Africa – North Africa

Africa – North Africa

Morocco has a series of VFR routes between airports, with reporting points that were not on any of the charts that we had on board. Searching online reveals no availability of Moroccan VFR charts, or information about these routes. We asked for, and were given, the GPS coordinates of the points for our first leg; there was some initial confusion until we realised they were giving us degrees, minutes, seconds while we though we were being given decimal degrees. Nonetheless, in the end the right coordinates were input for our arrival into Rabat.

Another quirk of Moroccan ATC (and, it turns out, a lot of ATC further south) is a constant demand for estimated times at reporting points. It’s a good idea to have these points in your GPS so you can quickly and easily call up your estimated time to each! We were handed over to Rabat tower some 50 miles or so out, and stayed with them all the way into our parking spot; there is not much use of different frequencies for approach, tower, and ground; probably because there is not very much traffic around. In addition, the use of ATIS frequencies seems to be very sparse south of the Med, with tower generally just reading the weather to you over the radio on request.

On African soil!

On arrival in Rabat it turned out that because of the delays, our handling agents had given up and headed back to their base; they did not, as we had thought, have any permanent presence in Rabat. They instead arranged for a member of the airport authority to assist us; while helpful, he did not quite know the proper procedures for getting flight crew through the airport. Instead of arranging for us to pass through the crew channel at immigration, we ended up waiting for quite some time in the immigration queue with an entire Airbus full of passengers who’d arrived at the same time, and were left very short of time once we finally got through; there was a lot to do here before heading on South to Essaouira later that afternoon.

Sophia’s friend Sanae, a senior Obs and Gynae trainee at the Maternity Hospital in Souissi, collected us from the airport. Barriers had been set up 30m or so from the terminal building, and people waiting for arriving passengers were being held back here; they weren’t even allowed into the terminal. Apparently this was a new development, and Sanae was unsure what had caused it. After a few false turns (it was more than a year since Sanae had been to the airport, and the city was very badly signposted) we headed into Rabat.

Pastries in Rabat

The plan was first to find somewhere to eat. Unfortunately, we failed a little at this because it happened to be the celebration at the end of Ramadan, when absolutely everything was shut down. We managed to find a cafe that was only serving drinks and pastries, and then moved onto the most important task, a hospital visit. Sanae took us to the hospital she worked at, which hosted a “Level 3” Ob/Gyn department, which delivered more that 16,000 babies a year. I was presented with a white coat and told to tag along as we toured the department. I really didn’t know what to expect, but the rather tired and grimy appearance of the hallways before we even got to the department gave a taster of what was to come.

My first thought was how lucky we are in the more developed world. The situation was no doubt worsened by most of the staff being off to celebrate the end of Ramadan, but conditions in the delivery area came across to my untrained eyes as very poor. In the pre-delivery area we saw where women are taken to wait when labour has started, but they are still less than 3cm dilated. Cubicles down each side of the ward each held two single beds, and occasionally up to four women. With a lack of staff around, I got the impression that women who were there for their second or third baby were taking the lead in supporting those who were having their first.

The actual delivery area was a similar ward, with cubicles with a single bed in each running down each side. Many of them had ladies in who had evidently just delivered, but had been left lying exposed without even any attempt to clean them up and make them comfortable. Many beds and floors were soaked through with body fluids from delivery. In one corner a lady was on a stretcher, evidently in great distress; there was no-one looking after her, and it was explained that she was waiting for an emergency operation but the operating theaters were not ready. She reached for our hands as we passed, but no-one gave her a second glance; when working in such an environment one must have to detach ones emotions to be able to work most efficiently and help the most people.

The visit over, we sped back to the airport for our next flight. With people still being kept far back from the airport by the military and police we were concerned about gaining access again, but in the end we were waved through without a moment’s hesitation. After a short wait our handling assistant collected us and took us to pay our airport fees, and then put us into a van that took us across the airport to the military side. Here we received our departure briefing, with instruction given on the waypoints we had to follow leaving Rabat; a great big circle around to the North was mandated to avoid restricted areas such as the Royal Palace. We had elected to fly out to Essaouira, a couple of hours down the coast, so that the following day we could make Dakhla in a single hop; the problem this gave was that Essaouira was not listed on our permit. After some umming and ahhing the military briefer declared that this would be no problem and we were free to go. They were unable to make contact with Essaouira to let them know we were coming, but decided that we should just head that way anyway and divert to Agadir (a large 24 hour airport) if we couldn’t contact Essaouira.

South to Essaouira

At last, our flight plan was filed and we were on our way. We had been given the GPS coordinates of the approved VFR route South by the military, so there was no trouble this time with knowing where to go. Once again we were constantly hassled for our estimates for various reporting points, and even ended up at one point in concurrent contact with two different controllers who were asking for different, but similar, things. Once we were further South from Rabat, however, things became quieter and we were handed off to Essaouira tower, who turned out to be open, an hour before we got there.

The airport was open, but devoid of passengers; we breezed through security and immigration, and into a taxi. We were taken to a hotel in the center of the town, which had turned out to be something of a Moroccan version of Blackpool. After a hot, sunny arrival at the airport it was strange to find the town just a few miles away to be cold, windy and foggy; being a few miles closer to the coast can make all the difference. The hotel was fantastic, and just what we needed after such a long day; we ate Moroccan tagine there and worked on our plans for the following day.

Essaouira in the morning was remarkably different to Essaouira at night. The end-of-Ramadan party over, the streets were deserted apart from litter and a horde of stray cats picking over the remains. We had arranged for the taxi driver to meet us at 7 to return to the airport, but he never showed; luckily it proved remarkably simple to organise another one and we were soon on our way. Sophia handled the refueling of the aircraft while I went to the tower to organise the flight plan and receive a briefing. Once again, I was shown the VFR route; this time down to Dakhla, consisting of about 20 different points. None of them were on the charts or in the GPS, and this time they could not even provide the GPS coordinates. I took a photo with my smartphone with the plan to use the GPS and the road-map of North Africa that we had on board to figure it out as we went.

We had something of a delay from the fact that Essaouira had no record of our flight permit. This was not entirely surprising seeing as Essaouira was not covered by said permit, but a few phonecalls to the central body that coordinates these things soon established that we did indeed have permission to fly to our next stop, Dakhla, and we were given permission to go. Today’s flight, at 5.5 hours or so, would be one of our longest so we were heavy with full fuel, and slowly climbed to our cruising altitude of 8,500ft where the air was slightly cooler. It turned out that ATC were not too fussy about the reporting points; they were requesting estimated times of arrival at many of them as usual, but didn’t seem to have radar to see if we actually ended up directly at them or not. With the hand-drawn chart from the Essaouira briefing office I was able to plot the points on my GPS with sufficient accuracy to keep everyone happy.

Into Western Sahara

The route south basically hugged the coast the entire way. The further south we went, the dustier it became, and after a couple of hours air traffic control reported that conditions at Dakhla were IFR with just 3km visibility in blowing dust. We acknowledged that both aircraft and pilot were equipped and rated for flight in IMC (“Instrument Meteorological Conditions”) and that even in the poor visibility we’d be able to fly the instrument approach and land, and they were happy to have us continue. Crossing into Western Sahara, we were handed off to the Canary Islands ATC who seem to control this part of the shore from their position off the coast. In fact, for quite some time airports in the Canary islands were showing as some of the closest to our position on the GPS; the mainland in this area has little in the way of places to land.

As we came closer to Dakhla, the visibility became progressively worse. Before too long we were flying on instruments, although from time to time the ground could just about be made out through the dust below. We were handed over to Dakhla tower when still 100 miles out, and told to report when 20 minutes away. Some time later a Moroccan Air Force call sign came on frequency and was informed that he’d be number two to the preceding Cessna 182. Excellent.

It soon became apparent that we’d be arriving at about the same time; our estimates for arriving over the VOR navigation beacon were identical. ATC took care to keep track of our altitudes and ranges, as we were both coming in from the same direction, and ensure that the Air Force aircraft was kept safely above us. He overtook us with about 5 miles to go, but was told to remain in the holding pattern and wait for us to land before he continued. As we passed overhead the airport to turn around to the south and fly the VOR approach inbound, I caught sight of the airport below us and let tower know that we could change to a tight visual circuit to speed things up; he liked this idea and just a couple of minutes later we were on the ground and taxiing to parking. As we parked up we caught sight of the military C130 appear out of the dust and touch down behind us.

We were greeted with the most thorough arrival inspection we’d had to date. A very smartly dressed military representative was the first to arrive, who took down all of our information on one of the many forms that we seemed to be forever filling out. Shortly afterwards his colleague from customs arrived with a sniffer dog and gave our baggage a thorough going over looking for drugs. Next came the refuellers, in a Jet-A truck with a rickety looking trailer towed behind holding a couple of drums of AVGAS and a hand pump. With the fueling taken care of, and the aircraft covered up to protect it from the dust, we were processed through immigration and then summoned to the tower.

The tower controller was friendly, and clutched in his hand yet another form, ready for our arrival. He carefully inspected all the aircraft documents such as Certificate of Airworthiness and Insurance, as well as our pilot qualifications. One fly in the ointment was that fact that we had no bi-annual “Airworthiness Review Certificate”; the required inspection was carried out only the week before departure, and the paperwork had not been processed and returned. A call to the owner informed us that the review of work done in the aircraft log book would suffice until the proper certificate arrived. This was, after some argument, accepted.

We had elected not to book a hotel in advance, given the five wasted hotel nights that we had paid for in Rabat and then not been able to use. Curiously, the two hotels that Sophia had confirmed had availability that morning were fully booked by the time we arrived. The controller found us a room at the “Sahara Regency” which on arrival turned out to be the kind of hotel which was once very smart, but is 20 years past its prime and now the kind of place that you see photos of journalists holing up in when wars break out. Nonetheless, at least we had a room for the night. We left the hotel again and wandered to the sea front in search of a cafe with wifi internet, to catch up on correspondence and check on the weather for the following day.

It soon became apparent that the problem with the cafe would be the lack of electrical sockets, and growing interest in what we were up to by the locals whose cafe we had invaded. We decamped to one of the hotels we had originally planned to stay in, which had wifi throughout as well as a pleasant bar and restaurant. Sophia even took the opportunity for a massage in the spa. After dinner at the same hotel, we wandered back to the Sahara Regency, through streets which had gone from dusty and deserted in the afternoon to packed full of lively activity now that it was cooling down after dark. Luckily our room was on a quiet side of the hotel; as fun as it would have been to stay up and explore, the next day’s flight was going to be just as long as this ones!

The following morning the dust had been replaced with mist. Sophia had had a hospital visit lined up for the morning but this ended up falling through at the last minute, so instead we were able to depart a little earlier than planned. We filed for IFR, as Dakhla was currently IMC and apparently Mauritania had entirely closed their airspace to VFR traffic for the day. The day was extremely hot, and to keep the aircraft engine temperature under control we climbed very slowly, and at low power. About half an hour later we eventually reached our cruising altitude of 9,000ft – much to the chagrin of ATC who had been regularly asking “Are you up there yet?”.

Leaving the Sahara

We settled into the cruise, and for the majority of the next hour were firmly IMC with the ground and horizon obscured with dust. Crossing into Mauritania, the visibility actually improved considerably and we were treated to spectacular views of the desert and coastline. I have never seen anywhere so entirely empty, with not the slightest sign of human impact as far as the eye could see. It was both incredible and intimidating at the same time!

As we approached Senegal, cloud started to build, although we were mostly above them and still enjoying great views. In the space of just a few miles the scenery gave way from desert to lush green fields. The border between Mauritania and Senegal is marked by a large river that meets the Atlantic at the city of St Louis. This impressive city seems to have expanded to cover every available piece of land at the river mouth, on both the Senegal and Mauritanian sides. From here it was roughly an hour’s flight direct to Dakar, taking us out a little way from the coastline and, once we started our descent, through the slowly building cumulus clouds. Once again we got in just ahead of a larger aircraft, and this time it was a Kenya Airways airliner that was instructed to remain in the hold while we flew the VOR approach to runway 18. The pilot seem most disgruntled, and repeatedly questioned whether he was still number two until the controller became fed up and told him in a very firm tone of voice that he’d be staying where he was until the Cessna had landed, and that he should stop asking.

The approach into Dakar was one of the most interesting of the trip so far. The end of the runway was right near the water’s edge, and views of the city extending along the bay to each side were magnificent. We parked a little way from the terminal, with no marshaller; tower simply let us choose our own parking. Shortly afterwards a ground handler showed up in a fuel truck; we let him know that we wouldn’t be fueling (the next flight was just an hour, and we still had at lest four hours fuel on board) but that we needed to somehow get to the terminal. “No problem”, said he, and he sped off again while we locked up the aircraft. A few minutes later, an airport bus sped into view and the two of us climbed on board to be ferried to the terminal, and set down at the back of the mob of Kenya Airways passengers approaching immigration.

It turns out that Senegal had just introduced a requirement for a visa, paid for online in advance, that we had missed. However, we were clearly not the only ones as they had a large and efficient setup dedicated to providing visas to those who had not seen the new requirement in advance. It took all of 10 minutes before we had a smart looking Senegal biometric visa, complete with photo, in our passports and were approaching immigration where the real fun began. The man at the desk was clearly not familiar with the concept of a private flight and must upset that we had no flight number listed on our immigration form. Sophia, passing through first, managed to convince him that all was ok and he was just processing my passport the same way when his boss came over to inquire what was up. The boss became most concerned at our lack of flight number and wandered off through the airport with my passport, and me in pursuit. Eventually I managed to get a word in edgeways through the groups of people he was constantly conversing with, and persuaded him to accept our newly adopted flight number of “C182”. He was well pleased with this, and I was free to join Sophia in the bus to the nearby Onomo hotel where we’d spend the next three nights.

Click here to read the next part of the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *