The sun-drenched elsewhere: Learning to fly in Mozambique

Recently I wrote a poem following one of Jo Bell’s 52 poem prompts. The prompt was “first time” and, easily discounting the obvious, I wrote about a time, almost ten years’ ago, in Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago, when I found myself at the controls of a small plane. My friend Amanda, over at Amanda’s Circus, who is also following the prompts, read the poem and wanted more details. So, adapted from my diary at the time, Amanda, this is for you:

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I don’t much like flying – especially not in small planes where there is so little separating one from all that empty space. This pilot, with his clipped South African accent, young man’s confident grin and long fingers picking at a plate of peri peri cashew nuts says he has the answer. What I need, apparently, is the joystick in my hand.

His plane is a Piper Cherokee, a tiny thing that might have been plucked from a toy box and dropped here, on this sandy strip of runway between the Indian Ocean and the palm trees that seal off Pemba’s old town. Somewhere out there, across the glassy water is the Quirimbas Archipelago. I wonder if I mightn’t prefer to stay in Pemba, even if it means no migratory humpbacks, turtles or dugong. But the pilot is quick to dispatch us to our places: my husband to the seat behind his; a big man with a smile that’s too small for his face, to the back; and me to the co-pilot’s seat. In front of me is a joystick which, it transpires, isn’t a joystick at all but a thing called a yoke.

The switch-flicking that comprises the pre-flight checks is followed by the roar of the engines, so loud and physical it seems to set every cell of my body vibrating. We bounce along the runway, blurring the sea to turquoise opacity. Just as it appears that we must run out of sand, the nose of the plane lifts and, halfway to vertical, the rest follows.

Levelled out again, between blue sky and green sea, the pilot lowers his visor against the glare of the sun striking the water. He twists round in his seat and assures the passengers the hardest part is behind us. The smile on the man at the back of the plane becomes rictus-like. He’s guessed what is to come and is rightly terrified. From somewhere I hear the words: put your hand on the yoke.

It thrums with the movement of the plane and resists more than I expect. Turn it to the left, I’m told. I do so and the aircraft rolls beneath us, the space that its fuselage shaded giving up two dhows, their white sails catching the same air that holds us aloft.

Below, lines of green so dark they’re almost black are the deep water channels along which the humpbacks migrate. Pushing the yoke forwards, as instructed, the darkness lurches towards us, shoving the sky out of the way. I shake my head and the pilot, still grinning, pulls back on his own yoke to lift the plane. Released, I look down at the patchwork of tiny islands Mozambique’s civil war so long kept for the cartographers. Soon one of them will resolve into the mangrove-fringed, baobab-studded bit of earth where we are to land but for now, for once, I’m happy here, suspended between sea and sky – and resolutely not at the controls.

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