Blydepoort airstrip
Flying Adventure

Jess & Sarah’s Excellent African Adventure!

It was definitely ‘safari so good’ for two pilots who made a breathtaking, whistle-stop tour through parts of Africa in just seven days…

Our journey started with a night flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg on 15 May, 2022. Jess and I spent two hours of the journey studying the Cessna 182 POH, the aircraft we would be flying for the week.

I’ve only flown a C182 once and since neither of us had completed differences training on variable pitch propellers before our trip, we made it our priority to brush up on the differences we would notice!

We arrived in Johannesburg at 1000 the following morning, met our transfer and headed straight to our first hotel (Villa San Giovanni) at Wonderboom Airport.

Our room overlooked the runway, it was aeroplane spotters paradise. Not to mention the menu at the hotel restaurant was aviation themed, the burgers were named after Boeing jets and you could even order a Spitfire Pizza, so for a self-confessed AvGeek like myself, this was a winner!!

We wasted no time and headed straight for the Bush Pilot Adventures office based at the airport to meet our guide / safety pilot Markus Mollmann. With paperwork completed, a thorough briefing done and a coffee downed, we headed out to see our aircraft. It was a well-maintained C182 registration ZS-FJF, a 1968 model with a Continental O470R, the basic six pack instruments and GPS.

Flying Adventure Africa
Sarah and Jess meet their Cessna 182

Our plan for the first day was to familiarise ourselves before our tour started, we completed our pre-flight checks and I hopped in the front to complete our first take-off. We headed to one of Johannesburg’s ‘General Flying areas’ where I practised some steep turns, slow flight with flaps and practice stalls. Markus (who is also an instructor) pointed to a short landing strip in the distance.

It was easy to spot from far because the sand on the strip was the brightest orange/red. His words were, ‘…there’s no runway numbers, I’m not telling you anything about it, you need to do a thorough inspection and then get us down safely.’

Wow, that woke my brain up! What a good task I thought, ideally not one to be completed after five hours of broken sleep but hey, we’re here now, let’s do this. I quickly remembered the wind direction from my take-off. I checked the compass and DI were aligned, and realised one runway would be perfect and straight into wind.

Some nearby smoke confirmed the wind direction so I planned my approach and began my descent to inspect the runway. My first at 500ft then one lower at 100ft. There was a ridge to the right of the runway and a settlement to the left.

I asked whether since there was a ridge to the right, if I should circuit left but increase my height then descend again to avoid overflying the settlement at a low level. The reply I got did make me smile: “This is Africa, you do whatever you want!”.

Runway inspection was complete, there were no animals to affect my landing, the surface was rough, but no mole hills nor holes, so I came in for a nice smooth landing. I could tell our safety pilot was pleasantly surprised.

After a few more touch and goes we ventured to a microlight airstrip where I had to go around due to a large flock of guinea fowl on the runway. This was my first but not to be my last sighting of animals occupying a runway, little did I know how much larger the animals would get!

Day two

Day two started with an amazing breakfast overlooking Wonderboom’s runway and this time it was Jess’ turn at the helm.

After take-off, she completed all the same general handling tasks to a really high standard and despite having not flown in six weeks, she proved herself to be a competent confident pilot, it was only half-way through the flight that I realised I had never been her passenger before!

I spotted Kittyhawk Airfield on the chart during our briefing and cheekily requested that Jess complete some touch-and-goes there. Since one of my bases is Kittyhawk Aerodrome in the UK, I thought It would be cool to say I had now been to two out of three Kittyhawk Airfields in the world!

After visiting Kittyhawk, Jess flew us to an airfield called Groblersdal where we landed, stretched our legs, and bumped into the airfield owner and a pilot from their flying club. They told us if we had been a day earlier we could have joined them for a ‘braai’… next time, hey!

Jess and I swapped at this point and I took off from Groblersdal and flew roughly 20 minutes until we picked up the Olifants River where we did some low level flying. This was my first experience of low-level fixed-wing flying and I absolutely loved it.

The ground rush flying at 110kt less than 100ft above the ground was incredible. I was scanning for electricity pylons, dodging trees and weaving between ridges. It was a sparsely populated area and after a few minutes of fun, we headed for the Blyde River Canyon for my first experience of mountain flying.

Even with low winds, we flew hugging one side of the mountain to see if we could decipher where the updraughts and downdraughts were, my tendency was to diverge back into the middle of the valleys and fly over the rivers but in the event of engine failure, you had more space to manoeuvre if you flew closer to one side. This was a great learning experience not to mention adrenaline inducing!

What an awesome experience I will never forget!

Flying Adventure Africa
The stunning Blyde River Canyon left a lasting impression on Sarah and Jess

Our safety pilot Markus mentioned there was an airstrip called Blydepoort on top of one of the ridges in the canyon and he told us he had two bad experiences there.

The first was an engine failure and the second was a cracked saddle gear caused by hitting a warthog hole which had been covered by the overgrown grass. He promised himself he wouldn’t land there again, however, he flew over the strip on a recent flight and noticed it had been resurfaced and looked in great condition compared to before.

“I thought, if it’s good enough for Tom Cruise, then it’s good enough for me!”

He spoke to some locals who told him the airstrip had been improved for Tom Cruise and his film crew who were using it in February/March 2022 for filming of the next Mission Impossible film.

I thought, if it’s good enough for Tom, then it’s good enough for me! I told Markus, “Third time lucky hey, let’s go and land there!”. After a few runway inspections, I chose the upslope runway and brought it down smoothly to a stop. We climbed out, took some photos as the view down the runway was vast, you could see for miles! It was an awesome landing spot on top of the canyon.

Flying Adventure Africa
The downslope runway at Blydepoort airstrip

We swapped seats and Jess took off downslope, flew through the canyon one more time weaving between the ridges and then settled in for our journey to our next destination which was Elephant Plains Airstrip in Kruger National Park.

I relaxed in the back, listened to music and ate snacks while Jess flew us into the bush.

The landscape became more leafy and dense but what did stand out was the vast amount of airstrips! Mostly all sand strips.

Short, narrow and rough looking. Until, among the green abyss, there was a huge tarmac runway with lighting, runway numbers and the neatest stripes I had seen since leaving Wonderboom Airport.

Markus told us this airstrip was called Ulusaba and was owned by Richard Branson where he had a private lodge… fancy!

Flying Adventure Africa
The Ulusaba airstrip, which is owned by Sir Richard Branson ... complete with private lodge!

We had to call Elephant Plains Lodge who owned Elephant Plains Airstrip prior to take-off and give them a precise time of arrival.

The runway has to be inspected and cleared of animals prior to every landing so they don’t like you turning up early! While Jess was turning left base, I spotted three elephants moving slowly through the bush.

I had to bite my tongue so as not to distract her because elephants are her favourite animal!

The width of the Elephant Plains Airstrip was 15 metres, only four metres more than the total wing span of the Cessna 182 – and Jess executed a fantastic landing.

The ranger who was watching and monitoring the runway for animals told us as an impala crossed behind the aircraft just as the wheels touched down.

Before leaving the aeroplane for the night, Markus told us we needed to protect the aeroplane from hyenas which are notorious for chewing, playing and ultimately destroying tyres!

We covered the wheels in thorn bushes to deter them, this was the first of many new experiences which really wowed me. It was then I realised where I really was, in the African bush!

Flying Adventure Africa
Branches full of thorns were piled on and around the tyres, as hyenas delight in chewing them to shreds!

We wasted no time again and headed straight out on a safari truck for our first game drive. This was my first game drive and we were surrounded by a herd of elephants within the first hour. We spotted a female leopard before we stopped for ‘sundowner’ beside a lake full of hippos.

I enjoyed some biltong and a cup of tea watching the sunset before we experienced something else incredible.

During our drive back to camp in the darkness, our tracker spotted a pride of lions in the middle of a hunt, they turned the lights off and all we could hear was trees rustling, grunts and growls and the roar of the safari truck engine firing up as we raced to find the pride and their kill.

We reached them within 30 seconds to find a pride of six lions spread out each tucking into their kill. They had caught an impala and tore it apart in under 30 seconds.

My heart was racing and I didn’t notice how nervous I was until I noticed I had gently migrated closer to the other side of the truck and was holding onto Jess’ arm.

She looked at me and said, “Are you alright Sarah?!” Honestly I had no idea, I just kept asking, “…are we OK, should we be this close?”.

I was secretly quite pleased to leave the pride of lions to their meal especially as my belly was beginning to rumble too. We headed back to camp where drums were playing to sound it was time for dinner!

Flying Adventure Africa
Don't see this in Sussex... a herd of elephants grazing
Flying Adventure Africa
The beautiful sunset meant it was time for dinner

Day 3

We started the day at 0515 with tea and rusks before heading out on our second game drive.

We were lucky enough to spot more elephants, a group of wild dogs running, wildebeest and warthogs who we all shouted ‘Pumba!’ when we saw them… that never got old!

We ventured further and found a flock of zebras occupying the neighbouring airstrip called Arathusa.

Another guest looked at us and said, “This runway has a zebra crossing!”

Ba da boom boom tish, a real dad joke that did make us all laugh.

Flying Adventure Africa
A couple of zebras waiting to, well, cross the road… the old dad jokes just run and run…

After breakfast we headed back to the airfield and, to our delight, we found our hyena-proofing idea worked a treat, and our tyres were intact! Our flight took us to Witklip Dam where we found an airstrip high on a mountain top. I was laughing as we flew overhead, absolutely sure I was not going in there!

It was double-sloped but it made the double-sloped runway at St Mary’s in the Scilly Isles look as flat as a putting green.

Luckily the wind favoured the opposite runway where the slope was slightly less steep. I was staring at a jagged cliff edge on final approach praying the engine would not fail me now.

Jess and I swapped and she also tackled this tricky strip then headed off to Witklip Dam where she landed on a beautiful strip which led to the edge of the reservoir, it was picturesque!

Jess flew us back to Elephant Plains where I spotted three giraffes peeping above the trees while we were on final approach.

We landed, reapplied the HDS (hyena defence system) and headed off for another three hour game drive where we saw the same pride of lions tucking into an adult-sized giraffe (hoping it wasn’t the one I had just spotted an hour earlier…).

During sundowners on the airstrip, we were joined by three giraffes which majestically crossed the runway less than 15 metres in front of us. That go-around would have been more challenging than the flock of guinea fowl!

Flying Adventure Africa
Landing on Witklip airstrip, which just happens to be on a mountain top!
Flying Adventure Africa
A giraffe serenely crosses the runway

Day 4

Our two day stay at the Elephant Plains Lodge had come to an end and we finished it off with a final 0530am game drive and a big breakfast to fuel us up for the next leg of our journey!

We got to the airfield at 1000, conducted our pre-flight checks, and Jess took off. She flew us into Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport where we cleared customs and fuelled up before heading to Botswana.

It was a very official airport with a 2,600m runway, nothing like we had landed at so far! We unloaded our baggage for searching and used our pilot licences as boarding passes to pass security and get back into the aeroplane.

It was my turn to fly so I lined us up on Runway 05 and we took off routing north to fly over the Blyde River Canyon once more.

Flying Adventure Africa
Passports and PPLs at the ready, Sarah and Jess prepare to depart from Kruger International Airport for Botswana
Flying Adventure Africa
Sarah is lined up and waiting for clearance to leave Kruger International Airport

We were heading to Limpopo Valley Airfield, which was just a few miles north of the Limpopo River.

Just prior to crossing the border we flew over the Venetia Mine, which is South Africa’s largest producer of diamonds. The sheer scale of it was astounding.

Flying Adventure Africa
Venetia Mine at Limpopo

A few minutes later I landed at Limpopo Airfield, interestingly the strictest place we had landed at in terms of Covid measures and security.

We were asked to use hand gel, wear masks and have our temperature taken before entering the ‘airfield’, which was slightly amusing since the actual airfield building had no windows nor doors – and had a straw roof!

It made me smile but like the rule-obeying Brits that we are, we complied and gave everyone a huge smile behind our masks and shouted a loud ‘DumalaRaaa’, which means ‘Hello’ in Tswana.

Everyone was extremely friendly and after getting our visas stamped, we met our guide Erron from the Mashatu Lodge where we would spend the next two nights.

Flying Adventure Africa
Sarah at Limpopo Valley Airfield

We were collected via safari truck, and within 10minutes of leaving the airfield we had already spotted a dazzle of zebras.

Our driver, who was also a tracker, received a radio call to which he stopped quite suddenly and turned around to look at us.

He asked, “There has been a group of cheetahs spotted nearby, a mother and four cubs, would you like to go and see?”. We couldn’t say no!

Our safari truck veered off the road and into the bush once more where after 10 minutes of Wacky Races (I referred to him as ‘Schumacher’ by the end of our trip, which made him smile!), we reached a tree where a mother cheetah and her cubs were taking shade. What a start to our stay in Botswana!

Again we wasted no time and enjoyed high tea at our lodge before our first game drive in Botswana.

We found a couple of lionesses with cubs, some so small they were still feeding from their mother. It was breathtaking and we spent about 20 minutes sitting in silence observing them.

 

Flying Adventure Africa
We were lucky to see a lioness feeding her cubs

Day 5

Friday was the only non-flying day of our trip and after another morning game drive, we had a siesta, took a dip in our heated (I use the term VERY loosely) plunge pool, which woke us up before dinner. Another game drive did not disappoint.

We chased a group of ostriches in the safari truck running at high speeds, a male leopard strolled past our truck less than a metre from us and we watched two baby elephants playing, tumbling over and getting tangled up in their trunks.

“We chased ostriches running at high speeds, a male leopard strolled past our truck, and we watched two baby elephants playing getting tangles in their trunks”

Our last evening in Botswana ended watching the sunset with a cup of English breakfast tea and some biscuits. You can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take England out of the girl!

 

Flying Adventure Africa
On a game drive in Botswana
Flying Adventure Africa
Sarah and Jess silhouetted by the Botswana sunset

Day 6

Our time in Botswana had come to an end and our final morning game drive saw us wave goodbye to the lionesses and their cubs, another herd of elephants, and we were also treated to a leopard launching itself up into a high tree to tuck into its breakfast it had caught hours earlier.

After breakfast we headed off back to Limpopo Valley Airfield via safari truck spotting another dazzle of zebras and herd of giraffes en route, we really lucked out with the amount of game we saw! Jess was the captain for the day and after a thorough security check, we headed off back across the Limpopo River into South Africa again.

The weather had been great for the entire trip until we woke up at 0600 to isolated rain showers, thunderstorms and low cloud coverage.

We had a few alternate routes ready incase we needed to divert en route to our next destination, which was Rand Airport in Germiston, Johannesburg.

Luckily by the time we took off at 1230, the weather had cleared up and Jess flew us directly to Polokwane Airport where we cleared customs, had the Cessna searched for animals (I doubt it, but sounds more dramatic…) and took off again for another one hour flight into Rand Airport.

When we arrived, we said our farewells to our safety pilot Markus, but more importantly to our Cessna 182 ZS-FJF, which looked after us well for our week and flew beautifully!

 

Flying Adventure Africa
Saying goodbye to the Cessna at Rand Airport

Carrying on the busy momentum of the week, we navigated the millions of hangars at Rand Airport to find Henley Air Services, where less than 30 minutes later I got my hands on the controls of a Robinson R44.

Since I am 33 hours into my PPL (H) with Advance Helicopters at Shoreham Airport in the UK, I couldn’t resist the temptation to get in a chopper in South Africa.

It was an hour from sunset as I conducted a pre-flight check, adjusted my feet pedals and climbed into the right-hand seat of the R44.

It felt safe and familiar and I was excited to get the rotors running, it was Jess’ first experience of me flying a helicopter and she was equally as excited.

 

Flying Adventure Africa
The R44 helicopter at Rand Airport

My instructor from Henley Air knew I had five hours solo under my belt so let me have control from start to finish.

I lifted us into the hover and took off, we flew around Johannesburg as the sun was setting then flew to a general handling area where we flew low level down a winding river, weaving between trees and scanning for electricity pylons with eagle eyes, the lowest we flew for a moment was roughly 10ft above the river.

It was absolutely stunning, the manoeuvrability of helicopters amazes me every time!

We landed as the sun was setting, I turned around to Jess and asked, “How was it?”, her face said it all.

“That’s it, I’m done, I need a helicopter licence right now!” The bug had got her!

Jess and I finished the day at The Harvard Cafe in Rand Airport, another aviation-themed restaurant, winner winner Cessna burger for dinner!

Flying Adventure Africa
Sarah at the controls of the the R44

Day 7

It was my final day in South Africa and before my evening flight home I had plans to make every minute count!

Instead of flying back to the UK with me, Jess is to spend two months volunteering in a hospital in Hoedspruit providing general practice care, working as an A&E doctor in the main hospital and also providing advice and training to other medical staff.

However, Jess did stay for our final adventure. We had stayed the night in the Dakota Lodge, an aviation-themed hotel dedicated to honour the Dakota DC-3 Douglas, the hotel was decorated with propellers, aeroplane seats and lots of other aviation geekery!

Flying Adventure Africa
Sarah is in her element just sitting in the right-hand seat of the Bell UH-1, nicknamed the Huey!

It was 0930 when we ventured back to Henley Air and had a tour of its hangar, which had by far the most impressive collection of helicopters I had ever seen.

It was full of Bell helicopters (222s, 206s and 407s), Dauphin AS365s, an Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama (the only one in SA!), but most incredibly sitting in the back of the hangar was the famous Bell UH-1, nicknamed the ‘Huey’.

After recently finishing the book Chickenhawk, it was on my list of helicopters I would love to see in person!

I was lucky enough to sit in the right seat and have a look at the controls, the size of the collective is what I found most striking and also the width of the rotor blades.

Helicopter geekery out of the way, we took the same R44 out for another flight but this time with a mission… Breakfast!

We took off from Rand Airport for a 15 minute flight to our brunch stop called Casalinga, a stunning Italian-style venue in Krugersdorp, which was inside Lanseria Airfield’s CTR.

We landed on the green and sat outside to eat in the sunshine. It clouded over within 30 minutes and we darted inside before the rain and thunder began.

Thankfully it didn’t last long, and by the time we finished brunch and headed back to the heli it was just a slight drizzle.

“Helicopter geekery out of the way, we took the same R44 out for another flight but this time with a mission… Breakfast!”

We flew another 15 minutes, completed a recce and landed in a very confined field. The winds were low so we took the most straight in approach with as few obstacles as possible and found a waffle restaurant called The Windmill.

After satisfying my sweet tooth, we took off again for a low level flight along Crocodile River (disappointed we didn’t spot any) then along Hartebeesport Reservoir.

The sun was shining again at this point and made our journey back to base even more stunning.

A lovely 1.5 hour helicopter flight to end what had been, the tour of a lifetime!

Flying Adventure Africa
Making time for a waffle stop!

We said our goodbyes at Johannesburg International and I flew back to Heathrow alone, sitting on the aeroplane scrolling through the 1,200 photos and videos I took in just seven days.

I had an epiphany halfway through the week which was just how incredible it is to possess a Private Pilot’s Licence. This licence allows you to see the world in a way you were never able to before and for that I feel incredibly privileged.

Thanks must be said to our safety pilot Markus Mollman (Bushpilot Adventures) and Nicholas Mason & Liebrecht Du Plessis (Henley Air Services) for their guidance, fantastic instruction and ensuring that we had safe and enjoyable flights throughout.

Thank you Jess for the laughter, endless jokes and overall fantastic company.

And finally a big thank you to my incredible family. This trip would not have been possible without the support of my husband, mother, father and my sisters.

Click here to follow Sarah’s adventures on Instagram

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