I was invited to participate in an aerial safari around the southern African countries of Namibia, Botswana and Zambia set for May of this year. Our crew consisted of six, myself, Ralph & Christian Tölle from Germany, Inge Friedrich, a tower controller at Bonn’s Hangelar Airport (EDKB),Reinhold Winzen, one of Ralph’s co-workers at the Deutsche Postand, and Eckhart Förtsch, a Namibian living in Atlanta.
The aircraft we used for the trip were a pair of Namibian-registered Cessna 182’s from Eros Airport (FYWE) in Windhoek, V5-JOG and V5-FIS. From a previous trip, Ralph already possessed a Namibian pilot’s license, but Inge and I required a Namibian validation of our foreign certificates. For a validation, the main requirements are written exams on Namibian air law and radio procedures, a flight check with a local CFI, and a small fee. Current foreign medical certificates in English are accepted by the Namibian authorities.
Arriving from Atlanta, Frankfurt and Dubai, we all made it successfully to our rendezvous in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, on Sunday, 8 May 2005. We managed to complete the paperwork and flight check on Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon, we had our Namibian validations in hand and were ready to set off from Windhoek's Eros Airport on a 16-day adventure.
The first leg of the trip was a short one hour hop northeast to Eureka, the cattle farm of Hellmut Förtsch, Eckhart’s brother. Farms in Namibia are huge and this one measured 10 km x 10 km (39 square miles). For our arrival, Hellmut built a 1200m (3900ft) runway on the farm, complete with a taxiway to a tie-down area right next to the farmhouse. Granted, he built an excellent runway, but as I’ve been flying big airplanes for a while now, the approach to the farm field looked to me like the situation in which a CFI simulates an engine failure en route and tells you to make an emergency landing in a field. Now I know what it is like to complete that maneuver. Ralph, flying V5-JOG, was the first to land at Eureka’s new airstrip, and I followed shortly after in V5-FIS. Safely on the ground, we were warmly greeted with champagne. After a picture-perfect African sunset, we were treated to barbecued kudu beneath the Southern Cross with stars filling the clear sky from horizon to horizon.
We spent two nights enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and hospitality at Eureka before continuing our journey to neighboring Botswana. In order to clear Namibian customs and immigration outbound, we flew to Gobabis (FYGB), a border town on the Trans-Kalahari Highway. We had prearranged fuel for the aircraft, which was delivered in a 200-liter drum and hand-pumped into the Cessnas’ tanks. There was a short delay getting the immigration officer from the border post to the airport, but we managed to complete the turn in an hour.
Gravel strips like the field at Gobabis require some special operating techniques to prevent damage to the aircraft and especially the propeller. First of all, apply full back yoke while taxiing with minimum power. If there is no paved run-up pad, complete the run-up while taxiing the aircraft. If a 180 degree turn is required on the runway, keep a reasonable amount of speed so that power does not have to be added to complete the turn. On take-off, apply the power gradually, achieving full power after the aircraft has some airspeed so any stones that may be picked up pass behind the propeller.
The next leg of the trip was from Gobabis to Maun, Botswana. Shortly after takeoff, we opened our international flight plan with Windhoek Information on VHF. After entering Botswana, we were directed to contact Gabarone, which proved impossible until a South African Airways jet passing overhead relayed our position report. After a flight time of just under 3 hours, we landed in Maun (FBMN), a very busy airport with single engine bush planes, mostly Cessna 206’s and 210’s, servicing the tourist camps in the Okavango Delta. New commercial pilots looking for an exciting job should consider bush flying in Maun.
After spending the night in Maun, we flew across the Okavango Delta, Chief’s Island in the Moremi Game Reserve, and Chobe National Park. Over the parks and game reserves, we had to maintain 1000’ AGL, while over other areas of the Delta, we maintained 500’ AGL. The northern part of Botswana is famous for its elephants with a total population well over 100,000, guaranteeing us elephant sightings from the air, especially around waterholes and along the Chobe River, which is the Botswana-Namibia border. Over this remote territory, flying with two aircraft did add a sense of security.
Two and a half hours of scenic flight later, we landed in Kasane, Botswana, in the northeast corner of the country. We had arranged accommodation at the Chobe Safari Lodge, and they picked us up at the airport for the short drive to the riverfront, where we stayed two nights. In the afternoon, we took a game drive in Chobe National Park, where we were overwhelmed by the huge population of elephants. We saw numerous other animals, including a large herd of the rare sable antelope, but the highlight of the drive was an incredible sunset over the Chobe River with a herd of giraffe posing photogenically in the foreground. The following afternoon, we took a boat trip along the Chobe River, which provides close-up views of hippos and elephants frolicking in the water and a large variety of birds and other wildlife.
All too soon it was time to leave Botswana for our next destination – Victoria Falls. With the political trouble in Zimbabwe, we elected to go via Livingstone, Zambia. Flying from Namibia to Botswana only requires filing a flight plan, but for Zambia we had to get a clearance number in advance from the CAA in Lusaka. The clearance should be requested by fax at least 24 hours prior to the proposed operation. Details are listed in the Aviation for Southern Africa Directory which is highly recommended to anyone flying in this region. (www.aviationdirect.co.za) On first contact with Livingstone Approach, the controller will request the clearance number.
It’s a very short flight down the Zambezi River from Kasane to Livingstone, passing over the mid-river meeting point of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Before landing, we requested circuits overhead the falls, and were given a climb to 6000 feet, which is standard for general aviation flights to keep them separate from the commercial scenic flights at lower altitudes. There is an air-to-air traffic advisory frequency for Victoria Falls on 122.1. The falls first come into view as a cloud of smoke rising from the river, and then as you get closer, you can make out the series of canyons carved by the river and the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The view from above is spectacular and is the only way to really appreciate the falls as a whole. From ground level, it is impossible to see more than a small section of the mile-wide falls from any one viewpoint.
Eckhart booked us for two nights at the luxurious Royal Livingstone Hotel, with a major discount through his hotel industry connections. The hotel provided transport for the 30 minute drive from the airport and was able to arrange for a waiver of the Zambian visa fees. Passing through the airy open lobby with views of the Zambezi, we were greeted in the colonial style lounge with a welcome drink, and then shown to our rooms where we were introduced to our butlers. After a gourmet lunch – you can tell it’s gourmet when the nine French fries are artfully arranged – we walked along the river to see Victoria Falls from the Zambian side. Be prepared to get wet. Getting a close-up view of Victoria Falls is a drenching experience.
After the sumptuous feast they called breakfast, Eckhart went for a flight over the falls in a microlight, while the rest of us walked over the bridge to see the falls from the Zimbabwean side and to see what the town of Victoria Falls had to offer, forking over $30 a head for a visa and $20 to visit the falls. Up until just a few years aan side, but with the seizure of white-owned farms and the resultant economic chaos brought on by Robert Mugabe, their side of the falls is like a ghost town, with empty hotels and hardly a tourist to be seen. The petrol station had no fuel available. The currency had collapsed. The Zimbabwe dollar was trading officially at Z$6300 to US$1, while the ever-present black market money traders were offering over Z$20,000 to $1. Even the bank notes were being issued with expiration dates at the end of 2005, reminiscent of Germany in the early 1920s. It’s a pity, but they have only Mugabe to blame.
I would have liked an extra day to do a white water rafting trip down the Zambezi, but we had a full schedule lined up and needed to press on. A week into our trip, May 17th was our longest flying day with three legs and six hours of flight time. We departed from Livingstone with a last pass over the falls before heading back to Namibia, clearing customs at Katima Mulilo (FYKM) in the Caprivi Strip and refuelling at Mokuti Lodge (FYMO) outside Etosha National Park. Flying in a large sparsely populated country like Namibia requires careful fuel planning as there are only five airports in the north of the country with avgas. We overflew the national park camps at Namutoni, Halali and Okaukuejo along a Lodge, located just south of the park.
The runway at Naua Naua (FYNU) made Eureka look like JFK. I figured it had to be safe as the lodge’s owner operates a large Antonov AN-2 biplane from the field, and Inge managed a successful landing before me. Seventeen flight hours into the trip, I was comfortable in the 182 and pulled off a nice landing in the bush. Grass flew as the prop chopped through the long grass of the parking area and I elected to shut down rather than attempt to make a tight turn in those conditions.
We were greeted at Naua Naua by Kimberly Marx, a friend of Inge’s from back in Germany. Kimberly is quite a character, having been a test pilot for the German Air Force back when she was a man. A more recent crazy idea she had was to use a Wilga, a Polish-built single-engine 80 knot taildragger, to tow a glider from Germany to Namibia. The glider only made it as far as Ethiopia, but the Wilga managed to complete the journey to Namibia in 47 days. Her adventure has been published in a German-language book, “Kimbery Fliegt Nach Afrika” (Kimberly Flies to Africa).
The next leg of our journey departed Naua Naua to the northwest crossing Etosha to Epupa Falls (FYEF), on the Kunene River, which forms the border with Angola, a two hour flight. In contrast to the flat land of the interior, the area around Epupa Falls is rather mountainous. After following the river downstream to the falls, which are actually dozens of smaller cascades through a forest of palm and baobab trees, we were able to find the remote airstrip with the help of the GPS. The Epupa Camp spotted us overflying the falls and dispatched a vehicle to collect us from the airstrip. The camp is hidden in a palm forest directly on the banks of the river one km upstream from the falls. The accommodation is in luxurious tents with full-size beds and hot showers, good meals, and friendly staff. Luxury in the bush doesn’t come cheap at $175 per double tent.
None of us had really known what to expect of Epupa Falls. I pushed for the excursion as this remote corner of the country is very difficult to reach by four-wheel-drive, which makes it ideally suited to light aircraft. We found a fairytale landscape like a slice of the Garden of Eden. From above, the falls looked interesting, but from ground level, hiking a short way along the Namibian shore of the Kunene River, the falls were simply stunning, enhanced by the massive and bizarre baobab trees dotting the shore. We took our sundowners from the top of a nearby hill overlooking the magical landscape.
Epupa Falls is part of the Kaokoveld, an area of Namibia inhabited by the primitive, semi-nomadic Himba tribe. Before dropping us back at the airstrip, the camp arranged for us to visit a Himba village. The men of the village were off with the cattle in the hills but the women were at home with the small children. The Himba go topless and cover their skin with a reddish-ochre powder which makes members of this tribe very easy to recognize. They live in small huts made of branches covered in mud and manure. As payment for our visit, the camp donated coffee, tea and sugar to the village.
Leaving Epupa Falls much too soon, we flew south 80 miles to Opuwo, where we were able to fuel the aircraft before heading to the Atlantic for a flight down the Skeleton Coast to Swakopmund. Unfortunately, the Skeleton Coast is famous for fog and low clouds generated by the cold Benguela Current, and that day was no exception. At the remote settlement of Möwe Bay, we had a break and were able to fly low-level along the coast for a short way before being forced back inland by the fog. A bit further south, at Terrace Bay, I found the main road. Inge, flying V5–JOG, stayed high while I had a good time flying –FIS low-level along the deserted road.
Avoiding the temptation to land for a remote picnic, we carried on, arriving early afternoon at our destination, Swakopmund. This resort town dates from the period of the German colonization of South West Africa. Eckhart’s father, who lives in Swakopmund, met us at the airport and brought us to his home for coffee and cake. We stayed two nights in Swakopmund, enjoying a break from the fast pace of our full schedule in this pleasant seaside town.
May 21st it was back to the airport for the next leg of our journey, which was rapidly coming to an end. We continued south along the coast, overflying the port city of Walvis Bay. Just south of Sandwich Harbour we encountered our first major shipwreck, the Shaunee, bow first into a dune and now half buried. Soon after, in Conception Bay, we found the most famous wreck in Namibia, the Eduard Bohlen, which ran aground in 1909 and is now marooned several hundred meters from the current shoreline. We then set course inland over the dunes of the vast Namib Desert. The land climbs rapidly as you leave the coast and we ended up flying at 4000 feet as we reached our destination, the Sossusvlei Lodge.
People visit the Sossusvlei area to experience the grandeur of the Namib Desert, which contains some of the tallest dunes in the world and is well worth visiting. I felt, however, that the lodge took advantage of us. Since we arrived by air, we did not have a vehicle to drive ourselves into the park, and the lodge charged us US$80 each for the 40 mile drive into the park. Having little choice, we spent the money.
That afternoon, we departed Sossusvlei, overflying the dunes we climbed earlier in the day, and continued southbound along the coast to Lüderitz. This section of coast is much more rugged than what we had seen so far. In Spencer Bay, we spotted the 1945 shipwreck of the Otavi, which broke up against the rocky shore in a cove which is now overrun with seals. Offshore, we passed several small and very remote islands which were, nevertheless, inhabited. Guano is collected from the huge bird colonies on these islands and used for fertilizer.
Lüderitz is another German colonial-era town located on a natural harbor, surrounded by stark desert. While the town now has only 200 German speaking descendants, it retains a very German feel. The colorful, well maintained colonial-era buildings reminded me of a village made for a model railroad. We stayed two nights at the Guesthouse Zur Waterkant, run by Eckhart’s aunt and uncle.
The following day, we visited the main tourist site of the Lüderitz area. The ghost town Kolmanskuppe is a turn-of-the-century diamond mining town which has been abandoned since the 1950s. The remaining buildings are in a fight for survival against the blowing sands, which nearly reach the ceilings of some of the ruined homes. With a strong southerly wind gusting over 30 knots with blowing sand, we had a good idea of the miserable conditions those people must have lived with.
Thankfully, on the day of our departure, the gales had ceased. On departure, we overflew Kolmanskuppe and Lüderitz to Diaz Point, a place where Portuguese explorers landed in 1488. Rounding the point, we continued our journey down the Namibian coast over the restricted diamond area, known here as the Sperrgebiet, over active diamond mines and past a well-known landmark, the Bogenfels, a natural arch entering the sea.
After having flown approximately 700 miles of the 850 mile long Namibian coast, we turned inland again, passing just north of the South African frontier across the Oranje River en route to the Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa. We had only one more day so we had to satisfy ourselves with aerial views of the canyon and continue on, landing at Keetmanshoop for fuel prior to our last family visit at Olifantwater, the farm where Eckhart grew up.
Unlike Eureka, we didn’t have a nice new airstrip to land on at Olifantwater and landed instead on the neighboring farm of Ellingerode. The airstrip hadn’t been used in quite some time and although the farmer mowed it prior to our arrival, it was still by far the worst airstrip we used during the entire trip, a narrow, curved strip consisting of soft sand and tall grass. Eckhart’s father had driven up from Swakopmund and drove us from the airstrip to the farmhouse where we celebrated the last of our many African sunsets on top of one of the long lateral dunes running in lines across the land.
Finally, on the 25th of May, 16 days after our departure from Eros, we started the last leg of the trip, a one hour hop back to Windhoek. The takeoff from Ellingerode was the first true soft-field takeoff I had done, and I briefed Eckhart and Reinhold that the technique would involve getting airborne at a low airspeed and accelerating in ground effect before climbout. It actually worked as planned and after a pass over the farm, we set course for Windhoek, the first leg on the long journey home. We landed safely at Eros, the point of our departure, having completed 32 block hours of flying.
We paid a dry rate of approximately $92 per hour. Avgas in Namibia costs around $3.40 per gallon (N$6 per liter). With an average fuel consumption on the 182 of 12 gallons per hour, the wet rate ended up as $133. Taxes on the rental costs raised the hourly rate to $148. The required additional insurance was $100 per pilot. At the larger airports, such as Maun, Kasane and Livingstone, landing fees, passenger service charges, and ATC/navigation charges tended to run $100 per aircraft. At the smaller airports, like Swakopmund, Luderitz and Keetmanshoop, the charges were a more reasonable $30. The prices are expensive to American standards, but cheap against European ones. Since we were able to split the costs per aircraft three ways, the costs for the trip turned out to be reasonable.