Africa – Zambia and Zimbabwe

Africa – Zambia and Zimbabwe

Sophia returned from a teaching session at about 11am, and with a detour to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine offices it was well after noon before we actually made it to the airport. This was cutting things very tight, as we intended to fly to Lusaka International before then continuing to a farm strip half an hour north of Lusaka where relatives of one of Sophia’s colleagues in the UK lived. They had a private strip on their ranch, but with no lighting, so we’d need to be there well before it got dark!

Motorcycle taxi in Lilongwe

We were assisted at the airport by yet another acquaintance of Sophia; a Precision Air pilot who she had met on a flight some time before the trip. He now worked for the Malawi CAA and ensured that we made it through the airport, complete with several boxes of new medical supplies for donations down-route, in record time. I remained at the aircraft to organise the fuel and stow all the baggage while Sophia and our friend headed off to pay the fees and file the flight plan. The fueler was, like many fuelers we’d recently encountered, very surprised to be asked to put jet fuel in a Cessna.

Finally, around 1400, we were rolling down the runway and climbing out to the west. The three hour flight first took us northwest, crossing the border into Zambia shortly after departure, before turning us southwest across the eastern side of Zambia. Several other GA flights could be heard on frequency inbound to Lilongwe, and the controller was getting a little confused; we heard him asking one flight to remind him whether or not he had cleared them into his airspace yet. Shortly afterwards we were handed off to the next area control. We passed close to South Luangwa National Park where my family and I had holidayed in 2006, another place that it was interesting to see from the air again 7 years later!

Into Zambia

The terrain as we headed for Lusaka was fairly desolate; rocky mountains with scrub forest, and not much else. We were directed to fly an extended downwind while an airliner departed, and touched down soon after it took off, being sure to land well before its area of wake turbulence started. It was still touch and go as to whether we’d make it out of Lusaka on time to get to the ranch, so we set out to get through the airport as quickly as possible. Immigration were thrown by our lack of pilots uniforms but were eventually convinced to let us in on flight crew visas, and it didn’t take long after that to pay the airport fees and get the new flight plan in.

Fueling in Lusaka

We had asked the fuelers what price Jet-A was before we came into the terminal, and based on his answer were expecting to need about 1.4 million of whatever the local currency was; there was slight dismay when we could take out only 6,000 Kwacha. This would, we thought, pay for slightly less than a litre of fuel and not get us very far. Further investigation revealed that the currency had recently been revalued, with everything being divided by a factor of 1,000. Some people (such as, it seemed, the fueler) were still adapting to the change, and as a result we had now inadvertently acquired a little over US$1,000 in Zambian currency. Oops.

We topped off the tanks, having no trouble paying for it this time, and rolled off down the taxiway. A regional jet was on a very long final and so, hoping to get out ahead of him, I made it clear that we could accept an immediate departure. The controller didn’t take my hint so we sat for a while at the hold short line while he landed and vacated the runway before we took off and made best possible speed to the north.

After half an hour a well maintained grass strip came into view, right where we expected it. There were still five minutes until sunset; perfect timing! Being used to 10,000ft international runways by now I played things a little safer than required when confronted with a 3,000ft grass strip, still far longer than we needed, and set down right at the threshold resulting in a long taxi up to parking. Donald, our host, had a lovely hangar with ample room for a C182 next to his resident C206, and we put the airplane to bed before retiring to the farmhouse for drinks and dinner.

Donald was born in Zambia to British parents, and his wife Debbie was from the UK originally. They had been on the ranch for more than a decade now. Donald hadn’t been flying too long; the push to get licenced had been primarily so that he could fly his children to their weekly boarding school instead of a ten hour return road journey twice every week! It seemed like a great way to get to school to me; he’d ended up buying a six-seat C206 so that he could take the neighbours kid as well. For maximum convenience, the airstrip and hangar had then been installed so that it was only a few minutes walk from the front door to the airplane. A great way to live!


The next day was taken as a rest day. A power cut for much of the afternoon enforced this further! In the evening Sophia and I accompanied Donald on a walk around part of the ranch, which contained both crops and cattle. After a lifetime of being told that one should never walk through a field with a bull in it, it felt peculiar to be strolling through a field with 20 or so bulls in it, and even following Donald over to the middle of a herd to take a closer look! He evidently knew exactly what he was doing, however, and we came away none the worse for the experience.


Our main medical mission for Zambia was to visit a transport project. As well as the actual medical treatment that pregnant women receive, one of the major risk factors for them is how far they are from a medical facility, and how they can get to it when required. Some way northeast of the ranch was one such project, in Serenje district,the largest in Zambia. We set out to visit it!

The first leg of the journey was an 80 nautical mile flight from the ranch to another farm strip near Serenje. The network of farmers is pretty tight, it seems, so Donald had arranged for his friend Rob to meet us at this strip and then drive us for the day. We practically leaped off the strip on departure, having emptied the aircraft of almost all the baggage, and cruised northwest roughly following the great north road and accompanying railway. There were a remarkable number of private strips in the area, we must have passed 6 or 7 on the 80 mile flight.

Nearing our destination, it turned out that the farm owner had decided that this morning was the ideal time to have a major burn of forest around the strip. This was strangely reminiscent of my visit to Grand Canyon in 2007! Luckily, one side of the long strip was reasonably clear so we flew downwind on that side, and made an easy landing on the excellent surface. A few minutes after we secured the aircraft Rob arrived, and we piled in and set off for Serenje.

We traveled about 100km further towards the northeast, along the great north road. This was one of the best roads that we had seen on the trip so far; only two lane but with a high quality tarmac surface. Rob explained that this road was the major route connecting Lusaka with the port at Dar Es Salaam, where most freight came in from. The railway was in poor repair, so the majority of goods were carried by truck, and indeed a steady procession of huge lorries rolled past in the other direction as we went. Apparently many of the drivers would chew stimulants to keep awake and simply dive non-stop for 20 hours or so, so the standard of driving could leave a little to be desired. Great care was taken every time a truck drew near.

We arrived in Serenje, and located Sophia’s contact who’d be showing us around. While we waited for her, Rob pointed out the area Chief, who was busy supervising the loading of a truck across the road. Apparently such a figure can usually be identified by the guard he always has; today he was making things even easier by wearing a hat with “Chief” prominently emblazoned across the front.

The closest location to visit, we were informed, was 70km away down a dirt road. Not to worry though, it was a “good” dirt road. We set off, stopping in briefly to inspect the Serenje airstrip. We hadn’t flown directly here as nobody could be found to verify the strip condition, but it turned out that it was being used as the local driving practice area and the regular use had kept it in good condition. We rolled off down the dirt road, which actually did turn out to be remarkably smooth, and around 90 minutes later we arrived at our destination.

A small clinic, set up by the government, was stationed here. It was extremely remote; the vast majority of people living around here, 70km from the nearest tarmac road, had nothing more than bicycles for transport. The clinic was staffed by an administrator, trained in environmental health, and a nurse. Their midwife had left some time before, fed up with the distance from the towns, so babies were now delivered by the nurse and administrator, neither of which had any real training or expertise for the task in hand.

The transport project that we had come to see was dedicated to helping mothers reach care when it was time to deliver. The first stage of this was a collection of bicycle trailers, stationed in surrounding villages, in which a mother could be towed to the clinic by a member of the community. If the mother then had to be referred to specialist care she could, in theory, then be delivered in the motorbike ambulance that was stationed at the clinic. Once again though the love of bureaucracy, and lack of logical thought, intervened; the motorcycle’s battery was not working, and it was out of action until the program office sent a new one. The fact that, around the clinic, were five or six perfectly functional batteries currently used for the radios seemed to escape the staff. They preferred that mothers not have access to lifesaving care until the “official” battery could arrive.

We returned to Serenje via the same road that we’d taken on the way out, dropped off Sophia’s contact, and headed back towards the airstrip at Mkushi River. Rob was kind enough to take us to his home, where his wife had prepared an excellent late lunch for us, and accompanied by his young twin sons we then returned to the aircraft. The flight home was smooth, following the great north road towards the setting sun, and that evening Debbie served up an excellent spaghetti bolognese. The group by now had grown to six with the addition of two combine harvester engineers that Donald had collected that morning in his 206 from Lusaka to re-assemble a new piece of equipment that had been shipped in from the USA.


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.

Through Livingstone, and into 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.

Meeting our contacts on arrival

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.


Sophia spent the next 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. I received a $2 note in my change and was sure it was a terrible attempt at a forgery, until we looked it up and discovered that $2 notes were in fact a real thing.

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