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African Flying Safari

October 11, 2016



Malawi, Serengeti & Mt Kilimanjaro

About a year ago, Essie Esterhuysen posted an upcoming tour to the Serengeti on Avcom. I managed to secure a place on it and it wasn’t long before I was flying my RV7 on an air safari to Lake Malawi, the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro.


ssie arranged a hassle free and safe tour for 40 people and 17 aircraft. There was a C182T, RV10s, RV7s, a Barron B58, Sling 2s and a Sling 4, an Aerostar, a Mooney, a PA46 Meridian, a Piper Arrow and, representing the fling-wings, an R44.

In order to clear customs and immigration, the group gathered at Polokwane, overnighting at a local hotel, before setting off on the exciting adventure. This was a good opportunity for the formal welcome and to listen to the designated safety officer give the first of many safety briefings. There were two or three ‘uber’ pilots within the group, but the majority of us were ‘normal’ PPLs with around 200 hours, although there were also a few less experienced pilots.

Aircraft with comparable speeds were grouped together, with slower aircraft having earlier departure times, so that those in the faster aircraft wouldn’t have to wait too long at the destination. Many of the issues discussed came down to common sense, but it was good to explicitly cover procedures and protocol.

The following morning low fog delayed our departure by about two hours. Our routing was from Polokwane to Club Makokola (Club Mak) on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, with a refuelling stop for most of the aircraft at Charles Prince Airport in Harare. 

Due to the delayed departure, the R44 was unable to make it to Club Mak that night and had an unscheduled stop. There was great excitement for the locals when the helicopter landed at a brand new bus depot in the Ntcheu district. The police deployed some officers to guard the helicopter overnight and helped pilots Francois and Christine find accommodation nearby. The next morning, a large excited and vocal crowd gathered to watch the departure. The helicopter’s arrival had created such a commotion that there was a newspaper report written in Malawi 24 titled ‘UFO lands in Malawi’.

The rest of the group made it on time to Club Mak where we were met with a welcome drink by friendly staff from the hotel and escorted to a very colonial looking immigration arrival centre. En route to Club Mak, one of the RVs had a bird strike damage the wing and a ‘bush repair’ was necessary. This was easily done and the aircraft was good to continue.

It wasn’t long before we were all sitting down to dinner and a glass of wine or two, while overlooking the beautiful and expansive Lake Malawi, and settling into our two nights at Club Mak.

The next morning saw ‘operation refuel’ swing into action under the strict supervision of Robert Gassmann. Fuel had to be specially arranged and delivered to Club Mak in advance. Fortunately Robert had brought a mechanical fuel pump in his RV10. The result was an effortless refuelling process, which I understand was much improved compared to previous trips. The job, which we thought would take most of the day, was done before lunch and everyone promptly took themselves off to the bar to raise a glass to themselves for their efficiency. 

After lunch we had a couple hours free before we enjoyed a boat ride to a little island in Lake Malawi where we drank and snorkeled and watched the most wonderful sunset. 

There was much chatter that night over dinner about the next part of the tour. We were going to Dodoma in Tanzania for immigration and fuel and then onto Ndutu Safari Lodge, about 200 nm north-west of Dodoma, situated in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the southern Serengeti. In the RV7, it was just over three hours to Dodoma and then another 1.5 hours to Ndutu. Some of the Sling pilots found these two legs very long, at just under seven hours flying time.  

After takeoff from Club Mak, I climbed out over Monkey Bay, opening up the RV as we crossed over the Lake at the shortest point, and then levelling off at FL095. Despite the headwind, we managed to achieve around 157 kt ground speed with a fuel burn of around 38 l/hr.

Dodoma was hot. By the time we arrived, a couple of the faster aircraft were already being refuelled, while the pilots sweated in the tropical sun. Fuel, landing fees and navigation fees rise considerably as you leave South Africa. On this trip, the navigation fees alone in Tanzania were US$340 for the RV7, and to that were added the landing fees. We didn’t hang around, and once we had completed paperwork and paid, we were on our way again.

Flying over the vastness of the country, you can’t help but feel intimidated by its size and natural beauty. Lake after lake appeared before us as we moved through the warm air. At one point we nearly had a bird strike, narrowly managing to avoid a group of four large birds. There is nothing but natural landscape with a lot of rocks and high mountains. A warning popped up on my GPS advising of a mountain range to my east at 25,000 ft, a reminder that we were getting closer to Mount Kilimanjaro.  

Descending into Ndutu, we could see wildlife. Giraffe were chased off the runway before the group started arriving and they could be seen grazing some distance from the end of the runway, unperturbed by noise or people. As had been agreed in the safety briefings, the crews who landed first gave ATC support for incoming aircraft. This worked well and made things safer. What also worked well was using the chat frequency as an ‘information service’ between aircraft during these long legs.  

We landed at Ndutu and went to our rooms to freshen up and then made our way back to the lounge to discuss how incredible the day’s flying had been. Accommodation was comfortable and each cottage has its own veranda overlooking Lake Ndutu. There are no fences so wild animals wander through the camp day and night.

The following morning was a 05h00 wake-up call for breakfast, after which we hopped into the Land Cruisers for the first of many game drives. The first thing you notice about the Serengeti is the vastness and how dry everything is. The word Serengeti means ‘endless plains’ in Masai. 

A game drive in the Serengeti is not the same as the gentle game drives we have back home in SA or Botswana. Because of the vast distances to be travelled, the game drives are about 12 hours long. With no air-conditioning and lots of dust, we got a real glimpse of life in the Serengeti. It was truly wonderful.

Besides the dramatic landscape, we saw plenty bird and animal life during the 12-hour drive. Kori Bustards and Secretary Birds were often sighted, and we had wonderful sightings, including two lions doing a ‘tug of war’ with a vine, and an annoyed young elephant chasing lions away from the elephant herd.

We left our lodge the next morning just before 06h00 for the two-hour drive to the Ngorongoro Crater, a breath-taking natural wonder.   

You start your descent from an elevation of around 7,500 ft into the crater, and as the scene unfolds, you are reminded of how very beautiful Africa is. With the morning mist rising slowly over the acacia trees and the calls of the animals and birds, you appreciate nature’s magnificence and feel utterly inconsequential.    

The crater floor has the densest known population of lions. Higher up, in the rainforests of the crater rim, are leopards, about 30 large elephants, mountain reedbuck, more than 4,000 buffalos, spotted hyenas, jackals, wild dogs, cheetahs, and other felines. It’s impossible to put the incredible experience of that day into words. Even photos can’t do it justice. If you get the opportunity, a day or two here is truly wonderful.

We left Ngorongoro and stopped at a Masai village. Masai are semi-nomadic. Their homes are very small, normally consisting of one or two sleeping areas with low roofs, so you can’t stand up straight inside. Their primary source of food is cattle and they believe God has given them all the cattle in the world, so this makes cattle rustling a matter of taking back what belongs to them. Traditionally they do not bury their dead. Burials are believed to harm the soil and are reserved only for some chiefs. Most dead bodies are simply left outside for scavengers. The tour was fascinating, but I was glad to get back into the comfort of the Land Cruiser and head back to the lodge. 

We had a final morning game drive on our last full day at Ndutu, where we saw cheetah and some smaller game. The Lake Ndutu area has significant cheetah and lion populations. The afternoon was free and many of us rested. 

The following morning we flew to Kuro, which is just under 90 nm south-east of Ndutu. The scenery we flew over was reminiscent of the film ‘Out of Africa’.  

We arrived at Kuro and secured the aircraft for the night. Then we were in the Cruisers again on a game drive in the Tangarie National Park, which has an abundance of elephant. As we left the airfield, we were attacked by tsetse flies. As most of us were wearing blue or black clothing, something tsetse flies are attracted to, we all got zapped. It was very amusing seeing each of us trying to kill the damn flies with hats and maps. Some of the flies were hit three times and still did not die.    

This game drive was fantastic, with thousands of wildebeest and zebra and other animals all around us: Fish Eagles calling, a lion taking shelter from the heat of the day after a kill, elephants trumpeting – we were right in the middle of it.  

We stayed at Sopa Lodge, which is hidden among the grasses and ancient baobabs of the Tarangire National Park.  

We left the next morning for Mount Kilimanjaro and Arusha. The weather was not ideal and there was low cloud. Of the 17 aircraft, four or five decided to go directly to Arusha. The rest of us routed to the mountain but visibility was poor. Only those in the Baron, who climbed to just over 19,000 ft, got a clear view of the mountain. 

I think Arusha’s ATC found this day stressful. It was the Eid public holiday so he had more commercial traffic than usual, and having all of us converge on him at more or less the same time must have caused him a bit of anxiety – as it did for us.  

We arrived at the Mount Meru Hotel in Arusha where we enjoyed excellent pizza and wine for lunch. We then spent the day relaxing and had dinner with our guides. 

The next morning, the weather wasn’t great again, and after a couple hours delay, we started back towards Club Mak via Dodoma. However, as we flew south, the visibility improved and it wasn’t long before we landed at Dodoma. By this stage, the group was more experienced at doing paperwork, arranging refuelling and paying fees. This meant we were in and out of Dodoma much more quickly than the first time. 

Just under three hours later, I was calling for landing at Club Mak. Radio communications en-route with Dar es Salaam (East and West) and Lilongwe were virtually non-existent compared to the excellent communications we had going north.

We arrived in the late afternoon at Club Mak. After refuelling the next morning, the rest of the day was free. I spent some of the time getting ready for the return trip to South Africa, and making sure my flight plans were filed through file2fly. 

We left Malawi at around 07h30 for the two hour flight to Charles Prince and the 2.5 hour flight to Polokwane for customs and immigration.  

When we originally left Polokwane, going to Charles Prince, we all worked hard on the radio, giving times to boundaries and TMAs and abeam this and that, along with destination times. The only radio work on the return legs was with Harare Information just before Charles Prince, the ATC at Charles Prince and then Johannesburg Information an hour or so later, as we closed in on the FIR boundary. I found this a bit strange, but reminded myself that we were in Africa, and it was a Saturday morning after all. 

At Polokwane, we refuelled, had a ramp check, cleared immigration and customs, hit the vending machine for lunch and were back in the aircraft calling for start-up within 45 minutes. As we had made good time, we used the remaining daylight to fly to Gariep Dam. 

Flying south of Johannesburg, we said our goodbyes to the RV10 and RV7 flying nearby. I flew more hours that day than any other in my RV7 – 7 hours 45 minutes. In total, during the trip I flew 30 hours 17 minutes, covering approximately 4,650 nm.

The following morning, we left Gariep for the 2.5 hour flight to Morningstar, my home airfield. My head was filled with fantastic memories of a truly epic adventure. Some great new friends were made and I am looking forward to my next big air adventure.

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