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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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  • turbon B36T

    Dankie Eksteen…oulike weergawe! Net jammer die AMO het vergeet om die suurstofbottels vol te maak,dan sou die vlieenier nie so gesukkel het nie!

  • Dis reg oom Anton. Dit het egter vir ‘n ligte oomblik gesorg…dankie!