Last summer, I was sitting on a beach thinking about my upcoming 50th birthday. What was I going to do? An ad from Prepare2go (www.prepare2go.com), a company that specializes in adventure trips and Africa logistics, caught my eye. Prepare2go is run by ex-army air corps helicopter pilot Sam Rutherford, who was organizing a trans-Africa flying safari from London to Cape Town, via a scenic East Coast route.
Rutherford may not have anticipated anyone would be mad enough to consider the trip in a single-engine piston helicopter, but his enthusiastic response to my idea was that it would be "quite the adventure." He also offered to fly as my copilot, which gave me added confidence that I could complete the journey in my Robinson R22, as I had only two years of helicopter flying and 300 hours under my belt.
We were to be joined by seven fixed-wing aircraft, ranging from a large twin and a turboprop to a small kitplane. The plan for the group was to meet in Cyprus in February 2011, where we would undertake a short sea crossing to Egypt, take advantage of the good weather, and make Cape Town in 18 days. From my perspective, the planning was quite simple. Rutherford's company would organize all hotels, airports, flight clearances and fuel. I had to ensure the helicopter was capable of doing the 8,500 nm flight.
A few days before departure, the Egyptian revolution occurred, and it became clear that our planned flight from Paphos through Egypt via El Arish and Luxor to Wadi Halfa in Sudan wasn't going to be feasible. Our Plan B alternatives were Syria/Saudi Arabia or Libya. Saudi at short notice is impossible with a group of small planes, so Libya it was. The main drawbacks were repositioning to Crete, a long sea crossing to Libya, and two very long flights across the Libyan empty quarter to make Sudan. No one ever said it would be easy.
On Saturday, February 12, we were at the airport well before dawn with the prospect of nine hours of flying to Al Kufra, a town deep in eastern Libya's Sahara. We left Crete at first light and headed southwest, over the mountains and out across a lonely sea. It was 280 miles over water, protected from the elements by one engine, a life raft, life jackets and marine survival suits. Three hours after leaving Heraklion, we saw the coast of Africa ahead and soon we were on the ground at Benghazi.
Next, it was south over the Sahara. Now, we were leaving civilization behind. Radar and air traffic control vanished, the temperature got warmer, and the landscape resembled a huge sandpit punctuated at least for the first part of the flight by large isolated oil installations. About 30 minutes north of Al Kufra, just as the sun was setting, we landed on top of a pinnacle in an area resembling Utah's Monument Valley, for a spectacular stop before landing at the airport just before dusk.
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.
Our first stop in Tanzania was Kilimanjaro. The weather was fairly cloudy in the morning, but we got fleeting glimpses of the top of Mount Kilimanjaro as we headed south, encountering the odd giraffe over the Kenyan Masai Mara, and we waved to the colorful Masai herdsmen as we flew past. We spent two nights in a camp overlooking the Serengeti seeing "the big five" and the huge herds of animals in this fantastic park. On our final day, we left early and flew the helicopter low level over thousands of migrating wildebeest and zebra—a real treat from a helicopter! Then it was off to the coast for our flight to Zanzibar.
Stone Town in Zanzibar is a beautiful, if slightly run-down, town. We were due to spend one night there, but the Mozambique Ministry of Defense chose to take a close look at our flight clearances, so one day became three, and we got a chance to relax and enjoy the beach.
Down The Coast
Eventually, our clearances came through and we headed south over crystal-blue waters. We skirted low over the harbor of Dar es Salaam and over pristine beaches into Mozambique. It was inland from there, over spectacular jungles, where we came across two herds of wild elephant feeding in the forests. The weather began to change—no clouds were forecast, but soon, we were weaving to avoid low clouds and African afternoon thunderstorms. We landed at the northern Mozambique town of Pemba for fuel and rest.
As we headed south from Pemba, the scenery became mystical—large mountains rising sharply like huge rocks from the floor of the jungle. It reminded me of Conan Doyle's The Lost World, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see dinosaurs sticking their heads above the trees. Next, we were over the Limpopo delta, flying over herds of wild buffalo surrounded by huge flocks of white birds as we made our way back to the coast. The fishermen were a bit surprised to see a Robinson helicopter, and stopped to wave as we headed south about 100 yards offshore before landing at the port town of Biera. We begged some fuel from a private stash that a Cherokee pilot had at the airport, and headed south for Vilanculos and the beautiful island of Bazaruto.
Next stop was South Africa, the final country on our adventure. Everything began to change—controllers had us on radar and large towns with motorways began to pass below us. We planned a scenic route following the coast down to Cape Town, and the next morning we took off over Swaziland and the Drakensberg mountains with Paul Simon on the headphones as we passed Ladysmith toward the coast at Margate just south of Durban. Then we flew low level in glorious sunshine over huge numbers of dolphins and the odd shark and turtle along the wild coast, and arrived at our final destination—Cape Town. My family flew down to join me, and we completed a lovely tour of South Africa by helicopter before G-DKNY was dismantled and shipped home to the UK in a container.
Next month in Part II, we follow the northbound adventure of Helmut Polzer in a Cessna 206 up the west coast of Africa and through the Sahara.