Before I continue with the second and final part of this story, I'd like to explain something here. My mum had been diagnosed with cancer and my dad had just passed away on 11 September 2000 (a year before 9/11) so I felt I should go back to South Africa to be near her.
As I was actually leaving West Africa, I had all my belongings in two large suitcases, a medium-sized cardboard box and a vanity case. I've said this before and I reiterate: my husband is not a good traveller notwithstanding the fact that he has travelled thousands of kilometers/miles across the African continent over the past nine years. The only thing that sustains him on all his trips, is that he only has carry-on luggage. Well, as they say: women are from Mars and men are from... (whatever, women and men are DIFFERENT) and I had check-in luggage and quite a lot of it.
Back to the dilemma of arriving at Bamako airport for the second time that day to find that the plane we were to board was not air-worthy and no solution to our problem. We sat on my luggage at the side of the runway and waited. What for, we knew not! Back in 2001 cell/mobile phones were not order of the day and even if we'd had access to one, who would we phone? The company's personnel officer back in Johannesburg, who arranged all our travel details to and from site and from West Africa back home, also had no contact person in Bamako since the Head Office there had replaced him. Technically my husband, Grant and I were in "no-man's land" and would have to work this out for ourselves.
After waiting in the hot African sun for three and a half hours, Grant spotted a landcruiser towing an old aircraft onto the apron . It had been parked alongside several derelict helicopters and light planes in what we expats referred to as the aeroplane graveyard! These rusted and ageing old craft were a left-over from the middle of last century when Russian colonisation was a strong influence in Mali. After the landcruiser's driver had unhitched his vehicle and driven off. two men approached the plane and climbed inside. We'd been so enthralled watching this whole pantomime that we almost jumped out of our skins when a grey-haired gentleman appeared next to us. It was as if he'd materialised from thin air. (I wondered later if he was an angel... Mmm?) He informed us in very good English that we would be flying to Abidjan in the plane standing on the apron. My husband's face was a picture.
Neverthless, we picked up my luggage and walked across the airstrip to the plane. We left my luggage on the ground at the foot of the stairs and climbed up ourselves. As Grant stuck his head into the plane, he muttered that we'd be taking our lives in our hands flying all the way across West Africa to the Ivory Coast in this "rattle-trap". (I smiled to myself. Grant has has a keen interest in, and knowledge of, old planes. He'd told me, while we watched from across the airstrip, that it was a 1950's Russian Lette)
I gently nudged him inside and suggested he asked the pilots (or whoever the two men were who were "fixing" something in the cockpit) if this plane was bound for Abidjan. Then we got our next shock! (How much can the human heart stand? LOL!) Neither of these men spoke English. As far as we could ascertain the one man spoke Chinese and the other sounded like he was of Russian descent.
Using handsigns and gesticulations they indicated that we should go and take our seats and the expression "Cote d'Iviore" came up in the converstion. It seemed as though we were the only two passengers so we each took a window seat on either side of the aisle.One of the pilots descended the stairs, loaded our luggage into hold and re-entered the plane. He walked to the cockpit and strapped himself in beside the other pilot who was already strapped in.
I was just wondering who would close the aircraft door, when a third passenger, a tall African man entered the plane. He turned around, pulled the door closed and locked it. After greeting us in French, he walked to the front of the plane. He chatted briefly to the pilots in the cockpit who had started the plane then he sat down in the first row.
With the aircraft engines screaming in protest at having to lift this old steel carcass, and after a bone-jarring, rattling ascent, we were finally airborne. The pilot banked the plane to the left giving us our last glance of Bamako. This sprawling African city, the capital of Mali, looked soft and inviting in the late afternoon sun.
It was 17h30; our trip to the Ivory Coast normally lasted two-and-a-half hours. Our South African Airways connection in Abidjan was due to take off at 20h15. It was the only flight out to South Africa for the week. If we missed it, we'd spend the first week of our holiday/break in Abidjan.
I walked to the front of the plane and in halting French ask the other passenger if he knew of any way to notify the deck crew of our SAA flight that we were on the way. He nodded, smiled and produced an Irridium Satelite telephone from his pocket. As he dialled the Abidjan airport to relay my message, I knew we could relax. We would make our connection that night.
After the plane touched down in Abidjan and came to a stop, the other passenger, who was obviously an airport official, took us under his wing. As the pilots unloaded our luggage, he called a porter and together, the [four] of us made a somewhat undignified dash across the airstrip to where our homebound plane was waiting.
As we entered the brightly-lit cabin and the flight attendants welcomed us in English, we breathed a sigh of relief. Finally we were on the last leg of our journey.
The next morning at 05h30 we touched down on South African soil in Johannesburg. Seeing the popular Nando's advertising on a building in progress, (see photo below) I realised we were home!
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