Jinja Part One

October 8, 2008

It was time for another R&R for me and whitewater rafting at the source of the White Nile seemed like a very good idea.  I got a ride to Kigali with the Air Serv car and then flew from there to Entebbe.  I met up with my friend Julia from Goma the next day in Entebbe.  She just finished a six month contract with another NGO and figured a little rafting detour on the way back to England would be a good idea. 

In order to get to Jinja, we took a mini-bus taxi (public transportation, more or less) from Entebbe to Kampala, a motorcycle-taxi across Kampala a bigger bus from Kampala to Jinja and then the back of a truck that they use to transport the rafts to get to the campsite.  It took about five hours and cost the equivalent of about four dollars to travel the 150km or so from the Air Serv house in Entebbe to the Nile River Explorers Campsite in Jinja. 

The campsite is up on top of a bit of a cliff looking down on the river a couple hundred feet below.  The view was amazing.  We will raft the next day.

In the morning we pile back in the truck along with a bunch of other future rafters and head over to another place where we’ll get breakfast and meet our guides.  After breakfast, we get a bit of a briefing about what we were getting ourselves into and then were fitted with helmets and life jackets.  Once all geared up we all pile back into the truck and head to put in the river just below the dam.  In our boat there are five plus the guide.  Out of the six in the boat we came from five different countries: US, UK, two from Sweden, one from Australia and our guide who I think was actually from Zambia. 

The river was relatively calm for a while after putting the boat in.  That gave our guide a chance to teach us a few things.  He would tell us, “Paddle forward!” and we would.  “Back-paddle left!” and those of us on the left of the boat would paddle backwards causing the boat to spin.  “You will tell from the urgency of my voice how hard you must paddle.”  I suppose that made sense. 

“If… when the boat flips, take a deep breath because you will go under the water.  It will be like being inside a washing machine.  Do not panic as the life jacket will bring you to the surface and then you will see a safety kayaker over you.  He will look like Jesus in a kayak.  Don’t worry if you lose your paddle as they will pick them up.”

A few nervous chuckles ensued.  We practiced flipping the boat, swam through a small rapid and then turned the boat back over and got back in. 

Up ahead the river appeared to disappear and there was an ominous roar coming from where the river dropped away.  The oar boat went down the rapid first, then the safety kayakers, then another raft, and then it was our turn.  “Paddle forward!  Harder!! Back-paddle left!! OK!  GET DOWN!! HOLD ON!!!”

We jump down off of the sides of the boat and crouch facing the tube and hanging on to the rope along the side.  The first wave we hit grabbed the nose of the boat twisting it 90 degrees to the next wave which then seemed to pick up the boat, turn it over, and proceeded to shake it until all of its contents were in the river.  When my head pops back to the surface a few seconds later I look back to see our upside-down boat and my fellow rafters floating nearby.  By the time I was back to the boat, it was right-side-up again and a couple of people were already inside.  I thought to myself that this was going to be a long day and didn’t want to ask the guide what class of rapid that was.  Our boat was the only one of the boats that flipped on that rapid.  I think it was good that we flipped on the first rapid because then we didn’t have to wonder what it would be like to get tossed out and swim through a class 5 rapid anymore. 

This is what it looks like before a raft flips. 

We made it down all of the rest of the rapids unscathed that morning.  After one rapid we had 12 people in our raft from other rafts that had flipped over. 

In the middle of the day the river was relatively calm.  We had lunch on the river that they had packed in sealed boxes on the oar boat.  It was relaxing.  Swimming in the river and applying copious amounts of SPF50 to our Mzungu skin. 

After the break, it was time for more rapids.  As we headed towards one of them, our guide starts telling us that there is a “standing wave” on this rapid that sometimes flips boats.  “If anyone doesn’t want this, we might be able to avoid it.”  We answer almost in unison, “let’s do it!”

“If things don’t… go as planned, swim to the left towards the island.  Helmets, check!  Life-jackets, check!  Just remember, swim to the left.  Paddle forward!  Back-paddle right!  Paddle forward!!  Harder!!! Paddle!!!  OK, GET DOWN!!! HOLD ON!!!”

I didn’t see much of a wave ahead, but before I knew it, the boat was upside down and we were in the water.  I pop to the surface a little bit later and Julia appears not to far away with a kayak behind her.  She grabbed the front of the kayak and I got on the back.  We are deposited on the island while the kayaker went back for some more people.  When we all got back in the boat we discussed how we were all surprised how the rapid wasn’t bad, but somehow we flipped anyway.  Gus the Swede said, “yeah, that’s because that’s where the guides flip the boats for the camera.”  I looked back to see a sly grin on our guide’s face. 

The next rapid is class 6 – too big for a raft to do safely.  We take the raft out and carry it over the hill and put back in after the class 6 section.  The rest is class 5.  One section of that rapid was affectionately known as “the bad place”.  When we hit “the bad place”, George the Australian was vaulted over the boat into the water.  The rest of us managed to stay in the boat, even though we were all scrambled around in different places of the boat. 

After rafting we pile back in the truck with the boats behind and drive back to the campsite while listening to choruses of Ugandan children shouting, “Mzungu, Mzungu!!! Give!! Give!!!”  Back at the campsite there was a big BBQ prepared waiting for us.  We sat around the tables looking down at the river we just braved in a daze eating good food.  It was a good day. 



September 22, 2008

On Saturday I head to the airport for a lunchtime departure to Bukavu and Shabunda.  I hadn’t flown in a few days, so I was looking forward to it.  When I get to the airport, the plane that I am to be flying isn’t there yet.  It’s been delayed on the way back from the morning flight.  Edmund is going to fly with me to help load and unload the cargo that is listed on the manifest (four 55 gallon drums of fuel going from Bukavu to Shabunda).  Just after takeoff, I get a call on the HF from our radio operator saying that the weather was too bad in Shabunda (odd, I think it was reported as good by the same person five minutes before takeoff…).  I return to Goma after five minutes in the air.  The flight will wait until the morning. 

I go back to the airport in the morning and get the plane ready to go.  Edmund gets back into same copilot’s seat that he was sitting in twelve hours before.  He’s excited to go flying.  Edmund knows about Bukavu and the crash.  I decide to try to fly over the crash site, but I either can’t find it or it’s obscured by clouds.  While heading back into Bukavu the plane becomes nervous about the proximity of the terrain and starts to complain in its female voice, “Caution, terrain!! Caution, terrain!!”  Since the visibility was very good and I could see the mountains, I knew it wasn’t a problem.  Edmund sat there quietly looking concerned as we continued the descent towards Bukavu.  Edmund had been thinking about the crash and asks me, “Please tell me Patrick, why did they not listen to her?”

“That’s a very good question.  I don’t know why.”  The 1900’s have a different system that wouldn’t warn quite in the same way or under the same conditions.  I could see that he was trying to make sense of the crash just like the rest of us.


There really isn’t much interesting about the Bukavu airport, but the surroundings are very beautiful.  I admire the peaks to the west of the airport the same way someone might admire the beauty in a graveyard.  When I can see them, they are the headstones of two friends and the fifteen others that died there with them eight miles or so from the airport. 

I like flying to Shabunda.  I think it’s a lot like the picture of an airport that I had in my head when I headed to Africa.  The airport and village is in the bend of a river, the runway going from river bank to river bank with huts and trees and such all around.  After we land, Edmund rolls the fuel drums out of the plane, letting them land on a tire that was placed below the door and then rolling away from the plane, then throwing the bags of cement out.  A small choir is at the tree-line singing a farewell to the four passengers that will be leaving with me.

On the way back to Bukavu, I can’t get a hold of our HF radio operator in Goma.  I finally get him when I was on approach to Bukavu.  I was able to talk to him the whole way from Bukavu to Shabunda and since I was flying the same route back, I figured he was just taking a nap or something.  I started to get a bit annoyed.  When he finally answers the radio, he wants a lot more information than I am interested in giving when I am about to land. 

After landing, I go into the airport office to pay landing fees, already a little mad about the radio thing.  The people in that office are particularly trying of the patience of all of the Air Serv pilots.  The landing fees add up to 25.6 dollars and the “lady” tries to round it up to 26.  I put lady in quotation marks because none of us are really sure if that person is in fact female.  Anyway, I give 25 dollars and make up the .6 in Congolese money.  I argue for a lot longer than it was worth arguing about over 40 cents, but I guess it was just the principle that I was thinking of at that point. 

Now she tells me that the $20 bill that I gave her was not good.  Here’s a little lesson on spending dollars in Congo:  They love dollars, but they won’t take a bill if it has the tiniest tear anywhere, or of there is writing on it, or if Andrew Jackson has a pimple.

This particular bill had a microscopic tear at the point where it had been folded in half.  I argue for a few minutes about the validity of the bill, which went nowhere.  I took the bill back and tore it in half.  I heard a few gasps and whimpers in the room after I did that.  They try to get the cleanest bills possible and then give back the dirtiest bills they can find in change.  They could still use the twenty that I had given.  At worst, they might not have been able to get a full $20 worth out of the bill, but I’ve managed to spend bills worse than that one all over the country. 

They gladly accepted the next bill I pulled out of my pocket. 

I grabbed the receipt from the desk and walked out toward the plane.  They threatened that the tower wouldn’t let me take off since I hadn’t paid the 40 cents extra that they wanted.  Well, that didn’t happen and I was off to Goma.


September 12, 2008

Would this do
To make it all right
While sleep has taken you
Where I’m out of sight

I’ll make my getaway
Time on my own
Search for a better way
To find my way home to your smile

Wasting days and days
On this fight
Always down and up
Half the night

Hopeless to reminisce
Through the dark hours
We’ll only sacrifice
What time will allow us
You’re sighing… sighing

All alone
Though you’re right here
Now it’s time to go
From your sad stare

Make my getaway
Time on my own
Leaving’s a better way
To find my way home
To your smile
Your smile…

–David Gilmour

They Gave Their Lives in the Service of Peace

September 4, 2008

They “gave their lives in the service of peace”.  That is what some UN spokesperson had to say today.  That sure sounds noble, doesn’t it?  I hope that gives at least a little solace to the families of those who died on Monday evening.  The one thing that is for sure is that none of the 17 people on the flight that day intended to give their lives in the service of peace, at least not the rest of their lives. 

On Monday evening I my phone rang when I got in to the lodge here just outside of Johannesburg.  It was Dawson calling.  I figured that he was calling to see how the validation process was going.  I was happy to tell him that it was successful and that I would just have to pick up the paperwork in the morning.  He told me that the 1900 was overdue and that they couldn’t reach them via radio or cell phone or any other way.  There was no contact from them after their initial call to Bukavu tower.  I knew the area around there and knew that this wasn’t good. 

In my mind, I was back in the hotel room in Seattle a couple years ago when I got the call that they couldn’t find Carl.  My mouth is dry and I have the distinct taste of vomit in my throat.  I hoped it was some big mistake.  The guys were slacking on their HF calls and were on approach to Goma.  They were going to get a talking to for not following procedure and then sit down to dinner with the rest of the bunch at the house. 

Sitting here in South Africa, I watch the sun set without hearing a word from anyone in Goma.  The sick feeling that I’ve had in the pit of my stomach has grown.  I need to throw up.  I turn on the TV just to fill the silence.  CNN has floods in India or something; the Republican national convention… the nausea builds.  National Geographic channel… Seconds from Disaster.  I go throw up. 

Tuesday morning I get out of bed after not sleeping.  I have to drive to the CAA to pick up my paperwork.  While on the road, my phone buzzes with a text message:  “They found it all over the ridge”.  I pull the car to the side of the road and dry-heave my intestines out.  I manage to make it to the CAA and sit in the lobby numb head to toe.  The paperwork comes through and I head out.  I get in the car and can’t get the keys in the ignition.  It takes a few moments for me to wonder where the steering wheel is before I realize that I got in the wrong side of the car. 

Every time I lose a friend to this business, flying gives me less joy.  Now I have to add Rudi and Ronny to the list of names of the fallen. 

“The larger the threat, the more profound the doubts, the deeper you have to dig to find faith and conquer your fears.”
Kenneth Cain

Entebbe, Nairobi and Johannesburg

September 1, 2008

Now that my Caravan training is done, it’s time to renew my South African validation.  The current validation was only for six months since that’s how long I could exercise the privileges of the ATP with the medical that I had.  Since then, the rules in the US have apparently changed making the first class medical valid for a whole year for pilots under the age of 40.  Hopefully that means that the exercise in paperwork and the fees paid today will satisfy the South African CAA for another six months.  I guess I’ll find out in the morning when I go to pick up the new certificate. 

Last week two of us took two Caravans from Goma to Entebbe for maintenance at the Air Serv hangar there.  Here’s the volcano on the way out of Goma.

These trips are usually a good diversion from every day schedules in Goma or elsewhere in the DRC.  I was hoping that this would let me go to Jinja and do a little white water rafting (which is supposed to be legendary), but I was explicitly banned from doing this, not because it would be unsafe or anything, but that they wanted myself and the other pilot sitting around waiting for the planes to be ready even though we were promised by the mechanics that they wouldn’t be ready until Sunday.  That irked me a bit, but oh well.  I guess we’ll just have to make the most of the time in Entebbe. 

We were expecting a new pilot named Josh to be arriving in Entebbe on the day we arrived.  We waited to eat dinner in case he was hungry when he got there.  When he got there he’d been up for longer than anyone should, but still wanted to go out to eat with us.  I think we gave him a decent warm up for Africa. 

The next day we went for a walk around the neighborhood in Entebbe and came across a bunch of kids that were out playing whatever games they play.  When they saw us, they all took turns saying, “Mzungu, how are you?” and then proceeded to play “touch the Mzungu”.  This game involves running up to a Mzungu, grabbing an arm or a hand and then running away screaming and laughing.  It was as entertaining for us as it was for the kids. 

On Friday we decided to head in to Kampala.  I had never been there and heard it should be fun.  Samson, (one of the Air Serv mechanics from Kenya) was going too.  We went down to the bus stop (just a place the bus happens to stop rather than a bench or something) and got on one of the mini-busses.  We got a lot of funny looks from the Ugandans along the road as we drove by.  I guess they don’t see too many Mzungus using public transportation. 

When we made it to the end of the line in Kampala, we found out that we were beyond walking distance from where we wanted to go and went to find transportation.  One Boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) driver said that he could take both of us where we needed to go.  I was skeptical that the three of us, Josh, myself, and the driver (Samson had gone to meet some friends of his) could all fit on one bike, but the driver insisted that it would work.  I thought we got funny looks when we were on the bus.  Now people all over the city were pointing and laughing at the two Mzungus on one Boda-boda.  I am glad we could amuse people as we tried our best to keep our kneecaps from becoming hood ornaments on passing cars. 

On Sunday it’s time to head on to Nairobi and then to Johannesburg.  The Caravan that I am flying is going to be flying back to the States so it had two large ferry tanks in the back.  It made the plane smell just a little bit.  It was ok though because it was an otherwise perfect day for flying.  I think I could see a million miles in all directions and Kenya was absolutely beautiful.  From the shores of Lake Victoria to the farms and hills on the way to Nairobi, the scenery was amazing.  Everything was hassle free once on the ground at Nairobi-Wilson airport.  Some sort of customs agent came out to greet us when we landed, but didn’t seem too interested in the plane.  Samson spoke with him in Swahili and we were on the way to the hangar with the plane in no time.  The only snag happened when I was going through passport control on the way to get on the airliner to South Africa.  He asked how I got in the country without an entry stamp in my passport and when I explained he said, “Ok, goodbye” and I was on my way.

Now, hopefully all I have to do is to go back to the South African CAA in the morning and pick up my paperwork.  Then it’s just sitting around waiting for a 1900 motor to arrive. 

National Geographic

August 26, 2008

This is the third post today, but the internet is actually working well now, so I figured that I’d better do it.

It has occurred to me that it might be prudent to wait to see the program before promoting it, but a documentary on Air Serv and other “bush pilots” flying here in the Congo will be on the National Geograpic channel on September 16th. 

Click here to see the National Geographic site on the program.

Caravan Training

August 26, 2008

Last Monday I packed up everything I had in Kinshasa and boarded our 1900 as a passenger to make my move to Goma.  It felt really strange being in the back of the plane away from the controls even though I had a reasonable amount of trust in the two up front.  It was a long day getting out east.  We had stops at Kisangani, Kindu, and Bukavu before finally reaching Goma.  Lucky for me I managed to sleep most of the way.  Caravan training was to start the next day.

The week of training has been broken up a bit.  I rode along with Luke the first day, though I fly the last half of the trip.  I had managed to get a few flights in the ‘van already, though they didn’t count for anything other than just seeing a bit of what the thing could do.  It helped keep me from seeming totally clueless (hopefully) on my first day in the plane. 

I rode along with a few different pilots the rest of the week.  Flying with the other Patrick (aka. Paddy, P2) was a lot of fun.  He flew freight for a FedEx feeder in Puerto Rico and it turns out that we know a lot of the same people.  Paddy definitely has the mentality that it takes to survive and stay sane in the Caribbean or Africa or most of the third world for that matter.  If you worry too much about the things that really don’t matter (like timing for example), life will be very difficult.  I flew with Luke again on Thursday.  We flew to Shabunda where our “Jungle Jepp” warns to watch out for goats grazing.  I didn’t want to have to buy a goat, so we did a good fly-over before landing to make sure things were clear. 

Training with Luke resumed again on Saturday with a trip to Kasongo and Kama.  I had been to Kasongo a few different times in the Caravan even when I was still flying the 1900 full time.  Kama was a lot of fun for me.  The landing area is in the middle of a village that is carved out of the jungle.  The surface is a mix of gravel, grass and dirt with huts and surprisingly tall trees lining the perimeter.  It seemed like every gap in the trees or huts was filled with the face of some kid curiously peering in my direction that would probably be in school most other places.  The most shocking feature of Kama was the tall cell phone tower quite close to the one end.  I guess that’s Congo for you.  You can be in a village in the middle of nowhere and there will be cell phone service… and the tower will be as close as possible to the “airport”. 

On Tuesday it was a double trip to Walikale.  This place is infamous in Air Serv lore.  In a lot of ways it’s the epitome of a Congo landing strip.  It’s road being misused as an airport to bleed the country of its resources.  Most of the traffic in and out of there is related to the mining industry.  The ore mined there is flown out by Russian and Congolese pilots to Goma where much of it is loaded into trucks and smuggled into Rwanda and Uganda.  Today we brought in 650 kilos of beans and supplies for ACF (French acronym for action against hunger) and flew out a bunch of MSF people.  The moral dilemma there seems to me that it can seem like in performing a humanitarian mission; we are only sustaining the mining industry that is raping the country of its resources and enslaving its people.  Sometimes it seems like humanitarian aid is little more than life support for a patient in a coma. 

The airstrip itself is pure Congo mayhem.  I loved it.  From the air the landing area is differentiated from the rest of the road by the crashed Russian planes shoved to the side at the beginning of the landing area.  The road/runway has a pretty good bend about half way down.  It’s important to land early enough so that the plane will be slowed down enough to make the turn along with the road.  Luke says to pull the power to idle and ease the nose down once past the tree line.  I guess I do a little more than ease it down and end up with a healthy bounce.  Oh well.  I let the plane settle a little softer a hundred feet or so down the runway.  The first straight part of the road turned out to be a lot longer than it appeared to me and I had the plane slowed down with plenty of space to spare before the bend.  It looked a lot shorter from the air. 

The mine-related planes are doing their thing, whatever it takes to get in and out.  Being only a road, there isn’t any place to park or turn around other than the road itself (which is only a few feet wider than the landing gear of the Caravan on each side).  When we landed there were two Let-410’s (mine planes) already at the top of the runway unloading fuel and other supplies and loading up on ore.  We landed and in doing so, blocked them in.  By the time we get unloaded, reloaded, and turned around (done by a three point turn by hand) two more Let-410’s have blocked us in.  We get to sit and wait while they load up on 50kg bags of ore.  I can’t help but wonder how much they are overloaded. 

A quarter of an hour or so passes and the plane in front begins to takeoff.  It gets more than a little bit windy where we are.  After they go, the plane directly in front of us starts it’s engines and we do the same.  They aren’t very far in front of us at all, so we really get buffeted as they start.  The buffeting increases so I look up to see vapor spiraling off of their prop tips.  The jerks have applied full power right in front of us and it seems like we are almost flying the plane while on the ground. 

Once they get moving, I let us roll downhill towards the bend.  Approaching the bend I roll in full power.  Wisps of vapor twirl from the propeller tips as the plane claws at the thick jungle air.  I push the plane around the turn at about 30 or 40 knots and not long after ease the plane into the air.  I breathe a silent sigh of relief as we pass over the two derelict Russian planes now a couple hundred feet below.  That was the first bit of flying that has raised my pulse above idle in a long time.  I want more. 


August 26, 2008

It’s been a few weeks since I came back from R&R in Egypt.  It was an amazing trip.  My dad and brother flew over from the States to meet me there.  For me it was getting at least halfway back to civilization.  I guess the thing that struck first was the condition of the roads.  I’ve been used to bracing myself everytime a car starts moving for either the kidney-jarring lava of Goma or the potholes that seem like they could swallow a small car on the roads in Kinshasa.  When we were leaving the Cairo airport in the taxi, I could feel myself tensing up waiting for the beating to begin.  It took a few miles before I realized that the roads were smooth and even generally lit by streetlights at night. 

The three of us discovered that riding camels is possibly the least comfortable mode of transportation that we have yet attempted.
The three of us on camels
I am not sure if there is such a thing as a happy camel even if it’s name is Mickey Mouse.
Here we managed to sneak a few blocks up one of the pyramids before seeing the “No Climbing” sign.
This is in Luxor on the way to the Valley of the Kings.
This is what happens when someone tries to take your picture after spending all day in the hot sun after not sleeping too well on “Sleeper Train”.
So, R&R was fun, but it was also nice to get back to work.  I was surprised that I made my connection in Nairobi on the way back after a 45 minute delay leaving Cairo and only one hour scheduled on the ground between flights.  I was not surprised when my bag failed to meet me in Kinshasa.  Luckily the bag made its way there the next day and I had a few days off after I got back to Kinshasa to recover from my R&R.

Bethsaida Orphanage

July 13, 2008

This afternoon we went to an orphanage that is not too far from the house here in Goma.  It was a bit of an adventure getting there since we didn’t really know where it was other than that it was “beyond Hotel Karibu”.  The first place we ended up wasn’t an orphanage at all.  It was some sort of compound for the Seventh Day Adventist church here in Goma.  We didn’t know that at the time so we went in and were introduced to the man who ran the place.  He told us that it wasn’t an orphanage and gave us (incorrect) directions to the Bethsaida orphanage.  The kids were all happy to see us and the people in charge seemed happy to have us there too.

Except for when the whole bunch was playing some sort of keep-away game with the ball we brought, this boy wouldn’t let go of my hand the whole time we were there.  A lot of them were also fascinated by my arm hair and kept tugging at it.  I guess they don’t get up close to Mazungus too often. 

The adults said that they were in need of school supplies and clothes for the kids.  I think we will try to see what we can find locally, but if anyone knows of a bunch of kids clothing sitting around, let me know.

Classic Goma

July 12, 2008

Almost all of Goma is built on the lava flows that have come from the volcano at various times.  The latest flow in 2002 trapped some vehicles.  I took this picture on the way to the Air Serv office.  They are building right on top of the most recent flow.  I guess lava isn’t supposed to flow over the same place twice. 

These wooden scooter type things are all over the place here.  They come in various sizes and are usually carrying a very heavy load.  By the airport we usually see them cruising down the hill with hundreds of pounds of charcoal, wood, food, or a half dozen people. 

Here is another road through “downtown” Goma.  There are hundreds of these small motorbikes that take people around.  On the back you’ll usually see the passenger(s) (sometimes several people) carrying all sorts of things.  I wish I had a picture of the one I saw with a very large pig on the back that was squealing the whole way. 

Apparently, the helmet laws are even enforced in Goma (at least for the driver), but there doesn’t seem to be any regulation on the type or quality of helmet to be worn.  I’ve seen everything from a hockey helmet to a construction hard hat on the top of their heads.  The one below is split nearly in half.  At least it looks cool.