We spent 2 days, 3 nights in Panama City, staying in Villa Palma Hotel in Casco Viejo, the old part of the town, with narrow streets, impossible circulations, everything reachable by foot and amplified by he contrast with high rises of modern Panama city center across the bay. The first day we stayed at Casco Viejo, exploring it by foot, its various churches and museums.
For dinner, I stumbled upon a great restaurant called Caliope. It is on a second floor of an unmarked building and a bit hard to find,but the food was outstanding.
The second day, we took Uber to Miraflores Locks, to watch ships go through Panama Canal. There are three locks on the old canal, which can accommodate ships up to 108 feet wide. That leaves one foot buffer to the lock wall on each side. A sail boat and a cargo ship entered the first stage of locks, gate closed and the water level was lowered so that both ship could move the second stage to repeat the process and exit on the Pacific site. It is amazing that the system uses no power, it does use however prodigious amount of fresh water.
Remember that nose shimmy from my previous post? On the way back from the locks, we were passing by the airport and I listened to my friend Michael, who strongly suggested we check that out. We went to the airplane, removed the nose wheel fairing and had the local mechanic check the tension. There was none, the nose wheel was moving freely. It turns out that the cotter pin the nose wheel assembly was broken and the nut loosened. If unchecked, that could lead to loosing the fairing in flight, loss of control during landing or even nose wheel collapse. If you ever stop at Gelabert airport in Panama City, make sure to use Mapiex FBO, they were very helpful.
Departing Gelabert, we requested the canal overflight and we flew West toward Lake Gatun. Unfortunately, it was too hazy to take great pictures. It was an easy 2.5 hour flight to Cartagena and as usual we were staggered at altitude: Michael the highest at 17,000, I started at 11,000, but climbed to 15,000 and John staying at 11,000. Since not many people fly at those altitudes over here, ATC is usually quite accommodating.
The first part of our trip to South America brought us from San Francisco to Panama City. We left home on a Friday afternoon and flew to Tucson, Arizona. On Saturday early morning we departed for our Mexico AOE in Mazatlan, a pleasant 3:30 VFR flight.
Mazatlan is a very nice and fast stop. We met the same people who welcomed us in 2014, during the first COPA trip I set up and they remembered us. The whole procedure, including fuel, immigration, customs, flight plans and paying landing fees took perhaps half an hour. However, in spite of the fast turnaround we were somewhat concerned that we might arrive after dark to Oaxaca, our overnight stop. Since Mexico does not allow night VFR and the airport sits in a valley with mountains on both sides, we filed and flew IFR. Due to terrain, the MEAs enroute are up to 16,000 so we flew at 17000.
The whole flight was in VMC, except for a thin layer of clouds half an hour before the destination. I suspected that we might get ice if we fly into them, but I saw that we would be skimming tops, so an easy out was to climb up 500 feet back to VMC. As a learning experience, I stayed at our altitude and entered the clouds. Literally within a minute, we had leading edges and wings start to cover with ice. The airspeed dropped by 10 knots and as I was about to initiate the climb, we exited the clouds. Our friend John was flying 10 minutes behind me and he asked how it was. My reply “I got little bit of ice” was, according to him, a big understatement. He also entered the clouds, got all iced up, switched on ice protection, but than descended to 16,000 thinking he would get out through the bottom. Apparently the ice was even worse there, but it ended without any further troubles as he also exited the clouds.
My airplane is turbocharged, but has only basic TKS protection and I would have never entered that cloud if I didn’t see where the tops before. John has FIKI and he wasn’t in any danger neither. I was grateful for the experience, there is not a better learning experience than to see yourself how fast the ice can build up.
Oaxaca is beautiful town, we didn’t have much time to visit, but we were lucky to be there for the Las Calendas festival. The city is famous for its mole and it didn’t disappoint – make sure you check out the Cathedral restaurant.
As much as Mazatlan is fast, Oaxaca is slow. There is a usual run between offices of the commandante, operations, immigration and customs, with the added twist of the commandante sitting behind a plexiglass window with 5 small holes to talk and single sheet of paper thick slot to pass paperwork back and forth. The operation person wanted to have correct ICAO codes for the airplane, which are so idiotic that most US pilots, including us don’t know them. Usually, I just write whatever they want me to write, the trouble this time was she didn’t know what she wanted.
All together, it took us over an hour, which used to be a norm in Mexico, but many airports are now much more efficient, so that made it slow.
The flight to San Salvador, Ilipango airport was uneventful, but we started to hear unfamiliar ATC facility names. Merida Center, Sandino Approach as we overflew Managua, Nicaragua and finally Salvador Control. We were IFR, because it makes border crossing much easier, but upon arrival to Ilipango, I cancelled and entered on extended left base to runway 33. The approach took us over a beautiful lake, but the runway is in mediocre shape and in spite of textbook landing, I got bad nose shimmy. It couldn’t be bad technique, could it? It must have been bad runway.
John decided to fly the VOR-DME arc approach, which involved several step-down fixes and landed 15 minutes after us. We had a handler, who took care of all the paperwork for us, so it was very efficient, we just gave him our passport and a credit card. There is a restaurant at the local club, but on Sunday it was closed, so we had to continue with granola bar lunch. The airport seems to be frozen in time.
The last leg took us from Ilipango to Gelabert airport in Panama City. Salvador Control handed us to Coco Control, but not before giving us an option of either rerouting, which would add 40 nm, or climbing to 15000 feet. At this point, the fuel totalizer was showing 18 gallons remaining at the destination, which was very close to my hard limit (16 gallons). We had about 25 knots left quartering headwind, so I elected to climb, not wanting to add any more distance, and hoping that the wind would turn counter-clockwise with altitude, as forecasts were saying. Plus, of course, we are more efficient higher up. The wind did turn, after leveling off at 15000, I pulled the power back to 15 gph and the totalizer was now showing 24 gallons at the destination.
We passed San Jose, Costa Rica and close to the border Coco Control gave us two frequencies for Panama Center, saying that one might work. Sure enough, I couldn’t raise anybody on neither of them and I did want to talk to them to ask for a small deviation, because our current routing would have taken us 25 nm from the shore. I found the third frequency for Panama Center, who approved our reroute. However, we had to switch frequencies for Panama Center ourselves, because the reception was spotty. Finally we got to Panama Approach and there it became standard US phraseology with American accent and efficient handling. Gelabert is a VFR-only airport and we got a visual approach over the entrance to Panama Canal. Overflying a small hill on short approach, we landed after 4:15 min with 22 gallons of fuel remaining.
The local FBO (Mapiex) was fast and efficient in handling all our paperwork. We don’t use handlers in Mexico, but south of there they become first convenient (Guatemala), than necessary (Salvador) and finally mandatory (Costa Rica).
The next day, I went back to check on that nose shimmy. Cirrus specs are 35 lbs for the nose wheel tension when pushing on the axle, we had nothing. Nose wheel was basically freely castoring. The cotter pin securing a castle nut used to adjust the tension was broken and if we didn’t check it, we could have had nose gear collapse.
All in all, 3200 nm and about 19 hours on the Hobbs over 2.5 days. Tired, but happy, we arrived to Panama City, where we plan to stay 3 days.
Our next legs will bring us to Cartagena, than to Bogota, Popayan and Cali in Colombia.
In January 2018, I organized another trip to Mexico, this time we visited Baja California. This the 5th year we are bringing gringos to Mexico. The official purpose was whale watching in Magdalena Bay, but everybody knew it was just an excuse to go flying.
We left home Wednesday afternoon and flew to KSAN (San Diego International), Lindbergh field. I prefer that airport to smaller General Aviation airports, such as Montgomery Field, because it is close to downtown. As class B airports go, this is one of the easiest in the country.
On Thursday morning, we flew from Sand Diego to Loreto. My preferred AOE (Airport of Entry) in Mexico is San Felipe (MMSF), they are by far the fastest and most efficient, unfortunately San Felipe didn’t have fuel at that time. If you plan to use that airport, make sure to call ahead of time to check fuel status.
Loreto is a bit larger and unfortunately, quite more bureaucratic, it took as about 1.5 hours to fuel-up, prepare flight plans and go through customs and immigration. And one point, all immigration officers disappeared, because Alaska Airlines landed. One airplane in our group was asked to carry suitcases to the office for inspection. While the customs officers are perfectly in their right to request that, in my 15 years of flying in Mexico, I was asked for that only once. To return to our airplanes, one has to go through a ridiculously superfluous security checkpoint. In contrast, the large commercial airport in San Jose del Cabo, where we were in November 2017 does not require jumping through these hoops.
On Thursday afternoon we met all the group in Rancho Las Cruces, a seaside beach resort located on a natural sanctuary of more than 10,000 acres and 7 miles of private pristine coastline. The hotel is situated along the beaches of the Sea of Cortés, about 15 min flight from La Paz.
Most important though, the hotel has its own airstrip. Part of the magic of flying in Baja is just that, park your airplane and walk to the hotel. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of such places now, because security measures are often too expensive to keep strips open. The approach and landing at the strip are not particularly difficult, but they are interesting.
Most of the strips in Baja do not have any terrain around and just looking at Google Maps might suggest the same is true for Rancho Las Cruces. This is where it pays to be more thorough, because here how it looks on Google Earth, looking south-east, i.e from the sea.
Landing towards the West may be impractical due to rising terrain and prevailing westward winds. Landings towards the East requires flying close to terrain in what looks like a canyon, following a dry river bed.
All the participants were provided with information about the strip, with photos of terrain and a video of a Cessna Caravan pilot landing there. They were also advised the strip was challenging and if not comfortable, they should land at the commercial airport in La Paz, which is only one hour by car.
I decided to land at the Rancho’s airstrip and flew along the coast southband, to determine the wind and airstrip condition. Winds were generally from the east at 12-17 knots, depending on the altitude and this, together with the terrain made me decide to approach and land to the east. Here is the video of our landing.
The approach looks very flat in the video, but this is an optical illusion due to the position of the camera.
We spent the next day relaxing at the hotel, trying out local margaritas, catching up with old friends and making new ones. Friday morning, it was time to depart for Magdalena Bay and the winds were again favoring takeoff towards the sea. Since there were people filming our departure, I stayed in ground effect until the departure end, before pulling up. The video below offers the opportunity to admire my soft field takeoff technique from the ground and from the camera attached under the wing.
It was a short flight towards Magdalena Bay on Friday morning, only about 130 nm. Approaching the Pacific coast I became concerned we might be unable to land, due to low level bank of fog and low clouds covering the airstrip. That turned out to be a false alarm, a large hole in the clouds was open over the Bay and we landed without any trouble. In the video below, the camera was attached below the wing, as in the inset for the takeoff video, but it tilted in flight.
Notice a red cement pad at the begining of the airstrip, this is a runup area. You definitely do not want to touch down at or before the pad, unless you want to have your landing gear forcibly retracted.
You might also have noticed that I swerved to the right after touchdown. This was to avoid a flock of birds that were sitting imperturbable at the middle of the runway. I thought they won our little game of chicken and rolled to the right to avoid them, but somewhat predictable, they flew away after few seconds.
There is a short 15 min walk from the airstrip to the marina, but we got a ride in a car and we hoped on a small boat to cruise the lagoon searching for whales. And they were there.
After a quick lunch in a local eatery, we returned to the airplanes for the flight to Mulege, but due to lack of fuel in San Felipe, we stopped en route in Loreto. Without hassles of immigration and customs, refueling and flight plans took about 30 minutes.
The airstrip adjacent to the hotel is in good shape, just make sure you don’t land on or before the cement pad used for runups.
Hotel Serenidad in Mulege is a fixture in Baja flying, it was one of the first places welcoming aviators. Their Saturday night roast pig with live music was quite famous. I called ahead of time to make sure that the tradition is still alive, in spite of being assured on the phone this was still the case, we had a simple pork rib buffet and no live music. But the margaritas were as good as ever – the barman Román works there for long time and he hasn’t lost the touch with his tequila.
After a somewhat wobbly wake-up on Sunday and a delicious breakfast, we said goodbye to the whole group and flew away home. The stop in San Felipe was the fastest I ever experienced – 10 minutes for immigration, customs and flight plans. Hopefully, next time they will have fuel.
We started to plan for our next fun flying trip: Colombia, Ecuador via Central America in February 2018.
In a group of 3 Cirrus SR22 aircrafts, we will fly all the way to Quito, Ecuador and back. The whole trip will take 3 weeks and it is awfully hard to select places to visit – there are just too many of them. The overall plan is to fly first to Panama with minimum stops en route, that’s 3,000 nautical miles and it will still take us 2.5 days to get there. While it would be possible to do it in 1.5 days, this is supposed to be fun. From that point on, we will slow down, spend 3 days in Panama City, 3 days in Cartegna in Colombia, followed by another 3 days in Bogota. Bogota main international airport accepts only commercial traffic, so we are landing in Guyamaral, in suburbs. After Bogota, we are stopping for one day in Popayan and Cali before flying to Quito, Ecuador.
To be more accurate, we are not going to land in Quito, but rather continue to Latacunga and drive back to Quito. That’s because the Quito airport doesn’t like small GA airplanes and charges $4,000 landings fees. Suddenly, landing fees in Europe I was complaining about in the past don’t seem that high anymore. Since in Ecuador, avgas is only available in Guyaquil, we may have to stop there to fill up after Latacunga, if the winds are very unfavorable.
Returning from Ecuador, we will stop for couple of days in Pereira, Colombia, before heading back to Costa Rica and Guatemala. Final stop before the last stretch home will be in Antigua, near Guatemala City.
Total distance 8,500 nautical miles, about 50 hours flight hours over 3 weeks.
I flew to Mexico for the first time in 2005 and we’ve been flying there couple of times each year. Baja California is the closest real beach place from San Francisco and I am always surprised how many private pilots are apprehensive about visiting.
To help alleviate fears, I’ve been organizing Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association trips to Mexico for the last four years. In 2017, we had 22 airplanes joining us on a trip to Alamos, Sonora and to Manzanillo. In 2016, we visited San Miguel de Allende, Guajanuato, Morelia and Guadalajara. In 2018, we will be doing whale watching in Magdalena Bay and landing on some fun dirt strips.
End of November starts to be chilly here, meaning temperature may occasionally drop below 20°C, so to escape the freeze, we decided to spend Thanksgiving in San Jose del Cabo. There are two towns at the most southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula: San Jose del Cabo is a bit sleepy, Cabo San Lucas is a party town and there are plenty of resorts in between. Having already passed the prime of our party time, we decided for a more calm place, mostly because of a beautiful hotel that opened there recently: Mar Adentro.
In 2014, we spent Thanksgiving in Acapulco in Hotel Elcanto, built by the same architect: Miguel Angel Aragonés. This is a truly amazing place. We loved it so much that we stayed in the hotel all four days, without going to town even once!
When we found that Aragonés designed another hotel in San Jose del Cabo, we had to see it.
The flight to San Jose was a bit longer than usual, because we first stopped in Santa Monica to pick up our daughter’s boyfriend. Both were coming with us for a short family reunion. This was right before shortening of the Santa Monica runway started, the first step in the city plan to shut down the airport. It is a shame that such a beautiful airport will close, only because malls and commercial real estate pays more in taxes than an airport. The city council conducted a shameful campaign under false pretenses.
We spent the night in Santa Monica and flew to San Felipe for customs, immigration and fuel. Airports in Mexico are known for their bureaucracy and I used to budget 1 to 1.5 hours for a stop. San Felipe is a notable exception, it took us 25 minutes to refuel and take care of all the paperwork and we took off for San Jose del Cabo (MMSD). This is the large international airport serving both towns, while the smaller (MMSL) caters mainly to private aviators. The incoming formalities were surprisingly simple: take your luggage and go. Well, almost, because I wanted to get fuel and it took a bit of time waiting for the fuel truck.
Mar Ardento didn’t disappoint us. Here is the restaurant, appropriately called El Nido.
At night, the whole structure is illuminated in blue and red. At the bottom right, you can see El Nido at night, from high up. In between the buildings, there is water, with walkways connecting the hotel with the restaurant, pool and the beach.
On Sunday, we drove back to the airport, took care of all the paperwork, which again was quite fast and took off for Loreto. Being four in the airplane, I couldn’t take full fuel and I didn’t have the range to fly back direct to San Diego. But the stop in Loreto was also fast and we took advantage of it to grab a quick bite, before continuing to San Diego, Brown’s Field (KSDM), than back to Santa Monica and finally home, San Carlos.
Yes, it would be faster to fly commercial to Cabo and less expensive, but we would miss amazing views of Baja California and the adventure of flying ourselves in our little travel machine. It is only 6 hours one way.
It’s been a long, long time since I flew in a glider so while driving through French Alps towards Mediterranean, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect place and time to remind myself what the joy of soaring is all about.
There are many soaring places in the mountains and I reached out to a friend who helped me identify a few: Saint-Crepin, Sisteron, Gap, Vinon, Fayence. After couple of phone calls, I had an appointment at Aeroclub Alpin in Gap for a 45 minutes discovery flight.
The Gap-Tallard airport turned out to be a pretty busy place with one main runway 03/21 (3,100 feet), a “mini” runway 03/21 (1,450 feet) and a grass runway 03/21 (2,300 feet). In one description I read that everything that flies is present there, or almost and I found it to be true. Upon arrival, we had lunch in a very busy airport restaurant and than I walked to the club for my glider ride.
Since it’s been a while since my last glider flight, I didn’t know local terrain nor how one operates at this airport, I hired an experienced pilot and instructor in the back seat to help me get back into the saddle. The first surprise was how they towed the aircraft for the launch by simply attaching it behind a truck. With a wheel dolly attached under one wing, there was no need for any additional help. After a quick preflight, we were ready for our flight in a Grob-103, a glider I am very familiar with.
We launched from the runway 21 and detached from the tow plane at about 3,000 feet AGL. The goal was to reach a nearby mountain, about 10 miles away, shown with the arrow below.
Ten miles doesn’t sound like much, but let’s not forget that a glider doesn’t have an engine and the only way to advance is to loose altitude, which altitude has to be first gained. There are several ways that a glider can climb, all using the fact that air moves up in certain places and if the glider happens to be there, it rises together with the air.
The most common technique, which we used that day was thermal soaring. It occurs when a column of air is heated near the surface and rises, typically until a cumulus cloud that caps the ascent. So off we went chasing one cumulus after another. Once you feel the lift and it is sometimes literally is a bump, which starts raising one wing or the whole aircraft, you enter a tight turn trying to circle within the thermal. That is easier said that done, since you can’t see that raising air, only a variometer (a sensitive vertical speed indicator used in gliders) shows if you are climbing or descending.
In addition to thermal soaring, we also tried ridge soaring, where you use the fact that wind blowing into a hill is deflected up by the terrain. For that, you have to be pretty close to the said ridge, hundred feet or less.
The instructor kept asking me how I was feeling. I forgot somewhat how tight the turns are in thermals and how long they last. The turns together with bumps made me a bit dizzy, but not enough to say anything else than a valiant “Great!”. He was so happy to finally fly with somebody who wasn’t airsick, that what supposed to be a 45 minutes flight turned out to be about three hours. He told me later that he often has to terminate discovery flights after 15 minutes.
That day it took us over an hour to get to our mountain, the gods of lift where making us work very hard. But when we finally got there, it was magical.
Here is where flying a glider is so much fun. You get to fly to much closer to terrain, you have an impression of wearing an aircraft instead of sitting in it, the noise is much less and different and you can never forget how far and how high you are.
Speaking of height, it turns out that gliders in France use meters for height, while power planes use feet. In addition, the altimeter in this particular glider was inverted, with the zero at the bottom, so I first had to think what the arrows were really telling me and than convert it into feet, so that I know what it means. I thought that only French would be devious enough to invent such an instrument, but apparently this is used in gliders in other countries too.
If you never flew a glider, find the closest place that offers the training and get a glider license. In the Bay Area, you’ve got NCSA at the Byron airport, where I used to tow gliders a while back and Hollister Soaring Center. You will learn about flying from that and you will become a better pilot.
In July, I was able to fulfill the dream of flying in Courchevel. This is truly one of the most extraordinary airports in the world, located in high French Alpes mountains at 6,000 feet altitude. It is one way in and one way out and you need to have both French mountain rating and a special endorsement to fly there yourself. Since both would take more time than I had, I hired a local instructor from AeroSavoie and a Cessna 172.
The Courchevel runway is 1,700 long, which doesn’t sound much, but in fact is plenty, because of the vertical profile. When you look from the air, the first 134 m (400 ft) of runway 22 does look flat, in spite of having 12.5% upslope and that is because the following 840 ft has a whooping 18.7% upslope.
When you line up for the takeoff from runway 04, you only see the first 370 feet, which does look awfully short, like this.
You add full power, check oil and engine gauges, check the wind and release the brakes. The airplane is barely moving when you reach the descent point, but since the runway drops down after that point, you pick up speed really fast and the takeoff becomes a non-event.
For the landing, the goal is touch down in the first “flat” 400 feet of the runway 22. As long as we are in agreement to call 12.5% upslope “flat”. To do that, you have to aim before the threshold and in this case it also means below the threshold. If you don’t touch down in the first part, the following 18.6% upslope will basically slam into you. After the touchdown, you have to increase power to climb upslope.
I did four patterns with a somewhat young and impatient local instructor, who urged me to correct immediately each small speed excursion. Which I did, except using small corrections, such that to avoid overshooting. You know, smooth pilot etc… We did land safely each time, see for yourself.
Next time I am in the Alps, I’ll do the mountain rating and fly to some other fun mountain strips.
In July we had an opportunity to fly from Paris to Bilbao and visit Chateaux de la Loire on the way back. What a treat. You may want to skip the first part if you are not a pilot.
Our friends Denis and Sophie took us to Bilbao and Denis was brave enough to let me fly his immaculate Cirrus SR22. With tail winds, the flight from Toussus le Noble, a GA airport close to Paris, to Bilbabo took 2:30. We flew IFR, because crossing the border (yes, they still have borders between France and Spain) would require a flight plan and squawk code anyway. Denis was working the radios and although I am fluent in French, I had initially some trouble understanding the phraseology. In fact, IFR is easier in such circumstances for a visiting pilot, because you get more hand holding. Denis Cirrus is N-registered, which would allow me to be a PIC based on my FAA license – my EASA conversion, which I would need to use to fly any European registered aircraft is VFR only.
The air was calm at 9,000 feet and the sky clear, except until we were close to Bilbao. An overcast layer forced us to fly an ILS approach. The airplane has dual GTN650, a DFC-90 autopilot and and Avidyne screen, the setup I am very familiar with, so I didn’t think I would have any trouble flying this approach. Denis had Jepessen approach plates, which I reviewed and didn’t see anything unusual. Here is the plate I found online, it is not Jepp, but the information is similar.
If you just load the approach as usual, you will have trouble identifying 4,900 step down fix from BLV, because it is not in the navigator database. Might be that’s why the approach plate says DME required! The easy solution is of course to set up BLV (or IBLV) as a waypoint on the #2 GPS, so that you can see the distance. Otherwise, during the approach, you will have to do the subtraction BLV 15 – BLV 12.9 to figure out that fix is 2.1 nm from FAF. After Denis suggested setting up #2, I was already very high on the glideslope and technically, we should have gone missed. But this was gentleman IMC and the ceilings were high enough, so we continued and landed.
The DME is in fact mandatory in Europe for approaches like that and they do not support using GPS in lieu of DME, as we do in US. In fact, even ADF is mandatory if the approach plate says so. I saw weird panels with the latest Garmin Perspective and 30 years old King ADF box squeezed in the middle. Somebody should tell EASA that we are in the 21st century.
Handling is mandatory in Bilbao and we paid about $200 between handling fees, landing fees and various taxes. Think about it the next time you complain about that $25 a FBO charges you if you don’t take fuel.
The main Bilbao attraction is of course the Guggenheim museum.
If you’ve been to Southern California, you might think they did copy Disney Hall in Los Angeles, but that would be the same as saying that Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is modeled after Disneyland (I actually did hear that exact thing being said by an American couple strolling through the castle). Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Bilbao in nineties and the museum opened in 1997. He followed with Disney Hall, which was opened in 2003.
The Bilbao puppy next to the museum is endearing and we probably took thousand pictures of it.
We departed Bilbao IFR and this time I was also manning the radios – in English, because I don’t speak Spanish and with Denis help. We soon were switched over to French controllers and I continued in English, but than we decided to land in Poitiers and refuel and somehow, we switched to French. It was actually relatively easy – speaking French is a definitive advantage if you fly there. A LPV approach was a piece of cake.
Chateaux de la Loire
After Poitiers, we continued VFR at 1,500 feet, to visit Chateaux de la Loire. It was bumpy, but worth it, we saw Loche, Chenonceau, Amboise, Blois and Chambord.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.