Africa 2013

Phase eight - South Central Africa

Sunday October 20th - Malindi, Kenya to Arusha, Tanzania

We were at the airport by 0900 preparing to finally get underway again on the trip. The original plan had been to fly via Mombasa in order to clear customs and immigration but it turned out that, with a short wait, someone could be summoned to Malindi to handle these formalities and save us a stop. We refueled and took care of the paperwork while we waited, and once the immigration official arrived it was just a few minutes before we could be on our way. The first leg would be a two hour flight to Kilimanjaro airport, the international airport just 30 miles from our final destination of Arusha.

We set off along the coast south, as we wanted to fly past the village we'd spent the last couple of days in before we turned inland towards Kilimanjaro. Approaching it, we descended to a few hundred feet and flew low and slow over the beach to take photographs of the house and surroundings, and also try and spot the family! We failed to do this, but later heard that they had been out walking and had clearly seen us pass by; we just hadn't spotted them waving!

Turning inland, we climbed up to 8,500ft to stay above the scattered cloud layer. The winds were favourable and we cruised at 130 knots ground speed. After an hour or so, Kilimanjaro came into view in the distance. Approaching the Tanzanian border the clouds cleared away and Sophia spotted a herd of animals down below; a quick descent revealed them to be a huge quantity of wildebeest. Trotting along to the side of them were a group of 5 or 6 elephants! Well pleased with this sighting, we had flown only another 20 miles or so before we came across more elephants, but this time a herd of 100 or more animals. Despite the heat and the turbulence down low, we lingered for a while watching them before continuing to Kilimanjaro airport.

Kilimanjaro was not a busy airport. We quickly procured aircrew visa for the country, and having exited through the arrivals hall immediately re-entered at the other end of the airport to file our flight plan and pay the considerable navigation and permit charges. "Navigation" charges are one of the biggest rip-offs in African aviation; almost no air traffic control is offered, and in those places where it is available it is often of a very poor standard. It can certainly not be considered decent value for money! Fees paid, we relaxed by the aircraft for some time to consume the sandwiches that Sue had kindly sent us off with, and chatted with some local pilots who were very interested in our unusual diesel engine.

The flight to Arusha took only twenty minutes. This local airport, much smaller than Kilimanjaro, was nonetheless much busier and the apron was packed with Cessna Caravans and other light aircraft. We were parked down one end near the fuel pumps but warned to leave the parking brakes off as they would most likely have to move the aircraft to deal with future traffic. As we made our way out of the terminal, intending to locate a taxi, we were approached by a western gentleman addressing us in French; he had spotted our aircraft registration. This turned out to be Ben, a Belgian pilot volunteering for a local charity, the Flying Medical Service. They operated two Cessna 206s as air ambulances, as well as visiting villages for vaccination campaigns. Ben introduced us to Pat, the director, and we were soon offered accommodation in their compound which we gratefully accepted.

Pat was busy replacing an antenna on one of the 206s. We set to work helping him; as a result of a recent accident that had wiped out the other 206, he was temporarily unable to lift any heavy items. The work took a half hour to finish, and we then all piled into the little Suzuki Jimny and headed back to the compound; Ben had gone ahead on his bicycle, a brave man in the heat and surrounded by African drivers! At the compound we met Elsa, an American volunteer, and Kylie the Australian administrator for the group, who warmly welcomed us and set up a room for us in the main building.

That evening we joined the FMS guys, and a number of other expats, for dinner in the city at a Chinese restaurant. While not particularly traditional cuisine, it was apparently one of the very few places where you could have a meal in less than four hours; Tanzania is, it seems, notorious for incredibly slow restaurant service.

Monday October 21st - Arusha, Tanzania

A quiet day; medical staff went off to visit hospitals, aircrew remained at the compound and took advantage of a good internet connection.

Tuesday October 22nd - Arusha, Tanzania to Haydam, Tanzania

Sophia made another medical visit in the morning, and around mid-day Ben drove us both to the airport. After the customary argument with the authorities about payment methods, we took some fuel and set off west towards the Ngorogoro crater. This huge volcanic feature is now one of the prime safari spots in Tanzania, with lodges around the rim and an interior teeming with wildlife. Flying over, we could see nothing of these animals (we did not descend too far as we didn't want to disturb those on the ground), but the views of the crater were beautiful anyway.

From here we flew south to a dirt strip in the village of Haydom. A Lutheran hospital operates here, and Sophia had been invited to visit by some people she met at the conference in Addis Ababa. The strip came into view exactly on the coordinates we'd been given by the official in Kilimanjaro, and after a low pass to check the condition and scare the goats off (it seems every strip in Africa has a herd of goats) we flew a tight circuit and landed; the surface was in decent condition, and the strip comfortably long enough. The arrival of the aircraft, with the low pass, had been clearly visible to the entire village and a crowd of 50 people or so gathered to see who had come; flights were infrequent, apparently, and always for the hospital. A man greeted us, seemingly the caretaker of the strip, and asked if we had a patient. "No", I replied, "but I do have a doctor".

We secured the aircraft and were met shortly after this by a Landrover from the hospital. It drove us the short distance to the main compound, where we settled into our accomodation in the guest house. It was sparse but comfortable and we turned in early, without even going for dinner; an afternoon of snacking in the aircraft had robbed us of our appetites!

Tuesday October 23rd - Haydam, Tanzania to Mwanza, Tanzania

After a morning teaching session we took the short ride back to the airfield where we found the aircraft exactly as we'd left it.We'd been assured by numerous people that it would be safe there, but one always feels a little uneasy leaving it at an unsecured strip in an alien location! It was a joy not to have to worry about briefing offices, flight plans, and airport fees; we simply loaded our bags, pre-flighted, and started up. This being a dirt strip, one had to be extremely careful not to ding the aircraft with gravel sucked up by the propellor, and so warm-up took longer than usual as I was unwilling to run the engine above idle as we slowly trundled down to the far end of the runway. A gentle turn around and slow acceleration, now that the oil was warm enough, and we were away.

Our flight took us directly to Mwanza, a distance of just 170 nautical miles. The countryside was monotonous; sparse, dry terrain with regular small farm buildings dotted across it. Lake Victoria was a welcome change of scenery as it finally came into view ahead, and we descended into Mwanza for a straight in approach, and were asked to "Keep the speed up". Tower had us quickly exit at the first taxiway we came to, and seconds later a twin turboprop from Precision Air touched down behind us. As soon as his speed were under control we were cleared back on to the runway so that we could taxi back to the terminal. Intermingled with the passengers from the commercial flight, we made it through the small airport and into a taxi in record time. Impressively, despite there being no clear system of street addresses, the driver took us straight to the home of our hosts without any hesitation.

We were staying with two Australian acquaintances of Sophia, Derek and Susan. Derek was an anesthetist volunteering at the local hospital. Susan was the only one home when we arrived, and she warmly welcomed us and showed us to our rooms. They lived in a comfortable single story house inside a gated compound, with 4 or 5 other houses scattered around; they all seemed to be occupied by expats. Not long after we arrived Derek returned home accompanied by Jamie, a medical student from Australia; they took the news that they were hosting a pom and a kiwi with good grace.

That evening we drove to Ryan's Bay, a hotel on the lake front, and had dinner with our hosts and a number of other expats. Most were in the medical and/or mission field. I sat next to Dale, a most interesting American gentleman who had been living in Africa for almost thirty years. He now lived on an island in Lake Victoria, operating float planes, and was the only man I have ever met with a licence to hunt hippos; this was for animal control when they became dangerous, and not for sport. He had an incredible variety of stories that kept us entertained well into the evening.

Wednesday October 24th - Mwanza, Tanzania

Sophia and Jamie spent the day at the hospital; I spent the day writing up the text for the website, and doing a little work. In the afternoon, with the kind loan of Jamie's laptop, I was able to get online and even call in to a meeting that was going on back in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, as is typical almost everywhere we've been, the internet cut out after an hour and did not come back for quite some time. We enjoyed a home-cooked meal that evening at the house, before Sophia left again to go for drinks with a medical colleague; she ended up, however, being treated to an entire second dinner! Lucky that she'd skipped dessert the first time around. Derek and I spent the evening watching a Discovery Channel show about hippo attacks, which was warm and uplifting.

Friday October 25th - Mwanza, Tanzania to Lilongwe, Malawi

We left the house at about 10, after Sophia had carried out a little medical work, to head to the airport and our longest flight of the entire trip; almost 700 nautical miles south to the capital of Malawi. Flight planning and fee payment were quick and easy, and after convincing the fueler that we did not in fact want AVGAS (this had become a common issue now that we were back in the land of small planes) we topped the tanks off to the brim and set out. Our route took us slightly west before joining an airway that ran in a dead straight line all the way to Lilongwe.

The weather was, as it had been for weeks, fine with the occasional fluffy cumulus cloud. After a couple of hours we were out of contact with Dar Es Salaam control, and enjoyed some peace and quiet before we came closer to Malawi. As we approached the border we called the Lilongwe frequency; we were out of range, but another airport nearby was on frequency and answered offering to relay our message. I accepted, assuming that he'd call the Lilonge controller by phone, but a few minutes later we heard him passing our message via an airliner that was passing overhead! We were instructed to call Lilongwe again when arriving at the TMA boundary.

We continued south, peering out of the left hand windows to try and see Lake Malawi; unfortunately the day was hazy and we were unable to make it out. We soon made contact with Lilonge and they cleared us to land on runway 14; exactly the same runway I had landed a twin on back in 2006, on a safari transfer with a helpful instructor captaining the flight. It was nice to have made it back under my own steam! We parked up and walked to immigration, with not an airport worker in sight anywhere; we even had to go and search for someone to come and process the immigration formalities. We made it into the country officially, and after an hour's wait the driver arrived to take us into town, and to our hotel.

The hotel was decent, although suffering from problems with power. The voltage was low and unreliable; it was hot and stuffy as neither air conditioning or fan were working. Sophia did manage, somehow, to get the kettle to boil water (albeit very slowly) and with this she managed to take a lukewarm, shallow bath in darkness; if the light switch was on, the taps would dispense electric shocks to those who touched them.

Saturday October 26th - Lilongwe, Malawi

In the morning Sophia had an appointment with medical colleagues; given the day's power failure, I read and used the laptop to type up website text until the battery ran down. On Sophia's return we headed to a nearby plant nursery, which also had a restaurant on a terrace overlooking gardens and rows of young plants that were being readied for sale. On the drive there and back our driver showed us the city centre; it was very spread out, and deserted, being mainly made up of government buildings.

Later in the afternoon I accompanied Sophia to a local hotel. A medical colleague of hers had booked her a massage, all the way from the UK! I figured that a change of scenery would be a good idea and so went along, to end up spending the afternoon in yet another dark hotel with no internet connection and poor power. On the plus side, I eventually ran into one of the guests (possibly, in fact, the only guest), a British guy now living in Kenya who'd been in Malawi to assess the rehabilitation of a poorly managed national park. He was on his way back home to Kenya where he now split his time between managing a community reforestation project around Mount Kenya, and fundraising for the project back in the UK.

Sunday October 27th - Lilongwe, Malawi

For something of a day off, we elected to go and visit Lake Malawi. The drive took around two hours, through the mountains to the west of the lake. We ended up at a hotel on the southern end of the lake, which had public access to the beach. A pleasant few hours were spent enjoying drinks overlooking the water. The majority of people present seemed to be on holiday from the UK or South Africa, with very few locals; the hotel next door, however, had private beach access only and was almost exclusively full of more local revelers.

We drove back to the city mid-afternoon, and after disappearing for another massage and meeting with a colleague Sophia returned to join me for dinner. This was in the restaurant below the hotel, an Italian bistro owned by an expat Brit. Although a strange combination to find in Malawi, the food was remarkably good.

Monday October 28th - Lilongwe, Malawi to Lusaka, Zambia

Sophia returned from a teaching session at about 11am, and with a detour to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine offices it was well after noon before we actually made it to the airport. This was cutting things very tight, as we intended to fly to Lusaka International before then continuing to a farm strip half an hour north of Lusaka where relatives of one of Sophia's colleagues in the UK lived. They had a private strip on their ranch, but with no lighting, so we'd need to be there well before it got dark!

We were assisted at the airport by yet another acquaintance of Sophia; a Precision Air pilot who she had met on a flight some time before the trip. He now worked for the Malawi CAA and ensured that we made it through the airport, complete with several boxes of new medical supplies for donations down-route, in record time. I remained at the aircraft to organise the fuel and stow all the baggage while Sophia and our friend headed off to pay the fees and file the flight plan. The fueler was, like many fuelers we'd recently encountered, very surprised to be asked to put jet fuel in a Cessna.

Finally, around 1400, we were rolling down the runway and climbing out to the west. The three hour flight first took us northwest, crossing the border into Zambia shortly after departure, before turning us southwest across the eastern side of Zambia. Several other GA flights could be heard on frequency inbound to Lilongwe, and the controller was getting a little confused; we heard him asking one flight to remind him whether or not he had cleared them into his airspace yet. Shortly afterwards we were handed off to the next area control. We passed close to South Luangwa National Park where my family and I had holidayed in 2006, another place that it was interesting to see from the air again 7 years later!

The terrain as we headed for Lusaka was fairly desolate; rocky mountains with scrub forest, and not much else. We were directed to fly an extended downwind while an airliner departed, and touched down soon after it took off, being sure to land well before its area of wake turbulence started. It was still touch and go as to whether we'd make it out of Lusaka on time to get to the ranch, so we set out to get through the airport as quickly as possible. Immigration were thrown by our lack of pilots uniforms but were eventually convinced to let us in on flight crew visas, and it didn't take long after that to pay the airport fees and get the new flight plan in.

We had asked the fuelers what price Jet-A was before we came into the terminal, and based on his answer were expecting to need about 1.4 million of whatever the local currency was; there was slight dismay when we could take out only 6,000 Kwacha. This would, we thought, pay for slightly less than a litre of fuel and not get us very far. Further investigation revealed that the currency had recently been revalued, with everything being divided by a factor of 1,000. Some people (such as, it seemed, the fueler) were still adapting to the change, and as a result we had now inadvertantly acquired a little over US$1,000 in Zambian currency. Oops.

We topped off the tanks, having no trouble paying for it this time, and rolled off down the taxiway. A regional jet was on a very long final and so, hoping to get out ahead of him, I made it clear that we could accept an immediate departure. The controller didn't take my hint so we sat for a while at the hold short line while he landed and vacated the runway before we took off and made best possible speed to the north.

After half an hour a well maintained grass strip came into view, right where we expected it. There were still five minutes until sunset; perfect timing! Being used to 10,000ft international runways by now I played things a little safer than required when confronted with a 3,000ft grass strip, still far longer than we needed, and set down right at the threshold resulting in a long taxi up to parking. Donald, our host, had a lovely hangar with ample room for a C182 next to his resident C206, and we put the airplane to bed before retiring to the farmhouse for drinks and dinner.

Donald was born in Zambia to British parents, and his wife Debbie was from the UK originally. They had been on the ranch for more than a decade now. Donald hadn't been flying too long; the push to get licenced had been primarily so that he could fly his children to their weekly boarding school instead of a ten hour return road journey twice every week! It seemed like a great way to get to school to me; he'd ended up buying a six-seat C206 so that he could take the neighbours kid as well. For maximum convenience, the airstrip and hangar had then been installed so that it was only a few minutes walk from the front door to the airplane. A great way to live!

Tuesday October 29th - Near Lusaka, Zambia

This was taken as a rest day. A power cut for much of the afternoon enforced this further! In the evening Sophia and I accompanied Donald on a walk around part of the ranch, which contained both crops and cattle. After a lifetime of being told that one should never walk through a field with a bull in it, it felt peculiar to be strolling through a field with 20 or so bulls in it, and even following Donald over to the middle of a herd to take a closer look! He evidently knew exactly what he was doing, however, and we came away none the worse for the experience.

Wednesday October 30th - Day trip to Serenje

The major medical mission for Zambia was to visit a transport project. As well as the actual medical treatment that pregnant women receive, one of the major risk factors for them is how far they are from a medical facility, and how they can get to it when required. Some way northeast of the ranch was one such project, in Serenje district,the largest in Zambia. We set out to visit it!

The first leg of the journey was an 80 nautical mile flight from the ranch to another farm strip near Serenje. The network of farmers is pretty tight, it seems, so Donald had arranged for his friend Rob to meet us at this strip and then drive us for the day. We practically leapt off the strip on departure, having emptied the aircraft of almost all the baggage, and cruised northwest roughly following the great north road and accompanying railway. There were a remarkable number of private strips in the area, we must have passed 6 or 7 on the 80 mile flight.

Nearing our destination, it turned out that the farm owner had decided that this morning was the ideal time to have a major burn of forest around the strip. This was strangely reminiscent of my visit to Grand Canyon in 2007! Luckily, one side of the long strip was reasonably clear so we flew downwind on that side, and made an easy landing on the excellent surface. A few minutes after we secured the aircraft Rob arrived, and we piled in and set off for Serenje.

We travelled about 100km further towards the northeast, along the great north road. This was one of the best roads that we had seen on the trip so far; only two lane but with a hgh quality tarmac surface. Rob explained that this road was the major route connecting Lusaka with the port at Dar Es Salaam, where most freight came in from. The railway was in poor repair, so the majority of goods were carried by truck, and indeed a steady procession of huge lorries rolled past in the other direction as we went. Apparently many of the drivers would chew stimulants to keep awake and simply dive non-stop for 20 hours or so, so the standard of driving could leave a little to be desired. Great care was taken every time a truck drew near.

We arrived in Serenje, and located Sophia's contact who'd be showing us around. While we waited for her, Rob pointed out the area Chief, who was busy supervising the loading of a truck across the road. Apparently such a figure can usually be identified by the guard he always has; today he was making things even easier by wearing a hat with "Chief" prominently emblazoned across the front.

The closest location to visit, we were informed, was 70km away down a dirt road. Not to worry though, it was a "good" dirt road. We set off, stopping in briefly to inspect the Serenje airstrip. We hadn't flown directly here as nobody could be found to verify the strip condition, but it turned out that it was being used as the local driving practice area and the regular use had kept it in good condition. We rolled off down the dirt road, which actually did turn out to be remarkably smooth, and around 90 minutes later we arrived at our destination.

A small clinic, set up by the government, was stationed here. It was extremely remote; the vast majority of people living around here, 70km from the nearest tarmac road, had nothing more than bicycles for transport. The clinic was staffed by an administrator, trained in environmental health, and a nurse. Their midwife had left some time before, fed up with the distance from the towns, so babies were now delivered by the nurse and administrator, neither of which had any real training or expertise for the task in hand.

The transport project that we had come to see was dedicated to helping mothers rech care when it was time to deliver. The first stage of this was a collection of bicycle trailers, stationed in surrounding villages, in which a mother could be towed to the clinic by a member of the community. If the mother then had to be referred to specialist care she could, in theory, then be delivered in the motorbike ambulance that was stationed at the clinic. Once again though the African love of bureaucracy, and lack of logical thought, intervened; the motorcycle's battery was not working, and it was out of action until the program office sent a new one. The fact that, around the clinic, were five or six perfectly functional batteries currently used for the radios seemed to escape the staff. They preferred that mothers not have access to lifesaving care until the "official" battery could arrive.

We returned to Serenje via the same road that we'd taken on the way out, dropped off Sophia's contact, and headed back towards the airstrip at Mkushi River. Rob was kind enough to take us to his home, where his wife had prepared an excellent late lunch for us, and accompanied by his young twin sons we then returned to the aircraft. The flight home was smooth, following the great north road towards the setting sun, and that evening Debbie served up an excellent spaghetti bolognese. The group by now had grown to six with the addition of two combine harvester engineers that Donald had collected that morning in his 206 from Lusaka to re-assemble a new piece of equipment that had been shipped in from the USA.

Phase Nine - Southern Africa

Click here to access the ninth part of the trip report; Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa

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