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Lesotho, a scary papal flight, and Roy Orbison

Arik Bachar’s reminiscence about Lesotho reminded me of my own, somewhat bizarre visit to the mountain kingdom in September 1988 while covering a tour round southern Africa by Pope John Paul.

The first two legs, in Zimbabwe and Botswana, went uneventfully. Then we climbed aboard a dilapidated Air Zimbabwe Boeing 707 for the short hop from Gaborone to Maseru, the Lesotho capital. After being told there might be bad weather, we were a little alarmed to look out the plane’s windows before take-off and see a rather corpulent flight mechanic wielding a screwdriver astride one of the engines.

Soon after reaching cruising altitude, we hit a spectacular storm, with lightning and blackened skies. The plane veered from side to side and repeatedly lost altitude in sickening drops as rain lashed the windows. The journalists at the back of the plane became more than a little agitated with some yelling, others moaning quietly and yet others throwing up into their sick bags. The Pope and his cardinals at the front were said to be calm. Unlike us they had a ticket to heaven, one assumes. We remembered the problem with the engine.

The only journalist unfazed by the drama was John Thavis, a friend and correspondent for Catholic News Service. John carried the burden of having to cover all the papal trips while being a phobic flyer. So, on each flight he loaded up with beta-blockers and listened to Roy Orbison on his earphones. They must have been good pills because I noticed he was gazing into space jigging along to the music as people unravelled around him.

We had already been told that Maseru, surrounded by mountains, was a difficult place to land in bad weather and so there were shouts of relief when we realised the plane had stopped circling and was climbing. The pilot came on the radio, told us it was impossible to land, partly because the storm had taken out the navigation beacons. We were heading to Johannesburg, the only place within range with a gap in the weather.

This was a relief, but also highly ironic since John Paul had made a point of saying he would not visit South Africa because of apartheid. The South Africans, presumably revelling in the irony, kept us waiting some time on the tarmac and the “vaticanisti” again became very agitated as the plane heated up and we all thought we were sitting on an incredible scoop (no mobile phones back then).  Amidst the excitement, Federico Mandillo, correspondent of the Italian news agency ANSA and older than most of us, became ill and collapsed. It turned out later he had suffered a mild stroke. The Pope’s doctor was summoned from the front of the plane and laid Mandillo out in the aisle.

At that very moment, the South Africans gave permission for us to leave the aircraft and the doors began to open. A gaggle of hacks, thinking only of a scoop, trampled over Mandillo as they rushed for the exits.

We ran towards the terminal but found ourselves locked in a room without phones. The Vatican and Pretoria had agreed that we would be sealed off and taken to Lesotho by bus so that we would officially never have been in South Africa. With a couple of other reporters I managed to squeeze through a crack between the prefabricated walls and enter the main terminal. I begged a coin from one of the startled passengers waiting for flights and breathlessly called the Johannesburg office from a pay phone.

“Quick,” I yelled. “This is Barry Moody from the papal flight. Prepare an urgent, we just landed at Jan Smuts airport after being forced back from Maseru”. The laconic voice of the slot deskman came back down the line. “Yeah, yeah, we have known that for an hour, they tipped us off at the airport.” I was reduced to filing a few lines of colour.

Later we travelled overland to Maseru, not being allowed to step on South African territory on the way. As we arrived, a South African SWAT team called in by Lesotho stormed a bus of pilgrims hijacked by anti-government rebels who were demanding to speak to the Pope. Pretoria and Maseru seemed to believe they needed to end the incident before the pontiff arrived. But three hijackers and a schoolgirl pilgrim were killed and the Pope was said to be furious. The next day he prayed for the dead and wounded at a subdued and rain-soaked Mass attended by 10,000 people, far fewer than expected.

Mandillo rejoined us on a later leg of the trip in Mozambique, looking none the worse for wear after time in a Johannesburg hospital. ■