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 accommodation 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.
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!
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 underneath the Johannesburg TMA, the protected airspace for the main international airport, and flew straight onto a left downwind to land at Lanseria. A slight moment of disagreement between Sophia and I occurred, but I was happily vindicated when the building we’d been debating did turn out to be the airport terminal, and not a shopping mall as Sophia had insisted!
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.
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 parlor! 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.
We arrived back at Lanseria airport at 0800. Fees were paid, and flight plan filed, at a kiosk right next to the door to arrivals; it could not have been easier. We sat in the cafe while waiting for our passenger, Khosi, to arrive. One of the charities that Sophia was supporting, the Girl Child Education Trust, was active in Swaziland, sending the orphaned daughters of nurses (the charity fills a very specific niche) to school to ensure they get an education. Khosi was one such child, now in her early twenties and studying in Johannesburg, and the charity had suggested we fly her with us to Swaziland for the weekend.
She soon arrived and we made our way through customs and immigration, and back to the aircraft. Preflight completed, it was time to go, and we went back through the rigmarole of calling Apron Control, Ground Control, and finally Tower to get permission for takeoff. This was duly granted and we were on our way east towards Swaziland; one of the few remaining Kingdoms in the world. The king of Swaziland, apparently, had a harem of 15 or so wives. This harem was topped up regularly in a ceremony where all the attractive young women dance topless for him to allow him to pick out his favourites. Apparently the harem had, somehow, ended up with an American wife for some time but she got fed up and returned home; after this the King banned miniskirts from the country as they reminded him of her.
We flew at reasonably low level across Johannesburg, to remain clear of the TMA for the main international airport. Soon after takeoff we passed through the control zone of Waterkloof, the country’s main Air Force base. This clearance was granted without any hesitation, and with a decent tailwind we zoomed through the zone and were soon out the other side of the city and headed for the border. The industry on the ground below was initially dominated by agriculture, changing to enormous open cast mines as we moved further from the city limits. These were serviced by colossal drag-line excavators. Flying further still, the terrain became more rugged and the land covered with neatly farmed conifer trees, continuing over the Swaziland border.
Entering Swaziland, we could relax a little. After a new law, passed within the previous year, Swaziland had banned witches on broomsticks from flying any higher than 500ft above the ground. Being much higher than 500ft AGL, this was a collision risk we could therefore banish from our minds. We descended towards Matsapha airport and we cleared onto a left base for landing; traffic already in the pattern was not a witch on a broomstick, but a Cessna 152 (which it could be argued the witch’s craft would rival in size and speed). A camera crew producing a documentary were waiting at the airport for us, and so we performed a couple of touch and goes before landing to a full stop to ensure that they could take plenty of footage.
Swaziland had laid on an excellent welcome. We were taken straight to the airport VIP lounge where we were initially greeted by staff from the Well-being Centre (who were coordinating the visit), and representatives from the Ministry of Health. After introductions we were put into a car and driven to the Ministry of Health, where an introduction session was conducted with the Minister of Health for Swaziland. From here we headed to a hospital visit, and then finally to the guest house where we would be staying. There was a little confusion for a while about our student, Khosi; everyone had thought that she was going home for the weekend to her guardians, but she had decided very firmly that she was now part of the team and would be staying with us. An extra room for arranged for the night, until a proper plan could be made the next day!
We did not have long to rest at the guest house. After quick showers, we were collected again and driven to the evening “reception”. This was held at an ambulance station in the countryside a moderate drive from our accommodation. Things did not seem to have entirely been thought through, and we sat with around 15 rather uncommunicative locals in a circle of chairs in a large very dimly lit room. After an hour of this, it was announced that the food had been delayed; a few speeches were made, the food finally arrived, and we eventually managed to escape back to the hotel and to sleep.
I had decided to make the most of this fairly long stop in Swaziland, and spend it at Barberton Airfield in South Africa. This is the home of CC Pocock, a celebrated bush pilot who offers courses in advanced bush and mountain flying. This involves learning the true limits of the aircraft, and applying the new knowledge and confidence to access landing sites that would have been thought impossible before; fire breaks, roads, and the trickiest of mountain airstrips that are built in tight valleys or up the side of steeply sloping hills.
I rented a car from the airport in Matsapha, and drove north. The roads were of good quality and clear of traffic; I made the 180km journey in a total of just over two hours. The route first headed through the capital of Swaziland, Mbabane, before crossing the land border into SOuth Africa. This process is quick and straightforward; the other side of the border the road reduced to two lanes but it was possible to maintain good speed. The route then headed northeast through the hills before descending to join the highway just north of Barberton.
CC bought the land for Barberton airfield over a decade ago, at which time it was nothing but bush. Since then he has carved out a good quality grass runway, and built a combined house, hangar, and guest lodge where he hosts pilots who have come to take his three day course. In addition he performs at airshows, and even hosts one each year at his own airfield. On arrival I was greeted by CC and his partner Tine, who showed me to my room and made me feel very welcome. CC and Tine are also accomplished cooks, and during the three days I stayed with them I ate better than I had at any time throughout the trip!
First breakfast was at 0530, with flying starting at 0600. This helps to ensure cool temperatures and calmer winds! After a quick initial flight for CC to assess my piloting, we landed and after a second breakfast briefed for flight number two; testing the real limits of the aircraft. This exercise, carried out at a safe height, enables you to truly understand the limits of the aircraft’s performance before you start to manoeuvre close to the ground. This done, we landed once again for further briefings. Each flight was short but intense; we never went more than a mile or so from the airfield so no time was wasted flying to and fro!
For the rest of the day we practiced stalls, spins, and a multitude of take-off and landings including extreme short field landings. By the time we knocked off at lunch time I was quite worn out and happy to spend an afternoon resting and doing a little work!
I rose again at 0520, and by 0600 we were ready to fly. The weather was a stark change to the previous day; overcast a couple of thousand feet above the field, with even lower cloud shrouding the mountains. Our first flights, around the airfield, concentrated on perfecting the take offs and landings; as well as this we practiced low level flying, going so far as to fly under the power lines rather than over them! This flight completed, we headed away from the field to visit some challenging bush strips.
The first was situated up the side of a mountain, at a slope steep enough that a car would have needed 1st gear to drive up it. Well before touchdown one must make the decision whether or not to abort; once you get past a certain point you are committed to landing and no go-around is possible. After landing it’s necessary to keep a reasonable amount of power on, as if you stop on the slope you risk being unable to get started again! Take-off, downhill in the opposite direction, had gravity working in our favour and was remarkably quick.
The next strip was also steeply sloped, although not quite as dramatically as the first. The real challenge here was the location in a small valley; to approach, one needed to fly just a few feet above the ground hugging a hill in the descent. At the abort point you decide whether to escape through a gap to the right, or commit to landing. This strip was a great deal of fun, and we went in and out twice, taking advantage of the opportunity to practice!
On the way back we overflew a fire-break. This is an area stripped of all vegetation except grass, to impede the spread of wildfires; and is also ideal for off-airfield landings! We flew into it, careful to account for the slopes in both uphill and across-the-strip directions. As we slowed, CC let out an exclamation; he’d just spotted a section of his aircraft’s tail-cone which he had lost some months before and ended up replacing! After rescuing the errant aircraft part we took off again and headed back to base.
I went for one final flight with CC in the morning. We spent 45 minutes in the air around the airfield; first practicing “unusual attitudes” and recovery, and then multiple take-offs and landings of all types. This was just what I needed to become fully confident with all the techniques learnt over the past couple of days, and I left Barberton that afternoon extremely happy that I had been to take the course.
The drive back to the hotel in Swaziland was not as smooth as the drive outbound. Over the high ground there was fog thicker than any I had seen before, and much of the drive was done at a snail’s pace. Secondly, despite extensive research I had been unable to locate exactly where the hotel was; despite managing to find the address, no map had the relevant street listed. This should probably not be a surprise in a place like Swaziland. I set out, knowing the general area, and after arriving back in Matsapha I stopped at a garage to ask the way. A lady nearby overheard and kindly offered to guide me; it turns out that the guest house was run by her church! Sophia and I waited for our host to collect us for dinner at 1900, as had been promised, but 90 minutes later with no sign of him we gave up and arranged a takeaway pizza. Perfect!
Click here to read the next part of the story.