From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



Air travel between countries in West Africa is notoriously difficult.  Although the straight line distance between Monrovia and Bamako (my next destination) is just 745 kilometres, there are no flights between the two cities.  Today, I am flying by the shortest practical route (which means avoiding flying to Europe and back, and avoiding stopovers to 24 to 72 hours in various African countries for which I would need a visa).  The flights are with Royal Air Maroc, involving a distance of 5518 kilometres (seven and a half times the direct distance), with a stopover in Freetown (Sierra Leone) and a change of aircraft after a transit of 11 hours in Casablanca (Morocco).  The map below illustrates the route taken today, and it also shows why I have decided not to include Liberia on the Geographical Society study tour that I will be leading in January 2015. (Note that the airports are identified by their three-letter codes: ROB for Monrovia, FNA for Freetown, CMN for Casablanca and BKO for Bamako.

The inconvenience of the flights involves more than just distance – the times of the flights do not encourage a good night’s sleep.  My first flight today (from Monrovia to Casablanca with a stopover in Freetown) was scheduled to take off at 4:30 am and arrive at 10:00 am.  Working backwards, that meant arriving at the airport at 2:30 am and leaving the hotel at 1:00 am.  The second leg of the journey (Casablanca to Bamako) is scheduled to depart at 9:45 pm and arrive in Bamako at 1:05 am.

I managed to get about four hours sleep before my alarm woke me at 12:30 am.  My sleep was quite sound, no doubt helped by the superb chicken tandoori pizza I had for dinner last night.  The elevator in the hotel had been turned off for the night, meaning I had to carry my luggage down three flights of stairs (not difficult), and then I woke my driver (Augustine) who was sleeping in the hotel lobby.  The drive to the airport took just one hour despite some quite heavy rain and spectacular lightning on the way.

Check-in and immigration were painless, and I was impressed to find free (but extremely slow) wi-fi in the waiting area of the otherwise very basic airport.  The flight had a short 50 minute initial sector to Freetown, during which the aircraft was only about a quarter full, if that.  A much larger number of passengers joined the flight in Freetown, and after 50 minutes on the ground, we took off again into the blackness of the night.

The flight from Freetown to Casablanca lasted three and a half hours.  Seating on the flight was unallocated (i.e. free seating), and I felt I was very fortunate to have a window seat as the scenery of the sands of the Sahara Desert , the peaks of the Atlas Mountains, the irrigated farmlands of Morocco and the densely settled areas near Casablanca were spectacularly lit in the clear morning air.  I felt less fortunate in that the seat was a bulkhead seat (it was good to be reminded how much I detest these for their lack of foot space), and the two seats beside me were filled by a young mother and her baby, together with the baby’s grandmother, all of whom proceeded to fill the floor area (including mine) with their belongings.  My comfort definitely declined further when the cabin staff installed a baby crib on the bulkhead, which meant I could not use my meal tray or even fit my knees beneath it.  But, as always for me, any discomfort was worth it for the great views and decent photos, and aching muscles can always be restored with anti-inflammatories, can’t they!

Casablanca Airport is not the most efficient I have encountered.  I had to get my boarding pass for the next flight (to Bamako) at the transit desk, a process that involved standing in a slow, fat, disorganised queue for about an hour.  Uncomfortable though it was, this slow queue didn’t really worry me, however, as I had to wait around anyway to meet up with my son, Andrew, who was scheduled to arrive on an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai three hours after my touchdown.  Fortunately, unlike many of the other transfer passengers who were sitting on the dirty floor (and by this I mean the floor was covered in places by smeared vomit), I managed to get a chair for most of the time while I waited for Andrew.

Andrew’s plane arrived right on time, and it was great to meet with him and catch up on news while we waited in the line to get his boarding pass and for immigration.  Because our transit time in Casablanca was classified as “long”, and as I was both arriving and departing on Royal Air Maroc flights, I was entitled to a room in an airport transit hotel for free.  After we collected Andrew’s luggage, we visited the appropriate office, obtained our voucher, caught the minibus and enjoyed about five hours of free hospitality in a lovely room, complete with lunch.

The break was certainly welcome; for both Andrew and me, today’s travel time is about 24 hours.

Our flight from Casablanca to Bamako is scheduled to depart from Casablanca at 9:15 this evening and arrive in Bamako just after 1 am.  As touchdown won’t be until tomorrow, I’ll leave my description of that night flight until tomorrow’s diary.


Day 6 - Monrovia, Liberia to Casablanca, Morocco


2 January 2014