by Jacqueline Hitt
“Excusez-moi, Monsieur Pilot, but what exactly is happening?” my partner managed to say in clumsy secondary school grade French. Still shaken by the roughness of the aircraft’s landing, there was polite urgency in every word.
Judging from the scene outside, we were a long way from our intended destination. The landscape was parched, dusty and deserted. Not the rainforest-frilled coast of the Bay of Antongil in northern Madagascar where we were supposed to be. There were few clues to indicate our location: no signs, landmarks or tracks. Just miles of baking, rust-red earth peppered with the scorched remains of old tree stumps. Nor was there an obvious reason - no engine trouble or even proper airstrip - to explain us being there.
We exchanged anxious looks, the same scenario racing through our heads: Was Madagascar about to add hijacks to its risky reputation for safety?
Our pilot’s shifty demeanour didn’t help. Looking fearful and nervous, he gabbled something neither of us could catch. Speaking in Malagasy not French, he pointed in the direction of the aircraft’s left wing. This is where he wanted us to stand and wait. With no other shelter in sight, standing beneath the wing would at least shade us from the 40-degree heat. Our six fellow passengers clambered down to join us. Most were locals and equally hot, nervous and confused. This clearly wasn’t a scheduled stop.
We stood and waited. Flies whined around our heads and the scent of kerosene curled through the hot early afternoon air. “This can’t be happening,” I said beneath my breath. “We must have got the wrong flight.” My partner shrugged and shook his head. The earlier chaos at Antanabe airport had meant we had not only double but quadruple-checked. There was only one flight to Maroantsetra scheduled that day.
Time passed. We were none the wiser about what was going on. Staring at the scenery, we detected signs of life emerging from along one side of the barely functional airstrip. What we’d initially thought were rocks turned out to be a cluster of ramshackle huts. Mothers in faded T-shirts and skirts appeared, their small, round-bellied children following close behind them. An ancient man, with more wrinkles than skin, came out and sat on the ground, smoking and gesturing in our direction. Nobody said anything to anyone. Our arrival seemed to be as much a surprise to them as it was to us.
We watched as a group of men came running towards us across the dirt. Each was gripping onto a large orange sack balanced on their head. Reaching our side of the plane, they lobbed the sacks at the foot of its stairs. There was a heated exchange between the pilot and two of the older men – raised voices, wild hand gesticulations, slaps on arms and legs. Thankfully no knives or guns were on display. At least not yet.
“They’re trying to persuade him to take the sacks,” my partner murmured. It was a big and growing pile. The pilot pointed over his shoulder towards the end of the makeshift runway. It was only then we noticed how furrowed it was and short; that it disappeared abruptly into thin air. We had landed on the edge of a rock-strewn mountain cliff.
The pilot’s weak attempt at negotiation failed and one-by-one the sacks were crammed into the plane. “Perhaps they aren’t as heavy as they look,” I said, the size of the cliff’s drop lengthening in my mind with each sack’s disappearance inside. What kind of cargo was worth taking such immense risk?
The load stowed, we were ushered back on board to squeeze ourselves into the last, few remaining seats. The aircraft’s engine bawled back into life as the co-pilot slammed the door shut. With the sheer drop less than 200 meters ahead, the only thing keeping us in our seats was the thought that the two crew must know what they were doing. That they, like us, believed life is too valuable to lose.
Pulling my seatbelt extra tight, I closed my eyes and clasped my partner’s hand. The plane’s wheels skidded and slipped as they strove to gain traction on the bumpy ground. There was a judder. A lurch forward. Followed by a sudden drop and sense of weightlessness. We heard the rush of wind. Felt the fuselage twist and shake.
And then - in all of 30 seconds – we were climbing up and soaring. Like an eagle taking off in flight, the pilot has used the air currents rushing up the mountainside to lift us airborne.
As the aircraft levelled out, we noticed a seven-letter word printed on the sack in front of us: ‘Peanuts’. Neither of us could believe what we had just been through was for nuts so we asked a fellow passenger for their opinion.
“You don’t land in the middle of nowhere just to collect bags of peanuts,” was all he was willing to share in the lowest possible of whispers. We stopped asking questions, both now knowing exactly what we’d witnessed: smuggling Madagascan-style.
We later discovered that in such ecologically devasted places, being a smuggler is one of the few ways local families can make any sort of a living. It may have put the pilot, his passengers and our lives at risk, but with starving children to feed, this desperate local community had no other option. We felt oddly relieved. The flight’s successful take-off had mattered as much for them as it did for us. We were just visiting. For them, it was a matter of survival.
Jacqueline Hitt is a writer and communicator with a love of all things wild and wonder-filled. She’s lived in the New York, Singapore and the former Yugoslavia. She lives near Oxford in the UK and is studying for an MA in Travel & Nature Writing at Bath Spa University.