Tag Archives: Somalia

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 Jaccard 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 Jaccard (smoking the pipe) would load all of us into the helicopters and we’d fly to the beach on our day off.

Revolution in the desert

The camp water truck

The camp water truck. Water was about half a day's drive away. It wasn't the cleanest, but filters were used - I think.

Locals were hired to do the grunt work on the helipad. They rolled fuel drums around, tipped them up and down, pumped the fuel and generally kept the pads free of the detritus of the camp. We prized the good workers, of course. The not-so-good had to be re-trained almost every day on how to open a fuel drum – not an entirely complicated task. I figured they were playing games, but what could I do? We were contributing to the local economy by creating jobs.

Or something.

I always tried to praise the better workers on the helipad and thank them for doing such a great job. I figured that if I was in that same position, I’d like to get a little feedback for the job I did, menial as it was. They were making a contribution to the flight operation by doing all the heavy lifting for us. Back in Canada I rarely had anyone to lift fuel drums for me, and so I let my appreciation be known to these guys.

Revolution in the camp

The pilot-who-wasn’t took it upon himself to pay the better workers out of his own pocket for their contribution to the smooth running of his helipad operation. It didn’t take long before the slackers learned about the surplus of shillings being flung about the helipad. They demanded that they be rewarded as well, even though their performance was subpar. What was obvious to them was that they were doing exactly the same job as everyone else – even though they didn’t do it very well – and they should be rewarded just like the reliable workers.

The poor camp boss had a revolution on his hands for a couple of days, but he finally got it resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. That was the end of payment for better services. What he did to quiet the lads down is unknown, but the pilot-that-wasn’t that came up with that idea ended up being suitably chastised.

R&R Mogadishu

Thank you, Sammy

I have Sammy Pollock to thank for cluing me in about Muslims. Sammy was one of Viking Helicopter’s Ottawa engineers, an old Africa hand who had spent many years on the continent. After he heard that I was heading to the Dark Continent, he pulled me aside and made me memorize a phrase [1] that stood me in good stead throughout my stay. I will be forever grateful to Sammy for doing that for me.

We love you good time

While in Mogadishu I always tried to stay at the Hotel Juba. It was pretty classy for its time, and the best place in town in 1975. The older hotels and their lobbies – both inside and out – were filled with khat-chewing layabouts, and at the time I wouldn’t have given a nickel for a room in any of them. Although, there was this one time…

Overlooking the grounds of the Hotel Juba with pool and patio. Not so bad in 1975 after coming into town for a little R&R.

Overlooking the grounds of the Hotel Juba with pool and patio. Not so bad in 1975 after coming into town for a little R&R. The pool was empty because of the prolonged drought at the time.

Jean-Marc and I ended up in Mog looking for a little relaxation. We took up residence on the bar stools of this one noisy den of iniquity because it appeared to have the best-looking women – but then, that was all relative to how drunk we became. The bars served liquor to westerners, but it was forbidden for anyone else. Of course, we both ended up shitfaced, and the Muslim bar-girls, who were drinking “coka” (Coca-Cola), were stone cold sober. All the time.

After turning down several of the uglier girls (which, given the nature of the beast, was pretty hard to tell in the dark bar) we settled on a couple of beauties who managed to speak better inglese than the others. In blackest night we ended up escorting our two favourite b-girls to their – how shall I say this – home adventure palace. After duly forking over the required shillings, we ended up in side-by-side rooms. Needless to say, the walls at best were paper thin, and each of us could hear what the other was saying, and doing.

After a suitable interlude, I could hear a man laughing, and then this girl’s voice saying, “Mama-mia, I don’t suck. I’m Muslim!”

Well damned if I didn’t almost fall out of bed laughing my ass off.

I’ve often wished Marc was still with us so that I could tell that story and get his reaction one more time. Unfortunately, he departed this earth a number of years later while flying in British Columbia.

Ed meets the Canadian Ambassador to Kenya in Mog

One of the incidents I had completely forgotten about occurred in Mog while we were all on an R&R. Some of the boys had gotten off of the beaten path one night and ended up wandering around Mog on foot in a bit of a fog early in the a.m.

Ed Pucci had this Team Canada hockey jersey that he wore on special occasions. That morning, the Canadian Ambassador to Kenya happened to be on tour in his limo. When he recognized the jersey, he had his driver pull over to the side of the road and accosted Ed and the boys and had them regale him with their tale of why they were in-country.

Small world.

Sadly, Ed Pucci and his sense of humour is no longer with us.

The benefits of clan warfare

Here’s the Hotel Juba today, from a satellite shot. Everything showing in the picture above is gone, except for the main building. If you zoom out, at the bottom of the shot even the residences across the street (see photo, above) have been destroyed. It’s such a shame. What a great way to advertise the benefits of clan warfare and Muslim extremism. As if the country wasn’t poor enough, now it’s completely broke, and broken, and I doubt that it will ever return to be even a shadow of its former self.

The benefits of clan warfare? None.

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Recent satellite view of the Hotel Juba grounds

The Hotel Juba today, wracked by gunfire and RPG attacks. The only rooms available are out front under tents.

The Hotel Juba today, wracked by gunfire and RPG attacks. The only rooms available are out front under tents.

[1] Right, Sammy’s phrase.

Salam ala’am alaikum, salam alaikum salam.

It worked every time I needed it to get my drunk ass out of a jam while I was wandering around a dark alley looking for my hotel – and believe me, I ended up in some very dark alleys. Whether it was a citizen; a police officer; a woman; every time I greeted a Muslim with that phrase, they took me wherever I needed to be, safely and securely. Thanks again, Sammy.

I wonder if that phrase would work today. Back to top

Life in the desert

Tusker beer

First marketed in 1923, shortly after the Kenya Breweries founder was killed by an elephant. Bia Yangu, Nchi Yangu means "My Beer, My Country" in Swahili.

As it turned out, camp life was pretty good for b’wana, although water was a major problem. It had to be trucked in from a half-day away. When poured into a glass, after about 20 minutes most of the dirt settled out to the bottom half of the glass while the top half remained a nice dull gray. We wouldn’t drink it, of course. We drank bottled water, and I developed quite a taste for the carbonated variety.

The beer we occasionally got was good too, but I can’t remember the brand. In Nairobi I drank Tusker, named after the African bull elephant, but it wasn’t a favourite of mine since it gave me the runs. Being the person I was back then, I drank it anyway. If I remember right, it was better-tasting than anything else they had at the time.

We had a reasonable camp cook, who fed us a lot of spaghetti. Thankfully, that ensured that the filthy water we had to truck in was somewhat purified by boiling.

We ended up literally eating the sacrificial goat – kind of like pork, but a tad tougher. We all got a kick out of that.

Camp tents

Tents are tents, but we had our clothes cleaned and pressed every single day. There are benefits to a safari camp.

We fashioned a shower out of a 45-gallon drum, painted it black and mounted it on a stand. One of the boys was responsible for keeping it filled. We had hot-water showers heated by the sun at the end of every day. In fact, because the drum was so dark, the water ended up being too hot, and we had to wait until later on in the evening when the water had cooled off, otherwise it was unbearable.

Every afternoon we had clean clothes – ironed and folded – placed on the foot of our beds. Consequently, we only needed two sets of clothes. We didn’t even have to make our own beds, since the sheets were removed and cleaned every day and the bed made up.

The tent was swept and dusted daily.

Flies. Need I say more?

Caravan passing by our desert camp

Camel caravans passed by our campsite on a regular basis. That all by itself I found absolutely amazing.

Perhaps the most amazing sight was the night sky. I remember that first night in the desert when I looked up at the clear dark sky. The southern cross virtually jumped out at me, and I knew then that I was most definitely not in Canada any more.

Desert sunset

Sunset came and went at the exact same times every day. It arrived fast too, unlike in the far northern hemisphere.

Drought, famine, starvation and death on the Horn of Africa

Somalia is no stranger to drought and the death it brings, as evidenced by the occurrence of the worst drought ever in its history while I was there. Animals, people – they were all dying from lack of water and grazing. Refugee camps had been set up in many areas of the country including the north to house and feed the people.

One day a herder wandered into our camp. He had lost his 12-year-old daughter while on his trek to a refugee camp with his animals. He asked Ali, our foreman if he would keep an eye out for her. Well, Ali came to us and asked if we could take a quick look, which we did. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see any sign of her, not entirely surprising given the starving condition of the hyenas caused by the drought.

Ali, our Somali camp foreman, was a pretty good guy, and all of us spent time talking with him. His dream was to buy a truck and travel around his country drilling water wells for his people. Of course, his biggest obstacle was money for the truck and drill since his annual salary amounted to 350 shillings a year. At the time, that was about C$35.00.

Whether he ever accomplished his dream is unknown, but at the time I had some sympathy for his plight and that of his countrymen.

New equipment, old pilots

Somali flag

The flag of Somalia

C-GOED was one of Viking’s ten new 500Cs that the company had acquired in 1974 from Hughes Aircraft. For this contract with Conoco Oil in northern Somalia, it was paired with a second, GOEC. They were both well-maintained by Viking apprentice Ed Pucci and an engineer. A contract pilot named “Tony” Marcantonio had been hired to fly the first Hughes 500C full-time. I would fly the second aircraft.

One of the continuing problems on-site was the extremely erosive sand and dust kicked up by rotor downwash – not a problem for the particle separator-equipped Allison engines. We were going through blades every 150 to 200 hours due to sand erosion.

The Conoco helipad and base camp, Somalia

The Conoco helipad and base camp - Somalia 1975

Normally we’d have two or three passengers on board. Since we weren’t working with maximum gross weights, I attempted to minimize or eliminate the time spent hovering during takeoff and landing and the consequent clouds of dust and sand. That appeared to work for me, and in fact the other pilot on the job commented on my “dustless” technique. Since I thought it was rather basic and obvious, I never did try to explain it to him.

Before I left Ottawa, Larry had asked me to ensure that one of the people that he had sent over wasn’t doing any flying on the Conoco project. He told me that the individual had had a heart attack, and consequently had been hired as an engineer on the project, not as a pilot. The last thing we needed was another incident similar to Doc Demerah’s, who, a few years earlier, had had an in-flight occurrence while flying a Bell 47. Doc hadn’t survived his heart attack; however, a passenger was discovered sitting on a float on the overturned 47 that was found floating on a lake.

I was put in the unfortunate position of being the bearer of bad news for someone who was flying, but shouldn’t have been per the terms of his agreement with the company.

After a day of seeing the man fly, I took him aside and attempted to be diplomatic in my approach. I tried to rationalize that we had two pilots on-site for the contract, both perfectly capable of doing the job. After all, Tony Marcantonio was one of the pilots that had been hired to do the flying. That went over like a lead balloon, and I could tell that he wasn’t going to listen to me.

Finally, I tried suggesting that he could taper off on the flying and slowly let Tony take over full-time, but the individual wasn’t interested in discussing the subject any further. He informed me that he would continue to fly and stubbornly and selfishly continued to disregard his agreement with the company for the duration of the job.

Catch-22

The sun was shining and the sky was blue. There was flying to be done – although not by Tony Marcantonio, who had been hired to do the flying. I guess he was supposed to be a phantom pilot on this contract while his flying duties were being done by another who hadn’t been hired to fly.

I scratched my head over that one. I have often thought the book Catch-22, written by Joseph Heller, was funny, but there’s nothing funnier than real life.

Since there was nothing more I could do about it, I filed it all away for future reference (today, perhaps), and lit another Gitanes.

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Ed Godlewski is no longer with us.