Sharks, desert foxes and crocodiles

Ernie Tanner looks back on one of the first helicopter flights over the Sahara in the early 70s to Cameroon. 

To avoid long flights over water I planned to cross the Mediterranean at the Strait of Gibraltar, but because of the military no-go area I had to turn aside much sooner and aim for Morocco. I needed all my courage for the long flight over water.

Then came another test of my courage. In Malaga, Spain, I had been promised that I would be able to refuel in Tetuan, Morocco. As I approached, however, the airport manager radioed that there was no aircraft fuel there. We estimated the distance to the next airfield and calculated our reserves. There was no going back. If the wind didn’t change, we ought to make it on the last five gallons.

With my nerves as taut as bowstrings, I flew along the steep coast keeping one eye glued to the fuel gauge and the other on the lookout for the point where the coast would finally level out and the airport of Al Hoceima would appear. Suddenly, my companion and I spotted two sharks, each several meters long, in the emerald green water below us. They were nonchalantly swimming side by side in the same direction as we were flying. It was an unequal race. Were they looking forward to a Swiss supper? “You won’t find much meat on us two,” I said ruefully, as I put my foot down.

Finally, the much longed for airport came into view and I landed, as calculated, with the last five gallons in the tank.

“What do all these bad omens mean?” I wondered. “What awaits us out there in the endless Sahara?”

For the time being, though, I concentrated on refilling the fuel-tank. I knew that God’s grace would be renewed towards us next morning. I wanted to organize refueling from one oasis to the next. We wouldn’t know how to go about this until we got there. And indeed: at each oasis I found a Landrover, a driver, and several barrels or jerry cans that I had filled with fuel. This required blind faith in the desert dwellers, who were unknown to me. In each case, we arranged for them to drive a certain number of kilometers through the night and wait at the next desert track where I could land, refuel and continue to the next place.

What if one of them should decide to make off with the precious fuel, sell it, and forget all about our arrangement? We would still be sitting beside our helicopter in the desert.

Once, it almost did go wrong. Instead of waiting for us the next morning next to the track, the man – very sensibly, considering the temperatures! – parked in the shade of a cliff. My companion only spotted him when we had already flown a good distance past him.

As we continued our flight towards Agadez and Zinder we came across isolated caravans, then small settlements, and soon green palm trees began to appear alongside the sandy track below us. We were once again approaching civilization. After days of flying over sand and stone, we delighted in the colors.

In one village on one of our outreaches, I was given a rather unusual reward – two young crocodiles! Their muzzles were bound with lianas. I stowed them in the hold of the helicopter and brought them back to the base in Yaoundé. When I cautiously opened the door on landing, I was horrified to find myself looking down the throat of one of the crocodiles. The creature had managed to free itself of the lianas during the flight. I instantly slammed the door shut and left the local staff to deal with the curious present. Crocodile meat is considered a delicacy by everyone who lives here.