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 Land Rover from the hospital. It drove us the short distance to the main compound, where we settled into our accommodation 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!
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 propeller, 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.
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.
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 Lilongwe 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 Lilongwe 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 comfortable, 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.
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.
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.
Click here to read the next part of the story.