Africa 2013

Phase nine - Southern Africa

Thursday October 31st - Lusaka, Zambia to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

We departed early for the first leg of our flight to Zimbabwe. The day's initial flight took us south to Lusaka, where we overflew the field and turned southwest towards the city of Livingstone, two hours distant. The landscape was monotonous, primarily being made up of farms both large and small. The difference between the modern mechanised farms and the old, traditional fields of the natives was pronounced. We flew a straight in approach to Livingstone, with a pronounced crosswind making life interesting, and parked up on the apron. Our stop would be brief to clear customs and immigration, and fill the fuel tanks. We'd been advised not to try and get hold of fuel in Zimbabwe.

The airport at Livingstone was excellent. We entered through the domestic terminal and it took just a few minutes to pay our landing fees. We were most impressed to find free wireless internet available throughout the airport! From the domestic terminal we walked over to the new, international terminal where Sophia changed our large remaining stack of Kwacha into the more useful US dollar. A quick visit to the tower was made to file the flight plan and receive a briefing for flying over the nearby Victoria falls; we couldn't miss that opportunity!

Fully fueled, we lumbered into the air, slowly climbing to the west. Some miles out we received clearance to resume our own navigation, and turned south to intercept the Zambezi river. I searched in vain for the lodge that I had stayed at with my family seven years before, perched on several islands in the river and accessible only by boat, but failed to spot it. performing s-turns to climb to the required altitude, we meandered down-river towards the Victoria falls.

The airspace was not as busy as we had expected; it seemed that this was not the height of the tourist season. The river was relatively low, and the spectacle of the falls less impressive than when the full volume of the river tumbles over it; it was, of course, still a magnificent sight! We flew a slow orbit over the top of the waterfalls, with helicopters visible not far below us flying a similar pattern. After one full orbit, and a great many photographs, we straightened out and set course into Zimbabwe to the southeast.

Victoria Falls approach, on the Zimbabwe side, cleared us through their airspace with a C206 close on our heels. Exiting the Victoria Falls TMA, we were soon to enter the Hwange National Park TMA; we made it halfway through this airspace before approach control started replying to our radio calls and gave us a belated clearance through their zone. Soon afterwards we entered the airspace of Bulawayo, and were cleared for a straight-in landing. There was a fair tailwind, but an enormous runway gave us much more space than we needed to get down and gently slow to a halt without stressing the brakes.

Bulawayo airport boasted an enormous, brand new terminal building. It was not open yet, however, and we parked up close to a ratty old hangar that was serving as the "temporary terminal". Evidently no arrivals were expected, as the arrivals section was devoid of staff, and the door out of it was locked. While waiting we discovered the Bulawayo airport comment book, which was full of less than complimentary feedback about the temporary terminal and the service on offer. After some time Sophia managed to attract the attention of a member of staff elsewhere in the building and eventually staff from health, customs, and finally immigration trickled in and processed us into the country. This was the first time on the entire trip that anyone had actually asked to see our Yellow Fever vaccination certificates. They informed us that they had all been busy preparing the new terminal for the grand opening, which would be taking place the following day! When we came to leave on Saturday it would be from the brand new building.

Sophia's medical contact for Zimbabwe, Dr Bob, was waiting for us in the car park. He drove us through the city to our accommodation, stopping along the way to collect his young son from daycare. Bulawayo, or at least the part that we drove through, was a spacious and green city, with large houses set back in gated estates. The downtown boasted wide streets and reasonably modern looking shops and restaurants; reasonably modern meaning approximately 1970s vintage, but well cared for. After a little searching, and a phone call to the proprietor, we arrived at "Ingrid's Lodge" where we'd be spending the next two nights. It was an extremely well kept and comfortable B&B; Ingrid, the German owner, had been in the country for more than 46 years and told us stories of how she had weathered the storm of Mugabe and the horrific anti-white racism that was still promoted by the government to this day.

That evening Dr Bob collected us and drove us to the nearby New Orleans restaurant. He dropped us there, returning home to be with his wife who was not well. The restaurant was very large and well presented, but we saw only two other tables occupied. After an excellent meal we inquired about taxis to get back to the lodge, as our gut told us that walking through Zimbabwe at night while Caucasian was not a very good idea; however, apparently no taxis were available and no offer of a lift was forthcoming, so we set out to walk through the dark suburbs. Sophia disappeared into a deep puddle fairly early on in the journey, which set the tone for a somewhat hysterical adventure through the pitch black streets until eventually making it back to the room, none the worse for wear. The night watchman requested bread from us; we had only biscuits to offer but these went down well nonetheless. Accepting them with a smile, he informed us that the following night he'd rather like a watch.

Friday November 1st - Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Sophia spent the day teaching. That evening Dr Bob took us for dinner in town, at a French-themed "Continental Restaurant". Two journalists from the Zimbabwe Chronicle came by to talk to Sophia about the project; after a 15 minute discussion it was agreed that they'd come by again the following day, to the hotel, for a full interview and to gather photographs.

Saturday November 2nd - Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to Gaborone, Botswana

Our morning got off to a fairly slow start. The journalists came at 10 and, as planned, spent an hour discussing the project with Sophia and preparing for their article. This done, we hopped in a taxi and headed straight to the airport. We arrived this time at the brand new terminal, opened the previous day. Things started off remarkably well, with the counter for paying landing and parking fees being near the information desk in the main concourse; the process was smooth and fast.

Filing the flight plan turned out to be a little trickier. After asking a few people we found someone who knew where the briefing office was. He escorted us through security, immigration, and customs where I had to turn in the temporary import certificate for the aircraft that we'd been issued on arrival. We then had something of a trek to the far end of the airport, a much older administrative building where the office was located. However, the (apparently only) person who ran the office was out sick!

The solution was to climb the stairs up to the tower and file the plan directly with the controller. It was at this point that we discovered that Zimbabwe has a rule, unlike any other country we'd visited, that any flight plan must be filed at least 12 hours in advance. They were surprised that our inbound flight plan had been accepted without any issues. The controller was sympathetic, and not surprised that as visiting foreigners we had not known of this; a brief telephone call with the military authorities, and some laughter at the silly foreigners, secured our permission for an immediate departure!

The flight to Gaborone was unremarkable. We landed at Gaborone after a three hour flight and were directed to park on the apron directly outside their gleaming new terminal building. It seems, in fact, that most of Africa is equipped with new and expensive airport buildings, usually much nicer than those I have visited in Europe. Transit through the airport was very easy, and we were soon being welcomed by Sophia's friend Dr Natasha who had organised the Botswana portion of the journey. She drove us directly through the city to our accommodation, a very comfortable two bedroom apartment in the hospital's staff accomodation area. I was even able to connect directly to an excellent internet connection; Sophia however was not so lucky as Apple, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that users of their products would not be permitted to connect to certain wireless networks!

After a couple of hours relaxation Natasha collected us and took us into the city for dinner. Gaborone was a clean, modern, and well developed city. The mall that we ended up at for dinner was more like America than the Africa we had known this far, even down to the available food; burgers, and chocolate brownie for dessert! Almost like being at home.

Sunday November 3rd - Gaborone, Botswana

There wasn't much medical work to be done, being a Sunday. Originally a training session had been planned but after receiving not a single reply to the invitation, Natasha had let it be known that it was cancelled. This did not stop a few people from turning up (albeit 90 minutes after the session was going to have started) and then phoning to complain that nothing was going on! It had in fact been difficult to plan anything in Botswana at all. The Ministry of Health had taken the attitude that Botswana was a "developed country" and therefore would not accept any input from outsiders, despite the fact that their maternal death rates are still around 20 times higher than those in Europe. This "head in the sand" attitude was really very counterproductive; as Sophia pointed out, if a doctor from Botswana had visited the UK and asked to present on maternal health then they'd have been welcomed with open arms, the relative levels of "development" of the countries being irrelevant!

That evening we were invited to the home of Natasha's parents. They had worked for much of their careers in the Middle East, and retired to Botswana where her father managed the private hospital that we were staying at. They lived in a beautiful home on a golf estate; despite not being golfers, the surroundings were very pleasant indeed. With typical Eastern hospitality, we were not permitted to stop eating the delicious meal until we were almost bursting!

Monday November 4th - Bulawayo, Gaborone, Botswana to Lanseria, South Africa

We left for the airport at around mid-day, after a morning teaching session. Natasha's mother, and a friend, had come to join Natasha at the airport to see us off. We zoomed through the terminal and very quickly sorted out the fees and flight plan, before departing for the 150 mile flight to Lanseria, a smaller international airport in Johannesburg. On departure we were given a transponder code, and then tracked by each controller that we were handed off to one by one as we headed east. It felt quite strange to be under radar control again after so long in the African wilderness!

We crossed the border into South Africa fairly soon after takeoff. The landscape was fairly flat, broken by one enormously long ridge that stretched from horizon to horizon; a similar feature to those seen running up and down the American east coast. As we approached Johannesburg the countryside became clearly more developed with roads, reservoirs, and extensive agriculture. Towns became larger and more numerous. We descended early to stay underneach the Johannesburg TMA, the protected airspace for the main international airport, and flew straight onto a left downwind to land at Lanseria.

This airport was an interesting one to visit. One of the two parallel runways was closed and being enlarged, with all traffic being directed onto the other. Traffic ranged from little C182s up to 737 airliners. After landing we turned off the taxiway and were directed to contact ground control; we did, and were given taxi instructions taking us all of 20 metres and then immediately switched over to "Apron control". The parking apron was so cramped, busy, and indeed sloping that there was a dedicated controller to take care of it! We were parked out of the way to one side, and requested fuel over the radio before shut down; as usual, we had to convince a skeptical controller, and then fueler, that we really did want Jet-A.

We'd arrived a little early, so we sat and had a drink until 1900 came around and it was time to find our driver. Yet another of Sophia's friends was hosting us here and had arranged a car to collect us and take us to their home. We soon spotted a smartly dressed gentleman holding a sign labelled "Dr Webter [sic] and P. Charter". The note that the flight was a "Private Charter" had evidently been corrupted a little into the name of a second passenger! Our driver guided us through the evening traffic like a rocket, and it took only a half hour to make it to the apartment.

Tuesday November 5th - Johannesburg, South Africa

A quiet day at the apartment. Just what I needed! A fast internet connection made it possible to finally connect once again to the office and get on with a little work.

Wednesday November 6th - Johannesburg, South Africa

For the last month my company laptop had been urging me to update my login details. The kicker was that this could only be done at a Shell location, and I had about four days left before I would be locked out for good. This was not helpful, but luckily the Shell offices for South Africa were a mere twenty minute drive away! Mid-morning I took a taxi to go and meet my South African colleagues. With no specific contact to greet me it took a while for reception to get their head around what I wanted; apparently not many Shell employees from the US just dropped in to do a bit of work. After further explanation, and watching the safety video for the site, I was allowed in and given a desk for the day.

Having completed everything I needed to do, Shell kindly provided a car to take me back home. The remainder of the afternoon was spent in walking around the suburb we were in to find a hairdressers, and then stumbling across an icecream parlour! It would have been wrong to walk past without going in. Later in the evening, after the ice cream had worn off, we went out for dinner with our host Nicola and her husband. We arrived at "Sophia's Restaurant" but much to Sophia's dismay we were eating next door.

Phase Ten - Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa

Click here to access the tenth part of the trip report; Johannesburg to Cape Town, via Swaziland and Lesotho

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