3 weeks of flying, 24 different airstrips, and one adventure of a lifetime.
With my freshly printed PPL I was ready to see the world. I had a budget of 4,500 euros and a goal to fly 50 hours though South Africa; ultimately embarking on a round trip that I would later call the ‘African Sky Safari’.With a long range Piper Warrior named Dolly I departed from Grand Central on a 21 day journey. Flying southwards past the Drakensberg mountains, along the Wild Coast, all the way to the southernmost tip of Africa: Cape Agulhas… And back. On this trip of over 9000KM i’ve seen waterfalls crash straight into the Indian Ocean, witnessed majestic elephants graze along the Limpopo river and admired the glistening snow covered mountain tops of the Karoo. All in the comfort of my little piston engine airplane. These images are so deeply engraved in my memory and illustrate exactly why I love to fly. Seeing the world from the skies is almost indescribable, but I’ll try my best to share with you a few of my stories from this incredible adventure.
Where it all started..
The first couple of days of the trip were spent doing local flights in the Johannesburg special rules area. I spent a good hour before hand figuring out the in’s and out’s of these “non standard” rules, and with my rookie PPL experience I felt a little challenged… These special rules basically just separated traffic on Northerly and Southerly tracks by 500ft, but with the prescribed altitudes of 7000ft and 7500ft. Wait what?… Flying at 7,500 feet?? I hadn’t flown that high before and this altimeter setting freaked me out a little, even though it was only about 1,500 ft above the ground! I slowly grew accustomed to the busier airspace and the drastic altitude difference. Before this I had only really trained in coastal conditions, and the effects of ‘density altitude’ were also new to me.
As I became more comfortable with Dolly it was time to start discovering all the beautiful things South Africa had to offer! So in the “Airfields Directory for Southern Africa”, A.K.A the Bible if you’re planning a trip through South Africa, I picked out a pretty grass strip located at the foot of the Lesotho plateau.
As we left the Joburg special rules area at 7000ft towards Vaal Dam I decided I wanted to climb to 9500ft (due to preferable upper winds). But with the ridiculously high outside temperature, Dolly wasn’t in the mood to climb. Luckily the sky was covered in growing cumulus clouds, and as I popped under the first cloud street my VSI shot up to 1000ft/m climb rate!! In no time I was up at 11,500ft.. You’ve got to love some good thermals, and dolly was a better glider than I thought.
The airstrip of El mirador was 800 meters long, perfectly mowed and slightly downhill. In the Directory I found a phone number of an old couple that owned a restaurant at the threshold of runway 24, and since I called them beforehand, my arrival was welcomed with a wonderfully prepared lunch. I was having lunch in the most serene setting; on a tiny airfield placed between the rolling hills with a panoramic view of the distant mountains.
After lunch I departed from the downhill runway and made a 180 degree turn towards the Lesotho escarpment. It was like a scene from the movie out of Africa. For a while I flew parallel to the mountain ridges; along the notorious amphitheatre, Giants Castle and the Tugela falls: the second highest waterfall in the world. I thought to myself, “This is it, It can’t get much better than this”.
But then it did!
Walking around at airports allows you to meet some great people; especially pilots who know the best breakfast spots to fly to. One of the flight instructors at Avcon Jet Africa recommended a flight to Pilanesberg International Airport, about 65 NM from Grand Central. 5 minutes before arrival you could request a shuttle service to Sun City via radiocall, and they would organize transport for you to “the Palace of the Lost City”.
Ha! Was this some kind of joke? I had to see this “Palace” for myself, so the next morning Dolly was on her way to FAPN.
It was as extravagant as I thought it would be. Upon arrival I parked Dolly between the row of Citation Jets, paid my landing fee of 4 euros and got into the private shuttle bus. Within 10 minutes we arrived at the gate of this hedonistic paradise, and made our way to the palace. Breakfast was served in the “Crystal Court”, a ballroom with a fountain of brass elephants in it’s center and tables filled with endless plates of smoked salmon and fresh tropical fruits.
It was a surreal wonderland in the middle of the Northwest province. Brunch was followed by an afternoon of lounging by the pool and daydreaming of all my next planned adventures.
I couldn’t quite place the extravagance of this place. I knew Africa, and this wasn’t it.
For a brief moment it can be nice to indulge in such luxuries, but I was ready to step back into reality and do some actual bush flying! The Gauteng province airspace had no secrets left for me and it was time to venture out into the rest of the country. The next journey would be my round trip to the western cape, along the wild coast and the garden route, which you can read about in part 2 of the Greatest African Sky Safari.