As part of our “Day in the Life” series, the following is a day in the life like no other! An account of an international ferry flight from West Africa to Eastern Poland, provided by, Author and Pilot, Darcy Hoover.
The sweet song of African voices swell in harmony through the open windows of Cathédrale Saint Louis and drift to the rooftop patio of Hôtel Loisirs Mandji. To the North, a football match unfolds. I shift my gaze East, towards Cape Lopez Bay, as a Dauphin helicopter skirts across the sky. I spend most late afternoons on this rooftop, but tonight will be the last. I am in Port-Gentile, Gabon, West Africa, a small town on a narrow peninsula reaching out into the Atlantic. Yet another contract in Africa has come to an end.
The horizon finally devours the great red sun. The sky blooms into warm hues of pink amongst massive thunderheads far, far out to sea. The pinks deepen into strong reds with yellow bands artfully brushed across the sky as the fiery brim of the sun wavers. Then all the sky churns into a maelstrom of crimson. I watch then head downstairs to join my friends for dinner.
I love Gabon. At times we fly the Super Puma down the coast to Gamba for the afternoon, where elephants roam freely through the village. This is a proper jungle, smack dab on the equator. While we wait for hours under that equatorial sun, I hike down tunnels of foliage cleared by elephants, amongst the song of the cicada, careful for snakes or crocodiles along the waterways. Libreville has its charm, Gamba has its elephants, but Port-Gentile has been our home for the past nine months. We took deep sea fishing trips far offshore, spent afternoons on the gorgeous beaches, we snorkeled and biked, dined and laughed. The people are wonderful, the French cuisine incredible. We favor the cuisine of Le Bistro, Chez Tantine Nanou, or the classic Café du Wharf; the old diner of ceramic tiles in exotic motifs, of colorful orange walls and bright yellow tablecloths, of elegant dark wood furniture, pink and purple drapes and black and white photographs hung amid local artwork and crafts, while vases of exotic flowers infuse life into every nook and cranny. Its vibrant cleanliness, a style, and class, that serves cayman and forest antelope. Evenings are spent playing pool at the Iguana Cafe, with its aggressive prostitutes and live music. I am blown away when the local lads lay into an eerie rendition of the Pixies “Where Is My Mind?” The town has all one could ever need, just avoid the Police checks and the tall man with wild hair who struts up and down Avenue Savorgnan de Brazza with his pants around his knees.
In the morning the two Super Pumas are prepped for flight. There is some issue with the Port-Gentile authorities, but we leave anyway. I pull the old girl into a hover, push over the nose and climb into the wind, turning North towards Libreville. The two Super Pumas are headed North to Poland and storage. We have poured over maps for weeks, all the permits are in place, fuel has been prepaid for all the stops up into Europe. We have a lot of US dollars hidden onboard, as cash is king in Africa. The route is not difficult; keep the sea to your left and head North.
We fly into Harmattan somewhere abeam Cameroon and visibility reduces to pretty much straight down. Malabo tower demands that we come in and land but we feign radio issues and continue North to Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
I’ve been designated the money guy for the trip so it’s my job to deal with the driver of the ancient fuel truck that lumbers up and rattles. Apparently, our pre-paid fuel has not been sorted and the driver advises us that a trip into a Port-Harcourt bank is required. It will take all day. Perhaps we will have to spend the night. Or we could pay cash??? I’m happy. I’m beaming. I’m more than willing to take a trip into a Port-Harcourt bank, maybe grab some lunch with my new Nigerian friend. He is not so impressed. It’s too early to delve into our cash reserves. I push harder, “Let’s go into town Buddy, I want to see Port Harcourt!” He pulls out his phone and has a quick discussion. Seems the payment has gone through and everything is golden, so no delay required. I’ve been flying around Africa for the past decade so this is not my first kick at the can.
Tanks full, we soon depart and climb back into the dust. Lagos harbor is littered with rigs. It appears that the downturn in the oil industry has hit hard everywhere. We push on down the beach past Ouidah (Bruce Chatwin anyone?) and into Cotonou, Benin for the night. Since the downturn in the industry lay-offs have been aplenty, so all that remains are the old-timers, and the co-pilot on this leg has far more time than I do. He has flown this route a dozen times. There’s no pilot on this trip with less than 10,000 hours. We take turns. I’ll fly right seat to Spain, then hop into the left seat and run the radios through Europe. The high-time co-pilot has taken all the paperwork, ferry permit and whatnot, into the Agence Nationale De L’Aviation Civile office across the ramp. I help the engineers tie down the blades and install the covers for the night. First, a military jeep arrives, demanding, “Who gave us permission to land?” They yell. I calmly tell them we have a flight permit and tower gave us permission to land. It’s not enough and they yell some more. Another truck arrives and demands the same thing. Then a third group arrives. All are excited and unhappy with our arrival. What are we doing there? What right have we? I wait for the lot to calm down then tell them to follow me into the ANAC offices as my compatriot has gone in with all the paperwork and required payments. I start walking across the ramp to the ANAC office, motioning them to follow. No one does. They all disappear.
After dinner at a decent resort, another old Africa hand asks if I want to walk into Cotonou and hit a bar we saw on the drive in. Sure, why not? I remove my watch, phone, and wallet and slip enough cash into my pocket for a short night in town. Off we go. A couple of beer later, it’s getting late and we saunter on back to the resort. Two lads on a motorcycle cut us off. They carry AK47s. I can’t quite fathom their uniforms. Police or Military I can’t say. They aren’t happy. They demand paperwork. We don’t have any. They say they will take us to the police station and we will be arrested and spend the rest of our days in a Benin prison. We shrug and follow them, they’ve got guns. They take us on a long walk to another large gentleman who is angrier than they are. He demands our passports and photographs them. He yells at us some more. I should be somewhat worried but all I can think about is how great of a story this is going to be. More yelling. My buddy doesn’t speak any French so the youngest pulls me aside and tells me my friend is being obnoxious and they might have to hurt him. “Nah, you don’t have to hurt him, he’s just obnoxious when he’s scared.” The lad rubs his chin thoughtfully. He goes over and talks with the large man. He returns and asks me how much cash I have on me. I laugh as he could have started there. We’ve been at this BS for over an hour now. If this was just a shakedown, why all the drama? I pull out my pockets to reveal $40 and some change. My friend reluctantly does the same. They relieve us of the contents and send us on our way. We almost make the resort when the motorcycle lads stop us again. We are marched back to the large angry man. He hands us our change and waves us off again.
The next morning we make the short haul up the beaches of Togo for an early night in Accra, Ghana. Ghana is a treat, especially after Benin. Everyone has a splendid night. I’ll skip the details.
Early the next morning we launch for Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire. The country is still officially at war, but apart from the plethora of UN aircraft on the ramp, there is little indication of trouble. In fact, we are all impressed with downtown Abidjan, appearing as modern as any city anywhere.
I’m led to a backroom across the ramp where the official seems to pull more charges out of the air, but we have little choice but to pay. Fuel payment is an issue once again so I tell the refueler that I have to make a few phone calls to assure the pre-payment is canceled before I pay cash, as we can’t pay twice. Somehow the pre-payment is accepted before I complete the call and we are soon off again with full tanks.
After overflying the downtown hub we decide a low level run up the war-torn country is in order. While the route is mostly uninhabited forest, it becomes apparent that we startle the odd village, as everyone runs for the trees as we pass overhead. We climb a few hundred feet. Soon we pass the impressive Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, a HUGE church just South of the Airport. Things are much easier at the small Yamoussoukro airport and friendly to boot. Small fees are paid, fuel is taken with no drama, and we launch for Liberia, Monrovia.
We eventually cross the border and call the tower. We are asked how many souls onboard at least a dozen times. As we approach they request an altitude that does not clear the hills to the East. We use some discretion. Once at the airport amid numerous white UN birds, we are met with a large bus. We are only sixty feet from the airport offices but are advised we must take the bus. They charge us $500 for the ride. We pay all the exorbitant fees but they are not made up on the spot; there is a printed list of the services provided and the going price. I even get a receipt.
The big Liberia Ebola scare of 2015 has just been declared over. Hand wash signs everywhere remind us of the horror that has recently plagued this pretty country. We grab a van into the RLJ Kendeja Resort & Villas. Ladies in colorful kangas with large loads on their heads waddle down the red dirt roads. Kids play everywhere. Chickens run about. It feels like quintessential Africa. The resort is a pleasant spot on the beach with boardwalks running to and fro. One pilot has arranged a massage and another heads for the beach in the dark. I opt for a nice dinner with a few of the other crew but the restaurant is out of everything we request. After going through the entire menu we ask, “What do you have?” They eventually find something for us. They are only now coming out of a terrible period so no one complains.
Next morning at breakfast the pilot who headed for a swim relates a story of nearly drowning: The evening prior was pitch black as he waded out, then a large wave crashed over him and he was swept out. He’s a competent swimmer and made it back to the beach, thoroughly exhausted. We had a laugh considering what would have happened had he disappeared in the night. We would have assumed he ran off with a local woman.
We are soon airborne again and claw our way for the next horizon, overflying the diamond mines of Sierra Leone, before settling into Conakry, Guinea. I offer chocolate bars to anyone who wants one. Things move quickly and everyone is friendly. It’s a pretty spot but only a fuel stop for our two Pumas. We’ve heard numerous horror stories of pilots on ferry trip being arrested in Guinea-Bissau, the country we pass next. One fellow recommended a low level run far offshore with the radios off, but we elect to cut straight across towards Dakar. We call in like the good boy-scouts we are and of course, they demand that we land at their airport, then our radios cease to function.
Dakar is quite a sight! Tower allowed a circuit around the impressive Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, a 50-meter high statue on a 100-meter hill before parking us way out in the nether regions of the airport. We shut down, tie down the blades, put on the covers and call for fuel. Tower reports we can’t get fuel out in the nether regions, despite previously advising them fuel was the reason for our stop. So we pull off all the covers and fire back up and air and ground taxi to a refueling spot, one at a time, before returning to our remote spot and putting the ole girls to bed all over again. Paperwork is again a headache then we grab a bus into the opulent King Fahd Palace Hotel on the most Western edge of the African continent. The rooms are gorgeous but we soon meet up at the seaside patio, where US Embassy personnel are having a blowout and cannonballing into the pool in their glitches. Dakar is amazing so one of the birds had a “mechanical” and we spend an extra day. We see a few sites in town before hopping a boat out to île de Gorée, a slave trading post of the 15th century. We hope it will be historically enlightening and a great photo op, but we are hounded incessantly by street vendors from the moment we arrived till our departure late in the afternoon. No one enjoys being rude but there is no other way to get breathing room. We’d rather spend another night in Benin than be subjected to that again.
We depart early the next morning back into the sands of harmattan, climbing above it for the clear blue skies of the Western Sahara.
Next stop; Nouakchott, in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Ah, dusty Nouakchott, where fine sand irritates the eyes and coat the teeth. Visibility is less than a mile so all we see as we line up for the runway are the rows of ancient square domiciles of town. Again our fuel prepayment is an issue but we handle it as before and make a quick turn around of the stop.
I had spent months in Morocco on previous contracts but had never been this far South. On previous contracts, we had driven into the desert and rented camels for forays into the dunes and explored the Atlas Mountains, but this was the real deal, with sand dunes stretching beyond one’s imagination. The only water we had onboard was this iron-enhanced crap I picked up in bulk in Libreville. It tasted horrible so we had passed bottles off where we could, and it was now getting low. Next stop we’d stock up with something drinkable. No one wished to put down out here. At times you’d see random nomads and stray camels but for the most part, the Sahara is more barren than anything I had encountered in Canada’s high North.
Dakhla appears more inviting, perhaps due to having left the dust-laden skies behind us. A small coastal town on a thin peninsula of sand that ventures out into the Eastern Atlantic, the sky is impossibly blue. We arrive after a long day as the sun sets. Here the fees are negligible but the bureaucracy maddening. We spend hours sorting everything with a lone official before being allowed to venture out into the parking lot. There are no taxis but a local fellow offers a ride to the Hôtel Bab Al Bahar, an enchanting establishment with friendly staff that thankfully serves gin and tonics. The driver accepts no fare for three trips from the airport to the hotel. I step down narrow stairs into the coolness of the cement, then into the lobby. I admire the simple painting above the ornate couch and wait for the concierge. The credit card system does not work, and local cash is required. There is a bank up the street and there is no rush, just pay before you leave please Sir. We drop our bags and wash the dust from our faces, then make our way down to the open-air restaurant that overlooks the water. We dine on tender lamb stewed in tomatoes while the lights of small boats dally past in the Bahía de Dakhla.
We have a mechanical issue the next morning that is worrisome as this is not a prime place to get parts into, but it’s quickly sorted. We launch for Laayoune then Agadir, flying low up the crumbling sand cliffs that border the heaving Atlantic, eventually leaving the Western Sahara and crossing into Morocco. With the dark mountains of the Anti-Atlas range to our right, the snow-capped peaks of the greater Atlas range unveil themselves as we draw North. At times we watch the dark earth and low hills and straight lines catch our eye. We spot crumbling walls of Kasbahs, ancient Portuguese forts of the 16th century. More villages appear as we continue. Rivers from the mountains feed the sea and green fields line their banks. We spot a bizarre mosaic; vast fields of white rectangles that radiate out in a Zellige-like pattern, the famous tiles of Moorish art. Turns out they are air-conditioned greenhouses that cover the entire area. After a while, a glare on the surface catches the eye, like the sun itself had fallen to earth. Behold the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station, the world’s largest solar energy project.
Although Dakhla is officially in Morocco, and we all cleared immigration into Morocco repeatedly on that stop, we did it ALL OVER AGAIN in Laayoune, so why wouldn’t we expect it to all be repeated ad nauseam again in Agadir? I swear each of us filled out the same Moroccan immigration forms two dozen times.
I had made Agadir home on two separate long-term contracts in the past, so I was very familiar with the place, and we now developed a legitimate maintenance issue and required parts. We booked into the 5-star Hotel Sofitel on the beach and let loose!
First meal following a long walk down the Agadir beach promenade was Le Mauresque Lounge for succulent tagine d’agneau aux pruneaux. This is one of my favorite restaurants on the planet, right up there with the Tamarind in Mombasa, dining on fine Portuguese fare while gunfire rang sporadic in riots across the harbor.
We rented dune buggies and raced into the Atlas Mountains and visited local Kasbahs for mint tea, then bartered with Berbers in blue for fine hand-hewn carpets. Some spent the days in the resort’s spa or poolside with a good book. No one was in a hurry to push on, but I wanted to get to Tangier. I can’t remember how long our little Moroccan holiday was but all too soon we were airborne again, filing IFR as restricted airspace littered the landscape. We topped our tanks in Casablanca (one of my least favorite terminals to transfer through as a passenger in all of Africa) then flared into Tangier Ibn Battuta Airport in the late afternoon. The Official who met us was pleasant and pushed our paperwork through without drama, and even gave my name and number to her Uncle for a trip through the city in the wee hours the following morning.
I was up early and walking the Ancien Medina with the Official’s Uncle, checking out the cafes frequented by William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, those drug-induced rants tapped onto scrolling ribbons of ink across thick parchment in that ancient city of narrow streets and countless cats. From the twenties well into the fifties, Tangiers was known as a place where anything could be bought for a price, a mythos that attracted expatriate artists and writers, many to escape the red-scare hypocrisy of McCarthy. I wish we had stayed at the Hotel El Minzah, a historic and classic hotel in the heart of the old town, and I swore to myself that I would make my way back and spend a few evenings, sitting on my balcony writing and watching the lights of Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar.
The aircraft remained serviceable and we were airborne mid-afternoon for Spain. Reports of migrants’ failed attempts to cross into Europe fills the news daily, so we keep our eyes peeled, but its mainly commercial vessels up the strait. After a couple of hours, we pass over 100,000 acres of greenhouses, supplying much of Europe’s vegetables, then flare into Almería, Spain. I am sure Southern Spain is gorgeous, and one of the engineers worked forest fires here for a few seasons and loved the region, but there was some holiday going on and everything was closed, the hotel was nondescript, and the only place we could find open was a Taco Bell at a strip mall. We were already missing Africa.
We took off for Ibiza and fuel, then on into Montpellier for unseasonably cold South-of-France weather. The first Frenchman we met was a snooty refueller but I barked back in the same snooty tone and got the Jet A flowing. Engineers found a rather serious item on the post-flight checks so it looked like we’d be exploring the area for a few days, despite the cold and rain.
First stop was the ruins of Nîmes, but I swear we saw everything there was to see within 100 miles.
The final stretch
Eventually, the parts arrive and we left the pompous French waiters for Dijon, the land of mustard and the Breitling Jet Team. We had planned our route through the Alps but a massive low pressure drifting through the region, especially in winter, made us reconsider. Service was much friendlier in Dijon but the weather was crap. It was near freezing and these Pumas did not have the flight-into-known-icing capability of the Pumas I flew out of Halifax offshore for a decade, so we were compelled to low-level scud running through Europe. That or stay put. We chatted to a local medevac helo pilot then elected to continue on. We pushed up to Luxembourg and they were more pretentious than the Frenchmen! I argued with the Tower then we just did what we wanted and there weren’t any repercussions. We spent a day to wait out more poor weather and hiked through town, but I was glad to be on my way. I prefer Port-Gentile to Luxembourg any day.
I think we were shooting for Prague but soon we were dodging hilltop castles and wind towers and crawling through the treetops so we dropped into lower country and diverted to Nuremberg. The weather worsened so we spent a few days.
One of the pilots is a history buff; so we made the foray out to the Nuremberg trials and museum, out to the Nazi party rally grounds and museum, the Imperial castle, and countless basement beer halls for bratwurst and sauerkraut. The classic bratwurst houses typically have large tables where everyone sits together. We sat with two couples well into their eighties, they grew up here in Nuremberg. We did the math and wonder what they had seen.
Once the weather finally lifted, next stop: Prague. Everyone LOVED Prague! We stayed at the opulent Grand Mark Prague. I’ve stayed in some swanky places in my day but this was the cake! I had two floors, a spiral staircase, a hot tub on the second floor, a patio with a view out into a wonderful garden, and more furniture than I have at home, and I’m pretty sure none of it was from Ikea. We visited the St. Nicholas Church and spent the day exploring all of the old city and fine dining. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, mostly Norway, Italy, and France but overall I find the environment expensive and well, kinda annoying. Prague was a delight! Friendly and inexpensive, with the most stunning architecture I’ve ever seen, at least two of the crew have taken their families back to Prague since the ferry trip. If you go anywhere in Europe, do Prague!
We saw it all but it was still too short. We took off on a sunny morning and climbed through a scattered layer to get above the mountaintops and crossed into Poland. I knew as we settled on the oleos at the hangar in Rzeszow that it could be my last flight for a good while, and I wasn’t wrong. There was no work for the Pumas in the near future, so we were all laid off as soon as we stepped off the airplane back home. We spent a couple of days exploring Rzeszow then I was back in Halifax with no job.
I was quickly rehired and back in Italy for an AW139 recurrent. Seems I was being sent to Kazakhstan and back on the payroll while the work VISA cleared.
While still waiting for that VISA I was sent to help some Brazilians through the AW139 simulator in Newark. While there I was told the work VISA for Kazakhstan wasn’t going to happen so I was laid off again. I ran into some brass from a company in Trinidad & Tobago. They just happened to be looking for an AW139 TRE, and I was a Sim instructor and SAR instructor to boot. The timing couldn’t have been better! I’ve been working in Trinidad & Tobago ever since. It’s a wonderful place and I have enough free time for some serious fishing.
Tarpon on a fly rod! I’m happy, but then if I’m flying or fishing, I generally am. Here I can do both!
Darcy has spent over 30 years flying in over 30 countries. He is currently flying AW139’s in Trinidad and Tobago but between visas, and between locations, he managed to write a novel, “a fictional story of life in East Africa…”.
Click the link below to see it on Amazon.
Disclosure: The above link is an affiliate link, meaning, at no cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase, which helps to keep the lights on.
For a much more detailed photo journal, from this ferry trip and others, visit Darcy’s photo website here.