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Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Friday, November 23, 2001 07:48:46

Central Africa 2001: 6 - Bangui, CAR to Nairobi, Kenya

It would seem that my luck with lottery draws has remained consistently bad - and such was the case with the flight, although we also had more than our share of good luck mixed in as well. The episode of getting from Bangui to Nairobi was a real roller coaster ride - an on going "good news, bad news" joke!

It started when we went down for a beer at 4 PM. We figured on leaving for the airport at 5 to give lots of time for the flight, and wanted to line up the hotel car to drive us to the airport. It turned out that the hotel picks people up from the airport as they are desperate for business, but getting back to the airport is the guest's own problem. I was told it didn't really matter anyhow, as the Air Cameroon flight was going to be late. With 2 ½ hours in Douala until our Kenya flight, we could afford to be a little late, but not a lot. I asked the desk clerk to find out how late, but there was no one at the airline office or at the airport.

When it was going on 5, and no one had been contacted, Tim suggested we bite the bullet on taxi fare to the airport to find out what's going on. We checked out of the hotel and had just climbed into a cab when the woman who runs administration for the hotel came running out to tell us the agent for Air Cameroon had just called, and that the flight was cancelled. We thanked her very much, but decided to go find out for ourselves anyhow. It was possible that they could just be trying to hold onto us for another night or two for the revenue.

First we went to the airline office, which was closed, then to the other hotel, the Novotel, where we had planned to stay if there really was no flight. Our guide, Charles, was in the lobby - this was fortunate, as the desk clerk spoke no English. I explained our problem, he put it to the desk clerk, and the desk clerk said that the flight was going and that some hotel guests had just left for the airport - so away we went, believing we were fine.

The arrival at the airport building was a bit discouraging, as the parking area was deserted except for the cab that had brought the Novotel people, and there were no lights on outside the airport, or in the departure area. The doors leading into the check in area were securely bolted. There were two people sitting, and another little huddle of three standing. We questioned them, and they were all waiting hopefully for the Douala flight.

After about 20 minutes a military officer came up to us and said us the flight had definitely been cancelled, but that there would be another at 6:55 PM tomorrow. At that moment a rather short bald fellow dashed by dragging a wheeled carry-on suitcase and mumbling something about charters are faster anyhow. I didn't pick that up, but Tim did and mentioned it to me. I said, "Go check it out! I'll watch the bags."

A short while later Tim returned with the news that this fellow absolutely had to get to Douala, and that he had chartered a 9 seat plane for $US 7,000 to do so. He had said that if we wanted to join him it would be $2,000 each. We found that fairly easy to turn down, but after a few minutes he came to us and said, "Well, are you coming?" I explained that it was far too much money for us, and Tim added that the time wasn't really that critical for us anyhow. I said that we really couldn't pay more than $500 each, but if the $1,000 between us would help him out we'd be pleased to come. He said he wasn't even sure if he could sell seats to others, but would check.

He was back quite quickly, and said, "OK. Let's go!" We followed him into the customs area where we were informed we would also have to pay a fee of CFA 25,000, which we assumed was some kind of landing fee, so we agreed to that. In the end for some reason it never came up again, and so was never paid by us. Fortunately there were some immigration people around and we where stamped out of the country and hustled off to the plane, avoiding the CFA 10,000 departure tax charged at the airport.

The plane was a quite new single engine machine with 9 seats. In the end there were five passengers and the one pilot, who was suffering from a bad cold. The plane was fired up, ran smoothly, taxied to the end of the runway and we lifted off into the darkness. The flight was smooth for the most part, but it kept going through my mind how this was right out of the plot of so many movies. The remote outpost in the jungle, five people thrown together by chance in a single engine plane to cross 500 miles of trackless jungle at night. The cast would even fill out the movie. The mysterious Belgian who found it absolutely imperative to get to Douala regardless of cost, the French chairman of a timber company with concessions in the CAR and in Congo, and a Moroccan banker. It could have been a great jungle survival movie!

At any rate, we landed in Douala without mishap after about 3 ½ hours of flying. We were met by the charter company vehicle and taken to a VIP lounge, then escorted through customs to where we could check in. There were no customs checks or stamps - we were sped straight through by the charter company representative. Tim and I reached the check in counter for the overbooked Air Kenya flight for Nairobi, to find that our tickets were not acceptable. They had been issued on the ticket stock of the now bankrupt Air Afrique, and no one was honouring them. We had been to the Air Kenya office in Douala before going to Bangui, and had the tickets stamped as confirmed, but this still wouldn't do. The Air Kenya station manager showed up, and it was made clear that the flight was overbooked; our tickets were no good, we did have reservations but if we didn't buy new tickets the reservations would be given to someone else.

That being a very persuasive argument, Tim and I conceded that we had been out negotiated, and agreed to buy new tickets, so the boss man took us upstairs to his office where it took some time to establish what we would pay for the tickets, as his computer was down. Eventually, he pulled out some already written tickets for the same flight and charged us the price that was on them, about $US 645 each. When we asked about credit cards, we were told that there was no way, but that he'd accept the amount in cash in US dollars. Tim was running short, so I'd been paying for the flights tonight. When we left his office I was $2,290 lighter in cash than I had been in the morning. Not only that, but our next five flights are all written on worthless Air Afrique ticket stock - we will have to buy them all again. Once again, my theory on carrying too much cash was proved out!

I think the station chief, who by now was beleaguered with every ticket problem in the airport, felt somewhat sorry for us and wrote on a scrap of paper, "Yvonne - 1st class". We assumed this would let us use the first class lounge to wait for the flight, and thanked him profusely. When we checked in we were delighted to find that he had indeed given us both a free upgrade to first class for the flight and the lounge.

After checking in we were approached by three very official looking fellows who indicated that we should follow them, and assuming they were sent by the boss man who had got us the first class boarding passed, we went with them down a back way reserved for airport personnel. We were told we needed to give them CFA 10,000 each for airport tax, even though we were in transit. We were both shell shocked enough at this point that we did, after which our "guides" promptly disappeared with the money. This is not unusual in airports in Western Africa, and these thieves seem to be condoned by the police and other powers to be.

We were a bit lost at this point, as we were on the wrong side of immigration with passports which were not stamped to enter the country, and our guardian angel from the charter company was long gone due to the time we spent purchasing the new tickets. After standing in the immigration line for an interminable period of time, knowing we had access to the free cold beer and air conditioning of the first class lounge once we overcame the current hurdle, the immigration officer took off with a fellow and a girl bearing Russian passports who had been arguing for some time. They headed off outside, I take it to come to some sort of financial arrangement to allow the Russians to leave Cameroon. There were two people ahead of us at that time, but after the immigration fellow didn't return in ten minutes my last reserves of patience evaporated and I headed through without bothering with the formalities.

First I came to a suitcase check, then to another police check where passports were once again examined. I showed them we'd just arrived from Bangui, were only in transit, and argued that we didn't need airport tax or immigration stamps. They seemed happy with that and waved us through. It was marvellous to sink into the comfortable chairs in the air conditioned first class waiting lounge and down a badly needed cold beer!

The flight to Nairobi was excellent, with several courses of gourmet food accompanied by whiskies, wines and liqueurs. We both dozed for a little while, but were woken by an announcement that due to heavy fog in Nairobi we would be diverting to Mombassa. We spent three days exploring the Mombassa area last year, and even though we had not seen its airport, really didn't want to go there. It was very good news, therefore, when the plane shuddered as the undercarriage dropped, and the pilot ploughed through the fog to put down in Nairobi after all.

What a difference getting into Kenya! After going through a large shopping mall on the duty free side of the customs gate, we came to courteous, smiling immigration people who welcomed us to Kenya and wished us a good stay. What a novel approach! Tim spotted a booth for the Inter-Continental Hotel, where we have reservations, and we sat in a comfortable waiting area drinking complementary juice until the hotel van arrived.

What a culture shock! Miles of factories and warehouses in good repair, divided highways, tall buildings - we must have looked like a couple of country hicks! Upon arrival at the hotel we were checked into our rooms promptly in spite of the fact that it was only 7:30 AM, and we both headed for bed, agreeing to get at it about at noon.

We had a couple of beer in the pub/restaurant area and I had a good sandwich, then we found a taxi driver to work with us by the hour - his name is Michael. He ran us around to the various airline offices from which we needed information, and to the embassies of Eritrea and Canada where we also got information. The taxi by the hour was a little more expensive here at $12.75 per hour, but we had a genuine English cab with acres of leg room in the back, and very comfortable. Michael was very knowledgeable about the city and where everything was, so it seemed good value.

After returning to the hotel we sat down and planned out what we could do with the remaining time, as none of our air tickets were any good due to the Air Afrique ticket stock and all had to be repurchased anyhow. After chasing our tails around for awhile, finding a problem with every proposal, we finally hit upon a workable scheme. We checked flight availability on the hotel internet, had a beer and burger dinner in the pub, and headed for bed very pleased with our new program.

Breakfast in the morning was great, my longing for bacon and eggs at last satisfied. The friendliness here is amazing; from my room to the pool side restaurant where breakfast was served I was wished a good morning, my health inquired into, and the demand made that I have a good day about 43 times! Michael had agreed to meet us at 8:30 and we headed for the embassy of Eritrea to see about getting a visa, which we were told they could do in 24 hours. Once there we explained that we didn't have 24 hours in which to leave our passports at any time in our trip, so they agreed to have the visas ready by 4 PM - a matter of 7 hours. From there the rest of the morning was passed in visiting regional airlines and a travel agency accumulating the rest of the tickets we would require for the new program.

Michael brought us back to the hotel at a bit past one where the hotel reservations department got us organized with two more reservations here between jaunts, and with reservations at the Inter-Continental in Asmara, Eritrea. We also got faxes off to other hotels whose reservations needed to be changed or cancelled. You cannot imagine how wonderful it is to get all these complicated changes done in a place where things work, and where everyone is anxious to help! The hotel has also agreed to store our valuables and suitcases while we are in Somalia - we leave for there in the morning, and are taking as little as temptation for thieves - particularly the official kind - as possible. Everyone here thinks we are mad to be going, but our intelligence indicates that we should be fine.

In the afternoon we did a tour of the city, which is really very pleasant considering the large population, and did lots of gawking and photographing tall buildings. We went by the Eritrea embassy again punctually at 4 PM to find our visas ready as promised. We arranged for Michael to pick us up for the airport at 8 AM for our 11 AM flight to Hargeisa, Somalia via Mogadishu. Now I'm off to send this email, and to put the computer into the safety deposit box. The next update should be from here on Monday.