From High Up

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Category: South Africa Page 1 of 2

Namibia Dunes

The last leg of our Africa trip brought us to Namibia. We flew commercial from Cape Town to Windhoek and rented a nice 4×4 Toyota pickup truck. If you ever plan to drive in Namibia, rent a car like that. Although many dirt roads we drove are in excellent condition (for a dirt road), a small city car will not be comfortable there.

Toyota is built like a tank and didn’t care about any potholes. Otherwise, you may end up like the car on the left. This is in a place judiciously called Solitaire, our hotel Moon Mountain Lodge, was located about 20 km south of that place, about 4 hours drive from Windhoek.  The lodge is built on a side of a small mountain, part of Naukluft Mountains.

It was about 45 minute drive from there to Sossusvlei, where dunes are, but we were happy to stay away. The lodge is small, away from crowds, sunset and sunrise light over the desert were beautiful to watch.

The park opens at sunrise and we drove in the dark to get there before 6 am. While technically Sossusvlei (pictured below) refers only to a salt and clay pan surrounded by red dunes, located in the Namib-Naukluft National Park of Namibia, the name is often used to refer to all surrounding area.

The area was created when the Tsauchab River was blocked access to the ocean by sand blown from the North and forming immense dunes – the biggest one is 388 meters high – that’s 1,300 feet for metric-challenged, several hundred millions years ago.

There is an asphalt road from the park entrance to the parking area for regular cars, about 40 km. On the way, you pass Dune 45, which many people climb – we didn’t.

Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, the main interesting areas are about 5 km past the parking and you must have a robust 4×4 car, because you will drive on the sand (otherwise, there are shuttles). We passed some people who were stubborn and stuck. Once you climbed the dunes, you can have fun going down, here is Ania descending the famous dune called Big Daddy.

After returning back from the dunes, we drove another 5 km to see Sesreim Canyon, created when flood water descends over plains and in the afternoon, we took a scenic flight all the way to the ocean, which is still about 50 km to the West. Dunes, which when they meet the ocean are still over 100 meters high, stop abruptly creating sand cliffs. The whole area is called Skeleton Coast, because so many ships wrecked here navigating this remote area.

Magic flight and I promised myself that we will return here and I will fly all the length at that coast myself.

We did a bit of a road trip to return back to Windhoek the next day, via Swakopmund, driving through the Kuiseb Pass. You drive through the desert, but it keep changing every 100 km, from savanna to sand desert and amazing rock formations.

This is the last post about our 2017 Africa trip – unforgettable experience.

 

 

 

 

Cape Town

It was a rude shock to fly squeezed in a tiny economy seat for our flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, after enjoying luxuries of Cessna’s seats for so long. We suffered. After arrival, we rented a car and drove to our Airbnb apartment, with fabulous views over the town.

Next day, weather was nice and we drove to Cape of Good Hope. This is the name that sounds beautiful in every language. Cape de Bonne Esperance, Przylądek Dobrej Nadziei.

There are so many reviews of Cape Town, I will not bore you with another saw this and that. Instead, let me recount our Cape Town culinary experiences.

Gold Restaurant

This is a bit of touristy place, but the food is fun and the show is exciting. The Gold Restaurant serves Pan-African kitchen with bits and pieces from all over Africa. As always, we attacked the dinner in sprint, but it turned out to be more of a marathon and by the time the main dishes arrived, we regretted the early fast pace.

The food is only half of the fun at Gold, dance and music is as good. We didn’t dare join the dancers on the scene, but many other patrons did. I wish I had their rhythm.

To show we are not just another pappy and mammy and to express our wild side, we got face paintings.

Greenhouse

Greenhouse restaurant is in Constantia, about 45 min drive from downtown. It was dark by the time we got there and it rained, we started to have doubts about the wisdom of driving so far for a dinner. The doubts disappeared when we saw the menu.

We couldn’t believe we had doubts after the first dishes arrived. Presentation, quality, taste, everything was impeccable.

Test Kitchen

We’ve been to Bernard Loiseau’s Cote d’Or in Saulieu, to Michel Guérard’s les Prés d’Eugénie in Eugénie les Bains, to Paul Bocuse in Lyon, to Marc Haeberlin’s Auberge d’Ill in Illhaeusern, to Arnaud Lallement’s Assiette Champenoise in Tinqueux, to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville and to Joshua Skenes’s Saison in San Francisco. I write  it only to establish credentials, so that when I say that Luke Dale-Roberts at Test Kitchen is as good or better, as exciting, as interesting and surprising, has as many or more variety of tastes as these 3-star Michelin restaurants – you know that I have solid basis for comparisons.

Stellenbosch

We live close to Napa Valley, well known wine country, so we were curious how Cape Town wine country compared. Here I am at work, deep into comparative research.

We drove from Cape Town to the town of Stellenbosch and continued East. By pure luck, we stopped at a beautiful winery (Graff Estate) for light lunch and wine tasting. The area is magical in its beauty and I wish we had more than one day to visit it.

 

Gabarone and Lanseria

These were our two last legs of the self-flying safari, first flying from Maun to Gabarone, which is the Botswana capital, a 338 nm, 3:50 flight.

I veered a bit to the East, to overfly the salt ponds, local pilots told us we could spot amazing sights of flamingos over those ponds. We were unfortunately out of luck, it was just saw salt ponds and desert. The restricted areas you see on the chart are only up to 1000 ft AGL, the big one is over the Kalahari Desert. I love that name Kalahari, in retrospect we should have flown over it, low.

We landed in Gabarone and it took a while for a fuel truck to come over. Ania needed to go a restroom, so off she went to the terminal. It is actually quite easy to get in from the apron to the terminal, you just go through a door. Getting out though, when you don’t have a boarding pass, a passport nor any document actually is a different matter. After I got my fuel and parked the airplane, I donned my reflective vest, took my pilot license and passport and went to look for her. A severe looking security officer admonished me for letting passengers wander alone on the apron, I apologized profusely and recovered my slightly irritated wife from the police station where she was detained.

Here is an important lesson about flying in Africa: you better have a reflective vest. I didn’t have one in Maun and after watching Marie, a fellow pilot admonished by another full of himself security screener for not having such an important security item, I promptly stole one from the van driver – it served me well in Gabarone. Before my next trip to Africa, I’ll get one with Cirrus Airlines – Pilot embroiled in large letters. That and a pilot shirt with epaulets are must have around here. Also, you gotta marvel at the logic of having us to throw away bottled water before getting to our own airplanes and fly over hundreds of miles of desert. Luckily, Delta Air personnel was more understanding and smuggled our water past security.

Gabarone is a real city, modern and growing. We spent the night in Masa Square Hotel, a hotel that could be anywhere in the West – modern and functional. Well, to a point, because the operating procedure seemed to be to first place the guest in a room without working air conditioning and only move him to one with working air conditioning when he complains. It was nice to take a real shower after the bucket-shower in Oddballs Camp. We had our last group dinner at the roof terrace of the hotel, this was a great way to say goodbye to many new friends.

Our last 150 nm, 1:15 flight took us from Botswana back to South Africa, Lanseria airport. When coming into FALA, there is a VFR reporting point called Hartebeespoort Dam. I think that I can be excused from not understanding when the controller asked: “Are you familiar with ?#&%* ?” When I valiantly replied Unfamiliar, foreign pilot, his next question was Do you know where the Lanseria airport is?. Indignantly, I replied: Affirmative, I have a GPS.

We left ZS-SOE at the apron in Lanseria. Johan, the airplane owner kindly agreed to pick her up from there, which worked great for us, because out next (commercial) flight was leaving from Lanseria for Cape Town. She is a great and fast 182 and we were happy flying it. She has a fuel totalizer, which is really important when you fly long distances and served us very  well. Safe flights, Zulu Sierra Sierra Oscar Echo.

Okawango Delta

Our next 220 nm, 1:45 flight brought us to Maun, Botswana. As usual for international flights, we needed flight plans and general declaration to leave Zimbabwe, plus $85 in various landing, takeoff, passenger, navigation… fees. I flew a bit of a northern route, hoping to see more game from the air and also overfly the Okawango Delta. The 6,000-15,000 km2 delta is formed when the Okavango River flows into a basin and evaporates – the river never reaches any sea nor ocean.

After landing in Maun, we boarded a commercial flight with Delta Air (not that Delta), because the Oddballs Camp airstrip on the Chief Island does not allow any other aircrafts to land there. An extremely noisy Airvan and bunch of Cessna 182 and 206 brought all of us to the strip – I had to take off my instructor hat when observing a young pilot making a very shallow approach to the strip.

It is called camp, because it has tents and and the last time I slept under a tent was when I was 18 years old and for Ania this might have been the first time. We definitely are creatures of comfort. The tent had a real bed and a roof and was on a wooden platform, so it wasn’t a regular camping.

The small structure on the right was a bathroom. I know what you are thinking: a private bathroom at a camping site, that’s not really a camping. Wait, it gets better, there was a shower.  You pour the water into a bucket, you hoist the bucket up, you open the tap and voila: you get a shower. There was even cold water and not-so-cold water.

The camp is isolated and at night, we had most amazing stars. Early morning, we were leaving for mokoro boat trips.

There is something magical about gliding in these boats over the shallow water, between the grass and spotting and hearing wild animals all around. The last day, we were on a foot walking when the guide said he spotted a lion. We split the group in a hero half and coward half (I won’t say in which part we were), the hero half went to see the lion from close, the coward half stayed away and was ready to run. The first group saw the lion from perhaps 6-8 feet away – he was patiently waiting for that group of noisy humans to pass and when it was clear that they would march right into his hide, he simply run away. And who is the king of the jungle now?

We were not the only ones looking around, these guys were keeping a close eye on where we were going.

We also went to the local village, where some people working at these camps live. There was an impromptu market and a concert.

Victoria Falls

Our next leg started with a short 50 nm, half an hour flight along the shore of the lake to the Kariba airport, for refueling. This was by far the most efficient airport in Zimbabwe, the fuel pump was working, the credit card machine was working, the controller was very professional. We didn’t have much time to linger around and we continued with the second leg, 250 nm, 2 hours along the Zambezi river to Victoria Falls.

During the flight, I managed to get in formation with Robert di Blasi in a Cherokee and took some nice in flight pictures.

After landing, we drove to the Victoria Falls hotel. This is an epitome of an old colonial hotel, still in great shape, but with average service and average rooms. Most impressive though were the common areas, reminding travelers of old bygone splendid times.

The whole town lives off tourists of course, but they push it too far. A ticket to the falls is $30/person and it is valid only for one entry. Make sure you have a raincoat, you will need it, otherwise you’ll pay $3 to rent one, which leaks like a wool sweater. With a constant rain coming off all the water pushed up from the falls, one thing you’ll get for free is a shower.

The falls are of course impressive, and I know I sound like a spoiled rat saying this, but now that I have seen the three big ones: Niagara, Iguasu and Victoria Falls, I believe that Iguasu Falls at the border between Argentina and Brazil are the most amazing.

In the evening we drove to an African restaurant – great show of drums and I know it is hard to believe, and you probably are lucky you didn’t hear it, but I did play drums. There is a video of that achievement, but I will not post it.

Bumi Hills at Lake Kariba

Lake Kariba is the largest man-made reservoir in the world, it covers an area of 5,580 km2, that’s over one quarter of Lake Ontario.

Our 2 hour, 250 nm flight from Masvingo to Bumi Hills at the lake shore was easy, with only high broken layer. It turns out that you have to a permission from the office of the president to land there, the strip being an uncontrolled field and we all being foreign pilots with aircrafts registered in South Africa.

Bumi Hills Safari Lodge is currently under renovation and we were supposed to sleep on a boat anchored at the lake.  Organizer assured us the boat had “equivalent level of comfort” and indeed, for most people that was true. We weren’t in luck. After we got in and were shown our cabin, I could almost touch both walls when stretching my hands, there was no place to put our stuff, the shower…. you know these washbasins in UK, where there is one tap with hot water and one with cold, so you can either freeze your hands or burn them? This was the same, but for the shower. Needless to say, we expressed our displeasure rather strongly and luckily, it turned out that there was one room still available at the lodge, in spite of it being in renovation. We moved there and it was wonderful. Here is a morning view from the hotel terrace, where we had breakfast.

In the mornings, we saw elephants or buffaloes grazing at the shore in front of us.

The first day, we had a wonderful picnic at the lake shore.

with this guy, who insisted on participating.

There was plenty of other game to see: zebras, giraffes, impalas, buffaloes, all sorts of amazing birds, elephants, rhinos and hippos. Here is one watching our boat.

The second afternoon, we went to see the local village. It is incredible that people still live in such condition, here is a local woman preparing flour from manioc – this is not for tourists, she does it every day.

On the other hand, we also visited a local school. There were perhaps 500 children in the school, all very curious to see foreigners, all speaking or learning to speak English and some living up to 6 km from the school and making the trip every morning and afternoon by foot. Here is a small group greeting us when we arrived at the school.

We also had sunset drinks at the fire, with magical sky full of stars above us. I am not good enough photographer to capture it all.

Zimbabwe and African VFR

We had some unexpected surprises from the trip organizer who turned out to be not exactly at the level required. However, we have an amazing group of people with us and we are now continuing essentially by ourselves. Lesson learned: never pre-pay anything.

On Thursday morning we flew 80 nm (0:40) to Kruger International, which was supposed to be just a stop to clear customs and continue to Mozambique.

That didn’t work out exactly as planned, we couldn’t get a clearance to fly to Vilanculos. The clearance was supposed to be prepared ahead of time by the trip organizer, but since he went AWOL, we had to take things in our hands. It turns out that apparently, 8 Cessnas and Pipers constituted an invasion force. The local ATC  had to confer with military and the military decided us to be too dangerous. The following day, the weather in Vilanculos turned 1500 feet overcast, light rain and 5 km visibility. While we could get in in a 182, the smaller 172 in the group didn’t have a range till the alternate – and we still didn’t have the clearance. Finally, we regretfully had to skip Mozambique.

The following morning we decided to fly to Zimbabwe. There was no METAR nor TAF for our destination, Buffalo Range. Accuweather and satellite pictures were showing low visibility and ceiling below 1,500 feet, but that didn’t deter a determined group of aviators and off we went. Here is our flight from Kruger International to Buffalo Range airport.

When we got close to Chiredzi, the controller said visibility 300 meters, ceiling 1000 feet. You can see what happened next looking at my turn west within the CTR. I decided to fly to Masvingo, but after asking the controller, that field wasn’t much better – so off we went to Bulawayo, some 200 miles west. When the rest of the group decided to fly back south, towards South Africa border (good ADM: 180 degree turn, when getting into IMC), I turned out south also.

Luckily, 5 minutes later, the controller announced 3 km visibility – good enough for us – and we all managed to get into Buffalo Range. All except one, because Craig had engine trouble and decided to make a precautionary landing in South Africa – it turned out to be a non-issue. The 335 nm flight took 2:30, but it felt more!

After landing, we were rewarded by  seeing zebras grazing on taxiways (see above).

Having 7 airplanes trying to refuel in Chiredzi has proven to be somewhat of a challenge due to the local equipment.

The guy on the left is hand pumping fuel from blue barrel to white barrel. The guy on the right is hand pumping fuel from the white barrel to the aircraft. The pilot is fueling the aircraft. It only takes about 15 minutes per airplane.

Once we all got fuel, went through immigration, customs, filled forms, paid fees, it was time to fly to Masvingo. The weather didn’t exactly improve, but hey, this is Africa.

As you can see on the profile view, terrain was rising, while the cloud deck – not so much, in other words, classical sucker trap. The profile view shows my valiant attempts to stay VMC, which were, let’s say, only partially successful. However, we all arrived safely to the destination, after 70 nm, 35 min flight.

We spent the night in the Lodge at the Ancient City, a pretty amazing hotel south of Masvingo and the next morning, before flying out, we visited Great Zimbabwe; a  ruined city, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the country’s Late Iron Age.

Simbavati River Lodge

It has been pretty crazy days. We left Johannesburg, Wonderboom field on Sunday and flew 210 nm (1:30) to Simbavati River Lodge. There is an Motswari airstrip not far from the lodge and we all managed to find it and land. Before landing, the mandatory low level overflight to chase any game that might be lingering on the runway. The lodge is beautiful, over a now dry river, with occasional elephants wandering around, such as this one – perhaps 50 feet away.

The next 3 days were incredible, wake up at 5:30 am, coffee and hop on a safari car. We drove around the savanna looking for animals: elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, leopards, impalas, antelopes. buffalo and plenty of smaller ones.

Back to the lodge around 9:30 and for a full breakfast and free time, often a nap until 1 pm, when we had lunch, and another safari at 3:30 pm, returning to the lodge after dark.

This lioness was literally walking by our car, imperturbable.

A leopard, about 20 feet from the car.

Lady giraffe, checking us out from up high.

And our favorite moment – an afternoon break with full bar.

 

South African Pilot License

I have now a South African Pilot license. You can judge for yourself, which one looks best, between South Africa, Europe (EASA) or USA (FAA).

My vote goes to South Africa, easily. For sure, the license is best looking. We had to do a written test and answer 20 questions about South Africa Air Law. I prepared using a Foxone app, but since this is a validation of my FAA license, it is much easier and actual questions are left to the discretion of the instructor. We reviewed the material for about one hour and I am proud to announce, I’ve got 20/20 and hence passed. In case anybody ever doubts it, here are my actual answers, as you can see we wrote them on the stationary of the hotel.

If you ever have to take to take that test, don’t sweat it, it is really easy. The next day we went to the Wonderboom airport to do the practical. A pretty senior Cherokee Warrior was valiantly trying to lift us from the runway, but given that both of us (for avoidance of doubt, I mean instructor and I, not Ania and I)  were perhaps enjoying good food and drink too much, the airport is at 4,000 feet, it started to be hot and the engine might at some point in time, a while back, develop 150 hp, we struggled to reach our practice altitude of 6,500 feet. But eventually we got there (1500 climb at 150 fpm does take 10 minutes) and did couple of stalls, steep turns and landings at the Freeway Pretoria dirt strip. I was now a proud pilot with a VFR-only license. Wonderbooom is a pretty busy GA field with a lot of training traffic. After firing the engine, you call the ground and say: “Wonderboom ground, Cherokee ZS-EES, good morning”. They return good morning to you and you say “ZS-EES is a Cherokee 150 at apron B, crew of 2, instructions for taxi, General Aviation Area 1, endurance 3 hours, expect 1 hour and return Wonderboom”. After that, the controller says something in a thick South African accent that you have no chance of understanding. Luckily it all seemed obvious to the instructor next to me and we taxied to the runway.

In the afternoon, I made a short flight in a Cessna 182, which we will be taking for the trip. ZS-SOE is a very nicely maintained 1969 Skylane, has a fuel totalizer and seems to be liking 130 knots at 12.6 gph. Not bad! One radio is a bit temperamental, but the other one works fine and frankly, once we get out of here, I don’t expect to use much of the radio.

We already had a short exposure to the local animals, because there is part game, part zoo by the Farm Inn hotel where we are staying. We went for a short ride and saw giraffes, gnu, antelopes, tigers, hyenas, leopards and lions. What a treat.

The guide with lion cubs, he took care of them since birth, but now they are big enough that they need to be behind the fence.

We always thought giraffe is a bizarre being, but she seems unfazed.

Hyenas have the second strongest jaws (after crocodiles), but they want attack unless in a group and you run away.

Tomorrow the departure for the Timbavati Game Reserve and Motswari strip.

South Africa Air Law

Suitcases, packing, last minute shopping, vaccinations, and cramming for the South Africa written test. I must be enjoying taking tests, because last year I took an EASA written in Air Law and Human Factors for the conversion of my FAA license to the European one. This year it is only Air Law for the South African conversion. Luckily, there are apps to prepare, hopefully they got questions right. I am using Foxone.

While lot of ideas are similar to United States, there are notable differences. The airspace looks more like in Europe, with various control areas and zones. Class A starts at 20,000 feet, there is a separate night rating.  There are funny things, for example you may have an electronic logbook, but you must print it every 30 days. Medical for over people 40 is valid only 12 months and the license has to be renewed bi-annually.

Would you guess what these two visual ground signals indicate? Turns out that one the right one indicates that aircrafts are required to land and take-off on runways only. Uh? We need a sign for that? So what about the one of the left?

One particular regulation that is more stringent than elsewhere, but struck me as having sense is that to fly IFR, you need to have either two pilots or a pilot and a George (two axis autopilot).

All flights and hotels are now booked, except in Cape Town, where we are going to stay in a lovely Airbnb. Thanks to Sjoerd van ter Welle, who organizes the Ultimate Self-Fly, we are going to have dinner in one of the most sought restaurants in Cape Town, if not the world: Test Kitchen – impossible to get a reservation for an ordinary human being. Let’s have a non-aviation picture here for a change.

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