Stranded in the Jungle

Treasures from The Pioneer Era, reported by Ernie Tanner:

In those days in the 1970s, it was virtually impossible to get any weather reports in Africa. For example, I once asked the meteorological office in Douala, Cameroon, to show me the weather map and I noted down the data. When I had finished, I asked the official if this was the latest information from six o’clock. He checked, and with an African smile, said, “No, it’s from yesterday.”

Why bother with weather information anyway? The weather can change in an instant. This was also the case for Dr. Weithaler and his team from the WHO’s (World Health Organization’s) smallpox vaccination center during an urgent mission in 1975. Another one of his teams in southern Ethiopia near the Kenyan border was in urgent need of supplies. The road had been mined by rebels. We took off by helicopter from Hawassa in fine weather. The range of hills to the east was covered in clouds, so I was forced to fly “on top”, that is, above the clouds. I did this only in urgent cases, because there’s no guarantee that you’ll find a gap to descend through, and it was only allowed to fly through the clouds with zero visibility when the helicopter was fitted with the equipment necessary for instrumental flight (IFR). 

The heavily laden helicopter climbed laboriously up through the beautiful white cloud towers. Higher and higher, and still we weren’t above the clouds. I started to get anxious. How far had we already climbed? We had used up a lot of fuel and were still flying into this headwind. Going back was impossible, and anyway we were urgently awaited. At last the cloud layer thinned out and I spied the longed for opening through which I could see the ground below. I immediately dived through and found myself above dense jungle. I realized we didn’t have enough fuel and I had to find a suitable place to land. 

In the distance a broad river was shining in the sun and along its banks the forest was a little clearer. In the case of an emergency landing, a water supply is important. My heart was heavy, but I managed to land without any problems. Now we were stuck. The strong headwind had blown us far off course, that was certain, but it was difficult to determine our exact position. Afterwards we heard that we had been very close to a rebel area.

From time to time I switched on the emergency radio in the hope of picking up a signal from a passing passenger plane. I had to be careful with the battery. We six men (Dr. Weithaler, his three co-workers, my assistant and I) built ourselves a bush hut for cover. We also had basic rations. For situations such as this I had a water filter on board so at least we could filter the chocolate-brown river water and wouldn’t die of thirst. I also had a small hunting rifle hidden in the helicopter, which we used to kill a dwarf antelope.  

Since there was no question of refueling by helicopter, we began to build a runway. This was a mammoth task in view of the high growth around us, but I looked for the best option and we set to work straight away.

On the third day after our emergency landing I was able to make radio contact with an Ethiopian Airlines’ plane. Although the connection was very bad, probably because of my weak battery, the pilot understood the essentials. He reported a crash with severe injuries to the control tower. After another three days we heard the sound of a small airplane. That had to be our rescuer! Very quickly we lit the smoke-fire we had prepared and I fired a few flares into the air. The plane came nearer and to my great joy I recognized the plane of Eric von Rosen, the son of the famous Swedish Count von Rosen. I had often worked with them in distributing relief supplies during the drought. Eric was a good friend and later I was to save his life when he crashed near Arba Minch. However, this time he was the one who rescued us from a desperate situation.