African Airstrips – Safari Stepping Stones (29.08.14)
“One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labelled buttons, and in whose minds knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fiction.” ― Beryl Markham, West with the Night, 1942.
Time will tell how accurate this prediction proves to be, but if there is one place on earth that offers visitors a ‘magic carpet’ flying experience it has to be Africa. Having travelled every metre of the continent from north to south overland, it is in my experience as immense and breathtaking from the sky as it is when viewed with feet firmly planted on the soil below.
Over the years we have arranged flying safaris for both pilots and non-licensed fliers across East, Central and Southern Africa. Flying in all manner of light aircraft, Nomadic Thoughts’ clients have skipped across Africa’s vast wilderness areas between mountains, above volcanoes, across safari plains and through 1,000m deep canyons. Suffice to say that the experience is sublime as one travels across the continent between the myriad of small landing strips and bush ‘airports’ that appear scattered across Africa like dreamscape stepping stones.
I am in awe when flying across African countryside. Whether following a coastline, river or open savannah I find myself pressing my nose to the aeroplane window. My most recent trip to Botswana encapsulated how privileged and fortunate anyone flying above this remarkable continent is. Ref’ my blog posting ‘Okavango Delta From The Air’.
Certainly the spirit of Beryl Markham (1902-1986) lives on with many a flying safari trip we arrange these days. She was one of the first people to act as an Africa aviation safari guide – flying high above the bush spotting game for the safari guides below. She is to this day one of the most celebrated aviation pioneers. Born in Kenya, she was not only one of the first bush pilots but also the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (1936). Renowned as a hedonistic African adventurer and friend of Karen Blixen, she was represented in the film of ‘Out of Africa’ as the gregarious horse-riding character Felicity.
Although primarily remembered for her memoir ‘West with the Night’, published in 1942, it was not until 1983 that her publication became world famous after the book was re-published by North Point Press.
It was that same year – 1983 – that I first stepped into East Africa. Travelling down the Nile from Egypt and the Sudan, I travelled through Uganda, Zaire and Rwanda en route to Kenya and Tanzania – where I experienced my first classic open plains safari. The thrill of being immersed in the vast openness of African bush with abundant wildlife, sizzling sunsets, big skies and an overwhelming sense of wilderness will remain a lasting Africa memory. Indeed since first arranging Nomadic Thoughts’ client safaris over a quarter of a century ago, I am as confident as ever that when a client returns from one of our African safari trips, the memory will stand out for a lifetime, to be treasured forever.
Aside from the magic carpet views, one of the added surprises when flying across Africa in a light aircraft is the remoteness of each and every bush landing strip. Remoteness from humankind, that is. Not necessarily remoteness from wildlife. One of the first sixth sense checks for an Africa bush pilot is to double check the wildlife situation before landing or taking off. Although not a pilot myself, many a time I have arrived at an airstrip to find giraffe, elephant or a huge flock of birds decamped on the runway. A fly-past to clear the decks is often essential.
I like to think that these photos – all of which I took when flying between safari camps in Africa – illustrate the peace and tranquillity of an Africa airstrip, before it is punctuated by the appearance and arrival of a small aeroplane. Breaking the calm like a distant mosquito over the horizon, it will land like a wide-winged buzzard, often dropping its cargo and departing with a new payload all in a matter of minutes. It then leaves the swaying windsock, fire-station emergency shack, dusty runway, one vehicle maintenance team and surrounding wildlife to settle back into the mid-day summer slumber routine.
Certainly for the foreseeable future, as long as the option of flying across Africa’s bush terrain remains available, visitors will be able to share in Beryl Markham’s observations made decades ago:
“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one…” – West with the Night.