It was always hard to say goodbye to Becky and Lesotho. Chris and I had driven from Jo’burg to Maseru and back; the other two times I flew. Maseru Airport was one of the cutest, quietest little international portals I have ever seen on any continent. Just a few flights a day, just a handle of passengers each time. You had to set out early as you could never predict the traffic across the city. Perched on a plateau just off the Main South Road, its wide grassy airfield could just have been plucked from anywhere in the country, the same grasslands that must have carpeted big swathes of the country.
My first flight back to Jo’burg turned out to be a horrific nightmare. It had been a hot sunny day in Maseru while I finished up my meetings, tidied up the handover with Becky and gathered my bits together. There were a few clouds in the sky as we drove over to the airport and some were thickening up in the heat , but the terminal remained bathed in golden sunlight.
There were about 20 people aboard the small prop plane from South African Airways to take us the hour up to Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport. As we set out the captain did his usual introduction but warned us that the ride might get a bit bumpy once we approached Gauteng. We passed over the border not far from Butha Buthe and it became increasingly difficult to discern features below. The haze had become so thick the sunlight was bouncing off it instead of the ground. I turned to a book I had and began to read, glancing once or twice out the window to see if I could see progress. The fourth or fifth time I did this all I could see ahead of the plane was the darkest, thickest wall of thunder cloud I had ever seen. There was no way round it. The seatbelts lights came on and the stewardess told us to buckle up. The captain came on to reinforce that we were going to have some serious turbulence. With that we plunged into the cloud.
We were only about fifteen minutes out from Johannesburg at this point and even without the turbulence we would have had to put on the seatbelts as we descended. At first there were the little bangs and bumps which are a regular part of flying. We kept a steady course and you could hear from the engines that we were slowing and despite being jerked up once or twice in the updrafts we were dropping in altitude.
We proceeded like this for another ten minutes, then the captain came on to say we would not be able to land immediately as there was congestion coming into the runway. This unsettled the passengers. We had steeled ourselves to be up here while we were travelling towards the final destination, but the thought of going round and round in circles tossed about in the storm was not good news. Our unsettledness was punctuated as when the pilot turned the aircraft the turbulence increased and we could feel ourselves being flung sideways. Hands went out to grab the seat in front. A few gasps went up from the most nervous passengers, but the rest of us were just one notch below them on the frightened scale now.