From High Up

Flying and Travels

Month: August 2019

Great Apes in Uganda and Tanzania

This is the third part of our trip, we flew from South Africa, through Mozambique to Zanzibar and traversed Tanzania East to West. This part is about close encounters with mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, also flying without fuel cap and fuel exhaustion. We were a group of friends flying in four Cessna 182 and 206 airplanes.

We left Mbali Mbali Soroi lodge when it was still dark and witnessed sunrise while driving to the Seronera airstrip.

Serengeti at sunrise

After a short flight Mwanza, refueling, customs and immigration, this time without taking suitcases out of airplanes, we launched for Kisoro in Uganda. There are quite high mountains on the direct line, up to 14,000 feet and we decided to fly around them to the North, which was a fortunate decision, because about half an hour after departure we got into an area of low ceilings and rain with reduced visibility. Let’s just say it was marginal VFR, although I usually call something like that “African VFR”. At one point we seriously considered turning around, but Chris who was flying first called with an update that weather was improving further north and we continued.

Flight from Mwanza to Kisor

The solid red you see above, this is terrain higher than 7,000 feet. The African VFR happened about half way, so over relatively low terrain.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Flying over Bwindi Impenetrable Park we could see the mountains we were to explore the next day. Landing in Kisoro was refreshingly simple, there was an immigration officer already waiting for us, he efficiently stamped our passport, we didn’t have to pay anything extra in spite of the fact that Kisoro is definitely not an Airport of Entry. There was no customs, so nobody checked our luggage. We boarded vans for an hour ride to Mutanda Lake Resort.

Lake Mutanda

Mutanda Lake is beautiful, with little islands sparkling in water and mountains around. The resort not so much, it is one of those places where internet photos are heavily photo-shopped. The next day we drove another hour to enter the park for the gorilla trekking. After a briefing about what to do when in close proximity to gorillas, we got an option to hire porters. I had just a backpack, so we thought one porter would be sufficient, but we hired two to support the village. This turned out to be the best decision of the day. The trek involved descending and climbing over very steep slopes in the jungle, lasted six hours and at the end, we were all beyond exhausted.

This snapshot from iPhone Health app says it all. Porters helped us not only with the backpack, but by literally pulling us uphill and holding us during the descents. If you ever do this trek, make sure you have one porter per person. We did manage though to get very close to the apes, within 3-5 feet and we could observe them for about an hour. They didn’t pay much attention to us and kept eating leaves. The alpha-male silverback was impressively large, even when seated. The effort spent to get that close to them made the whole experience even more precious.

Close encounter – no zoom used in with this photo

We could barely walk next day, I was feeling muscles I didn’t even know I had, descending steep inclines makes you more sore next day than climbing, but we boarded the van again for a ride back to Kisoro airstrip. This time, customs was there and insisted on inspecting every piece of luggage, which was really driving me nuts. The field is at 6,200 feet and has a terrain rising to the south. We had between 10 and 15 knots of wind coming from the south, so we decided to takeoff in that direction, which turned out to be somewhat challenging. At Vx, I had an impression that the airplane is not climbing and that we will settle in the trees. Finally, we cleared the hills and flew back over the lake for some last-minute pictures. In hindsight, it would have been preferable to take off with tailwind. The flight to Kigali, capital of Rwanda was beautiful, in spite of strong headwinds.

Refueling from drums in Kigali

On arrival the approach controller was querying us in flight about our permit numbers, upset that we were coming from Kisoro and not from Mwanza, as if that was important, told us first to turn to a heading which would send us into a hill (unable), then told us to fly a DME arc (unable, we were VFR), then told us to hold and finally switched us to tower, who cleared Robert to land while an airliner was taxing onto the runway for takeoff in the opposite direction. Clearly, Kigali is not used to VFR and light airplanes and indeed they have no avgas. We refueled from drums, which we had shipped there ahead of time and this is when I found that my left wing fuel cap was gone, again.

Remember departure from Wonderboom and losing the same fuel cap? I will never know if I was distracted and angry by the ridiculous luggage inspection in Kisoro and didn’t properly secure the cap after checking fuel level or if the cap had a problem, since it was the same one we lost in FAWB. I decided to turn this into a positive event, by promising myself I will never allow myself to become excited and emotional prior to takeoff. A mental trick I use now is to visualize that fuel cap whenever I feel I might lose focus. Lack of fuel cap presented us with two problems. How to secure the left tank and how to get from Kigali to Tabora, our next refueling point? We were supposed to fly to Kigoma (180 nm), then to Mahale (84 nm) and only then to Tabora (194 nm), total distance of 460 nm with three takeoffs, too far on only the right tank.

Universal airplane repair tools

We resolved the first issue by the universal airplane repair tool: duct tape. While I wasn’t sure it would actually prevent fuel from leaking, there was only about 8 gallons left in the left tank and I was planning to only use the right tank. As to the second issue, when we were in Mwanza, we applied another universal rule for flying in Africa: when you see fuel, you take fuel and we filled four 20 liters jerrycans, just in case, without knowing it would become so useful so quickly. Twenty gallons in jerrycans combined with forty gallons in the right tank gave me an endurance of five hours, which was cutting it a bit too close with less than 30 minutes reserve. That problem was in turn resolved by stopping at a gas station in Kigoma and filling another twenty liter jerrycan with mogas. The 206 had a STC for mogas, but Marcus warned us to use the minimum necessary – in this case, we were only mixing 8 gallons of mogas with 40 gallons of avgas so I felt this was reasonable.

The flight from Kigali to Kigoma made us overfly Burundi. While we had overfly permits, we never managed to talk to Bujumbura Approach. Half over the country is covered by a TMA, so it was theoretically required, although it didn’t bother me at all we couldn’t. When arriving to Kigoma, I was trying to raise Kigoma tower on the radio. After landing, somebody finally replied asking why we didn’t call tower. I said we did, many times, on 118.4, frequency listed on Skydemon and Jeppesen charts, to which he replied “ah yes, we recently changed it 133.5”. Flying in Africa.

We stayed one night in Kigoma Hilltop Hotel, a comfortable but uninspiring hotel on the shore of Lake Tanganyika and after another security checks, launched for Mahale, one of the most stunning parks in Tanzania, with sand beaches, behind which rises a range of imposing mountains, clad in verdant tropical vegetation.

Resting and thinking

Mahale National Park is home to around 1,000 chimpanzees. Most significantly, one group of Mahale chimps – the Mimikire clan – has been habituated by researchers since 1965. Currently led by an impressive alpha male, Alofu, the M-group, as they are commonly known, has around 56 chimps. They go where they want and when they want but are relaxed near people, so it’s possible to track and observe them from very close quarters. For the good of the chimps’ health, all human visitors on chimpanzee safaris are required to wear surgical masks.

DCIM\100MEDIA\DJI_0234.JPG

We stayed in Mbali Mbali Mahale, an idyllic lodge with luxurious bungalows, great food and very attentive staff. The next day we went to see the chimpanzees and I could still feel my legs after the gorilla visit. This was however incomparably less strenuous and we got chimpanzees passing couple of feet from us – not paying much attention to what we were doing, which was really just taking as many pictures as possible. In the afternoon, part of the group went for fishing and caught our dinner, but we stayed at the lodge, just relaxing.

Our last day started very early, with breakfast at 6 am and departure from the hotel at 7 am for 1.5 hour boat ride to the airstrip and 2 hours flight to Tabora. My fuel consumption was as planned and we arrived with comfortable margin. This time, I filled both tanks, but failed to follow the universal Africa fuel rule: when you see fuel, you take fuel – we didn’t fill the jerrycans. I put a little square of hard plastic made from plastic water bottle over the opening in an attempt to isolate the duct tape from the fuel and covered it with tape. We went thru usual hassles of immigration, customs, paying the fees and filing the flight plans and launched for the 4 hours flight to Mombasa. I was the first and immediately after the takeoff we noticed fuel streaming from the left tank.

Applying duct tape with staff watching and the end result
Aircraft “inspection”

I returned back to the airport and we attempted to put more duct tape over the wing. When satisfied with the result, we wanted to launch again, but the whole airport staff and a fire truck was there – the airport manager said he couldn’t let me go because the airplane was not safe. What followed was a ten minutes discussion, we were explaining that a Cessna 206 has two fuel selector position, left and right and even if we lost all fuel from the left tank, we still had enough to fly to our alternate, Arusha. Finally, he made me write and sign a release and agreed to let us go.

We couldn’t see fuel streaming on the second takeoff, so I hoped the tape would hold and it seemed it did for a while. Fuel gauge on the left tank was moving towards zero too fast, but then it stopped moving at a quarter tank. I set myself a limit – I was flying on the left tank and if I could delay switching to the right tank until 300 nm from the destination (about 3 hours with headwind we had), I would continue to Mombasa, otherwise I would divert to Arusha. Things were going on nicely, but then at 330 miles, engine stopped. That’s always an unpleasant event, but particularly when you are over middle of Tanzania with nothing but low brush below – lions and leopards are much less cute when observed from a crashed airplane. I was obviously spring-loaded for that situation, immediately switched to the right tank, fuel pump, and the engine restarted few very long seconds later. I now had dilemma – continue to the destination and land with couple gallons of fuel or divert to Arusha. In any normal country, it would be a simple call, but in Tanzania we already exited the country, Arusha is a domestic-only airport and I recalled experience of my friend John who declared emergency over Medellin, Colombia and was stuck there for four days resolving paperwork. I thought about it for couple of minutes, redid fuel calculations and announced on our air-to-air frequency that we were diverting to Arusha. My calculations showed that if reduce power and lean brutally, I most likely would made it to Mombasa, but with less than half an hour reserve and “most likely” together with “less than half an hour reserves” didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t have fuel totalizer. fuel flow indication was an analog gauge and I wasn’t 100% sure how accurate it was. I recalled another experience in Bogota, Colombia when I broke my one hour fuel reserve landing with 45 minutes and how I promised myself I would never do it again. Well, here I was again, what’s the point of making yourself promises and setting up limits before departure if you are not prepared to respect them?

All the others continued to Mombasa, they couldn’t help us in Arusha and in fact would have made the situation worse by having four, instead of one aircraft in an irregular situation. Approaching Arusha, I called Kilimanjaro Approach and explained that I had a fuel leak, I was diverting to Arusha to make a technical stop. After being cleared to land, we taxied to fuel and took 42 liters (11 gallons) into the right tank. I most likely would have made it to Mombasa, but most likely was not good enough. I went to the tower and explained the situation there, hoping they would let me leave on my existing flight plan. After few phone calls it became clear that they had no clue what to do with me, so finally they found a solution allowing them to get rid of the problem altogether. “This is a domestic airport, you are flying to Kenya, you need to receive the clearance from Kilimanjaro Approach”. Whatever was getting me back in the air was fine by me, so we back-taxied and took off. We called Kili Approach, who thought we were coming for landing at Kilimanjaro International, but I explained we were on the fight plan to Mombasa and they just requested we stayed at or below 5,500 when in the control zone.

When we left the CTR and I switched the frequency, we knew we were going to sleep in Mombasa that night. Soon we entered Kenya airspace and proceeded to the destination. The 30 minutes turnaround in Arusha will most likely remain a record hard to beat for years to come.

It was hard to believe this trip was now over. We flew 3,625 nautical miles in 34.4 hours Hobbs, landed at 19 airports in 6 countries and brought back 120 GBytes of pictures and videos. You can see the map on the right in more details on Google Maps.

Tanzania East to West

This is the second part of our East Africa trip, after flying from South Africa through Mozambique, we now traversed Tanzania from Zanzibar to Lake Victoria. We were a group of friends flying in Cessna 182 and 206 aircrafts.

Dar es Salaam TMA (terminal control area) extends 100 nm around the city, from 1,500 AGL to FL245. TMA is controlled airspace and you should theoretically be in contact with ATC to enter it. Well, good luck raising anybody more than 20 nm from Dar. The CTR (control zone) extends 15 nm from the airport and it is generally frowned, even in Africa, to fly there without clearance. I finally managed to talk to a controller, who tried to send me 20 miles east of the airport, which would 10 miles offshore. After a bit of negotiation, we got that down to 10 nm, which I arbitrarily reduced to 8, on account of unreliable navigation instruments. We still had to fly over water, the island of Zanzibar is 18 nm from the shore, but at least we didn’t spend more time than the minimum necessary. That big red circle on the left side, that’s a prohibited area HTP6(E). We didn’t need to fly through it, but I wouldn’t think twice about it if I had to.

Zanzibar is an interesting place. It used to be an independent country, before it merged with Tanganyika to form Tanzania. There are still very strong feelings on the island against that union, as explained to us by a guide who took us on the walking tour of the Stone Town. It is indeed a mélange, Arab, Black, European, Indian all mix together. The city is falling apart, but you see some nice renovated building and above all, you see a peaceful coexistence of these many different cultures and religions. We stayed at Zanzibar Serena hotel, a colonial building from the time gone, but well preserved. We went to Africa House for sunset cocktails and walked the town narrow street avoiding motorcycles and bicycles. One day was not enough to get a real feeling of the town.

As much as we were happy to arrive to Zanzibar after our magneto and starter problems in Mozambique, departure was a different story. It took over two hours and literally tons of money to pay for the required permits and file flight plan. Tanzania general aviation infrastructure is abysmal, you pay exorbitant fees in cash, because the credit card machines are usually broken, it takes hours to process, computers are down, employees barely move, in summary it is an aviation hell. We finally left to fly towards Moshi and Arusha to see Mount Kilimanjaro, but the visibility was about ten miles and we could hardly see anything. Half way through, we took a decision to fly direct to our destination, Ngorongoro Crater with an airstrip that is at 7,800 feet on the rim of the crater. I cajoled our 206 to climb to 8,000 and later to 9,000, which she did very reluctantly. The approach and landing were spectacular, with the crater caldera below us at 5,000 feet.

Ngorongoro Crater Takeoff
View from the hotel on the caldera and the crater rim

Ngorongoro Serena lodge is about 10 minutes from the airstrip. The hotel has amazing views on the crater, rooms are functional, each with tiny private balcony and the restaurant and bar remind a mountain resort. The next day we boarded safari cars for a game drive in the crater. It is hard to describe the combined effect of thousands of animals grazing around and crater rim looming above.

Ngorongoro caldera

We saw lions, leopards, hyenas, elephants, rhinos, zebras, buffaloes and antelopes. At one point, two hyenas attacked a wildbeest (gnu antelope), which was trying to escape. Hyenas are normally scavengers, but they also attack live animals, they have extremely powerful jaws, second only to crocodiles. They managed to bite the wildbeest on the side, but it looked like that hunt might take a long time, when suddenly we saw two lions coming over. The wildbeest run towards the cars, which at this point were converging from all directions, so that the tourists could witness the killing. It didn’t take lions more than a minute to finish the wildbeest and they started to eat it, with by now about two dozen cars around. While it was fascinating, in perhaps morbid sense to witness the killing in nature, I couldn’t shake the sense of disgust having all of us congregating around to see the spectacle. Don’t watch the video if you don’t want to see a killing.

Lions killing a wildbeest

The next day we visited a Masai village. Masai are usually nomads, but that tribe settled in the current location and allows tourists to visit and photograph their village, in exchange for a fee of course. The huts were extremely primitive, it was hard to imagine people living in such conditions. They had sandals made of used tires and colorful blankets to guard against cold. The village chief was a young 25 old guy, who spoke very good English. At one moment we said something in French and he replied in that language. After the visit, we drove again to the crater for more game watching.

Masai women

On Tuesday, we were planning to fly to Arusha, refuel, fly towards Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Natron for sightseeing, but weather early in the morning was showing 2,000 overcast in Arusha, which soon turned into low level fog. Plan B was to fly directly to our next destination, Seronera airstrip about 60 miles away. We had enough fuel to reach it and to continue to our next fuel stop, Mwanza, but not enough for any sightseeing.

We thought that Seronera would be like Lumbo, no other airplanes around, but it turned out to be a very busy airstrip, with Coastal Air Cessna Caravans bringing in tourists to visit Serengeti. This was when we realized none of us had an idea what frequency to use to self-announce. On long final, a Caravan cut in front of me from left base and I had to do a 360 to let him land. After landing the pilot came to me and said he saw me on TCAS and he tried to talk to me. It turned out that uncontrolled fields in Tanzania use 118.2, which was something Marcus told us about in a pre-departure briefing, but we forgot.

Mbali Mbali Lodge In Serengeti

We were picked up by cars from Mbali Mbali Soroi lodge, our hotel for the following three nights. We had a picnic lunch and went for a game drive on the way to the lodge. The lodge is located on a hill, with amazing views on the valley below. The staff told us that during the time when Migration passes there, which usually happens late June, early July, you could literally sit on the chair and see thousands and thousands of animals passing by. We were a month late, unfortunately. If you are planning to visit Serengeti, make sure to choose a lodge which is close to where Migration is when you arrive. In our case, the animals were already in Kenya and we missed it. In spite of that setback, we did go for game drives both days and saw giraffes, elephants, zebras, buffaloes, antelopes, lions, leopards and hyenas. Many times, the animals were couple of feet from the car.

Leopards from really close

Departing Seronera for Mwanza, we showed at the airstrip with all our luggage and were told we had to go through security check. This is a problem everywhere in Africa, and if fact the same was the case in Central and South America. They just don’t understand there is something like private airplane and apply the same security checks as for commercial flights. I simply refused to follow their admonitions and loaded two of our four suitcases into the airplane bypassing the security checks. A guard grabbed however the remaining two, opened them and started to check the content. He found a hair spray and triumphantly told Ania: “you can’t take it with you to the cabin”, to which she had a brilliant reply: “oh, don’t worry, this is in the checked in luggage”. The guy was so stumped, that he only managed to say: “ah, ok then” and off we went. This exchange wins the first price for absurdity.

After an hour flight to Mwanza, which is located at the shore of Lake Victoria, where we refueled and went through immigration and customs, we departed for our next destination, Kisoro in Uganda.

480 nm through Tanzania and 5 hours on Hobbs

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén