Archive for June, 2009

Comings and Goings

June 26, 2009

The skies above the Outpost will get busy now.

The Season has begun. High paying clients on their way out to the Wild West to shoot with cameras or shotguns depending on their proclivity (and their pockets: it costs more to shoot a leopard for real than to capture it in a lens). Their flying machines touch down briefly on the sand strip to refuel, passengers disembark to stretch their legs and use the small airport’s loo. If you’re a woman it’s a squatting affair. It might be the first time they’ve used one like that. They’ll either wrinkle their noses and hold it in (which isn’t a wise choice: this is a big, big country, even from the air) or mark it down as part of the Experience.

High, high powder blue skies without the tiniest snatched fragment of cloud.

Just the odd plane.

Eldest daughter came home in one on Monday. For her summer break.

My friend E whose company is patronized by high-paying camera toting punters organized it.

You got any planes heading west, I asked her, with space for one?

I’ll see what I can do.

Then, how much does she weigh?

Empty seats were taken up with camp supplies, calculations were made as to what weight allowance remained. Enough, I hoped for a tall, lean 15 year old and her bag.

I promise she’ll have minimum luggage, I told E.

She did. Because her kind mother had brought the rest home in the car the previous week. A journey that took ten hours.

Eldest daughter arrived in just two.  Stretched long legs as she clambered out, thanked the pilots who she confided later smelt nice (men’s perfume, she explained, which she approves of being an atomized scent fan of such notoriety herself that I swear she is single handedly responsible for ripping the ozone layer from right above our heads) and came home.

Almost full house, then. Four out of five.

The last time Hat and I departed from the same small facility it was on – for a change – an astonishingly Precise Precision.

The tiny departure lounge which is painted glossy spearmint green was packed to capacity with optimistic people all hoping to get to the capital that day. Precision has competition in the face of Air Tanzania which is back up after a several years hiatus, a brief fanfare of jubilant return and another – admittedly briefer – hiatus when the global aviation authorities found it flouting about 3567 mandatory criteria. Precision heaved a sigh of relief as the competition was grounded.

But they’re back with vengeance.

We sit quietly holding our bags on our laps so that nobody trips over them on their way to the squatting loo and our breath in the hope nobody comes and reports a delay. Or a cancellation.

A large table is carried into the waiting room, there is barely enough room for it beneath the television which is suspended from a wall bracket and blaring music in a snowstorm. And then the table is laid as for tea, thermos flasks and bowls of sugar, cups and saucers, plates laden with slices of cake and fat brown, oil-slicked-samosas, which, prostrate on a napkin look like plump tanned German tourists who have secured the right pool-side towel.

Hat’s eyes grow wide. We have never witnessed a refreshment facility here. Our mouths begin to water.

And then, table all set, two uniformed staff stand sentinel beside it and announce sagely,

Any Air Tanzania customers, please come forward for a cup of tea, invites one. Or coffee, adds his colleague. And cake, suggests the first, not to be outdone in the hospitality stakes.

And then.

Air Tanzania passengers only. Not Precision.

There is the tiniest silence as this information filters into the heads of the assembled passengers before we all begin to laugh in disbelief.

A few of the invited travelers shuffle forth, a bit embarrassed, to collect a cup and fill a plate.

Hat looks on in disappointment. I feel like asking the gentleman who sits back down beside us, laden with samosas, if my daughter can have one. But Hat’s at the age when such maternal pleading would embarrass. So I refrain.

Air Tanzania arrives and races down the strip, kicking up a brief plume of dust. Most of the passengers gaze out miserably. Precision should have been here first.

There are, amongst those waiting, a handful of earnest Europeans. I try not to stare, fabricating stories in my head about what they’re doing in far flung outposts. One bears a handlebar moustache and a bum bag pulled high above his rib cage. I don’t know whether that’s for ease of access or because he’s so thin (he is) that any further down his lean torso and it would be in danger of sliding over narrow hips and presenting a tripping hazard. There is a young girl trying to immerse herself in a book on Africa. The pages are still brightwhite and fresh and new. Like her. Not marked and dog-eared and stained with coffee and cynicism (like me?). There is an American family, each armed with a laptop (universal and ubiquitous accessory to show you mean business as you determine to Make Poverty History). And there is a young man wearing unworn Tevas and carrying a leather manbag. He is sporting neatly pressed khaki shorts trendily long (though not well pressed enough to be rid of new shop creases). He reminds me of somebody. I try even harder not to stare as I fish about in my memory bank for who it might be. His large framed white sunglasses are pushed on top of his head. It strikes me. Daniel Craig. That’s it! Daniel Craig. Though admittedly a less rugged Craig: I don’t think James Bond wears Tevas and white lady-framed shades?

Air Tanzania loads waiting baggage into the back of a shiny pick up truck and swoops the 200 meters from the departure lounge to the plane.

Precision lands, rather gracelessly – its planes, old ATRs are called the mules of the skies and are less streamlined that Air Tanzania’s gleaming snow white and new-blue ones.

Precision passengers heave an audible sigh of relief and watch our luggage being chucked onto a handcart and wobbled out to be loaded, one wheel of the four threatening to come loose so that the whole ensemble seems to limp.

Do you think they’re trying to save money? Asks Hat.

The planes board almost simultaneously. The American family is split between the two, their agent made a mistake. (I know this because they reminded themselves of the fact loudly lest we think they are assuming above-their-station Royal Family habits of not all flying with the same carrier).

I bet I’ll get to Dar before you, the cocky young Air Tanzania bound son says to his mother who is anxiously fretting about where and when they’ll all meet for lunch, my plane looks newer and faster than yours. (It is).

No you won’t, says an eavesdropping Precision employee a trifle smugly, you are going via Kigoma (way out in Tanzania’s west, on the watery border with the Congo, you couldn’t get further from the east-bound capital if you tried) You will not get to Dar es Salaam until 3 pm. We will be there before one.

It is really, really hard not to laugh as I skip out to climb aboard my waiting donkey.

And be just the tiniest bit pleased that for once Precision was the right choice.


Feeling Small

June 2, 2009


sunset over rift


If you stand at the edge of the Rift and look down, far, far, far down, you can see Zambia sprawled scrub below you and veiled in dust. If you wait long enough, you can watch the sun setting, as if this is the precise place that the gods, having scoured the planet, deigned that this is where one could witness it sink to greatest effect – all bleeding pinks and molten oranges – and settling to sleep behind bruised western hills.

If you stand on the shore at Lake Malawi with the concertina’d Livingstone Mountains crashing and collapsing into blue depths behind you and caramel coloured sand beneath your feet, you’d swear you were at the seaside: you can’t see the opposite shore. Just water. Miles and miles and miles of it. You expect it to taste of tears. You anticipate the crackling of salt against sun dried skin. But no. None of that. We watched a dugout beach itself and unload enormous pots fashioned to perfect rotundity by hand. No wheels. Just careful, perfectly dexterous, perfectly patient, hands.


water water ...


And if you stand in Tanzania’s chilly southern highlands you’ll need a fleece. Perhaps even a scarf. Or a beanie. The nip there pinches hard and long and it’s difficult to remember you’re still in Africa, just degrees beneath her wide sultry equatorial waistband. I couldn’t get close enough to the fire in the southern highlands. A hot water bottle, I enquired? But how to explain, in Kiswahili? Lily-livered feeble framed thin-skinned white woman. Not that anybody said so: they just smiled kindly and said that no, they did not have a rubberized container that I could fill with boiling water and take to bed with me.

I don’t know how many miles we did. A thousand? Two? A road trip that took us, Hat, husband and I, on a horseshoe arc from the centre of the country to the very tip so that we rubbed shoulders alternately – according to our night-time destinations – with Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia and back home through Lupa in the west. I lay in my bed there, on our last night, and listened to what nothing sounds like. And I smiled into the dark, and I thought I lived in an outpost …

Sometimes life distils down to tiny. Tiny little me. Getting out, onto that long road, beneath those big skies, to witness those huge, vast, overwhelming vistas reminds you that, in the grand scheme of things, you’re really very small.

big views

 I think it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time?

We arrived home to smiling dogs and our own beds. We clambered from a car strewn with gum wrappers and dredged heavily with biscuit crumbs. We stretched limbs tangled too tightly for too long and we agreed, It’s good to be home.