This is the first part of our East Africa trip, travelling from Pretoria, South Africa to Zanzibar, Tanzania along the Mozambique Indian Ocean Coast to Tanzania. We were a group of friends flying in four Cessna 182 and 206 airplanes.
We arrived to Opikapi Guest House in Pretoria after a 9-hour flight from Istanbul. There isn’t much to see in Pretoria, but we still did a half day guided tour, visiting the center, Voortrekker monument, Nelson Mandela statute and Kruger house museum. The following day it was time to meet our airplanes. Marcus from Bushpilot Adventures proposed that I take a Cessna 206, instead of 182 originally planned and I agreed, but I forgot that a 206 has no door on the co-pilot side and the window doesn’t open. There is a door on the pilot side on the left and a big one on the right side in the back for passengers. Ania didn’t like that arrangement at all, so I ended flying the whole trip from the right seat.
A test flight didn’t start well. Unlike smaller 172 or 182, it is pretty much impossible to reach the fuel cap without climbing on the wing, so Marcus checked the fuel. He is the owner of Bushpilot Adventures from whom we rented the airplanes. Right after the takeoff we had a plume of avgas streaming from the left wing and we returned immediately back for landing. Airport truck found the missing cap on the runway and the second pattern was uneventful, except this being my very first landing in a 206, I managed to pancake it on the runway like a pre-solo student, which was made worse by Chris, who went with us for a ride watching it all from the back seat. A timeless lesson out of that: when you have two pilots, you have to be twice as vigilant, I was a PIC and I should have checked that the fuel cap was secure.
Friday morning was the day of departure, we loaded all our bags into the airplane – a 206 is well known for its load carrying capabilities and launched from Wonderboom to Kruger. It was a good thing that we were departing and returning to FAWB, because I was only understanding half what the controllers were saying, between unfamiliar phraseology and strong South African accent, I would have made a fool of myself if we were to fly there more. It was a short, less than two hours flight to Kruger and I decided to climb to 7,500 to see how the airplane flies – I had an impression it took forever to get there, which will make it interesting when taking off from Ngorongoro at that altitude. Strong crosswinds in Kruger made a landing in a still unfamiliar airplane somewhat interesting, but we survived. The following leg to Maputo was even shorter, landing was already decent and we were in Mozambique.
As a general rule, more miserable a country is, higher the hurdles at the border and Mozambique is not an exception. We didn’t have a visa and had to wait two hours in line to get one on arrival. While fuming about the delay, I recalled that I did have to wait two hours at immigration arriving to San Francisco once, so I guess this can happen anywhere. We were hoping to see the city, but the delay and frustration made us stay in the hotel for an early dinner – after mandatory gin and tonic in the bar of course. The “Grand Dame” of Africa, as the Polana Serena Hotel is widely known, is a must-see historical landmark in Maputo. The elegance and splendor of its façade are the living memory of bygone colonial times.
On Saturday morning, we returned to the airport to find out that the fees we paid the previous day went directly to the pocket of the guy who was doing our paperwork and that we had to pay them again. It was the only real cheat on that trip, but it only made the bad taste for Maputo worse. We launched for a 3.5 hours flight to Vilankulo along the coast. When departing, Maputo tower advised all of us individually and solemnly to “avoid overflying the military base”, to which all four pilots replied without hesitation “roger, we will stay clear”. When I asked after we arrived, none of us had a slightest idea where the “military base” was.
The flight was beautiful, the coast amazing, we stayed at 1,500 all the way while the others went a bit higher in search for favorable winds. We landed in Vilankulo, took fuel, paid fees and launched for Bazaruto Island. Well, some of us actually did. Two airplanes were already taxing to the runway when I tried to start the engine and heard only a faint click when I turned the key. That was really an unpleasant surprise. Chris stayed with us while I called Marcus at Bushpilot Adventures for help.
While he was conferring with mechanics, we moved one of our suitcases to Chris 182, with the idea that they will fly to Indigo Bay, Bazaruto, about 10 minutes flight and come back to pick us up after unloading the airplane there. In the meantime, Marcus called back and asked that I remove the cowl and locate the starter. I did that and he said to tap lightly on the solenoid and harder on the starter, three times with a wrench. Seriously? You know when the IT support asks you “sir, please make sure your computer is plugged in” as the first step in debugging, I felt the same, but I obliged and tapped three times each. Back to the cabin, master on, turn the key and …. the prop turns. Unbelievable, this is African black magic, even more impressive because done remotely. I put the cowl back, we hop into the airplane, I ask Ania to cross her fingers, master on, fuel pump on to prime and off, turn the key and the engine starts. We fly to Bazaruto, land by huge sand dunes advancing onto the island from the ocean side and race to the bar for a well-deserved gin and tonic.
Anantara is a luxury resort located on Bazaruto Island, about 10 nm offshore, with a staff attentive to any guest requests and is all inclusive – including the gin and tonic. Staff welcomed us at the airport dancing and singing local songs. We spent the next day relaxing at the resort and recovering from the previous day adventures. We also went on a tour of the island, searching for and finding flamingos, but they were too far for taking good pictures.
All too quickly it was time to depart, our original plan was to refuel in Quelimane, about half way to our next stop, but Quelimane had no fuel, we had to refuel in Beira, which still allowed us to fly to Lumbo, the airport of our next stop at Isla de Mozambique and continue to Pemba. It was only an hour to Beira, engine started fine at Indigo Bay, so we thought we were in good shape. They did have fuel in Beira, but when I turned the key, I was met with the same clicking sound as before. Voltage went to zero, we had a short somewhere in the starter. This time, no amount of tapping on various components made a difference. Calling back Marcus, conference with mechanics, they suggested turning the prop counter-clockwise, but still no luck. We were getting ready to hand-prop the airplane, but decided to check it one last time and the prop turned. We now had a strong suspicion this was heat related – about an hour after we removed the cowl and the starter cooled off, the short disappeared. Not exactly comforting, but better than the alternative. Cowl back on, engine starts and we launched for Lumbo.
Lumbo is an uncontrolled field and I got an impression that nobody landed there yet in this century. We had a local school running over to see four little airplanes with eight crazy white people and few dozen suitcases pack into Coral Lodge van. In the meantime, we negotiated with a local policeman a fee to guard the airplanes, it started at $100/airplane for two nights, but we couldn’t reach an agreement. In the end, we paid half of it, after the intervention of the hotel manager. We drove through a narrow bridge from mainland to the Isla de Mozambique, but we couldn’t see where the hotel could possibly be. Turned out we had to jump (literally, from the beach) onto a boat and now it started to rain and it was dark. We arrived soaked and cold to the hotel for another mandatory gin and tonic.
Next day we are greeted by scattered clouds, but the sun soon punched through. It was low tide and we walked along the beach and on sandbars, I took the opportunity to test fly my drone, annoying our neighbors. I generally don’t like lobsters, but this was the only choice for dinner and it was divine. Coral Lodge is a wonderful hotel, very remote, but definitely worth a visit. We took a boat back to the island and went for a short tour, there was a local museum with interesting artifacts and no tourists. Ilha de Mocambique used to be the capital of the country a while back, but now is very remote and very few people manage to get there. These days it is a treat to see an interesting and empty museum. The only way in an out of the island, other than a boat is by a single lane bridge. This makes it for interesting situations when two cars drive from opposite directions.
It was Tuesday evening, time to leave Wednesday in the morning and we learned there was no fuel in Pemba. Nacala never had it, our only option was Nampula, about 80 miles inland, not exactly in our way, but there was no other choice. We still didn’t have permits to fly into Tanzania, but Marcus is told that all was arranged, they were only waiting for a Very Important Person to sign them off. The VIP was supposed be in the office in the morning to sign it. The fuel in Nampula was supposed to show up in the evening and be ready for us in the morning. Together with our ongoing starter problems, we seemed to be in great shape for pressing into Tanzania. In the morning we learned that fuel did show up and the VIP also, so we left the hotel and drove to the Lumbo airport. Our airplane started fine, but Chris reported a backfire during the takeoff roll. He aborted and repeated the runup, which was fine, so we all flew to Nampula. Turns out the fuel was there, but while the VIP did sign off our permits into Tanzania, their “IT system is down” and they couldn’t generate them.
Remember what I said about poor countries and their bureaucracy? Tanzania is richer than Mozambique, but they are even more backward for supporting general aviation. The said permits have exactly zero utility, Marcus started to work on them weeks earlier and these morons were stringing him until the last day, just to find out they weren’t even able to run their computers. In the meantime, we went through the usual circus of paperwork in Nampula, with landing fees, security fees, filing flight plans, all the time hoping that permits would come through. We couldn’t wait too long, because we could only fly during the day and it was 4.5 hours flight to Zanzibar – we needed to arrive before dark. Finally, we decided to launch without permits. We had about an hour flight to Pemba, if the permits come through, Marcus would send them to our satellite text messengers, if not we would divert to Pemba. Talk about “Just in Time” concept.
With all this commotion, I didn’t even think about my starter. It didn’t work when I tried right after refueling, but I hoped that it would work when the engine cooled off and indeed it did. That’s when Chris radioed out that he had a magneto failure and shut down the engine. We checked it again and yes, no RPM drop on the right magneto and engine dies on the left. This was now looking pretty bleak. Bad starter, bad magneto, no flight permits and in Nampula, Mozambique. We looked around and there was a hangar of Ambassador Aviation – it is a charter and humanitarian air charter company and they have maintenance. Dave, a pilot and a mechanic graciously put the 182 in a hangar, disassembled the magneto and confirmed it was dead. While they fly a fleet of Caravans and 206s, they use Bendix, not Slick mags and he couldn’t help. We called Marcus in Pretoria, who in the meantime already found a starter to tell him that he needed to also find a magneto. It was now clear that we were stuck in Nampula, the question was only for how long. For us to depart the next day, the following had to happen:
- Marcus needed to find a magneto and they are not manufactured anymore.
- He had to find a flight bringing him from Pretoria to Nampula latest by 9 am.
- Dave had to be able to replace and time the mag and replace the starter by noon.
- We had to redo the paperwork for international departure from Nampula.
- Geniuses in Dar-el-Salaam needed to issue the all-important permits.
It all looked like a piece of cake. We found a hotel in Nampula and the gloom factor deepened when we found out there was no bar and no alcohol. We were in Muslim country. Surprisingly, the hotel had an Indian chef who prepared great food and we had curry with mineral water and Coke Zero.
We woke up Thursday morning and drove back to the airport – in fact Dave’s friend offered us a ride in both directions in his pickup truck. He refused any payment – today I help you, tomorrow you will help somebody else. In the meantime, we learned that Marcus was on a flight landing in Nampula at 8:10 am, with magnetos and starter. He flew to Maputo the day before late evening after “begging” airline officials to let him check in the airplane parts. The said begging included a charitable donation to official causes. Permits arrived and if only we could replace the parts in time, we might be on our way after all. This indeed what happened, Marcus replaced the starter and the solenoid, while Dave worked on the magneto and we were able to launch at noon for our 4.5 hours flight to Zanzibar. We landed at 5:30 local time, exhausted but happy to be out of Mozambique and with working airplanes.