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Gabon – 1

I’ve been to Gabon in West Africa many times. The first was back in the seventies. Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was being hit by economic sanctions and was getting much of its needs via South Africa. I worked in Johannesburg for an aviation organisation that represented several large American aircraft manufactures and supplied South African Airways with some of its aircraft. Because I spoke limited French, and no one else spoke any at all, I was considered an expert and tasked to go to Gabon to sell them a helicopter.

If the directors only knew they’d chosen the world’s worse salesman and the most inept French speaker who only ever claimed a simple schoolboy knowledge of the language, they would never have suggested this idea.

The owner of my company was on very good terms with the owner of a Rhodesian sanctions busting airline, and he organised me a trip in a Douglas DC8 freighter up from Johannesburg to Libreville (this was just a regular freight run, nothing to do with busting sanctions). The DC8 was a major airliner at the time which was very similar to the well-known Boeing 707. I was one of two passengers on the flight. The other was a Frenchman. I never found out what his business was, but, given our secretive mode of transport, it must have been underhand. We sat in the only two seats at the very back of the cabin freezing our unmentionables off, because in front of us, on pallets, was forty tons of frozen pork.

We landed first in Franceville in the South East of Gabon and unloaded half the pallets of pig. This was a welcome stop as we stood in the wide cargo door absorbing the warm humid air of West Africa and watched the inept antics of those unloading the meat. They had a forklift truck which was used to lift the pallets out of the door of the DC8 and put them onto some dilapidated trucks parked nearby.

In case some of you don’t know, when a load is taken by forklift, the driver tilts the forks back slightly to prevent the pallet sliding off the them. All went well for the first three pallets. With the next one, however, the driver forgot to tilt his forks, and as he turned away from the aircraft the pallet fell off. Frozen limbs lay everywhere. This little piggy was under the wings, that little piggy was under the truck and those wee porkers, slippery as ice, had slid across the hot asphalt in every direction.

A workforce was summoned. Labourers appeared, but actual labour appeared to be alien to them. Everything happened in slow motion. It took two to lift a pig’s leg and throw it on the truck, for example, when one man could have done it with ease. They would then saunter off to retrieve a thawing carcass and bring it back. We, the aircraft crew, the Frenchman and I, watched this lot from the doorway with much amusement. Our take off for Libreville was delayed by almost an hour while we waited for the unfortunate body parts to be cleared off the tarmac.

My mission in Libreville was notable for its lack of success, in that I failed to sell them a helicopter.

The trip back to Johannesburg was different, though. This freighter was equipped with stalls and was loaded with four (if I remember correctly) racehorses. Looking after them was a groom, who was a really interesting man to talk to. He travelled all over the world caring for these extremely expensive animals, was paid well and was accustomed to the best accommodation wherever he went. He kept them calm in flight, and looked after their welfare, transport and accommodation. These particular horses were going to Salisbury in Rhodesia (now Harare), but first we landed in Johannesburg. The groom insisted that the horses be allowed off to walk around before re-boarding, and this was done.

As he was leading them around close to the aircraft, not doing any harm to anyone and not even leaving an equine deposit on the tarmac, some South African customs officials appeared and demanded to impound the animals. A huge argument ensued. The groom obviously wanted to protect his charges, the aircrew were on his side – the side of common sense, and the officials became more and more demanding. Eventually, they said that if they couldn’t take them, the horses would be put down right there on the tarmac. Their rationale was that livestock was on SA soil without import permits and veterinary certificates acceptable to them.

Things were getting heated and only defused when a more senior official came and allowed the animals to get back on board. Talk about irrational, bureaucratic stupidity. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of horseflesh was almost sacrificed so some narrow minded idiots could say they stuck to the rules.

The first draft of my current work-in-progress is almost complete with one scene and an epilogue yet to complete. Then I shall go over it again. It needs more atmosphere and perhaps some better descriptions before sending it to a professional editor. I’ve also settled on the title, which has been keeping me awake at night for a while now.

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