I had the most amazing, and unbelievable, airline adventure in 2002 – all thanks to Air Cameroon. I couldn’t make this up even if I tried. And it all started when I got a call from a few African NGO colleagues asking whether I would attend the UN Africa Regional Conference on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Bamako, Mali (what a stupid, boring line to include in this story. But hey, read on – it gets better. I promise). The request to go to Bamako came from the African Caucus – an informal alliance of African NGO’s workers. We linked up at the prep meetings for the UN Conference on Financing for Development (UN FfD) – and was formally represented at the Monterrey Conference. It was not only an honor, but I was excited about my first trip to Mali – and it wasn’t going to be in Timbuktu (you knew that was in Mali, right?) But first I had some travel plans to arrange.
I phoned around and everyone else was going to fly Air France – via Jo’burg to Paris to Bamako. That sounded odd. Why fly all the way to Europe to get to Mali? My travel agent also recommended this, but I insisted on her finding a more direct way there. The alternative she came up with? Air Cameroon. Hey, that sounded excellent – I am in Africa and should fly with an African airline. I booked my place and was ready to go.
I flew from Cape Town to Jo’burg to catch my connecting flight to Douala (Cameroon), and from there onwards to Bamako. Two stops and I am there. I was going to have fun with the other guys who flew Air France. They were going to leave after me so I will be there in time to have some cold beers ready by the time they got to the hotel.
I landed in Jo’burg and checked in for my flight to Douala – I got a nice window seat. Thought it was odd that the flight only left at 2 am, but that was fine. The last flight before this was at about 11 and the next one out at 6, but it gave me some time to first buy a few things (biltong, for one) for the flight. I did my shopping and grabbed something to eat. Everything shut down at about 11 and I hung around and walked from one area to the next. Also found it odd that I saw hardly anyone else hanging around. And then I looked at the boarding notice – my flight now only leaves at 5 am. Oh man, I had to hang out at a dead airport for another few hours. And nothing is open. So I ate my biltong, drank a few cokes from the vending machine, and smoked as if I was about to give up the next day (that took a few more years).
At last my flight was ready to board. One would have thought that we would get a good gate – especially with no other flights taking off at that time of the night/morning. But no, we got a gate stuck somewhere in a corner. After another slight delay we got onto the bus taking us to the plane – I was surprised to see no one being slightly pissed off about the delay in the flight. But that is the African way – we take things in our stride. No reason to lose your temper over something you can’t control – war, corruption or delayed planes, it makes no difference to us having to live our lives anyway.
I was ready to sit down in my comfortable seat and catch up on some sleep. I was to scared to sleep at the airport – what if I missed my flight? Air Cameroon doesn’t fly until he next day again. But, as I was about to take my seat, the air hostess came over to say that I can’t sit in this (my) seat. They had to keep that section open to balance the plane! ‘But I had this seat allocated on my ticket! Where do I go now?’, I responded. ‘You can sit anywhere you like, sir. We don’t hold people to their seat allocations’, she said. Okay…
I got a seat and settled in for some sleep. I am like Pavlov’s dog when it comes to planes and sleep – I fall asleep the minute I feel the vibrations of the engine. I woke up as we hit the tarmac. Douala, at last. But oddly enough no one else got ready to leave. I got up, got my stuff and started to go to the exit. But Ms air hostess stopped me with a ‘where do you think you’re going, sir?’ ‘Douala, of course’. The response – ‘we’re not in Douala, we’re in Kinshasa’. What the hell? After a few exchanges of views and news, I was informed that they had people who wanted to get on the plane in Kinshasa and a few people that wanted to get off in Kinshasa. And this is just part of their service to their clients – we stop where you want us to stop. A bit like most African taxi’s – the Toyota Hiace type.
Now I was starting to get worried. What about my connecting flight from Douala? I called the air host (by now I was too scared of the air hostess) and asked if there is a way to let Douala know that we are going to be late – we already got delayed in Jo’burg. He looked at me and smiled, ‘no problem, sir. We use the same plane’. Air Cameroon only had 3 working planes at that stage…
Many hours later we arrived at Douala. It looked unbelievably modern from about 10,000 feet. Extracting gates and all. Way ahead of Cape Town and Jo’burg back then. But the closer we got the clearer the detail. None of the extracting gates worked. Half stood rusting away and the other half just sat there with their missing wheels and windows. And the tarmac didn’t look that smooth either.
But we landed safely and got out quickly. Man, it was hot. I have never been in more humid and hot conditions in my life. Couldn’t wait to get into the airport to the cool crisp air conditioning. Hum, this didn’t work either. Nada, nothing, zilch, zero worked. But at least our flight got delayed. Again. But they gave us some crap coffee and bread to keep us quiet. As if I was going to argue with a guy standing a few meters away – in full army gear and an AK47 in his hands. Nope, I was as happy as a clam to keep my mouth shut and go with the flow.
We did eventually board our plane, and I got a seat – any seat – and settled in for the last trip to Bamako. And again I fell asleep. And again I woke up as we hit the tarmac. And again I got up to leave. And again the air hostess stopped me (the same one from earlier). And again I was told that we are not in the city that was indicated on my ticket. No this time they stopped in Abuja as part of their commitment to client needs. And then we stopped in Abidjan. And then we stopped in Dakar. And then we stopped in Bamako – many, many hours later than indicated on my itinerary.
The meeting in Bamako (and Bamako itself) is for another day. But the return flight was more or less the same as getting there. Same detours, same air hostess and same seating arrangements. Except for two things.
As always, I went to the airline a day before I was to leave Bamako – just to confirm my flight. As expected, they weren’t open as indicated in the hotel brochure. I hung around for a few hours until they opened. I confirmed my flight leaves at 8 am. They said no. I confirmed that it was to be tomorrow. They said no. Apparently, the flight will leave sometime the day after tomorrow – but not sure what time. Still trying to fill the plane. I gave up. I didn’t even bother to ask what I should do. I just turned around and started walking. The person behind the counter shouted for me to call them early on the day of departure. I just nodded my head, waved my hand, lit another smoke, and kept on walking.
We did eventually depart – and got to Douala after our detours. The air hostess told us that the plane will leave again at 7 (it was now 5 am). I laughed and jokingly asked whether that was 7 am or 7 pm. She looked at me and with a serious face said she will check. Of course it was 7 pm…
I had to call South African Airways in Jo’burg to say that I will miss my flight, but this was before I had a mobile phone that could work anywhere. And no phones at the departure gates either. And I had to pay $10 just to get out to the public side. Like hell I was going to do this. I got out my UN Conference badge and swung it around with the blank side showing. Found my way through some back corridors and found a door leading to the outside. But there was some seriously armed security guards hanging out there. I just kept on walking as if I belonged and with a ‘bonjour’ here and a nod there I got through to the other side. No luck in finding a phone either – there weren’t any working phones. But Africa saved me again – as always. Someone overheard me asking for a phone and came over and offered me their mobile phone. I made my call and offered to pay – but he refused. He even bought me a beer. Very, very typical of my experiences in Africa. Someone somewhere always comes along to help me out or just share a beer – here I got both at the same time.
I was offered more crap coffee and bread – back in the departure lounge. But by now I was dying of the heat and humidity. I found my way up to the roof with a few beers and two friends. That lasted all of 10 minutes before armed security came to remove us. Apparently we weren’t allowed up there. Off I went in search for an air conditioned office. I couldn’t find anything. But I did find an air conditioned computer room. And I stayed there for the rest of the afternoon until we left. Yes, I was asked to leave a few times, but I didn’t understand any language they spoke at that stage – neither French or English. Nada, nothing, zilch, zero.
I got home and after a few years started sleeping without waking up screaming and sweating. And managed to laugh about it after years of serious counseling.
And those guys who left on Air France? They left after me, but got to Bamako a day before me. But I had it lucky. A few of them was booked on Air Cape Verde for their return flight. Guess what. There was no Air Cape Verde.