Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Caught by the storm

As we headed down to the boats the clouds burst, cold plops of rain fell on us, but we thought we would try and launch the boats.  We sat in a metal one and one of the villagers pushed us off the mud.  I tend to be of the opinion in the tropics that you are going to get wet, so up to this point had not carried any waterproofs with me – they usually made me more wet from sweat on the inside than dry from the rain on the outside.  And when the sun comes out you dry quickly.  But this day I had made a mistake – I had on a heavy polo shirt which sucked up the rain.  Additionally it had gone very cold  with the squalls on the lake and the water cooling the air.

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We  are heading out on a metal boat?

We still pursued our destination but since the guys only had poles and oars we had not even cleared the nearshore lilies when the first thunder clap hit.  Being in a metal boat in a lightning storm did not appeal to any of us so we headed back to the black shore as quickly as we could with the limited forms of propulsion we had.  But the rain, which was already steady , turned torrential.  The inside of the boat was filling up fast and the passengers had to bail as fast as possible with whatever we had to hand.  We slipped onto the mud and scrambled out and headed to the vehicle.  The rain made it difficult to see further than the end of your nose, and was turning the beach into a quagmire and it took some moments to get back in the 4×4.  Jean Luc and Christophe were wearing thin plastic ponchos (which have now become part of my essential kit) but even they looked soggy and bedraggled when we got back in the vehicle, which we quickly steamed up.

We sat in the rainstorm for five minutes – it not being safe to move off as we could not see.  Eventually the rain did ease but it was still pouring and there seemed no point in trying to reach the cages now – we had to be careful to be back in Port Au Prince by nightfall from both the security issues and the fact our guides needed their evening free.

So we started back to the village and the main road.  The weather had other ideas.  Although the climb from the lakeshore was not all that steep, the rain had made the hard impacted road slimy and even with our diff lock engaged we could not make it up the road we had come along.  The driver tried hard but the smell of oil and the strained noises from the engine showed us that he was not approaching the problem the right way.  We tried to advise him on moving off gently but there was no way we could get grip.  Eventually he got out of the vehicle and reccied a route to the west.   It was a struggle but with much sliding, a couple of slip backs and plenty of back seat advice, we made it to more level ground and weaved our way through the village, much to the delight of a set of soggy children who had come out to see what the noise of wheel slips was connected to.

The Highest Country in the World – We are going to crash!

We only turned a couple of times before we felt the aircraft take a more purposeful direction indicating we were starting our approach.  We came lower and lower but that made the shaking of the aircraft worse.  We dropped into the lower level of clouds.  Lightning was illuminating the cloud around the wings, the little regular port and starboard navigation lights also lit up the cloud.  If I’d known I was safe I might have enjoyed the display.

Everyone jumped when a squall of hailstones hit the fuselage.  I focused in on my book but found it a struggle to concentrate on the words; I just stared at the black print on the white page and tried not to look beyond the edges.  But I could not help my eyes wandering back to the window.  The plane was at forty five degrees to the right, I knew this as a brief opening in the clouds below revealed, a few hundred feet below me, the orange street lights in an industrial estate.  We were close to the airfield, I hoped.  You could sense the pilots struggling to keep control of the aircraft.  The engine noise was up and down, you could feel the tug on the flaps as they fought against the swirling winds.  A ping in the cabin told those in the know that we were on final approach.  The stewardess had been strapped in for the last five minutes for her own safety but she reached for the intercom handset and recited the routine landing announcement as calmly as she could muster.

This situation was anything but routine.  I still could not see the ground as we came down and down – was it still a few hundred feet away, or were we about to be smashed against the tarmac.

The floodlights next to the terminal suddenly appeared and the ground  came up to meet us.  We were still struggling in the swirls of wind and at the last second, the pilot had to abort, the engines roared once more and we were heading back up in to the cloud.

The woman in front of me screamed and reached for her handbag under her seat.  I saw her remove her rosary and she started muttering prayers.  I read my book.  I tried to read my book.  If these were my last moments, I thought, give me time to read the last ten pages of this book.

Tossed and turned again in the dark clouds, the lightning close by; even above all the engine noise I was sure I heard the thunder, we circled another five minutes and came in for second approach.  We had to land this time.  We had to get on the ground.  How much fuel do these little planes have in reserve?  We lurched to our left, we lurched to our right.  Another fist of air thumped on the undercarriage and we were thrust upwards.  How can the pilot keep control?  With the cockpit concentrating on flying the plane, we were getting none of the announcements that usually reassure us that everything was OK.  Of course very little was OK.  We were still alive but our destination seemed as distant as ever.

We came around again and I could feel that we were making a second approach on the runway.  We must get down this time.  This is only a small plane – the runway could take Jumbo Jets that needed miles to take off at Johannesburg’s altitude.  There was the terminal building again, the lights smeared through the raindrops covering my window.  There was the runway, glistening with water, below us.  Another jerk to the left, one to the right, a frightening dip just at the wrong moment, and a second abort as the nose of the plane went up and we were once more heading into the cloud.

There was obviously nowhere else to go in the vicinity.  We had seen the wall of cloud stretching across the sky – this storm was bigger than Gauteng.  How far was it to an airport that could take us and would we have enough fuel?  We got no messages from the cockpit but we could work it out for ourselves.  It was land at Oliver Tambo or…. well, you know the alternative.