Laura McDermid continues her stories about Iris McDermott in Rwanda.
It was November 1978 and I had just flown John McCloy of JF McCloy Engineering, from Malindi to Nairobi. On my flight back to Malindi on the canary yellow Piper Cherokee, 5Y-AKS, a weariness crept over me, paired with an odd prickling sensation all over my body, as if an army of ants crawled beneath my skin.
Fortunately, the airport was not far off, and I requested an immediate landing. I locked my sights on the painted numbers at the threshold and watched as 35 grew larger until they filled my vision.
My relief was profound when I felt the familiar bump as the wheels kissed the ground. I taxied to the Air Kenya hangar, summoning my last reserves of energy to pack the aircraft away.
Sensing the impending arrival of malaria, I needed to get to bed urgently. Having been on this rodeo before, I had an ample supply of Nivaquinne tablets and took a good dose as soon as I arrived home. The last thing I remember was placing a jug of water and the bottle of quinine next to my bed.
Fevered bouts brought forth vivid nightmares, accompanied by a temperature rollercoaster, leaving me shaking violently with a chill that seeped into my bones, rendering them achingly tender. I was in constant discomfort and in perpetual pain, which left me wrung out.
My absence from my usual haunt at Ocean Sports Resort prompted the owner Mary Nicholas to come looking for me.
‘Hodi Hodi, Iris may I come in? Mary used the Swahili words for ‘knock-knock’ as she entered. She discovered me in a sodden heap on the bed.
‘We missed you. Your chief pilot has been expecting you, and when you didn’t turn up, he became very concerned as it’s not like you to miss an opportunity to fly.’
Mary could tell that I was in bad shape. ‘You simply can’t stay here on your own; you are coming back with me, and we will look after you.’
I was too weak to argue and was secretly relieved, knowing what still lay ahead.
Mary made me comfortable in the guest room in their own house and called Dr Zoltan Rosinger, a much loved and revered figure in Malindi. He had come to the minefields in Kenya from Vienna with his wife during the gold rush, where he worked as a Medical Officer, and later moved to the coast.
Dr Rosinger emphasised the importance of drinking plenty of fluids to avoid contracting Blackwater fever, a rare, yet dangerous complication of malaria. Knowing that my grandmother lost her life to this condition, prompted me to take heed.
Due to the risk of liver shock, it was agreed not to move me into the hospital, and so I stayed in the Nicholas residence. Food was the last thing on my mind and the mere clatter of cutlery made me queasy. I craved solitude, surviving on water, and the soothing elixir of coconut water, a lifeline during my slow and arduous recovery.
Malaria’s toll was staggering – I shed 20kg in a relentless month-long battle.
Emerging from the ravage of illness, I longed to return to the skies. I tackled this gradually by ferrying day trips to Lamu and Robinson’s Island.
Jill Megson, a friend of Chris and Mary Nicholas, arrived to spend the Christmas holidays at the coast with her three daughters. She had lost her husband to cancer a few years previously, and so she sold their farm in Kitale and moved to Nairobi.
Although Jill and I shared the same room, I left very early in the morning and would be away for most of the day, which meant that I didn’t get to socialise much. My liver was still very tender, so there was no sitting around the bar for me just yet.
After a few days of flying, I had a day off and I found myself stuck with Jill. Desperate to make small talk, Jill asked me if I knew Tony Kennaway, a celebrated figure in East African aviation and a solid drinking buddy of mine. In an odd twist of fate, it transpired that Tony was Jill’s brother! This revelation forged an unexpected bond, relegating the awkward silences between us to a thing of the past.
After regaining my strength, I bid farewell to my new home, returning to my cottage.
My dog Gigis was confused, as he was quite happy with his mates at Ocean Sports, as was I, but we had to move on.
At the close of 1979, I made the difficult decision to resign from my role as a commercial pilot at Air Kenya. It had been an incredible journey, yet I felt that I was stagnating, and needed to fulfil my dream of flying jets, so I accepted a job with Sunbird Aviation in Nairobi.
In February 1980 I bundled my possessions into my VW Beetle and made the trek to Nairobi where I stayed with Jill in her beautiful stone house in Langata, which bordered the Nairobi National Park. The serene sound of the ocean was replaced by the very vocal sounds of the African bush.
Each night my soul filled with a deep peace as I fell asleep to the roar of lions and the mournful yelping of silver-backed jackals.
Unfortunately, that peace did not last as my cherished friend and mentor of many years, Isabel Rockefeller Lincoln, was terminally ill with cancer.
Before starting my new job, I made the pilgrimage to Deer Park, Isabel’s estate in Greenwich, Connecticut to see her for the last time.
Isabel, or Memsaab as my brother and I fondly called her, was the reason that I was able to pursue my passion for flying; she was the reason why I became a pilot.
Memsaab’s nurse, Mary, would arrange suitable visitation times. When I wasn’t with Isabel, I’d spend time with her daughters, Cal and Percy; our joint experience offered a sense of solace during this trying time.
My visits with Memsaab were precious, she loved to hear what was going on and despite her obvious discomfort, she never omitted to enquire after me.
Eventually, the day came for my departure. Saying goodbye to such a profound friendship left an indelible mark on my heart. Knowing that I would never see Isabel again and that this rare and beautiful friendship would exist in my memory only, was bittersweet.
It was time for me to start a new chapter at Sunbird Aviation.
As I reclined in my seat on the commercial flight to Kenya, I reflected on how fortunate I was to meet such extraordinary people on my journey around this blue planet. Blessed indeed.