This is Africa

The spotlight of the world’s media is about fall on Africa this summer but there are many things about the continent that the football pundits won’t pick up on. Did you know you can pet crocodiles there and even do all your Christmas shopping for less than the price of a bottle of perfume from Boots? Faith Orr finds out what the Dark Continent usually keeps hidden

As the Captain sat in the hotel bar nervously fingering his mobile phone, I couldn’t help but feel a little threatened. Colonel Gaddafi was due to fly in to the country at any moment and tensions were running high, with violence breaking out all around us. Enter the American pilot. Picture Top Gun if you will, he was the captain of a private plane. Invited to join us for a drink, it didn’t take long to convince him that if the situation got out of hand his crew were being left behind and we were on that plane out of there with him. We never did need to fly drunkenly off into the sunset but it was good to know we could.

That was Sierra Leone in 2007 and possibly the only time that I’ve ever felt in danger in Africa. Contrary to popular belief, it really is a welcoming continent. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to numerous countries in Africa as part of my job as Cabin Crew. There were some that I loved and will always have a place in my heart while there were others that I just couldn’t leave soon enough.

Sierra Leone is regularly depicted as a war torn country that is still a very dangerous place to visit. While it’s true that it isn’t really the haunt of the average tourist, visitors are welcome there and for those who make the journey, the experience is one they’ll never forget.

Of course, the country isn’t particularly stable, especially around election time, and the company that I worked for refused to let any of their crews leave the hotel without a security guard accompanying us. Honestly, I always felt safe there and the locals were so friendly it would be hard to feel anything but welcomed.

It is just unfortunate that my last visit there was during a time of quite severe political unrest in the country, just before the elections in 2007. Our hotel was in the capital, Freetown, and even there people were on the verge of rioting.

We were sitting in the hotel bar, with the Captain nervously fingering his mobile phone – he had made sure it contained the number for the British Consulate and probably a few others too before we left. The duty free was flowing quite nicely. At only a few pounds for a litre of vodka, it would be rude not to. That’s one of the great things about Freetown – it’s quite normal to sit in a bar with your own bottles on the table. If you’re ever looking for an airline crew in a hotel always check the bar first.

But back to our imminent peril. Things were getting more and more uneasy and as a result the duty free was going down far more easily than it should have been. Enter the American pilot. Picture Top Gun if you will, he was the captain of a private plane and the rest of his crew hadn’t spoken to him in all the months that they had been away together. As they scuttled off to their rooms, Phil joined us and was soon convinced that if the situation got out of hand his crew were being left behind and we were on that plane out of there with him. We never did need to fly drunkenly off into the sunset but it was good to know we could.

Of course, there were also minor irritations with being in a country such as Sierra Leone, the sporadic water and electricity were probably the ones that bothered me the most. I think the electricity was such an issue because it got so dark there, and because there’s no street lamps the blackness is overwhelming. You just pray that strange creatures haven’t found their way into your bed, pilots or otherwise.

There were small stalls dotted all along the side of the roads in Freetown as well as larger market areas but I always found the small ones were the best. The crafts were so beautiful and intricate it was hard to believe how cheap they were. I don’t think any of the crew ever just paid the asking price, we always gave the stallholders more because what was pennies to us, was a fortune to people living there. I once did my Christmas shopping at the stalls there, the presents were amazing and a painting that I just couldn’t part with still hangs on my bedroom wall today.

It’s funny to think that such creative people can be so unimaginative but they certainly are when it comes to their beaches. They have such names as beach one, beach two, well, you get the idea. Beach one was beautiful and so clean. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the rest although I suppose residents here aren’t really into sunbathing, they have more important things to do with their time and one beach is more than enough for the number of visitors to the area.

You certainly wouldn’t be venturing anywhere near a beach when the storms start, the thunder sounds like the hotel is being demolished and the lightning is so fierce it’s terrifying. Once the rain starts it doesn’t let up. As the manager of our hotel used to say, “TIA – This is Africa!” He eventually fled the country, driving into neighbouring Liberia with his son – and the contents of the hotel safe!

I also regularly visited The Gambia and in turn visited Charlie the crocodile. He is becoming world famous as one of the friendliest crocodiles on the planet. Visitors are invited to touch him under supervision, at Kachikally Crocodile Pool, and I think we became friends although I’m not confident he wouldn’t have eaten me given the chance. Gambia is still very much developing but is becoming a hot spot for tourists to visit with people paying thousands to go there on honeymoon.

While the country is charming and the people are friendly, if more pushy than in other African countries because they’re more used to tourists, the infrastructure and amenities still have a long way to go. If you’re looking for a beach idyll you might want to try the Caribbean. However, if you’re looking for what I consider the best Mexican food to be found (yes, I have been to Mexico) and a nightclub that is one of the best nights out you’ll ever have then Gambia is the place for you. I highly recommend a visit to Paparazzi nightclub on the Senegambia Strip in Banjul.

The difference between what is provided for tourists in the country and how the residents live is amazing. Our hotel was a collection of chalets and larger buildings with a beautiful pool and well kept grounds while out the front door the road was nothing but dust. The children were really curious about visitors and, while playful and polite, would be pushed into trying to extract money from you.

Accra, the capital of Ghana was yet another of my regular stops and the first time I visited I remember being quite surprised to find so many white people, so much so, that the locals mock themselves. I remember in a karaoke bar, a man was singing Sting’s Englishman in New York but had changed the lyrics, “I’m an alien, I’m an illegal alien, I’m a black man in Accra.”

The locals here really know how to have a good time and there are a few good clubs around, you do need to keep their wits about you though as pick pocketing is rife. You should also ensure that you get back to your hotel safely. Police routinely stop taxi drivers in order to extract money, corruption is still very much an issue.

I personally experienced this when we were on our way back to our hotel from a club one night. There were four of us wedged in the back of a taxi instead of the legal three. The police pulled over the taxi in what felt like the most deserted road I’ve ever seen, they proceeded to haul the driver out of the taxi and question him against the vehicle before turning their attention to us. To say the torch the police shone in my eyes blinded me is an understatement. Fortunately for me, a member of our crew, Dean, decided to call the policemen’s bluff.

While they were shouting questions at us I heard him mutter, “here goes” before turning to them and declaring, “do you know who we are?” “We are partners of your government, you work for us. How dare you treat us like this?” Yes, amazingly, the police backed off, holstered the guns and torches and plodded back to their car. Our taxi driver was confused to say the least, he kept muttering in broken English, “why they no take my money?” He honestly couldn’t comprehend that the ramshackle crew in the back of his car had managed to get the police not to take most of his takings for the evening from him. I suppose, Dean wasn’t completely lying, our airline was in business with the government of Ghana but I don’t think that would have helped us much.

Rainstorms and potential homicidal crocs aside, Africa can be the most intriguing place to visit.  Here’s a round-up of some of my other stops on the continent:

Equatorial Guinea

I found the capital, Malabo, to be one of the safest places I visited in Africa. This is because the President is such a volatile character and rules the country with such an iron fist that the public are too scared to step out of line. You can walk down the street without any fear but at what cost to the residents?

Djibouti

When you step off the plane in Djibouti, the heat is reminiscent of a thousand hairdryers blasting you in the face and your clothes instantly stick to your body. It is not pleasant. In possibly the hottest place I have ever visited, worse even than Death Valley, there is no relief available. If you thought taking a refreshing dip would help, think again. The pool is like a hot bath and the sea isn’t much better. Most visitors run to the sanctuary of their air conditioned rooms.

Liberia

Liberia still shows some of the beauty that the country had before the war. The hope shines through the people here and you can’t help but be touched by their optimism after all they’ve been through.

Cape Verde

On landing in Cape Verde you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into paradise. White sands and sunshine abound and while the islands are fast becoming a haven for tourists they are still quiet enough for a relaxing beach break without the hustle and bustle of the Costas. Just don’t expect to do much while you’re there. The islands haven’t really caught up with tourist’s expectations and that is part of their charm. Remember and try some of the national drink, Grogue, but don’t blame me for the hangover.

Algeria

In one of the least inviting countries I ever landed in I actually refused to get off the plane. Quite a feat for a committed traveller such as myself. In an act of desperation to avoid harassment by airport staff I used to switch my rings onto my wedding finger while there. The men here have been brought up to see women as possessions rather than human beings and while I accept that it’s just a different culture, it’s quite hard to deal with. A place best avoided for the meantime at least.

Words and photography by Faith Orr

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