African Fly-It-Yourself Safari

A pilot and his right-seater share their adventures and adversities in the African sky.

Bravo Kilo Echo enters the pattern to circumnavigate Victoria Falls. (Photos by Mike Venturino and Michelle Carter)|

At 6,500 feet, we could see the spray of Victoria Falls billowing above the Zimbabwe flatland 70 miles out. No GPS necessary, just head for the cloud of mist and keep the roiling Zambezi River below you.

Strung out behind our Cessna 182 at varying intervals were three other Cessnas and a Piper Cherokee, with members of the Pacific Bonanza Society as pilots and wives as co-pilots, all prepping to circle the falls clockwise at 6,000 feet (above levels reserved for scheduled aircraft, below for helicopters and ultra-lights).

My husband, Mike Venturino, who’s a retired United Airlines captain, and I, a dedicated right-seater, were taking the lead on this leg of our 13-day Fly-It-Yourself safari that had taken us from Johannesburg to Pilanesburg in South Africa and then into Zimbabwe for the centerpiece of the journey — Big Cave Lodge at Matapos National Park and two days and nights on the Zambezi at Chikwenya Lodge. Until then, the glories of Victoria Falls and an elegant stay at the posh Victoria Falls Hotel awaited us ahead.

Looking north from Cape Point, just across from the Cape of Good Hope.|

Later, we would turn south into Botswana to Mashatu Lodge in the Limpopo Valley and then to Shibula Lodge in Welgevonden Private Game Reserve for our re-entry into South Africa.

Somewhere behind us was the Citabria flown by Dave Vanderspuy, who runs African Aero Safari and served as our guide through the months of planning our itinerary of five-star lodgings, adrenaline-pumping game drives and eye-popping scenery for the rest of the trip. But it was the flying that made this safari (Swahili for “journey”) a cut above any earthbound adventure.

It called on each pilot’s ability to demonstrate real pilotage, flying by the seat of his pants, landing on remote strips of dirt, sand and/or gravel and taking off with clumps of grass in the tail cones. Finding those strips from altitude could be an adventure all its own. Good thing we packed our Garmins from home because few of these strips had big white numbers at each end or ATC of any kind. A wind sock represented advanced technology.

Fuel stops had to be carefully planned since few of the small airports had any available. It wasn’t unusual to see Dave climbing up on the wings of a 182 carrying a plastic tube with corks in either end to siphon gas for a 172 with lesser fuel capacity.

With no fuel available on site, siphoning from the 182s to the 172 was a must.|

The other four pilots had to earn their South African licenses during the first three days of the trip, but Mike’s license from our previous safari in 2010 was still valid. That certification required ground study, a written test and then a qualification flight with an instructor. But even then, the pilots were only approved to fly VFR sunrise to sunset, which made things touch-and-go when the weather closed in on the last leg of this trip from Shibula back to Johannesburg.

Once they were licensed, the pilots picked up their rented airplanes at Lanseria Airport (FALA) near Johannesburg. Locating airplanes available to rent continues to be Vanderspuy’s greatest challenge since only 2,600 private, single-engine, piston aircraft are registered in all of South Africa, half the number you’d find in Los Angeles County alone. And we were coming in on the heels of the Easter holidays, the traditional end-of-summer getaways in the Antipodes, when small airplane owners often are on the wing themselves.

“It’s our greatest bug-a-bear,” Dave said. “There’s no Avis of rent-a-planes in Africa where you can pick up a 182 or a PA-46. You have to go with the ones that are available at the moment.”

Leaving South Africa for a week in Zimbabwe, everyone fills up on fuel.|

The three stops in Zimbabwe and along the Zambezi were special in their own right since the country was just recently beginning to realize the value of eco-tourism. After a short shake-down flight to Pilanesburg, we headed north on the longest leg of the trip, a three-and-a-half-hour flight, descending into the Limpopo Valley, overflying Botswana and then back into Zimbabwe to clear Customs at Bulawayo (FVBU).

At the Joshua Nkomo Airport (a quonset hut next to a splashy but perpetually unfinished terminal building), we filled out the first of a tiresome succession of General Declaration forms, plunked down $83 in U.S. cash per airplane for landing fees and $30 per person for a visa hand-written in duplicate with scraps of worn carbon paper.

Why U.S. greenbacks? The Zimbabwean dollar has been so devalued that the country now accepts currency from anywhere. As a result, Zimbabwe has some of the dirtiest U.S. dollars you’ll ever see. Filthy bills, which would have been removed from circulation in the U.S. long ago, are still in the tills all over Zimbabwe.

Lots of uncharted strips like these popped up along the Zambezi River.|

After the formalities at Nkomo were done, the pilots headed back to the tarmac to form the conga line for a very deliberate (and overstaffed) refueling operation while the rest of us shuttled luggage. The terminal apparently comes to life only twice a day when scheduled flights arrive. Unfortunately, we were between those flights, and the chilled bottles of Fanta in the locked cooler behind the bar had to remain just out of reach.

By now the pilots were already grousing about the WAC charts in Zimbabwe and Botswana, which hadn’t kept up with changes in roads and landmarks. A favorite example was a huge body of water just into Zimbabwe that couldn’t be found on any chart. Closer inspection revealed that a medium-sized river had been dammed some time after the area had been charted and, apparently, the maps hadn’t been updated since. Pilots and chief navigators (the wives!) now were depending on GPS coordinates and ForeFlight on their iPads for navigating.

We were also taking careful note of Dave’s warning (printed in red on our safari flying guide) to keep a sharp lookout for vultures, storks and eagles soaring at flight levels. “They are accustomed to aircraft so they tend to not move too much out of harm’s way. Always maneuver to be above or abeam them, never below.” We later learned that these huge birds tuck their wings and dive if they feel threatened so you don’t want to get under them.

A wildebeest and a dazzle of zebras (that’s what you call a herd) munch at sunset.|

Dated charts and vultures aside, Bulawayo and the Matopos region of Zimbabwe stunned us with the majestic, crater-sized granite boulders with rainbow striations that define the area. From elevation, these huge rocks (which have had some 2 billion years of aging to round their edges) can be seen from a great distance. The rocks, called “bald heads” by the Ndebele nation, provided the setting for Big Cave Camp, our first lodging in Zimbabwe, which was nestled among the boulders.

The highlight of the Matopos (or Matobos, depending on who’s doing the spelling) was Nswatugi Cave, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with Stone Age paintings of giraffes, eland and kudu believed to have been painted by the San people or Bushmen of southern Africa many thousands of years ago.

Next was another long leg of about 300 miles, carrying us north to Lake Kariba, which holds more water than any other artificial lake in the world. This body of water was definitely on the charts, and we would get to know it well on the way to Victoria Falls. But on this leg, we would make a right turn at Kariba Dam and follow the Zambezi as it made its way southeast as the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Pushing a plane to the runway avoids kicking up sand and gravel.|

The lushness of the Zambezi flood plain offered a totally new African panorama. We dropped to 500 feet to catch sight of elephants and hippos in the water and on the banks of the river. Human activity was just returning after the summer high waters.

About 80 miles down river from the dam, we started looking for the uncontrolled sand-and-gravel airstrip at Chikwenya (FVCK). Our low altitude made it a bit more difficult to find. We were amazed at the number of airstrips we saw in the region, and almost none of them appeared on any charts.

Once we landed, we maneuvered our airplanes into parking position by hand to avoid stirring up the sand and dust. No tie-downs were available, so we trusted the forecast for calm weather and tossed our bags into the Land Cruisers from Chikwenya Lodge in Mana Pools National Park. That was our first “good move” on the Zambezi, as our splendid guide/ranger characterized everything we did.

We were assured that Zambezi crocodiles rarely jump into the boats.|

We settled into private and well-appointed guesthouses strung out along the river with heron, elephants, hippos and jackals parading in front of our decks. The outdoor spa tubs and showers reminded us that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. In fact, we were on the Zambezi in Africa, and this was a very good move.

At Chikwenya, sunrise-and-sunset boat rides and fishing trips on the river were offered along with the usual dawn-and-dusk game drives. On the river, we could float right into pods of snorting hippos (hoping that they were cool with having us in the middle of their playground) and watch crocodiles slide gracefully from rocky ledges into the water. We absolutely were not going to accept the notion that crocs occasionally leapt into the boats.

The fishermen and women were trolling for our dinner — bream, toothy tiger fish and one 2-foot terrapin, which had a fishhook surgically removed (with an anesthesiologist attending the procedure) and was returned to the river. Always bring a doctor or two along on your safaris on the Zambezi.

Victoria Falls drops more water in April than any time of the year.|

After two remarkable days and nights, we were back at the airstrip early for the 280-mile leg of the trip that would retrace our flight along the Zambezi (taking care to stay on the Zimbabwe side of the river since the Zambians tend to be touchy about their airspace).

Dave had filed flight plans for all six airplanes from Chikwenya to Victoria Falls. Flight plans are required at least 24 hours before each flight, and this time, ATC had received them (which was not the case on our way to Bulawayo). We would cross endless Lake Kariba, dotted with airstrips on many of the islands, pick up the Zambezi Gorge and head for the falls, called “The Smoke That Thunders” by the indigenous people. We had just passed over the lakeshore when we spotted that magnificent cloud of mist ahead.

Mike was talking to Vic Falls traffic, which directs the overflights, on one frequency and Victoria Falls airport (FVFA) ATC on another since the airport is fewer than 10 miles from the falls itself.

All those wrinkles hint at the age of this bull elephant.|

We were approaching the falls at high season as it dumped its greatest volume of water of the year over the spill. It tumbles into a narrow 350-foot gorge so circling it from the air is the perfect vantage point. It stretches 5,604 feet across but it’s broken into several separate spillways. It forms what’s believed to be the largest sheet of falling water in the world.

From Victoria Falls National Park, you can stand on the opposite side of the gorge, level with the spill, and get thoroughly drenched while you’re at it. Enterprising vendors rent cheesy yellow and blue rain gear to visitors, and we hired one vendor to walk us back to the hotel since one particularly large baboon had been harassing us on the track through the park. The guide threw rocks at him until he grumped off into the brush. On the other hand, a bull elephant, munching trees about 50 feet off the path, was not the least bit interested in us.

A mural in the lobby of the hotel reminded us of the late ’40s when Victoria Falls was known as Jungle Junction on BOAC’s Short Solent Flying Boat service that included a landing on the upper Zambezi on the flight from Khartoum. The colonial atmosphere of the hotel is so thick that we fully expected to see Meryl Streep and Robert Redford from Out of Africa to walk across the broad lawn after they tied down the Gypsy Moth.

The cub in the foreground was more interested in us than keeping up with mom.|

On the way out, one of the 172s suffered a dead magneto, and we had to leave it on the Vic Falls tarmac with its cowl off and engine parts on the ground around it. Dave stayed behind to try to get it repaired. We packed the couple from the 172 in one airplane and their luggage in another and headed out on our next 330-mile leg in which we would leave the amazing Zambezi and pick up the Shashe River into Botswana and its tidy Limpopo Valley Airport (FBLV). All the usual border crossing issues awaited us, but the tiny terminal was brand new with very pleasant officials who required those same General Declaration and passport forms that were becoming oh so familiar.

Mashatu Tent Camp in the Tuli Game Reserve was a favorite for us all. The staff was incredibly hospitable, and we were treated to their singing both evenings as we gathered for dinner in the outdoor boma under the stars of the Southern Cross.

At Mashatu and Shibula (at Waterberg in South Africa again), we were treated to extended views of a leopard with her two cubs (and an antelope kill in the notch of a nearby tree) and a lion mother with four cubs who emerged from the high savannah grass onto the road where we could watch and photograph from a short distance in our Land Cruisers. We slept with broad smiles those nights.

And then our Fly-It-Yourself Safari was over. Three couples continued on to Cape Town on the incredibly luxurious and relaxing Rovos Rail, and two others headed for the international airport after the pilots returned the planes. It occurred to us that, other than our air caravan, we hadn’t seen a single other airplane in the air once we were out of Lanseria airspace.

We had the whole African sky to ourselves.

The hard-packed earth on the runway at Chikwenya, Zimbabwe, was most welcome.|

Lanseria Tower, Cessna Zulu Sierra, Kilo Delta Tango, 10 Miles Northwest for Joining

By Mike Venturino

Thus began the last set of radio communications on our Fly-It-Yourself Safari. In this case, we were told to hold over the Hartbeespoort (sounds like it looks) Dam for our Special VFR clearance into Lanseria’s Class C airspace. The weather had deteriorated to just below basic VFR minimums during our one-hour flight from the airstrip at the Waterberg game reserve. The conditions were forecast to remain stable for the next hour so a diversion to our alternate of Wonderboom (FAWB) — great name for an airport — was not required.

Lanseria (FALA) is a major G.A. airport on the northwest edge of Johannesburg, South Africa. Like the U.S., South Africa allows VFR flight in Class C airspace on a Special VFR clearance during daylight when the visibility is less than three miles (5,000 meters) but at least one mile (1,500 meters). Unlike the U.S., the ceiling can be as low as 600 feet!

Once an IFR arrival had landed, we were cleared into the airspace and told to report three miles for “joining and landing” instructions. After we called the airport in sight, we were told to join the left downwind for Runway Six Left and “report final approach.” Pay attention! It was only after we reported on final that we were “cleared to land.”

Pilots in the United States are accustomed to hearing a control tower ask for a report nearer the field, after which the aircraft’s landing sequence will be assigned. In much of the rest of the world, a pilot will be told to expect “joining and landing” instructions. Therefore, on initial call-ups, we would ask the tower for “joining and landing instructions” or simply “your joining.” While just different words for that same critical piece of information, the term “joining” sounds so much more collegial — or even welcoming.

All this goes to show that while English is the official language of aviation, accents, idioms and local procedures still can make it challenging for those of us with the term “English proficient” on the back of our licenses. As we prepared ourselves for our flights, we had to acquaint ourselves with some different or unexpected ATC terms for familiar maneuvers and get used to the idea that routine reports would be answered with requests for information that U.S. agencies only ask for in an emergency.

For example, after reporting in with aircraft type, location, altitude and ATIS (if there is one), it’s routine in southern Africa (and perhaps many other parts of the world) to be asked for your endurance (and they’re not talking about your bladder!) and number on board. Consequently, on initial call-ups, we usually just added that information. In Mozambique, each transmission from ATC began with the Zulu time, a throwback to the days of position reporting that would insure that the giver and receiver were in sync.

Other wrinkles included setting QNE (29.92 inches) at 2,000 feet AGL ascending and QNH (local altimeter) at 3,000 feet on descent, accents that make the word “joining” sound like “training,” place names in Afrikaans which are tongue twisters for American English speakers (note Hartbeespoort above) and an almost total lack of radar control.

During our 13-day odyssey, we revisited our soft-field take-off and landing skills and basic VFR pattern work. South Africa doesn’t use the 45-degree entry to the downwind. An upwind is flown to a crosswind leg. The downwind is entered from there. When entering this pattern, the call is a somewhat enigmatic “Kilo Delta Tango is on the dead side.”

The reward for all of this was a flight over spectacular country at low altitudes in virtually empty airspace, a type of flying that hasn’t been widespread in the U.S. for decades. It was worth “joining.”


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