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After crash-landing they were lost in the jungle for a week

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles on Tuesday, 23 October 2012

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This edited article about airline disasters originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 771 published on 23rd October 1975.

The single-engined Beechcraft aeroplane hummed its way over the jungles of Africa. Below the plane it was Tarzan country, dense with tropical trees and jungle bushes.

It was like a wonderland to four-year-old Ben Pochee and his cousin, Dominic, just two years older, as they gazed from the windows of the plane.

Ahmed Pochee, a London wine importer of Persian descent, was glad that Ben, his son, and Dominic, were happy, for they were just beginning the trip of a lifetime. It was to be the highlight of their holiday in Africa – a flight from Lake Manyara in Northern Tanzania to see the magnificent and awe-inspiring Ngorongoro crater, the vast mouth of a slumbering volcano.

As they neared the sides of the volcano, they began climbing steadily. But their little plane was finding the climb up the tree-clad slope too much of an effort.

The motor began to splutter. Navid Rasul, the pilot, struggled desperately with the controls. But it was no good. The plane was losing power.

As the forests came up to meet them, Rasul struggled with his controls. Soon they were almost skimming the tops of the trees that were packed as tightly as the bristles on a brush.

As the plane lost more height, the pilot saw one tree stuck up a little higher than the rest – seconds later, the nose cone of the propeller struck the tree, and the plane started to break up. The nose began to sink and the fuselage shot forward, the wings being neatly chopped off on either side of the tree. Together, the plane and the tree collapsed to the ground, the plane’s fall being cushioned by the dense jungle bushes.

Ahmed Pochee hit his head on the instrument panel – and everything went black. Baby Ben, who had been at the back of the plane, sailed through the air and landed on Ahmed’s shoulders. Dominic, his seat belt undone, shot through the space where the windscreen had been – it had disintegrated in the crash – and hit the ground feet first. Rasul was unhurt and as he straightened up dazedly from the controls, he saw Dominic calmly walking back to the plane.

Swiftly the pilot gathered his wits. Rasul dragged Ahmed from the plane, shouting to Dominic to rescue Ben. By good fortune they were all clear when a series of dull explosions ripped the plane apart. In the wreckage were a couple of bags that had been thrown clear of the fire.

Thanks to another stroke of good fortune, the injuries of the plane’s occupants were slight. One of Ben’s ankles had been badly burnt by a chunk of red hot fuselage, and Ahmed’s forehead was gashed.

Rasul cleaned the wounds with petrol leaking from one of the plane’s wing tanks that had broken away from the fuselage in the crash and had somehow not caught fire. One of the bags that had been flung clear of the wreckage contained bandages, and Rasul bound up Ben’s and Ahmed’s wounds with these.

From the bags came dresses, which Ahmed was planning to bring to Britain as samples. These were used for wrapping up Ben, who could not walk with his hurt foot, and tying him to Rasul’s back. Out of one of the cases, too, there came a big box of chewing gum, for which they were to be thankful.

They had crashed some way south-west of Ngorongoro. There were plenty of animal paths, so they set off, feeling that as long as they were climbing up the slope, they must eventually reach the top of the crater and find their way to Ngorongoro.

As they climbed, the nature of the forest changed. It became one of densely packed bamboos, twice the height of a man, with masses of thin leaves knitted together.

When night came, the temperature fell, and the four shivered as they tried to sleep by lying on their back on the steep mountainside with their feet resting against the bamboo trees to prevent their sliding down the slope.

The next morning, they found themselves covered in a heavy mist; Ahmed and Rasul felt helpless as they tried to navigate their way to the top. When two days of wandering had brought them nowhere, they tried a different tack. They reasoned that if they followed a river bed down hill, it could eventually lead them to a village beside a river.

After they had followed the river bed for a few hours, a trickle of water appeared in it. For the rest of the time, Ahmed and his party took the river as their route back to civilisation.

All this time, the children had kept cheerful, talking about the food they would eat when they reached civilisation. Their only food was the chewing gum, which provided them with a little sugar and kept their saliva flowing, so that their mouths did not dry out.

A big plant that seemed to be like a mixture of asparagus and cabbage proved to be edible. For the first three days they had no water, but they overcame this by sucking the dew from leaves.

Sharing the jungle with the four humans were a variety of animals. Cheetah, buffalo, wildebeest and leopards passed at a respectful distance.

Using the river as a guide, the party continued their journey. Once, through the trees, they saw a plane, but all their shouting and waving was useless.

Gradually, the trees thinned out, and on the seventh day their hearts soared when they saw splashes of yellow. These were fields of maize. They they came to the farmers’ thatched houses, and stumbled up to one of them. The farmer took Rasul to a game warden, who at once took command.

The quartet were sent off to a hospital in Nairobi, where their cuts and burns were treated. Then they moved into an hotel, where Ahmed and the boys recuperated with plenty of good food.

Rested and fit again, Ahmed and the boys flew home to Britain and a heroes’ welcome.

What had begun as a safari holiday in August, 1975 and had turned into a dogged fight for survival in an unfriendly jungle thick with wild animals was now a memory – a memory that they would retain for the rest of their lives.

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