Abidjan aero club could not have been more helpful. It turned out that Abidjan had the strictest and most impractical security procedures of any airport we had visited so far. We were warned that once we left the aircraft there would be no way to return to it until the following morning, so ensured we had all our luggage with us and bundled into the club car. 5 minutes later, having passed through several gates and checkpoints, we were in the aero club office; a full 10 metres from the aircraft, but the other side of the all-important fence.

After some more introductions we were taken to the main terminal to apply for security badges so that we could get back to the aircraft the following day, and then headed to look for a taxi. After 10 fruitless minutes, our guide from the Aeroclub slapped his forehead. He had just remembered that the taxis were on strike today! Fantastic. We had just over an hour to get to the other side of Abidjan for a meeting with the World Health Organisation. Ever resourceful, our helpful friend drove us a little way down the road to some sort of taxi depot, and negotiated us a seat on a car that was headed to another depot in town. We had by now become thoroughly confused with what taxis worked, what taxis didn't, where they went, and so on; there were several different colours with different rules applying to them. It seemed that while none were available that would take us directly to our destination, the inter-depot taxi could take us to somewhere that cars were running normally.

Thus followed a long, hot and cramped ride packed into a full taxi with other passengers and a lot of luggage. At $1 for a 30 minute ride, we couldn't complain. At the next depot our driver showed us which, differently coloured taxi to get into and made sure it would take us to the proper destination. We were dropped off, luckily before the other two passengers, at the WHO 5 minutes before our meeting time.

After passing through security, who held onto our passports for safekeeping, we were escorted upstairs to a meeting room. We were expecting an informal meeting with the doctor that Sophia had been emailing, so it came as something of a surprise to find ourselves in a large boardroom with about 8 smartly suited men and women from different organisations, all looking forward to a high powered working session - in French. Suddenly the job of pilot, rather than project medical lead, felt all the more attractive. Sophia applied herself bravely to the task, and did an admirable job of presenting the project to the French-speaking audience.

Meeting completed, we were invited to join some of the attendees back at the offices of their charity, "Sauvons 2 Vies" (Saving two lives). As the name suggests, this was a maternal health charity who were heavily involved in the training of midwives, amongst other activities. They told us a little about how their charity works, and the lady in charge was then kind enough to perform a video interview for us to contribute to Sophia's next video diary for the sponsors of the project. Finally, they were even kind enough to drive us to a nearby hotel which they recommended highly, and arranged to come and collect us the following morning for the drive out to the airport. No more trying to negotiate the bizarre Abidjan taxi system in the middle of a strike, thank goodness!

The Manhatten Suites hotel was not far from the office. There were only three other cars in the car park when our little convoy turned up. Our hosts escorted us inside to organise rooms, which were very reasonably priced compared to the large chain hotels, and did not leave us until they'd inspected the rooms we were assigned to ensure they were up to standard. As we were checking in, an Ivorian gentlemen introduced himself in perfect English as the hotel owner; it turned out that he lived in New York, and travelled back to Abidjan a few times a year to check on his hotel, otherwise running it from afar alongside his American IT business. Happy to hear about the project, and to be able to speak English for a while, he invited us to join him at the restaurant later that evening where he would treat us to a specially prepared meal.

Quite a spread was put on for dinner, with a wide variety of local dishes laid out buffet style for us. The hotel owner, Ibza, was quite the conversationalist. Topics ranged from his past relationships to his proposed solar panel business ventures, through personal fitness and West African and international politics. As well as his IT business and hotel, he was an instructor and salesman for a piece of American designed exercise equipment, which he had his staff bring out after dinner to give us a demonstration. Sophia let slip that she had run marathons in the past, and was roped into a 6am exercise session the following morning, much to her delight.

Wednesday August 28th - Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire to Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

I joined Sophia and the owner, Ibza, for breakfast after their exercise session. Our friends from Sauvons 2 Vies turned up a little later, and in a change of plans it was decided that Ibza would drive us to the airport as the others did not speak very much English, and our French still left a little to be desired for casual conversation. The route to the airport went the long way around the city's lagoon, but Ibza explained that when the new bridge was built, by the end of 2014, the trip from airport to his hotel would be cut from 30 minutes to less than 10. He was looking forward to this a great deal, but bemoaned the disruption that the construction was causing in the meantime.

We had a second breakfast of croissants at the aero club, before our helper from the previous day came to pick us up. First stop was the security office to collect our one-day temporary passes, and then the airport office to pay the fees and file the flight plan. It seemed that we had turned up when the new guys were on shift; it took them more than an hour to simply produce the bill and enter the flight plan into the system. One guy even managed to lose the flight plan form somewhere in the three metre gap between the counter and his computer terminal. We chatted to a local pilot who was in there a the same time, and he mentioned that this kind of performance was unfortunately standard for Abidjan. Eventually, after delaying our filed takeoff time to take account of the incompetence in the office, we were taken back to the security gate near the flying club and after a thorough inspection were allowed through. Fuel came remarkably quickly, and before long we were departing south over the coast before turning on course.

The flight up to Burkina Faso took a little over three hours. Air traffic control at Abidjan tower were busy and flustered, so we were pleased to be handed over to departure control and cleared to proceed directly on route. The flight was uneventful; we were by now adept at guessing which reporting points we'd be asked to provide estimate for, and having them ready. Occasionally we'd even pass them before they asked, which seemed to speed things up.

We followed the airways northwest, before leaving them to head due north to the Burkina Faso border and cut off a large dog leg that would otherwise have been required. This plan had been approved and we'd been cleared to fly the route, but shortly after leaving the airway we were told that we had to rejoin it, and take the long way around. I asked why and was told that it was because the crossing point we had selected required a higher altitude than our 11,000 feet; 14,000 feet higher, to be precise. This was obviously not going to happen so we reluctantly turned west again, only to be told a few minutes later that we were cleared direct from our present position to destination with no climb required. Strange, but we weren't going to argue!

Runway 24 was in use, but we were cleared for the ILS runway 6 approach. When querying tower to confirm that we were expected to circle to land on 24, it became apparent that he'd forgotten that the wind favoured 24, and just gave us the approach that was lined up with the direction we were coming from. He agreed that yes, a circle to land would work nicely, and that we should do that please; the weather was fine, and we flew a visual circuit to landing and parked near the terminal, once again the only aircraft around.

Our first, and as it turned out only, visitors were a pair of policemen. They had different uniforms so I assume they were from different branches of government, but both had forms asking for exactly the same information. They were friendly, helpful and welcoming; one of them led us into the private aircraft arrivals hall, which we were surprised to find existed. It was brand new, plush, and air conditioned, more reminiscent of a top jet centre in the US - perfect! We settled onto the leather sofas to fill in our arrival cards and the same policeman took care of the immigration formalities and then led us to the car park where several members of the local medical community were waiting to welcome us to Bobo Dioulasso, and drive us to the hotel that they had arranged.

Our hosts could not have been kinder. They stayed to ensure that we were settled into the room satisfactorily, and then spent time with Sophia to talk through the activities for the next two days. They then left us to rest, as they were sure we'd be tired after our flight; they were right! A couple of hours later, the chief doctor returned and drove us to a local restaurant for dinner; he even offered to come back to collect us afterwards, but given the short distance we protested that we'd walk. We almost wished we hadn't, as it turned out; even on the short walk back to the hotel we were accosted by people hassling us for money. One of the street traders, who at least did have merchandise to sell, besieged the hotel for the next couple of days and even came in a few times to harass Sophia at the dinner table another night!

Thursday August 29th - Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

Sophia spent the day teaching at the main hospital while I remained at the hotel to catch up on work. In the evening we discovered that there was a very well stocked wine shop directly opposite the hotel! Sophia wasted no time in acquiring a bottle, and even two glasses to go with it, and it added to an enjoyable and relaxing evening meal at the hotel.

Friday August 30th - Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

On Friday morning the plan was to go to a local, field hospital away from the main facilities. I accompanied Sophia as the visit sounded interesting, and I could hopefully help out with photography and general errands! Our drive out to the hospital took us past the old Bobo Dioulasso railway station - apparently these days the line was used exclusively for freight. As we passed, a long goods train was trundling along with a load of containers, bound for who-knows-where.

The hospital was a large, widely scattered collection of buildings with vegetable gardens in between. They told us that they had planned it to this way to allow plenty of room for future expansion, and with high electricity prices it was cheaper to run multiple small buildings due to the greater ease of using natural light to illuminate them. A meeting room had been prepared for Sophia's presentation, and 15 or more mid-wives (and male mid-wives, who they called "maletricians") were in attendance. It's not easy giving a presentation in a foreign language but Sophia coped admirably, delivering instruction on the main causes of maternal collapse with a little translation help from our hosts. This was followed up with a practical session using the simulation mannequin, which was well received.

Training over, we were given a tour of the maternity unit. One stand-alone structure housed the majority of the facilities, with the operating theatres in a second block connected by a covered walkway. While basic, the facilities had evidently had effort put into them to keep them clean, and the patients were treated with much more respect than they seemed to have been in Morocco.

Saturday August 31st - Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso to Accra, Ghana

Leaving Bobo Dioulasso airport was just as easy as arriving at it. Our hosts drove us out, arriving a little after 9 in the morning, and we very swiftly passed through security in the once again empty private terminal. While Sophia's medical friends waited in the lounge, we headed for the tower for the formalities. After a few fruitless minutes trying to gain entry into the locked building, someone pointed out that there was a new tower a few hundred meters futher up, just out of site around the corner of the old building. Off we went, and found this one much easier to gain access to. The staff were not quite as quick and efficient as the policeman at the terminal and it took almost an hour before the fees were paid and the flight plan filed. This carried out, it was time to fuel up; we had to taxi across the apron to the fueling point. The Jet A truck is simply a large pump that connects to an underground fuel system, and pumps said fuel into the aircraft.

Fully fueled, it was time to set off on the 460 nautical mile flight to Accra, on the southern coast of Ghana. The first leg of our IFR flight plan took us on a direct heading for Tamale, the main city in the north of Ghana. After this, the filed route had us turning south directly for Accra. ATC in Burkina Fasa handed us over to Accra North at the border, and after a while we managed to make contact; as usual, flying at low level made it difficult to establish radio communications when far away.

Once we did get in touch, and Accra North established our position, they asked us if we could accept a routing of "Direct to Accra". This was a direct leg to our destination of a little over 300 nautical miles, which would save a good twenty minutes of flying time; great! For the next few hours we cruised along directly for Accra, finally being given radar vectors to fly an ILS approach down through the broken clouds. As usual we became visual with the airport far out on the approach and were cleared in for a smooth landing. A "follow me" car led us down to the GA parking at the far end of the airport, and our handlers from Aerogem Aviation arrived to meet us as we shut down.

For some reason Aerogem had decided that the best way to transport us would be with a tiny car already packed with several of their staff. We just managed to squeeze ourselves, and our baggage, into the vehicle and rode in cramped fashion to the terminal. We made it through the building very quickly, with no-one terribly interested in examining our paperwork or luggage, and settled in outside arrivals to wait for our host, the mother of a colleague of Sophia's in the UK.

After a while she arrived, and we piled into her black SUV. The drive to her house took about 20 minutes, and ended up in a fairly new but evidently wealthy neighbourhood. The houses were large, and highly fenced with security guards at the gates of each. Our hosts, a doctor and his wife, ran a clinic in a poorer part of town and did well enough out of the business to have sent all their children to private schools and foreign universities, as well as building a lovely home in a good part of town; healthcare is evidently a lucrative business in Ghana when managed well.

We sat and enjoyed fresh fruit juice on the patio, and talked about the journey so far. Mrs Quarshie and Sophia swapped stories about Barbara, the daughter and mutual friend. In the background our conversation was accompanied by a loud soundtrack of modern music; apparently from a sports complex nearby that played it from morning until late at night. As I made my way to bed for an early night after the chef had served a quite excellent chicken dinner, I was thankful that my room was on the far side of the house!

Sunday September 1st - Accra, Ghana

Sunday had been billed as a rest day. Nonetheless, we awoke before seven to get ready for a day out. Quincy, Mrs Q's brother, was coming to take us out for the day to do some sightseeing along the coast. The four of us (Mrs Q was coming along) set out in his SUV, which he had apparently driven to Ghana from Nigeria when he moved back less than a year ago, through Togo and Benin. The roads out of the city were paved, albeit occupied by drivers who verged on the lunatic. This section of the coast, west of the city of Accra, had been occupied by various colonial powers over the 400 years or so preceding independance. We passed one imposing castle perched high aobove the shoreline, apparently a Portugese relic.

Our first stop was at the private girl's school where Sophia's friend had been educated. Term was over, but we were permitted in to have a look around. It was well equipped, and had apparently been operating since the early 1800s, always run by European headmistresses. The school dining room was having funds raised for renovation; we had a look inside, and browsed the nutritional posters lining the walls. "Eat tomatoes for a healthy prostate", we were advised. Perhaps not the most useful advice at a girl's school, but maybe worth remembering for later years in marriage.

From here we continued towards Kakum national park. We stopped along the way to buy coconuts from young boys along the roadside, who skillfully hacked them open with machetes, never spilling a drop of the liquid inside. I was far less successful at keeping the liquid where it belonged as I tried to drink from my coconut during the bumpy ride along the poorly maintainted road towards the park. On arrival we perused the visitor's centre, waiting on a small rain storm to pass through, before joining the tour guide who took a party of 30 of us up the hill towards the main attraction, the canopy walk.

This walk had been constructed in the 90s by two Canadians, with the help of four locals, and looked like it had not been maintained since. Joking about the slightly tired looking condition, we were reassured by the guide that it was thoroughly checked every morning by the park's engineers. Quincy had already elected not to join us as he was not a fan of heights, but we managed to persuafe Mrs Q to come along. After being gently coaxed across the first bridge by the guide she decided enough was enough, and elected to go no further. We were now some way nehind the main group and running to catch up was suggested. Just as Sophia was jogging out ahead telling me "Come on, we're not going to get in any trouble for it", her foot disappeared through the walkway as a rotten plank gave way. There was no real danger as a thick, tightly woven rope net ran along inches below it, and once our laughter had died down to a level where we could once again walk we proceeded at a slightly more sedate pace.

From the national park, we started heading back towards town, stopping off at another castle along the way. Cape Coast castle had its origins in structures first constructed here in the 1600s, and gradually built up and fortified over the subsequent centuries. At times it was owned by the Swedish, Danes, Dutch, and finally the British who had possession up until the structure was handed over at independence. As well as being a defensive location, the castle was used extensively for many types of trading, including that of slaves. Several large underground dungeons had been added to the structure for this purpose.

Monday September 2nd - Accra, Ghana

Our first stop on Monday was the clinic owned by Dr and Mrs Quarshie. Mrs Quarshie drove us there, taking a meandering route through the main university in Accra. We were treated to an extensive driving tour of the campus, the major part of which sits on a hill overlooking the city, as well as a look at the adjacent business school where Mrs Quarshie had returned to study after her children had moved away. After arrival at the clinic we were treated to a tour; the facility was much closer to the kind of place that we are used to in the developed world, clean and quiet with no over-crowding. We also toured the next door building site where a large extension was being constructed. Health and safety procedures were a little different to what I am used to on my construction sites back in the US!

From the clinic, Mrs Quarshie and I dropped Sophia at a local hospital where she had arranged to meet a member of staff and spend a few hours. Having no internet connection at the house, I was dropped off at an internet cafe a few minutes walk away and spend a couple of hours catching up on plans for the following flights and so on. A Westlife CD was playing, loudly, on repeat and half of the clientele were singing along.

Tuesday September 3nd - Accra, Ghana

Sophia had an early start Tuesday to head down to the sea front, a long drive from our accommodation, and spend the morning visiting the main teaching hospital. Mrs QUarshie and I would meet her in the early afternoon at the studio of the Maternal Health Channel, a group who produced a weekly prime time television show in Ghana dealing with, unsurprisingly, maternal health. The streets in Accra are not well signposted, and GPS navigation does not seem to have taken off yet. We spent quite some time driving around the general area that we thought the studio was in, before the 7th or 8th person we asked was able to tell us where the correct street was. After a fruitless ten minutes trying to find our contact at the studio, we were informed that this was actually the wrong studio, and the one we wanted ("Creative Storm") was further down the road.

We arrived at the same time as Sophia's taxi, which had apparently had similar trouble finding the place. One of the show's staff was outside the gates looking out for us, as we were by now a little late. We were shown straight up to the main meeting room where we were introduced to the majority of the show's production team. Apparently the show had proven to be a great success since launch, and now had weekly prime time slots on two different major channels in Ghana. A typical episode traced the story of a woman, and revealed and discussed the challenges she faced such as transport to hospital, lack of available care, and even lack of blood for transfusions; one husband had stopped to buy blood during an hours long drive to the clinic, knowing he'd need it, only to break down when told that un-refrigerated for so long it was no longer of any use.

We spent quite some time discussing our respective projects/shows, and sharing photographs of the trip. They were very keen to start promoting the flight through their social media channels, which was great for us! Discussions completed we went downstairs to the studio for some photographs before departign back to Mrs Quarshie's, and our final evening before heading to Benin.

Wednesday September 4th - Accra, Ghana to Cotonou, Benin

The flight to Benin, at 160 nautical miles, would not be a long one. The required permit arrived in the nick of time, mid-morning of the day that we were planning to depart. Apparently things had been finally worked out by the professor that we were going to meet paying a visit to the head of Cotonou airport! Permit in hand, we scrambled to get to the airport and depart. Our handling agents, Aerogem, met us at the departures door but then rather disappointingly abandoned us before passport control, promising to meet us at the gate. We muddled our way through immigration and security, constantly explaining our lack of a boarding pass to officials as we went, and eventually found our way to Gate 1 as instructed. Nobody there knew anything about Aerogem, but we eventually found that our agent was in fact waiting outside peering in through the door at the end of the boarding corridor. The transfer through the terminal is usually where the agent is the most useful, so it was a bit strange that they made themselves scarce!

Once again the transport airside was a small hatchback crammed full of Aerogem staff for no good reason. My luggage balanced on my lap, I was glad to extricate myself at the other end and start preparing the aircraft for departure. Aerogem announced, rather unhelpfully, that they would not accept local currency or credit cards for payment; US dollars, in cash, only. I still haven't worked out how companies based in these countries can refuse the nations own legal tender, but no doubt regulations are very different in this part of the world to what we're used to. We arranged that payment would be by bank transfer, but they then announced that they could not tell us what the amount would be. I pointed out that if I had a big bunch of dollars, they would be obliged to tell me the amount as they claimed to be able to take payment now; but apparently if we did not have cash in hand the office would not prepare the invoice until later. Any kind of logic was evidently wasted here, so we gave up and got ready for departure.

Parked near the back of the apron, we weaved between private jets and other interesting resident aircraft before making it to the taxiway and heading down to the other end of the runway for departure. Departure took us out over the coast, with a left turn to proceed along the coast line towards Togo. The minimum airway altitude on this route was around 13,000ft, but this was higher than we were allowed to fly. We were limited by our engine certification to 12,500ft, and technically by our lack of supplementary oxygen to 10,000ft. This was no problem, however, as once we were put into contact with Togo shortly after takeoff they were quick to give us a clearance at 9,000ft to pass through their airspace and into Benin.

We passed directly overhead Lome's international airport, and along the shores of Lake Togo, before being handed off to Benin. We were soon cleared to start our descent through broken cloud layers towards the airport. The city was noticeably less developed than Accra had been, and the airport much smaller and quieter; from our point of view, this was just what we liked! I requested and was granted a visual approach, as we were coming in from the opposite direction to the main landing runway and it would have taken forever to fly all the way out to start the approach and come back in again. We landed and were directed to park in bay 18, the other end of the long apron from the terminal. Arriving at bay 18, we found it occupied by a Swiss registered Falcon jet. We reported this and were granted space 19 instead. "Uh, tower, there's a Cessna Caravan in that one". "Ah - well, can you fit in between the bays? You're very small." We obliged, and took our time securing the aircraft and preparing baggage. It was nice not to be faced with a hoard of people on arrival and be left to just get on with it!

Baggage collected and aircraft locked and covered up, we set about getting to the terminal. Given the absence of people or vehicles, we set off on foot. Between us and the terminal was the military apron; in fact, just a different section of the main apron marked out by a painted yellow line. For want of a better idea, we wandered across it. A couple of soldiers waved to us as they passed in the other direction, before a high ranking officer in dress uniform strode out of the hangar towards us and inquired as to who we were. We explained that we'd come in the Cessna, and he was all smiles, welcoming us to Benin and wishing us a pleasant stay. Nice people here! We stopped into the airport office to ask about the formalities, and established that they didn't need anything from us now and that we could take care of everything on our return.

We made it swiftly through immigration and into arrivals, where we were warmly welcomed by our host the Professor and several of his colleagues. They had been waiting for quite a while but were very understanding about the delays in this kind of flying, and took us straight out to the car and on to the university. Our first visit was the head of the medical faculty, where introductions were carried out, and Sophia presented the project to the handful of faculty members present. We were then taken downstairs and through a set of double doors, to be confronted with a large lecture theatre full of medical residents who were apparently expecting a presentation about the project; in French. Excellent. I suddenly felt very lucky to just be the pilot. Sophia did an excellent job, considering that she had just been instructed to perform a surprise lecture, in French, after a long day of flying but we were very relieved to be finished at the university and head to our room at the Novotel for a relaxing dinner in the bar!

Thursday September 5th - Cotonou, Benin

Tuesday was, for me, a slow day. I spent most of it in the hotel bar catching up on work; although with the shaky internet, it was more frustrating than productive!

Phase Five - Central Africa

Click here to access the fifth part of the trip report; the journey across Central Africa.

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