It all started back in Kenya, spending countless hours sorting out the authorizations that are required to undertake a trip through Africa. It was a nightmare! In hindsight, we should have started obtaining them months in advance, not weeks. So much paperwork was required—license validations, over-flight permits, landing permits, maintenance certificates—some of which didn't even exist in Kenya, yet we still had to come up with them. We also had to ensure that avgas was available at our planned destinations. This availability, for a large part, dictated our route.
Two days before our departure, the trip almost got cancelled as we were still waiting on some flight permits to be approved. The very morning we were leaving, all the paperwork finally came through! We were still unsure as to fuel availability in one crucial location in Mozambique. They had the fuel, but the pump was broken. It was planned to be fixed, but when? We decided to push on, and figure it out as we went along.
On the 24th of January, our two Piper Super Cubs left their home base in northern Kenya to clear customs in Nairobi. Loni Habersetzer, a highly experienced bush pilot who works in Alaska, was at the controls of one airplane, and I flew the other. Loni has accumulated more than 10,000 hours flying Super Cubs. His flying skills became famous after making some videos such as Big Rocks, Long Props and the Cubdriver series (www.cubdriver749er.com). He also gives instruction on bush flying to owners of Super Cubs and similar bush planes. I'm a conservationist living and working on a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, where these airplanes are most often used as security tools in our fight against poaching.
In Nairobi, we were to join up with the third member of our trip, Alexis Peltier, a French pilot/photographer who has been living in Kenya for more than 20 years. He has accumulated 8,000 hours in all kinds of flying contraptions. Today, he offers flying safaris in Kenya with either a Cessna 206 or a Leza-Lockwood Aircam, and soon he'll also be offering flying safaris in a Piper Super Cub (www.air-adventures.fr).
Topping off our fuel tanks before departing Vamizi Island.
After finishing the necessary paperwork at Nairobi's Wilson Airport, we packed up the Cubs and took off with a planned destination of Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. Rather than flying direct, we opted to join the coastline in southern Kenya and follow it until we reached the island.
We spent only one night there and didn't have much time to visit. Our intended destination was the coast of Mozambique, and this was just a layover for the night. Also, Zanzibar isn't the friendliest place to fly, as local flight permits are very difficult to obtain, and most likely would require to have a government official onboard the plane with us.
We cleared all the legal requirements in Zanzibar, which took a couple hours as they tried to slap a few "additional fees" on us. While Loni and I topped off the fuel tanks and jerry cans, Alexis negotiated the fees. We had planned our next fuel stop to be Pemba, in Mozambique. This was precisely the location where the pump had broken down. We needed enough fuel to get there and back in case we were unable to obtain some locally.
We were on our way to Mozambique— uncharted territory for the three of us. There's something special about discovering a place for the very first time, never knowing what you might see next.
We were headed to an island called Vamizi in the north of the country, but first had to clear customs at a port of entry, Mocimboa de Praia. We followed the entire Tanzanian coastline into Mozambique. Beautiful and deserted beaches accompanied us the entire stretch. On the way, we landed on a few beaches to take a break and have a picnic.
We arrived at Mocimboa de Praia, where we cleared customs and immigration. Mozambique was previously a Portuguese colony, and it was quite a contrast to hear people speak Portuguese, rather than the English or Swahili we're familiar with in Kenya and Tanzania. Customs here were pleasant and quick. About an hour and a half later, we were airborne and heading to Vamizi Island, a short 20-minute flight back north. We landed at sunset, and then drove about an hour to the place we were staying at on the beach.
Loni waterskis the Super Cub between rocks on Lake Malawi.
We spent four days here. Every day, we would call to get updates on the status of the fuel pump being fixed in Pemba. Without additional fuel, we didn't have enough to make it to our next destination in Malawi. Luck had it that the lodge we were staying at had a Cessna Caravan, with a flight planned to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Even though the pilot wasn't too thrilled about carrying jerry cans on board, he felt compelled to help out fellow aviators and brought us the additional fuel we needed to push on. The day before our departure from Vamizi Island, we got confirmation that the fuel pump had been fixed in Pemba, but by then we already had all the fuel we needed.
We left on the 29th of January. First, we cleared customs at Pemba. We must have surprised the pump attendants as we'd been hassling them for two weeks to find out about fuel availability and ended up getting nothing from them.
We then proceeded on one of the longest legs of our trip, all the way to Lilongwe, Malawi's capital and largest international airport. On the way, we flew through some amazing landscapes. Enormous rock pinnacles towered around us and broke the horizon everywhere we looked. We all wished we could have had more fuel, more time and more daylight. We were only able to have a brief glimpse of this fascinating landscape, but vowed to return someday and indulge in it a bit more.
We landed at Lilongwe to clear customs and get fuel. This was a nice airport: well-maintained, the fuel was delivered to the plane, and the officials were friendly and accommodating. Our small Super Cubs felt slightly out of place parked next to the 747s going in and out.
Our final destination for the day was Likoma Island on Lake Malawi. We landed just before sunset. It had been a long day, having flown about eight hours. We were happy to get to the camp, dump all our stuff, take a shower and grab a beer. While we enjoyed a good meal, we marveled over all the sights we had seen on the flight over.
On the shores of Lake Malawi, a crowd of children gathered under the shade of the wing and started singing with Alexis.
We spent three nights on the island. Every day, we flew along the lake and managed to cover its entire shoreline. Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa, is 360 miles long and joins three countries—Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. It's the third largest lake in Africa. Its crystal-clear waters are home to a wide diversity of fish. In fact, it's reportedly the habitat of more species of fish than any other body of freshwater on earth, including more than 1,000 species of cichlids. The shorelines were a mixture of sandy beaches and granite rock formations with lush vegetation on the hills surrounding the lake. It was very populated, and so it was difficult to find isolated beaches where we could land without disturbing anyone. Even when we did find some, it wouldn't last very long as within a matter of minutes we would attract quite a crowd under the wing.
One of the most dramatic sights on the lake was the northeastern region. The mountains came right down to the shoreline, and a little peek into them revealed chocolate-colored rivers, deep gorges and sheer rock cliffs. The cubs danced around in the midst of this magical setting.
At this point, flying resembles more of an art form rather than a method of transport. The feeling that you get flying through these landscapes is hard to describe; your body feels a mixture of goose bumps, adrenaline, freedom and awe. You're so very awake and alive, thankful of having the privilege of witnessing this magical setting from a very unique perspective.
Back to Tanzania
The day prior to leaving Malawi, we had topped off our fuel at Lilongwe, and had organized to clear customs at Karonga, a small airport on the northwest side of the lake. The same usual story took place as they tried to invent some "extra fees," which we had to negotiate our way through. We did a relatively good job, and it only took about an hour on the ground before we headed to Mbeya, our port of entry into Tanzania.
I've flown a few times in Tanzania, and have always found the officials to be friendly and helpful, but landing at Mbeya proved to be a different experience. This was by far the most difficult stop we had during the trip.
Mbeya is a small international airport, a grass strip in the middle of a huge town. We seemed to be their only "customers" that day, and the officials were determined to give us a hard time and almost refused us entry to the country, as we refused to bribe them.
We spent four hours on the ground dealing with paperwork and angry officials. Daylight was running out, and our frustration levels were getting high. We finally managed to get out of there, with just enough daylight left to make it to our next destination.
We flew past Lake Rukwa, and then popped over the hills to join up with Lake Tanganyika. This was now a familiar site to us, as Loni and I had flown in the area two years prior. Lake Tanganyika is gorgeous! One of my favorite places in Africa. The lake is situated in the Great Rift Valley and is divided among four countries—Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Zambia, with Congo and Tanzania possessing the majority of the lake. Its waters feed the Congo River and ultimately end up in the Atlantic Ocean.
Being 420 miles long and almost 5,000 feet deep, it's the longest lake in the world and the second deepest. In some ways, it looked similar to Lake Malawi, but the vegetation was even more dense and tropical.
We flew up the lake to Kipili, where we'd spend the night at Lakeshore Lodge, located on a stretch of white sandy beach. Arriving at sunset, we were greeted by the friendly owners, who made us feel very comfortable and treated us to a delicious dinner on the beach, under the starlight. I wish we could have spent more time here. We dreamt of having floats on our Cubs and imagined all the possibilities it could bring about. We only spent the night there and left the following day, but this was another place we knew we'd return to, in the not-too-distant future.
Leaving Lake Tanganyika, we were headed to Serengeti National Park, to an airport called Makau. That day, we covered about 470 miles and stopped at Tabora airport to refuel. Most of the terrain we flew over was quite deserted and bare, with not much wildlife except for Ugalla River, which was about halfway through the leg. As we flew over this game reserve, the scenery and vegetation changed drastically. We followed the riverbed, which was covered with invasive hyacinth plants that gave it a distinct bright-green look. We found some areas along the river that were densely populated with wildlife, and especially large herds of hippos bathing in the river. A quick stop in the middle of nowhere to have a bite to eat, and we arrived in late afternoon in Serengeti.
We had planned to stay in Serengeti for two days, as the great wildebeest migration was taking place. As we flew over the park, we witnessed tens of thousands of wildebeest on the march, accompanied by many zebras and antelopes tagging along. The migration was just starting, and not yet gathering the numbers that are possible when it's in full motion, but it was nonetheless a spectacular site. It's remarkable to still be able to see so much free-ranging wildlife.
Being a national park and also a popular tourist destination, there were no opportunities to land. Since we're not very far from the Rift Valley, we decided to join it just south of Lake Natron, a stunning area that Loni and I had visited in the past. So much geological activity taking place in the Rift Valley makes it a fascinating area with a lot of diversity. Lake Natron can become blood red in the dry season, with a thick layer of salt crystallized on its surface. The volcano Ol Donyio Lengai, which means "Mountain of the Gods" in the Maasai language, towers at the south end of the lake. This active volcano last erupted in 2007.
When we got to the Rift Valley, we were ready for a stop and looked for a place to land. We found a hill to land on; it was steep and on the edge of an escarpment, so the winds weren't the most favorable. It turned out to be an exciting landing, to say the least. We then met up with Loni, who had landed further north of us. While circling over the volcano's crater, we tried to avoid flying through the toxic fumes that emanate from it.
The hour was getting late and our fuel supply was getting low, so we headed back to the camp for our last evening around the fire. Sadly, our trip was coming to an end. The following day, we'd be back home. We wished we could just keep going and going, as far as the little Cubs would take us!
On the following morning, we flew to Kilimanjaro International Airport, cleared customs and got enough fuel to make it back to Nairobi. We used up our last cash, and had just enough to purchase the fuel and pay the remaining fees. We made it to Nairobi's Wilson Airport right at lunchtime and grabbed a bite to eat at the Aero Club.
In a way, we were glad to have made it back home, everyone safe. On the other hand, there was a feeling of sadness that this great adventure had come to an end.
This kind of trip is the most fulfilling expression of freedom that I've discovered in life. The scenery, the wildlife, the people, the friendships and adventures along the way are what it's all about. The beauty of a Super Cub is to be able to see all this from the air while retaining the freedom to land and discover some of the finer elements you might have missed by just flying over.
Alec Wildenstein is a conservationist living in northern Kenya. He has been flying for 15 years and has logged more than 3,000 hours flying Super Cubs in Africa and Alaska.