BLOG Pt6 (FINAL) : Turning South

30/10/2013.

20-22/07/2013 / Days 8 – 10

Arusha (HTAR) -> Dodoma (HTDO)
176nm / 1h:00m / 66 litres of Avgas

Dodoma (HTDO) -> Mfuwe (FLMF)
481nm / 2h:45m / 200 litres of Avgas

Mfuwe (FLMF) -> RZ (FLRZ)
212nm / 1h:10m / 87 litres of Avgas

RZ (FLRZ) -> Lusaka (FLKK)
54nm / 0h:20m / 20 litres of Avgas

Lusaka (FLKK) -> Polokwane (FAPP)
515nm / 2h:50m / 204 litres of Avgas

Polokwane (FAPP) -> Tweefontein (HOME)
152nm / 0h:54m / 62 litres of Avgas

TOTAL TRIP

3062nm / 17h:33m / 1229 litres of Avgas

On the morning of 20 August 2013 I didn’t wake up feeling sad about leaving Tanzania, because I knew we were heading next to Royal Zambezi Lodge, on the northern bank of the mighty Zambezi river, in the Lower Zambezi valley.

After a quick breakfast it was into the bus, now twice the weight due to our luggage. Turning out of the hotel our driver decided to turn right. Right is east towards Kilimanjaro, left is west towards Arusha airport, where we were in a big hurry to get to as we had a long day of flying ahead of us. 869 nautical miles (1 609km) to be exact.

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Our bus to the airport.

Some gave the benefit of the doubt to the driver, suggesting he knew a short cut through Arusha. The majority wasn’t as generous. In no uncertain terms (although, the driver was still adamant to head east) we instructed him to make a u turn.  As our speed increased it soon became obvious why he was a tad bit confused. I sat right behind him and the rancid smell of his previous night’s debauchery smashed into me. Nevertheless, seeing as he didn’t speak or understand a word of English, he was incredulous that we wanted to head west, and sat on his phone for the duration of the journey through Arusha up until the airport. Whoever instructed him to take us to Kilimanjaro must have had massive influence…

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Arusha

The aircraft were all dirty from dust blowing in from the west. After refuelling and obtaining a weather report we took off on runway 09. There was low cloud lurking about, but soon we climbed through it and it cleared as we flew southwards. After reaching cruising altitude, a quick glance over our left shoulders revealed the top of Mt Kilimanjaro (19336ft) in the far distance. I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t able to fly closer to Mt Kili during this trip, as Mt Meru (15000ft) was already very impressive.

The Crews

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Willie & Kathy Burger / ZS-BUR

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Freddie & Brenda Marx / ZS-VMF

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Jan & Tania Grey / ZS-NFN

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Anton & Alda Pelser / ZS-KAE

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Andre & Fransie van Niekerk / ZS-ZSZ

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Pieter & Elais Senekal / ZS-SRS

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Eric & Karin Walker / ZS-ZSZ (Photo not taken by myself)

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The Van Zyls & Fouries / ZS-BDR

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The Halls & Jacobszs

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George & Eksteen Jacobsz / ZS-SWA

Our route would take us first to Dodoma for refuelling and customs and then we’d head south south-west, passing Lake Malawi at its northern tip and entering the Luangwa valley before reaching the Zambezi River. Dodoma was much less eventful this time around and we were through in a matter of half an hour. The next leg of flying was spectacular. The Kipengere mountain range hugs Lake Malawi’s northern shore and is the same height as the Drakensberg. They were majestic as we approached and soon, flying at FL115, the ground wasn’t that far below us. As we crossed over this range we then entered the Luangwa valley, with the world famous Luangwa river lazily accompanying us southwards. Mfuwe, in the middle of nowhere, was a quick stop to re-fuel and do Zambian customs. Further south our flight path crossed the river just as it cut its way through a magnificent gorge.

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Kipengere Escarpment

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Zambezi river, east of RZ.

Then a blue shimmer appeared in the distant haze. The Zambezi river sparkled just beyond the mountains to its north that shapes the Lower Zambezi valley.  The longest east flowing river in Africa can’t help but touch you in a profound way, each time you lay eyes on her. Coming over the mountains we made a slight turn to the right and followed the river all the way to Royal Zambezi. Exactly the same way as a year before, but in the opposite direction as we then came from the Kafue river. The effect was the same…breath taking.

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View from RZ's deck.

We opted for a direct approach and touched down short on the runway, which meant a long taxi to the ramp. After securing the aircraft we were taken to the lodge. It was lovely to be back and a bit surreal to think that I stood at the same spot just  a year before. It was a year too long. To me, the only place that trumps Royal Zambezi Lodge as a tourist destination is Victoria Falls. But that’s like comparing apples with pears. After a quick briefing and enjoying the view of two elephants, grazing in the river in front of the lodge, we were led to our luxurious and spacious room. There are a few perks to being a tour leader and I wasn’t complaining.

Soon the other aircraft started to arrive, some doing a low pass over the river before turning for base.  A sunset cruise was on the menu for the late afternoon. As always it didn’t disappoint, with lots of wildlife and serene scenery to fill the mind with wonder. We had a lovely dinner on the deck under the stars that evening and turned to our rooms quite early as it had been a long day of traveling and there was the little matter of some tiger fishing in the morning.

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Elephant snorkeling close to the lodge.

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Sunset cruise.

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A flock of birds just after sunset.

It was another perfect sunrise the next morning and after breakfast we boarded our boats. Heading out to a small island in the river, the skipper prepared our rods before fishing commenced. Unlike the previous year where we first had to catch bait, the hunt for tiger fish began right away and in earnest. It wasn’t 5 minutes when the jovial Anton Pelser got a strike. It was a big tiger and kept him busy for a good while, even clearing the water, trying to dislodge the hook. 4 times it came to within grasping distance, only to then find renewed energy and make a dash for the safety of the river’s depths.

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Our boat's best and only catch of the day.

After a spirited fight it had nothing more to give and our skipper at last got his catch net underneath it. It was a beautiful 8 pounder and after high fives, smiles and photos we released it. I always wonder whether a tiger is clever enough not to be caught twice. That would turn out to be our boat’s only success for the day, but it didn’t matter one bit… we were cruising up and down the river, taking in the sheer beauty of the place. Just after mid-day we called it quits.  Lunch was ready at the lodge.

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On his perch.

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Christmas tree

A game drive was scheduled for the afternoon, but before that I got to meet Royal Zambezi Lodge’s manager, Natalie Clark. It was interesting to hear about her background and how she ended up with her dream job. She also makes a good coffee. Thanks for the chat in your “office” Natalie.

The game drive was not as eventful as the year’s before, but we did see a young lion, in perfect condition, biding his time to be the next dominant male, from his termite heap perch.  We also enjoyed sun downers next to a channel of the Zambezi River and then returned to the lodge for our last dinner of the trip. Penalty shots were distributed for various “offences” committed during the trip and we were then treated to a perfect Sunday roast.

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Dinner about to be served.

After dinner I tried to capture a nice panorama picture of the deck at night, but just when I wanted to make my way to our room, the “resident” elephant at the lodge, Yale, made his appearance. It’s uncanny how silent these big creatures are. What gives them away are the branches and twigs they break, and maybe the odd stomach rumble. He took his time and after 15 minutes the road was clear to quickly sneak past him.

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RZ deck.

The morning of 22 July came to be the last morning our group of 24 would be together for this trip. Breakfast was had with mixed emotions, with many sad that it had come to an end, but also excited to see their loved ones back home again. After a climbing-right hand turn over the lodge we set course for Lusaka. It’s a 20 minute flight, but you have to clear the escarpment, which is 2700ft higher than RZ and just 6 km away.

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RZ pano.

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RZ Lodge

As we climbed over the mountains we encountered the most ferocious of tail winds I’ve ever experienced. 40-45 knots at FL075. After a bumpy and very quick flight we approached runway 10, into the gale, resulting in a ground speed just before touch down of 50kts. Mountaineers always call the South Col on Mt Everest the most inhospitable place known to man, but the ramp at Kenneth Kaunda made a strong case for the title. The wind was vile. As we were in the queue for fuel we decided to make a dash for the warmth of the airport terminal to clear customs, file a flight plan and pay the plethora of taxes and fees.  With all this happening a lot faster and less painful than the year before, we again braced ourselves for the wind. It’s always easy to complain about bitter cold or energy sapping heat, but surely nothing tramples the human spirit more than a gusting, howling wind.


Bad news waited as we got to the plane…the fuel truck had broken down. Another commercial pilot also waiting to fill up his Cessna 206 assured us that it would soon be fixed. The question was…how long would it take? We still had 667nm (1235km) to cover before dark and it was already 10am. After an hour’s wait it thankfully turned up and we were on our way. Never before was I that glad to leave Kenneth Kaunda International. Climbing out of Lusaka we turned right; heading : South, from now onwards each mile flown was a mile closer to home.

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Kariba.

Lake Kariba’s navy blue waters soon appeared and it was a magnificent sight to behold. Bulawayo followed, then the border point where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet. Polokwane was a formality and then it was the final 54 minute leg home homeward. Then something weird happened…from Middelburg onwards the visibility improved to the best we had had the whole trip. Which was ironic, seeing as Mpumalanga suffers the air pollution of a dozen power stations.

Reflecting on the trip I’m proud to say that it went well. There were a few obstacles and surprises along the way, but nowhere a train crash, and everyone in the group seemed to have enjoyed the experience. How could they not have had? The privilege is stupendous. I want to thank my dad for his help and guidance in organising the trip. His experience and knowledge was invaluable. I also want to thank him for taking me with. Flying to the equator of Africa and back with him, in the right seat, was a privilege and experience I’ll treasure for life. The amount of respect and admiration I have for him…words fail me.

I’ll leave you with this quote from St Augustine : “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

Posted in Blog, Blog review, Eksteen Jacobsz, Photography, Travel, Zambia | Comments Off



BLOG Pt5 : The North Western Serengeti

29/09/2013.


18-19/07/2013 – Day 6 & 7

After tucking into bed early the night before, we were up at 5am to prepare for our much anticipated balloon flight. This was a first for just about everyone in the group. We were taken to the launch site, where the balloon team was already hard at work. After a quick safety briefing we were strapped into our harnesses and then told to board.


The balloon’s basket would today load 13 passengers plus the pilot and his assistant. Inside, the basket is cordoned off into little cages, to keep it balanced during flight. The basket was anchored to a cruiser, and lying on its side. After boarding, we lay on our backs and clipped onto the safety harness. Full gas was applied to fill the balloon with hot air, 120 degrees C to be precise. With the balloon straining to get airborne, the cruiser hopped and skipped after us. Once the basket was upright and the balloon fully filled, we were released.

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It's HOT!

It was a weird sensation to feel no wind on one’s face, as we had a ground speed of 9 knots! The view grew better with each feet gained in altitude. We were flying a hot air balloon over the Serengeti!!  It might have had something to do with from where we launched, and maybe also a bit of luck with regards to the wind direction, but soon we were over the Grumeti river, and it would snake beneath us for the remainder of our 1 hour flight.

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PIC. He has a Commercial Pilot's License and great sense of humour.

Game trails criss-crossed the savannah. Soon after lift-off the sun stuck its head over the eastern horizon, washing the eastern sky in a bright orange. We were treated to fabulous wildlife. Wildebeest, giraffes, hares, zebras, water buck, hippos, buffaloes, impala, crocodiles, two lions (one whose pot belly still strained to contain the previous evening’s meal), and a variety of birds .

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The Grumeti river at sunrise.

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Disturbing a croc's morning nap.

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Snoozing for a few more minutes.

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Serengeti Wildebeest.

After a flawless landing we were treated to the early history of balloon flight and why a bottle of champagne is always opened after a successful flight. Legend has it that early French aeronauts carried champagne to appease angry or frightened spectators at the landing site. Along with the champagne, a popular toast among balloonists is: “soft winds and gentle landings.”  We were then escorted to our breakfast spot where we were treated to a full English breakfast, served in the veld.  The balloon flight was a wonderful experience and privilege. Unfortunately we missed the great migration as it was already in Kenia, but it didn’t matter… I had just experienced a once in a lifetime activity.

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Western entry point to the Serengeti.

That afternoon we went for a drive to the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. It wasn’t originally planned, but seeing as we were so close we thought it best to go and have a look. Lake Victoria is quite shallow compared to Lake Malawi and Tanganyika, and its water isn’t nearly as clear or blue as the before mentioned.

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Lake Victoria, with the massive and hideous Marabou Stork.

We were taken to a local village situated on the south eastern shore of the lake. A local tour guide, who spoke very eloquently and knowledgeable, gave us a briefing about their daily life and routine. Afterwards a few of our group opted for a pricey $20 boat ride with the local fishermen. The visit to this village was personally a bit of a disappointment, but it was nice to interact with the locals, especially the kids, who posed and fooled around for our cameras. Again it was noticeable how close their personal space boundaries are…there aren’t any space constraints where they live, yet they sit or huddle practically on top of each other.

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Lake Victoria kids.

That evening, back at our tented camp, we were once more treated to a fabulous dinner. A lady in our group had her birthday and the kitchen staff was so gracious and generous to bake her a birthday cake with their marginal and limited kitchenware.

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The biggest croc I've seen in real life. @ the Grumeti river.

The next morning it was the second group’s turn for their balloon flight. They were off before dawn, but we had to load the whole group’s luggage onto the one cruiser that would take our luggage back to Arusha, as our charter flight would pick us up at 1:30 pm that afternoon. The planes each only had space for 12 passengers. Hand luggage was limited to preferably nothing. The designated driver was no one else but, yes you guessed it, our cowboy racing freak. Jokes were made that he would make it to Arusha before us. He left at 7am; with a daunting 10 hour drive ahead of him it meant his ETA was 5pm. I didn’t give him a chance, as the road surely would slow his progress. I reckoned he’d only arrive at our hotel by 10pm.  We would leave at 1:30pm, flying just over an hour to Arusha. It wasn’t even a contest…

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Wildebeest pano, close to our mobile tented camp.

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Last night in the Serengeti.

Soon after he left I heard weird intermittent jet-like noise in the distance. We soon realised that it was the balloon and that it was making a bee line for the camp. It was the typical romantic sight you might imagine it to be as the balloon appeared over the tree tops. The passengers were in a boisterous spirit and it was amazing how clear their voices carried in the still morning air. I was able to snap a few nice shots of the balloon whizzing by, at incredible speed. Breakfast was served at 9am, and soon afterwards we were reunited with our fellow balloon aviators, still buzzing from their experience.

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Balloon whizzing by our mobile tented camp.

Serengeti National Park has a 24 hour rule, which means that if you enter the park at say, 8am, then to only pay for one day’s visit, you have to have left the park by the next morning at 8am. Because of our altered traveling plans, we now had to overcome this problem. We had to be out by 11am. The solution was to wait at the Grumeti  airstrip for 2 and a half hours. Although we were still in the park, we could play the card of “in-transit”. The time went by quite fast as I waded through the pictures I had taken thus far on the trip on my laptop. To the minute, the first Caravan arrived at 1:30pm and soon thereafter the second one landed as well. It was my first flight in a Cessna 208, and my dad and I took the far aft seats. It was hot, we were high and we were heavy. I won’t go into density altitude and the dangers of it now, but suffice to say your eyebrows should raise a little when you board an aircraft in these conditions.

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Caravan. A Beast of a plane.

We stormed down the runway, which earlier that morning had various game on it. It took a while, but eventually we were airborne and then settled into a steady climb. Visibility with a camera wasn’t that great as my window was fuzzy, but a fantastic positive to come out of this flight is that we were able to see a vast amount of the Serengeti from the air. Soon the Ngorongoro crater appeared to my right and then the descent to Arusha started. Touch-down was just before 3pm. A bus that could carry the whole group of 24 people was organized to transport us from the airport to Mt Meru Hotel in Arusha. What they didn’t keep track of was that we had hand luggage.

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Ngorongoro Crater.

What happened in the next hour I won’t go into now. All I can say is that it was unpleasant and unnecessary. The upshot of it all being that we arrived at our hotel only just before 5pm. And this is where it gets surreal…as I entered the foyer…our luggage stood there, all neatly (albeit a bit dusty) packed, waiting for their respective owners. Not only did our villain-gone-hero beat us to the hotel, he arrived there at 2pm!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…  I checked my suitcase for a wet spot, as it surely must have been the scariest and craziest ride of its long life.

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Bus transport to Arusha.

The hotel was modern and stock standard, but very welcoming. After finalising payments for the charter flight, Karen, her husband Steve and our luggage speedster joined us for a lovely buffet dinner. Soon it was with a tinge of sadness that I had to say goodbye to Karen, with whom I communicated so frequently during the previous 9 months.  African Eden Safaris are in her own words a tiny company in the Tanzanian safari industry, but what makes them different from the pack is their attention to detail and personal touch. Karen, if you ever read this, it was truly a pleasure to organise this trip and safari with you. Without your help, experience and expertise it would have been near impossible to bring 24 South Africans, flying their own aircraft, to Tanzania and experience your beautiful and friendly country. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You did a fantastic job and I’m sure the other 23 guests will cheer in unison “Hear hear!”

Our Tanzanian safari had come to an end, but we had still a lot to look forward to…like watching the clear blue waters of the Zambezi river from the luxurious Royal Zambezi Lodge.

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BLOG Pt4 : Trekking north through the Serengeti.

15/09/2013.

17/07/2013 – Day 5.

After yet another early breakfast we entered our cleaned cruisers. The night’s rest worked wonders and the group was in good spirits. We were on our way to the Grumeti river , but first we had a 2 hour drive in the vicinity of Ndutu. It was well worth it as we spotted an abundance of wildlife, including a variety of birds of prey.

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Ndutu cubs

Quite soon we stumbled onto a pride of lions, obviously still very groggy and super lazy. There were two sets of cubs, who were cousins but of different age. It was the first time I’ve seen a pride with cubs in the wild, and to see them so exposed was a real treat. I wouldn’t have minded to hang out with them the whole day, but we had to move on. A few hundred metres on in a dry lake we encountered a hunting cheetah. Once again, out in the open and beautiful to see. Then we came across the pride’s two impressive male lions as well as two more lionesses. They were languidly making their way across the lake to a waterhole. One male’s tassel was missing and he had the look of a cat that’s seen and fought it all. Their massive front paws dragged through the lake’s dust. At times they were right up against the vehicle and to see them stand taller than the bonnet was a stark reminder of just how big and powerful these felines are.

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Hunting cheetah.

They ignored us completely and then quenched their thirst at the water hole. The lionesses were briefly interested in a warthog, probably 200 metres from them, but he was well ahead of their plans and made a spiteful retreat towards cover.

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Reflection.

We then made our way back towards the main road. We entered the Serengeti Plains; flat as a pancake and completely devoid of trees. It’s here where the Serengeti Park officially starts. The entrance gate is a beehive of activity, as every vehicle that enters has to sign in. There’s an exceptional view from the koppie at the gate…a 360 degree panorama of the Serengeti Plains. I’m sure if you look carefully the earth’s curvature is visible from here.

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Serengeti Plains.

While waiting around we dived into our picnic boxes. The Safari picnic box consists of 1 piece of chicken, 1 slice of banana bread, 1 tiny, miniature banana, 1 apple, a small packet of roasted nuts, a small yoghurt and a small juice. This menu is remarkably consistent each day, and it was a hot topic of speculation as to when these picnic boxes were packed. Some suggested Arusha, now already 3 days before, others were more optimistic and swore they saw them being made up at Ndutu that very same morning. I think what swayed the group’s attitude more favourably towards the picnic boxes was the fact that all the other tour operators’ guests were also enjoying their very similar ones at the entrance.

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Shade huddle.

While waiting around I also had a chance to find out how our charter plane’s planning was coming along. I was informed that two planes could pick us up at Grumeti, but at the cost of US$300 per person. If the price seems exorbitant for a 1 hour flight, please keep in mind that these planes would fly empty towards us, so we were basically paying for a return ticket. In either case, would everyone still be so enthusiastic about flying out of the Serengeti in style instead of taking on the road from hell?

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Mid-day snooze.

I broke the news. Hoping for a yay from either 12 or 24, and nothing else. At first about 18 said yes. This had the possibility of MESSY written all over it, because you didn’t book seats, you booked a plane.  $3600 per plane to be exact, thus 12 seats (full capacity) taken = $300 per ticket. If say 8 seats are taken it equals $450 per ticket which suddenly makes it unviable.

Now this is also if you split the aircraft equally. But some people already insisted the night before they’d be on the first plane, come hell or high water. If 18 boarded, they’d surely argue to fill the first plane, meaning the second plane only having 6 passengers… You can see where this is going and how quickly something with good intentions can turn ugly. L U C K I LY, group pressure took its toll and everyone was on board. Disaster avoided. Lesson learned…establish ground rules beforehand.

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Threesome.

With full tummies and the prospect of not having to return with this vile road, spirits lifted and we entered Serengeti National Park. Seronera was about two hours’ drive away, but our guides’ main agenda was to find us a leopard, as we hadn’t seen one up until then. Everywhere small herds of wildebeest, zebra and even elephants were taking shelter underneath lone acacias. Closer to Seronera the game increased dramatically and then we got call that a leopard was spotted. It was having its mid-day nap, probably 10 meters up in an acacia, spread out over a branch as only leopards are capable of. I really wanted to be a bit closer, but in the Serengeti all vehicles MUST stay on the roads. A 1000mm lens would have been VERY useful at that moment. Then, incredibly and with great difficulty, we also saw another leopard in a tree a bit further away.

At Seronera we had a quick bathroom stop and then a bit further down the road, to no one’s surprise, a puncture. Given the brutal punishment those tyres are put through, it’s a wonder it lasted that long. The afternoon’s drive into the setting sun was most enjoyable and we saw big herds of wildebeest and zebra. We then turned off towards our luxury mobile tented camp site. Another long day’s driving was rewarded with a warm shower and beautifully made up tents. These tents are much better accommodation than any hotel room, as they are more spacious, have fantastic beds and are situated under large acacias. They’re definitely a real privilege and treat to stay in.

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Luxury mobile tented camp.

That evening the group was jovial at dinner and we were even treated to a few classic jokes. I attempted a star trail picture, but again the visibility was poor and a full moon didn’t help much either. After dinner it was off to bed as we had to be up early for our balloon flight the next day.

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BLOG Pt3 : Can I have air with my dust please?

09/09/2013.

16 July 2013.

Sightseeing the most iconic and world famous spots in Tanzania, but also enduring a bone jarring and nerve racking ride through rain forests, a crater and a semi desert. And eating a LOT of dust.

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Lake Manyara Wildlife Lodge at sunrise

This day was the sting in the tail, all emanating from our late arrival at Lake Manyara the previous evening. We started early at 7am, with a relaxing (in hindsight too relaxed) drive through Lake Manyara National Park in overcast conditions. It was the first game we had seen on the trip so we stopped for everything. Baboons, birds, trees, zebras and even vultures. I’m not complaining, it WAS lovely. A large area of the park is covered by beautiful indigenous forests, teeming with life. We also saw miniature elephants, compared to our Kruger Park variant. A lot of jokes were made about catching one for a pet. The idea wasn’t that far-fetched. The park’s claim to fame though is its small population of tree climbing lions, but unfortunately we weren’t destined to see them this time around.

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Lake Manyara National Park

At 10am we made our way to Ngorongoro Crater. It’s a scenic 35km drive to the crater’s gate, all the time climbing the crater’s outside rim. We checked into the park and were then treated to a magnificent dense rain forest, all the while climbing higher. One drawback of the crater is that it’s a one way in and one way out, so for this journey we had to start at the eastern point of the crater, circumvent it on the southern rim and enter on the western side. We’d made our way through the crater and then exit on the eastern rim, where we’d again have to circumvent the southern rim and exit at the western side on the way to Ndutu. If that sounds laborious and unnecessary it’s because it IS. Keep in mind the crater is approximately 35 x 35km.

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Our route from Lake Manyara to The Gumeti river marked in red.

The road on the southern rim is narrow and winding with a lot of traffic, but this did not deter our racing driver and he threw caution to the wind. Apparently he was also in a hurry. What amazed me was how the landscape continuously changed. Suddenly we were at a look-out point on the south eastern rim. The vista seemed to pull you into the void, as the rim is about 2000ft above the caldera’s floor. Mind blown. The scene was so vast that it’s difficult to capture it on camera. The answer….panorama. While I took the 18 portrait photos for the dramatic panorama I wished that there weren’t other people or vehicles around me as the noise somewhat spoiled this awe-inspiring view. I also would have liked to stay longer, but alas we had to move on.

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Ngorongoro Crater.

A slight concern the previous day had now developed into full blown paranoia…my camera and lenses were at war with the dust and jolting vehicle. I wasn’t prepared for this onslaught and tried to improvise by covering my gear with the t-shirt I was wearing, but it still helped little for the vibration from the road. Lenses aren’t made for shaking. We were shaken and stirred to breaking point by the unrelenting road. A bit later we entered the crater at the western entry point. The Masai were everywhere. It made for good photos, but I couldn’t help to feel that their cattle were slowly choking the life out of the crater. Where we found them there wasn’t any grass left. Not even the roots. It is quite amazing to think though that they enter this crater which swarms with wildlife; lions and leopards included.

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Masai entering the crater over the western rim.

Soon we were at the crater floor and made our way first eastwards before turning north. There was wildlife everywhere. A sobering fact…no white rhinos are left in the crater. The black rhino population stood on 17 at the time of our visit. Zebra and wildebeest are as common as impala in the Kruger park and they’re tame. We had beautiful Secretary Bird sightings and saw a full black mane lion about 150 meters from the vehicle. Unfortunately he was just too far for a competition winning photo, as the wind was blowing through his impressive mane. On the northern side we came upon a pride of lions, probably 7 or 8 strong, including a male. I couldn’t help but think that these very same lions were probably more famous than Steve Irwin himself as there is so much footage on National Geographic and Discovery of the Ngorongoro lions. A sad fact is that these lions are a dying breed. Due to other lions not being able to enter the crater and introduce with them new genes, these crater lions are inadvertently in bred, which makes them susceptible to disease and death. An old lioness at one stage lay right beside and under our vehicle, and if I wanted to be lion lunch I could have patted her on the head. Nice little kitty.

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Wild, but not in the wilderness.

We exited the crater and then started to make the arduous and life threatening journey along the southern rim to the western exit. Maybe spurred on by the setting sun and the knowledge that we were still a long way from Ndutu, our driver took safari rally to the next level. On more than one occasion did he overtake on a blind height, into the sun and with zero visibility, due to the dust. The only comparison I can think of is to fly in clouds… in a canyon… Sooner, rather than later your luck will run out. Now it’s funny, but at the time our one companion (who seemed quite relaxed given the circumstances, likely due to his steady consumption of beer since a Caravan passed overhead at Lake Manyara in the morning) joked that the driver was counting buses…”If one passed it might be another good five minutes before the next one comes along”. A bit like Russian Roulette. And then the accident waiting to happen nearly happened…another overtaking manoeuver on a blind corner. To put it mildly, our cruiser was a cow off the blocks, so overtaking took some doing, even at 60 km/h. As we were creeping and scraping past another cruiser, a white (I’ll never forget the colour, because I could see the white of the oncoming driver’s bulging eyes) land rover careened down on us from the front. Three vehicles abreast would NOT fit on this road. We were in the middle. Even with the choice, our driver wouldn’t budge an inch, as he was a man who commanded respect on the road. On the left was a vertical drop-off, so the ditch it was then for the oncoming driver. The look on his passengers’ faces as we passed them was priceless. We’ve been hardened by an hour’s hair-raising and nerve shattering drive. They hadn’t.

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The view towards the west from Ngorongoro crater.

Off the crater the terrain became flat and open, devoid of trees. The road didn’t improve, in fact it only got worse. It’s hard to describe just how hard that drive was. I wish now that I took some video footage, but at the time I was only thinking of preservation. Due to the increased speed, dust seeped into the vehicle from every nook and cranny. At one stage it even looked as though it was being pumped into the vehicle, so furious was the infiltration. Closing the top and windows didn’t help, all we accomplished was suffocation by dust.


A good while later we then turned off from the main road towards Ndutu Lodge. Our tame racing driver now had the sweet smell of dinner in his nostrils and we started to fly on the narrow trail road. A unison shout from 6 exasperated passengers got him to stop for a pack of hyenas, with a pup observing us with curiosity from the safety of the den’s entrance. At last we made it to Ndutu Lodge as the sun was setting. We had been driving since 7am that morning. It had been one hell of a day.

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A rare and precious sighting.

As we opened the back door of our cruiser, we had to come to terms with the fact that our luggage looked worse for wear than us. The dust had even seeped into the bags and suitcases. That morning I had sported grey shorts and a white t-shirt. At Ndutu I resembled a carrot. The urge for a warm shower was overwhelming. But first I had to attend a quick briefing on the evening’s proceedings and capture a few shots of the setting sun behind Ndutu’s iconic acacias.

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Ndutu Lodge

Now, you might be forgiven for thinking this was a long rant, but it’s everything but. It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It was an incredible experience, with so many memorable moments, that in time it will certainly be my lasting memory of the whole trip.

As beautiful as the Ngorongoro crater was, I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by it. Yes, there were a lot of animals in it, but it felt somewhat over-commercialised and like an oversized natural zoo. It seemed to lack mystique. For me it comes over more special on television than in real life. Maybe it would be different if you could spend more time in the crater, follow the animals and experience their everyday struggles and routine.

The world was a much better place to be on after the shower. We convened for drinks before dinner and an urgent request was made for a charter plane to take us back to Arusha, once we’ve reached the furthest point on our journey into the Serengeti. There is only one road that leads from Arusha to the Grumeti river, where we were going, in the north-western Serengeti. This meant that we were supposed to drive back all the way from there to Arusha, in one soul and gut destroying journey of 8-9 hours. After this day’s experience no one was up for the challenge or torture.

When I planned the trip I identified the return journey day to be the toughest day of the whole trip, but I had no idea that the road was in such a state, neither was I warned. In either case, from a personal point of view, if my camera gear got damaged by the road it would cost me more than whatever the charter ticket was, so I too was definitely keen on rather flying back to Arusha. Some people might point out here that one’s life is also a consideration. Ndutu was kind enough to let me phone Karen from their office, and I instructed her to find us a quote to charter 24 passengers to Arusha. She was very understanding and got on it straight away. Bless her kind soul.

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Genet at Ndutu.

During a delicious and well prepared dinner (in the middle of literally nowhere!), 3 genets joined us in the dining hall. They are beautiful felines and it was great to see them up close and personal. The accommodation at Ndutu is relatively basic, but I think it suits the surroundings perfectly. I was slightly disappointed that we couldn’t stay there for longer. The migration’s calves are usually born at Ndutu, so at the right time of the year it’s the place to be in the Serengeti.

Sleep came instantly as my eyelids closed. The next day we would move northwards through the Serengeti to the Grumeti river.

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BLOG Pt2 : Buckle up; Serengeti, here we come!

02/09/2013.

I by accident omitted a map of our entire trip’s route in the previous blog. It’s a long way to Tanzania…

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Trip Route 13-22 July 2013 / 3062nm / 17h:33m / 1229 litres of Avgas


15/07/2013

Club Makokola (FWCM) -> Dodoma (HTDO)
488nm / 2h:50m / 204 litres of Avgas

Dodoma (HTDO) -> Arusha (HTAR)
176nm / 1h:00m / 66 litres of Avgas

I woke to the call of a fish eagle. A big day of travel lay ahead. We had to get from Club Makokola to Lake Manyara, Tanzania, before sunset. To put the distance and terrain in perspective…according to Google Maps, the shortest route by road to Arusha from Club Mak is 1790km and will take you 23 hours and 18 minutes!! We would lose an hour of daylight, due to Tanzania being GMT +3 hours, so time wasn’t on our side.

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V-Tail departing FWCM

After a quick breakfast we were off to the aircraft. We were third in line and opted to take-off on runway 17, just clearing the hill at the end of the runway before the blue lake opened up before us. Making a left turn we crossed the southern part of the lake and had a magnificent view of its vastness. We ascended to FL150, the highest I’ve ever flown unpressurised, and thus for that matter the highest I’ve been without supplementary oxygen. If you acclimatize properly, this height is normally not problematic for most humans, but it’s asking a bit too much if you’re coming from 1500ft ASL to 15000ft in just under 20 minutes. After a while I started to develop a small headache and opted for supplementary oxygen.

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Crossing the Mozambique / Tanzania border at 190kts GS

The earth steadily moved backwards beneath us and once more we welcomed a lovely 10 knot tail wind. We crossed the Tanzanian border and shortly thereafter descended to FL135 as my dad also didn’t feel too great due to the altitude. The landscape was constantly changing and at one stage we flew over lush forests covering rolling hills. Unfortunately the visibility was poor once more.


After 2 1/2 hours since take-off we started our descent to Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania. This was the airport I had the most concern with regarding the availability of Avgas, but my correspondence with them seemed to have paid off. The only snags we encountered were the custom official and then the flight plan “officer”. Refer to my rant in the previous BLOG.

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Dodoma fuel queue

The upshot of it all; we were losing time we didn’t have. After an hour and 30 minutes on the ground we were finally airborne again, but were jolted by the news of the lead aircraft having had an electrical failure. In a glass panel aircraft, definitely no fun and games. They diverted back to Dodoma but soon decided to rather head to Arusha, our intended destination, as there was a better chance of repairing the plane there instead of at Dodoma. They still had the unknown of whether their landing gear would protract correctly but they were luckily able to make it to Arusha and land the plane safely. A technician was flown out from SA to repair the fault and they continued the rest of the journey without a glitch.


Those who flew at FL105 and higher could see the top of Mount Kilimanjaro from very far out, but we opted for FL095, due to the leg only being an hour’s flying. Closer to Arusha we could see the pyramid shape of Mount Meru appear from the smog and haze. Mount Meru is an active stratovolcano located 70 kilometres (43 mi) west of Mount Kilimanjaro. At a height of 4,565 metres (14,977ft), it is visible from Mt Kilimanjaro on a clear day, and is the ninth or tenth highest mountain in Africa, dependent on definition. Much of its bulk was lost about 8,000 years ago due to an eastward volcanic blast, similar to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the U.S. state of Washington. Mount Meru most recently had a minor eruption in 1910. The several small cones and craters seen in the vicinity probably reflect numerous episodes of volcanic activity.

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HTAR / Arusha Airport

Arusha airport seems to be the home base for Cessna 208 Caravans, as there surely must have been 20 of them on the ramp, waiting for their next charter to the Serengeti, or Kilimanjaro International. Everyone unloaded and secured their airplanes. My safari agent, Karen, from African Eden Safaris had been waiting at the gate since 11am and it was great to finally meet her in person after our countless e-mail correspondence. British, enthusiastic, bubbly and passionate about her job, she quickly informed me of the planned proceedings for the day.

We were late. Due to us being held up at Dodoma everyone only arrived round 14:00 at Arusha. The plan was to still drive for two hours to Lake Manyara and visit Lake Manyara National Park before booking into Lake Manyara Wildlife Lodge. First order of business though was to buy snacks and drinks for our five day safari in Arusha. It was a mad scramble for the four Land Cruisers, which each seated 6 passengers plus the guide. Arusha is a bustling African city. We got our supplies from a local supermarket, who conveniently also sold liquor. Local beers were US$2, which all things considered were a bit on the pricey side. At last we got on the road, but now it was already 3pm and time was not on our side to make it to the park on time.

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The "Supermarket" in Arusha and our vehicles for the safari.

Our convoy again set off, west towards Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. But just as I was settling in to enjoy the scenery we pulled into a crafts store… I didn’t recall it being on the itinerary, and surely we were in a rush?? Under the guise of a restroom stop and enjoying our packed picnic box, it turned out these guys were also in on the deal as the parking area was packed with other tour operators’ land cruisers. After a 40 second tour of the shop I had seen and appreciated the incredible craftsmanship on display, but a few others were caught in the snare.

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A family of 15! Imagine the shipping cost involved to UPS this to the UK. Photo by Andre van Niekerk

If you can think of an object, or living creature, A-N-Y-THING your creative mind can conjure up, it’s there, carved out of wood. There are even whole 15 member families carved out of a single tree trunk! The shop ships these trunks of art worldwide. But it seemed my straying flock weren’t interested in wood, oh no, they only had eyes for the tanzanite.

I don’t have many complaints regarding our tour operator; I was even pleased for the lucky ladies who sported their blue stones that evening at dinner; but I was really irritated that the tour operator prioritised their kickback before our itinerary.

Anyway, at 4 pm we were finally on our way. Now there was NO chance in hell we would make it to the park on time. Resigned to this fact I settled in for the drive to Lake Manyara. I didn’t expect a four lane highway, but nothing could prepare us for the state of the road. It was being rebuilt, which meant there were large dirt sections that were extremely corrugated. We also had our first introduction to the Serengeti dust…a fine powder that has the ability to seep through cast iron steel. There were sections where the dust was so thick that visibility was barely 5 meters. Quite stressful on an extremely busy, single-lane main road.

We also quickly learned that our guide/driver had a peculiar affinity for this powder dust, as he steadfastly drove as close as he dared to the back of the vehicle in front of us. This little habit of his would be the bane of our existence for the next four days.

At sunset we finally arrived at our lodge. The magnificent panoramic view it has over Lake Manyara would have to wait until the next morning. Wood features prominently in Tanzanian architecture and interior design and it showed at the lodge. It had been a long day and after a warm shower and hearty dinner it was time for bed. The next day we would have to fit Lake Manyara National Park into the schedule as we did after all pay for it in the package. Thereafter we’d climb to the Ngorongoro Crater and then head west towards Ndutu Lodge, located at the southern end of the Serengeti.

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BLOG : Houston, We’ve Got Lift Off!

24/08/2013.

It’s been 4 weeks since my return from an epic 10 day trip to Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. I thought it a good idea to wait a while before attempting to relay the experience to you, because I’m prone to over dramatize such life changing events.

The bad news though for you, dear reader, is that the aforementioned 4 weeks actually inflated my memory with appreciation, awe and wonder! It all started 10 months ago as an idea, no, rather a dream; to fly privately to the Serengeti in Tanzania.

So the planning started. Here was the conundrum though…you need to book the accommodation well in advance, as the respective destinations are very popular, but you also need to know how many guests you will book the places for. You can’t get people to commit unless they know where they will stay and how much it will cost them, and the respective accommodations on the other hand want a firm booking, and the exact number of guests, with the deposit in an unreasonably short time.

The third and most difficult obstacle is the itinerary. The plan was to stop over in Malawi (2 days at Club Makokola) en route to Tanzania (6 days), do the Serengeti safari and then return via Zambia (2 days). We also had to avoid flying on Sundays as all the flying related costs then normally double in Africa. Our intended destination in Zambia, Royal Zambezi Lodge, only had space available on two weekends in July (the month we targeted due to it being the best weather month for flying in Tanzania), so I had to try and build the safari and Club Makokola around those dates. Keep in mind that this was originally for 18 guests!!

Before I drift off too much and write you to sleep, to make a long story short, I took a chance, identified the week which would fit all the above criteria and made a booking for 18 guests. With the itinerary and costs in hand, invitations were e-mailed to pilots and friends who had done trips before with my dad. I was overwhelmed and surprised by the enthusiasm and interest. 28 people wanted in! 24 was all that could fit. We were going to Tanzania in 9 private aircraft. The dream was now well on its way to reality.

For the next 8 months there was a lot to organise, especially making sure that Avgas fuel was available at all our stops, as well as the nitty-gritty, but looking back, the crux of the trip came to be in those first two weeks of November 2012. Hadn’t the guests responded as fast as they did and entrusted me with their money and planning, nothing would have had come of it and the whole thing would today still be just a dream. To them all I send out a sincere THANK YOU.

13-14/07/2013 / Heading : North.

Tweefontein farm –> Polokwane 152nm / 0h:54min / 62 litres
Polokwane –> Club Makokola 656nm / 3h:54min / 258 litres

It’s a chilly winters morning on the Highveld. All things considered I didn’t sleep too badly. A quick look out the window… NO mist!! It’s a go! After 9 months of planning, over 500 emails and many calls to friendly, but undecipherable accents on the other end of the line (and Africa!) the day had finally come. We were to embark on a 6000km journey in a 300hp single engine piston aircraft; cross over 6 countries and all but reach the equator. A big relief was that for this trip we were one pax lighter than a year ago when we were 3 up to Zambia. Light aircraft owners don’t mind passengers, but they DO mind weight (Disclaimer : I’m not alluding that the spoken passenger was heavy set, anything but). The hour flight to Polokwane was uneventful and after re-fuelling and clearing customs we were up in the air again for the longest leg of the trip… 3h:54m to Club Makokola in Malawi. Soon we crossed the Limpopo river and then not long afterwards encountered the beautiful Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. Spying on uncle Bob’s territory from 13500ft ASL I couldn’t help but notice that the landscape looked so fertile and peaceful, yet the actions of a mad despot made the country uninhabitable for thousands of ordinary Zimbabweans.

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Spying on Uncle Bob's paradise.

Apart from the majestic Zambezi river, north western Mozambique came and went and then we entered Malawi. Our quick progress was made possible by a healthy 10-15 knot tail wind…heaven sent on a long leg such as this! There was a bit of cloud lurking about and soon we dived through a little gap to get below them. The approach into Club Makokola was flanked by Lake Malombe to the right, and Lake Malawi shimmered in the mid-day sun, dead ahead. Club Mak has a 1km dirt runway adjacent to the resort. The approach was spectacular and one I’ll always remember.


Fuel here comes currently at the hefty price tag of US$3/litre!! At R10/US$, 280 litres of Avgas sets you back R8400!!!! 280 litres of Avgas will fly you for more or less 4 hours 45 minutes, or +-1400km in a Beechcraft Bonanza. It works out at approximately R6/kilometre… So, it turns out flying your own private plane half way across the continent is quite a lot more expensive than going by commercial jet, but rest assured, it’s also a LOT more fun, and you see the world from 20 000ft closer. You’re also guaranteed a window seat, you have ample leg room and you can listen in on the chat channel to what each of the other 8 aircraft’s crews get up to (a classic on this trip was a certain pilot, I won’t mention names, asking how he should operate his oxygen tank…!!!!).

Anyway, after that little detour…Club Mak has the fabulous arrangement of being able to process customs at their airfield. In Africa this is a much preferred arrangement as the worst part of any flying trip is the red tape, taxes and bribes at airports. To give you an idea, the general fees you’d normally pay for a private flight landing at an African airport are : navigation fees, approach fees, landing fees, parking fees if you stay over, passenger tax or airport service charges. I’m amazed they haven’t invented the Taxiing fee. Or the Start-up fee. These fees exclude flight clearances for each country; this have to be obtained before your journey commences. Not so long ago, 1988 to be precise, my dad flew our family to Zimbabwe without needing a clearance. If that still applied today, our 9 aircraft fleet would have saved R32 785, for flight clearances alone!!

Then you sometimes also have to deal with incompetent officials who can’t type (the flight plan “officer” at Dodoma), or those who think they can invent an absolutely essential document that no one has ever heard of (Dodoma customs “chancer”). There are only so many hours of daylight, so when 9 aircraft gets held up at an airport due to unforeseen complications or disputes, then tempers get frayed and emotions boil over. For some reason African countries see general aviation as a cash cow and they sadly haven’t woken up to the fact that a happy tourist might inspire 10 more to visit their country and thus increase tourism and income.

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The Club Mak way.

That’s my complaining done. From here onwards it’s all good news. Club Mak (www.clubmak.com) can be compared to an Indian Ocean tropical island, on mainland Africa. It’s situated close to Mangochi, on the south western bank of Lake Malawi. It’s run by an Italian, Benedetto Calvani, who I must jealously admit, is somewhat living the dream.

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At the beach, Club Mak, Lake Malawi.

Beforehand I was afraid whether the resort would live up to their brochure and website, but having been there I can safely say it surpassed my expectations. The bungalows are spacious and comfortable, unpretentious and situated beneath beautiful trees. The food is excellent and house drinks were included in our deal. Benedetto also gave us a generous discount per person for the two days which made the deal a whole lot sweeter. I wish Club Mak all the best, as they are on a very secluded spot (in terms of world travel), but I’m sure their runway helps massively for lighter planes to charter tourists from Blantyre. I could easily stay there for a week.

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Club Mak sunrise.

The first afternoon six of us decided to visit a small island 6 kilometres from the shore, to have a look at its dense population of fish eagles and to also snorkel. I was surprised by the size of the swell in the lake as there wasn’t much wind, but I can imagine that on a windy day things could get very unpleasant deeper into the lake. The promise of seeing an abundance of fish eagles was fulfilled and to boot we saw one make a catch 50 metres from our boat. Even in mid-winter the water of lake Malawi is surprisingly warm. Our skipper threw bread crumbs into the water and soon a school of small fish (including Cichlids) came to feed. It was a thoroughly enjoyable snorkelling experience. The water was crystal clear. Where we dove the water was probably 4 metres deep. The lake bed is strewn with large to room sized boulders. It’s just a surreal world to immerse yourself in.

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Lake Malawi, ocean-like.

Soon we had to return to Club Mak as dusk was upon us. The return journey was rough, but it was more than compensated for by an dramatic sunset; the crimson sun, framed by clouds and sinking fast behind the majestic mountains hugging Lake Malawi’s western shore.

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Sunset, Lake Malawi.

The evening soon changed into a faster gear as all local drinks were on the house. The local gin and tonic seemed to be a favourite amongst the guests and soon everyone was in high spirits. (Excuse me, no pun intended). Before dinner I set up my camera for a star trail image over the lake. I imagined that the stars would dazzle on this trip, but sadly it wasn’t the case. Due to locals starting fires all over southern Africa during winter, there is a constant haze which makes visibility poor, even for flying during daytime.

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Under the influence. Club Mak.

Dinner was excellent as we were treated to local fish from the lake as well as pork, chicken and beef. As everyone headed for bed afterwards I experimented with more night photography on the beach, but by now the double gins had caught up with me and at midnight I called it quits.

The next morning my gin exuberance the previous night was rewarded with a slightly uncomfortable headache. The upside of it all? I was up at dawn to see a stunning African sunrise. Instead of roosters announcing the start of a new day fish eagles were going off left right and centre. The rest of the morning was a lazy affair. One pilot decided to take his Cessna 210 for a sight-seeing trip along the shoreline. He had an even brighter idea to attach his GoPro to the left wing. Result…breathtaking footage. Those GoPro stickers must be ultra-strong to withstand wind speeds of up to 330km/h. If you’re a pilot and you want to document your flights or the landscapes you see on your flights, this is the way to go. The quality is superb. That wide angle lens works a charm. It seems though that GoPro still need some refining done on the remote, as it doesn’t always start or stop recording when you want it to. Or maybe the operators of the camera aren’t as clever as they make out to be…

That afternoon 8 of us decided to set off on a sightseeing trip to Cape Maclear. It’s about an hour’s drive north from Club Mak. We hired a taxi, stocked the cooler and were off just after late lunch. Our driver didn’t understand a word of English, but he seemed to know where he was going so all was well. The scenery was splendid… dense bush veld interspersed with massive Baobabs and 300 foot high hills.

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Cape Maclear.

I had no idea of what to expect at Cape Maclear. What revealed itself was a settlement of stark contrasts. You enter through the locals’ suburb, which is very shack-like, but yet different from the South African version. It doesn’t feel unsafe or threatening and it’s also cleaner. The town fronts on the lake’s beach, so the locals make their living from fishing. At the end of the road the holiday section of Cape Maclear starts. Idyllic doesn’t even start to describe it. The only way I can think of is if there was an African version of the movie, The Beach.

We got back at Club Mak around dinner time and were soon in bed to rest for the next day’s travel to Arusha in Tanzania. A fantastic start to the trip then.

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