Tag Archives: Nairobi

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.


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.

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

Waiting for a visa

After spending somewhere near twenty or more  hours on airplanes flying from Montreal to Nairobi, I was ready for some rest when KLM’s flight landed early in the a.m. I walked down the stairway and across the tarmac into the dimly-lit Embakasi airport and immediately thought that I had stepped back into the ‘50s – or even earlier. Huge wooden fans on long cords hung down from the ceiling, and their slowly turning blades pushed the warm air down into the old, dimly-lit terminal building.

Nairobi Hilton, 1974

There was lots of construction going on around the Hilton in 1974

When my bag finally arrived, I grabbed it and walked out to the front of the terminal to look for something resembling a taxi. Swarmed by the usual offering to carry bags, I let one lead me to a waiting car, and I climbed in – right into the driver’s seat. Damn! They drive on the left! Eventually I got it sorted out and from then on I automatically got into the back seat of anything I was riding in.

The ride into the city was something else. First, there weren’t the city lights on the horizon that I was accustomed to seeing in North America. No big deal, I thought. We’re obviously a long way from anywhere. Second, on both sides of the highway we kept passing campfires, with barely-visible shadows sitting around the dim light, trying to keep warm in the cold night air. This is a road into a city, I asked myself? Well, apparently it was, and shortly we were in the middle of a poorly-lit downtown Nairobi.

Local entertainment

A little local colour. I went to school with a Carvalho. I wonder if it’s any relation.

That driving-on-the-left thing nearly got me killed the first time I tried to walk across a street mid-block. Not being the street-smart kid that I ended up being by the time I pulled out of Kenya, I looked in the wrong direction before stepping off of the curb. At the last second I saw something coming out of the corner of my eye and I pulled back, just in time to narrowly miss being smacked by a car coming from what to me was the wrong direction. After that near miss, before crossing the street I learned to look in the opposite direction to what I was accustomed to in North America.

I sat around Nairobi waiting for the Somali embassy staff to arrange my visa to get into the country and out to the Conoco project in the north. They were familiar with the project, but for some reason they just couldn’t get it together, and I languished for three weeks.

From later talking to other expats who had entered Somalia, I learned that the easiest and quickest route was through Italy. Italy had a good colonial relationship with Somalia up to the 1940s, and certain parts of that relationship had continued. I let Ottawa know, and subsequent personnel were routed through Italy without delay.

That didn’t do me any good.

I spent my three weeks waiting for the visa by exploring Nairobi and the surrounding countryside with a vengeance.

A Christmas present

While staying at the Hilton, on Christmas Day I met a girl from Haifa, Israel. I had stopped to take a look at Kenya’s version of Santa Claus performing on the Hilton’s mezzanine, and since she too was alone, I introduced myself to Irit Frakter, and we moved on from there. I later learned that Irit had lost a close friend in one of Israel’s constant skirmishes with neighbouring countries and that she was in Nairobi to take a break before a fresh start.

Irit would accompany me on my daily trek to the embassy to check on the status of my visa, and then we would spend the remainder of the day walking around Nairobi, exploring all the nooks and crannies we could find on our own in this beautiful city located almost 6,000 feet above sea level. When we got fed up with that, we rented a car and driver and toured Nairobi National Park, just south of the city, where all the African wildlife a young guy from a small town in Canada could ever want to see was available.

Irit Frakter, Haifa, Israel

Irit and our driver in Nairobi National Park

The Hilton was a popular place for Europeans and others to stay while in Nairobi, so when it was booked, we’d move down to the Stanley Hotel and the Thorn Tree Café for a different taste of Nairobi hospitality. The Stanley was a gracious old place that had been in existence in its various incarnations since 1903. We thoroughly enjoyed the old-Africa ambiance, different as it was from the brand-new Hilton.

Eventually, Irit and I parted company. She went on to Mombassa and then back to her home in Haifa. Several days later I received my visa.

I was bound for Mogadishu.

A little music trivia: The song Kung Fu Fighting was playing virtually non-stop on local radio stations. At that time it was the number one song in that part of the world.

Today, Nairobi isn’t so tourist-friendly and I’ve been told that it’s better called “Nairobbery”. Such freedom of movement as the two of us experienced and enjoyed in the mid-‘70s isn’t common any longer. That’s unfortunate, since Irit and I really enjoyed our time together spent wandering around in that amazing city.

Years later, when I was no longer flying, I learned that Steve Mills, formerly with the company, was residing in Nairobi. A quick Google search will turn up this 2006 bio from a South African conference on credit reporting systems in Africa:

Group Managing Director

CRBAfrica Ltd.

Stephen Mills is the Group Managing Director for CRBAfrica Ltd in Nairobi, Kenya, a position which he has held since 1990. In this capacity, Mr. Mills has been responsible for establishing a network of credit reference bureaus in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr. Mills has a varied background in aviation and humanitarian efforts. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of Horn Aviation in Somalia and Sudan, operating a humanitarian airline on behalf of the European Union, from 1987-1990. Prior to that, he was company representative for Regtek Anstalt Ltd. In Kenya, responsible for aviation and oil and geological surveys (1982-1987), and earlier, he was vice president for international operations at Viking Helicopters Ltd in Canada, with operations in North America, Africa, and Middle East.

Mr. Mills began his career in the UK’s Royal Airforce, and as a Professional Footballer in Netherlands. He is a Kenyan national.

The Dark Continent

The Dark Continent

I had been flying Model 47s right up until New Year’s Eve, when I dropped off Helair’s flagship, CF-HEL, in Thunder Bay. Five days later, in early January, 1974, I was in Kenora at the Helair facility to obtain my turbine endorsement.

Gerry Ossachuk gave me my check-ride on C-FDNF, a Hughes 369c. After plodding along in Model 47s for thousands of hours, this, for me, was the epitome of modern helicopter transportation – even though my first sighting of a Hughes 500 had been in five years earlier in Uranium City in the fall of 1969. Now that I was actually flying one, I could tell that the piston-engine helicopter era was essentially over. While it would take some time to convince our paying customers to come around, the inevitable was written in the winds of change.

A few days later I was off to Red Lake on a Water Resources job. Two weeks after that I was in Pickle Lake working for Ontario Hydro in support of their 205 slinging poles. Thunder Bay came up in the windscreen too, until I finally ended up in Dryden working for the Ministry of Natural Resources on Dryden 16, and subsequently, Dryden-18, while flying C-GODW, one of Larry’s new yellow and black Hughes 500c turbines. It was a joy to fly, not having those obscene bags hanging off the sides that were so ubiquitous on the 47s.

Over 500 hours later, in December of that same year, I found myself in Nairobi.

Getting there is half the fun

Getting to Nairobi hadn’t been entirely uneventful, and in fact it was a 20-hour marathon of airplanes, airports, taxis and cargo hangers. For amusement on the night flight across the Atlantic, I wandered up to the cockpit of the 747 and spent some time chatting with the pilots. (Try doing that today and you’ll end up in shackles and chains while being deposited at some out-of-the-way airport in the middle of nowhere, beaten with a rubber hose and sent packing to Gitmo.) My first question was ‘where’s the compass’, after which I explained my background. I think they were more interested in my flying career than I was in theirs.

Before I left Ottawa, Larry had asked me to track down some missing parts at Heathrow. As soon as I could, I hired a taxi to haul me around to all of the air freight facilities in an attempt to track down the missing parts. Eventually they were located and late as it was, I headed back to the terminal in an attempt to make my connecting flight to Amsterdam.

Surprised as I was to discover that the DC-9 was still at the gate, I was even more shocked to find that I would be the only passenger on the flight to Amsterdam. The stews were almost as taken aback as I was, and ended up getting a picture of us together, one  lonely passenger surrounded by all of them.

Entebbe in darkest night

At some point in time during the night flight out of Schipol and Frankfurt, and after watching the grass fires below us in the Sudan during my 20 hour marathon from Montreal, one of the pilots announced that the KLM Royal Dutch flight we were on would be stopping in Entebbe, Uganda.

The girl I was sitting with was beside herself when she heard the announcement, and the closer we got to Entebbe, the more agitated she became. She told me that she had specifically checked with KLM to determine if our flight was direct to Nairobi. Assured by the airline that it was, she had purchased her ticket. Now we were doing an unscheduled stop in Uganda – not a particularly appealing destination for an Israeli at that point in time.

Never one to look the other way when a woman was in distress, I suggested that perhaps we could pretend that we were married. After her initial shock at that remark passed, she went along with me. In the event that we became separated, we exchanged passports, and at that point she appeared pleased to learn that I was Canadian. I found a blanket, and from the time we landed until we took off again, the two of us huddled beneath it with only our heads visible.

Why that airplane was going to make an unscheduled stop in Entebbe was a mystery that the two of us discussed at some length. It didn’t help that the airport went into blackout once the aircraft was on the ground. When we finally came to a stop some distance from the terminal building I heard a cargo door open and voices yelling – no big deal, I thought. Obviously there was something on board that needed to be offloaded – in blackest night.

The real shock for the two of us came when the front passenger door opened and a person of obvious African descent boarded the aircraft. When he finally got near our row of seats, we could see that he was carrying a can of insect repellent in each hand. His job was obviously to ensure that no insect of any variety was left alive. After fogging the cabin, he departed the plane and the door was secured. By then, the cargo door had been closed and we were ready for takeoff one last time – once the runway lights were turned on.

Finally, we were headed for Nairobi’s Embakasi Airport.