The Navajo Chieftain seems to grumble at flying so early in the morning. The engines come up to speed as they have before, the airplane lumbers down the runway at 1,000 pounds over gross as always, but it feels somehow disquieted at the prospect of its first trip to Africa. This is my 25th, and I'm equally reluctant.
I lift off the runway at Las Palmas, Canary Islands, retract the gear and turn southeast toward the coast of Africa. Only about 170 nm of ocean separate me from the sandy beaches of Western Sahara, and considering that I've just crossed 2,200 miles of the Atlantic diagonally, you might expect I'd welcome solid land again. Not so. I'll be far less comfortable over the desert than the ocean, especially when that ÒlandÓ is the Sahara.
The sun begins to brighten the Eastern horizon, and I welcome the relatively high sky and cool temperature at 11,000 feet. In a little over an hour, I begin to see the coast of North Africa, barren and lifeless, emerge from the predawn haze as another day begins in the desert.
The brilliant dunes of the Sahara run right down to the ocean, porcelain hills of sand awaiting me with the patience of millennia. The desert ahead is unfathomable, sand and dust flanking dunes and desolation, an incomprehensible expanse of nothingness where neither time nor distance have changed in eons. Today, I can see a hundred miles east, but it barely matters. I perceive only a small slice of a parched, dry desert larger than the U.S. with horizons beyond definition, but lacking the green and blue. I'll cross only a small corner of the Sahara, yet it will require 10 hours to do so.
The sheer immensity of the Sahara is difficult to imagine and impossible to describe, even after having traversed it many times. At its widest point, the Sahara is nearly 4,000 miles across, and that's only from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Add the Arabian Peninsula, and the Sahara becomes 5,000 miles wide, the distance from London to San Francisco or from New York City to Recife, Brazil, a distance that takes jet airliners a half a day to cover.
It is the largest section of barren terrain on Earth, yet it somehow continues to sustain millions of people, though with aquifers drying up under overuse and drought it's hard to imagine how much longer the desert can sustain them.
The Arabic names along my monochrome route sound like planets from a Star Wars script, and they're nearly as remote. Laayoune is the first checkpoint on the African continent, then Zourat in Western Mauritania as the desert deepens and ages. ÒYes, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the representatives of the Zourat Sector have arrived.Ó If this really was once a paradise where our ancient ancestors lived, it must have been a very different place.
Nevertheless, I'm cruising comfortably on the ferry tanks, the Chieftain's prop-sync is finally working, George is flying and all is right with the world, at least up here. I go feet dry above the beach (though there's no one to report it to), looking down on what will probably be another 115-degree day in August. Ferry pilots faced with transiting the frozen world of Northeast Canada in winter often complain that people should only be allowed to buy airplanes in summer, but if you plan to overfly the Sahara, you'd better hope its winter.
In this part of the sky, there are more risks than just the heat. I'm well aware that some disgruntled North African rebels sometimes like to shoot at airplanes, apparently just for the hell of it. I take modest consolation in the fact they'd be hard pressed to hit me from two miles below, unless they just happened to have a working TOW missile. If I had pressurization, I'd be flying even higher.
Just as the satellite weather picture suggested back in Las Palmas, practically the entire, black hot desert I overfly is severely clear, with visibility that stretches east for several hundred horizons, all the way to the Indian Ocean. I've often seen it (or more accurately, haven't seen it) totally obscured by sand storms, what the Bedouins call haboobs.
Today, the wind is calm, and the Sahara sand simmers in the sun for the equivalent of 1.3 North Americas, nothing but granite and dust from the Atlantic coast at Dakar, Senegal to Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden.
Two miles below, the desert continent is a dangerous place in every respect. At any given time, half the countries are in or approaching revolution, there's not a McDonald's within 1,000 miles, and anything that doesn't bite, poison or sting is probably a rock.
To Western minds, the Sahara seems an uninhabitable wasteland, barren, forbidding, unforgiving. Yet, the nomadic Tuareg and Bedouin people somehow manage to survive, trading camels, mining salt and living from day to month and year to century looking for water. I have three gallons with me, but if one of my big Lycomings fails and I'm forced to land, that won't last long in the blast furnace desert below. The best advise if you must land in the desert is make a friend of a Bedouin.
By any measure, the Sahara is almost unimaginably large, at latest count 3.6 million square miles of nothing but square miles. A double handful of huge North African countriesÑMauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Egypt and a half-dozen othersÑshare ownership of the desert, though it provides little in return.
The Sahara offers no quarter and no recognizable sustenance. If you don't bring it with you, whether you fly, ride a Range Rover or camel or walk, you're probably out of luck.
Today, my trip is a relatively short 1700 nm hop to Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, on the Gulf of Guinea. There are only two recognizable towns along the route, Bamako, Mali, on the Niger River, not far from the legendary salt city of Timbuktu, and Yamoussoukro, capitol of Cote de Ivoire. Traditional advice is not to land at either location. I won't.
Abidjan is one of the informal centers of life in the African region known as the Sahel, perhaps spelled wrong but an accurate description of the area, always hot and miserable. Ivory Coast was in civil war as late as 2010, and it's still regarded as a marginal destination for westerners.
If what's left of this leg goes well, my final hop tomorrow will be 600 nm to Douala, Cameroon where the 10-seat Chieftain will enter service ferrying tourists to the jungle for photo safaris. Sadly, the population of big game animals in Africa has been so depleted that many countries have banned hunting almost entirely. As a result, 35 mm Canons have replaced .375 Weatherby Magnums in the bush.
With many of the land's iconic animals threatened or nearing extinction, a Westerner may wonder why anyone could love such a place as the Sahara, but many still do. Africa has an indefinable, almost charismatic appeal that only the continent's first colonizers, primarily the British, French and Dutch, understand.
The foreign powers that colonized the continent are for the most part gone. Many of them have been evicted or have voluntarily relinquished control. Africa remains a continent that in places is struggling to lift itself out of poverty and to solve the most basic and critical problem that it face, ensuring clean drinking water to its peoples.