It is a six-hour flight to Banjul in the Gambia, the plane no bigger than a typically cramped European short-haul aircraft. My window seat doesn’t recline at all and there is about as much legroom on our Gambia Bird aircraft as you would expect on Ryanair (at least everything isn't painted a garish yellow). The flight is operated by Germania and at £600 for a return journey it certainly isn't value-for-money considering the distances involved and the mediocre levels of service on board. However, faced with paying several hundred pounds more to fly with BMI or BA, I will grin and bear it and put up with the lack of in-flight service on this occasion.
A couple of the African women adjacent to me spend twenty minutes putting their hair in bright fluorescent hair curlers so that their hair looks just right when we land. Otherwise, the 11pm flight is only memorable for the fact that they do not have any vegetarian food (and therefore I cannot eat despite me requesting it and being assured I would have it) and the unusual sleeping positions I manage to find before we touch down at 5am in Banjul.
I have my winter jacket with me from London and am expecting to get hit by a wall of heat and an instant sweat as we disembark at Banjul. It is though, surprisingly cool out on the tarmac. I get chatting to Mohammed, a Lebanese man who is returning home to Sierra Leone for the first time since 2005. He lived in Sierra Leone for 29 years after escaping the war in Lebanon in 1976 and has been working as a taxi driver in Manchester for the past couple of years. Now business opportunities take him back to his adopted homeland. You can buy Pringles, Snickers & beer with British coins in low key Banjul Airport terminal, and so Mohammed and I enjoy a 6am £1.50 Gambian-brewed beer (because we can), while he tells me stories about Lebanon and the civil war in Sierra Leone. It is humorous being back on Africa Time. Nobody in Banjul airport seems to know (or care) when our onward flight to Freetown will leave and our boarding passes are eventually printed with the aid of a laptop computer and a special portable printer. When you look around this airport you wonder how most of the last fifty years between 1963 and 2013 got completely lost in a time-warp. And you love them for it and want to visit their country some time in the future because of it.
It is little more than an hour’s flight from Banjul to Freetown and I find myself nodding in and out of sleep, awoken several times by quite heavy turbulence. As we make our final approach from the sea to what looks like a landing strip in the middle of a rain-forest, our pilot averts our landing at the last moment. Instead of descending to the runway we suddenly accelerate and ascend at a steep angle; some kind of emergency alarm sounding moments later from somewhere inside the aircraft. The atmosphere is tense on the plane for a minute or two as the passengers anxiously await news of why we abandoned our attempt to land. Many potential friendships are made with empathizing glances and concerned smiles. The pilot tells us: unfortunately, we could not land because the runway was blocked and we will need to circle and try again after a few minutes.