Tuesday morning Sophia and I split up for efficiency. We took a taxi from the hotel that first dropped her at the hospital with the equipment to be donated to local hospitals. From there, it took me and the baggage to the airport to organise payment, flight plan, and fuel. Given how easy things were when arriving at the airport, I was not expecting much bureaucracy when leaving, and thankfully I was proved right. On arrival I was taken straight to the airport office where I paid our total fees of $10, and filed the flight plan. I was then allowed to wander out to the aircraft and wait for the fuel truck (or, as it turned out, fuel tractor), with no security or other hassle. Questions about finally having our passports stamped as officially entering the country were waved aside, with a vague “Maybe in Abidjan”.
I had originally planned to fuel fully, and avoid the need for fuel in Abidjan. However, it turned out that fuel for flights in-country was 30% more expensive, and additionally our tires were looking rather low on air; I did not want to add more weight than I had to. So, we put in enough fuel to get us to Abidjan where we could air up the tires and take our fill of cheap, export-ready Jet-A. We had been informed that we were, yet again, the only flight of the day at Yamoussoukro and we took our time starting up, taxiing, and doing the engine checks before departure. As luck would have it, the departure instructions that we were given took us right over the city, putting us in the perfect position for views of the Basilica and other interesting buildings that the city has to offer.
Shortly after overflying Yamoussoukro, we were into the clouds for our slow climb up to 11,000ft. This altitude tended to keep us above the majority of the clouds, which led to a smoother and less tiring ride. It also slightly improved the range at which we could send and receive on the radio; in this part of Africa we often found ourselves out of radio contact for quite some time between control centers due to the distances involved. The flight down to Abidjan was not long, and shortly after takeoff we were given clearance “direct to Abidjan”, eliminating a dogleg in the route to get onto the standard airway routes and cutting a few minutes from the flight.
We were directed to fly the ILS approach into Abidjan, although with only scattered clouds around we had no need of flight on instruments. After landing we were directed down to the far end of the airport, past the fairly busy commercial ramp to the flying club apron. We squeezed in between two hangars, one of which was full of light aircraft, and Sophia jumped out of the aircraft to find someone who could tell us where to park; moments later we were shutting down and introducing ourselves to the Aero Club staff.
The staff and members at Abidjan Aero Club could not have been more helpful. It turned out that Abidjan had the strictest and most impractical security procedures of any airport we had visited so far. We were warned that once we left the aircraft there would be no way to return to it until the following morning, so ensured we had all our luggage with us and bundled into the club car. 5 minutes later, having passed through several gates and checkpoints, we were in the Aero Club office; a full 10 meters from the aircraft, but the other side of the all-important fence.
After some more introductions we were taken to the main terminal to apply for security badges so that we could get back to the aircraft the following day, and then headed to look for a taxi. After 10 fruitless minutes, our guide from the Aeroclub slapped his forehead. He had just remembered that the taxis were on strike today! Fantastic. We had just over an hour to get to the other side of Abidjan for a meeting with the World Health Organisation. Ever resourceful, our helpful friend drove us a little way down the road to some sort of taxi depot, and negotiated us a seat on a car that was headed to another depot in town. We had by now become thoroughly confused with what taxis worked, what taxis didn’t, where they went, and so on; there were several different colours with different rules applying to them. It seemed that while none were available that would take us directly to our destination, the inter-depot taxi could take us to somewhere that cars were running normally.
Thus followed a long, hot and cramped ride packed into a full taxi with other passengers and a lot of luggage. At $1 for a 30 minute ride, we couldn’t complain. At the next depot our driver showed us which, differently coloured taxi to get into and made sure it would take us to the proper destination. We were dropped off, luckily before the other two passengers, at the WHO 5 minutes before our meeting time.
After passing through security, who held onto our passports for safekeeping, we were escorted upstairs to a meeting room. We were expecting an informal meeting with the doctor that Sophia had been emailing, so it came as something of a surprise to find ourselves in a large boardroom with about 8 smartly suited men and women from different organisations, all looking forward to a high powered working session – in French. Suddenly the job of pilot, rather than project medical lead, felt all the more attractive. Sophia applied herself bravely to the task, and did an admirable job of presenting the project to the French-speaking audience.
Meeting completed, we were invited to join some of the attendees back at the offices of their charity, “Sauvons 2 Vies” (Saving two lives). As the name suggests, this was a maternal health charity who were heavily involved in the training of midwives, amongst other activities. They told us a little about how their charity works, and the lady in charge was then kind enough to perform a video interview for us to contribute to Sophia’s next video diary for the sponsors of the project. Finally, they were even kind enough to drive us to a nearby hotel which they recommended highly, and arranged to come and collect us the following morning for the drive out to the airport. No more trying to negotiate the bizarre Abidjan taxi system in the middle of a strike, thank goodness!
The Manhatten Suites hotel was not far from the office. There were only three other cars in the car park when our little convoy turned up. Our hosts escorted us inside to organise rooms, which were very reasonably priced compared to the large chain hotels, and did not leave us until they’d inspected the rooms we were assigned to ensure they were up to standard. As we were checking in, an Ivorian gentlemen introduced himself in perfect English as the hotel owner; it turned out that he lived in New York, and travelled back to Abidjan a few times a year to check on his hotel, otherwise running it from afar alongside his American IT business. Happy to hear about the project, and to be able to speak English for a while, he invited us to join him at the restaurant later that evening where he would treat us to a specially prepared meal.
Quite a spread was put on for dinner, with a wide variety of local dishes laid out buffet style for us. The hotel owner, Ibza, was quite the conversationalist. Topics ranged from his past relationships to his proposed solar panel business ventures, through personal fitness and West African and international politics. As well as his IT business and hotel, he was an instructor and salesman for a piece of American designed exercise equipment, which he had his staff bring out after dinner to give us a demonstration. Sophia let slip that she had run marathons in the past, and was roped into a 6am exercise session the following morning, much to her delight.
I joined Sophia and the owner, Ibza, for breakfast after their exercise session. Our friends from Sauvons 2 Vies turned up a little later, and in a change of plans it was decided that Ibza would drive us to the airport as the others did not speak very much English, and our French still left a little to be desired for casual conversation. The route to the airport went the long way around the city’s lagoon, but Ibza explained that when the new bridge was built, by the end of 2014, the trip from airport to his hotel would be cut from 30 minutes to less than 10. He was looking forward to this a great deal, but bemoaned the disruption that the construction was causing in the meantime.
We had a second breakfast of croissants at the aero club, before our helper from the previous day came to pick us up. First stop was the security office to collect our one-day temporary passes, and then the airport office to pay the fees and file the flight plan. It seemed that we had turned up when the new guys were on shift; it took them more than an hour to simply produce the bill and enter the flight plan into the system. One guy even managed to lose the flight plan form somewhere in the three metre gap between the counter and his computer terminal. We chatted to a local pilot who was in there a the same time, and he mentioned that this kind of performance was unfortunately standard for Abidjan. Eventually, after delaying our filed takeoff time to take account of the incompetence in the office, we were taken back to the security gate near the flying club and after a thorough inspection were allowed through. Fuel came remarkably quickly, and before long we were departing south over the coast before turning on course.
The flight up to Burkina Faso took a little over three hours. Air traffic control at Abidjan tower were busy and flustered, so we were pleased to be handed over to departure control and cleared to proceed directly on route. The flight was uneventful; we were by now adept at guessing which reporting points we’d be asked to provide estimate for, and having them ready. Occasionally we’d even pass them before they asked, which seemed to speed things up.
We followed the airways northwest, before leaving them to head due north to the Burkina Faso border and cut off a large dog leg that would otherwise have been required. This plan had been approved and we’d been cleared to fly the route, but shortly after leaving the airway we were told that we had to rejoin it, and take the long way around. I asked why and was told that it was because the crossing point we had selected required a higher altitude than our 11,000 feet; 14,000 feet higher, to be precise. This was obviously not going to happen so we reluctantly turned west again, only to be told a few minutes later that we were cleared direct from our present position to destination with no climb required. Strange, but we weren’t going to argue!
Runway 24 was in use, but we were cleared for the ILS runway 6 approach. When querying tower to confirm that we were expected to circle to land on 24, it became apparent that he’d forgotten that the wind favoured 24, and just gave us the approach that was lined up with the direction we were coming from. He agreed that yes, a circle to land would work nicely, and that we should do that please; the weather was fine, and we flew a visual circuit to landing and parked near the terminal, once again the only aircraft around.
Our first, and as it turned out only, visitors were a pair of policemen. They had different uniforms so I assume they were from different branches of government, but both had forms asking for exactly the same information. They were friendly, helpful and welcoming; one of them led us into the private aircraft arrivals hall, which we were surprised to find existed. It was brand new, plush, and air conditioned, more reminiscent of a top jet centre in the US – perfect! We settled onto the leather sofas to fill in our arrival cards and the same policeman took care of the immigration formalities and then led us to the car park where several members of the local medical community were waiting to welcome us to Bobo Dioulasso, and drive us to the hotel that they had arranged.
Our hosts could not have been kinder. They stayed to ensure that we were settled into the room satisfactorily, and then spent time with Sophia to talk through the activities for the next two days. They then left us to rest, as they were sure we’d be tired after our flight; they were right! A couple of hours later, the chief doctor returned and drove us to a local restaurant for dinner; he even offered to come back to collect us afterwards, but given the short distance we protested that we’d walk. We almost wished we hadn’t, as it turned out; even on the short walk back to the hotel we were accosted by people hassling us for money. One of the street traders, who at least did have merchandise to sell, besieged the hotel for the next couple of days and even came in a few times to harass Sophia at the dinner table another night!
Sophia spent the next day teaching at the main hospital while I remained at the hotel to catch up on work. In the evening we discovered that there was a very well stocked wine shop directly opposite the hotel! Sophia wasted no time in acquiring a bottle, and even two glasses to go with it, and it added to an enjoyable and relaxing evening meal at the hotel.
On Friday morning the plan was to go to a local, field hospital away from the main facilities. I accompanied Sophia as the visit sounded interesting, and I could hopefully help out with photography and general errands! Our drive out to the hospital took us past the old Bobo Dioulasso railway station – apparently these days the line was used exclusively for freight. As we passed, a long goods train was trundling along with a load of containers, bound for who-knows-where.
The hospital was a large, widely scattered collection of buildings with vegetable gardens in between. They told us that they had planned it to this way to allow plenty of room for future expansion, and with high electricity prices it was cheaper to run multiple small buildings due to the greater ease of using natural light to illuminate them. A meeting room had been prepared for Sophia’s presentation, and 15 or more mid-wives (and male mid-wives, who they called “maletricians”) were in attendance. It’s not easy giving a presentation in a foreign language but Sophia coped admirably, delivering instruction on the main causes of maternal collapse with a little translation help from our hosts. This was followed up with a practical session using the simulation mannequin, which was well received.
Training over, we were given a tour of the maternity unit. One stand-alone structure housed the majority of the facilities, with the operating theatres in a second block connected by a covered walkway. While basic, the facilities had evidently had effort put into them to keep them clean, and the patients were treated with much more respect than they seemed to have been in Morocco.
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