Attack of the Killer Macaques
It had seemed a romantic idea to arrive in the port of Tangier, and the continent of Africa, by sea; but the painfully early hour of my flight to Gibraltar, where I will catch the ferry to Morocco, has already turned romance sour. An alarm clock ringing at four in the morning in the middle of an English winter is a cruel and unnatural thing. The fear of getting up so early pollutes my sleep, filling it with nervous, guilty, premature awakenings, as well as nightmares of having overslept and missed the taxi, the flight and the rest of my life.
It's frosty and still dark as we board the plane at a shopping mall with an overcrowded airport attached somewhere in Sussex. The young man in the seat next to me is Estonian, like his friend across the aisle. When breakfast is served he orders two quarter-bottles of red wine from a surprised stewardess and knocks them back at high speed with his sausage, bacon, mushrooms and powdered egg. Then he eats the muesli and yogurt. It's so early my brain isn't working properly, and I'm struggling to decipher the meaning of such extreme behavior.
The Estonians are accompanied by a hearty English business type in a Winnie-the-Pooh-on-a-balloon tie who is keen to show that he's in charge. He keeps telling the Estonians very boring things in a loud, slow voice with all definite and indefinite articles removed, like a whisky trader talking to injuns about heap powerful thundersticks. When the stewardess comes to collect the breakfast debris my Estonian orders a gin and tonic to wash the wine down, while his friend opts for another cup of tea and some port. I have been to Estonia twice, and can report that it is an enigmatic country, with a glorious tradition of choral singing.
We're crossing southern Spain when the pilot comes on the intercom to tell us that the weather isn't very nice in Gibraltar. Very windy, apparently. More than fifty miles an hour.
"Under the circumstances it would be hazardous to attempt a landing. We'll get back to you in a few minutes to let you know what's happening."
"WINDY!" shouts Winnie the Pooh at the Estonians. "not landing! dangerous! go! somewhere! else!"
He's using his right hand to mime what he thinks is a change of direction, but the Estonians think is a plane crash. They have taken on the haunted look of men who are about to plummet from 36,000 feet and don't know whether to use their last seconds to proposition the hostess or order more gin and port.
Before they can decide we enter a cloud and the plane starts pitching and bumping in the most terrifying manner. It feels as if the controls have been seized by two teenage boys who are pulling and pressing everything in sight to see who can make a wing fall off first. Clouds look such gentle, fluffy things, so what the hell's inside them that can cause aircraft so much grief ? Monsters? A giant anvil? Gods who are displeased with us? Not for the first time I find myself wondering whether you pass out as soon as the fuselage cracks and you hit the cold air, or whether you remain conscious and have a brilliant but eye-watering view all the way to the ground, or sharks.
We ricochet down through the clouds and suddenly we're clear of them, descending rapidly but seemingly still in control. The PA system bing-bongs and the pilot is back on the airwaves.
"We've decided we'll try and give it a go anyway."
His voice is alarmingly casual. I suppose he's hoping to reassure us, but his words couldn't be more worrying if they'd been spoken with a slur and preceded by the phrase "Ah, sod it." Though we've spent the last two hours flying over land, we're now very close to something that looks like the sea. I can see white tops on the waves. I can see individual drops of water, but no sign of land anywhere, as we go into an abrupt gung-ho bank to the right that suggests our man may be a frustrated fighter pilot who failed the psychological profiling. All around me passengers are exchanging panic-stricken glances with complete strangers with whom they've so far been scrupulously avoiding any kind of eye contact.
And now there it is in front of us, the Rock itself, massive, gray, broody, windswept; but, above all, very solid-looking. The PA pings back on.
"I'm afraid this may be a little bumpy." And that's it. He's gone quiet. Perhaps one of the stewards has managed to force a towel into his mouth before he could add, "but I really couldn't give a toss." We're hurtling flat and low across the water, straight towards the Rock. Why are we so low? To get below the radar? Are we going to bomb it? They're on our side, aren't they? We're so low over the spray that I can feel it on my face; or is that just the Estonians crying? And now there's the airstrip straight ahead of us, immediately beneath the enormous bulk of the Rock. At close range it really does look dauntingly dense. If we do hit it, it seems unlikely we'll have the option of surviving for ten days by eating each other.
A brutal gust of wind strikes the plane, tipping the wing on my side up towards the Rock, then down towards the seabed. We're dropping ever lower, rolling from side to side in newer and scarier ways, when without warning the G force sucks back our stomachs ...(Continues...)