5 days, 25 hours of flight and 412 US gallons of fuel… the journey to Lamu, Kenya, is nothing short of epic
By Stuart RaeAfrica. Masai Mara. Dawn… The cacophony of roaring lions heralded the new day as the rising sun threw long shadows over the undulating expanses of the Serengeti plains.
As the gathering warmth thinned the dawn mist, we swung the doors of the Cirrus shut and lined up on the grass runway. Full throttle and a moment later we were airborne, a cobalt blue sky above us, the massed herds of wildebeest 200 feet below, scattering like startled ants. As we drifted along the plains of the Masai Mara with the haunting theme from Out of Africa playing through the headsets, I cast my mind back to how it was that we had ended up in Africa. This trip to Kenya had been at the back of my mind for many years after reading of a similar exploit in a flying magazine. I decided now was the time. Calling my brother-in-law, (and flying partner) Martin Thompson, I briefed him on the potential hazards of the trip I had in mind. “You buy the beers and I’m in,” was the riposte so I guessed the trip was on then! Our final destination would be Lamu, a small island off the coast of Kenya where I was to meet up with my family. So, with over 4000nm in front of us, we departed in a Cirrus SR22 Turbo from Elstree on 27 July bound for Kenya.OUT OF ELSTREEOur routeing was to take us through France, Croatia and Crete heading into the deserts of Egypt, Saudi-Arabia and Djibouti, before the more tropical countries of Ethiopia and Kenya. Overflight Limited supplied us with the necessary advice on the routeing and arranged all clearances on our behalf. Our route to Luxor took us via Cannes, dodging scattered CBs along the route, passing Pisa and Perugia VORs in Italy, before landing at Dubrovnik for our first overnight stop. Departing early the following morning, we filed a VFR flight plan to Iraklion via KRK and KFN VORs. Passing Albania and the Peloponnes we were soon lined up for finals at Iraklion, Crete just before noon the following day. It was a ‘splash-and-dash’, as we knew we had to make Luxor before sunset, so we were soon on our way, filing a VFR plan via SITIA VOR and Tansa intersection, finally making contact with Cairo Approach about 40 miles before coasting in over the desert. I had imagined that the coast of North Africa would be lush green, like the fringes of the Nile – in fact, the contrast could not be starker, as the blue of the Mediterranean gave way to the yellow sands of Egypt – and the dunes of the Western Desert stretching inexorably away to the horizon. Passing over El Alamein, we noted that we still had a tailwind and were ‘true-ing’ out at over 180kt. According to the MFD, we would have about 17usg on our arrival at Luxor. But that was to be in about two and a half hours time, so we thought we would try to cut a corner by heading to port 30 degrees direct to Luxor. Calling Cairo Control to ask if we could fly direct we were instructed to “Report El Kharga VOR”, so any thoughts of an earlier than anticipated arrival in Luxor became a forlorn hope! The sands of the desert receded as the green foliage surrounding the Nile came into view, and soon, as the sun was about to set, we were positioned on finals for Runway 02 at Luxor.TWIN TURBOParking up, we were positioned adjacent to another Cirrus G3 Turbo. It turned out that the aircraft had just been purchased and was being flown to South Africa by the new owner and his friend. Who in their right mind would attempt a trip like this? So the following day, we met up with them at the Winter Palace Hotel. Prospero and Ralph were the intrepid aviators en route to South Africa, having collected their Cirrus in Ireland. Like us, they were flying VFR, but unlike us, they were extremely short of oil. I decided that I would loan them some W80, and we arranged to fly in combo to Jeddah, Djibouti and Addis, where we would part company, since they were intending to do some flying in the Bole National Park. After a day spent idling, the followingmorning we all met up at Luxor International Airport, where after refuelling and the loan of some oil to our fellow aviators, we departed once more, leaving Egypt, bound for Jeddah. We hoped we would be able to replenish our own supply of oil there.Our routeing took us directly to Jeddah at 11,500ft, via intersections called DEDLI and OSAMA (I kid you not). With a tailwind we were comfortably seeing 200kt ground speed. We sighted the city 30 miles out and were vectored for a straight-in approach for runway 35 Centre. There are three runways at Jeddah – apparently 35 Left is reserved for VIP’s (read Royal Family) and it can be quite difficult to know for sure which runway you’re lining up for. Thankfully, the aircraft’s system tracked the ILS for 35 Centre and we were down on the ground by 1130. After refuelling ($5/litre) we departed at 1400 hours, our destination Djibouti. Our routeing was SAMIR DCT AKBAR DCT LABNI DCT OKMAB at 13,500ft heading south over the Red Sea. At this altitude we encountered tailwinds of 30kt which helped us on our way to Djibouti. The deep azure of the Red Sea glistened in the sunlight. Scattered along the length of our route were small islets of coral and circular reefs. In contrast to what was on either side of us, the cockpit of the Cirrus was a haven of life. Cruising at 13,500ft with air conditioning and music playing through the aircraft system, it was easy to dislocate yourself from the environment. Just to our starboard, less than 60nm away, was the Danakhil Depression, in the southern reaches of Eritrea, where the hottest temperatures on Earth have been recorded. Here, the land dips below sealevel by 400 feet in places. We did think of photographing ourselves piloting an aircraft below sea-level… perhaps it was the heat-driven shimmering horizon which curtailed this idea… maybe next time.DJIBOUTI OVENWe started our descent into Djibouti about 60nm after encountering extreme turbulence, because the tailwinds we had from the North hit the Hara Alol mountains and were creating mountain waves. We opened the doors to be greeted with temperatures (at 1700 hours local) of 48 celsius! We made our way to the Hotel Kempinski as quickly as possible. At the risk of offending the Djibouti National Tourist Board, Djibouti is not a place where you would choose to spend a family holiday. It is a small, hot, dusty and desolate country perched at the entrance of the Red Sea, opposite Yeme and just north of Somalia. For this reason, it’s also an important port and base for the largest garrison of French Foreign Legionaries. In addition, many NATO countries have a military presence here together with a number of NGOs – perhaps Mr Kempinski was right when he decided to build his hotel in this dusty corner of Africa. We knew, at this point, that we had passed a seminal point in our flight to and through Africa. After leaving Djibouti, we were heading into Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and in our own minds at least, we were leaving the comfortable embrace of predictability. Crossing that metaphorical rubicon seemed to make the prospect of this final part of the trip all the more exciting. Deep down, this next stage was the real reason we had ‘gone south’. We left the coolness of the Hotel Kempinski for the airport. The backstreets were filthy and stiflingly hot even in the early hours, so we were looking forward to getting high and cool. Prospero and Ralph had left us in the early hours to explore the ‘ethnic diversity’ of Djibouti (Ralph had studied anthropology at University). So Martin and I were alone when we arrived at the airport, refuelled and filed our flight plan. We filed via intersection ASOLE. This is one of the entry points (or exit, depending on your preference) for Addis Ababa International. Levelling out at 14,000 feet, with a TAS of 192kt, again with a slight tailwind we called Addis Control with about 120nm to run. The radios remained silent. Notwithstanding the range, we also had the Highlands of Ethiopia to negotiate directly in front of us, with peaks of 14,000ft. Also, being very close to the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), at this time of year this area is subject to afternoon and evening CB/Thunderstorms with low stratus and mist in the morning. As we made our way inland the first drops of rain hit the windscreen, as visibility decreased. We continued to try Addis Control to no avail and it wasn’t until we were about 35nm out that first contact was made. We were instructed to circle 360 degrees and maintain our position, which we did for 25 minutes… before being vectored for a final on to runway 25R. Once again, the autopilot tracked the ILS almost to touchdown. We knew that if we were to make it to Lamu that day, we needed a quick turnaround so after being directed to the general aviation apron, we disembarked and made our way to pay the various landing fees and most importantly, to organise our fuel. The fuel was provided in 200-litre drums, which we used up, as it was sufficient to get us to Nairobi, our next leg. An hour later, as we called Addis control for taxiing instructions, we were told to switch our engines off and await ‘security’. Apparently they wanted a more detailed explanation as to why we were late in calling Addis inbound. After hanging around for another 40 minutes, we knew that realistically we would never make Lamu that day, but clung on to the hope that we would make it to Nairobi. A tractor trundled into sight on the tarmac and parked next to us – off jumped four plainclothed security guards, who checked our bags out and then departed with a cheery wave. Calling control once more, we were instructed to proceed to holding point for departure and within 20 minutes, we were airborne on the penultimate leg of our journey. TO NAIROBIClimbing to 15,500ft, we were soon in clear air, leaving the cold, damp and misty highlands of Ethiopia behind. As we headed further south, the cloud broke and we were soon gliding over towering cumulus. The land became more arid as we headed over the Kenyan border. Sixty nautical miles to the west lay the longest lake in Africa, Lake Turkana also known as the Jade Sea. The Chalbi desert passed swiftly beneath us and soon we sighted the Aberdare range in front of us. The thickening cloud and low stratus meant we had to descend to remain VMC though. Our MFD indicated lightning strikes around us as we began the descent, with 80nm to run to Nairobi. Levelling off at 8000ft altitude, we were only 1500ft above the ground. Dodging the high ground around us as we neared Nairobi, the cloud base seemed to be getting lower and lower. Eventually though, we were given vectors to the north west entry point of the Nairobi Control zone at 6500ft. With the ‘Silos’ in sight and downwind of Nairobi International Airport, we were handed over to Wilson Control (the general aviation airport in Nairobi), who directed us for a right-hand downwind for runway 07. Martin had not felt 100% during the flight, but greased the wheels down like a consummate professional. We headed over to the Aero Club of East Africa to celebrate. On the south side of the airfield, the Club exudes a colonial ambience – the bar has old oak panelling, with notices warning of a round of drinks should ‘gentlemen not remove their hats’.CRYSTAL CLEAR WATERAt first light the next day, we departed what was a miserable Nairobi, airborne at 0815, with a cloud base of 600ft. Climbing to 9000ft to avoid the local topography, we soon had sight of the Indian Ocean and began our descent into the small airport at Lamu after about 50 minutes of cruising. On the radio, we called, “Any traffic, N221CH, SR22 in-bound to Lamu from Nairobi, final for Runway 10.” The crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean looked thoroughly inviting after five days of flying. We had finally made it – through Europe to Africa and it had been a relatively trouble-free experience. For me, the adventure hadn’t ended, as we were to continue the flight through Kenya’s Masai Mara, in convoy with a Piper Cub and of course, the aircraft had to make its way back to Elstree (and that’s another story). But for any general flying enthusiast, this trip was a perfect way to discover the benefits of a Private Pilot’s Licence. From tarmac runways to grass airstrips, over deserts, seas and mountains, this was a journey that tested those limits, both for aircraft (and the Cirrus SR22 passed all tests with distinction) and airmen. Even if you do it once in a lifetime, that Saturday afternoon trip from Denham to Le Touquet will never quite be the same again. Bon Voyage, or as they say in Kenya,“Safari Njema!”