Readers' Africa: On the Reindeer Express
As a teenager, Rodney Chalmers enjoyed several adventures journeying to the Sudan
My first stepfather was controller of stores for the Sudan Railways from 1946 to 1955.
Children of government officials were flown out for Christmas by the Sudanese government and we stayed with our folks for three weeks or so. This epistle is a composite of three journeys, which I took between 1950 and 1953.
The company that operated the flights was called AirWork, and they flew Vikings - sometimes Dakotas - from Blackbush Airport in Hampshire. Very exciting for early teens.
The planes seated about 60 passengers, operated below the oxygen-mask level (about 9000 feet) and took four hours from Blackbush to Nice, four hours from Nice to Malta, four hours from Malta to various stops in North Africa - Benghazi, Mersa Matruh, El Adem - and about four hours to Khartoum. On boarding, each of us was given a barley-sugar sweet to suck, to "clear our ear" after take-off. What I enjoyed was looking out of the window - when it wasn't totally iced-up - and being able to see people working in the fields or taking dogs for walks.
In those days, Nice airport was a strip of tarmac straight off the beach. One year, our pilot hit the ground right at the beach edge so we careered down the runway. As we disembarked for coffee and snacks - there were umbrella-covered tables right on the runway - other pilots and crew jeered as our crew went into the reception area.
Another time, we were unable to take off because of "magneto trouble". A night at a hotel in Nice was very interesting, especially the breakfast - I had more than seven yolks in my fried egg and bacon.
We stayed overnight in Malta, at the Phoenicia Hotel in Valetta. Arriving early in the afternoon, we were able to wander about the city and usually found a shop from which we bought our parents a bottle of peppermint liqueur, which cost about five shillings - our pocket money for a month or so. Departures from Malta were dire. We had to be at the airport by 4am, which meant that the hotel got us up before 3am to give us breakfast before the bus to the airport.
Usually, we got to Khartoum in the late afternoon, where we would be met by our parents. One year, we had flown all the way from Malta to Khartoum because of massive tailwinds - it was a nine-hour flight, but it was better than the usual four hours plus four hours plus refuelling. When we landed, a tyre burst and the pilot did very well to keep us on the runway. The parent contingent saw the plane land, then heard a massive bang. It was only when we walked into the terminal that they learnt we were all okay.
Khartoum at 8pm in winter was not the coolest place. One year, the air temperature was 90ºF as we headed to board our train. Railway officials had their own coaches, which were attached to trains as needed. The saloons were well appointed: a two-bed room at one end next to a bathroom; a double-bunk staff room with ablution facilities; a kitchen; a large lounge area with a huge ice-cooler; a dining table for four; and two day/night loungers, where "the young" slept. All windows had three shutters - glass, insect-proofing and louvres to let light in but keep the heat out.
The journey to Atbara took about 10 hours. When we arrived in Atbara, we had been coached to greet our servants with, "Saaida, Mohammed!" Both the cook and houseman had the same name.
In Atbara, there was a cantonment, where government officials lived. All streets were lined on both sides with gadwals - ditches that carried water pumped from the Nile by sagias, a chain of pots, rotated vertically via wooden gearing and driven by a donkey. On odd days, one side of each garden had a shutter which was opened and the entire side of the garden was flooded. On even days, it was the other side.
I actually had a provisional driving licence at the age of 13. The local chief of police asked if I could drive, was told "Yes" and I got my piece of paper.
There were two grocers in Atbara: one Turkish, the other Greek. Depending on what we needed, we visited one or the other on a daily basis. I remember Terry's Chocolate-Filled Cream Bars, which had many different fillings, all extremely moreish. When I started work in London, many years later, I actually asked Terry's if they still produced these but the person who responded had never heard of them. What a loss to the consumer.
All good things come to an end and when I turned 18 I was no longer eligible to join the Reindeer Express. So, while my sister had one more trip to the Sudan, I was shunted off to a holiday in Ireland. What a difference that was.