I had never heard of it before nor did I even know what haboob or habūb meant until the plane I was flying in on my way to Khartoum, Sudan encountered it. That flight for me takes the position of the scariest flight I have been in till date, especially considering that, in previous years, there had been two incidents involving an airbus with one claiming twenty-eight lives in Khartoum.
A haboob or habūb is a violent dust/sandstorm especially common in Sudan but generally occurs in arid areas. I understand dust storms pose a significant hazard to aviation and not only do they reduce visibility, they can seriously affect an aircraft in flight and engines can be damaged when the dust is ingested. Also interesting is the fact that they sometimes cannot be forecast. But of course, I didn’t know this as I sat in that plane. I only realized the seriousness of the situation when I could visibly see the aircraft struggling through the wind and when the pilot’s announcement came through the in-flight announcement system.
We took off from Nairobi without any drama, our destination Khartoum, the city where both the Blue Nile and White Nile rivers confluent to form the great Nile river that empties into the Mediterranean sea in Egypt. Everything, flight-wise was going well until we started our approach to Khartoum airport. I noticed we didn’t make the first approach, like we were going in circles, that was odd. I looked out the windows but couldn’t even see the clouds. Then the announcement came, “there is a sandstorm at the airport and the landing conditions are very bad”. I couldn’t help wonder what sort of sandstorm would prevent a thing as big as an airbus from landing? Very naive I know!
Well, the pilot then decided to fly to and land his aircraft in Cairo, Egypt instead. Where we waited for about 4 hours at the airport I think, for the weather conditions to be better in Khartoum. It felt like eternity especially because all we could be offered as impromptu guests at the Cairo airport was the hard tiled floor to sit on. We finally took off and when we got to Khartoum, the storm was gone but the city had this yellowish grey look, almost like I were looking at the city through a stained glass. The air too was still sand-filled, I could taste sand each time I opened my mouth.
Apart from the flight, I loved it in Khartoum though. The food, sweets and hospitality of the people was outstanding. One particular experience stood out for me. A hilarious yet creepy incident where I was offered to be provided any whisky of my choice by some Arab workers at my hotel, in a country with a sharia law system of zero-tolerance to alcohol. I couldn’t believe what my new ‘friends’ were offering. All I was thinking of was the sharia consequence of being caught drinking whisky at the hotel, which happens to be public flogging.But what if I wasn’t caught, I thought. The temptation was strong, I hadn’t seen a drink for days but then I couldn’t help wonder how they made the whiskey, and if they didn’t make it, how did they get it into the country? I’ll pass, I told them.