Ron had previously made bookings for us by telegram at a small hotel in Cairo. Our taxi duly disgorged us there after we had finally managed to get free of the frustrating airport officialdom, and refuelled ready for the next day’s flight. This had taken a lot longer than anticipated with the uncooperative Egyptian Customs and Immigration so by the time we finally got the hotel we were thoroughly exhausted, with Jillie the youngest letting us know in no uncertain manner that it was way past her bedtime.
Having paid off the taxi, and saw him drive off, we fronted up to reception to sign in, only to be told that unfortunately they had no record of our booking and claimed that there were no rooms available anyway – in true Arab style! Ron demanded to see the Manager and out to the front desk came this fat balding little Egyptian gentleman. We explained the situation and after studying the copy of our cable and the register, he tut-tutted awhile, shaking his head, and then apologising profusely regretted there were still no rooms available. It was at that point that Ron’s true self emerged! He grabbed him by the collar and started patting him on his bald pate with the palm of his hand saying with a red face and blazing eyes “Are you sure that you have no rooms available you horrible little wog?” My heart fell to my boots and wished that the earth would open up and swallow me. I thought to myself ‘That’s it, we’ll all be sleeping in a filthy Arab jail tonight’!
At that point, as the fat little Egyptian’s bulging eyes were opening and closing in concert with Ron’s unceasing and rather heavy pats on his bald head, he suddenly remembered that he did have two rooms available after all. In a cold sweat I followed the bell-boy upstairs to my single room whilst the others went to theirs. I began to lay odds with myself as to how far we’d get towards Cape Town before we would all be incarcerated in some awful native hell-hole for a lengthy spell. I must confess though than Ron’s approach worked but I was still left full of foreboding for the future.
17 December 1963. Eight more days to Christmas Day and the whole continent of Africa to traverse from top to bottom in our tiny wood and canvas aircraft. More nausea on departure from Cairo Airport but eventually we were on our way again southwards, following approximately the course of the River Nile. It was getting increasingly more difficult to get the children started in the mornings, as by this time the boredom of the long flying hours in the stuffy atmosphere of the plane was really getting to them. They would love to have seen the sights of Cairo but there simply wasn’t time. Ron was getting even more impatient with them whilst I tried hard to play the middle course and keep both sides happy.
The Pyramids came into sight on our right; as we passed by the girls had a good view which cheered them up a bit. They were a bit disappointed though at their smallness, which like most well-known structures, appear enormous when viewed from ground level close up but rather insignificant when viewed from high in the sky.
The longest river in the world wound its way through the endless desert. Its course could be clearly seen for miles ahead due to its green strip of vegetation stretching for possible half-a-mile or so on either side, then petering out into the endless sand of the desert. Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt so they say. I can well believe it.
Our next intended stop was Luxor, with nothing much to see but featureless desert beneath us and stretching in all directions. I chose to fly reasonably high, around 5,000 feet to get into cooler air and out of the more turbulent hot ground layers, mainly for comfort sake for Anne and the children. It would also afford me a better view for map reading and of course better radio reception. Not that it helped a great deal because most of the time we were out of range of any radio stations anyway. Ron didn’t go much on this ‘high flying’ idea and reminded me rather curtly that ‘the whole object of doing the trip in a small aircraft was to see Africa, and if he’d wanted to view it from high altitude then he’d have flown out on a scheduled airliner’. This situation was beginning to get tedious. My thoughts and motivations were inclined primarily for safety, and number two, for comfort of the female passengers and politely told him so. He argued quite acidly that if they weren’t prepared to put up with a little bit of discomfort and hardship then they shouldn’t have agreed to come along in the first place, which sounded a bit off to me considering that it was he who coerced them into doing so in the first place.
I was desperately trying to keep the situation under control and fly the aircraft at the same time, Fortunately Anne took up the argument on my behalf and after some sharp exchanges the subject was dropped and Ron lapsed into a sulky silence. What had I done to deserve this I thought; as if I didn’t have enough on my plate without having to try and keep both sides happy at the same time!
The rest of the flight to Luxor was uneventful and on arrival there we decided to take a short break. The next leg wasn’t too long and as that was as far as we could make in one day we chose to take the children off to have a quick look at the ancient Egyptian monuments at Karnak. It was getting pretty hot by now and were glad of a cool drink on the way. As the new Aswan High Dam slowly flooded the upper Nile, forming what was later to become Lake Nasser, it would be our last chance to see some of the wonders of bygone ages before they were swallowed up, or moved to a higher site.
Within a couple of hours we were on our way again. Our next stopping place was to be Wadi Halfa in the Sudan, on the border with Egypt. I pointed out to the girls the Valley of the Kings as we flew passed (as detailed on the map spread across my knee), still following the Nile. However, just to placate Don I thought that maybe it wouldn’t do any harm to fly a bit lower along the water for a while. With the flooding caused by the big dam spreading the waters of the Nile on either side, the flow was very much reduced of course. This made low-flying somewhat difficult because with such a sluggish water movement, and the relentless sun reflecting off the surface, judging height became a problem, so I eased the nose up to about a hundred feet or so to be on the safe side. The natives on the banks tending their crude but effective water irrigation apparatus waved to us as we sped by, with the girls waving furiously back at them. Don was much happier now!
As the afternoon wore on into the evening, so the sky colours changed from blue through golden to red and twilight rapidly descended upon us. The course of the river was easy to follow as it grew dark because it became the black void in between two rows of lights on the banks. However, because of a largish detour of the Nile to the left before it swung back again, I decided as time was getting on a bit to take a short cut in a straight line across the desert towards Wadi Halfa. It soon became pitch black with no horizon and nothing apart from a myriad of stars above to be seen. I became a bit concerned at this point because if we strayed off course and missed Wadi Halfa in the dark we’d be in real trouble. I had no desire to attempt a night-landing in the pitch black without any idea what the terrain was like!
Somewhere along this leg of the route we passed the Tropic of Cancer at 23½ degrees North thereby entering the tropical regions. We droned on through the darkness and I frantically searched the ADF dial trying to pick up the Wadi Halfa beacon, hoping and praying that they’d left it on like we had previously arranged. At long last through the static I heard the sound of ‘WH’ in Morse. As we drew closer the ADF needle began to home onto the airfield. Finally the lights of Wadi Halfa appeared and after circling the airfield a couple of times to make sure, being unable to raise them on the radio, I came in to land on the runway which they had kindly lit-up by ‘gooseneck’ paraffin flares especially for our benefit. And so another stage of our journey ended.
We spent that night in the quaint old ‘Nile Hotel’ where apparently the Empire Flying Boat crews used to stop also in days gone by. It was a delightful scene by the river and sipping a cool beer sitting on wicker chairs looking at the twinkling lights along the river, gave me a heart-warming and satisfied feeling. We went for a short stroll through the small town before dinner and as we came to the open market place we saw rows of Muslims kneeling down in prayer with their heads to the ground. At this point Ron went up behind them and crouching down attempted to mimic them for a second – I nearly had heart failure!
I didn’t know very much then about the Islamic religion, but certainly enough to realise that they were very sincere and devoted to their beliefs, and being so sensitive about it, wobetide anyone who was caught mocking them! Remembering from history the tales of the fierce Fuzzy Wuzzies (as the British soldiers called the black warriors), in the days of the Mahdi and Generals Gordon and Kitchener, and here we were right in their midst. I began drumming-up visions of unspeakable tortures awaiting us if we were caught ridiculing them. Fortunately they didn’t but I wondered once again just how long it would be before he’s get us all slaughtered if he carried on like this!
18 December 1963. Next stop Khartoum. This was going to be a long leg across the Nubian Desert. And so we waved goodbye to Wadi Halfa and were probably among the last of tourist-type visitors there as I understand that not long afterwards it was abandoned to the ever flooding waters of the Nile as the Aswan Dam’s waters rose higher each day.
We made an earlier than normal start that morning because of the extra distance we had planned for the day. Nearly four hours later we landed at Khartoum, with little to see on the way except endless desert, sand and rocks with occasional glimpses of the Nile, crossing it on two occasions as it took a very wide swing to the left and back again. They parked us in front of the terminal building and whilst Ron took care of the paperwork, landing fees, etc, I attended to the refuelling. By now our pre-arranged fuel was supplied in square sealed cans which we poured through a chamois leather filter to the fuel tanks behind each of the engines. Consequently we had a lot of empty cans sitting on the wings as we emptied them; a long and tedious process.
They had parked us right behind a DC3 of Sudan Airways which I wasn’t too happy about at the time, and lo-and-behold, just as I had feared, the pilot of the DC3 started his engines and then stupidly proceeded to do a run-up on each one in turn. The empty petrol cans were blown off the wings of the Rapide and across the tarmac as the idiot opened-up his throttles for what seemed to be a full-power run-up. The Rapide started rocking violently in the wake of its slipstream. Our wheels were chocked of course but it was rocking so violently in the blast I feared that at any second it would be blown on its wing-tip and severely damaged. I ran around the to the front of the DC3 and waved frantically to try and catch the so-called pilot’s attention but to no avail. His head was stuck well and truly down looking at his instruments no doubt. At last he throttled back and started taxying off with me shaking my fist at him. He didn’t even seem to notice me! I went up to the control tower and complained about the moron but they weren’t very interested. On arrival back in the UK much later I wrote a letter to the Chief Pilot of Sudan Airways, informing him about the incident which nearly wrecked our aircraft, but he never even had the courtesy to reply.
The coolness of the air-conditioned terminal building’s small restaurant after the searing heat of the tarmac outside, plus the recent incident which elevated my blood temperature a degree or two, was most welcome. A good meal and more iced drink then Ron settled the bill and we were on our way once again.
The next leg was not so long this time; about an hour and a half I estimated. We had been recommended to break our journey at a small crop-spraying strip called Kosti by the White Nile, and spend the night at the Government rest house. Going up-river the Nile divides in two at Khartoum, the Blue Nile veers off to the left up to its source in Ethiopia, whilst the White Nile continues southwards. We were to follow the White Nile from thereon, all the way to its source in Lake Victoria, Khartoum being roughly halfway from source to the delta. We kept it in sight most of the way southwards as it zigzagged left and right across our track. Finally, as our estimated time of arrival approached, I converged onto the river and flew along it.
I was to look for a long narrow bridge crossing the White Nile which would indicate where the small settlement would be close-by. It also had a radio beacon whose call-sign I picked up readily and began to home onto it. The bridge came into view some distance away and as I approached it the ADF needle swung around and pointed behind me indicating my passage overhead, so I went into a left-hand bank to circle and look for the airstrip which thus far had eluded me. I had virtually no route information about the place and wasn’t even sure what I was actually looking for! I could see the small settlement with a few palm trees and lots of track marks but nothing that remotely resembled an airstrip. Across the river though I glimpsed quite a long runway with nothing else around it. I came to the conclusion that that obviously the info I had been given must have been wrong. Convinced that this was the strip I was supposed to be landing at, I headed off to circuit the runway and having satisfied myself that it was safe, came in and landed.
Taxying-in to a small dispersal area off the side of the runway I fetched the Rapide to a standstill and shut-down. There was nobody in sight and everywhere was deserted! Whilst we were pondering what to do next, a small Piper Tri-pacer flew overhead and landed. The pilot came over to us and told me that I’d landed at the wrong strip. The correct one was on the other side of the river! The one we had landed at was an old disused wartime strip. I was to learn later that its name was Rabak. The Tri-pacer pilot said that that he could take a couple of our passengers to lighten our load, suggesting that I followed him with the Rapide to the correct strip.
We duly took off again and within a couple of minutes he landed ahead of me on a mass of wheel tracks I’d seen next to the village previously. So this was the so-called strip I’d been searching for? The Tri-pacer pilot had warned me it was a bit short and that I was to watch out for the drainage ditch at the threshold which was hidden in long grass.
I circled a couple of times thinking it looked mighty short then made my approach. Seeing the ditch coming up I eased her gently over it as slow as I dared and chopped the power. She touched down on the main wheels right at the beginning of the strip but it seemed ages before the tail started to sink down. By now I was also braking as hard as I dared to avoid lifting the tail up again. The wooden shacks at the end of the strip came looming up fast. At this point I was going too slow to attempt a go-around but too fast to pull up – the typical pilot’s dilemma! I thought “Oh my God! This is where it all ends”…
The Outbound Trip
As the end of the tiny strip came rushing up to me, realising by now that I had no hope of pulling-up in time, I slammed on the left brake and deliberately slewed the Rapide ninety degrees to the left to avoid smashing headlong into the wooden shacks ahead. Miraculously she did the most graceful ground-loop you’ve ever witnessed and completed a relatively slow-motion 360 degree turn coming gently to a standstill right at the edge of the intended parking area. Closing my eyes for a few seconds and then sending a prayer of thanks heavenwards, I shut the engines down and breathed a huge sigh of relief with heart pounding away nineteen to the dozen.. On climbing out I was heartily congratulated by the group of crop-spraying pilots who witnessed my arrival, obviously of the erroneous opinion that the 360 turn had been a deliberately planned manoeuvre on my part – how wrong they were! Wreathed in sweat, with everyone else except me totally oblivious of the near-disaster I’d just avoided by the skin of my teeth, I followed them to the small Government Rest House where we were to spend our night-stop, putting on a brave face but inwardly still shaking from the ordeal.
Our stay in the Rest House went well and we were regally entertained by the cotton crop-spraying pilots. More than just a few beers were downed by us all that night. I dare not even contemplate then what the short take-off would have in store for me on the morrow!
19 December 1963… Five days left before Christmas – would we make it in time? My first problem though was getting the Rapide out of Kosti. So after saying farewell to everyone we climbed aboard for the next leg of our flight to Malakal, further up the White Nile. I started up and taxied out to the end of the strip, utilising every last inch of ground available. A quick mag check then holding her hard on the brakes with some flap down to give extra lift, I gave her full throttle against the brakes and when I deemed the engines were giving every bit of power they could muster, I released them and let her go. It seemed an eternity before the tail started to rise into the flying attitude meanwhile the end of the strip, with wooden shacks and date palms, loomed ever closer. Heaving back on the control column at the last second we roared overhead the obstructions and just caught a sidelong glance at the whole village who had either turned up to wave us goodbye - or to witness the impending disaster we had narrowly avoided. With another huge sigh of relief I set course for Malakal which was our next refuelling stop in the Sudan, where we landed some two hours later after an uneventful flight in good weather.
The airfield lay on the eastern bank of the Nile and at right angles to it, just north of the town itself. There was little to recommend Malakal as a tourist attraction. A rather run-down and grubby sort of place but at least it had a bit of greenery around. Having fuelled up we were glad to be on our way again to our next port of call Juba, which was to be our final stopping place in the Sudan; also situated on the Nile but with little to catch our interest except the ever meandering river and with many more trees and patches of grassland now. The youngest one Jillie aged five was getting increasingly restless and kept throwing tantrums. I felt sorry for them, especially Anne who bore the brunt of looking after them, but there was little I could do to relieve their boredom as my hands were somewhat full!
It seemed ages before Juba appeared in the distance and we were all glad when we finally touched down after the three-hour flight. Once again, nothing much to see of interest but I was beginning to notice the distinct change of scenery to more of a pampas-type vegetation. At last we were now getting closer to the equator and the true jungle environment of Africa.
We didn’t waste much time at Juba as we still had a long leg to do before reaching our final destination for the day, Entebbe in Uganda. As soon as we had completed the refuelling, again from drums through a chamois leather, we obtained Immigration and Customs clearance, had our passports stamped, and got under way.
The White Nile from here on meandered lazily through swampy grassland and the flat terrain began to give way to a few hills. Puffy white ‘fair-weather cumulus’ clouds started to appear but the weather remained predominantly good which was a great relief to me.
At last Lake Victoria came into view and soon afterwards the long runway of Entebbe lay ahead, almost exactly on the equator. After landing and taxying in to the spot the Controller indicated, we were immediately descended upon by grim-looking Customs officials. They searched the aircraft from end to end, going through our luggage with a fine tooth comb. It seems they were looking for smuggled arms or something. This was before the age of general drug abuse so it couldn’t have been that they were searching for! Fortunately Ron’s travellers cheques – hidden in various niches around the aircraft – seemed to have eluded them.
Once we had cleared all the paperwork; passports stamped and other formalities taken care of, Anne took the three children off to the terminal building whilst Ron went to the tower to pay the landing and parking fees etc. I took care of the refuelling and followed Ron to file the following day’s flight plan and get all the latest information about the next leg. We then took a taxi to the lovely old Lake Victoria hotel. Its setting was in lush tropical greenery with beautiful Frangipani and Bougainvillea flowers abounding in the gardens, the likes of which I had never seen before.
There out beyond the lush green setting lay the great Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile whose course we had been following since leaving Khartoum. At last we had reached the headwaters of the world’s longest river, all the way from the far off blue Mediterranean down to the Equator. It seemed aeons since we first sighted the mighty river four days ago. From now on we would be moving into the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer. The bleak English Winter weather seemed so remote now.
That evening in the bar, Ron and I had long conversations with some colonial-type gentlemen who regaled us with tales of life in the tropics under former British rule. Our stay at the ‘Lake Vic’, as it was colloquially known by the East African Airways crews, was most cordial. Anne and the three girls enjoyed the tropical atmosphere immensely after the rigours of the past few days in the featureless and dry desert countries, even if the girls were a little bewildered by the black African Negro world they now found themselves in!
20 December 1963… Four days left to Christmas – It was looking good! Our next leg was right down the full length of Lake Victoria and beyond to a place called Tabora in Tanzania – or as the old colonials still insisted on calling it, Tanganyika. We tool-off early and seemed to be flying over Lake Victoria for ages before we finally reached the southern shore, passing by Mwanza off to our left, and another hour went by before Tabora appeared over the horizon. We were met on arrival by a kind old British gentleman, now retired and living in a wooden-type bungalow a short jeep ride away from the airstrip. Upon clearing Customs and Immigration he insisted we join him for lunch which we readily accepted.
After the most welcome meal he drove us back to the airstrip where we thanked him for his hospitality, bid him au revoir, and took to the skies once more, heading for a place called M’beya. It was pampas-type grasslands nearly all the way. Real lion country so we’d been told so I didn’t relish making a forced landing there!
I flew reasonably low so the girls could search for any wildlife. We didn’t see much though, just an occasional gazelle or two. Then we caught sight of a large flock of flamingo birds rising en-masse gracefully into the air from the waters of a small lake; a most beautiful sight with their great pink-tipped white wings slowly flapping up and down. I caught sight of a pride of lions but they rapidly disappeared on hearing my approach before I could alert the others. As the high ground came into view I map-read to find M’beya which lay partially hidden in a ring of hills. We had previously been cautioned by the Royal Aero Club that it was a difficult place to find in poor weather conditions so we were glad the good weather still held for us.
We landed safely and were marshalled into our overnight parking spot before disembarking. The Controller was an Englishman – the first one we’d come across since leaving the UK. As we were the last expected arrivals of the day he decided to close the airfield down for the night. After refuelling and paying the landing fees, he then drove us to the Government Rest House where he later joined us for a meal and drinks after we’d all showered and changed. He had been a Pathfinder Squadron Leader during the war flying Lancaster bombers and so Ron and he had many a tale to tell to each other, with myself a patient but interested listener. He was most helpful when we enquired about our next day’s flight and gave us some much valued advice.
I slept deeply that night. The constant flying was beginning to tell on me. We were averaging about seven hours per day and although I really enjoyed it, with new places and new experiences every day, nevertheless I felt like a break now and then to close my eyes for a few moments rest. I fought off the growing fatigue, consoling myself with the realisation that we were now in the final stages of our long odyssey having left most of the problems behind us. My one dedicated intention now was to get ourselves safely through to the end of our journey. As I grew closer to our destination and pondering the thought of collecting those bets back at Biggin Hill later on, I was determined not to let anyone or anything stand in my way and ruin it all.
21 December 1963… Another early start which the girls – especially young Jillie – didn’t appreciate too much, and with the early morning tropical mist still lingering in the hollows, we bade farewell to our kind hosts and got underway. Once airborne I climbed overhead before setting course and waggled the wings to those waving below. Before long we had crossed the border into Nyasaland, or Malawi as it was now called, having just recently gained its independence. After reaching Lake Nyasa I descended to about a hundred feet above the water so that we could search for anything of interest. It wasn’t long before I spotted some Hippopotamus splashing about in the shallows and banked the Rapide to give the girls a better view. Soon there were crocodiles and lots more wild-life to be seen. Native fishermen tending their nets waved to us as we roared overhead. The girls were very excited by it all. Things were beginning to get interesting for them. We were now in high spirits again. Finally we left the long lake and headed southwest towards our next destination Lilongwe where we eventually landed and refuelled. The English Commandant in charge of the field was rather off-hand with us, which I thought a bit odd considering that it wasn’t every day that an old biplane dropped in enroute from England to Cape Town with six English people on board. I wasn’t expecting a fanfare of trumpets exactly, just a welcome smile and cheery hello would have sufficed. He wasn’t about to give either and was very matter-of-fact in his attitude towards us all – the miserable tyke!
Formalities concluded we were airborne again within the hour, next stop Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia (now Harare in Zimbabwe). The blue sky was giving way to large cumulus build-ups with showers of rain descending from them, but still with good visibility in between the showers and only slight deviations from course were required to avoid them. The jungle clad hills stretched forever into the distance with little signs of life to be seen anywhere. We crossed the mighty Zambezi where I pinpointed my position on a prominent bend of the river, but with little wind and hence practically no drift, any corrections necessary were minimal. Before long I began picking up the radio beacon at Salisbury Airport and shortly after, I made contact with the Air Traffic Controller.
It had been a long day’s flying from M’beya and I was looking forward to our arrival. Then suddenly after a pause, the English Controller calmly informed me that as this was their International Airport they couldn’t accept us there and we would have to proceed to the ‘Light Aircraft’ field called Mount Hampden, a few miles away from Salisbury. I tried negotiating with him to allow us to land as I was getting rather short of fuel after the long flight and didn’t know where this Mount Hampden was. I also pointed out that we had been landing at International Airports since leaving England with no problem. He was adamant though and was not prepared to discuss the matter further and practically ordered me to go there! Not having a clue which direction to fly, he gave me (somewhat reluctantly) a bearing to steer.
Eventually I found the place, or rather the edge of it because the rest of the field was by this time sitting under an enormous tropical thunderstorm! I could barely see the perimeter track around the edge for the heavy torrential rain. My fuel gauges were now registering quite low and I had no intention of hanging around in the vain hope that the storm would clear in time for me to land before I ran out. Therefore I returned to Salisbury Airport on the reciprocal track, explaining my predicament and insisted on a landing clearance. The same Controller reluctantly conceded and I alighted on the runway with tanks almost touching the zero marks. As I was being marshalled-in, the Controller then told me over the radio, in a somewhat highfalutin accent, to report immediately to the Tower with my documents and licence. All this time there had not even been one single aircraft movement at the field except for a BOAC Comet which was about to embark its passengers ready for departure.
I left Ron to take care of the necessary formalities whilst I proceeded upstairs to the Tower. The toffee-nosed colonial wimp I was speaking to over the air demanded my licence and spent quite a considerable time examining every page, explaining in a ‘plum-in-the-mouth’ voice, not raising his eyes from my licence as he spoke down to me, with his feet up on the table, that Mount Hampden was the light aircraft field and I had no right to land at their precious International Airport. My blood rose at this pathetic attempt to humiliate me and I asked him what sort of reception was this, having just flown all the way out from England with a family of children, surmounting all the trials and tribulations of African bloody-mindedness on the way, to be greeted in such a dismal manner by one of my own countrymen? He remained silent, still perusing my licence, then without even looking up at me tossed it contemptuously back across the counter and told me I could go. I was spoiling for a showdown with him, especially after the cool reception from the previous twerp at Lilongwe, but decided to swallow my pride and retreat before I did or said something I might later regret.
I realised by this time that fatigue was getting a grip on me and that I would do well to control my pent-up emotions thereby avoiding a violent confrontation with these snotty-nosed bureaucrats. I was sorely disappointed with their attitude though having negotiated the wilds of the African Continent, believing that at last I was finally entering civilisation once more, only to be treated in such an abysmal way. If they regarded a fellow countryman in such a patronising and condescending manner, how then did they treat the poor natives?… Little wonder we lost the British Empire!
Still smarting from my encounter I met up with the rest of them and we took a taxi to a hotel recommended by the jovial black taxi-driver. I thought as I chatted to him on the way how much longer this lovely place would be flying the Union Jack? Not much longer as it transpired, which didn’t surprise me!
The single-storey hotel was excellent and after a good bath we were ready for the wonderful meal and some relaxing drinks that followed. I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow that night – I was ‘out for the count’ as they say.
22 December 1963… Three days to Christmas and we were now on the home stretch! I wasted little time at Salisbury airport on getting away from the place but I almost came to grief on the take-off. I suppose it was a mixture of complacency, now that I was getting used to handling the Rapide, and the previous day’s escapade that was still bugging me, that accounted for my next actions. I had spun the aircraft around at the end of the runway and gunned the throttles fully before properly lining her up, consequently it started to swing off to one side. Looking back on it, I should of course have abandoned the take-off attempt and taxied back for another go, but I suppose pride must have taken precedence over common sense at that point and I foolishly attempted to correct the swing and continue with the take-off. I veered from one side of the runway to the other before managing to heave her into the air, without damage fortunately.
I was not sorry to see the back of Salisbury! That incident fetched me sharply to my senses though and made me realise that unless I took a firm grip on myself and fight off this fatigue it would spell disaster for us all. With such a relatively short distance to go to reach our goal, compared to the vast distance we had travelled so far, I simply had to keep command of the situation and soldier on to the end, if not for myself at least for the sakes of Ron, Anne and those three young girls behind me.
We bypassed Bulawayo and droned on ever southwards towards the border, with not more than only a few miles to go to the Limpopo River, marking the boundary point between Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. Suddenly that confounded starboard engine began to misfire again! Within minutes it became so bad that I had to close the right-hand throttle right back to the idling position. I began searching around for a suitable place to make a forced landing of which there seemed to be a variety of likely spots, but I was set on at least crossing the border before I had that option forced upon me. As the Limpopo drew closer, and even with the left-hand engine now going full bore but no longer able to maintain altitude, we descended ever lower – obeying the long finger of gravity which pointed downwards. I began searching frantically for a place beyond the river to put her down. The crazy thought crossed my mind that if we were going to crash, then at least let it be our destination – South Africa !
The Outbound Trip
The Limpopo River finally came up and there was Beitbridge, the border crossing point. What shall I do now I thought. Where will I put her down? My questions were answered because suddenly I saw it; just a little further ahead on my right-hand side I caught sight of an airstrip, just inside South African territory! Without further ado I made a beeline for it and having arrived overhead, circled it once to make sure it was okay, and with the left-hand engine still going flat-out I went in and touched down. We had landed at Messina in the Transvaal!
After landing I taxied to a concrete parking area and was soon surrounded by a lot of natives. I shut down and quickly climbed out with Ron, ahead of the others, to explain our circumstances. Within seconds of us climbing out though, a jeep came screeching to a halt in a cloud of dust alongside the Rapide and out of it jumped this bearded ox of a man with a wide-brimmed hat and a bandolier of bullets strung diagonally across his enormous chest. “Vot you fellers tink you doing landing on my private strip huh?” With as much grovelling decorum as I could muster I explained our predicament. At that moment Anne and the three girls began climbing out of the plane also. He took one look at them and ordered us all into his jeep saying “Neffer mind, my Kaffirs will take care of it – you lot come wid me yah!” We were in no position to negotiate terms and meekly crammed into his jeep, wondering where he was taking us and what lay in store at the end of the ride!
After a hair-raising drive we arrived in a cloud of dust at a beautiful bungalow, surrounded by well-groomed lawns tended by a handful of curious ‘Kaffirs’ as he called them. We were given the most sumptuous meal imaginable whilst he listened wide-eyed to our tale. He all but insisted we stay the night, but with lots of sincere apologies we made him realise that we simply had to press-on to Cape Town if we were to arrive there by Christmas. We would dearly loved to have sampled some more of this wonderful Boer hospitality but time was running out for us. Appreciating our situation he graciously accepted our reluctant refusal, drove us all back to the airstrip, stopping on the way at the Border Customs point to get our passports stamped, then back to our aircraft. Sure enough, his so-called ‘Kaffirs’ had fixed the magneto problems and having successfully checked them during an engine run, we again took to the air, waving frantically to them all as we sped past.
What a wonderful reception. How different from the ones we experienced when we arrived in Southern Rhodesia! I felt that at last after all we had been through we had finally reached civilisation again. As we climbed away over the Blue Mountains (as they were apparently called), and left the Limpopo behind us, the feeling engulfed me that at last we had reached the country of our destination, even though we still had over a thousand miles yet to go to Cape Town.
Before the forced landing at Messina our destination had originally been Peitersburg, however, as we had already taken on some extra fuel at Messina we could now push on further. The gruff but kindly Boer has suggested that the best place to night-stop would be Potchefstroom. This was beyond our range though so we headed for Pretoria first to refuel.
With the excellent summer weather we were now enjoying, finding Pretoria was a relatively easy task, and before long we were approaching to land. After refuelling and a quick turn-around we were soon back in the air heading for Potchefstroom, taking in all this new and unusual scenery on the way.
The lovely and well laid-out towns and villages were a sight to behold as we passed them by. The sunny summer’s afternoon gave excellent flying conditions and we cruised on steadily for mile after mile, admiring the scenery as we went. I was now savouring a warming comfortable feeling, and natured with smug satisfaction, in the knowledge that here we were in South Africa and civilisation at long last. We had actually made it despite all the previous reservations. But it’s a might big country and we still had a lot more flying to do before reaching Cape Town.
Somehow or other I found Potchefstroom and landed safely. The friendly greeting they gave us on arrival adequately made-up for the miserable reception we had been given in Rhodesia and our spirits rose sky-high. It was a military training field and during WW2 many an RAF cadet had received his ‘wings’ training here. It was their first sight of a DH Rapide since those war years and they swarmed all over it in admiration. We were quickly whisked away to a very nice lodging house in this quaint old town where were treated as guests of honour. After dinner we strolled around town in the warm evening air taking in the sights and admiring the old Dutch-style architecture of the place. I contemplated in awe the civilised and hospitable reception we received wherever we showed our faces. There we were on the other side of the world from home, separated from the rest of western civilisation as we knew it, by the vast expanse of Black Africa. What a wonderfully satisfied feeling crept over me. Now nothing could stop us; the finishing post was almost in our sights. I slept soundly that night!
23 December 1963... This was to be our final day of travel but a long day’s flying awaited us so we made an early start; our last one we hoped for some time to come. The next stopping point was to be the big gold-mining town of Kimberley close to the Orange River. With the good summer weather still holding it was an interesting but uneventful trip and we could see the huge opencast diamond mine of Kimberley from afar. Ron pointed it out to me as he had seen it before, saying rather rudely “That’s the biggest made-made hole in the world – barring Christine Keeler’s that is!”... The Profumo affair incidentally was still big news when we left the UK.
The restaurant in the main terminal at Kimberley airport provided us with adequate refreshment for our next leg which was to a place called Victoria West in the Cape Province. So without further ado we took to the air once more. Jillie was being very obstreperous by now and becoming quite a handful – poor Anne was almost at the end of her tether. So when we eventually landed at Victoria West she insisted we give the children a break of a couple of hours before continuing with our journey. Ron got quite upset when I suggested to him that we had plenty of time left now to complete the last leg so maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to give them all a break from the constant flying. Once again he remonstrated that if they were not prepared to put up with a bit of discomfort and hardship for some adventure they shouldn’t have come along in the first place. I felt like saying “Try and explain that to your five year-old daughter!”... But I decided to hold my tongue and not inflame an already explosive situation. Anne had another go at him and in the end he moodily relented and we took a taxi into town for a while. On return about an hour later, having refuelled previously and paid all the requisite dues, we climbed on board for the final leg to Cape Town.
By now the afternoon heat had made the cabin air quite oppressive, and even though I had slid both my side-screen windows in the cockpit wide open, it did little to relieve the situation. Before long they were all fast asleep with their faces wreathed in sweat. Jillie was stretched out on the floor still clutching her favourite teddy bear. We droned on and on and the scenery changed to sandy desert as flew across the Great Karroo. The Drakonsberg Mountains came into view to on our left and by this time my eyes were getting heavy with fatigue. Glancing back over my right shoulder occasionally I saw them all still sound asleep. How I envied them and longed to close my eyes also and rest awhile!
With strained eyes glued ahead, desperately trying not to doze off, it suddenly dawned on me that the hazy horizon had begun to change colour to a dull purplish blue hue. I took my sunglasses off to make sure I wasn’t seeing things but there is was! What I could see was the Southern Ocean beyond which the next bit of land was the Antarctic! We had actually come to the end of Africa at last. I yelled with joy, which woke them all up with a start, and immediately called them to come up front one by one to see for themselves. What a moment that was – I felt so thrilled by it all.
Eventually the Table Mountain came into view with its ‘tablecloth’ of lenticular cloud hugging the summit. I suddenly realised that that I had better talk to someone over the radio so I called the main D.F.Malan International Airport to ask for entry instructions into their zone. They replied telling me that the grass aerodrome called Youngsfield I should go to was situated about 10 miles southwest of them, not far from Table Mountai, and then gave me an approximate heading to steer. I managed to find it without too much trouble and circled overhead once to check the landing direction from the windsock. Completing the circuit I commenced my approach to land, crossing the boundary hedge a little on the fast side and made a rather bumpy and undignified arrival – not one of my best landings by a long chalk but put it down to a mixture of fatigue and excitement.
As we taxied in towards the hard-standing near the hangars I noticed a crowd of people standing there. The marshaller had indicated for me to stop right in front of them, which rather puzzled me? I shut down the engines and sank back in my seat with a mixture of intense relief and satisfaction, hardly able to comprehend that we had made it at last, and in one piece too. Then as the back door opened I heard a cheer go up from the crowd of people as they came surging forward to greet us. I couldn’t believe it – they were actually there for our benefit?.. I was the last to deplane and everyone swarmed around us shaking hands and hugging the children.
It took me some moments to arrive at the truth of it. It appeared that Ron had already briefed his friends about our ETA (estimated time of arrival), probably by phone at the last port of call, and they in turn had the Press out there to meet us. Now I began to realise his urgency at wanting to leave Victoria West without delay. Faced with all this publicity I felt most embarrassed. I didn’t know where to hide my face but put on a brave and rather forced smile and said my bit to the reporters, although I’ve no idea now what words came out!
So there it was! We had made it all the way from England, on the other side of the world, to the bottom of Africa in our tiny ‘Bamboo Bomber’ as the RAF used to call our small, flimsy wood and fabric aircraft. Dear old G-ALGC had done us proud, and except for the occasional hiccup had fetched us all those thousands of miles to our destination in safety. It had taken almost seventy flying hours from Biggin Hill to Cape Town, and we had made it with a day to spare before Christmas 1963.
We spent 5½ glorious sunny weeks in Cape Town before embarking on the return flight to freezing England. Because of the political situation we were unable to follow the same route back through Africa and were obliged to seek another route home. The return flight was even more eventful than the outbound one, with a few rather scary moments, one in particular where I feel sure that divine intervention alone saved us from disaster... but that’s another story – CLICK here for more of ‘Tour d’Afrique’ .
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