Category Archives: Africa

A third helicopter arrives in Djibouti

Air France unloaded C-GOEB from the belly of its 747 in Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. I had previously flown this machine on an Ontario Hydro job in Wawa, and like all of the new 500s purchased in 1974, it too was a nice little aircraft to fly.

Some out-of-the-box assembly was required, and once that was completed on February 13th, it was discovered that a new fuel control was needed. That took some time to arrive, and a good thing too, because I had been attempting to get the aircraft through customs. While I have never proclaimed myself to be bilingual, I had to make use of a lot of franglais that I had learned back in Canada.

In frustration, I finally turned to the French national who was the overseer of the Djibouti airport. He willingly provided me with a list of local airport officials who would require baksheesh before the aircraft could be released. Heeding his advice, I greased the wheels, thus allowing forms to get stamped, signed and delivered, and the aircraft was finally allowed into the country.

Back alley shenanigans

We love you good time always. With the help of Sammy Pollock's phrase, I crawled out of this alley with two sober women who were trying to rifle my pockets for loose cash. They were unsuccessful, and I returned safely to the hotel at the crack of dawn. What became of the rest of the party that night, I have no idea. Thanks again, Sammy.

I had a lot of time to get around and see the sights of Djibouti, and I enjoyed that time tremendously. It was a walking-around kind of town back then, although I had rented a Citroën 2CV (a deux chevaux) with the umbrella-like shifter hanging out of the dash. That was a great little car, and it took me all over the city in my pursuit of things to see and do. First thing in the morning it was a trip to the market for cheese, and then on to a stop by the bakery for hot bread fresh out of the oven. Once the makings were acquired, it was down to the shoreline to see what had washed up overnight.

Looking down on the street from the Hotel Djibouti

Looking down onto the street from the Hotel Djibouti

We could never be guaranteed two nights in a row at the superior Hotel Siesta, so the downtown Hotel Djibouti became our second home when the Siesta filled up with reservations. A flight crew from Lufthansa complete with stews ended up staying at the Siesta when the airline went on strike. That was entertaining solely for the fact the the captain was an older, arrogant German (tutti fruiti) who appeared a tad depressed still that the war had been lost. I didn’t envy the rest of his crew in the slightest when I saw that they all made an effort to laugh over-exuberantly at his jokes.

The beach from the Hotel Siesta. The palm trees are long gone now.

An early morning sunrise overlooking the beach from the Hotel Siesta. The palm trees are long gone now.

Eventually the fuel control arrived, got installed, and the aircraft was flown to the Conoco camp by the mystery pilot. It was obvious that the mystery pilot actually thought that all three of the pilots paid to be there were incapable of doing their jobs. Go figure.

Sammy Pollock saved my ass again when I got tangled up with a couple of love-you-good-time girls at a bar in Djibouti. After imbibing with a bunch of miscreants off of a Panamanian-flagged ship, some of us let the girls lead us down a rather lengthy garden path to their lovely home in a back alley. When I finally came to on the darkest street I’ve ever seen in a strange city, my pockets were being rifled by a couple of lovely young things. Being incapable of seeing the whites of their eyes, I looked for their teeth, and yes, there were definitely two sets, gleaming white in the surrounding darkness. I was able to invoke Sammy’s phrase, inshallah, and lo, the women led me out of the alley to a street that I was somewhat familiar with. It was either that, or they gave up trying to find my stash that I had hidden in my socks.

By the time we hit Djibouti, we all were so starved for any kind of North American culture that we went to see Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn. It was playing in a primitive open-air theatre, dubbed in French, but we didn’t care. It was enjoyable all the same.

French Somaliland was established in 1894, and from 1967 to 1977 was known as the French Territory of Afars and Issas, so named for the two dominant populations in the region. Independence from France was granted after a 1977 referendum.

The 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade (13e Demi-Brigade de Légion Étrangère, 13e DBLE) has been based in Djibouti since 1962. Every day on multiple drives to and from the airport, I would pass by the Foreign Legion sandstone façade on the edge of the city. I’ve looked for the building in today’s satellite images of Djibouti, but I can’t find it. Perhaps it has been replaced by a more modern structure.

Dj visa

Mad Mullahs and American oil companies

Updated February 2011: As of February 8th I have located this fort on Google Earth at 8°08’47.91″ N  50°02’26.36″ E. Image data dated 11/3/2004, or 12/14/2004. It’s not visible from the most current satellite imaging due to cloud cover obscuring the ground.

The location is nowhere near Eyl, which is far to the south, but is at Gabbac, Nugaal.

The fort from Google Earth, 2004 imagery

The fort from Google Earth, 2004 imagery. It's located at Gabbac, Nugaal in northern Somalia. Over the intervening decades it has obviously deteriorated.

One of our return flights from an Indian Ocean R&R brought us past this fortress, possibly constructed during the Dervish war in the early 1900s. I’m not sure if it’s Somali, Italian or British. The British did build a number of forts to guard access to the interior of their territory. In that case, the location of this fort is ideal, constructed as it was on the high ground overlooking the river in many directions.

A British fortress in the Mad Mullah war

The location of this fortress is now known. See above for information.

The Dervish State was an early 20th century Somali Muslim state that was established by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan – known to the British as the Mad Mullah. Hassan was a religious leader who gathered Somali soldiers from across the Horn of Africa and united them into an army known as the Dervishes. This Dervish army enabled Hassan to carve out a powerful state through conquest of lands claimed by the Somali Sultans, the Ethiopians and the European powers.

The Dervish State acquired renown in the Islamic and Western worlds due to its resistance against the European empires of Britain and Italy. The Dervish forces successfully repulsed the British Empire in four military expeditions, and forced it to retreat to the coastal region. As a result of its fame in the Middle East and Europe, the Dervish State was recognized as an ally by the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire. It also succeeded at outliving the race for Africa, and remained throughout World War I the only independent Muslim power on the continent. After a quarter of a century of holding the British at bay, the Dervishes were finally defeated in 1920, when Britain for the first time in Africa used aircraft to bomb the Dervish capital city.

Europe replaced by America

In more modern times, it would appear that British and European dominance of the region has been replaced by U.S. oil company dominance. Ongoing oil company exploration in the region has perpetrated the fantasy believed by successive Somali governments that oil is just one next step away from being discovered. Why this charade continues to be foisted on this broken, poverty-stricken third world country is beyond explanation. America’s decided lack of a cohesive foreign policy, and one consistently based on the availability of oil, is no doubt one of the reasons for this sad debacle in Somalia.

This series of documents details continued Conoco oil exploration in the various regions of Somalia and an ongoing history of oil fraud. In my opinion, the fraud is intended to keep current and future Somali governments under the thumb of the United States. These early ’90s documents were obtained through a U.S. Freedom of Information Act request, and were released in 2006.

As detailed in the link’s PDF files, Conoco’s continued involvement with the U.S. government in claiming that oil may – or may not – be discovered, and that if it is – or is not – it still has some bearing on funding future exploration. Even if the wells come up dry – and they have for decades since we were there in the mid-70s – the financial well has not come up dry for successive friendly members of succeeding Somali governments.

There’s nothing quite like American foreign policy based on oil. You can’t beat it for the entertainment factor to this very day. Unfortunately, it’s at the expense of yet another country in an ever more impoverished and civil-war-ravaged region of the world.

Canadian company joins in the fraud

Even Canada feels the need to insert itself into the equation. A Canadian oil company attempted to inflate its share prices on the London stock market by pretending to look for oil on the “promising geological and other data that Conoco had left behind.” Canadian penny stocks and their fly-by-night promoters and companies are everywhere.

Ass-kicking not allowed

We had been down in Mog on an R&R for four or five days. When we returned to camp we learned that one of Conoco’s agents, Bob Johnston, a tall gangly young guy, had been removed from the camp and sent packing.

It seems that some time after we all departed for the bright lights of the big city, the Muslim contingent of the camp – which was obviously substantial – had set up a prayer circle in front of Bob’s tent. It wasn’t so much the prayer circle that annoyed Bob, however. What bothered him the most was the human alarm clock that was wailing in front of his tent every morning as regular as sunrise.

To me, it appeared as though the camp’s Muslims had it in for Bob. And true, Bob’s manner could be just a tad obnoxious and abrasive at times. This time, he should have been smart enough to admit defeat and have the boys move his tent to a more distant and quiet location, but that wasn’t Bob.

Finally he had enough, and one morning the over-exuberant Bob got out of bed, put on his boots and kicked the praying ass of every man that was bent over in front of his tent. Needless to say, even in 1975, Bob’s ability to kick Muslim ass went over like a lead balloon.

Conoco played it smart and hustled his ass out of the country post haste. Considering that at the end of January ten religious sheikhs had been lined up against a wall and shot [1] by the Somali government for religious interference, I figure Bob got off pretty light in the punishment department.

We never saw him again.

[1] Political Islam in Somalia, Georg-Sebastian Holzer, p.24.

Lazy gets its reward

The Brits I ended up flying around on the Conoco contract were conducting the gravity survey portion of the job. If I remember right, they were Petty-Ray Geophysical employees, a crew of young guys who weren’t all that keen on actually doing any work.

Perhaps they had heard what the Pakistanis were being paid.

Our afternoon shift began at 1400, after the mid-day break. We’d fly back to pick up the line where we left off earlier in the day, before lunch. At around the 1500 or 1530 mark, the gravity crew would start making noise about wanting to get back to camp. Always one to try to keep the customer happy, I obliged and returned the crew to camp, usually by 1600, and sometimes earlier.

After a few days of this, the party chief called me into the mess tent and asked me why I was bringing the guys back so early. They were supposed to be working until 1700, which – given the insistence by the crew that they should be back an hour before then – came as a complete surprise. During our discussion it became obvious to me that he had talked to his crew of lazy Brits, and they had sold me down the river by telling him that I was the one who was insisting on their early return to camp.

Once I got that straightened out to his satisfaction, the party chief was going to tear the boys a new asshole. Rather than let him do that, I suggested that I could handle the situation and keep peace in the camp. The party chief liked my idea, and for the following few days I did what I was being paid to do, plus a little extra.

Daylight didn’t last much past 1800. And sunset – like sunrise – came at exactly the same time every day. If we weren’t on the ground by 1820, it was dark – right now. I wouldn’t have a lot of leeway to get the lazy British bums back to camp for the night after stretching out their workday to make up for lost time. Nevertheless, when the crew started making noise about heading back to camp for the day, I ignored them and continued flying them on to their next survey points, as far past quitting time as I could manage.

For three or four days I kept them out late, and managed to arrive back in camp about a half hour before the sun set. I did that for several days, and they eventually got the hint, stopped sniveling, and did their jobs. I can imagine that after hours, the bitch factor in camp was pretty high among the gravity guys, at least for a few days.

We must have made up for the lost time, because the party chief never brought up the subject again.

R&R Indian Ocean

Occasionally we’d get a day off to relax around the base camp. Some of us would congregate in the mess tent and shoot the breeze or tell lies to pass the time. I’ve always been interested in what people will do to make a living, so I got into a conversation with one of the young Pakistanis employed on the Conoco contract.

The funniest thing I heard during that bit of story-telling was that the Brits on the job were being paid $300 a month. Given my attitude about the Brits and their work ethic on this job, I thought there was some justice to that. The Pakistani kid was getting $500 a month and sending it all home to his family. When we all went on an R&R, he would remain in camp in order to save his money.

I never mentioned what I was getting paid for fear of starting a riot. In fact, one of the pilots-who-wasn’t started quite a brouhaha by taking it upon himself to pay a couple of the locals more than the others.

Beach firepit

The beach fire pit with its huge tortoise-shell wind shelter on the shore of the Indian Ocean. The white sand beaches ran for hundreds of miles along the Somali coast.

Our days off were not always spent in camp.

Jean-Pierre Jacquard, a French national, was a renowned geologist and consultant hired by Conoco for this contract. He had recently conducted a study of U.S. gold reserves, and although he had signed a confidentiality agreement, he would sometimes let slip little nuggets of non-technical information just to pique our curiosity.

Jean-Pierre would round up the helicopters and load them with engineers, locals and himself and point us in the direction of the fantastic sand beaches that were 80 or 90 miles away to the east. We’d fly along the coast until we found a likely spot for the afternoon, then circle and land. During the over-water part of the flight, I noticed sharks swimming to the surface, and often wondered if it was the high-pitched sound made by the tail rotor that drew them into the shallow waters.

Imagine that boat in that surf, although it does look as though it could cut it pretty good.

On one beach sojourn near Gabbac, Nugaal, we chose to land not far from a well-used camp on the beach that a Somali had constructed for his family. He had a fire pit and his shelter set up, and his wooden boat was drawn up on shore. If you look closely at the fire pit in the picture, you’ll see that he has a wind break around his fire constructed entirely from huge tortoise shells. He even had a couple of wooden pallets leaning against his shelter that he had rescued from the ocean.

It was an apparent rarity to see such a setup, since Somalis considered fishing to be beneath their dignity. In the middle of the worst drought in their (at that time) history, I found this aversion to fishing rather sad.

On the beach

Jean-Pierre Jacquard (smoking the pipe) would load all of us into the helicopters and we'd fly to the beach on our day off.