Libreville Airport, Bellview Airlines, LBV-LOS, Martin, Driver, Man Friday, Flight delayed, No information!
Cameroun to the Rescue!
That is when I saw an aircraft slowly easing into one of the hangars. I strained my neck to see the logo and it read ‘Cameroon Airlines’! (Do note, both ‘Cameroun’ and ‘Cameroon’ are correct spellings; the former comes from the French word, while the latter from the English word. Since the country is bi-lingual, both spellings are widely used.)
I felt my hopes rise, although I was pretty sure I had checked earlier and there were no flights to Douala that day. So it must be a flight from Douala to somewhere else. I almost ran to one of the gates and asked a uniformed security officer about the plane. He explained that it was an unscheduled flight initially flying Dakar (Senegal) to Douala (Cameroon), making an emergency landing, since the pilot had realised that there was not enough fuel to take them to Douala. So it had made a refuelling stop at Libreville, and was expected to take less than sixty mins before it flew on.
My first reaction was to check my pockets. I had about €500 in cash with me, including my pockets, wallet and my laptop bag. I didn’t pack any cash in my cabin baggage and I had no extra check in baggage. Out of pure instinct, I instructed Martin to go back to the office immediately and meet the Finance Manager, a very decent gentleman, and ask for some cash advance. I even tore out a page from my notebook and wrote a letter to the FM (I won’t take his name, but let’s call him AS). The letter basically explained that I had an extraordinary situation that demanded extra cash, so if he can pass on the equivalent of €10,000 in cash, to the bearer of this letter, who was my trusted man. The amount was to be accounted as ‘Cash advance’ (IOU) to be settled by me later. Somehow Martin seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, and hurried back to the parking lot with my hand written letter safely tucked in his breast pocket.
This is where I believe, I should explain some basics about the Gabonese currency, which is called the FCFA (Central African CFA Franc), a currency used by some Central African Countries like Gabon, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, DR Congo etc. It is slightly different from, although conceptually similar to, the West African CFA Franc which is the currency used by countries like Togo, Benin, Niger, Senegal, Ivory Coast etc.
Now, this FCFA is pegged to the Euro at a rate of:
€1 = FCFA 655.957 (Fixed rate).
Which effectively meant that I had about FCFA 328,000 in cash with me, and I was asking for another FCFA 6,559,570, also in cash.
Considering the highest denomination of FCFA was 10,000, and the most common bank notes given to us were of 5,000 and 2,000, I could safely presume, that amount would not fit in my 20” cabin baggage. But that was a problem to be dealt at a different time.
I quietly walked to one of the unmanned gates, and continued walking straight to where the aircraft was brought to a halt, rolling my cabin baggage all the way, which made me feel pretty weird, to be honest. I was meant to be on a stealth mission, going into areas that are prohibited to the general public, and here I was walking in plain sight, with the irritating noise of a trolley bag being dragged along.
Thankfully, in Francophone Gabon, not many cared about security protocols back then. No one either spotted me, or found my gait to be unusual in anyway. There were four guys in ground-staff uniforms near the airplane, two of them trying to open the hold of the big bird. I greeted them with all the confidence I had. They had a frown when they saw me, but my casual way of saying ‘Bon jour’ made them feel that I was somehow ‘entitled’ to be there. I asked a few casual questions about the flight, when it was expected to leave, and when it was scheduled to reach Douala etc. and they answered everything without even a flinch. They even showed me the huge metal lid that was supposedly covering the fuel dump below, from where the airplane was to refuel. They were making the necessary preparations while the pilot was busy getting approval for this unexpected stop, and making payment for the fuel purchase, which I suspect, was in cash as well.
I managed to strike a decent rapport with these two fine gents, and we even walked twenty metres away from the fuelling area, where I offered them a cigarette, and one of them accepted it, despite feeble protests from the other guy, that we should not light up a flame so close to the fuelling area. While smoking, I asked them if it was possible to get into the Cameroon Airlines flight. The two of them laughed out aloud, and were absolutely sure that I was cracking a meaningless joke. But when I kept on insisting, they became a bit suspicious and asked me to identify myself.
I calmly showed my passport, my pièce d’identité (Identity Card) and my Boarding Pass from Bellview Airlines. I explained the situation, about how I had to reach Lagos and that the Bellview flight was uncertain, and I could take this plane and land in Douala, and find a way to Lagos from there. The direct flights from Douala to Lagos were far more frequent.
The two guys stared at each other, and then looked at me and said;
‘You have to go to the Cameroon Airlines counter, book a ticket, then follow the immigration process, and then get into that plane.’
It all sounded simple, and nothing that I didn’t know about, except, there was this one problem! That Cameroon Airlines flight was not a scheduled one, and the airline counters were closed for the day!