The Greatest African Sky Safari, Part 2: The Round Trip

Pilot Bambi

This was the Big Event; the part of the trip I was looking forward to most: doing my very first long distance cross country round-trip!

Dolly, the little Piper Warrior I introduced in part 1, was preflighted and ready to go and I had a packed itinerary! We took off on our first leg, 144NM southwards towards Harrismith and as usual the midmorning turbulence had me bouncing through the cockpit. “Ah, the airports I would come across, the people I would meet”. I thought about all the interesting encounters the future would bring me, and the exciting new airports I could add to my logbook. The flight along the Free-state province was wonderful. An endless panorama of the countryside with small villages dotted along farmland and joined by tiny dirt roads.

As we approached Harrismith airfield I descended into the circuit and executed a ‘stunning landing’ on this beautiful paved runway. (I kinda thought i was “the shit” back then… but it’s a good laugh reading back my journal entries and reminiscing on the high level of self-confidence I had with barely 60 hours of flying under my name….)

To my disappointment there was no one around to see what I had just accomplished. Literally nobody. Harrismith was a desolate airfield, the few hangars were all locked up, and I was hungry. I even looked around to see where I could pay my landing fees, but it was a ghost town. Oh well, I guess that not every airfield has a welcoming committee… and I was quite happy with a free landing! Alright then, legs were stretched and the trip continued! “Let’s hope Margate has more to offer” I thought to myself.

2 hours of cruising later we arrived at FAMG (Margate). The airport had a cute little restaurant and after I filled up with sandwiches, I filled Dolly’s long range wing tanks up with AVGAS for our next stretch along the Wild Coast. This would be the easiest Nav flight ever, since we’d only need to follow the coast line towards Port Alfred, where I had done my PPL training! Ah it would be like coming home. My friends who were still completing their Commercial training had no idea I was in South Africa, so it would be an epic surprise!

The 240 NM stretch was anything but boring. The wild coast is truly something else. It’s breath-taking coastline is decorated with hidden gems; like secluded beaches and spectacular waterfalls that drop straight from the rugged cliffs into an untamed ocean. I flew Dolly 500ft along the massive ledges and watched as the crashing waves sprayed seawater up towards us.

Was I dreaming? No, this country is just absolutely beautiful, and I get to see it from the sky!

Before reaching Port Alfred I wanted to make one more stop at an airport that I had read about a long time ago: Port St. Johns…

Port St. Johns is postcard worthy. It’s a 900m long runway placed on a mountain plateau, surrounded by the beautiful valleys of the Mzimvubu river. On both sides of the runway’s thresholds there’s a 1200ft  drop, which makes this paved strip incredibly unique. Back in the day it was used an intermediate airfield on cross country Dakota flights through South Africa. The cliffs aided these DC3’s significantly on departure. As they would eat up the length of the runway they could plunge down a couple of feet to easily pick up lift for the climb out!

In the 21th century this historic spot was still intact… although I had to do a low-pass to scare away a couple of cows!

The final destination of the day was FAPA, the airfield I had lived on for 5 amazing months. It was good to be back. Visibility was awful, but I easily recognized the landmarks on my inbound track to runway 28. Once I parked Dolly on the apron I ran straight to the first row barracks where my friends lived and scared the living hell out of them. It really was like coming home.

Nothing had changed since I’d left. It was the same bunch of aviation enthusiasts, all living at an airport that we knew like the back of our hands. And there was the Dutchie, who came falling out of the sky without any prior notice!

That evening was filled with Beers and Braai, and for a moment it was like I jumped back in time. We were still making fun of each others landings, sharing stories about the times we got lost in the general flying area, and getting into heated discussions about which planes we think are the best. My time at 43 Air school was priceless, and the memories will be forever cherished.

One night “at home” was great, but I was ready to continue my trip towards to the southernmost tip of africa. Around 9am I had completed the walk around and said my farewells. I yelled “CLEAR PROP” and cranked the starter motor. I listened to the low humming sound from the fuel pump, but there was no movement from the prop. Suddenly I hear “POP” and there it went: the bendix from my starter motor shot through the air like a bullet. “Uh-oh, that’s not good.”

I had no idea what was going on, but it didn’t feel right. There you have it, I broke Dolly.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a pretty rad guardian angel on my shoulder. If the bendix had popped 18 hours earlier, I would’ve been in serious trouble. Right there, at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere: Port St. Johns, I would’ve been… how do you put this nicely… well,  screwed.

But this lucky gal was parked on the apron right next to the largest Piper Maintenance Hangar in the Southern Hemisphere! I couldn’t tell you where this good karma was coming from 😉

Within an hour it was fixed. The chief engineer knew Dolly’s owner and “lent” us a new starter motor. It was like Dolly was undergoing a “heavy operation”. My old friends that worked in maintenance were beyond excited to have this “foreign” plane in their hands, and for a brief moment I counted 6 people working on her! Ahh, since Dolly was there anyway, they decided her tires needed some extra air, the oleo extension of the nose gear seemed a little too low, and her wings definitely could use a good scrub! She was getting pampered and I couldn’t help but smile. We really have good people out here, I thought. These are the moments that I never want to forget. I was in serious problems, and all these wonderful people came to the rescue. We share a passion for aviation, but also an interest in keeping each other safe in the sky, and that’s a crucial part of airmanship.

With my sparkling wings I was all set to continue the adventure. Goodbye Port Alfred, I’ll be back I promise.

The next few days were spent in the beautiful Plettenberg Bay. The paved runway lies close to the Robberg; a stunning nature reserve, and only a few minutes driving to where my family lives. It was a short break from flying (yeah it sucks, I know!), but it was nice to spend a few days relaxing by the pool and seeing loved ones that live in this serene setting. I even took the old landrover defender for a spin, which is by far my favorite mode of transportation (2nd on the list behind Dolly!!)

The time spent by the pool wasn’t just to work on my tan; I was also busy flipping through the airfield directory to figure out where I wanted to go next. Flying along the coast to Stellenbosch was impossible, I thought, due to the massive military restricted airspace around Overberg. But flying around the airspace through the mountains in the North was not an option. Bad weather had been forecasted in that area for the next few days, which meant I would have to wait it out in Plett. This wasn’t a great option either, I was already having serious withdrawal symptoms after 3 days of no flying…

So I thought screw it, let me call up the guys at overberg and see if they’ll let Dolly and I buzz through their airspace. 5 minutes later I was on the phone with the nicest air traffic controller ever who helped coordinate my crossing time slot, and reassured me that I wouldn’t be flying into any Gripens.I was really new to all of this and flight planning can be quite intimidating, ESPECIALLY if you decide it might be a good idea to cross an active military airfield.

Having the cojones to call up and ask (before assuming the answer will be no) has really helped me become the pilot I am now. In dutch we have a saying that goes “ Nee heb je, Ja kun je krijgen”, which basically just states: “If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no. But if you ask, you might get a yes.”

And after making this call, I managed to get myself the flight of my dreams. 5 minutes into crossing the Overberg restricted area I had spotted 2 Whales. Little did I know, I would be flying over the biggest ‘Whale nursery’ of South Africa where mothers bring their calves to play in the shallow waters. Absolutely mesmerizing. That’s all I can say. I counted 27 whales on just this one trip. It was unreal. 

And there goes time, I was flipping Dolly on her side, orbiting around these magnificent creatures and enjoying this beautiful spectacle. I was far outside my time slot to cross the restricted area, and still half an hour away from the boundary… Whoops…. 

I called up on the frequency; the new traffic controller was just as friendly as the one before and she gave me an extension. Is whale watching a good reason to mess up your flight plan? I guess so 😉

Passing Cape Agulhas by plane felt like a huge achievement: I was flying a little single engine piston across the southernmost tip of Africa. This continent, so massively rich in natural wonders and it’s intricate yet extensive history has been home to me for the first 12 years of my life. I feel that my soul is deeply rooted in the soil of these grounds, and it’s what motivates me to keep coming back; eventually with a plan to work for the humanitarian aid organisation ASF.

The final stretch of this round trip was approaching, but before returning to the North I needed a good few days to explore the western cape! A few days were spent in Stellenbosch, on the picturesque airstrip that lies snug between several wine estates, south of the Jonkershoek mountains. It might just be the best situated airfield on earth! I took Dolly on a couple of flights over the beautiful Cape winelands, then crossed over sir lowry’s pass to Theewaterskloof dam. Flying Northwards we soared along the endless mountain ridges, covered in bright green trees and robust rock formations. We then turned southwards and descended through Franschhoek valley, where I lost count of all the Vineyards. Paradise on earth, that’s what it is.

My favorite scenic flight however, was the one along the Cape of Good Hope. Situated in the busy airspace of Capetown, I again felt a bit intimidated. But at airports you’ll always find a helping hand! So at Stellies I went into the flight school office and asked the head of training for some help. He explained the routing procedure in detail and showed me all the reporting points on the map. 10 minutes later I was up in the air en route to Simonstown! The Cape peninsula protrudes out into the Atlantic ocean and is one of the world’s highest sea cliffs. The rocky headland sticks out 800ft above sea level and is surrounded by deep blue water. Flying along cape point my jaw dropped. In the distance stood the breath-taking table mountain: with as usual, a soft layer of cloud: the “table cloth”. Turning northwards we passed the beaches of Hout Bay towards Robben Island: another spectacle to see from the sky. This was my warm welcome to the Western Cape, and I was more than impressed!

And there it was, the last stretch: from Stellenbosch back to Grand Central. I’m not quite sure what the rush was. I think Dolly had a planned maintenance session, but my mind was set on flying these 700 NM in one day. The winds were in my favor, and with a ground speed of 140kts I was cruising comfortably along the Orange Free state. I planned a quick stop in Beaufort West, an old airfield that now accommodates more than 100 chinese student pilots, and at Gariep Dam: a popular gliding hotspot. Both these stops were priceless. Arriving in Beaufort West I had sweaty palms when crossing the general flying area. In that moment there were 5 student pilots on solo flights, but I couldn’t quite understand their radio calls. It was pretty hectic. When I asked for the menu card in the restaurant I could choose between chow mein noodles or plane toast and I honestly think I only saw one South African there. It was interesting to arrive at an airport in the middle of the Karoo, and see only Chinese people. Later on I found out that IFTA, the flight training academy is one of the leading ab-initio flight training schools for several chinese airlines.

Gariep dam was also an interesting experience. In my radio call I broadcasted that I was coming in to land, but there was no response. I was expecting the same situation as at Harrismith, just a desolate air strip, where I could quickly stretch my legs.

Well well well, I guess now I did have a welcoming committee… They had front row seats to see my awful 3 pointer landing that caused a cloud of dust to rise up from the hard runway. But oh well, Dolly was still okay, and my ego could use it. After all, I needed to remind myself there was still a lot of room for improvement.The young guys at the airport were all glider pilots, aha! My kind of people. It was super cool to meet fellow glider pilots in a completely different part of the world. When I told them I had over 300 glider flights they were shocked. In their eyes I was some kind of gliding god. 300 flights??? That’s crazy! Little did they know that my average flight time was 7 minutes… Dutch thermals aren’t as powerful as the ones out here in the free state. My mind was blown when the 16 year old told me his average flight time is 2 ½ hours, and the hardest part of the sport is trying to descend from flight level 195!

After finishing a cold drink and adding a few new friends on facebook, I climbed back into Dolly for the last couple of  Miles. I was flying this trip barefoot, and as we passed the snowy mountain tops my toes felt icy! The cabin heat, which I didn’t think I’d use this trip, was my savior.

After about 2 hours, I could see the outlines of Johannesburg City. I was back, just in time before a massive hailstorm broke out over Grand Central. And just like that, the round trip was completed. Ticked off the bucket list! I was exhausted, proud, and a little overwhelmed. I had done over 3000 NM in the last 2 weeks, which I thought would perfectly cover the CPL cross country requirements. In hindsight I read that the x-country only needs to be 300 Nm… whoops!

I took a well-deserved day off to recuperate as Dolly was out for maintenance. We only had a couple of days left together, and there was still so much to see! So saving the best for last, the final adventure would be up North to the border of Zimbabwe; I was looking forward to exploring the depths of the African wilderness!

If you’ve had a laugh so far, you can continue reading in Part Three: Into Africa, to join Dolly and I on the final expedition of our greatest african sky safari.

Seeya!

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