Africa Travel Diary: In Transit

Now that I’m here at Erichsvelde, our family’s old farm nestled at the foot of a mountain, on the green and red shrub-land stretching for kilometers in all directions somewhere in central Namibia, the memory of the journey here seems distant.

I do remember going into the airport, our entire family armed with only hand luggage – one in eight pieces of check-in baggage is stolen or tampered with by the handlers at Johannesburg airport – and thinking that I felt like I was already in Africa, that this moment was just a prelude, an old dream, a memory. Even as I was living it, it felt like I was re-living it from afar, and inhaling the air of the airport into my lungs and closing my eyes, I imagined that it smelled like the air of the farm, fresh and earthy like dung and dewy wood, not like car exhaust and jet fuel. Looking back now, this memory makes the present moment seem more real, although at the time I couldn’t have known what the air here really smelled like. Now I do know – it is like I imagined it, and so heavy with water after the rain that it feels like you could drink it.

I’m sitting in the front room of our bungalow (the Kid’s Quarters as I will call it, being temporary home to myself, Z B and T) surrounded by large animal skulls and stuffed heads (Kudu, Gemsbok, and Eland with thick curly horns that wind vertically upwards like pincers), and a glass of juice in front of me. It is about an hour after dawn. Outside, I hear a cow moo.

While we were waiting at the airport, Dad told us about how he and his friend D used to smuggle aeroplane engines out of Zimbabwe. D was a pilot, and he was looking for a way to help out all of the farmers who were trapped in the country, unable to move any of their wealth outside of Zimbabwe due to strict regulations. D hit on the ingenious idea of flying in with a few old spare engines at the back of the plane, then switching these for brand new ones bought by the farmers, placing the ID tags of the old ones on the new ones, and flying out again. The engines could then be resold to recover the money outside the country.

D needed a co-pilot and Dad, who was working for a bank at the time, felt like he needed some adventure so he volunteered. The plan worked very well, but the flying was tricky. Dad had to navigate by following a railway line by eye from the air. At one point they had a close call – just before making a landing at Zimbabwe airport, the plane’s electronics malfunctioned, making it impossible to move the flaps on the wings and effect a normal landing. Protocol states that an emergency landing then follows, but the pilot must first fly a figure eight over the airport to alert everyone on the ground to steer clear.

The landing itself went without a hitch, but once on the ground they knew that a confrontation with the authorities would be unavoidable. There was a high danger that their operation would be uncovered.

A stern looking official approached them and politely asked them to come into the main building. They had no choice but to follow. Inside, they found that a class for young pilots was underway. “Could you please explain to the class exactly how you handled the emergency? It is a textbook example!”

So they were the heroes of the day, teaching the young students how to perform an emergency landing, and nobody paid any attention to the engines stacked at the back of the plane.

I don’t know the exact time here in Namibia because there are few clocks on the farm, and I’ve switched off my phone because it doesn’t have reception. Even at Johannesburg airport, when we tried to call mum because we were five minutes from boarding the flight to Namibia and she was nowhere to be found, none of our phones worked. Luckily when aunt S appeared, we were able to use hers.

“Mum, where are you?” T shouted down the phone, while a P.A. announcement called Mum to gate A28. She was at Terminal B, because that’s what it said on our ticket. Unfortunately Johannesburg airport often fails to make updates over the PA because, according to S,  `nobody listens anyway’. With only minutes to go, Mum found herself stuck in a huge line at international customs. The situation seemed hopeless.

Not to give up so easily, Mum held on tight to her bags and simply barged through the checkpoint, past the guards in uniform and everybody else, without even being scanned. She just made a break for it. Her mad dash paid off – the officers were so busy that they just let the harmless-looking white lady go, and Mum made it to the gate just as we were queuing to get on. Her boarding pass scanned without trouble, even though it had not been scanned at the security barrier moments earlier. We got on the plane, and left the country for Namibia (while both in Southern Africa, Namibia is not a part of the country of South Africa – don’t get confused).

Thinking about the incident later, as we piled into the white van that Dad had rented to take us from Windhoek to the farm, I recalled the announcement of the jolly pilot as we had entered Johannesburg. “There is no need to fill in an arrival card upon landing,” he had said in a thick South African accent, “there is no need to fill in any paperwork at all. Welcome to Jo’burg folks.”

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