Thursday, 20 September 2012

Fasten Your Money Belts: Air Travel in Africa

Say what you want about South Africa, experts do agree that OR Tambo Airport's baggage thieves are among the world's finest. I sighed in a queue while airport company packers rummaged through my luggage, enthusiastically pilfering what they could, and surely glad of the extra time afforded by a two-hour departure delay of my flight from Johannesburg to Arusha, Tanzania.

Burning Rubber Bonfires
Six hours later, coming into Julius Nyerere International Airport I saw below the low-tech, nightmare dystopic landscape of Dar es Salaam.  A sea of tin roofs, and smoke from the primary local power source, which- according to the notes for this article I made, written on an airsick bag- was piles of burning tyres.

I eventually arrived in Tanzania after forking out roughly Burkina Faso's agricultural budget for my plane ticket. This rankled, as the same expense could have got me all the way to London with change for a pint. Instead here I languished, delayed and hungry, but too emaciated of wallet to afford a lick of a postage stamp.

Lemmings and Death Threats
The hysterical stampede of Tanzania border control resembles closest a sheep dip organised by a seminar of lemmings. After a four-hour delay for my connecting flight, I was given a hand-written boarding pass, with the sole word “Arusha" scrawled on it, in the crazed, white-knuckle script more commonly seen in earnest death threats or illegible doctor's prescriptions.

My Swahili is patchy, and extends no further than “Nice cow. What mileage?” and “Local price! Not Bono price!", so I have no idea what the immigration officials were shouting while I waited for my visa. They could have been hailing me with welcome pleasantries, or, more worryingly, possibly auctioning my organs off piecemeal among themselves for some sort of raffle. I may have been being sized up illicit organ donor black-market substitute for a cake sale to raise money as a farewell office gift for the smiling official currently biometrically scanning me, and possibly gauging the market price of my innards. I guess I’ll never know.

Braille Scrabble and Kidnapped Luggage
Due to the strange blindfold Scrabble game of logistics north of the Limpopo, the 737 for my connecting flight to was requisitioned to Zanzibar, I was press-ganged onto a single propeller Volkswagen Kombi to Arusha, and my molested, bewildered luggage was sent to Nairobi.

Despite the delays, luggage theft, and unintelligible visa shibboleths that are all part of the service, flying around Africa is not cheap. And judging by the headlines, it can also be nasty, brutish, and short. The airline that carried me to Tanzania boisterously crash-landed in Kadoma a week later. Mercifully there was no loss of life, but my return flight ticket on the self same airline lurked in my suitcase for the rest of the holiday like an unsigned death certificate.

I Blame Bono
Now that the world's white middle class has climbed Kilimanjaro, they're more open to being harangued about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat. I’m all for humanitarian aid, disaster relief, AIDS education, or affordable drugs, but aid in Africa has often caused schisms of hyperinflation in many economies. Aid-addled Harare is now, in the words of a local friend, “the most expensive city in Africa outside of a war zone." Amanzi restaurant in downtown Highlands offers same-day scallops flown from Scotland to pith-helmeted NGO expats famished after a day of rambling about their brand-new 4x4's.

I finally landed in Arusha five hours late, with just the clothes on my back. The night air wafted the scent of jasmine and cut grass, and the sky was filled with a spilt sugar bowl of stars. My old friend from faraway ran into my arms and hugged me. This moment of soul joy was worth surely the price of Burkina Faso's farming spend, no thanks to Bono.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hee Hee Tim - I so know your experiences - bear in mind I was flying somewhere in Africa for at least 10 days of every month in the last 3 years! I have nightmarish memories of Malawi Airforce laughing at me as we tried to take off in Blantyre cloud with a single engine mosquito as transport.... fortunately I am back in the lovely cut grass smell with Amanzi, scallops and pith helmuts a 5 minute potholed drive away.... wouldnt trade it for Jo'burg for anything!!