We left Rotterdam early on a Saturday morning. Juan had taken my advice to pack light to heart and turned up with only a small rucksack; with my flight gear, I probably had at least 3 times the amount of luggage! Fortunately, with only two light people on board, there was plenty of weight and space to spare. There was a light drizzle as we loaded the aircraft and took off, but after only a few minutes heading south the rain eased off and by the time we reached the Belgian border the sun was starting to shine through.
We had to stay low through Belgium to avoid the airspace around Brussels, but once we entered France we could start to climb, a good thing too as we needed to be up at 6000 feet or more to clear the hills before reaching our first stop – Lausanne, in Switzerland, where we would refuel.
The approach into Lausanne is picturesque, with Lake Geneva in the foreground and the Alps rising behind. Be warned that Switzerland, while being included in the Schengen agreement for free movement of people, is not part of the EU and you must therefore follow standard international customs procedures when flying in and out. Because I had changed the route from a stop in France to the stop in Lausanne, purely so that we could tick off more countries, this customs issue had completely passed me by and it was not until receiving an angry letter from Dutch customs on my return that I became aware of it.
As one would expect, the refueling stop at Switzerland was quick and efficient with the exception of what was to become a common issue; refueling staff everywhere saw a light aircraft and assumed we would need AVGAS. This usually led to a delay while the appropriate keys for the fuel pump were located, or the correct fuel bowser fetched. After less than an hour we had filed our next flight plan and were setting off on our flight through the Alps to Albenga on the Italian coast. I had carefully planned the Alps crossing in advance, and set up the GPS with way-points every mile or so to ensure we stayed on the correct path as well as having clearly marked, large scale maps as backup. The turbocharged Diamond climbed well with just the two of us on board and we were soon at our cruising altitude of 9500ft and crossing the saddle in the mountain ranges that marked the Italian border. The route took us overhead Annecy, along the A43 and then the D1006, passing into Italy overhead Lac du Mont Cenis.
A fast descent to clear the Turin TMA (not entirely successful, but that’s another story) followed, and before long we were climbing again slightly to clear the hills along the coastline ready for the approach into Albenga. We were taken quickly through Italian customs, waited while the Avgas bowser was presented and then taken away again, and finally refueled with Jet-A. Our flight plan having been filed while waiting for fuel, we were soon taking off and heading south towards Corsica; for the first time the life-jackets were on and the life-raft was within easy reach, just in case! The Thielert engine on the DA40 was not renowned for its reliability after all. Happily, we cruised across the intervening sea without mishap and were soon being given vectors by air traffic control to keep us clear of the tourist traffic in and out of the airports on Corsica’s Northern coast. We followed the coastline at low level along the Eastern shore of Corsica and looped round to approach the airport at Ajaccio from the southeast. Parking was convenient, although we had to wait a long time to be collected by the handling agents, and before long we were being dropped off out the front of the airport to do battle with the tourist crowds and find a taxi into town and the Hotel Napoleon for three nights of relaxation before continuing to Africa.
The hotel was clean and comfortable, and good value for the price we were paying. It was located just a few minutes walk from the centre of Ajaccio, with the harbour and restaurants. After showering and unpacking we made our way into town; being in France, it was obviously time for crepes. We went out on the hunt for somewhere to eat them; it was holiday season, and the town was full of tourists. Happily we located a crepe restaurant mere minutes walk from the hotel and settled down for a relaxing meal before retiring early to bed, tired after a long day of flying!
Our first full day in Corsica started late, and we wandered down to the harbour to have a look around and find some lunch. We sat down to eat at a small restaurant at the waterfront; and then began the slowest restaurant meal I have known. While the food was good, it took longer to prepare than it had taken us to fly to the island in the first place. Eventually, after having finally eaten our main course and waited in vain for both desert and the bill, I put down half the money and we slowly and clearly walked out. They didn’t even notice. This was the first time I’ve ever walked out of a restaurant but, given the quite astoundingly poor service in many places in Ajaccio, it turned out that it would not be the last! After lunch we relaxed on top of the old harbour wall watching the cruise ships and ferries come and go before turning our mind to some holiday activities.
That afternoon we decided to find somewhere to do some sailing. This was apparently possible just around the headland in the next cove, where some small catamarans could be rented. Naturally, we set out to walk there in the mid-day sun, and enjoyed a pleasant stroll along the waterfront of the cove that Ajaccio sits on, and then a hot and miserable slog over the headland to the South. A further long walk along the beach did eventually take us, however, to a location where a pair of Hobie 16s were available to rent. We were not equipped for water-sports that day, having a lack of swimming gear, but decided to return the following day for some sailing. This left us only with the problem of how to get back to the hotel, but after a lot of walking around and waiting we eventually located the correct bus and managed to buy tickets, leading to a much quicker return journey.
That evening we attempted to return for dinner at our crepe restaurant. We sat down at one of 6 empty tables for four overlooking the street. The witch in charge of seating, however, could not accept two people sitting at a four person table and insisted that we move to a table for two tucked inside a dark side alley. In my rudimentary French I let her know what I thought of the idea, and we retired to a pleasant restaurant by the waterfront for an excellent meal. As we returned to the hotel later we passed the crepe restaurant once again, where the tables for four were all sitting forlornly empty.
The next day it was time to sail! We slept late and then took the bus back to the beach where we negotiated an hour in a 16ft Hobie Cat and set out into the bay. There was a brisk breeze so we sped across the water, exploring the little coves around the huge bay and even venturing towards the harbour in the bay next door before the rental manager chased us down in the powerboat to ask us to come back closer in! We dried off on the beach, lounging in the sun for a while, before making our way back to town for cocktails by the harbour. Before dinner I finalised our flight planning for the next day; primarily a straight shot down across Corsica and Sardinia to the North African coast. The most important thing was to confirm one last time that the permit and handling agent were both arranged for our arrival!
Despite having only a short flight today, we were up early to visit a local bakery for breakfast. After teaching the french bakery owner the word for “pig” (and learning the french in turn), we set off to the airport. After all, we were in Southern Europe where everything moves at its own, more leisurely pace. Our caution was well founded and we spent an hour or so awaiting fuel, in the queue behind a private jet that had a Dutch pilot. We chatted about Rotterdam for a while, always a thrilling subject, before they departed and we could complete the pre-takeoff formalities and taxi out to the runway. Life-jackets on again, and engine checks complete, we were soon airborne and headed south past the end of Corsica.
Sardinia is mere minutes further South and, curiously, the countryside there looks considerably drier and sparser than that of Corsica; air traffic control routed us straight across the island and through the controlled airspace in the South before turning us loose across the sea to Africa.
We left the Sardinian coast at Cagliari and before too long we were out of sight of land. My chart was of limited usefulness, showing nothing but a blank, blue sheet. With the autopilot to fly the aircraft, and no radio contact with anyone over the VHF, there wasn’t much to do to pass the time. After a while, though, we could just make out land through the haze ahead. This was it; our first sight of Africa, and the first time we had ever flown to another continent! We came in over Bizerta and Carthage, and were vectored low over the huge dusty expanse of Tunis to final approach at the main international airport. It was hot; 40 degrees, but what else can you expect when you decide to visit North Africa in August.
We were met by the excellent staff of First Aviation Services Tunisia (FAST) who helped us secure the aircraft, and then chauffeured us to the main terminal. They had the right connections to get the immigration formalities sorted out in record time (complicated slightly by the fact that Juan was travelling on a visa), and then took us to security; all baggage is checked entering, as well as leaving, the country. I suddenly remembered the pocket knife in my flight bag, but not to worry, that was not an issue. My portable air-band radio, however, was a problem and we were forced to return to the aircraft and drop it off before we could enter the country and find a taxi to take us to the Sheraton, our base for the next two nights.
The hotel was extremely comfortable and, after settling in, we set out to explore the grounds before dinner. From our balcony, we could even see the airport where our Diamond sat waiting! The hotel had several restaurants, although only one was open, so we enjoyed authentic Tunisian Italian food before wandering the grounds again. Lying on our backs on the stage in the outdoor amphitheater (no productions were being performed at the time), the stars overhead were clear and bright; despite the location on a hill in the centre of Tunis, the night sky was much more visible than from the beach in Holland, for example. We turned in early once again; although the flight may have been short, the heat and the mental stress of international GA still tires you out. The flying is the easy bit; it’s the bureaucracy and paperwork that takes the effort!
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