Flying to Dingila

Posted by Owen Fuller on February 1, 2011 in DRC Trip 2011, life less than perfect |

The howl of the local mosque echoes in my skull.  I look at my phone.  It’s only 4:30 in the morning.  Memories surface of my time training at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, where every day a loudspeaker located right above my tent blared a recorded call to prayer under the guise of preparing my National Guard unit to go to Iraq.  Rolling over, I close my eyes and try to go back to sleep for another hour.

Good news awaits as we arrive at the airport; our missing electronics from the VSAT systems have been handed over from customs.  Thank you God!  We load the remainder of the items on the plane.  Jon Cadd finishes his pre-flight checks while the ground crew finishes washing down the plane.  The morning is cool, crisp, and clear.

Jon lets me ride in the co-pilot seat.  As we taxi he explains the controls and indicators.  I try my best with my size 15 feet on the rudder pedals to keep the plane centered on the white line as we make our way to the end of the runway.  It’s harder than it looks, and I swerve a little.  Jon jokes that I’m making him look bad.  The Cessna Caravan accelerates down the runway and quickly and in a moment we are airborne.  Turning out to the left we climb to our cruising altitude of 12,500 feet.  Jon asks me if I want to fly the plane.  It’s an opportunity I can’t turn down.

At first my grip on the yoke is iron-clad, but after awhile I start to relax.  I try my best to monitor all the indicators and remain on course.  The artificial horizon indicator is on Jon’s side of the cockpit where it’s harder for me to see, so it’s difficult for me to stay level and we bank off course slightly.  Jon tells me to use the horizon and wing tips as a guide, a task which proves easier once I lower my seat several inches.  Being six-and-a-half feet tall is not always an advantage.

As we near Dingila the patches of cloud begin to thicken.  We look at the GPS and see a river to the northeast.  This will be the most likely place to find a hole in the cotton-like blanket of clouds.  Relinquishing the controls, I let the experienced bush pilot resume the flying duties as we start our approach for landing.  The thick, lush trees below us are so dense in places that they resemble broccoli.  There are a few boats on the river.

Jon gently sets the plane down on the runway, a simple strip of grass and dirt cut out from the jungle.  A crowd of people and a couple vehicles are visible at the far end of the runway.  The plane taxis to meet them.  The engine shuts down and we all deplane.  Jon is a little behind schedule–probably because of the numerous course corrections due to my inexperience–so we unload quickly.  The two large sections of the satellite dish, the boxes of hardware, and our suitcases all come off the plane and onto MSF’s two four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The road into town is uneven and rugged.  I’m surprised that the trucks don’t tip over sideways at points.  Along the way I see many people cooking, sitting, and cutting grass that I presume is for thatching.  Several kids wave and shout phrases in French or Lingala, neither of which I can understand.  My only response is to smile and wave back.

Before arriving at the MSF compound we must meet with the local official in charge of migration.  We step into his office, a dark brick and mortar building with a few rooms and no doors.  In the back room we find a table with various documents spread across it.  In the corner is a small tray of file folders.  The whole room is illuminated by only a small window near the top of the back wall.  The official scrutinizes our passports and makes some comments to Solo and Mina, the MSF Administrator.  We are given some forms to fill out which we bring back later.

The second visit lasts 15-20 minutes.  We sit in wooden chairs in the same dark office.  Solo, Mina, and the official engage in a lengthy conversation in French.  It becomes apparent to me that there is a perceived problem with our visit.  Though our passports and visas are in order the official thinks we owe some fine or fee for our visit.  Thanks to Solo’s diplomacy we are finally allowed to go and head for MSF’s compound…for the time being.  Ahhh…this is Africa!

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