Mount Kilimanjaro by Michael Fitzalan Major Bruton’s Safari – seeing the magic mountain.

The first impression of a country can often be found in the contact that you have with the aircraft staff.

No clues were to be had here. Uganda, like many African countries, had handed over control of their routes to South African Airways. The crews were from all over Africa.

The airline leased the corridors and created a Pan-African company with newly painted planes. Alliance Airlines was therefore SAA in a different guise. The crew was courteous but stern. 

‘What is it?’ he asked sleepily. I half expected him to say, ‘Are we there yet?’

’You must eat,’ the steward ordered.

Reluctantly, the boy let down his seat-back table for the steward to slip the tray on to and mumbled thanks, seeing the sense in what the older man had said.

British or American stewards would have let the guy sleep on, but every passenger had a meal allocated and they were going to get it, like it or not.

The ravenous way in which the boy ate the meal was testimony to the practicality of this approach, even if it did seem strict to me.

Hattie played with her food and I ordered a bottle of South African white and red; both of them were delicious, better than French, in my opinion.

The films seemed appealing but so did getting as much sleep as I could, so I settled under a rug and watched the movies through half-closed eyes.

I awoke to pandemonium and orange juice. A plastic sealed beaker of juice was on the lowered table in front of me while I could feel a pressure pulling on my seat back. I could feel the passenger behind hauling themselves out of their seat, using my seat as leverage. Several people were milling around excitedly, trying to look out of the windows.

The captain’s voice spoke to us all: ‘There is Mount Kilimanjaro, we’ll circle around three times so you can get a good look and take some pictures.’

Many of the passengers on board will be trekking for three days to get to the top. You wouldn’t catch me doing all that hard work; I prefer to see it from this angle. I get just the same view without all the effort of climbing a mountain.

By the time the pilot had admonished the hikers for their foolhardiness, practically every window on the port side had a huddle of passengers around it.

The Kilimanjaro fly past was a treat for all passengers and a chance for the pilot to show how well he could circle an extinct volcano.

The first proper camera that I had ever, a Russian Zenit SLR 35mm camera, had fallen apart and I hadn’t owned one for five years. 

Wanting to support the European Community, I had bought a German camera and allowed the shop assistant to get the film for me, a big mistake. As I tried to fit the thirty-five-millimetre Kodak Gold into my Advantix camera, I heard the voice of a German barely able to speak for chortling.

‘That is the wrong film for that camera,’ he said gleefully

The struggle out of my seat, aching limbs and tired mind, the venture into the busy thoroughfare, which had been the aisle and the Herculean effort to open the overhead hatch, pull down the right bag and rummage for both film and camera had all been in vain.

I contented myself with leaving my bag on the seat and walking to the emergency exit to peer over the shoulders of several Chinese tourists whose Japanese cameras clicked and wound on with a satisfying reliability that they expected. I knew that I would not be purchasing a German camera with its ‘different’ film.

The view was stunning looking into the bowl of the volcano, the mass rising out of the searing morning sunshine. The parched earth and the steep slopes whirled slowly below us. Even to this day I can see in my mind’s eye the massive mountain, seen from a small window tens of thousands of feet overhead, but I have no documentary evidence of my having been there or seen that.

We were told to return to our seats for landing. Our juice cups were collected.

Hattie woke up, I handed her the juice, and I explained what had happened as she sipped on her orange juice, which I had hidden from the efficient steward in the seat back in front of me. She listened sympathetically to my animated account of dicing with death in order to record the momentous event. Secretly, I think she was a little upset that I had not woken her, but she had seemed so at peace and I was loathe to do so as she was sleeping so deeply.

‘You can have my film for the trip if you like, I can’t use it. I’ll return the camera to the shop when we get back to England,’ I added by way of appeasement.

‘I’ll be the official photographer for the trip then,’ she suggested, happily, much to my relief; typically, Hattie, she let me off the hook for not waking her over Kilimanjaro

‘That’s a great idea, How are you?’ I knew that Hattie was an excellent photographer and I could help her to spot good subjects or her compositions

‘Sleepy – you?’ Hattie whispered, stretching, she had hardly touched her juice, which was precariously balanced on her armrest.

‘Tired, I can never sleep on planes,’ I replied.

It was a white lie, but she didn’t mind. With relief she drank off the carton and spirited it away in her bag before the crew had a chance to make their checks prior to our final approach.

‘Wake me when we get to Entebbe,’ Hattie mumbled as she tried to make herself as comfortable as possible with the seat back upright. She pulled the airline blanket up to her chin and dozed. I decided that sleep was out of the question, so I watched the landing. Landing at Kilimanjaro was an uncomfortable event. The plane thudded down on the tarmac with three distinct bumps that shook the airframe and jolted my back. We taxied to the apron and the plane stopped with a shudder.

‘On-going passengers, please remain in your seats until those disembarking at Kilimanjaro have left the aircraft,’ ordered the South African pilot.

Hattie was woken by the bumpy landing and we both stretched out while a throng of passengers like puppets with elastic strings danced in the aisles grabbing their belongings and shuffling patiently to the rays of sunlight at the end of the tunnel, leaving us behind in the metal tube.A glow of bright luminescence sucked the people out of the cabin.

Against the electric light, the brightness was a beacon and you could imagine the white-hot heat that you might meet there.

Returning to my seat, I huddled under my blanket for warmth; sleep had lowered my body temperature and the air conditioning seemed to be particularly chilly. I’m sure they had turned it up to aerate and cool the cabin with all its human activity, pleasant for those struggling off or on the aircraft, not so hot for those who were prone and trapped.
I tried to doze but my back ached. There seemed no chance to move about with passengers leaving and boarding, so I determined that I would wait until we were airborne again before stretching my legs.

For some unknown reason the South African pilot came and stood in our aisle to talk to us.

At first, I thought it was because we had done something wrong. We recognised who he was by his shoulder flashes; I was worried that I was going to be bumped off the flight. Such a scheme would have negated the point of me escorting Hattie on her first trip to Africa.

You cannot be a chivalrous escort and chaperone if you are stuck in another airport. I had been refused entry to Dubai due to a lack of visa on my return from Hong Kong and I had been bumped off lots of flights to Boston, New York, Washington and even Charlottesville, North Carolina.

I was nervous, it was not the best frame of mind to make a good conversationalist. However, I did not want to upset the pilot who was coming towards our seats, the first row still occupied, it was kind of him to come and talk to us.
‘Hi, I’ve come back to stretch my legs and talk to some new faces,’ his voice was warm, his accent clipped, his shirt starched, his hair was grey and neatly cut.

He even took off his aviator sunglasses to reveal steely blue eyes. I was glad he was being nice to us; he was well built and seemed fit, and not the sort of person you would want to rile just for the sake of it.

‘I’m glad you can stretch your legs,’ I whispered, hoping he wouldn’t quite catch what I was saying. He failed to register that he had noticed any irony in my voice, either out of politeness or because he couldn’t be bothered.
‘What did you think of Kilimanjaro?’ he asked, slipping on to the armrest of the chair in front of me, folding his sunglasses, pocketing them and placing his hands on his knees.

‘Fabulous, you’re right about walking up it, I couldn’t do it. We came down quite, quickly didn’t we?’ I was living on the edge by mentioning our hard impact on landing, but I felt he could take it.

‘You have to slam the plane down in these mountainous areas, there are too many different currents around,’ he smiled – Rothmans smoker, no doubt, tar stains and a gold tooth.

‘I see,’ I agreed, forgetting my nervousness and I smiled back, gleaming, recently polished teeth – no gold, just diamond white.

‘So, you’re going on to Entebbe, where are you going on to from there?’ he was determined to snap us out of our sleepy state.

‘We’re staying in Uganda,’ I said hoping that he wasn’t going to tell us horror stories. Hattie was a worrier and I was quite sensitive too. We had heard that Uganda was safe but there were rebels in the north. You could never tell how safe somewhere was without local info.

‘Ach, man, forget Uganda,’ he told us, ‘Get on a plane to South Africa, Cape Town is beautiful, Table Mountain, the coast, the best sea food. Better still stay on the plane, we’ll take you on to Johannesburg and you can visit Durban, best beaches in the world.

‘We call it Jo’burg,’ I informed him with a smile, but he was not impressed.

I had also heard about the violence on the streets, drive-by shootings, East L.A. style. I reckoned we were safer in Uganda than most places in Africa.

‘What’s wrong with Uganda,’ Hattie asked, politely.

‘Nothing, it’s just there’s nothing to see there, have you been before?

‘No, but I’ve been to Kenya which was beautiful,’ Hattie asserted her international traveller credentials. ‘What about Murchison Falls and the game parks, the source of the Nile and Lake Victoria?’

‘I’ve never been to those places,’ the pilot admitted. ‘It’s just that Kampala and Entebbe are dull places.

He was feeling awkward. I felt sorry for him, but I was proud of the fact that Hattie had done her background research thoroughly; otherwise I might have stayed on the plane.

‘We’re visiting friends of my father,’ she explained. She was discreet enough not to mention about the Kabaka.
‘Oh, I see.

‘They’ve promised to show us around. They’ll look after us.’
‘Well, that’s different,’ he admitted. ‘Enjoy your stay.’
‘We will,’ I asserted, we all smiled again, ‘and we’ll visit South Africa soon, I’ve heard it’s great.’
‘Do that,’ he said genuinely, ‘I’ve got to go back now, enjoy the rest of your flight.’
‘You should try and see more of Uganda when you can,’ Hattie suggested affably.
‘Perhaps I should find the time to do so, nice meeting you,’ he got up, flashed gold and very white teeth at us again, and putting on his aviator sunglasses, sauntered back to the flight deck. He had a plane to fly. I, subsequently, learnt how difficult the approach to airports near mountains could be and his smooth landing at Entebbe was fantastic.
The onward flight was mercifully short or seemed so once we had breakfast in the air. Hattie was chattier and we talked about her perceptions of Uganda. The trip was an opportunity for her father to see his African friends and for his children and his grandchildren – Hattie’s brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews – to see Africa for the first time and perhaps fall in love with its beauty and its wonderfully warm people. 

A story by Michael Fitzalan

About the Author

Michael Fitzalan has been writing adventure stories since he was fourteen. He lives in south London, where he was born. His Irish parents were doctors and they settled on the West Side of Clapham Common and had six children in quick succession. The youngest started writing thrillers at fifteen. He published his first fiction book, a romance, The Taint Gallery.

The book is now out of print. However, Michael went on to write: Switch, Waterwitch, Major Bruton’s Safari, Innocent Proven Guilty, Half Past Kissing Time, Seveny Seven, Carom and Ad Bec, a children’s book, all considered entertainments, a phrase coined by Graham Greene.

Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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