The commandant kindly picked us up again at 0830 and drove us back to the airport. He explained that the only taxis in town were motorbike taxis, which would be impractical because of our luggage. We arrived at the airport at the same time as a Brit, Bruce, and his South African colleague who were flying the Caravan. They worked for a Canadian survey company, with this particular aircraft being based out of South Africa. They would come into country for two month stints, and then have a month off back at home. Bruce shared horror stories with us of passing through Sudan, and bade us to be careful, especially with our laptop computers; apparently the customs personnel had a penchant for waving them around and then dropping them.
Bruce and I visited the tower to file our flight plans and, in my case, pay the fees. Everything was taken care of in one place, for once, which was nice. Our fees came to a total of $1; when I presented my smallest note, a $20, there was consternation and much patting of pockets. They soon decided that given the lack of change, our fees would be waived on this occasion, and they bid us farewell with a smile. A quick ride back to the apron to refuel, and we were taxiing. Three Piper Cubs were flying tight circuits on a small dirt strip directly north of the main runway; a peculiar thing to see a flock of little two-seaters in this location. We waited for a gap in the traffic and set off on our 160 nautical mile hop to Moundou in Chad.
We flew initially at 7,500ft, but then decided that we might as well descend lower, given the complete lack of traffic or radar surveillance. We descended to 1,000ft above the ground, and cruised at low level across the vast scrub forests and plains of north Cameroon and southern Chad. Every now and then a tiny village would appear, just a few native huts gathered around a central clearing and surrounded by agriculture. It was fascinating to think of the way of life of these people, living off the land almost as people have for millennia; we were separated by just a few hundred meters of air, but might as well have been on different planets. A few seconds and they were out of sight forever, and I found myself wishing that we could just touch down and talk to them, and learn something of what it was like to be there.
It was not to be, of course, and some time later we made radio contact with Moundou and were cleared to land. The airport was surprisingly new; evidently a major injection of money had been recently received. The large apron was freshly tarmacked (as, for that matter, was the runway) and painted with markings for aircraft up to B737 in size. The man in the airport office called a car for us; however, when said car arrived the price demanded was $100 a day to spend the next three days with us. This seemed a little unreasonable; there was evidently a monopoly on car transport given the lack of taxis, as in Garoua.
The price was negotiated down to $30 for a ride to the immigration police in town, and then to a hotel. We found the correct police location on our third try, and presented our passports to the authorities. Everyone became very excitable, the driver was called and interrogated, and it was eventually decided that the head immigration would take responsibility for us and the “taxi” driver could go on his way. Our new assistant drove us to a hotel and (second try lucky, the first was full) ensured that we were settled in, and promised to return later that day with a Chad sim-card for our phone, and our passports. It was uncomfortable letting the passports go with someone we didn’t know, and I was thankful that I had another one; perhaps I’d be able to smuggle the passport-less Sophia out of the country in a large suitcase if the need arose.
After they left, we inquired about internet. Disaster! There was none here, but their other hotel did have it! The hotel hailed three motorbike taxis and bundled us and our luggage onto them, as well as a member of staff to help out. 5 minutes later we pulled up at…the first hotel we’d tried! Oddly enough, it turned out that they were full. We took advantage of the very slow connection for 10 minutes, before heading back to base on another fleet of moto-taxis. It was evidently time for lunch; it took a good two hours to get a portion of fish with chips, but it was worth the wait. This done I took the chance to phone work and catch up; it was almost two months since I spoke to my manager rather than emailing, and it was good to get up to date!
To my surprise, our immigration assistant turned up later that evening, and presented a sim card. The passports, however, would take another day. We decided that the next day we’d acquire the passports and make a quick visit to the hospital which was almost next door to the hotel; this done, we’d depart. A rather tedious evening was spent watching Chinese TV and catching up on offline work.
Our man turned up that morning, complete with passports. Great! It was $30 per visa, which was a bit steep for aircrew, but we were hardly Chad experts and in no position to argue the case. On the plus side, the visa was colourful and looked very nice.
Sophia headed to the hospital while I remained at the hotel. It was only going to be a quick equipment drop. However, some time later I received a text; “They say I can do some teaching here tomorrow; can we stay another night?” Fine by me; I settled in to relax. Sophia appeared some time later, and picked me up to head into town and find an internet cafe. This failed entirely, and we ended up back at hotel number one to take care of the essentials, as well as have some lunch, before another moto-taxi ride to our accommodation. After the initial conviction that this mode of transport was a sure way to an early grave, I was actually starting to enjoy them.
The afternoon was again spent killing time around the hotel. It would have been great to leave it and go for a walk, but we’d been strongly advised against wandering off on our own by all we’d met. We couldn’t expect the same level of security as at home, particularly when we were so easy to identify as out-of-place foreigners. Dramatic thunderstorms came through during the evening, the electrical activity removing our final source of entertainment, the television!
Today was the day we’d move on from Moundou. Sophia headed off to give her training at the hospital, which apparently had the most advanced maternity unit we’d seen on our entire trip (Shell IA excepted); even better than Obio! No-one could tell her where the money had come from. It was telling that most of the equipment was still unopened in its boxes; all the advanced technology in the world is no use if nobody there has been trained to use it.
Meanwhile, I checked out of the hotel a little later and moto-taxied to the airport to prepare the aircraft. As it turned out, Sophia and I arrived at about the same time; it didn’t take long to file the flight plan and prepare the aircraft. Problems arose, however, when we came to pay the bill. In addition to a $32 charge for landing and parking from ASECNA, the aerospace body, we were presented with a $100 charge from the airport. Allegedly, there was a $50 fee every time a passenger was dropped off or picked up, and they considered Sophia as a passenger. This incredibly high charge seemed to be a way to cash-in from the oil industry and other private operators; indeed, it didn’t seem that any scheduled flights came, despite the good facilities.
We reached something of an impasse here, with the unfriendly official behind the desk refusing to accept that we might both be pilots; despite being presented with both of our licences, a copy of the manifest listing two pilots, and numerous receipts from previous airports listing “2 crew, 0 passengers”. The main objection given was that, as Sophia was a woman, she clearly could not be both a doctor and a pilot! Sophia dug her heels in, quite rightly, and refused to pay. Eventually, with the help of the air traffic controller as translator the fee was waived and we made good our escape before the fuming official could come up with another objection. The thought had crossed my mind earlier to just jump in the aircraft and flee, but given that we’d be heading to another location in Chad that seemed like a really bad idea.
As we took off on runway 04, an oil industry turboprop was cleared to land on the reciprocal runway 22. The tower had planned it carefully, though, and there was no conflict. This time we climbed to only 3,500ft for the flight, enjoying the views as we went along. Parts of the landscape were just as devoid of human intervention as parts of the Sahara had been around Mauritania; not a single sign of human existence could be made out in the forests below. Occasionally one came across something quite incongruous, such as a large freshly tarmacked runway in the middle of nowhere. It was not on any of the charts, and there were no buildings or people present. The nearest town was miles away.
The only wildlife we saw were herds of cattle dotted here and there, often clustered around a muddy watering hole. Not a single elephant, hippo, or the like. My friend James, who was desperate for me to take a photograph of a hyena for him, would have to wait a little longer. We were cleared into Sarh from 30 miles out and landed smoothly on the dirt runway; our first of the trip! The apron was tired and overgrown, with clearly no commercial traffic visiting; indeed, clearly not much of anything at all came to Sarh.
A military man, once again, escorted us to the terminal. The airport director welcomed us, and spoke good English, which was a very pleasant surprise. Although our French was getting pretty good, it was still quite mentally taxing using it so much every day, particularly with everyone speaking so fast. He let us know that he’d be posting a police guard on the aircraft, as the location was not secure, and told us he’d see us the next morning for our departure. After the drama at Moundou, this friendly man was a very welcome change.
We hopped onto a couple of moto-taxis (we felt like old hands on these by now) and sped off towards the hotel we’d been recommended, the “Beau Sejour”. We were welcomed and seated in the restaurant with a free bottle of water, before being informed that unfortunately all of their 23 rooms were rented out long-term to a Canadian oil company. However, the owner also owned a vacant house nearby we could stay in if we wanted to. He drove us to a large gated villa and showed us around; it was almost empty, with a few plastic chairs in the main room, and just one of the four or five bedrooms made up for someone to use. Given our lack of other options, we decided it would do nicely for a night.
We dropped off the baggage and headed back with the owner to the main hotel for lunch. Once again, it was the ubiquitous :”Filet du Capitaine avec frites”. This fish certainly seemed to get around, everywhere from Senegal through to Chad and no doubt further still. We were served tea afterwards (“The English must always have tea after a meal”, said our host), and then shown around the hotel compound. The Canadians were really moving in. They’d converted a few rooms to offices, installed temporary cabins for storage and their own dining hall, and were in the process of putting up an enormous satellite dish for an internet link. The owner was busy building another block of rooms to cater for the demand. They had even brought in their own ambulance; the true oil company way, it felt nice how they look after their people.
We relaxed in the restaurant for a while, and the chef then came to accompany us by moto-taxi to an internet cafe. We cruised around on our little fleet of three for a while, before it became clear that there was no operational cyber cafe, and headed to our rather strange villa to spend the afternoon instead. After a few hours we were collected by the owner, and driven to the main hotel for dinner. We sat with two employees of the Canadian oil company, based out of Calgary, who worked here in 1 month shifts; 1 month in Chad, 1 month off at home. Apparently working here was quite a challenge; construction quality and safety were non-existent, and the costs were higher than in any other country that they’d worked.
We were collected, somewhat later than stated, from our accommodation and placed onto moto-taxis for the ride to the main hotel. Here we were served a simple breakfast of bread, jam, and tea. Perfect! The owner of the hotel drove us from here to the local hospital for a brief visit, and some equipment donations, before dropping us at the airport. The plan was to fly to Abeche in eastern Chad, and only an hour from our stop at Geneina in Sudan; the Sudanese were expecting us at mid-day, and with Sudan being two hours ahead of Chad, we’d need to be close by to have any chance of getting there on time.
The official at the airport office was helpful, processing our flight plan for us and preparing the bill. We were a little dismayed when told that we’d need to pay $12 for landing, and a further $9,600 for one day of parking. Deciding that we should probably challenge this, we determined that instead of putting the aircraft weight as “2” (tonnes) in the calculation, he’d elected to use “2,000” (kg) instead. The bill was quickly reduced to a more palatable $22 overall. Negotiations in the military office were not so simple, with the officer in charge wanting to bill us a $60 “security fee”. With the help of the tower personnel, this was halved.
We rolled down Sarh’s dirt runway once more, making sure to keep the aircraft moving any time that anything more than idle power was applied to minimise the risk of stones being sucked up and dinging the propeller. The flight to Abeche would take around three hours. We flew at 3,500ft to enjoy the views; the countryside was covered in sparse forest, with a multitude of small bare sandy areas; we wondered what could have caused them, as they all seemed to be located in the centre of groups of the same kind of tree. An hour or so into the flight we passed a nature reserve, listed on the chart as an animal park, but we didn’t see any animals at all.
As we neared Abeche, the temperature rose steadily. We were flying north, in the general direction of the Sahara once again. We flew over herds of cattle and camels as we arrived at the airport, which had to one side of it a large military area; old shipping containers had been used to create walls around the various compounds. We parked over the far side of the apron from the terminal, where there were some rings in the concrete to tie the aircraft down. A few other aircraft were in attendance; two twin turboprops, one of them in UN markings, and a Cessna 206 in the livery of the francophone charity “Aviation Sans Frontieres”.
After we’d secured the aircraft, the driver of the airport bus took us to some accommodation nearby. It was only a few minutes walk from the airport, and was a spare room in the compound of a UN Agricultural program that had three beds available for visitors. We were amazed to find that it even had an internet connection! Soon after arriving we took a tuk-tuk ride to a nearby restaurant for yet another dinner of fish/chicken and chips, and then into town to try and withdraw some money. Despite visiting three banks, their ATMs were all either shut down or out of order, so we decided we’d have to try again in the morning.
Back at the compound, we discovered that the lights did not work; but the internet was fine, and even the air conditioning functioned (somewhat). We spent the evening sitting in the dark, drinking a very nice bottle of liqueur that Sophia had purchased some weeks before in advance of our flight to Sudan the next day; we’d heard that this kind of drink would be emptied out onto the tarmac if discovered, so decided not to risk offending anyone on our arrival!
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