Plane & Pilot
Monday, December 5, 2011

Trans-Africa Adventure


Part I: Southbound—From London to Cape Town in a Robinson R44


On the next day's flight, the desert was spectacular, and a huge range of mountains loomed ahead on the corner of Libya, Sudan, Egypt and Chad—well worth a visit if you're really adventurous! Then it was into Northern Sudan and a totally empty region—no camels, no jeep tracks, nothing. Eventually, we landed at Dongola. Thankfully, our drums of fuel were at the airport, and soon we were off, low level down the Nile in the setting sun, toward Merowe, an ancient Nubian town known for its mini pyramids dating back to 500 B.C.

The next morning, we were back at the airport. Three hours later, we were released, and our route took us over more pyramids, over the Nile and past camels on the edge of seas of dunes before the haze of Khartoum loomed on the horizon. After a day's rest, it was off early again, down the Blue Nile south to Damazin airport, where, after refuelling from preordered drums, we left for Addis Ababa. Soon, we could see the mountains ahead, and we felt we were leaving Sudan at last.

A call came through on the radio that one of our party, a twin-engine Cessna, had suffered a nose-wheel failure on takeoff and was blocking the runway. Southern Sudan is an inconvenient place for an unfortunate incident of this nature, but with the blocked runway preventing landings, most of our party continued on to Ethiopia. As our Robinson doesn't need a runway, we returned to see if we could help. We approached the airfield to find the twin nose down in a pile of foam surrounded by United Nations fire engines, with both propellers mangled by the concrete runway. Luckily, there were no injuries, but the temperature was rising, and a U.N. plane was stuck on the ground by the blocked runway. The first task of removing the plane was accomplished with the help of a large number of Sudanese organized by Pakistani air force helicopter pilots. Soon, the twin's nose was lifted onto the back of a pickup truck, and the machine was pulled off the runway toward the parking area. Next, after fighting off the airport officials who wanted to fill in endless paperwork for an "investigation," we siphoned off some fuel from the stricken machine to enable the helicopter to fly the next day direct to Kenya.

Early the next morning, we were airborne and heading south for Lokichogio in Northern Kenya. Over the hills of Western Ethiopia, there was only the odd passing airliner, mostly flying from Nairobi to Europe, to talk to. Then the helicopter's fuel filter light went on—we must have picked up some contamination from the twin's fuel in Damazin. I quickly looked at the pilot's handbook, which advised us to land as soon as convenient—probably Nairobi 800 miles south! Eventually, we arrived in Kenya, leaving Sudan and the desert behind us at last.

The Rift Valley
After a quick refuel and visa check at Lokichogio, a beer and a bath at a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast near Nakaru sounded very tempting. We took off with just enough fuel and light to make the flight south. Luckily, a tailwind helped, and we climbed over the beautiful, verdant-green Kenyan highlands on the edge of Lake Victoria south toward Nakaru.

Soon, we crossed the equator, and just before dusk, we saw the helipad in the garden of a beautiful farmhouse and made our approach. At 7,400 feet elevation and a temperature of 25 degrees C, this landing is quite challenging for a Robinson, particularly after nine hours flying and a fuel filter warning, but after a minor drama that saw us end up in the paddock rather than the helipad, we hopped the helicopter over the fence into the garden.

The next morning, we lifted off for the relatively short flight to Nairobi Wilson airport. We flew low over a game reserve on the shores of Lake Nivasha, and were treated to the sight of rhinos grazing on the grasslands among zebra, giraffe and wildebeest. We then climbed to 10,000 feet over the Rift Valley, and were soon safely on the ground at Nairobi.



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