The Smiling Coast of Africa comes alive as November-April tourism season kicks in
To our pleasant surprise, Fly Mid Africa (FMA) had issued us with business class tickets for the flight to Banjul, The Gambia. It meant without us lifting a finger, everyone ran around to sort out all our departure formalities. I only needed to assure the check-in counter staff that I did indeed pack my luggage and that I knew the contents, that being a standard procedure.
Thanks to government’s renewed push to simplify things around the airport, the rash of uniformed men who rummage through your luggage and ask funny questions had all melted away. The official name for it is ‘Ease of Doing Business’ but it took a dogged effort by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to pry them off the Departure Hall.
When they returned our passports, they came with cards inviting us to handling agent SAHCOL’s Bushiness Class Lounge. And the second layer of the pampering? Mr. Awolaiye is the Human Resources Manager of Peacock Group. The Group’s aviation arm is FMA’s local partner, known in industry parlance as General Sales Agent (GSA), with a team of protocol officers at the Airport. So it is easy to see why the full force of Peacock Protocol was deployed to wait on us and cater to our every need.
We cleared Immigration and the layers of security unscathed. Not so for our neighbor. Not crystal clear whether he was hassling security or security was stressing him. Either way, it was easy to miss the spectacle because facilitation through the MMIA seemed so smooth these days. And the ambience was far friendlier and more comfortable than my experience a couple of years ago. Little wonder then that FAAN Boss Saleh Dunoma is inundated with accolades.
With a little time in our hands before departure, we decided to check out the SAHCOL Business Class Lounge. It is just a flight of stairs above the Departure Waiting Lounge. But this is no ordinary stairway; it is the original wooden, winding stairs dating back to the International Terminal’s commissioning in 1979. It was a little creaky and greasy as we climbed but it still worked perfectly. At a time when every facility in the iconic building is being torn down in the name of renovation, the airport managers have done well to preserve this work of art with great functionality.
In the Lounge, we met a handful of patrons who were preparing to leave. Not a spectacularly exquisite place but it worked well to the extent that it insulated us from mingling with other passengers waiting for their flights in the main lounge. The breakfast fare was a bit ample and inviting; coffee was warm but the service had run out of milk. We had barely tucked into our snacks when the boarding announcement came over the PA. Just as well. More pampering expected at 39, 000 feet.
FMA’s Boeing 737 – 300 may not be state of the art but it was squeaky clean and seemed to be well looked after. The jet took off smoothly. Its cabin crew picked it up from where the ground staff stopped. The attendant assigned to Business Class behaved as if she had a vested interest in making us happy. Mind you, this had nothing to do with the fact that the Gambian national had lived in Ikeja for two years; it had a lot to do with the fact that she was just being professional.
Kotoka International Airport, Accra was our first stop. A one-hour flight, we were already beginning to descend as we kicked off our shoes, reclined our seats and began to enjoy the flight.
The Indian-looking captain landed the equipment with barely a thud. A brilliant touchdown. Would like to meet him. For FMA, the Lagos-Accra route is slim picking: no passenger disembarked and just a handful boarded from the Ghanaian capital. Perhaps as a measure of how the Ghanaian economy is faring, Accra has lately become very attractive to airlines from Lagos. They are more aggressive operators with multiple services.
Ghanaian carrier African World Airline (AWA) is leading the pack with as many as five daily flights from Accra to Lagos. It means a wide range of choices for its passengers.
Togolese flag carrier Askay has just opened the Freetown-Monrovia-Banjul route. Nigerian carriers Arik Air and Medview Airlines are also offering services. Air Peace is on the verge of launching flights. It is indeed a crowded sky on the West Coast. FMA, a recent entrant on the West Coast operates four lights to Dakar, Accra and Banjul weekly flights and two through Freetown, Sierra Leone. But the Gambian carrier is fighting to establish its presence and dominate the route.
Coming in to land at Free Town International Airport (FIA), our next stop, the terrain looked stunningly like any of the South-South states back home. Forests of palm trees, tributaries and estuaries of rivers emptying themselves into the Atlantic Ocean, thick green vegetation. Great scenery.
The FIA is actually located in Lungi. As our plane taxied to a stop, Nigeria’s Access Bank sign on the terminal building came boldly into view; it was competing fiercely for attention with the airport’s WELCOME TO SIERRA LEONE sign. The terminal building itself was a tad more imposing than GAT back home in Lagos. Ground handling was sluggish.
Disembarking passengers waited patiently for over eight minutes. Then came the three gentle taps on the door from the handlers outside, signaling that the gangway was in position and that the door could be opened. As we waited, UBA fired me a text message welcoming me to SL and reminding me to use my card on POS and ATMs across SL. Trouble was, I am not a card-carrying customer and I was staying put onboard for the 45-minute technical stop.
Sierra Leone was ravaged by a civil war from 1991 to 2002, leaving 50, 000 people dead, including Nigerians caught up in the fray. In 2014, SL suffered gravely from ebola virus disease (EVD), recording fatalities in excess of 4, 000. Recent rumours of a return of the deadly virus have remained just those – rumours. Still, it was a relief that we weren’t really meant to disembark in Free Town.
Banjul on our minds.
As the City of Free Town shrank below us, I struggled to form a true picture of The Gambia, a picture different from the one in the glossy guide books. This was my main preoccupation during the one hour flight to Banjul. Like FIA, Banjul International Airport (BIA) is not actually in Banjul, the Capital City; it is located in Yundum.
As we alighted, I had no illusions about the airport; this was no Heathrow or JFK. Three presidential jets sat idly on the apron. You could tell from the coat of dust they had been there for a while. But I was soon struck by the sight of two gleaming, high technology Thomas Cook Boeing 757s. Apart from our arriving FMA flight, there were hardly any other activities.
The presence of the Thomas Cook aircraft pretty well summed up the very essence of The Gambia itself: the Europeans who fly in in search of the golden sands of its beaches, the colours on its streets, the flavours, the sun, the charming smiles of its people, the unbeaten path, the warmth that envelopes its cities, and, yes, the sex!
The terminal building was a very basic but functional facility. The queue of European passengers waiting for clearance was so long that, for a joke, I asked the airport security guard if we ‘real Africans’ needed to form our own line. “No, sir,” he smiled. “There’s only one line, please join.” Turned out the queue of Thomas Cook passengers and a sprinkling of Africans was actually to observe an unusual situation: the scanning of all luggage leaving the airport into the city. The Gambians take their tourism security seriously.
As we emerged from Arrivals, a Fly Mid Africa female staffer shook our hands warmly and ushered us into a waiting Toyota 4×4 car. To our surprise, she hopped into the driver’s seat and took command. It was a gentle ride into the city. It was a considerably narrow road, and not what you would expect from a major airport. No motorists hooting for you to step on it. Every one tended to take it easy.
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