We fled Dar es Salaam on Saturday morning. Not that we were pursued by anyone, nor that we travelled particularly fast to the airport, but we were glad to escape the heat of Dar, and we did fly.
Two identical Precision Air planes were boarding at the same time and heading north – one for Kilimanjaro and Nairobi in Kenya, the other for Mwanza and Bukoba in Tanzania. It was rather like a sheep dog trial. All the passengers were herded through the same boarding gate and onto the tarmac where they were separated skilfully into two groups. One half flocked toward a waiting plane while the other clambered into a bus heading further across the apron. As usual there was much jockeying for position in the front ranks and a general rush for the stairs into the plane but, as usual, the plane didn’t take off until everyone was aboard and seated, and in the case of some over-enthusiastic sheep, relocated because they had occupied the place allotted to other passengers.
En route we flew over the dramatic landscape of the Great Rift Valley running roughly north-south through most of East Africa and over the south-eastern edge of Lake Victoria to land in Mwanza. So far so good.
We had a two-hour lay over in the blazing sunshine very close to the equator and Sophia seized the opportunity to visit the control tower and naturally I said, “Me too!” Sophia will complete her Obstetrics and Gynaecology specialist training in UK in 2013 after which she will take time out to fly a small Cessna from Cape Town to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to raise awareness and funds for issues affecting motherhood, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa (see link http://www.flightforeverymother.com). Here was a chance not to be missed. She plans to land here in Mwanza so wants to check out the local conditions. The view of the single runway is good but the equipment is rather old and a new tower will soon be built on a small hilltop nearby. We watched and heard them monitoring an incoming flight and saw the weather reports of surrounding airfields. The news of Bukoba was not good. Heavy rains had been falling and the airfield would be closed to commercial airliners for over 3 hours until it had time to dry out. It is a dirt runway there. Our flight would be cancelled.
Fortunately for us foreign visitors, five doctors were flying that afternoon from Mwanza to Bukoba to join our course and they graciously gave up their places for us on a 12 seater single prop plane which was light enough to land after rain when the heavier twin-engine jets could not go. They would stay the night in Mwanza (home for two of them) and join us the following day.
We recovered our baggage from the sorting house after it was unloaded from the grounded jet, had it loaded onto a trolley in the customs house and then found ourselves surrounded by porters who seemed ready for a confrontation as we had taken their work. Yes, they are our bags. Yes, we do have the receipts for them. No, we aren’t going to pay you for the work we did. No, there are no jobs in the UK even if we did help you to get there. Yes, you can have a tip to go away – as John bought them over for 500 shillings, the price of peace. [2,500 shillings to £1 sterling – work it out for yourself]
The Auric Air plane took off late afternoon with 11 passengers including our party of 4 doctors and a midwife. We flew for 45 minutes relatively low over the lake – dotted with islands of various sizes, mostly cultivated and settled – before landing on one large island which is a wild-life preserve. We overflew the runway to ensure it was safe to land and then approached over the shallows where large crocodiles could be seen lying on the shore, over the treetops and onto the dirt runway where a couple of open Landrovers awaited four of our passengers. Hippo tracks could be seen mixed with the tracks of airplane tyres though I guess the animals walk this way by night as they spend the heat of the day under water, so are unlikely to obstruct the path of the plane.
We were soon airborne again and in the fading light we enjoyed the sunset as we came in to land at Bukoba on the western shore. The transfer by taxi to our accommodation in the Catholic Hotel which appears to be a retreat house or conference centre took all of 2 minutes. The setting on the lakeside is beautifully peaceful and the tensions of the day melted away. The climate is temperate compared with Dar, the hotel beds have nets and the mosquitos don’t seem to like DEET, thankfully.
So the flight is over and we can relax for now. Sunday is preparation day when we hope our colleagues will join us and the equipment arrives safely overland.