Africa 2013

Phase five - Central Africa

Finally, the end of the rains were in sight. The weather steadily improved as we continued through Nigeria and Cameroon. In Nigeria we found some of the most corrupt and incompetent aviation staff of the trip; and also some of the warmest welcomes and best hosting from the medical community. Cameroon, while having some of the hardest airports to negotiate, also treated us to some of our most enjoyable social stays and medical work of the journey.





Friday September 6th - Cotonou, Benin to Ilorin, Nigeria

On the morning of departure Sophia and I split up to cover more ground. She had visits to a third hospital, and also the Ministry of Health, to participate in so I elected to head to the airport and take care of the paperwork and fuel so we could make a swift departure when Sophia arrived. The hotel shuttle dropped me at departures, and I began my efforts to get through the airport without the help of a handling agent. Given how easy arrival had been a couple of days before I was not expecting much in the way of trouble, but unfortunately it was not to be as simple as we had thought.

The airport police were happy to let me into the building but when I tried to get through passport control, they were confused by my lack of a handling agent and sent me off to Menzies. Menzies ended up being incredibly helpful; the manager walked me through security and had someone drive me to the control tower, all for no charge. Our fees were, once again, minimal; around $15 for landing and parking. After more than a month of "Cash only!" it was a surprise to be informed that they only accepted credit cards. No-one could tell me how to call the fuelers, but they could tell me where they were located, so I headed over to their office and tried to acquire some Jet A. They were at first insistent that I move the aircraft to the underground fueling point near the terminal, but upon finding out that I only needed 100 litres they changed their tune and told me to leave it where it was. I walked back through the military zone with no trouble, and waited.

Killing time waiting for the fuel to appear, I pre-flighted and checked the oil. The oil usage was holding steady at around 100ml/hr, and was giving me much more confidence than when we'd been burning nearly double that back in the desert. Hearing a vehicle approaching, I looked up to see a ropy looking tractor headed towards me, towing an even ropier looking trailer. The driver was not too hot at parking; eventually giving up trying to get the trailer into position he just unhooked it and with the help of his colleague pushed it into place. No ladder was needed; he just climbed on top of the Jet-A tank on the trailer and got to work. While the driver filled, his colleague cranked the handle of the manual fuel pump. It was slow work, but eventually the tanks were full.

In the meantime, the professor had called the head of the airport to try and ease Sophia's passage through the terminal on her arrival. A smartly dressed man in a suit turned up and roganised a truck to take me back to the terminal, where I changed all our remaining currency into dollars, and then back out to the aircraft to wait for Sophia. I settled down to read, but after only moments I was interrupted by a man who had come down the steps of the Falcon parked next to us and wondered if I'd care to join them for a drink. I certainly would! Minutes later I was relaxing in the cabin of the Falcon, drinking tea with the pilots and the air hostess who had come to get the aircraft ready for a flight the following day. They were French, working on a two-week rotation where they'd be on standby for the customer in Benin in case he wanted to go somewhere. They'd been here for a week so far with no flying and were looking forward to doing something.

Eventually Sophia appeared, clutching packed lunches that the professor had insisted on sending with her. Perfect! Minutes later we were taxiing for departure, and cleared for take-off. Departure clearance was to track the VOR outbound to the southeast until contact was established with Lagos approach, who seem to control the airspace about about 10,000ft over Benin and Togo. As it turned out we climbed so slowly compared to the usual jet traffic in and out of Ghana that we were getting nowhere with Lagos and were told to talk to Togo instead; being rather close, we could at least hear them and they could hear us. We followed the shore for some time, and received permission to stop our climb at 7,000ft. The flight was only 60 nautical miles, so there was no point in going higher.

Lagos approach, when we finally got in touch, were busy. Not surprising for one of Africa's major air hubs. We were vectored around to the north, and lined up for an ILS approach on one of the two parallel runways. Airliners on 18L, and Cessna 182s on 18R, was the arrangement for a while. We were asked if we could go any faster; unfortunately, we were unable to oblige. It seemed that Lagos was not used to GA aircraft! We landed and quickly vacated the runway, being told to hold short of the connecting taxiway while an Ethiopian 787 Dreamliner taxied past. This was the first one I had seen; it was remarkably similar in appearance to any other airliner, and did not give quite the same level of visual excitement as the first sight of an A380. We continued behind the Dreamliner and were directed to gate E52. This was the first time I had actually been sent to a gate, and at the international terminal too. We parked up sandwiched between an A340 and a B777.

We were met at the aircraft by a junior representative of our handling agent, Sky Watch, along with a host of immigration police and other airport staff. I filled in several very similar forms about aircraft details and crew particulars, and eventually the host of people dispersed leaving only the immigration agent, chief handler, and Sky Watch rep. It turned out that immigration were demanding a "Gen Dec", a form which we had never been asked for before. They didn't have a template that we could fill in; you had to create your own and hope that it sufficed. We were also presented with the bill for navigation fees, which Sky Watch had paid on our behalf and then brought on to us; a ten second glance at the invoice, which included all the equations used to calculate the invoice, made it clear that it was completely wrong. The airport billing department had signed it off as checked twice, and Sky Watch had then paid it, evidently with no-one actually bothering to even look at the figures, which was extremely unimpressive. Our rep looked at it and agreed that it was totally wrong, but said that as they had already paid it then we had to pay them that amount; given that it was about $900 too high I declined and suggested we go and sort it out with the airport authorities.

This is where our quick immigration stop started to unravel. It became clear that the Sky Watch rep had really very little idea of what he was doing and we traipsed around several airside offices, with him arguing with various police and immigration figures; they still would not even allow me into the building. Eventually he gave up and called the chief marshaller who had been very helpful; he came to Sky Watch's rescue, organised access to the terminal for me, and even provided a template for the Gen Dec form. Some more messing around in the terminal and we eventually ended up in the office of the Head of Department, Commercial, for the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency. A senior member of Sky Watch had thankfully arrived. All agreed that the invoice was nonsense, but cautioned that to sort it out would take several days; I'm not entirely sure why. It was decided that we would continue with no fees paid, and the invoice issues would be settled later by email; this was fine by me. After reminding the junior Sky Watch rep that we'd need our passports stamped to show we were legally in the country, and waiting nearly another hour while he arranged this, we were eventually on our way several hours later than scheduled.

The delay had allowed convective weather to start building up, so the 140 nautical mile journey to Ilorin was not entirely straightforward. We departed again on runway 18R, and were told to continue south until given further clearance. Approach then seemed to forget about us and I was forced to drop the flaps and slow down to minimum speed to try and buy some time so we didn't enter the prohibited zones to the south before we managed to get a change of course assigned to us. This was given as "proceed on course", which would take us directly back overhead the airport. We queried this and ATC agreed that this was not ideal, so vectored us around the airport to the east before putting us back on course to Ilorin.

With several cloud layers, and thunderstorms starting to form, I placed my faith in the "Strikefinder" which the aircraft was equipped with. Plotting the location of lightning strikes within a 200 nautical mile radius, this instrument allows one to to navigate around weather in a strategic sense; using it to thread between individual cells is not recommended. It showed that the thunderstorm activity lay along our route, and to the south and east; as it happened, a diversion to the north would take us on a more direct route towards our destination and ATC granted this without any trouble. We were cleared to land straight in on runway 5; there was a slight tail wind but nothing that we couldn't comfortably manage on a 2 mile long runway.

Ilorin could not have been more different than Lagos. There was only one other aircraft on the apron, a military transport. We were marshaled to park directly outside the terminal, but on learning that we'd be staying three nights tower suggested that the far end of the apron might be more suitable to be clear of the traffic that would be coming and going. Sophia left the aircraft to let the small entourage that was building up know why I was ignoring the marshaller, and I taxied over to park near the tower and shut down. We were greeted by police, who left satisfied after a short discussion about our meeting, and a lady from the airport authority who collected our $3 landing fee.

Aircraft secure, we walked over to the terminal where we were greeted by the extremely enthusiastic Dr Luther King Fasehun and his assistants from the Well-being Foundation in Nigeria. A cameraman was darting around snapping pictures of anything that moved, and plenty that didn't. We were helped into a foundation SUV and driven straight to the Kwara hotel, apparently the best in Lagos, which the foundation had arranged to put us up in. I could well believe that it was the best in town; it was certainly the nicest place that we had stayed in so far. Having skipped lunch again we were soon to be found in the hotel restaurant, where the waitress seemed very happy to inform us that it was Chinese night. Sophia opted for traditional Nigerian food, but I found the evening's special, cooked at the counter in the middle of the dining area, to be surprisingly good!

Saturday September 7th - Ilorin, Nigeria

On Saturday morning Dr Fasehun took us to a local clinic for a tour and training session. It was located just a few minutes from the hotel, and was a fairly small location but with a good turnout of 20 or so nurses, all on their day off. They had in fact originally attended the day before, but the huge delays at Lagos had meant that we had not arrived in time to meet with them and Dr Fasehun had had to mollify them with drinks and snacks.

The morning's session went well; it was good to be working in English again rather than French, and the absence of a projector meant that the training was conducted around a flip chart in a rather more intimate and off-the-cuff atmosphere. The "Mama Natalie" birthing simulator turned out to be a hit as usual, with patients from other parts of the clinic crowding around the windows to look in and take photographs of the practical training. The only sour moment came when the audience complained that Sophia had not provided them with project branded pens and notepaper for the session! At least that suggested that they were learning enough from the training that they wanted to write it down.

Sunday September 8th - Ilorin, Nigeria

Sunday was assigned by Dr Fasehun as a rest day. He had decided that we must be exhausted, and he was quite right. Despite the very patchy internet connection, which we had grown used to by now, we managed to catch up on a little planning and the slow day was very welcome indeed.




Monday September 9th - Ilorin, Nigeria to Abuja, Nigeria

Dr Fasehun had told us that there was a VIP visitor in town, who was departing early on Monday morning. Apparently people had travelled from all over Nigeria for the chance of a meeting with this politician, and as a result the doctor was anticipating huge crowds at the airport as people departed again. It was therefore prescribed that we would depart the hotel a little after 6:00am to take account of any possible delays at the airport. As we were leaving the hotel we saw a private jet pass overhead; evidently the VIP was on his way.

On the journey to the airport Dr Fasehun explained that the foundation he helped manage was created by the famous politician's wife, and that in fact the car and driver we were travelling in were paid for by him. This was why transport had apparently not been available the day before; the car had been shuttling the Honourable Minister around. One of the perks of this form of travel was that we were waved past the queue of traffic at the airport as VIPs, avoiding any delays. Once inside it turned out that there were no queues to deal with at all, as we had no need of check-in, and within minutes we were out on the tarmac.

The main terminal had a huge, new-looking control tower built into it; but it was apparently not in use and I left Sophia packing the aircraft as I headed to the old, ropy looking tower to take care of the formalities. We'd paid our $3 landing fee on arrival, so all that we had to do was file the flight plan which didn't take too long. We popped back into the terminal to say goodbye to Dr Fasehun, who was waiting for his own commercial flight to Abuja, and departed. There was something wrong with Ilorin Tower's radio; they were transmitting but all that was coming through was silence (you can tell they are transmitting as you can hear the "carrier wave", but no other sound). They eventually sorted that out, but we could still barely hear them; the background noise of people talking and other, more peculiar noises almost drowned out the controller. Despite being informed of this by both us and the incoming commercial flight, the people in the tower seemed entirely unconcerned about doing anything to fix it (such as asking people to stop talking), preferring to compromise safety by remaining almost unintelligible.

We climbed out over Ilorin city. When flying over African countries many unfinished buildings can often be seen; people seem to build the walls, but stop before roofing it. Many seem rather over-grown, like they've not been touched in some years. Perhaps there is a good reason for this, but it seems like a huge waste of resources in environments which are not terribly wealthy. The suburbs of Ilorin seemed to have more unfinished buildings than completed ones.

Conditions were good for flying, with a low broken to overcast layer appearing an hour into the flight but breaking up by the time we came close to Abuja. The airport here was significantly busier than Ilorin, and we were marshaled into park down the very end of the general aviation apron which was crowded with private jets. A Sky Watch rep was here to meet us. Once again, they did not seem terribly organised and after we had taken our baggage from the aircraft he set about trying to find a vehicle to take us to the international terminal. He disappeared for a while and came back having had no luck, and finally responded to our pointing out that having arrived from Ilorin, maybe we could just walk to the domestic, GA terminal. As we waited, the commercial flight from Ilorin touched down with Dr Fasehun on board.

By this stage, he had however decided that we should take fuel now rather than on departure. I was happy with this, but became less so when it tuned out that we'd be waiting another hour to get anything done. Our rep once again had to walk off and talk to fuelers; the first ones he went to had nothing small enough to fuel us, but eventually he found someone with the right truck and told us they'd be along in 20 minutes or so. We had been hanging around on the ramp for so long by now that the Nigerian CAA had decided to take an interest in this little aircraft, and decided to conduct an impromptu inspection.

The CAA rep first examined the aircraft paperwork. Thankfully the aircraft owner had now supplied us with the required maintenance certificate, just a few days before arrival here, so our paperwork was found to be in order. He then turned his attention to the aircraft, but didn't know very much about light aircraft so wandered around poking aimlessly at things before coming to something he knew; the lights. All lights were to be switched on and checked for operation; even the courtesy lights under the wings to stop you tripping over the wheels when getting in or out at night. I had never had any reason to even look at these, and had no idea at all how to turn them on; I tried all the switches that might have done so with no success so we concluded that they didnt work. The CAA rep looked very excited at having found something to fail us on, before I located the relevant section of the aircraft manual (supplied to us in French only) that described these lights as optional. After a long mumbled conference with his boss he decided that we were free to go.

With the aircraft refueled, we headed out to meet our contact here, Dr Fred Achem; the president of the Society of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians of Nigera. He was an extremely warm and welcoming man, looking very dapper in a red bow tie. He had gone all out on our welcome, and in addition to his colleague Moses, he told us that he had arranged for "a lot of women" to greet us and that they'd be here any moment. "A lot of women" turned out to be 15 or so representatives from the Women's Council of Nigeria, accompanied by a TV cameraman. They performed an official welcome for us in the car park, with the event orchestrated for the camera by Dr Achem, and activities having to pause now and then while everyone moved to let a car drive past. This done, the ladies decided that we should go and see the aircraft; the security rules of the airport demanding an ID badge be issued for any non-crew did not phase them.

A select delegation of ladies marched up to the security checkpoint and, after a brief discussion, convinced security that they should be permitted airside to do what they wanted. I think the staff were a little taken aback at being confronted by this group of strong women escorted by Dr Achem and his bow tie. Our delegation strode back to the aircraft, and it was decided that we should "arrive" again to catch it on camera; a few minutes later the aircraft had control locks and covers removed and we were pretending that we had just parked and exited to be greeted by Dr Achem and the group. The speeches were all rehashed for the camera, and everyone then settled in to have a good poke around the aircraft. I meanwhile had spotted a British registered Diamond DA42 light twin across the apron being fueled and could not resist wandering off to have a look.

It turned out to belong to a company that did flight calibration services for radio navigation aids such as VORs and ILS systems. The pilot, Stuart, told me that these should be done every six months but Nigeria hadnt done them for two years or more. They'd just finished checking Lagos where apparently the accuracy of all the navigation aids could be summed up as "dangerous", and were now working on Abuja. The DA42 seemed like the perfect aircraft for the job, with two aero-diesels running on Jet-A, and a modern flat-screen equipped cockpit with full autopilot. I was a little jealous, but drew solace from the fact that our Cessna was much more suitable for rough strips once we started visiting places without tarmac.

We drove from the airport straight to the hotel, about a 45 minute journey. Dr Achem ensured that we were comfortable (the hotel was even nicer than the one in Ilorin) before saying his goodbyes; he was headed straight back to the airport to catch a flight to Lagos for a couple of days. We immediately made for the poolside bar to have a bite to eat; it had been another lunch-less day, as was usual when flying. Moses came back to collect us after a few hours and take us for dinner at the "Africa-Asia Garden". Apart from the odd bit of decoration the Asian side of this place was hard to detect. Apparently garden style places to eat had become trendy and were springing up all over town. The menu style was also exploding in popularity; you simply went to the kitchen and selected which catfish you wanted them to cook for you, from tanks full of them. Once you'd selected (they were priced base on size, seperated into small, medium, and large tanks) they would catch the fish, smack it firmly on the head a few times, and prepare it for consumption.

Tuesday September 10th - Abuja, Nigeria

On Tuesday morning Sophia and I again split up. Sophia went with Moses to a school of nursing about an hour away, and I was sent with a taxi driver to the Sudan embassy to get our visas for the visits to Darfur and Khartoum. We'd not been able to organise these in London as the required invitation letters had not been available, and apparently one could only have a visa issued for one month from date of issue in London, which was of no use to us at all given the time we'd be travelling for before getting there. We located the embassy without too much trouble, and then the fun began. The guards told us that visas were only issued on Mondays and Thursday. We explained to them that given our travel schedule this was not an option, and that we had a letter of invitation from the Sudanese embassy in London. This, coupled with the fact that my New Zealand passport apparently looks like a diplomatic one, was enough to get us an invitation to return an hour from then to see the consul.

We hung out in a hotel nearby where my taxi driver's brother worked, before returning to the embassy and being allowed inside. I was shown in to see the consul, and explained all about the project as well as sharing our invitation letters and other documents. He seemed interested in our work, and said that he'd look favourably on the application, but would have to check with the ambassador. He would take our phone number and call later to let us know. So, back to the taxi, and back to the hotel where I returned to the room and managed to do a little work. Not too much, however, for before long the phone rang. It was time for our third trip of the day to the embassy!

Previous embassies had depleted our stock of passport photographs so we stopped by the side of the road and had some of me taken and printed by a man with a stool, a sheet of cloth for a backdrop, and a battery powered portable printer. I still needed photos of Sophia, however, which was to be sorted out later. Soon afterwards my driver and I arrived at the embassy and were given the forms to fill in. Unfortunately it turned out that we would indeed be needing passport photos, so a plan was put into action; Moses took a photo of Sophia, still an hour away, with his phone and emailed it to me. My driver and I then headed to an internet cafe where we downloaded the photo, and took it on a memory stick to a photo lab which touched it up and printed it out. Half an hour later we were back at the Sudanese embassy for the fourth time that day, and the applications were in! "Please come back tomorrow at 11am to collect them". At least we could find the place blind-folded now.

That evening Moses took us to a bar and grill not far from the hotel. A couple sitting at the table next to ours heard our accents and struck up a conversation; the man, a Nigerian, worked in Leeds for T-Mobile. Apparently he grew tired of his companion, or she of him, for after a while she got up and left; he was undaunted for he picked up his phone and ten minutes later another pretty lady arrived and sat down to join him. Sophia and Moses were starving hungry having eaten nothing all day and interrogated the waitress as to how long each item took to cook, and which item would arrive on the table faster than anything else on the menu. An interesting looking goat-related appetizer was the result, with plenty of skin. I decided to wait for my main course.

Wednesday September 11th - Abuja, Nigeria

We had a late start on Wednesday morning, with our first stop being the Sudan embassy to collect the visas. These were handed to us without any problems, and also free of charge! From here we continued to the headquarters of the wellbeing foundation to meet their president, and also see Dr Fasehun again. A lot of discussion was had around the composition of the "maternity packs" that the foundation was distributing to expectant mothers; they had funding for tens of thousands of these. Sophia was asked for feedback on the items included, and was able to give some very good tips on ways to save money without compromising effectiveness. One change that even I could probably have identified was the removal of a bottle of olive oil used to shine the baby's skin after it was washed; while it no doubt looks very nice, it could not be described as a medical essential.

After stopping to collect sandwiches from a very European-style supermarket, we headed to "Area 4" to collect Lillian, a reporter from the Nigerian Guardian who would be coming with us on our hospital visit. Dr Achem had arranged for us to visit an outlying medical centre, about an hour from the city, to get an idea of how conditions varied in different locations. The drive out of the city took us past the presidential palace, which overlooked an enormous rock, of Ayer's rock proportions. This rock was apparently sacred to the locals, and something of a symbol of Nigeria; at some point somebody had installed a gigantic "Hollywood" style sign saying, of course, "Nigeria", but it was so dirty and decrepit that it was almost impossible to make it out.

In all honesty, the hospital was to me much like the majority of other hospitals that we had visited. The word had not gotten through that we'd been visiting, so there was no opportunity for Sophia to run a training session, and we toured the limited facilities and donated some equipment before heading back into the city. To get back onto the highway we had to drive through the market; apparently people usually didn't try and drive down the slip road that the market had set up, so it was a case of crawling through the sea of people with the horn blaring hoping that a path would open up. Our driver became quite aggravated, but thankfully after ten minutes or so we made it through without running anyone over and were on our way back.

That evening Dr Achem arrived back from Lagos, and took us out to another "Point and kill" style restaurant. Apart from slightly different shrubbery, the garden and food were completely identical to the previous place!




Thursday September 12th - Abuja, Nigeria to Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Dr Achem's assistant, Moses, took us to the airport early on Thursday morning. Sophia wanted to film an interview with him, so while they were busy with that in the lounge, I headed out to the aircraft with our handling agent Raymond. As usual, it took forever to get through the airport. First the commercial department insisted on recalculating the fees for the entire route as the value supplied by Skywatch had been nonsense; we then visited several different offices to file a flight plan, pay the airport fees and so on. When I eventually got back to the aircraft I swapped places with Sophia, who was done with her interview, and prepared the aircraft while she went to pay the final fees. Even this was not smooth, and after a long wait they re-appeared with someone from billing in tow, as apparently I had to sign the receipt as the captain. The man from billing sat for 20 minutes on the ground, calculating and writing out receipts, and we eventually managed to get under way.

As always, there were scattered cumulus clouds around and we were in and out of site of the ground as we climbed. Passing 7,000ft or so, I noticed that we were having to use rather more power tomaintain our climb speed than I was used to. Immediately checking the wheel, visible out my window, my suspicion was confirmed; despite being over central Africa, with an outside temperature of 10 degrees centigrade, we were picking up ice! A light white frosting was visible on the leading edge of the tire. We immediately tweaked our heading to keep us clear of any further clouds, ensuring that no further ice could be collected, and after a few minutes the light icing we'd picked up melted away.

Our flight took us almost directly south, roughly alongside the Niger river. Before long we were in contact with Port Harcourt approach, who gave us clearance to descend, but vectored us out to the west of the airport with no explanation. An incoming commercial aircraft was also given delays for no obvious reason. Our new course actually took us a little away from the airport, towards the notorious Niger delta where a lot of the attacks on oil facilities occur. We could see gas flares from production facilities as we flew over, but only one or two; the majority of the area was untouched forest, or agriculture. Eventually the controller turned us back towards the airport and we flew the ILS approach over enormous palm plantations to the east of the airport.

Port Harcourt International airport was small, but seemed fairly busy. We were directed to park, as usual, right at one end of the apron to keep us out of everybody's way. As we shut down the chief marshaler came over to intriduce himself; as with several other airports he ended up being just the helpful guy we needed and went out of his way to assist us with the formalities. A smartly suited young man from the military police came to enquire what we were up to; he threw out the usual questions as to what was our mission, did we have a permit, who was our handling agent. This last question caused something of a commotion; we didn't have a handling agent here. We'd decided not to blow $300 on the frankly very poor service from Sky Watch, despite their emailing and text messaging me trying to persuade us that we'd need them. The military policeman was convinced that we were required to have a handling agent and after a blazing row with another member of the ground staff, the chief marshaler managed to defuse the situation. We were taken to meet the military man's senior officer, who said that we were in no way obliged to have a handling agent and sent us on our way, wishing us a pleasant stay.

The entire terminal had been gutted for refurbishment and was covered with scaffolding. Temporary facilities had been set up in tents down one end. We were told that the work was expected to take two years or more to complete. As a domestic flight we did not have to go through immigration and soon we were outside the arrivals area, being greeted by our contact from Shell who would be hosting us for the next three days. He ushered us into a large black SUV and we set off through the traffic to the Shell Residential Area, escorted by a pick-up truck containing four heavily armed policemen. The traffic was poor, but we made reasonable progress through judicious use of the horn and occasional well-judged blocking of traffic by our escort; soon we were passing through the heavily guarded barricades at the camp and shown to our accommodation.

Our lodgings were without a doubt the best of the trip so far. We were being housed in a stand-alone villa, which contained two wings; each had a spacious bedroom, bathroom, and living room. In the centre of the villa was a shared, well equipped kitchen accessible from either living room. The apartments were very well furnished and equipped and there was even fast, reliable internet which we had been without since we left Europe! Our host, Dr Fakunde, arranged for us to meet in the restaurant a little later for dinner, with a number of his medical colleagues, to discuss the plans for the next couple of days.

The Shell restaurant was busy, with visitors from overseas as well as plenty of local families who lived in the camp. As well as the restaurant, there was a bar with live music, swimming pool, games room, hair salon, and so on; plenty to keep people amused. This was fairly essential, as one would soon get cabin fever being confined to camp with nothing to do; if you had white skin, you couldn't safely leave the camp without an armed escort and detailed journey plan. We were, we were told, considered "HVT"s - High Value Targets.

Friday September 13th - Port Harcourt, Nigeria

We started early, needing to catch the bus well before 7am from the Residential Area (RA) to the Industrial Area (IA). Once again, this shuttle bus was escorted by heavily armed police in pick-up trucks. The traffic was not too bad at that time on a Friday, and after 10 minutes or so we were driving down the approach road to the IA, which was lined by police and army personnel and bunkers. We were dropped off outside one of the large office buildings, where our guide from the previous day met us and escorted us to Dr Fakunde's office. Here I spent an hour or so with my computer connected directly to the Shell network, hoping that this would cure it of the sluggishness that had built up in it over the last few weeks. We left it chugging away applying all sorts of updates, and went to visit the Shell hospital for staff and families, inside the IA.

It was clear that Shell took the health of their employees and families very seriously indeed. The hospital was better equipped than plenty that I've seen in Europe or North America, packed full of well trained staff and the most advanced equipment. There was a large emergency department, with several dedicated ambulances serving it. The nurses there described how additional areas adjoining it could quickly be converted to receive mass casualties; this preparation was not in any way over the top, as they told us about one incident where tens of people had been brought in after a militant attack at a worksite, most of them with serious gunshot wounds. A sobering reminder of the risks of working in such an environment.

From the Shell IA, we travelled to the Obio Cottage Hospital, very close by. This facility had been working with Shell for the past three years to develop from a basic primary level centre to an impressive secondary level facility. For around $25 per year local residents could sign up with a health insurance plan that would cover any treatment at all that they might need. Pay-as-you-go treatment was also offered at apparently very affordable rates. The figures we were shown were impressive, revealing how the number of people coming for treatment over the last few years had increased many times over as word got around about the standard of care. In 2013 so far, out of 60+ HIV positive mothers, treatment at Obio had ensured that not a single baby had had the virus passed on from their mother, an incredible result. They were also proud to report that there had been no maternal deaths in 2013.

While Shell had funded some of the initial development, such as a new building, the hospital was set up to be entirely self-managing and sustaining without the need for any corporate involvement. Indeed, careful management meant that they were now making a good enough return to invest in their own equipment upgrades and further raise the standard of care. Several of the key staff we met had first come to the hospital on their volunteer program; in Nigeria most young people spend a year doing public service. Obio was such an in-demand place to volunteer that placements were limited to six months to double the opportunities. After this, some volunteers were given the chance to move to another nearby hospital where the Obio model was just beginning to be implemented, at the request of the local community.

Saturday September 14th - Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Sophia spent the day at Obio giving her usual training sessions. The turnout was apparently excellent, and people took part enthusiastically; always a pleasing result from the point of view of the teacher! I meanwhile was in the Shell RA, taking advantage of the excellent connection to catch up on work and writing up the website. After a $3 haircut at the barber shop near the restaurant, I felt much more comfortable in the heat, as well!




Sunday September 15th - Port Harcourt, Nigeria to Douala, Cameroon

We left the accomodation at 0700 and drove with our escort back to Port Harcourt international. Our marshaler was there to greet us, and took us to passport control for the exit formalities. For only the second time since the start of the trip, a bribe was demanded; the immigration personnel would not process our passports unless we made it worth their while. A tip to people for good service is one thing, but $90 was being asked for here. We decided to go to the aircraft and take care of all the other paperwork before returning to deal with them. Filing the flight plan took forever; in a new twist, we even paid a visit to the aproach controllers to get their blessing before the plan would be accepted. I decided not to ask them why they'd vectored us out to the delta and back on the way in.

After the commercial department had once again recalculated the fees (thanks, Sky Watch) I returned to the aircraft to see how Sophia was faring. An immigration official had come out to the aircraft with stamped passports and there was now a stand-off ongoing as to how much would be paid for their return. With the intervention of our marshaler, and some hard bargaining on the part of Sophia, the "fee" was negotiated down to about $6. A speech from our helper about how we were unpaid volunteers here to look after the women of Port Harcourt seemed to help, piling on a bit of guilt for demanding a bribe. Finally, we were cleared for taxi and on our way to our next country, Cameroon.

At 170 nautical miles, the flight was not particularly long. We flew along the coast, passing over a large oil export facility that had been carved out of the endless jungle. Judging by the lush vegetation all around, and encroaching onto, the facility, it was not having an obvious negative impact! At the border, Port Harcourt approach told us to contact Douala; this turned out to be easier said than done. The low-altitude airway from Port Harcourt to Douala mysteriously vanishes at the border, for Cameroon has a surprise in store for the unwary aviator; the 14,000ft Mt Cameroon sitting slap-bang in the middle of the route. At this time of year it was of course shrouded in cloud, and it would be all too easy to simply fly on through the cloud before receiving a rude awakening. Flying along as we were at 9,000ft, with the mountain towering above us, it was easy to see how people could go astray. While we'd been aware of the peak well in advance, I was very happy to have my Garmin GPS with terrain data (and terrain warnings, come to that). As a last line of defence, it will flash up terrain alerts two minutes before a possible conflict, as well as display a cross section of terrain heights along your route.

Mt Cameroon blocked any communication with Douala, so we decided to use our intiative and followed the coastline south to a point where radio contact was possible. The first thing Douala said to us after I reported our position and altitude was "Do you know about the mountain?!" We reported that yes, we did know about the mountain, and promised to fly around it. Reassured, Douala gave us arrival instructions as we flew down between Mt Cameroon and the 10,000ft peaks on the island of Malabo, and made our way onto the standard arrival and VOR approach into Douala. It was clearly the rainy season; the terrain below us was inundated, and even the suburbs of the town clearly sodden with the creeks close to overflowing.

We were directed to park at gate C1, right up against the main terminal building, where our little Skylane would be staying for the next four nights. Sophia's contact here, Dr John, had managed to talk his way out onto the tarmac wearing a borrowed high-vis jacket and was waiting with a policeman to receive us. After a warm welcome, we were led the 50 meters to the VIP salon where we filled in our entry forms and had our passports stamped and from there to the main arrivals hall and our ride into town. A room had been arranged for us at the Royal Palace, and Dr John had excelled himself; we would be staying in a large comfortable room with two big beds and even, much to Sophia's delight, a bath tub!

After leaving us to rest for a few hours, Dr John and his good friend Ignacius returned to take us out for a drive around Douala. It was a busy, bustling city with an active port, and a nearby "criminals roundabout" where apparently people who had stolen things at the port went to sell their goods! We passed by a number of the government buildings, as well as several hospitals, before ending up at an outdoor restaurant overlooking one of the swollen creeks. It seemed to be a high end establishment with several French expat families, and local citizens celebrating special occasions. There was even a party of nuns enjoying themselves out at the end of the deck.

Monday September 16th - Douala, Cameroon

Our first port of call for the day was a medical supply store in the centre of Douala. Over dinner the previous night it had been decided that, while we could not meet the original demand of paying people to attend the training sessions, we should purchase a sizeable donation for the hospital; in this case, a caesarian section kit. Sophia's sponsor had given us a list of countries where, due to government regulations of the countries in question, we could not donate the blood-pressure monitoring machines that we carried, and Cameroon was one of them. It seems a shame that government buraucracy prevents the donation of simple, essential equipment to people in need.

In the end, the "quick" visit to the medical supply store took about three hours. It was housed in a small warren of rooms above a row of shops, and like most building's we'd seen the build quality and maintenance was very poor. Small cardboard boxes full of equipment were jammed into haphazard mountains on shelving around the main room, which did not seem to speed up the process of finding equipment. A full hour was spent in the writing up of an elaborate receipt for what had been purchased.

From here we paid a visit to the Catholic hospital that Sophia would be giving training at the next day, to introduce ourselves and finalise the plans. Dr John took us on a tour of the facility, introducing us to almost everyone who worked there; everyone was warm and welcoming. Plastered around the facility were photocopies of a crude poem, "The abortion tree", written in the voice of a baby decrying how she was "murdered" and "thrown away". It was tastefully illustrated with a drawing of dead babies hanging from a tree. It was disturbing to see religious superstition being given such prominence in a medical facility; the recent case of a mother dying in Ireland because their Catholic-fuelled abortion policy denied her a life-saving procedure demonstrated tragically how superstition should not be allowed to over-ride sound medical science.

After a visit to an internet cafe to spend an hour catching up on work, we stopped by a small restaurant in town for dinner. It was made up of a few tables in a courtyard, with a large grill at one side roasting every single edible part of the chicken, as well as some other items that were vaguely described as "meat". We were, thankfully, presented with two large plates of what was clearly identifiable as chicken, accompanied by roasted plantains; it all turned out to be delicious.

Tuesday September 17th - Douala, Cameroon

I spent the morning working at the hotel, before being collected by Ignacius for a trip into town. It turned out that he was taking me to an internet cafe to do more work, which suited me fine! He had work to do nearby, so left me to it for a couple of hours; on his return he presented me with some gifts of traditional local clothing that he had bought for us. My two very smart, and unmistakeably African, shirts fit perfectly; they would certainly stand out around the office back home in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday September 18th - Douala, Cameroon

Today was the day to head North, to the regional city of Bamenda. Dr John had originally been planning to come with us but, with his young daughter sick with malaria, sensibly decided to stay behind. In his stead, we had been put in touch with two residents of Bamenda, both medical men, who were related to a colleague of Sophia's back in the UK. We ended up leaving the hotel rather late with Ignacius who accompanied us out to the airport. He had determined that if one visited a desk upstairs in the terminal building, and spoke confidently, it was possible to walk away with a temporary ID badge that would allow you to access all areas. He quickly stepped into the role of handling agent and strode through the terminal with us in tow, directing people to assist us!

Douala turned out to be at the "complete pain in the neck" end of the scale when it came to leaving. It took a good half hour before anyone could even direct us where to start the process of filing a flight plan. This was carried out in one office, carried to the Cameroon CAA office for a stamp, and one then had to ferry it out of the airport to the control tower a short walk away. Here it was checked, directed to another office for payment, returned to the base of the tower for filing, and then taken upstairs for the weather briefing. Naturally, none of these steps were quick, and by the time we made it back to the aircraft several hours after arriving the afternoon thunderstorms were building and there was still one more bill to pay. This bill had something wrong with it and they'd need an hour to fix it. With the weather being just too bad now to gamble with, we packed it in and headed to the Douala Ibis to wait out the night, and try again the following day.




Thursday September 19th - Douala, Cameroon to Bamenda, Cameroon

Determined to avoid the delays of the previous day, we started early. The hotel let us know that the shuttle bus was outside, so we headed out and climbed aboard. After a few minutes it became clear that we had one less seat than we had passengers. Shortly afterwards it became clear that this was not in fact the shuttle bus at all, but simply another bus that had come to pick up a number of members of a western company who were driving to another part of the country. It was lucky that they hadn't had another free seat, as no-one had thought it odd that these two strangers were there; who knows where we'd have ended up when the bus drove off with us onboard.

We went back to reception, who were very apologetic, and located the correct bus for us. Having been through the rigamarole of departing the airport once already, we managed to file our new flight plan and pay our final bill in little over an hour, and were soon winging our way north. The "minimum safe altitude" assigned for IFR flight in this area was 17,000ft, an altitude that we could only dream of, despite the highest peak along the route being only 8,000ft or so. We were cleared to fly at 9,500ft, under visual flight rules, and made responsible for our own terrain clearance. As we headed north away from Douala the land slowly rose towards the 4,000ft level of Bamenda, but between Douala and our destination were a ridge of 8,000ft mountains to clear.

As we reached this mountainous area we lost contact with Douala, and switched over to the Bamenda frequency. Repeated calls went unanswered, so we self-announced on their frequency as we did a fly-past of the runway to check the condition and wind direction, and touched down on runway 36. With a fairly long runway, we were able to slow down and turn off before we reached the second half of the runway where people appeared to be wandering around and driving motorbikes. We parked up in front of what looked like a terminal building, but turned out to have been commandeered as a military base; no commercial flights came to Bamenda any more.

A few men in military fatigues wandered over to say hello. One of them requested a copy of our manifest which I handed over, and he suggested we go and check in with the civilian authorities at the other end of the apron. Here we found the airport manager, who welcomed us and took another copy of the manifest. While we waited for our hosts, he also enquired about our departure plans so that he could ensure that someone would be around to accept our flight plan. Once our hosts arrived we double checked with the authorities that our aircraft would be OK where it was, and headed to see the regional director of health.

The director was very welcoming, and seemed fascinated by the project. He quickly fleshed out a program of four locations that Sophia should visit to get a good idea of the varying medical facilities in the area, and drafted a letter of introduction for us to assist with each of the visits. From here we headed a little further up the road to visit the regional hospital where our hosts worked. The director, who was rather reserved at first, became much friendlier and more enthusiastic after reading the letter of introduction and hearing what the project was about; he agreed that we could organise a teaching session for the next day.

After a stop at the midwives' office to introduce ourselves, we passed by the day hospital where one of our hosts, Raymond, was on duty; he was in consultation with the wife of a German doctor who was working at the hospital, and had brought her young son in to be checked for malaria; he didn't look well at all. She was kind enough to suggest some interesting activities around Bamenda for our proposed day off on Saturday.

Friday September 20th - Bamenda, Cameroon

A quiet day for me at the hotel catching up on work. Astonishingly, the internet worked quite well until early evening each day, at which point regular power cuts would make it impossible to get any kind of a connection!

Saturday September 21st - Bamenda, Cameroon

Raymond came to collect us from the hotel around 0900, with his friend Kenneth, who worked in IT at the hospital. We drove out of the city of Bamenda towards a village that housed a Catholic hospital, which coincidentally was the beginning of a network of trails leading up into the hills. After a couple of false starts, as things had apparently changed since he was last there, we set off up a small track with a distant peak as our intended destination. Given that we were starting from 4,000ft above sea level, the temperature was not as hot as it had been down in DOuala. This was a very good thing, as with the steep trail and humid air we were soon over-heating anyway!

The trail passed through a tiny village of 4 or 5 buildings, before continuing along a tiny track that serviced a small water pipeline coming down from the hills. At times we were more climbing than hiking, and after a final scramble we found ourselves on top of the first hill. The views back over the hospital were already fantastic, but we were not yet anywhere near our final peak; after a moment to catch our breath Raymond led us on through a barbed wire fence and struck out cross country, along what he thought was probably a shortcut.

The trail vanished shortly after we passed a small quarry where people had been digging rock out by hand for use as gravel on paths, and in construction. We scrambled up various rocky outcrops, before coming to the top of the small waterfall that we'd had our eye on during most of the climb up. The stream appeared as if from nowhere out of a thick tangle of vegetation before plummeting over the side of the hill. It was decided that the only possible way to continue was by removing shoes and socks and wading the stream, at the top of the large waterfall. I wasn't entirely convinced that this was a good idea, but in the end it turned out to be significantly more straughtforward than we had feared.

From here we soon found a trail again; right at the point where it bridged the stream we had just waded, in fact. We continued uphill and came out onto a crest; the peak we were aiming for was visible across a cultivated section of land. Raymond assessed the final hill, now that it was more clearly visible, and decided that it looked pretty tough and that we'd head back instead as we were already late for lunch. Fair enough. Raymond's shortcuts were rejected this time in favour of the longer, but faster moving route along existing tracks which snaked around the hills and back down to the hospital.

As we headed down, Raymond was telling me about how all the previous four times he'd walked here he'd ended up soaked by rain, and how lucky we had been with the weather. Predictably, moments later a huge grey wall of water could be seen moving quickly towards us along the side of the hills, and within minutes we were soaked to the skin. We made our way as quickly as we could towards the bottom, and shelter, but the trails had turned slick in the wet and little streams of water built up remarkably quickly along the paths we were taking. We ended up taking cover under an abandoned trailer; we were already soaked through, but wanted to try and protect the phones and cameras before they were ruined beyond repair!

The rain ended as quickly as it had started, and we squelched back to the car. After a short stop at the market to buy Sophia a simple skirt (she had no dry clothes at the hotel) we made the hour's drive back to the Azam Residence to change into dry outfits before going for our lunch appointment; we arrived here, finally, at 4pm. Dinner was at Dr Mbu's home, with his wife and baby daughter; Raymond, his wife and baby son also joined us. We were served traditional Bamenda fare, the details of which now escape me, but shrimp and fish were involved; Sophia questioned how shrimp had become involved in the traditional dish when we were so far from the sea, and we were informed that they were apparently caught, dried, and transported inland.

Most of the entertainment during the evening was provided by the two babies, one of who could just walk, and the other of whom was getting close. Their interaction was fun to watch! Dr Mbu quizzed us about television preachers, and was astonished to find that we had not heard of any of the ones he named. We were given a quick rundown of the major televised preachers to bring us up to speed, before Raymond gave us a lift halfway back to the hotel. The remainder of the journey was carried out on motor-taxi; apparently the old drivers are the one to choose, as they have survived a long time and must therefore be safe.




Sunday September 22nd - Bamenda, Cameroon to Garoua, Cameroon

Raymond collected us after breakfast and we headed out to the airport. The lady from finance was there to collect our additional day's landing fee. No-one was there to process a flight plan, but the lady said that was no problem; we could leave it with her, and she'd give it to the right person the following day. I couldn't help but feel that this rather defeated much of the point of filing the flight plan to begin with. When I headed out to join Sophia on the apron, I found that the morning's activity at the military base had evidently reached a lull and most of the recruits were now gathered around the aircraft, quizzing Sophia all about it as she tried to get herself ready for departure.

The recruits were all very friendly, although for some reason convinced that we must have whisky with us that we could give them. In the end, they were satisfied with a tube of Pringles; I'm not sure how far it was going to go between 30 people. They told us that most of them were there temporarily to ensure that things remained peaceful during the impending elections. Numerous photos were taken of them posing with us and the aircraft, and after accepting that we could unfortunately not take them all for a flight, they backed off as we started up and waved goodbye as we taxied out for departure. As we took off I made sure to do a low fly-by over the apron to wave goodbye!

Due to a lack of fuel at Bamenda, we first headed back to the South for Douala. There was a lot of cloud around, and Douala was reporting thunderstorms; however, there was no activity at all on the stormscope so we pressed on and found that there was no evidence at all of any storm around the airport. This time we were directed to park as far away from the terminal as it was possible to park, at the end of the freight apron, and Sophia and I set off to transit Douala airport in record time. Having already done it twice, we at least knew exactly where to go!

By now the people in the tower recognised me, and everything went smoothly. The only hang-up was the fuel; we had to wait for a Kenya airways flight to be refueled, and then managed to intercept the fuelers who were off to fetch the AVGAS truck and let them know that we would in fact be needing jet fuel. We refueled from a large, camoflage painted military fuel bowser, and as soon as this was completed we started up and set off north to Garoua. This would be an essential fuel stop, as well as a place to clear immigration, before moving on to Chad; neither of the airports we'd visit as we travelled across Chad had fuel available.

The flight to Garoua seemed long, but only because we'd become used to short hops around Nigeria and Cameroon. Thunderstorms were visible on the stormscope as we went, but as forecast everything moved away to the west or dissipated before we reached it. We flew at 9,500ft, and it felt like we just squeaked over the final, 8,000ft mountain range before Garoua despite having a good 1,500ft of clearance between us and the peaks. As we descended into Garoua we passed over a large river, swollen and filled with sediment by recent rains. This, it turned out, was one of the upper rivers feeding the river Niger; it flowed north, then west, and finally south again to meet the sea in the Niger Delta where we'd been a few days before.

Garoua, a mid-size airport, was almost deserted when we arrived. The only other aircraft around was a South African registered Cessna Caravan set up for aerial survey. We were marshaled into a parking spot behind it where it was possible to tie the aircraft down, in case of strong winds; this was a rare option in the places we'd visited to date, and provided a certain amount of peace of mind. We were met at the aircraft by a pair of military officers who enquired as to our business, but seemed entirely unconcerned by our arrival. On hearing that we needed a place to stay, the Commandant volunteered his services to take us to a hotel, and we set off into town ending up at the "Dreamland"; basic, but very cheap at $25/night and equipped with air conditioning and wifi!



Phase Six - The Deserts

Click here to access the sixth part of the trip report; the deserts of the north-east.


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