Flying and Travels

Category: West Africa

Namib desert

Onguma was the end of the first half of trip, where the focus was on animals. We were now starting the second half, where the landscape was playing the major role and the first leg was a flight to Hartmann Valley with a refueling stop in Ondawanga. Landing at a dirt strip in the middle of nowhere, in a desert, with imposing mountains around was surrealistic – the airstrip had a toilet with running water, soap and the guide who greeted us already had cold drinks and some snacks ready for us.

Hartmann Valley airstrip

We drove for an hour to Serra Cafema lodge, which is located at the Kunane river, a border between Angola and Namibia.

This was the farthest we were from departure and the most remote. The lodge has eight bungalows over the river with a large bedroom and a living space.

As elsewhere, the staff is incredibly attentive, and since everything is included, if you ask for something and they have it, you will get it. When you arrive, you are always greeted by all the staff singing welcome, cold towels, and a refreshment drink. When you leave, there is an a cappella goodbye song.

In the afternoon, we went for a boat ride on the river. The blue mountains on the Angola side, yellow and gold of the desert and the green vegetation along the river create an incredible contrast. Our sundowner was actually on the Angola side of the river, I suppose it was an illegal entry without immigration control!

Next morning, we boarded ATVs for some fun driving over the dunes and climbed up to see incredible views over the Kunanu river, which is flowing down in a deep canyon.

In the afternoon, we visited a nearby village of Himba people. The Himba have clung to their traditions; the women are noted for their intricate hairstyles which and traditional jewelry, and men and woman wear few clothes apart from a loin cloth or goat skinned mini skirt, they rub their bodies with red ochre and fat to protect themselves from the sun which also gives their appearance a rich red color.

I would love to stay one more day in Serra Cafema, this would be an ideal place for a 3-night stay in the middle of the trip. However, we had to follow our itinerary and the next morning we departed for an hour drive back to the airplanes, take off and low-level overflight of the river and the lodge towards the ocean. We followed the coast at a few hundred feet southbound. At that altitude, we could see thousands of seals sunbathing on the beach and I was struck by the realization that we are hundreds of miles from any civilization. Yes, we had PLBs and satellite messengers to send distress messages in case of problems, but it was far for certain that anybody would come to our rescue in that remote part of the world if we had any problems. This was Skeleton Coast.

Bushmen of the Namibian interior called the region “The Land God Made in Anger”, while Portuguese sailors once referred to it as “The Gates of Hell”. On the coast, the upwelling of the cold Benguela current gives rise to dense ocean fog for much of the year. The winds blow from land to sea, and rainfall rarely exceeds 0.4 inches annually. In the days before engine-powered ships and boats, it was possible to get ashore through the surf, but impossible to launch from the shore. The only way out was by going through a marsh hundreds of miles long and only accessible via a hot and arid desert.

Finally, we reached Hoanib River dry bed, and we followed it inland towards Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, which we overflew before continuing towards the airstrip. I did a low-level pass to check the strip and winds and was relieved to see cars and people waiting for us. Half an hour later, the camp staff welcomed us with a song, cold towels, and drinks. After lunch, we retired for a siesta to wait out the worst of the heat.

I was thinking why somebody would build a camp in a place like that, and it occurred to me that the answer was the river. With a desert all around, animals are naturally confined to the river and while at that time of the year it was dry, we could still see lions, elephants, and giraffes. A sundowner at the top of a hill offered us an unspoiled 360° view around.

Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp illustrates why the prices at such lodges are so high. There is more staff than guests, the place is so remote that it takes full day for a supply truck to drive dirt roads from Windhoek once a week with supplies, before continuing for another two days drive to Serra Cafema and everything needs to be brought in.

While the camp had fuel in drums, we already had a pre-arranged drum waiting for us in Twyfelfontaine, an airstrip 95 miles to southeast. We launched there two days later, flying a low pass over the camp first. Landing at FYTF we found a similar situation as in Shindi, the airstrip was there, but nothing much more. In fact, there was a road nearby and after a while a car passed, then another, which stopped to ask us if we needed anything. We explained that we were supposed to get fuel there and he called the guy who had fuel, who showed fifteen minutes later. He said he didn’t know anything about pre-arranged fuel, but luckily, he did have a drum of avgas and he would bring it. I have no doubts that Andrew from Bushpilots did order the fuel, but again, this is Africa. Our mistake was not to call the fuel people before departing from Hoanib, we didn’t even have the number. In Africa, you should always call the next stop to advise about arrival and inquire about fuel. Half an hour later the guy showed up again with a drum on a truck and a manual pump, but no metering device. We used dipsticks to split it more or less equally between three airplanes, each taking 66 liters from a 200-liter drum, or little more than 17 gallons.

This was enough to get us to Swakopmund 140 miles south. I was a bit embarrassed approaching FYSM, two miles out I still couldn’t make the runway. It is simply delineated by white markers but otherwise has the same color as the surrounding desert, so it wasn’t obvious to see. We quickly topped off and continued southbound to follow the coast.

Abeam the Tsauchab River dry bed we turned inland towards the Kulala Lodge airstrip. It was hot and bumpy, we were tired, so we flew there directly planning to do sightseeing overflight on our way back. A guide waited for us at the strip with cold drinks, which was a godsend given the temperature and we embarked on a fifteen minutes’ drive to the lodge.

The next morning, we departed for the main visit, in fact the main reason we came back to Sossusvlei. In 2017, after completion of our flying tour of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, we flew commercial to Windhoek, rented a car, and drove to Sossusvlei. A local outfit was offering a scenic overflight of the area, which we did, and this is when I promised myself that we would return to the area, this time flying ourselves. That promise was fulfilled 6 years later.

Formed 55 million years ago, the Namib Desert is the oldest desert on the planet. The dry bed of the Tsauchab River is surrounded by orange and red sand dunes, the highest of which, the Big Daddy dune, is 325 meters (1,070 feet) high, and this is what we planned to climb the next morning. There is a 66 km road from Sessreim gate to a Sossusvlei area, but the last 6 km is open only to 4 WD vehicles. We stopped closest to Big Daddy and walked about a mile to the start of the climb. As soon as we started climbing, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to go all the way up. You are climbing a sand path and for each step up, you slide half a step down. After the first half an hour, I gave up and decided to walk back to the parking lot.

If you do decide to climb Big Daddy, you should start early in the morning, leaving the camp before sunrise, be in excellent physical shape and bring plenty of water. The three other people in our group continued the climb and got to about ¾ to the summit. You go up following the ridge of the dune, in fact I doubt it would even be possible to climb the face, but the descent consists of sliding down the face, all the way to Deadvlei, a white clay pan with dead camel thorn trees. The trees have been dead for 800 years, but the extremely dry climate prevents decomposition. I walked around the dunes to Deadvlei to snap few pictures of the very famous landscape.

The next morning it was time to start flight back.  Sossusvlei was our last 2-nights stop and it was a long 1,000 miles flight back to Wonderboom. The first leg was the most spectacular, flying low over the valley, below the dune summits, we could admire the landscape from 200’ AGL. I couldn’t climb Big Daddy, but I did overfly it, which was certainly easier. We continued towards the ocean, hoping to see the spectacular coast I remembered from the last visit. The sand drops about 100-200’ feet with a steep incline to the ocean and if you had a misfortune to wreck a ship in the area, you could swim to the tiny beach at low tide, but you could never climb up the incline. Unfortunately, that day, the coast was covered with low level clouds and we couldn’t see it. We continued southbound towards Luderitz asking ourselves a question how the weather was there. Flying an approach wasn’t really an option given airplane instrumentation and the closest alternates were too far given our fuel. Dropping through the clouds over the ocean would be putting excessive faith in the QNH (altimeter) setting. We ended with a much less stressful option, simply calling Windhoek Information, and asking about the weather in Luderitz, which was severe clear. Even at low altitude, radio coverage over Namibia is very good.

We topped it off in Luderitz, but we had a little trouble calling to file a flight plan, which was mandatory given we were crossing back to South Africa. Very nice people in the operation office escorted me to the tower, where I could meet the controller and file our flight plans. The long flight to Upington was uneventful and uninteresting. After landing, we quickly topped off, completed immigration and customs formalities without having to remove bags from the airplane and flew another 50 miles to Dundi lodge for an overnight. The lodge is next to Augrabies Falls, so we drove there to have a look. It was OK, but nothing that would demand a detour. The last segment of the trip included a stop in Kuruman to refuel and a repeat of past scenarios. A deserted airport and no cell phone service. Luckily, a car showed up curious what that noise was about and he called the person responsible for fuel, who showed up half an hour later. Credit card machine was out of service, and we paid cash in USD. The other two Cessnas climbed to 9,500 on the 280 miles last leg back to Wonderboom, but ours steadily refused to pass 7,500. Finally, after few updrafts we got there also and enjoyed smooth 130 knots sailing back.

Landing at FAWB was uneventful and we completed our 3,000 miles, 32 hours flight time tour around Botswana and Namibia. It felt as if we left Wonderboom just yesterday, the time passes very quickly with so many things to do. It was a wonderful trip, a wonderful group of people and we didn’t have any unpleasant surprises.

Few lessons learned if you are thinking about doing a trip like that.

  1. Cessna 182 is an ideal aircraft for flying in Africa. If you are used to a Cirrus with all automation, autopilot, and speed you will need to reset your expectations.
  2. On the flip side, our trip was about 1/3 of the price of a Cirrus trip organized by Flight Academy, which was shorter (4 stops vs 7), and we stayed in top notch luxury lodges.
  3. Navigation is mainly direct-to on GPS, with panel mounted portable GPS receivers and iPad with Skydemon.
  4. Always call ahead to the next stop to advise about ETA and ask about fuel at each refueling stop.
  5. You should know how to file a paper flight plan, including everything in the Remarks section for border crossing.
  6. Outside Johannesburg, radio is simple. At Wonderboom, you need a detailed briefing to know what to expect.
  7. Botswana doesn’t require permits, but Namibia does and you need to arrange that ahead of time.
  8. Cell phone reception may be variable, a satellite phone would be convenient.
  9. Travelling in a group, even if small, is much more fun. It is lonely up there in the middle of the sky hundreds of miles from any civilization.
  10. It is hot in November. Lodges are slightly less expensive, but the temperature is much higher than in winter.

This was our third trip. I would love to come back, but we have still so many other places to fly in the world. If I burned Jet-A, I would plan an Africa circumnavigation, but it is a bit complicated with avgas.

Enjoy this compilation video from Namibia

Botswana and game rides

We arrived to Johannesburg on Wednesday evening to meet with our friends, who will be flying with us that epic adventure. It has been a tradition since previous trips to start the afternoons with a gin and tonic and we immediately resumed that activity, when we met at Opikopi Guest House.

The next morning, we drove to Wonderboom airport for airplane checkout and a refresher on local procedures. South Africa has a vibrant GA community and Wonderboom is a very busy airport. Local procedures and phraseology are different than in the US and it took me some time to recall how to do and say things from four years ago. For example, on the first call to ATC all you say is: Wonderboom  ground, ZSPWC, good morning and you wait for the call back ZSPWC Wonderboom, good day, go ahead to say your request: ZSPWC is a Cessna 182, 2 crew, 5 hours of fuel, parked at south hangars, request taxi instruction for a flight to Pretoria general flying area 1, elapsed time 1.5 hours.  You first get departure instructions PWC runway 29 in use, QNH 1020, after departure right turn route 2 miles west of the power station. You read it back and get taxi instructions Taxi foxtrot, enter 06, turn right up bay 29, report ready for departure. When you tell them you are ready after runup, they tell you to taxi on bravo, report at holding point runway 29 and then switch you to the tower. Finally!

Coupled with South African accent, the unfamiliar phraseology is initially intimidating, but the controllers are nice and helpful.

When you fly from a controlled airport to a controlled airport, you need a flight plan. Our first leg on Friday was from Wonderboom to Polokwane, which is an Airport of Entry, to clear immigration and customs. South Africa has a website, where theoretically you can file flight plans. Half of the time, you can’t log in to that website, the other it times out when you try to file anything. It is truly completely useless. By a stroke of incredible luck, we managed to file flight plans to Polokwane, but this was the only time during the whole trip when it worked.

The chart above is from SkyDemon, a very nice EFB that we were using to fly in Africa. It has good VFR charts, although user interface is very different from Foreflight I am used to.

We were told that we needed to take all the bags from the airplane in Polokwane to clear customs. We did, but if I had to do it again, I would just take one light bag. We entered the terminal, paid landing fees, and went through security including the X-ray machine and emptying the pockets to be able to exit it back to our airplanes.

After trying to file our flight plans online, I finally called their equivalent of FSS by phone and filed it that way. It was necessary since this was an international flight to Limpopo Valley in Botswana.

FBLV is located right after the border, there is a small open area for arrivals, we paid our landing fees, got the passports stamped with a smile by a very bored immigration officer and boarded a Landcruiser for an hour drive to Mashatu Euphoria lodge. It was incredibly hot, likely about 45° (113°F) and it literally hurt when the hot air was hitting your face during the drive in an open car.

Euphoria Villas is a high-end lodge with 8 luxury villas. When I posted on COPA forums about our experience, somebody asked me if it is a good as “Four Seasons”. The huge difference is that you have only a few people in the lodge, the first night it was only us, and the staff that are going out of their way to make sure that we have anything we want. It is all inclusive, lodging, meals, drinks and game drives and it is incredibly beautiful, situated over the Mali river. At this time of the year, the river is dry, but as we went on game drives, we saw an incredible number of animals. Elephants, giraffes, impalas, lions, leopards, cheetah, ostrich, we stopped the car every five minutes and all you could hear was the click-click of cameras. This was our third trip to Africa, and except for Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania, this was the most incredible game sighting we ever had. The next day, we had two more game drives and I started to be concerned that I only had one SD card in my camera.

The typical day at a lodge starts with a wakeup call at 4:30 am. You come over for coffee and a light breakfast at 5:00 am and leave the lodge for a game drive, while it is not yet incredibly hot. You stop somewhere during the drive, for a coffee and a snack and come back around 11:00 am for lunch and siesta time during the hottest time of the day. At 4:30 pm, you have the “tea time”, which in our case should really be called “gin and tonic time” and board the cars for the afternoon drive. When the sun sets down around 7 pm, you have “sundowner” drinks in a spot with incredible views before returning to the lodge for dinner.

Sundowner drink

It cools down after sunset and it is an incredible experience to have dinner outside under stars with very little light around.

The following day we launched for our second leg. We first did a low-level overflight of Limpopo River, which is the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe. I flew at about 100’ AGL over the river dry bed, knowing there is exactly zero risk of any power lines or bridges crossing the river.

Limpopo River dry bed

We continued to Matante airport to refuel. This was fast, we filed a paper flight plan in the office, but the landing fee office was closed on weekend, so we just left our information for invoicing. The next leg had us flying to Shinde lodge airstrip, which is in Okavango delta, a vast inland delta formed where Okavango River flows into a tectonic trough, which prevents it from continuing toward a sea. All the water reaching the delta evaporates or transpires.

Before leaving Mashatu, we called Shinde camp to update our ETA to 2 pm. We landed a bit early, at 1:30 pm and there was nobody on the strip to meet us. At 2:00 pm, there still was nobody and we started to formulate backup plans. You must remember, this is Africa, and you just do not start randomly walking through the grass, a pride of lions might enjoy you for dinner. We thought we would take one airplane, take off, look for the lodge and buzz it to alert them about our arrival. The backup to backup was to walk a dirt road which seemed to lead to some human structures. Of course, there was no cell phone reception, I sent text messages by satellite to the Bushpilot office in Pretoria so that they could call the camp, but I didn’t get any reply. Finally, as I was walking to the airplane, a car arrived. It turns out that they forgot about our arrival. It is Africa after all.

Waiting at Shinde airstrip

Shinde is a tented camp located on an island in the northern part of Okavango delta. Of course, “tent” is a misnomer, while the structure is wooden with fabric walls, the interior is luxurious with a large bedroom, in-suite bathroom with indoor and outdoor showers.

Shindi tented camp

That same afternoon we went for a game drive, and while we saw less animals than in Mashatu, the scenery was much different – it was more like savannah, with tall green grass and trees.

The next morning, we were awakened at 5 am by the delicious smell of fresh coffee brought to our tent. After light breakfast we launched to visit the delta in a makaro, a wooden boat traditionally made from a tree trunk, although now fiberglass is more common. It is pushed by a wooden stick because the water is never deep.

Boating in makaro

The routine was similar as in Mashatu, early wake up, light breakfast, morning ride with coffee and biscuits stop, return to camp, lunch, siesta, afternoon “tea” followed by another ride ending by a “sundowner” drinks, return to camp and dinner. During our afternoon ride in a power boat, we saw hippos soaking in the water. While hippos are herbivores, they don’t hesitate to attack when threatened and they can run at 20 km/h in the water and over 40 km/h on land.

The next day we had a long day of flying, first a short hop to Maun, to clear customs and immigration since we were leaving Botswana followed by a 3-hour flight to Rundu to enter Namibia, followed by a 1.5-hour flight to our destination, Onguma the Fort in the Onguma game reserve. We took one medium suitcase with us out of the airplane to customs, to show good faith, but I have an impression that nobody really cared. We filed a flight plan on paper in the office, since we were crossing the border and took fuel. While it was not strictly necessary to refuel both in Maun and in Rundu, the general rule of flying in Africa is that if there is fuel, you top it off. As much as Maun customs didn’t really care about suitcases, they did ask us to bring all of them to the office in Rundu. I had an impression that people there were embarrassed to have to ask us to haul our stuff inside, but they were told by their supervisors this was mandatory. They helped us carry suitcases and the inspection was purely for the show, simply sending luggage through an X-ray machine. Since we were flying domestic in Namibia and to uncontrolled field, no flight plan was necessary.

In the afternoon, it was time for a game drive in Onguma reserve followed by the traditional “sundowner”. Within a few minutes of leaving the lodge, we saw a pride of lions resting in shade, then giraffes and elephants.

The following day, we went for a morning game ride to Etosha National Reserve but decided to stay in the lodge in the afternoon to rest. Our general plan was half a day of flying, and one and a half days in a lodge, with two nights at each location. This is an intense schedule and if I were to do it again, it would throw in one or two 3-night stays to have more rest.

Onguma Fort

Onguma the Fort is a rather weird lodge, it looks more like a hotel in Morocco, but the suites were exceptional. We left airplanes at the strip in an open hangar with cement floor, so we couldn’t tie them down, we only put in chokes. That night, we had a splendid thunderstorm show with associated high winds and I was somewhat concerned about airplanes being blown out.

The following morning, we launched for a flight to Hartmann Valley with a refueling stop in Ondawanga. This was the end of the first half of the trip, where the main focus were the animals and game drives, and the beginning of the second half, where the scenery of Namib desert was taking the prime spot.

Africa, three times a charm

There is no question that I fell in love with Africa, perhaps more specifically with flying in Africa. During our first trip in 2017, we flew a Cessna 182 from South Africa to Zimbabwe and Botswana back to Johannesburg. We wanted to continue to Namibia, but originally it was supposed to be in a 172 and the limited range made it too sketchy, so we decided to hop over to Windhoek commercial, rent a car there, and drive. I of course managed to find an outfit offering scenic overflights of incredible dunes in Sossusvlei, and the views we’ve seen made me promise myself we would return.

We flew again in 2019 from South Africa, through Mozambique and Tanzania to Kenya, which was truly a trip of a lifetime and that just reinforced the idea that we have to come back.

So here we are again, impatient to fly back. Johannesburg is at UTC+2, in other words, 10 hours ahead of us in San Francisco, I thought it would be prudent to arrive a few days early to acclimate and we wanted to see Cape Town again, so we are flying there from the US and staying 3 days in a wonderful Cellars-Hohenort hotel in the Cape Town wine country, before taking commercial flight to Johannesburg. Together with 2 nights in Opikopi Guest Lodge in Pretoria, we will have a full five days to adapt. Click on the map below to see more details.

Our itinerary will take us from Johannesburg, Wonderboom airport to Mashatu game reserve in Botswana. We have to stop in Polokwane to exit South Africa, luckily Limpopo Valley airport in Botswana is an Airport of Entry. Our plan is to fly for half day, and spend 1.5 days, 2 nights in each lodge. The first stop is Mashatu Euphoria lodge. After that, we are flying to Okawango delta, with a fuel stop at Matante airport. We stay two nights in Shindi camp. The next flying day has us exiting Botswana, so we have to stop in Maun and enter Namibia in Rundu, before continuing to Etosha National Park, where we stay in Onguma Fort. Etosha is the end of the first half of the trip, where the focus is animals, we now be watching incredible views of Namib desert.

We will stop in Ondawanga, before continuing to Hartmann Valley airstrip and a short drive to Serra Cafema lodge, located on the Kunane river, which is the border between Namibia and Angola. From there, we will follow first the river and then Atlantic coast to Hoanib Skeleton Coast camp and then to Kulala Lodge in Sossusvlei. It will be now time to head back to South Africa, we will first stay at Dundi Lodge to see Augrabies Falls and then make a long flight back to Johannesburg.

In total, that will be close to 3,000 nm and probably around 30 hors of flight time. The itinerary is set up so that we spend one day flying and one day at the location, two nights at each lodge. We are flying in a small group of three airplanes, all Cessna 182, which is a perfect airplane for flying in Africa. We will be landing at many dirt strips and a Cirrus, while more comfortable, would be certainly less practical.

We are using the same company as before, Bushpilot Adventures to lease the airplane, arrange permits and make reservations. Experience has shown that it is very important to have somebody in the “back office” to follow the flight and be ready to help in case of any mechanical problems, which we had during our previous trip.

Cape Town

Cape Town culinary landscape rivals the best of them. Our first night, we were tired after 24 hours door-to-door trip and stayed in the Cellars-Hohenort hotel, un upscale lodging part of Small Luxury Hotels.

Beautifully appointed room with a terrace and views on the garden.

It was rainy and windy next day, we drove to the spectacular Cape of Good Hope, which was crowded and there was a line to take a picture in front of the panel with the name. We did that 4 years ago, so we skipped the line. In the evening we had reservation at the La Colombe restaurant. It wasn’t easy to get, because all online reservations required four people and nobody was picking up the phone. We finally left a message and the next morning at 2 am (that’s noon in Cape Town!) somebody called back. The reservation battle was definitely worth waging, the food was extraordinary.

Stellenbosch area is known for excellent wineries and we couldn’t skip a wine tasting drive the following morning.

We finished the day in the Potluck Club, remembering fantastic dinner we had at Test Kitchen 6 years ago. Test Kitchen doesn’t exist anymore, but the chef, Luke Dale Roberts opened other restaurants in Cape Town and Johannesburg, you should definitely visit them if you are there.

This was the end of lazy vacation time in Cape Town, the next day we are boarding a flight to Johannesburg, where our adventure begins.

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