I was booked on the 1 o’clock flight from Dar Es Salaam to Lusaka courtesy of Aero Zambia. They had advised me to get to the airport early because in Africa planes sometimes leave ahead of schedule if they get enough passengers. So I arrived 2 hours before the plane was due to leave. I came bursting in to the departure hall to find 2 Europeans asleep on their luggage and one old guy leaning on a broomstick. And that was all. No uniformed staff, no facilities, nothing. In the middle of the huge hall was a bucket, into which water dripped slowly from the ceiling. And it wasn't even raining! But it was unbearably hot and caused rivulets of perspiration to run down from both my eyebrows, form a confluence on my temple and send a sweat tsunami cascading along the bridge of my nose which I then dispersed in all directions by a vigorous shake of the head, like a dog when it comes out of water. ’Twas thus that I sat for over an hour. Suddenly a large African lady appeared from a cat flap behind the counter, wrote my flight number on a blackboard and held it aloft. So much for the age of technology.
There were now 9 of us, all thoroughly enervated from the long, hot, sticky wait and just wanting to get to Lusaka without further ado. Our luggage was duly checked in, we paid our $20 airport tax and we were sent up to the departure lounge. ”Lounge” was perhaps a slight exaggeration. The room we came to was virtually devoid of amenities apart from a row of plastic chairs and a make-shift bar selling bottles of luke-warm beer. There was a tiny duty-free shops but it was closed. In fact it was so dark that the whole place looked closed.
When we finally came to board the plane, we were led down a corridor that was in total darkness. The stewardess showed the way with a torch. It was more like going to the cinema than boarding a plane.
We came out onto the tarmac and saw a vintage 737 with bullet holes in the side. ”Please God, don't let this be our plane”, I sald to myself. I'm not normally a religious man but drastic situations call for drastic measures and sometimes I feel compelled to seek the assistance of a higher being. He let me down. It was our plane. I fully expected them to throw a rope ladder down for us to climb up but they managed to wheel out a rickety staircase just in time. The stewardesses, who doubled as baggage handlers and mechanics (well nobody gets muscles like that from dishing out gin/tonics) welcomed us aboard. Of the 9 of us, 8 were traveling business class and one guy had the whole tourist section to himself. The plane must have been the prototype 737. Business class had those imitation “wet-look” seats popular in the early 60's. I'm not saying the plane was old but on the safety brochure was in Latin!
But the service was impeccable. Waited on hand and foot with every whim catered for. And you should have heard some of the whims The 8 businessmen ordered so many drinks that in the end they just left us the trolley and we helped ourselves. Dinner was a bit of a mystery though. Everything was pre-bundled in small psychedelic packages. The words ”Balkan Airlines” were engraved on the cutlery. None of us was quite sure what the packages were and we had to ask the stewardess for a colour guide. Blue was smoked salmon, pink was chicken and green-striped was the cheese. We decided to stay with the beverages.
The door to the cockpit was wide open throughout the flight and the captain was continuously turning round to chat up the stewardesses. I kept wanting to tell him that he should keep his eyes on the sky but felt it may have been inappropriate. I did have a chat with him though and I actually asked him how old the plane was. He didn't give me a direct answer but said that they could be anything up to 40 years old. I got the feeling that the one we were in was pushing 40 from the wrong side. But it got us there safely, although the gin did help a lot.