From High Up

Flying and Travels

Category: East Africa

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

Mozambique Coast

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.

Wonderboom to Maputo

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.

Polana Serena Hotel

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.

Takeoff from Indigo Bay, Bazaruto Island

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.

Low tide Coral Lodge

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.

Single lane brige; somebody has to back up

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.

Chris has a bad magneto

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:

  1. Marcus needed to find a magneto and they are not manufactured anymore.
  2. He had to find a flight bringing him from Pretoria to Nampula latest by 9 am.
  3. Dave had to be able to replace and time the mag and replace the starter by noon.
  4. We had to redo the paperwork for international departure from Nampula.
  5. 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.

Dave at work on Chris magneto

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.

1,800 nm in 16.,8 hours on Hobbs over 4 days of flying.

Africa, Again!

Our trip to South Africa in 2017 was magical, but Africa is addictive, once you’ve seen it, you can’t help to want to see it again. And again. So we return to Africa.

We have even more grandiose trip scheduled for July 2019 – it is long time to plan, but it is not your garden variety of cross-country flight. To wet the appetite, here are the highlights:

  • Departing Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Maputo, Mozambique and follow the coast northbound
  • Vilancoulos and Bazaruto Island
  • Isla de Mozambique
  • Zanzibar and its Stonetown
  • Fly around Mount Kilimanjaro
  • Game viewing at Ngorongo Crater
  • Great Migration in Serengeti from the ground and from the air
  • Bwindi Impenetrable Park in Uganda and mountain gorillas
  • Chimpanzees viewing at the shore of Lake Tanganyika
  • over to Mombasa, Kenya traversing Tanzania

It will take us three weeks and the schedule is built to allow for one day of flying, followed by one or two days at a given location. The majority of flights are less than 2 hours, with not more than 3 flights per day in Cessna 182. It will be a small group,  four or five airplanes flying together.

First part of the trip takes us through Mozambique and the unspoiled beaches of Indian Ocean, I plan to stay low at 500 feet to enjoy the scenery. After visiting the capital, Maputo, we are heading to Bazaruto Island. One of the greatest pleasures of traveling in a light airplane is when you can land on a dirt strip and walk to your hotel.

Our second stop is to visit Ilha de Moçambique half way up the coast, a small crescent shaped island where time stopped, tourists didn’t yet arrive and African, Portuguese, Swahili, French and Goan flavors mix  in a potent melange.

We will continue heading North along the Indian Ocean coast, cross into Tanzania and head towards the island of Zanzibar. When Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined each other in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania, Zanzibar kept a semi-autonomous status, with Stone Town as its local government seat. Its architecture, mostly dating back to the 19th century, reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture, giving a unique mixture of Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements.

While we will not be able to overfly it, since it rises to almost 20,000 feet, we will fly by and around Mount Kilimanjaro after a 2-hour flight from Zanzibar and land in Moshi, the town at which the majority of trekkers start their Kilimanjaro ascent, and as such has a vibrant feel while still being typically laid-back African.

Departing Moshi, we will route past or over the volcano of Mt. Meru and continue towards Ngorongo Crater. This is our highest altitude airfield at 7,800 feet, with a view into the crater on final approach. Approximately 2.5 million years ago, the Ngorongo crater was a huge volcanic mountain, rivaling Kilimanjaro in size. This changed when the top of the mountain collapsed, creating the biggest volcanic caldera in the world.  The park is teaming with wildlife, with animals such as zebra, buffalo, hyenas, wildebeests and lions thriving in the area.

After couple of days at Ngorongo, we will fly north towards Kitumbeine  Ol Doinyo Lengai volcanoes, over the oddly-colored Lake Natron sporting colonies of flamingos before turning west towards Serengeti, taking our time in the air and go in search of the Great Wildebeest Migration – it’s a true privilege to be able to see the sheer size of this spectacle from the air and piloting one’s own aircraft provides the freedom to explore all corners of the Serengeti at will.

After leaving Serengeti plains we will head towards the mountains of Rwanda, first Kigali and than Ruhengeri to admire the Volcanoes National park from the air before entering Uganda and stopping for the night at Lake Mutanda. We will spend the next day at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, an ancient mountain and lowland forest spanning 128 square miles and home to the largest population of mountain gorillas. There are fewer than 900 of them in existence and we will have a rare opportunity to observe the everyday interactions of these gentle, mysterious primates. To see them from few meters away, we will pay a price of couple of hours hiking in the forest.

Time to return to Rwanda and fly back into Tanzania for an overnight stop in Kigoma, relaxing with unparalleled views on the Lake Tanganyika, before following the lake shore next day for a flight to Mahale.

Very different from anything else Tanzania has to offer,  Mahale Mountains National Park is set in the far west of the country. Remote and beautiful, this off-the-beaten-track destination is quite possibly the best place in the world for chimpanzee safaris. We hope to come close to them during our next day hike in the forest.

Time to head back – after a refueling stop in Tabora, we will cross Kenya border and terminate the trip in Mombasa.

Three weeks, about forty hours of flight time, four thousand nautical miles,  we expect to bring back terabytes of pictures and videos and the most precious – memories.

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