Category Archives: Africa

In Search of Lost Time*

On the Horn of Africa, prior to changing our survey location, Jean-Pierre Jacquard would meet with the headman of the local area to which we were moving—probably a good public relations move, even in the Somalia of 1975.

I recall one time when we landed on the edge of a very small village. The headman’s minions came out to greet us and we were shepherded to the center of the village where we were introduced to the headman. We were then seated on the ground and offered chai.

I looked up at the glass of hot chai as it was handed to me. Cloves, what looked to be crushed cinnamon stick, and un-dissolved rock sugar were evident. There was also a fly suspended in the middle of the glass of tea. I figured that the fly must have been boiled with the water, since it wasn’t floating on top of the tea.

Of course I drank it, since it would have been considered an insult had I not.

What I remember most clearly, tempered by time, is this: That was the best tea I have ever tasted. It was spicy, it was sweet, it tingled the palate, and it went down like fresh water. I couldn’t believe chai could taste so good. Whether or not the fly contributed to any of this, I have no idea.

When we departed, the entire village, dressed in their finest and most colorful clothes, had come out to see us off. It remains a picture (that I unfortunately do not have) that I will never forget.

I’ve been trying to duplicate the taste of that tea ever since. I think I almost have it now.

*À la recherche du temps perdu—with apologies to Marcel Proust. (Link updated September 2017)

Citroën 2CV

Citroen 2CV - The deux-chevaux

Citroën 2CV - The deux chevaux

I have fond memories of the vehicle I used while I was in Djibouti–a Citroen 2CV, or deux chevaux as it is popularly called. It was produced (with variants) from 1942 to 1990, with a 375cc engine producing a mind-numbing 12 horsepower. Mind you, that’s all that was needed to get around town and see the sights.

The first time I took the driver’s seat I was surprised at the 4-speed shifter sticking out of the dash, but I soon became accustomed to the push-pull-twist utility of the attached handle.

Flip-up windows reminded me of trailer-park girls I used to know back home.

The C2V’s initial design was to entice France’s peasant farmers into the 20th century and away from horse and buggy. It had to transport four peasants and 50kg of farm goods to market at 50kph over roads torn up by artillery shelling and steel tank tracks. It had to be capable of traversing a plowed field while safely carrying eggs.

The enticement worked, and at production’s end over 3.8 million had been produced.

Viking’s African adventures began in 1973

The Kenya Gazette

The Kenya Gazette provided notice of application

From The Kenya Gazette, 13 April, 1973, page 483, Gazette Notice 1164:

Pursuant to the provisions of regulations 6 and 7 of the East African Licensing of Air Services Regulations, 1965, notice is given that Viking Helicopters Limited [ … ] has applied to the East African Civil Aviation Board for a licence to airlift within Tanzania employees of Terra Surveys Limited together with their equipment and provisions, to be engaged in surveys to be operated by the said Terra Surveys Limited in Tanzania, with two Hughes 500 C types of helicopters, for a period of one (1) year.

Dated at Arusha this 30th day of March, 1973.

On the same day on page 482, Gazette Notice 1163, Terra Surveys Limited applied for a licence to operate

Aerial survey in an area situated in Tanzania between latitudes 2° 30’ and 12° 00’, and longitudes 29° 00’ and 40° 30’ with one DC3 type of aircraft,

for a period of one (1) year.

On July 20th, 1973 in The Kenya Gazette, notification was posted that both licenses were granted as applied for.

Tanzania

Bugging out

Around mid-March, Marc Pigeon arrived in camp. George Krois and Earl Lozo were already there. John Juke arrived not long after. As I was cleaning out my kit from the helicopter, Jean-Marc walked up and asked if he could keep my compass, map and signal mirror. I was happy to let Marc have the compass and Michelin map, but I kept the mirror. The Silva Ranger compass had a mirror attached to the lid and he could use it for signaling if needed.

Caravan

There would be no more desert caravans in my life.

I had done my agreed-upon time, and I would now be heading home, via Nairobi, Amsterdam and London. I was in a good mood when I climbed aboard the Somali Air DC-3 heading south to Mog. A couple of days later I was headed to Nairobi, and then onto an East African Airways flight north.

I spent a little time in Amsterdam chasing Dutch girls riding bicycles, but it was too cool and rainy after my time spent near the equator. I was chilled the entire time. I left for London but the weather there obviously wasn’t any better.

I walked around London seeing the sights and generally doing the tourist thing. On a couple of occasions I stopped to ask people for directions, but I gave that up when I discovered that no one out in the streets actually spoke any English. I can’t begin to think what it’s like in London today, but I can’t help imagining that there isn’t a single soul residing there who speaks English now.

To make matters worse while in London, when I finally met the native varieties who could speak English, every damned one of them made an automatic assumption that I was American. It goes without saying that pissed me off to no end. Finally I got tired of explaining, gave up and agreed wholeheartedly with the stupid bastards each time it was mentioned. By the time I left that miserable island in the middle of nowhere I had professed to be a resident of every American city the silly buggers put me in.

My taxi-ride to the airport sums up my London experiences. At about the halfway mark on the way to Heathrow, one of the rear tires came off the axle and went rolling down the highway in front of the cab. I considered it a perfect conclusion to my stay in the city.

After arriving back in Canada, I did my check ride and headed off on a contract with Manitoba Hydro at Conawapa.

John Juke left us in 2011.

Nomads and evacuation plans

Somalia's semi-arid desert landscape in drought mode

My urban North American background wouldn't have enabled me to survive for long without help in this environment.

On the Horn of Africa I had the only map of the area–a Michelin road map, believe it or not–that showed no actual roads, but only trails. To this very day my faith in Michelin maps remains inviolate, particularly as their accuracy pertains to that part of the world.

Occasionally, in a book store I’ll pull out the most recent version of that old Michelin map, open it up and discover that the old routes haven’t changed any. They’re still marked as trails, and trails they were, heading mostly north and south and plied by camel caravans and nomads on foot migrating from point to point depending on the season, passing by our campsite, stopping only for water.

I remember one occasion, while waiting for Jean-Pierre Jacquard and the umbrella-boy to return to the idling helicopter. I was tapped on the shoulder by a solitary man. (I flew with my door removed.) To put it mildly, I was incredibly surprised. He was grinning, aware of my shock at seeing someone else in this quiet isolation.

The nomad made a sign that he wanted a drink, so I deplaned and got one of the water jugs out of the back. He rinsed his hands, and then I let him drink his fill. By then I had learned a few words of Swahili (the local language was Somali), but beyond that, we were unable to communicate verbally. He made the sign for a cigarette, so I gave him a couple. He smiled, nodded, and was off on his quest.

Here was a man, alone with only his walking stick and his kit, who had been traveling great distances on foot. Where he was from and where he was headed, I had no idea, but I knew instantly that he was a better man than I was. In his environment, I would be but mere fodder for the hyenas that thrived on the weak.

While it never came to fruition, we did have an evacuation plan to get us and the helicopters out of the country in the event the stability of the Somali government become a problem. The plan wasn’t elaborate.

Djibouti was a mere 700 kilometres (430 miles) northwest of our camp. The simple plan was to load up the back of the 500s with two drums of fuel, climb in, light up and head for the Gulf of Aden.

We never had reason to put the plan into action.