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U3A Writing: Flying To Africa

…The tram which we caught from the hotel had a heavily armed soldier at each end. We went to buy stamps at the post office and we had to walk between sandbag emplacements with armed police who were examining everyone who went in…

John Ricketts tells of flying from Machester to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1953 – a journey which contained enough excitement to last most folk a lifetime.

We were married on Easter Monday 22nd April, 1957, and I was due to take up the headship of a school in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) on 1st May. So instead of travelling by sea as I usually did, we had to go by air.

I had booked to go by Central African Airways which was a company jointly owned by Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. We were to fly from Manchester to London and then on from there.

Trouble started immediately. After we had boarded the aircraft in Manchester, they found that a door would not close. We sat there for hours while they fixed it. This meant that instead of arriving in London around eight o’clock, it was after midnight. They took us to a hotel for the night but it seemed that as soon as we had got our heads down we were called to be taken back to the airport for a five o’clock check in. Eventually we boarded the plane and took off at about eight o’clock.

In those days the range of the planes was very limited and they frequently needed refuelling. Therefore the second leg of the journey was to Algeria where we landed about lunchtime. The hotel we were taken to was the George V, during the war Eisenhower had each room named after the name of the officer who was billeted there. I think that the name of our room was Bradley.

We decided to give lunch a miss and see as much of Algiers as possible. So after a quick wash and change we made our way to downtown Algiers. We were surprised at what we saw because we had forgotten that the whole country was in revolt against France. The tram which we caught from the hotel had a heavily armed soldier at each end. We went to buy stamps at the post office and we had to walk between sandbag emplacements with armed police who were examining everyone who went in. As we entered a department store, I was frisked down and Elizabeth’s handbag was tipped out and carefully felt around. We made our way up to the Governor’s Palace wanting to take pictures but as soon as we did so we were surrounded. Our little Brownie camera was seized, opened, the film removed and we were unceremoniously ushered away. I have never, before or since, been in a place where there was so much tension.

Yet, in spite of all this, life was going on as usual. Old Arab men were sitting out in the sun, women were hurrying along with armfuls of baguettes and the stores were full of shoppers. Near a church we saw a group of young girls dressed up in white, long dresses following a nun along the road. It was obvious that they had been rehearsing for their Holy Communion celebration. All were acting perfectly normally in a city of tension.

After wandering about for four or five hours we returned to the hotel to be greeted with cries of “Where have you been ?” When we told the questioners about our trip to Algiers, the asked “Didn’t the stewardesses tell you not to leave the hotel because Algiers was too dangerous?” Nobody had told us or if they had we hadn’t been listening. Honeymooners have other things to think about. (As a postscript five days after our visit someone took a bomb into the hotel and destroyed a large part of it )

We were up early the next morning and set off south. Looking out of the plane windows we could see the vast expanses of sand of the Sahara Desert. About mid morning the pilot told us we were going to land. But why and where? All we could see was desert. We put down on a desert airstrip surrounded by sand and barren hills.

When the plane’s door was opened it was like opening an oven door because the heat hit you. We had stopped to refuel in the middle of the desert at a town called Tamenrasset which you can find in southern Algeria. In the parking place to which we had been taxied there was another plane. Sheltering in the shade of it’s wings were two very young soldiers. Elizabeth went to speak to them. They told us they were conscripts and had been sent to do their two years to this remote spot where there was absolutely nothing to do. They were forbidden to go into the town because several had been murdered. According to them they lived in a fort which came under attack most nights. Their main complaints were a lot of bad wine and a shortage of bad women.

While we were waiting we went into a lounge which had some fans on the ceiling which only served to move the hot air around. While we were drinking the cold drinks provided, a Frenchman came up to talk to us. He had heard Elizabeth speaking French to the young conscripts and seemed glad to talk to someone different. He told us that he had been in the desert for thirty years and could not imagine living anywhere else. He was married to an Arab woman and his children spoke Arabic and French in equal quantities. Yet in spite of all this he and his family had been threatened and he knew that very shortly they would have to leave.

He was in despair. “Where can I go?” he asked. “I haven’t lived in France for more than thirty years. My family don’t know France. How will I be able to earn a living? This is all I know”. I have often wondered what became of him and his family.

The next leg of the journey took us to Kano in northern Nigeria where we were to say the night. Elizabeth had a friend there who we had agreed to meet for an evening drink. As we got off the plane we saw two men with long trumpets riding camels up and down the airstrip. We were told that it was their job when planes were coming in to make sure that the runway was clear, to drive off any animals or people so that the planes could land safely.

We had a quick drive round Kano seeing the mud brick houses and a few of the sights and then went back to the hotel to wait for Elizabeth’s friend who was a nurse at the local hospital. We waited and waited but she didn’t come. We had a few hard words to say about her because if we had known that she was not coming we would have gone out on the town.

Eventually a taxi pulled up at the hotel and Elizabeth’s friend got out, looking much the worse for wear. She told us that she had been taken into the hospital where she worked with appendicitis and that she had discharged herself for a few minutes to see us and that she was going back to have her appendix removed. We made our silent apologies for the hard things we had said about her.

Another early start the next morning The plane taxied to the end of the runway, the engine picked up revs and with a roar we were off. Faster and faster down the runway. Suddenly there was bang, the plane swerved across the tarmac, the passengers were thrown from side to side, held in their seats only by their seatbelts. Gradually the plane slewed to a halt and we were told to evacuate the plane as quickly as possible. Looking round at the plane a safe distance away, we saw that one of the five foot high wheels was shredded. We had obviously had a blow out. We were lucky to be alive.

We waited in the airport building watching our plane being towed in. While we were waiting Elizabeth took the opportunity to phone the hospital to find out how her friend was. The operation had been a complete success. After a couple of hours the pilot came in to tell us that we could set off again. He said they hadn’t had a spare tyre in Kano but that they had pinched one belonging to South African Airways. So, very much later than was intended we set off again.

Because of the delay it was dark by the time that we reached our next stop, Brazzaville, on the river Congo. The river was very wide at that point and as we sat on the hotel balcony we watched the lights of Leopoldville on the other side. We spent the evening watching the various boats going up and down and across the river.

The next morning heralded the last day of our trip. From Brazzaville we flew on to Lusaka where a good number of the passengers disembarked and then on to Salisbury (Harare) the end of our journey.

It had been a wonderful and memorable trip. We had made friends with some of the other people on the plane while we were sharing the same experiences. It had been more like a cruise than a modern day plane trip. It’s a pity that flights are not like that these days.

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