Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls

Flying from Murchison Falls to Entebbe

We climbed aboard the plane at the back; concertina steps had been unfurled from the floor of the cabin. Two Norwegian aid workers sat behind the port wing, the pilot’s wife sat at the front with her son and daughter and then there was just us. 

I found a seat next to the starboard wing. It appeared that the passengers were going to make the flight as well balanced as possible. Anthony sat the opposite side of the aisle becoming more and more ashen with the realisation that this small craft was expected to fly. I tried to engage him in conversation.

‘It’s a relief to get on the plane.’ I sighed dramatically to enhance the comment.

‘It will be a relief when we are back in Kampala,’ Anthony hissed through gritted teeth. His sunglasses looked over at me; their hard-man connotations were slightly spoilt by the quivering bottom lip, which tried to encourage the dry mouth to utter the words.

‘These twin engine props are the safest planes in the air,’ I assured him, hoping that the mention of four engines would keep him calm in some way. We could cope with one or even two, or perhaps three engines breaking down. 

I had flown with my sister once she had got her private pilot’s licence or PPL and she had been rigorous in her pre-flight checks, as I was sure our pilot had been. 

‘How old is the plane?’ Anthony asked.

He was not worried about the engines but the sub-frame shaking apart or the under carriage giving way below us, or the tyres puncturing. It was clear he would not be placated until we taxied off the runway at Entebbe.

‘Not old. Less than fifteen years,’ I guessed wildly, desperate to reassure my nervous flyer friend.

Personally, I would have dated the plane’s manufacture at around 1975 but that would have made it vintage in Anthony’s eyes. The cloth for the seats looked worn and the nylon material reminded me of the designs and patterns that were popular in aircraft in the early 1960s. 

‘That’s old.’ I wasn’t sure whether he said, ‘that old?’ but it came down to the same thing. 

‘What time are we due in Entebbe?’

‘In fifty minutes, ’bout four o’clock.’

‘Just in time for tea.’

We took off, shaking along the short runway. Out of the window I could see our four friends waving wildly, they would miss usus, and I would miss them. I waved back madly. To see them out of the port window, I had to crane my neck around Anthony’s head. I noticed that he was sitting bolt upright and staring fixedly at the back of the seat in front. 

I could have sworn he was counting the stitches on the weave of the white polyester napkin on the headrest in front; perhaps he was just praying. I never asked but both options were likely, anything to take his mind off the flight.

We flew over the lodge, our luxury hotel in the midst of the wilderness; it looked like a Bond villain’s lair.

‘Look, Anthony, the hotel looks great from here,’ I enthused, moving my head back so he could see, too. If Anthony was looking, he could have easily seen the rectangle of the lodge and the wonderful swimming pool and the slope down to the river. Anthony pretended not to hear me. ‘It’s difficult to imagine we were swimming there yesterday.’

There was no response, so I just enjoyed the view a couple of hundred feet below. We climbed some more and banked, flying over the Murchinson Falls; the pilot was keen to show his family the spectacular drop into the flood plain. 

I cursed the fact that I did not have a camera; the view was stunning, as if watching water fall off the edge of the world. 

The sun was shining; the plane was soaring, and life was good. The vibration and noise were greater than on a commercial scheduled flight, but it was not deafening.  Murchison Falls

I had taken similar twin-engined flights from Dublin to Knock or Shannon, in the past. 

It was only later on in the flight that we ran into a storm and we were all buffeted about a bit by the tropical winds. 

I craned around and saw the pilot’s view of sweeping rain and dense grey cloud. The windscreen wipers did nothing to increase visibility, but the co-pilot was doing things by the book, scanning the horizon for breaks in the cloud or signs of other aircraft.

I watched in increasing fascination and admiration as his head moved constantly from side to side, scanning the horizon or looking at the instrument panel as the pilot stared steadfastly through the windscreen battling with the elements to keep the plane trim. 

We went through a few pockets where we dropped slightly, a couple of hundred feet each time, and I felt sorry for Anthony.

The clouds obscured my view so I attempted to sleep, reclining the seat back as far as it would go. 

The legroom was good, so I was comfortable, but the noise of engine was too obtrusive, so I stood up and moved to the back opposite the aid workers who gave me a suspicious look. They wondered what I was doing on their flight. Their look of disdain was hardly hidden.

I rolled up my jacket and used one of the pillows on the seat to dull the vibration from the fuselage. I dozed rather than slept, which was just as well as the trip took one hour and twenty minutes instead of the fifty; something to do with the storm we went through and the head winds the pilot explained as we came into land. 

The head wind we were battling against added a full half-hour to our trip. The weather as we approached Entebbe was clear and we took the same trajectory as the Boeing on which we had first arrived. 

I moved back to the spot opposite Anthony as soon as the pilot warned us that we were on our approach to the airport. It was stunning to see the late afternoon sun glinting on the water and to see the landing from the pilot’s perspective: sea, shore and runway coming up as we slipped down on to our tyres. 

The landing was smooth until the engines were reversed, and as there was another flight coming in, the pilot was keen to clear the tarmac and used his breaks rather forcibly. 

They locked up with the damp, so he eased off a bit at first so that we did not skid like last time, before applying them sharply again and taxiing carefully to the holding area before the plane behind landed. 

Slowly motoring to the arrivals hall, I thought back to our welcome off the plane from England and how wonderfully surprising and warm it was; this arrival was like the weather outside the window, a bit of a damp squib. 

Anthony undid his seatbelt like a man given a last-minute reprieve from death row.

It was as if he really couldn’t believe that we had made it in one piece. I internalised my humour and let him gather himself. I waited until he grabbed his bag and walked out before following him. 

As we left the plane by the door at the rear, I noticed the wife and son of the pilot move forward into the cockpit. I wondered whether it was their first flight with him and whether it could have been his first flight, too. It had been as if the co-pilot was looking after the pilot. Checking his instruments and visibility ahead while the pilot wrestled with the controls of the aircraft.  Murchison Falls

However, as I reflected on the warm walk to the arrivals hall, I thought about the way they both handled the aircraft; they treated this as a train driver might treat a run from station to station, and dismissed the idea.

Anthony was relieved that we had landed, but there was the problem of getting into town.

I offered to share our cab with the Norwegian aid workers, but they declined. It turned out that they had a lift organised and rather snootily declined to reveal which agency they worked for or where they’d been. 

They said they worked for a ‘Christian’ aid agency, but their Christianity didn’t extend to offering us a ride into town. I know Norway is a cold country, but I have rarely met anyone as cold as that particular pair.  Murchison Falls

Of course, there was the added reason for them to feel above us; they were worthy, we were not, they worked for an non-governmental organisation and that made us the unclean. Realising that we were tourists; they would not share with us – not the air-conditioned seven-seat four by four, complete with driver. Charities are businesses, like any other these days. Murchison Falls

We were neither so they did not know what to do, poor lost lambs that they were. Murchison Falls

We walked out across the air-conditioned arrivals hall and I noticed I had been sweating profusely; I could not wait to get home and shower.

The sky was overcast but it was still tropically warm as we stepped out into the drop-off zone outside the airport. There was a taxi rank and we had managed to be the first in line.  Murchison Falls

Written by Michael Fitzalan

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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