Tour d'Afrique (chapter 3)
February 8th 1964… After our welcome half-way break, we were once more raring to continue our long journey homewards. Soon we were back at Ikeja airport going through all the various departure procedures, and by 10.30am we were airborne again, on our way to Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. Air Traffic staff at Lagos informed us that we supposed to have clearance to fly over neighbouring Ghanaian territory and also the other countries en-route like Dahomey and Toga. To avoid any problems we flew low down, well off the coast, until we were well clear of Ghana airspace at least.
After passing a promontory called Tokoradi, where there was an airforce base close by, I converged onto the coast again once I was sure we were well past any problems. Still flying rather low, I crossed back from the sea over to the land and commenced following a stretch of brackish-looking water running inland, but parallel to the beach. It was then that I saw the white wake of a speedboat careering along in the same direction as ourselves. I thought I’d have a bit of fun to break the monotony and came down right behind him just above the water. On zooming overhead I pulled up to the left and looked behind me to see the speedboat’s white wake now snaking left and right all over the place. We all roared with laughter and carried on our way.
Some years after this event – now flying commercially, I happened to be staying in the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong and struck up a conversation with a fellow drinker at the hotel’s ‘Bamboo Bar’. Hearing that I was an airline pilot the subject inevitably got around to flying. He then related a rather extraordinary experience he had whilst doing his rounds as a District Officer in Africa. He said that one day he was driving his patrol boat fast along an inland stretch of water, going from one village to another, when above the roar of his own outboard motor, he heard the sound of engines approaching fast from behind him. He glanced quickly back just in time to see a Dunlop tread coming straight at him, attached to ‘the oldest god-damned looking biplane you’ve ever seen’! It transpired of course that it was me but I didn’t let on. What a coincidence! This world of ours gets smaller by the day it seems!
We had previously been told that the way to find Abidjan airport was to look out for a wrecked cargo vessel that was beached pointing straight at the runway situated at right-angles to the coastline. It appears that the ship had seen the airport approach lights one night, and mistaking them for the harbour entrance lights, had headed for them straight onto the beach. Sure enough, we saw the wrecked vessel clearly ahead. On contacting the airport’s control tower we were then given permission to land, approaching from the sea right overhead the wreck. And so we arrived at Abidjan, almost five hours after take-off from Lagos – our longest flight yet.
The hotel we stayed at wasn’t too inspiring but we soon found the local swimming pool and enjoyed a couple of hours cooling off. Being a former French colony, everyone spoke French with just a splattering of English, but we somehow managed to communicate with them without too much of a problem.
February 9th 1964… Leaving Abidjan at 8.30am, we set course for our next port of call, Monrovia in Liberia, which turned out to be a comparatively straightforward but very long flight, heading inland for a while to cut off a largish bulge on the coast. After a quick refuelling; Customs and Immigration clearance, lots more Gen.Decs (which we were running rather short of now) and before they could ask too many embarrassing questions, we were taking to the skies once again, this time heading for our next intended nightstop in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
The airport lay across the bay from Freetown itself, at a place called Hastings. Being a former British colony it was no doubt named after our own Hastings in Sussex where the famous battle of 1066 took place. We spent the night at a Government Rest House, which was a bit run-down but adequate for our needs. Linda and I had a short swim in the tiny pool nearby but as the water didn’t look too clean we soon abandoned it and went back early for our evening meal. That was the last swim of our entire trip!
February 10th 1964… We took off early and set course along the coast for Bathurst in The Gambia. Because of any possible problems we may encounter passing-by Communist controlled Conakry in Guinea, we flew well out to sea at a low altitude in case they had radar. We didn’t approach land again until we had rounded the corner of the vast African bulge. Then we headed North towards our destination, spending only a short time in Bathurst, another ex-British colony, before setting course once more for our next nightstop, St Louis in Senegal. To save time I cut off the Westernmost tip of the African coast at Dakar – a place I would not see again until a few years later when flying a large transport aircraft en-route to South America. I headed many miles inland, regaining the coast again before reaching our final destination for the day.
St Louis was situated on an island at the mouth of the Senegal River, and of course as the name would imply, was a former French colony. We noticed that the temperature still remained pleasantly warm but nevertheless a shade or two cooler than previously experienced since leaving Cape Town. We were still in the tropics however but this slight drop in temperature gave us our first hint that we were now heading gradually into the northern winter. The nightstop at St Louis was not memorable and the next day I was not too unhappy at leaving the place as it had little to recommend it.
February11th 1964… Our next port of call was Port Etienne in Mauritania, yet another ex-French colony. By now we were flying almost due north, still following the coastline. The land was now fast losing its greenery and giving way to scrubby type of desert instead. Port Etienne was formed by a long spit of land enclosing a natural harbour, with the airstrip nearby, where we landed three and a half hours after leaving St Louis. As expected, the French Customs and Immigration weren’t all that interested in us, or where we came from, and we acquired the feeling that most of our problems with officialdom were now behind us. Just as well because our supply of Gen.Decs were almost exhausted by now. This was long before photocopying was available so no chance of copying any. Soon we were on our way, heading in a north-easterly direction to a place called Villa Cisneros in what was then Spanish Sahara.
By the time we reached Villa Cisneros, the surface wind from the Sahara Desert was blowing large amounts of sand-dust into the air, reducing my forward visibility considerably. This was not good because it was a sand strip according to the information I had gleaned from our last port of call, and with little to distinguish it from the surrounding landscape. Ron was sitting behind me searching through the gloom with me when suddenly I caught sight of some white markers. It was the strip alright but I was too high and too fast to try and attempt a landing. I did a steep turn to my left to try and keep it in sight but by the time I’d completed a one-eighty I had lost it. Timing a downwind leg and again onto finals I saw it once more but too far off to one side to effect a safe landing so once again I went around. On the third attempt I just glimpsed the white-painted stone boundary markers at the last minute and with a quick turn to line up and then straighten up again, flaps selected fully down, I chopped the power as we crossed the threshold and dropped her positively onto the rather rough surface. Applying the brakes firmly, not knowing what lay ahead in the gloom, I slowed the Rapide up almost to a standstill and then back-tracked the runway in a big cloud of dust towards a single low concrete structure, which I assumed to be the control building, and shut down the engines. It was very dry and dusty with not a sign of greenery anywhere. What a change from the dense green jungle of the tropical regions we had been through recently. Somewhere along this last leg we had crossed the Tropic of Cancer again, but going northbound this time. Henceforth we would notice the temperature changing daily as we neared home.
Villa Cisneros we discovered was a Spanish penal colony. There were no fences around it because of course there was nowhere for the inmates to escape anyway, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the limitless Sahara Desert on the other. However, the Commandant was most courteous and helpful, especially towards our four females, but regretted that accommodation for us was rather sparse. He somehow managed to get all five members of the Barker family fixed up but the only place where I could sleep for the night was on a straw-filled mattress on the floor of an open cell! Well I’d guessed that one day I might finish up inside a prison cell but not under those conditions. That night I was almost bitten to death by hoards of bed bugs with cockroaches crawling all over me. I just couldn’t wait for dawn to arrive to get up and out of it. The Commandant was very kind though and we thanked him most genuinely for his hospitality before departing.
February12th 1964… The next landing was to be another small enclave called Sidi Ifni, still controlled by the Spanish at that time. The coastline gradually curved off to the right as it stretched towards the far off Mediterranean, and I flew a series dog-legs to cut a few corners on the way. Somewhere out to our left lay the Canary Islands.
On arrival over the harbour at Sidi Ifni I had difficulty at first in locating the landing field. The visibility was still rather hazy but with the help in broken English by the friendly Controller, I finally found it and landed safely. Ron stayed with me to help with the refuelling whilst Anne took the girls for some refreshments in the airport building. Then Ron and I went up to the control tower to pay the due fees, file our next flight plan, and complete all the normal formalities.
The Airport Commandant was extremely friendly and courteous to us, as was the one at the previous stopover, but then I don’t suppose he had too many biplanes full of English people coming through his small airport. His curiosity got the better of him and after completing the normal rigmarole, he politely enquired as to how we came to be there? Our officialdom problems were now well behind us as we were now dealing with a fellow European, so I saw no reason to withhold any information. When I told him that we had flown all the way around Africa his eyes lit up and became fascinated and wanting to know more about it. I opened the small canvas bag that I carried all the documents in and started to unfold a Bartholomew’s map of Africa that I had marked our journey on, in order to show him. Ron suddenly became quite agitated at this for some inexplicable reason and ranted on that we shouldn’t discuss our route through Africa with others, although I’m sure the Commandant’s questions were only to satisfy his own personal curiosity. The Commandant was clearly embarrassed by this unnecessary attempt at secrecy. So to defuse the tense atmosphere Ron had created, I concluded our business by thanking him for his hospitality, shaking his hand, and then walked out leaving Ron to make his own farewells. Soon afterwards we emplaned again for the final trip of the day, to Marrakech in Morocco, and the incident was not mentioned again.
The visibility had cleared considerably by the time we passed abeam Agadir. I flew along with the coast in sight to our left until I’d skirted the lofty Atlas Mountains, then banked to the right and flew directly towards Marrakech, where we landed and quickly cleared all formalities. Soon we were on our way to a hotel in town for a wash-up and meal.
After dinner we all strolled around town, and viewing the kasbah from the outside (entry being forbidden to us infidels of course), we wandered back in the direction of the hotel again as the youngest girls, Tony and Jillie were feeling tired. Ron and Anne went with them so Linda and I walked around for a while longer taking in the sights. This time though, remembering her experience of strolling through Tunis on the outbound leg in tight shorts, she was more modestly attired in keeping with local culture. As we strolled down a wide avenue of trees I noticed oranges growing on some of them, so at Linda’s instigation, when I thought nobody was looking, I jumped up and picked a few to take back to the hotel with us. When we began tucking into them back in our rooms, we found that they were very sour and inedible. It was then that we discovered they were marmalade oranges!
February13th 1964… We took our time going to the airport as we had only intended to fly as far as Malaga in Spain, via Tangier, where we would need to clear Customs. It was too late in the afternoon to refuel on the previous day, so whilst I supervised the refuelling, Ron took care of all the other bits and pieces. By mid-morning we were again rolling down the runway at Marrakech for our final flight over the African mainland.
After passing by Casablanca and Rabat on our left-hand side, we headed straight for Tangier. The fine weather persisted all the way and before long we were making our final landing in Africa. We quickly cleared all departure formalities and within an hour were rolling down the runway again. When our wheels left the ground it became our last physical contact with that enormous continent – our next landing was to be in Europe. Soon after crossing the North African coast we caught sight of the famous Rock of Gibraltar across the narrow straits separating Europe from Africa. I banked the Rapide around so the girls could take their last look at Africa and flew straight across the sea towards the Spanish coast.
Gibraltar was a wonderful sight out to our left but I kept well clear of The Rock in case we experienced any down-draughts in its lee, having heard of the notorious Levanter wind associated with this promontory. Awhile later we were in the circuit to land at Malaga. Unfortunately, after parking the Rapide for our over-night stay, we were obliged to take some transport right around to the other side of the airfield to pay the landing fees, and file our next day’s flight plan with the military authorities who ran the field. I was fascinated though by the number of ex-German Luftwaffe Heinkel 111’s that were parked there; now in Spanish Airforce markings of course and re-engined with Hispano power plants. They were no doubt a legacy from the Spanish Civil War where Nazi Germany took the Fascist’s side in the conflict.
The weather was still good with clear blue skies but we realised that from now on we would be running into the dreaded European winter. So it was decided to spend an extra day there before braving the elements once more on the final stage of our long journey.
Our stay in Malaga was quite enjoyable but a bit of an anticlimax after our recent adventures. Although the sky remained clear and sunny, the temperature was cool enough to warrant wearing a pullover after the sun went down, and by late evening it had grown distinctly chilly – a foretaste of what lay in store for us ahead!
February15th 1964… The flight to Valencia, our next point of landing, was coast crawling once again, to avoid flying over the hilly interior where a fair amount of cloud persisted, however, the weather held good and three and a quarter hours after leaving Malaga we were landing at Valencia airport. A quick refuelling and minimal departure clearances and we were on our way once again; this time to Toulouse in France. Barcelona lay off to our left but being a busy airport I gave it a wide berth and flew about five miles out over the sea for a while. Once we were clear of the Pyrenees Mountains I turned the corner and flew directly towards Toulouse, where we decided to nightstop again due to the bad weather ahead of us.
February16th 1964… The nightstop was not memorable and now that we were on the home stretch we were eager to get going again, and because now that we were now into the European winter, the daylight hours were getting distinctly shorter so we had to get as far as we could in the hours available. After minimal formalities when we arrived back at the airport, we were airborne on our way to Tousous-Le-Noble, an airfield near Paris. The forecast was still not good but at least a slight improvement on the previous day’s weather.
Most of the flight across France was uneventful, but after about three hours flying, the weather began turning rather cloudy and rainy. I was getting a bit concerned about wandering into the Paris Control area with all the commercial traffic around, so I kept below the cloud base as far as possible, map-reading my way across the terrain, as by now my beloved ADF had long since ceased to function. Before long though I was more in the cloud than out of it and soon began to lose my bearings. Another twenty minutes passed by without recognising any features in the rare glimpses I caught of the ground through occasional breaks in the cloud. Suddenly through another break I saw a large runway off to my right. I tried making radio contact on my rather limited VHF frequencies but to no avail, so I circled the field until they flashed a green light from the Tower giving me permission to land.
It was an American airforce base called Chateaudun, about sixty miles short of my destination, so now that I knew where I was, without further ado they let me take-off again. Thirty five minutes later I was over Tousous-Le-Noble and joining the circuit to land. By this time the weather had deteriorated considerably so we decided to call it a day and spend the night in Paris. The weather forecast for the following day was not good either, so having come this far in safety, I suggested that we spend two nights there so we can make a clear run through to home on the following day when the weatherman promised an improvement. This was agreed upon so we took a taxi into the outskirts of Paris and found a cheap hotel to stay in.
February17th 1964… After a leisurely start and a light Continental breakfast we took in some of the sights of Paris, finishing up with a boat ride along the Seine. It was cold and miserable though and none of us enjoyed it very much.
February18th 1964… The weather forecast was still not good, particularly over the UK, but was reasonable between Paris and the French coast so we decided to press on as far as Le Touquet. We finally landed there in the middle of the afternoon in grey lowering clouds with rain and sleet flurries. We spent the night at the same hotel as on the outbound flight the previous December 12th. That evening Ron gave me a £10 bonus for my efforts, which may sound a trifle paltry by today’s standards but at that time was quite a welcome amount.
February19th 1964… Our departure was delayed until after 10am due to the weather but finally we decided to give it a go as a slight improved occurred. I followed the French coast at low level to Calais before setting course across the English Channel, but was soon enveloped in sleet and snow showers, with the dark grey heaving sea beneath us looking most uninviting. Forward visibility was reduced to a minimum and my concern heightened as I noticed ice building up on the struts and wires between the upper and lower wings. I was therefore very relieved to see the English coast slide past underneath me. Miraculously I found Lydd airfield and wasted no time in getting the old girl back down onto English soil again, having arrived from our epic journey in one piece. Customs and Immigration were a mere formality but due to the atrocious weather conditions I called another halt to the day. Having come thus far in safety I was not about to push my luck any further. Just one more short flight to Biggin Hill but the weather beat us once again, so nightstop it would have to be. By this time however, Anne and the children had had enough. They were getting extremely bored with the constant flying and at Anne’s insistence she decided to call it a day and do the rest of the journey home by train. I was sorely disappointed of course, having come all this way together, and tried to talk her out of it but she was adamant. And so it was that the four females left us to continue the final leg home by a more reliable mode of transport. I was rather sad to say goodbye to them after all the adventures, trials and tribulations we had been through together but I did understand and appreciate their feelings.
February20th 1964… The one thing I was dreading at this point was that Ron would suggest that now we were on our own, he could fly it back to Biggin Hill. This would have been quite legal as I was a twin-rated instructor, but given the poor weather conditions we were facing, plus my avowed intention of getting this old girl safely back home in one piece, I was not prepared to give in. Fortunately he never asked so with great relief we took off on our final leg home at just before 3pm in the afternoon as the weather cleared slightly. Again in marginal flying conditions we struggled through the murk and low cloud with intermittent snow showers. By the time I called Biggin Tower and joined the circuit to land, a tremendous feeling of relief swept over me as I realised it was all coming to an end at last. As I turned onto finals to land, the Controller, a good friend of mine who had already received our flight plan, heartily congratulated me on our safe return. A few people met us on arrival as I taxied in and shut down. Soon we were surrounded by friends, eager to hear our account of the trip. That night at Sid’s bar, I had the greatest satisfaction of all times by collecting the bets that had been laid before departure some ten weeks earlier. It was this final little act that had later been the motivating force behind my determination to get myself, the Barker family, and that dear old Rapide, back to Biggin Hill again in one piece. I slept soundly that night in the knowledge that I had finally done so…
Regrettably, within a few days of our safe return, my dear old Rapide had a prang at Biggin Hill. Ron had decided to get some flying in on her before returning it to its owner Brian Neely. Net result was an overshoot on landing finishing up on its nose off the end of the runway in a rubbish tip, then falling heavily back onto its tail, sustaining a fair amount of damage. I was devastated that this lovely old girl, that had taken us almost 17,000 miles in safety through thick and thin, should finish up in such an ignominious manner. However, it was eventually repaired and at the end of April that year I had the satisfaction of test flying her. Thereafter it was back in service as a ‘joy-rider’ again. I had great pleasure in taking part in this role some months later, in between my flights as an airline pilot to places like Hong Kong and the Far East. On one memorable occasion at St Just – a quaint little grass airfield on the south western tip of England at Lands End in Cornwall, I did no less than 31 take-offs and landings in one day with her – an all time record for me. Sadly dear old G-ALGC finished her days in the ‘knacker’s yard’ by being broken up for spares when the cost of renewing her annual Certificate of Airworthiness proved too expensive. How I wished then that I had the money available at the time to acquire her for myself and lovingly restore it. But that was not to be...
However, I shall always remember that dear old ‘string bomber’ – our lovely Rapide, and the faithful way she took myself and that family of five around that enormous continent in our ‘Tour d’Afrique…
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