It was one of the few times that I turned left on the plane and with all my extra baggage stowed as cargo I settled into a large seat, complete with British Caledonian tartan blankets in case we felt chilly. It was to be a night flight. David and I were conspicuous as the only English on board. I suspected that it would not be a quiet flight and as soon as the wheels were up, the pinging of bells for the attendants started. This was before the trolley service had even begun and the stewards knew the score. Just give each person four or five miniature bottles, as many tonic and beer tins as they could grab and then forget the dinner service in the short term. A dull chatter rose and fell in time with huge bosoms that rose and fell with deep warm snores as we bumped over Europe.
A few hours later the coast of Libya had been reached and the stirring started with the early sunrise piercing through cracked perspex windows. The queues for the washrooms were orderly and long. West Africans love their colours and girls from Ghana wore shimmering golden kabas and the Nigerian men took to sharp tight creased suits and lots of gold chains. The stewards were now moving through the cabin, clutching seat tops as the plane lurched over the thin Sahara air. They pushed bashed trolleys and thieving hands took full advantage and picked like Olivers at half full wine bottles, crisps, loose cutlery and condiments. Then standing up they grew bolder with pillows and blankets being stuffed into bags along with the life jackets and complimentary magazines. The plane was being stripped bare. And we had a couple of hours yet to go. Soon they became tired again and breakfast was served but with limited cutlery now in sight my fellow passengers took to picking omelettes with their fingers, slurping yellow onto once clean clothes.
I was very relieved to see the seat belt sign light up and heard the rumble of hydraulics as the wheels dropped and the dense palm green below grew closer and faster. Suddenly the engines started to screech and the 707 lurched up away from the runway, banking into the sun that sped around the cabin pulling us deep into seats. The plane, shuddering and hitting every air bump, had now turned north away from Lagos. The Captain told us the news.
Two tractors and fire trucks had blocked the runway, we had been refused permission to land and we had to fly onto Kano where we might be allowed in. It rather depended on the amount of fuel left. This was greeted with screams and for some delight as it meant less of a journey home to the red mud covered Muslim capital of the north. However this was not what I wanted and David, who was not enjoying his first package holiday away without his wife, was not amused. He sat very still, rubbing his passport as though it would offer him a way out.
A couple of years earlier, Nigerian authorities had captured this very aircraft in Lagos as a retaliation for the British police who had rescued a drugged and rather bewildered Cabinet Minister who was stuffed in a box of diplomatic baggage and addressed to the Foreign Ministry in Lagos. These were difficult times and many Nigerians did not forget that humiliation by what some saw as the old occupying power but it was lucky that we had been offered an alternative place to land. By now all alcohol had been expended, cigarettes were being puffed noisily and the chatter was exploding into verbal fights. An hour passed and then the desert red of Kano pushed up to us as we dropped down, bouncing along the tarmac with a scream of the engines in reverse thrust.
The plane taxied but not to the main building and stopped in the middle of the runway and soon all the engines were closed down. The doors were opened and several rickety ladders and steps were attached. We disembarked, and I noticed with horror that all the baggage and cargo was being unloaded to the ground into ragged piles. I saw my whiteboard and projector boxes being examined by thin sticky fingers who were promptly shooed away. The Africans by now had fled to the airport building, dragging wailing children, rope tied bags and the tartan blankets that spilled out of knapsacks.
David and I were ushered to one side as the Captain appeared on the top steps. He announced that he would have to return to London immediately after refueling, he then apologised that we were stranded but the safety of his crew and plane were paramount. This was long before British Airways told us that ‘to fly was to serve’. I walked in shock into the hot fetid arrivals terminal, though it could have been departures for all we knew. I heard the 707 thunder off, fighting the thin air and watched till it was just a spec leaving us behind, alone. A thick vapour trail hung in the wet air and I took in my position. We were over two thousand miles from our destination and there seemed to be a distinct lack of any planes in sight, or anyone in authority. David by now was shaking so much that I left him in the canteen drinking warm beer rather heavily as I tried to work out what to do next.