Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Patrolling the national parks

I love early mornings in Tsavo. Night comes short and fast near the equator, but mornings open slowly and are often cool and misty (perfect for carb ice). The days are hot, long and dusty, and since I'm rarely alone in the cockpit, it's a decadent pleasure to fly solo, and the only time of the day I'll be able to do so.

I pull on my Tevas and head out of the lodge on the dirt path lined with pink bougainvillea, past the little guard shack to the Kilaguni airstrip. A hungry hornbill announces my arrival, and the only other company is a family of baboons silently crossing the airstrip, wary of predators. Super Cub 5Y-KWB awaits. After looking it over, I start up and taxi out, watching for animals. Rolling down the red gravel strip, I take off to the southeast toward Tanzania.

I haven't told anyone where I'm going, so I'm on my own. I don't know if I can walk out, but I think of my friend and student (a term I use loosely in his case) Danny Woodley. He's a third-generation Kenyan, warden and pilot, who once walked from the coast of Kenya to Mount Kilamanjaro, over 300 miles, and is better suited for this country than I am, but it gives me hope.

I fly low, skirting across the plateau, watching water holes for elephant, giraffe and zebra. At the crest of a plateau, I push the stick forward and dive down a cliff into the valley below where I'll see six— maybe eight!—hippos and three or more huge crocodiles bathing in a series of shallow pools.

Ahead are the Ngulia and Kichwa Tembo, but today, I'll turn to the south, fly through a narrow pass under broken misty fog, and descend again into a lush green Jurassic valley.

I fly close, but not too close to the trees, so I don't disturb the elephants and other animals standing under the branches. I follow the river for a while, then turn another corner and get my first glimpse of "Kili" not far in the distance. There's still some snow on its peaks, but not much.

Then, I start climbing toward the Chyulu Hills, past the volcanic Mzima Springs, toward a landmark of twin hills and into Kilaguni to land. It's time for breakfast, and my day is just beginning.


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