Gitanes and a DC-3

The Hotel Juba, Mogadishu, in better days

The Hotel Juba, Mogadishu, in better days. Image from a postcard.

In Nairobi, my visa finally came through and now I was on a Somali Airlines 737 bound for Mogadishu, or “Mog” as it’s known. I arrived on a Thursday and found a taxi to the Hotel Juba, named for the river which flows far to the west of the city. I flipped on the breaker and went out to find something to eat while the water got hot.

Later, a Friday-morning phone call to the American Embassy put me in contact with Conoco in the city, and I was entertained for a day before I was flown out to the desert camp with a load of supplies the next day, Saturday.

The DC-3 swept in low over the desert sand on its final approach to the Conoco airstrip. [1] I looked out the window for any sign of life and saw none. Finally I braced myself for the bumpy landing I knew was coming. I had been told that Somali military flight crews weren’t known for their abilities, and although the DC-3 is very forgiving and the sandy dunes soft, I was happy to finally bump onto the desert tarmac and taxi to nowhere.

I helped the pilots offload in the bright light of early morning and then watched as they climbed back aboard the airplane. Moments later, after both radial engines had coughed to life in a cloud of blue smoke, the DC-3 was pointed down the runway and lifted off through a turmoil of sand and dust. I watched as it turned south, and only for a moment wondered what I had gotten myself into.

The gypsy women of Gitanes fame

The gypsy women of Gitanes fame

It was still early, but I arranged bags and boxes into some semblance of shade against the near-equatorial sun, preparing myself in the event of a long wait. At the time I didn’t know that the camp was only 4k to the southwest of the strip, since I hadn’t seen it looking out the window on the approach.

I had acquired a Gitanes habit for the strong-flavoured cigarettes with the distinct aroma. The fact that they were filterless didn’t help. Not to be outdone by the smoke and dust of the departing DC-3, I lit one, inhaled, coughed and hunkered down.

Half an hour later I was picked up and flown to the base camp by one of the company helicopters flown by a contract pilot whose name I can’t remember now. We landed in a cloud of dust and dirt and sand. Now I know why our main and tail rotor blades were lasting only a couple of hundred hours max, I thought to myself.

Base camp

Conoco base camp – Somalia 1975

The base camp was a row of dark green tents, with a smaller complement of bleached gray tents for the flight and maintenance crews. The whole camp looked better from the air than the ground, but I figured that it would end up being just like home for the duration – and in fact it turned out to be a reasonably good camp.

I grabbed my duffel from the back of the 500 and wandered over to what looked like the cook tent and introduced myself to the party chief. After a cup of coffee he led me to my tent – four-sided, walled, with a camp bed and mattress, a nightstand and a washstand. I stowed my gear and wandered out to the helipad to take at look at the equipment that I’d be flying.

[1] Here’s a link to both the strip and the 1975 campsite 4 kilometers southwest via satellite. I didn’t know it at the time, but the camp would turn out to be pretty comfortable. Back to top

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