Flying the African Bush

The pilot's view is the best you can get.

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Lewa Downs

The equatorial sun is just rising over an acacia tree beyond the thatched roof aircraft shelter at Lewa Downs' Wilderness Trails airstrip as I stow my gear and climb into the right seat of Will Craig's Piper Saratoga. "There's nothing like seeing this land early in the morning," he says with a smile as he starts the engine. He asks the driver of a Land Rover sitting nearby to chase some grazing waterbucks off the runway, and we taxi down to the other end of the short, bumpy dirt strip for takeoff. The morning light is glancing off the snow-covered peak of Mount Kenya in the distance as we rattle down the rough strip and lift off into the African sunrise.

"Just north of here is good elephant country," Craig says as he banks low around a family of giraffes out for an early breakfast of tree leaves. We fly past a striated outcropping of rock just as the sun touches the rust-colored cliff face with a hint of gold, dip down through a valley and flatten out over a plateau of acacia trees and short grass. The landscape becomes more arid as we head toward the northern mountains, and I might almost think I was flying across Arizona-until Craig banks right and we fly over a mother and baby elephant ambling slowly across the plain. A smile spreads across my face as we circle around more zebra and giraffe, then drop down low over the Ngera Ndare river. Laughter bubbles up through my smile as we bank hard to follow the bending curves of the river, elephants, baboons, crocodiles and other assorted wildlife passing in and out of view almost too fast to see clearly as we weave our way northward.

Craig smiles at my laughter, a crop duster-turned-lodge-owner who now uses his well-honed flying skills to show off the land he loves to visiting pilots who wonder what the magic land of Kenya looked like to the likes of Beryl Markham and Denys Finch-Hatton. For while the airplanes are different than the ones used in the early pioneering days, Kenya is still a frontier country that blends romantic flying history with the timeless challenges and opportunities of a beautiful, wild and open land and sky.

There may be far fewer elephants today among the acacia and baobab trees of Tsavo, where Markham once scouted game for Baron Von Blixen, but the trees and open stretches of land are still there. The railroad that provided the first link from the coast still winds its way through trees and plains, and descendants of the lions that terrorized the workers during the railroad's construction still prowl the wilds nearby.

The difference is that today, pilots use airplanes to protect, rather than hunt, the remaining elephants that roam the Kenyan hills and plains. I came to Kenya with Patty Wagstaff, who was a tailwheel flight instructor in the bush country of Alaska before becoming better known as an aerobatic champion and airshow pilot, and Dale Snodgrass, who was a Navy instructor/fighter pilot and commander of all of the Navy's F-14s before retiring and joining the airshow circuit himself.

Patty and Dale were asked to come to Kenya to provide some bush flying instruction for the Kenya Wildlife Service pilots, who use a variety of small aircraft to patrol for poachers of endangered species within the country's national parks. In the 1980s, poaching reduced the elephant population in Africa from an estimated 1.3 million to a mere 400,000. By the late 1980s, the Kenyan parks system was also losing almost a ranger a week to poacher attacks. Then Richard Leakey, son of the famous anthropologist, took over what had been the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, formed the "para-statal" Kenya Wildlife Service (which can take donations from outside sources since it's only loosely tied to the government) and began equipping the rangers with better armament and patrol aircraft.

The difference has been impressive. Poaching in Kenya has leveled out, although Julius Leperes, an ex-Air Force pilot who is the chief pilot of the KWS and was the first Maasai tribesman to fly a jet fighter, cautions that if the air patrols were to stop, the poaching would escalate again. There are still poacher attacks, and the patrol aircraft still run the risk of ground fire. But a bigger hazard to the predominantly low-time KWS pilots has become airplane accidents.

Some of the landing strips the rangers use are paved, but most of the runways in Kenya are dirt or grass bush strips, made more challenging because of the country's high altitude. Nairobi sits at about 5,500 feet, and many of the airstrips in Kenya are several thousand feet above sea level. Add to this the fact that Kenya's equatorial location gives it warm temperatures much of the year, and almost all its landing sites provide daily practice in density altitude calculations.

Patty and Dale conduct most of their flight training with the KWS pilots at Amboseli National Park, which is actually one of the friendlier airstrips in Kenya. Situated in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro's snow-covered peak, Amboseli's runway is paved, long and only 3,577 feet above sea level. Much more typical of Kenya's airfields is a nearby dirt and grass strip Dale uses to give pilots some training in short, rough-field landings with the KWS's Aviat Husky. The Tortilis Camp strip is a bumpy, rough affair that is only a few hundred yards long, slopes uphill...and is often covered with fresh elephant and lion tracks.

Animal incursions are a common hazard with any bush strip, of course. The difference is that in Kenya the animals tend to be a tad more on the exotic side. A few days before Patty and Dale begin their training flights at Amboseli, Patty and I get some time in a Super Cub used for poacher and park patrol by the Lewa Downs Conservancy, a 60,000-acre wildlife preserve in the highlands north of Mount Kenya, which is also where Will Craig operates his lodge. The 3,300-foot dirt runway at the conservancy headquarters is in much better condition than the 700-yard long Wilderness Trails strip near Craig's home, but it still has its share of challenges. Patty and I find ourselves landing long to avoid what looks to be a rhinoceros, taking off short to clear a 20-foot obstacle better known as a giraffe, and almost having to go around because a high-strung warthog threatens to dart across the runway in our path.

The payoff, of course, is that the scenery that meets a pilot's eye from an airplane over Kenya is as beautiful and unusual as the animals that make landings and takeoffs so challenging. In the golden, waning hours of a Kenyan afternoon, Patty and I practice turns about a giraffe, bank and circle around a zebra herd grazing near small, subsistence farms owned by Kikuyu tribe members, and follow the movement of a family of elephants across a spectacular, open landscape that stretches up to the jagged, glacial peaks of Mount Kenya.

Indeed, one of the many surprises an airplane reveals about Kenya is how diverse the country's landscape is. Despite having a footprint almost 20 percent smaller than that of Texas, Kenya incorporates an astounding range of terrain that includes palm tree-laced tropical beaches, flamingo-filled lakes, lush, forested mountainsides, coffee-laden highlands, glacier-capped mountains, golden-colored grasslands and rocky, arid deserts.

Perhaps even more astounding is that there are still many stretches of that landscape where horizon to horizon-as far as the eye can see-there is no sign of human existence. There are humans who live on this land, but many of them are still tucked away in traditional man-yattas and nomadic villages that blend into the surrounding countryside until you're directly over them. Look out from an airplane over the Masai Mara, and you'll see the same endless stretch of grasslands dotted with occasional wildlife and African greenthorn or flat-topped acacia trees that Markham would have gazed upon from her Avian.

But if today's pilots can still gaze at much of the same beauty and open wildlands that once marked all of Kenya, they still face some of the same kind of flying challenges the early pilots had to grapple with, as well.

"The trouble is," Markham once wrote, "God forgot to put any landmarks here." Indeed. Getting lost here would still be remarkably easy. There are few signs of civilization below to use as checkpoints, and while there are about half a dozen navaids listed on the maps, most of them can't be counted on to work all the time. Needless to say, GPS receivers are a very popular piece of technology here-as are cell phones, because reliable phone service isn't a given, even in Nairobi, and is still non-existent in many areas of the country. En route weather information outside of Nairobi is still obtained primarily by looking out of the cockpit windows, augmented by pilot reports transmitted on a common traffic air frequency-for both weather and aircraft position reports, since there is no radar coverage outside the major city areas.

Fuel is expensive, and it can be as hard to come by at many of the bush strips as spare airplane parts are throughout the country. But Kenya still has few paved roads, and the bush nature of much of the country makes getting around on the ground a dusty, bumpy and tiresome affair. So more than 70 years after the first planes appeared above the Kenyan highlands, flying still offers the best, and sometimes the only, access to many of the country's diverse, beautiful and remote locations.

On our way back to Amboseli from Lewa Downs, Patty, Dale and I stop at one of the more classic of these locations-the Masai Mara National Park, which lies in the southwest corner of Kenya and opens up into the Serengeti plains of Tanzania.

The landing strip at the Mara is better than many others in Kenya, but it's still pretty rustic. Of course, rustic is part of the appeal in Kenya. Civilized rustic, that is. If the land hasn't changed much over the past 70 years, neither has the way Kenya approaches safari adventures. Colonialist rule and hunting may both be a thing of the past, but safari visitors can still get treated to the luxuries of high tea comfort, even in the bush.

In the Mara, we stay at a place called "Governor's Camp," located in the same grove of trees along the Mara river where Kenya's Colonial Governors used to bring their friends on safari. It's a tent camp, but no tent I've ever slept in at home came with a wood floor covered in grass mat rugs, a bed, luggage stands, bedside tables and its own wood and tile bathroom complete with hot and cold running water.

Nevertheless, it IS still the African bush, a point I remember when the guides who show me to my tent tell me quite seriously not to venture out alone after dark. The hippopotamuses and crocodiles from the river tend to wander about at night, and unaccompanied humans apparently make good targets. Armed Maasai tribesmen escort us to and from dinner, which is served in an open-sided tent along the river, next to a blazing bonfire.

Early the next morning I shower by lantern light, sip the coffee brought to my tent in Hollywood movie-perfect safari style, and head out with Patty and Dale to see-rather than shoot-the lions, elephants, wildebeests and wide varieties of antelope that populate the African grasslands. Riding across the Mara in an open-air Land Rover, we come across an African buffalo that was killed the evening before by six yearling lion cubs, and whose feast has now been joined by the other lions in the pride. When the lions are done, the hyenas move in. Then the vultures start to arrive. By the time they're finished, there's little except the skull and horns left for the bacteria to attack. It's an impressive operation. Nature operates with an efficiency that would make even the most strident human recycling proponents seem like rank amateurs.

Kenya's bush country consists of much more than just classic safari tent camps, however. North of the Masai Mara are the lush, green lakes of the Great Rift Valley-where a pilot can fly over a dormant, green volcanic crater or look down on a million and a half pink flamingos lifting off from the inviting waters of Lake Nakuru. Although the Sikorsky flying boats that used to bring visitors into this region are now gone, there are still good dirt airstrips in the region and lodgings that bring back the feel of those old golden days of flight and travel. One particularly beautiful guest house on Lake Naivasha, called Loldia House, was built by Italian prisoners of war in 1941 out of the volcanic rock that covers the region. It's a classic old house, where the rooms and cottages could have come from the Out of Africa movie set, and where a civilized lunch and high tea are served on a well-groomed lawn overlooking the lake.

Further north, across the lush Aberdare Mountain Range and the highlands surrounding Mount Kenya, the landscape changes slowly into an arid desert that stretches to the Ethiopian and Sudanese borders. After a week of flying around with Patty and Dale, I head back to Mount Kenya to explore some of this northern highland and desert with Will Craig. Some of these places are only an hour or two from Nairobi by air, but they are a world away from the bustling capital, where modern-day traffic jams, internet commerce and business-suit-clad executives dominate the landscape. Flying north into the desert country, we are not only entering a different world, we are also traveling a few hundred years back in time.

As Will and I fly north, the land becomes more arid and barren. We pass over a couple of small manyattas below us that still look as they must have appeared 50 or 100 or 500 years ago-circular compounds with round, thatched-roof huts inside thorny, acacia-branch walls, and inhabited by herders in the traditional red shukas of Maasai and Samburu warriors. I want to take a closer look, but Craig shakes his head, suspicious of the large number of cattle inside the fenced enclosures. "Cattle rustling is a local sport among these people, and we don't want them thinking we're too interested," he explains.

Up ahead is a massive, rock monolith that looms up from the desert floor like one of the towering shapes in Monument Valley. There is a runway Craig wants to show me at the top of this flattened, tree-covered rock-only 700 yards long, but a good strip for the Cessna 180 Craig also flies. "You can come up here and camp overnight, and you can see forever," Craig says with a touch of wonder in his voice. "And from here, you can still get up above the glaciers of Mount Kenya in about 25 minutes' flying time." Born and raised on Lewa Downs, Craig is clearly still in love with this land, as well as the people and animals who inhabit it. And as we wind our way back home over manyattas, acacias, and a stunning collection of wildlife, I can't say as I blame him.

Kenya is a land of surprises. While it offers the classic tented safari images of grasslands and lions, it also offers much more. It's a land of amazing topography and still-living history, where a pilot can experience both modern-day cities and a kind of flying and lodging that harks back to golden days of Beryl Markham, Tom Black, Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen. The planes have changed, but the land, the flavor of the country, and even the way many people outside the cities live-have not. Time seems to have bypassed large parts of Kenya, except for the replacement of Tiger Moths with Cessna 206s and Piper Saratogas.

Because of the high-altitude, bush nature of the strips and the challenging nature of the flying in Kenya, it is difficult, if not impossible, for an American pilot to simply arrive and expect to rent an airplane to go tour the country by air. But pilots who are willing to contribute toward the airplane's expenses can easily convince Craig-or several other charter operators or lodge owners/pilots in various parts of Kenya-to take them on an aerial safari they won't soon forget.

"Safari is a Swahili word that means 'journey,'" Craig tells me as we put the plane away and head down to breakfast. "A lot of people think going on safari means calling Abercrombie and Kent, getting in a Land Rover, and driving out to see game. But it can be a lot more than just that." Craig stops and gestures with his arm across the desert to the North, the highlands to the south, and the peak of Mount Kenya turning bright with the morning sun. "Kenya is an amazingly beautiful country. And for me, to get to fly out among the hills, down the river, over game and the landscape like that...is magic."

I couldn't have said it better myself.