Tour d'Afrique (chapter 3)
The river had now become a raging torrent as the sides of the gorge closed in on me. A wall of rock faced me round the next bend and I thought ‘Oh my God! This is it – what a stupid way to go!’ I banked sharply round to the right trying to out-turn the bend in the river, expecting any second to go crashing into the sheer sides of the ravine in a gigantic fireball.
The aircraft started juddering and approaching the point of stall as I heaved back on the control column in an attempt to pull her round the bend. I only just made it only to be faced immediately with yet another sharp bend to the left this time. ‘How much longer before it’s all over’ I thought. Then as I scraped around the bend; miracle of miracles – right in front of me was a steep ‘V’ of sky – suddenly we were out of the high ground with the terrain shelving steeply away beneath us. What an enormous relief! Now I had height to spare as the mountains rapidly receded behind us and gave way to the lower ground leading to the coastal plain. Thank you God!…
I headed due west towards the Atlantic coast with the avowed intention of landing on the nearest beach. Still no signs of habitation anywhere but I wasn’t caring too much at that stage. My prayers had been answered and we were now out of those dreadful mountains with about 3,000 feet of height to spare.
Dimly through the heat haze ahead I saw a line of purple where the horizon should be and I realised at last we were approaching the South Atlantic Ocean. Then off to my right a little, in my one o’clock position, I caught something glittering in the sunlight. More flashes of light followed and it dawned on me that it was the sun reflecting off glass – that meant habitation! As we drew closer, through the heat haze a rather large town came into sight and I thought how lucky I was to be able to do a forced landing near human beings, as a forced landing it would certainly be as by now my altitude was getting very low indeed.
Then I saw it – I could hardly believe my eyes – there up in front of me was a long concrete runway approaching at right-angles! I had just about enough height to join a right base leg and a quick turn onto finals. Then flaring as I crossed the threshold of the runway, I chopped the power immediately and landed on the main wheels seconds afterwards. As the airspeed decayed and the tail started to drop I couldn’t help but notice lots of earth-moving vehicles around the place and wondered how such a long airstrip had no buildings around it? Slowing right down and turning off into a concrete parking area at one side of the runway I braked gently, fetching the aircraft to a halt, and shut the engines down. I sank back into my seat in a pool of sweat, thanking whoever it was up there for saving all our skins…
As we climbed out of the Rapide, lots of ramshackle cars and old trucks drove up to us with the occupants spilling out of them as they came to a stop, jabbering twenty-to-the-dozen in Portuguese. Not understanding one single word they were saying we tried communicating in English but to no avail. Just then a battered jeep came screeching to a halt alongside us and out jumped a man whom I presumed to be the one in charge. In a very officious broken-English accent he demanded to know why we had landed here? We somehow made him understand our predicament whereupon his face lit-up and with a big toothy smile came and then shook us all vigorously by the hand saying words to the effect of “Welcome to our new airport of Benguela – we only finished the runway yesterday and you are the first plane to land on it”! How lucky could we be? What incredible good fortune had ensured our safe arrival after such an ordeal. Benguela is apparently now a thriving airport taking jets I hear – and we were the first ones to land there and inaugurate it! Thank you once again up there!
Ron quickly had the starboard engine cowling off and soon discovered the problem with the same troublesome magnetos. Apparently the cam shafts had ridged with wear and this in turn had worn out the ebonite part of the contact breakers causing the spark gaps to close. From now on we vowed to readjust the spark gaps at every landing. That was the third engine failure since leaving England, which almost led to disaster. We certainly didn’t relish having any more. Ron was very mechanically minded and with the aid of a piece of matchbox to gauge the correct gap, soon had the problem solved. A quick engine run to confirm it then we all piled on board, said our goodbyes to the crowd of workers still milling around the aircraft jabbering away excitedly in rapid quick-firing Portuguese, and made tracks for our original destination Luanda.
From Benguela to Luanda was just over another two hours flying time. The straight line track would have taken us out over the Atlantic Ocean most of the way; still following the general direction of the coast but well out over the water. I decided to play safe and follow the coastline instead, which would only have involved a few minutes extra flying – we’d had just about enough excitement for one day!
Finally we landed at the Capital’s Luanda International Airport and were soon embroiled in officialdom. The Portuguese can be rather tiresome when they want to be. There were lots of paperwork to attend to before all our arrival formalities were concluded, but with a few palm-greasing Escudos to help lubricate the process, it eased the situation somewhat. I left Ron to take care of most of this whilst I attended to the refuelling as usual. Anne and the girls had their task to perform as well, as indeed they had done throughout the entire trip from the UK – not a very enviable one either! That was to remove the Elsan toilet bucket and deposit its contents at the most convenient point, mostly when they thought nobody was looking! Then they would flush it out and recharge the toilet bucket with fresh disinfectant before reinstalling it back into its rightful place at the rear of the aircraft.
As we’d had enough epics for the day it was decided to call a halt and nightstop. I was not very impressed with Luanda and couldn’t wait to get away from the place. In fact, I cannot recall anything of that night there at all, just vague memories of wandering around the dingy place that evening.
February 5th 1964… More paraphernalia and officialdom preceded our departure and we were well shot of the place by the time we took-off. Our next point of call was a place called Cabinda; a small enclave of Angola but separated by the former Belgian Congo, and a few miles north of where the mighty Congo River exits into the sea. From now on it would be coast-crawling for the whole of the way around Africa which will make navigation a whole lot simpler at least.
The flight was uneventful for the first part. We crossed the wide mouth of the swirling muddy waters of the Congo as it swept out into the South Atlantic, and then flew directly on, following the coastline to Cabinda.
The weather was excellent and the airstrip, which was parallel to the coastline, looked as if it would be a relatively simple one to land on. By this time, feeling rather sorry for Ron not being able to doing any of the flying, I weakened and suggested to Anne that maybe it wouldn’t do any harm to allow him to do just one landing with them on board. She was a bit reluctant but trusting my judgement finally agreed as I’d already convinced her that the next landing would be very easy. It was a straight-in approach in light-wind conditions, which under normal circumstances should not have presented any problems. Unfortunately he flared a bit too high and then bounced the aircraft all the way down the runway, corkscrewing from side to side in an effort to keep straight, finally screeching to a halt. I was powerless to assist him as the Rapide has only one pilot’s seat. I decided to take over at that point thinking that maybe we’d better leave the practice landings until we had all arrived safely back in England!
We cleared the usual formalities at Cabinda, including Customs and Immigration as we were now about to depart from Portuguese territory, and soon we were airborne again enroute to Libreville. So far so good; our unexpected arrivals with no prior clearances hadn’t so far seemed to bother anyone. Possibly Ron’s excellent stock of generously endorsed ‘Gen Decs’ seemed to satisfy them!
Still following the coast along we passed places like Port Gentil on the way. Just before Libreville we passed over the equator. I could see from the map on my knee the exact point on the coastline where we crossed it and relayed the information back to the girls, but they didn’t appear to be very impressed. A few hundred miles off to our left, way out over the Atlantic Ocean, lay the zero-zero mark where the Greenwich Meridian and the Equator intersect. We were once again entering into the Northern Hemisphere.
We were refused permission to land at the main airport of Libreville due to it being under the control of the United States Airforce at the time it appears, and were directed to a smaller field near the coast. This didn’t bother us unduly because the further we stayed away from officialdom the better we liked it! We were made most welcome on arrival by everyone and formalities were kept to a minimum. It seemed that our policy of flannelling our way in and out of these various countries seemed to be working. We adopted a cheerful attitude with the officials to divert attention away from any awkward questions, making sure that Anne and the girls were conspicuous all the time as decoys to keep their interests alive. So far everything was working according to plan. I wondered secretly just how much longer our luck would hold out?
With plenty of free time to spare, as we had already decided to night-stop there, we accepted a kind invitation by some German pilots we met, who were taking an great interest in our ancient ‘string bomber’ biplane the likes of which they had never seen before, to have a drink at the outside bar on the field before proceeding to the hotel.
Ron wasn’t too keen on their company and made it quite apparent that he didn’t care very much for German pilots, having no doubt met a few in combat during the war whilst serving in the RAF. Most of them had been in the German Luftwaffe as fighter pilots it seemed. Now they were all flying Piper Tripacers on crop-spraying operations, but having finished for the day they decided on a beer or two before going home. I was all too ready to join them to quench my thirst, and was delighted to see British beer available on draught to which I most readily partook of a couple of pints at their insistence. Ron stayed silent whilst I drank their health and listened avidly to all their shop talk.
Being ex-Luftwaffe pilots from the recent war, one that I was unfortunately to young to participate in at the time, albeit on the receiving end of their attacks on London, but no hard feelings now, I was very interested to hear their version of those past events. Ron kept making snide remarks about them but they either didn’t seem to notice or chose to ignore him. Then one of them in particular told me a most fascinating tale. First of all he asked me where about in England we had flown from, and when I told him he said “Jah! Jah! I know zee Biggin Hill – I vos shot down near there and spent zee rest of zee var as a prisoner”… I was all ears! He then gave me an astonishing account of what happened.
He had been an Me 109 fighter pilot escorting the German Bombers during their attacks against our main fighter base of Biggin Hill – the leading fighter airfield employed in the defence of London. On arrival over the target, whilst the German bombers were letting loose their destructive bombloads on the unfortunates below, they were suddenly pounced upon by a flight of Spitfires and were instantly involved in a fierce dogfight. He then went on to explain to me that coming all the way from their home base in Abbeville in Northern France, their limited fuel endurance gave them barely fifteen minutes of combat time before they were forced to break-off the engagement and head for home to avoid running out of fuel. This was mistakenly (or intentionally to boost our civil morale) interpreted as cowardice by the British media at the time, but I can well believe their predicament with the severely limited fuel load they had. I have met many ex-Luftwaffe pilots during the course of my flying career and never once have I ever doubted their great courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and would rank them at par with the finest of fighter pilots on our side of the Channel.
During the fierce engagement with the Spitfires he soon ran out of ammunition, and getting low on fuel, he broke off the engagement and dived for safety and home, or so he had hoped! Suddenly two Spitfires were on his tail firing madly and chewing bits and pieces of his plane away from under him. The instrument panel exploded in front of his face and the glass canopy disintegrated above him as he dived for the ground with the throttle hard against the stop, crouching low in his seat. Bits of his wings started disappearing as their bullets relentlessly tore into his doomed fighter. By now he was far too low to try and bale out so he attempted to crash-land his battered and crippled fighter into a corn field instead. But he was going much too fast and as he hit the ground he bounced off again, skimming over a line of trees bordering the field. His stricken fighter, which by this time of course was just a heap of bent metal completely out of control, miraculously went careering between two larger trees as it contacted the ground again, ripping both wings off in the process!
His aircraft, or what was left of it by now, being just a bullet-ridden fuselage with a stationary bent prop and tailplane, continued hurtling along the ground, ploughing a furrow through the cornfield, until it finally came to a smoking stop in the middle of the following field. Fearing being roasted alive in case it caught fire, he unbuckled himself rapidly and leapt out, fortunately for him completely unscathed, and began walking across towards a farmhouse some distance away. Half-way there he was met by a group of pitchfork-wielding farm workers who, having witnessed the whole event, came rushing towards him, goading him with hands on his head, in the direction of the farmhouse, relieving him of his pistol in the process. Meanwhile, the two Spitfires were performing ‘victory rolls’ overhead the scene.
He held me enthralled and wide-eyed relating this story to me but then said in an excited high-pitched voice, “do you know what they did when they got me to the farmhouse”?. As an immediate reaction without dwelling too much on what came out I retorted “made you a cup of tea”? “Jah! Jah! he said. “Deh actually made me a cup of tea”! he said incredulously. He could not fathom out even then as he recounted the tale to me some 25 years after the event, the intricacies of the peculiar British mind!
This event took place near a quaint old village called Brastead, not very far from Churchill’s home at Chartwell in Kent. One day, about twenty years on from meeting this German pilot, I happened to be staying at the White Heart hotel at Brastead. This very pub featured prominently during the ‘Battle of Britain’ and many a famous ace left his signature on a blackboard there which has been preserved. Whilst I was having a quiet drink at the bar awaiting my evening meal to arrive, I recounted this story to the friendly barman behind the counter. An old chap sitting nearby overheard my conversation and chipped in to say that he remembered the incident well. He was one of the farm workers at the scene who ‘pitch-forked’ the German pilot into the farmhouse. He confirmed everything I said to be absolutely true. What a truly small world this is!
The bungalow-style at Libreville was situated right next to the beach and it didn’t take long for Linda and I to get changed and head for the water. We stayed splashing around in the light surf until well after sunset. When we told the hotel staff that we had been swimming in the sea they were horrified! It appears that there were plenty of sharks along this part of the coast and nobody dared go swimming there – I guess we were just lucky!
February 6th 1964… The next planned landing place was to be Port Harcourt in Nigeria. Departing from Libreville didn’t present too many problems and soon we were well on our way, coast-following for a while, passing another small enclave called Rio Mundi. Cutting the corner across the sea, I began to turn left towards the enormous bulge of the African coast we were to follow for the next few days.
The forward visibility was beginning to reduce considerably as we flew into the Harmattan haze that blows dust in from the Sahara Desert at that time of the year. I had been forewarned about this and therefore it was not unexpected. It bothered me a bit though because I knew that somewhere up ahead lay the enormous massive of Mount Cameroon; an active volcano and at 13,352 feet was the highest peak in West Africa. I had no desire to wander into it in such hazy conditions, as many aircraft in the past had done!
The forward visibility was by now reduced to barely a mile, which is not much when flying at almost two miles a minute, so I kept the map on my knee and followed every pinpoint as accurately as I could; a difficult task in those conditions. I was obliged to fly the Rapide partially on instruments due to no horizon, whilst studying the map at the same time.
After cutting the corner as the coast swung westwards, I caught sight of the lower slopes of the great mountain rising ominously up into the gloom. I felt greatly relieved when we had passed it by and left it behind us. The coastline was rather ragged from there on with numerous inlets and river mouths. It was imperative that I followed the correct river course up to our destination. Again I’d been pre-warned of the difficulty of finding Port Harcourt even in good weather, let alone in this confounded dust haze.
Ron was sitting on the front right seat behind me helping me with the map-reading and we were pretty sure of our position, so when the correct-looking river mouth came into view out of the murk we turned and followed it. Luckily our joint navigation was so far correct and before long we found the airport and were given permission by the control tower to land.
We were now in Nigeria; so far so good thought I, but not for long! Two very large fat grim-looking Customs and Immigration officials came strolling towards us. They immediately demanded to inspect the aircraft, its contents, and all our luggage and documents. In the meantime the children, who were getting a bit bored with all this paraphernalia, decided to squat under the shade of the wing. Linda had taken her guitar out and was happily strumming away at the Beatles latest song – the Beatles being all the rage at the time.
One of the big fat officials then turned to me and started asking some rather awkward questions like “where have you come from” and “where did you start your journey and who gave you permission to land here…etc, etc”! I tried waffling around, avoiding giving direct answers and pretending to be as jovial and helpful as possible without telling them too much. I was desperately trying to avoid disclosing that our departure point was South Africa as it would almost certainly have spelt dire trouble for us. Then one cut-in and demanded “have you had this aircraft sprayed”? Meaning of course being sprayed with disinfectant prior to our last departure which we hadn’t of course. So rather stupidly, saying the first thing that came into my mind and try and humour him I joked “why should I – I rather like the colour it is”, realising the moment I spoke that it was the wrong thing to say? He didn’t find my remark very amusing and glowered at me in a threatening way, and was just about to make some awful remark I’m sure, landing us in deep trouble I have no doubt, when a complete miracle happened!
Linda’s guitar, which was her prized possession, and for which I had good reason to cuss on more than one occasion when it got in my way in the aircraft’s aisle, had apparently dried out completely during the journey, particularly back in Windhoek where the humidity was only about five per cent. She had been gaily strumming away and humming a tune, whilst the two large fat Africans continued grilling us, when suddenly the guitar strings parted with a loud ‘twang’, flying in all directions, leaving the remains of the guitar in two pieces as the head broke off also.
The two Africans saw what happened and after a moment’s stunned silence, they suddenly broke into howls of laughter, whilst poor Linda sat aghast in shocked stupor surveying the remains of her beloved guitar! We joined in the hilarity and before long they were rolling over in mirth with tears streaming down their faces. I howled with laughter myself with Ron accompanying, initially in make-believe laughter, but rapidly becoming infected ourselves with the way our two fat African officials were bent double and helpless - they were laughing at Linda whilst we were laughing at them.
That broke the ice completely and within minutes, without any further ado, the formalities were concluded. They ambled away still chortling with delight. Linda meanwhile sat there expressionless, still looking in silent dismay at the mass of twisted strings still attached to the broken head of the guitar. Well, I did feel sorry for her but I must admit, it certainly saved the day for us.
After getting our passports stamped and handing over yet more of our precious but dwindling supply of Gen.Decs, and having now refuelled also and of course, paid all due fees, filed flight plans, etc, etc, we once more took to the skies for our final leg of the day, Lagos. There I had hoped to meet up with my good friend John Christlieb, whom I taught to fly a couple of years previously. John was a very successful import / export agent in Lagos.
The flight was estimated to take almost three hours and by the time I had levelled-off in the cruise I was beginning to feel a bit drowsy. Although I had vowed not to let Ron land the Rapide again whilst the rest of the family were aboard, I did in fact let him fly it in the cruise occasionally. Having only one pilot’s seat up front, situated in the middle, changing places in midair was something of an art. It was necessary to trim the aircraft out correctly, and once it had settled down, quickly slide backwards out of the seat whilst the next pilot, who was poised ready, quickly squeezed past and slipped into the pilot’s seat. There is no autopilot on a Rapide of course so this can only be effected in smooth flying conditions.
When Ron had settled himself into the seat and buckled the safety harness on, I leant forward and told him to continue flying the course I had set on the compass in front of him. He seemed to be coping with it okay so after a while I sat back in the front right passenger seat and relaxed. Without intending to I must have dozed off to sleep.
After a while I woke up again and glanced out of the window. All I could see was jungle on either side, whereas the course I had given Ron to steer should have put us slowly converging onto the coastline again. I shot forward into the cockpit and looked straight at the compass. He was flying at ninety degrees to the course I had told him to steer! When I asked him why he was doing this he said quite nonchalantly “Oh that’s right – it should be red-on-red shouldn’t it” as if nothing untoward had happened? How on earth he managed to make such a gross error I’ll never know, but there we were merrily ploughing on towards the middle of Africa when we should have been converging on the coast! I quickly changed seats with him and glancing at my watch estimated that we had been flying the wrong course for about fifteen minutes. So from my assumed position I turned south-west to head for where I hoped the coast would be. It seemed ages before it came into view at last. Before long I managed to once again pick up my bearings and set course for Lagos. God only knows what would have happened if I had dozed for much longer!
Lagos was not difficult to find and we were soon landing at the International Ikeja Airport. Before long, having finished all our airport business, we were on our way to the Ikeja Arms Hotel for a long, well-deserved rest.
I had previously written to John Christlieb from Cape Town advising him that I was on my way to his neck of the woods, but I hadn’t received a reply before departing, so I really didn’t know what to expect. One of my first tasks therefore was to ring John’s penthouse flat in Lagos. Unfortunately John was in London on business, but having received my letter had asked his number one to meet and entertain us accordingly. He duly arrived and introduced himself, and then took us to his club where we joined him for a beer or two at an outside bar whilst Anne and the children amused themselves elsewhere. Later on we returned to our hotel where he stood us dinner and then bade us goodbye before departing home.
As we were in no great hurry to return to the English winter, and anyway, being well on schedule, we decided to spend two nights at the hotel so we could relax for a full day. Lagos being approximately the half-way point, a short break before tackling the last part of our lengthy journey home seemed like a good idea.
Most of the time we spent relaxing by the hotel pool where we were fascinated by the large coloured lizards flitting around the place – some about a foot long. The girls picked up a few souvenirs near the hotel, then we took a ride into the crowded streets of Lagos, We were unimpressed with the place and were glad to get back to the hotel.
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