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Lungi Airport (Sierra Leone)

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Airport serving Freetown, Sierra Leone

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      10.01.2011 07:26
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      You don't really have a choice, but it's nothing to get excited about

      Lungi Airport, despite its funny name and location (in Lungi...maybe not so funny a name after all), is the one international airport in Sierra Leone, serving its capital Freetown. Of course it's not in Freetown - that would be way too simple - and getting to and from the capital feels like more of a trek than the international flight that you'll be teaming it with.

      Option one is the helicopter, when it's running, and when it's maintained enough not to crash. I'm not being overly crass - that's a pretty accurate summary of how the Bradt guide book describes it. It's expensive ($80) but quick (only about 7 minutes in the air) and lands in Aberdeen, near Lumley beach. Options two and three are boats of various descriptions. My incoming and outbound trips were both on the Pelican Sea Coach, so this is the one I know most about. It leaves from below the bridge on Sir Samuel Lewis road, and takes 25 minutes, teamed with a 5 minute drive to the airport building in a Pelican mini bus. The crossing is by snappy small speedboat or slightly larger but no less speedy boat, depending on your party size and time of day. Your luggage travels with you or in a second boat, and you get receipt tags for each piece which are checked when you collect them again, even if they've never left your sight. Tickets cost $40 or 170,000 Le at present and departures are timed to coincide with specific flights - unfortunately the common flight delays aren't reflected in this, so you may end up spending longer than is pleasant at the airport. The other boat is similar, but goes from a jetty by Alex's Restaurant. Option four is to drive. The most straight forward option in a normal city is the least popular here, given the fact it can take 5 hours to head up and round the bay, half of that being spend simply getting out of town.

      So, you've made it across the water. What wonderful metropolis awaits? you wonder.

      As if.

      I have never been to such an 'interesting' airport. My first stop last Friday was the departure area. You can only enter this with your ticket, so travellers only beyond this point. This is BEFORE check in still, remember, so you have to say your goodbyes a little earlier (or check in and then go back out). I approached only to be stopped at the automatic doors until an attendant was free. Before you get near your particular airline's personnel, the security staff want to search your hold bags. And I mean search. They opened every compartment of my backpack, then opened every cosmetics bag and pencil case within. They ferreted through dirty knickers, examined my moisturiser, gazed in wonder at my Dove Roll On. Once they were confident I wasn't carrying bombs, I was allowed to check in. (Side note: I asked what they were looking for, they said explosives, I said my bag would likely explode if they opened it, such is my packing style. Happily this is not the USA, so even with the language barrier that sort of comment wasn't cause to throw me into airport-jail and question me until I confessed to something I'd not done)

      Check in too, was an experience. I was travelling with a European airline and two of their staff greeted me, checked my ticket, took a digital photo of it (!), manually ticked my name on a passenger manifest, and then let me proceed. I approached the check in desk but they weren't ready for me, so I loitered and tried to dodge comments from the guy guarding the retractable barrier about my marital status, business in Sierra Leone and local address in Freetown. Check in, when it came, was notable for its silence. I wasn't greeted with the inane 'Oh, travelling on to Manchester?' comments, nor was I asked if I'd packed by bags myself or if I was carrying anything for anyone else. I wasn't offered a choice of seats - this may be airline specific, but the staff seemed to be generic airport employees.

      There is nothing landside, so I headed through immigration immediately. The woman told me she wanted me to fill in a form, then waved me through without issuing it. I rounded a corner and was waved over by someone else. They wanted to search my hand luggage... by hand and question me about how much money I was carrying. Clearly my Asda-chic outfit was my clever attempt at disguising my millions. I passed the test and ended up in the departure hall.

      Seriously, even Blackpool airport is better than this.

      There are two small shops, both of look like they're at the end of a closing down sale. One is 'tourist souvenirs' which means the odd cloth wall hanging, some carved statues, melting chocolate and magazines being sold for twice their official Sierra Leone cover price. The other is the Duty Free. This is slightly larger and offers up the usual suspects of alcohol, perfume and chocolates, without the inconvenience of price tags. I had some Leones I thought I'd use up, but it proved hard as I had to ask the price of everything and then ask them to convert from dollars to Leones. It's a little thing, but it really bothers me when prices are only quoted in one currency when that currency is other than the local one.

      Upstairs there is a waiter service snack bar, which is a weird combination if ever there was one. I thought about having a snack but they didn't have half the menu items, including the one vegetarian option aside from chips. The restaurant is surrounded by standing air con units but they were either off or not working, as the place was melting in the later afternoon heat, so I didn't even bother staying for a drink (which weren't on the menu and were, therefore, probably of varying prices depending on how rich you looked).

      I went on a mission to find a plug so I could charge my laptop. A thorough search of all the public areas soon uncovered one accessible plug, already in use by a Mac-toting blonde girl. I watched her like a hawk, saw her make a move to unplug it some time later, and swooped. And that is how I spent the rest of my (hours....) at Lungi, sitting on the floor watching episodes of House and quietly sweating. I could have sat on a sweaty plastic chair, but to be honest the floor was just as comfy. This is not an airport you would want to bed down for a night in.

      The clarity of tannoy announcements in airports is never good, but here it is particularly appalling and there are no display screens. The only comfort was that there are few flights, and all several hours apart, so there's no real chance you could miss your departure. Louder than the announcements was a large TV in the departure area, playing religious music videos and weird films for the duration of my stay. I fell asleep on the plane with the lilting "I am so glad that Jesus loves me" still running round my head.

      As we went to board the plane, a BMI flight was landing. The passengers from that crossed the tarmac in one direction as the passengers for my flight headed towards them. Needless to say I'm pretty sure this breaches all sorts of laws about departing and arriving passengers mixing - it would have been super easy for someone to pass a parcel or packet of something suitably illegal to someone else, or to trade passports of similar.

      This was my last impression of Sierra Leone and it did little to dispel the feeling that I have absolutely, 100% done the right thing by leaving.

      Of course, it was also my first impression too. Would you like to know about arrivals? Back in September we landed late thanks to some issues in flight, and hit the ground about 11pm. It was pitch black and sticky as we staggered from the plane to the terminal. We passed through immigration where some members of our party were asked for a bribe by the team sitting on the desks. It wasn't even subtle, but there seemed to be no hard feelings when said request was denied.

      You need a Yellow Fever certificate to enter Sierra Leone, so each of us had to brandish one of these, though there were no checks to see if it matched the name on the passport.

      The baggage hall was hell on Earth, with various people milling around trying to sell you transport options and get your bags for a fee - we had to fight them off at one point and insist that, thanks to the wonder of wheely suitcases, we were perfectly capable of shifting our own stuff. We arrived en masse - more than a dozen of us - and I can imagine it could be quite intimidating if you were alone. We were then supposed to pass through customs and have our bags searched, no doubt by hand (I'm convinced it's all a ploy to invent jobs for a country with severe unemployment) but we managed to walk around them and into the mayhem that is the arrivals hall, where we were met. As we huddled in a hangar round the corner while our transport was sorted out, we were bought drinks by our organisation - people were walking around with bottles of water and snacks in an enterprising way.

      Lungi airport does not have a website. It had electricity while I was there, but I did have to wonder if that was why they searched by hand rather than using proper scanners, since NPA (mains power) is hit and miss in Freetown. But no, it doesn't have a website, though hopefully this has told you anything you might need to know. As the only international airport in the country, you have little choice in whether or not to use it anyway, but knowing what to expect should help a little.

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