Tour d'Afrique (chapter 3)
February 2nd 1964… Having said our farewells and most sincere thanks to all the kind folk who made our five and a half week stay in the Cape so enjoyable, I started the engines and taxied out to the far perimeter fence of Youngsfield; did the pre-take-off checks, spun around and took off, waving goodbye to our friends as we sped past them after lift-off for the first stage of our homeward flight.
It was great to be back in the driving seat of our dear old Rapide again. We flew in a northerly direction this time, towards our first intended landing at Keetmanshoop in South West Africa (Namibia). Because of the Government restriction forbidding flights along the skeleton coast to protect the diamond trade, it was necessary to fly a considerable distance inland until crossing the border into Angola. Thereafter, our intention was to gradually converge across to the South Atlantic coastline. From there on we would more or less follow the entire West African coast all the way to Tangier, which was to be our departure point from Africa, and only a short hop across the narrow neck of the Mediterranean Straits of Gibraltar; thence once again into Europe.
After a rather long four and three quarter hour but uneventful flight in clear conditions we landed at Keetmanshoop to refuel. It was a dry and dusty place with not much to recommend it, although to be fair we only saw the airport and not the town itself. Having filled our tanks again and grabbed a bite to eat we emplaned for our next leg to Windhoek, the capital of South West Africa, where we intended to spend the night.
Most of the three hundred mile flight to Windhoek was spent over the featureless and barren Kalahari Desert. Three quarters of the way to our destination we crossed the 23½ degree south latitude, marking the Tropic of Capricorn so once again we had entered the tropical regions of Africa. The landing at Windhoek was without problems and whilst Ron took care of all the arrival formalities at the control tower, I supervised the refuelling ready for our next day’s flight.
Windhoek was also a dry and dusty place and didn’t appeal very much to us. I often wondered what attracts people to live in such desolate places? The small hotel where we stayed was clean and comfortable though and the mainly German descendants (being a former German colony) were quite friendly. They told us that the average humidity throughout the year, due to the lack of rainfall, was only about five per cent, and that it was not uncommon for pieces of wooden furniture to suddenly collapse in a cloud of dust due to the dryness. The following day’s flight though was very much on my mind. We had to find a small airstrip in Angola called Villa Pereira d’Eca after a long flight, almost to the limit of our fuel endurance, with few recognisable landmarks en-route. I retired that night full of foreboding for the biggest obstacle yet; how to locate a small airstrip after nearly five hours flying? I slept on it…
February 3rd 1964… At the airport next day I had a lengthy chat with the Controller about the flight and he gave me a lot of very sound advice. He informed me that a little under half way and off to the left of track, if the conditions were clear enough, I should see a small township called Outjo which would serve as a good en-route checkpoint. Soon after passing Outjo we would come to a very large dry salt lake called the Etosha Pan, the world’s largest game reserve. He told me we would see lots of wild game there and possibly even elephants too. After leaving the Etosha Pan we could expect pampas-type bush and grassland with very few landmarks. Eventually we would come across a jeep track running at right angles to our own track. We should then turn right and follow it until we came across the small village of Villa Pereira d’Eca. The procedure would then be to fly low over the village a couple of times. This apparently would alert the persons concerned who would drive out to the strip with cans of fuel specially arranged by the fuel company. After buzzing the town we were directed to follow a track out in a north-easterly direction for a few more miles where we should then see the laterite landing strip alongside and to the left of the track – It all sounded too simple for words! I felt that I was going to need a pot full of luck to find the place.
We took-off and flew on a northerly heading and I settled down for the long flight ahead but conditions were a bit bumpy in the early morning thermals rising from the ground. Then suddenly and without warning, the Rapide went into a series of violent gyrations and fell like a brick towards the desert below. I was taken completely by surprise and thought for one dreadful moment that I had lost part of the tailplane! Struggling to regain control, and about 800ft from the ground, we came out of the headlong descent into smoother air. The girls were screaming in the back and I quickly reassured them that everything was now okay. I have no idea what caused it but back in the UK some weeks later, during an interview with a Daily Mail reporter, Ron suggested that we flew into a whirlwind, but frankly I haven’t a clue what it was. My best guess now in the light of recent experience is that it was probably a large 'dust devil' in the making, which is quite a common phenomena in desert regions, but I suppose a whirlwind sounded more dramatic. Whatever it may have been, it was most frightening and I counted my lucky stars that we survived. It was not a pleasant beginning to our most demanding flight yet!
The small settlement of Outjo came into sight, more or less on ETA, from which I surmised that there was hardly any wind and little drift to speak of. Then up came the great Etosha Pan. It stretched as far as the eye could see, ahead, to the left and right of us. We’d previously been positively assured that lots of wild game inhabited the area, so I descended to about one hundred feet so everybody could get a closer look. Before long we saw herds of wildebeest together with ostrich, zebras, hyenas, giraffes, and lots more game. However, they must have heard our engines approaching and began stampeding in clouds of dust. I was told some months later that my actions were highly illegal and would have been jailed if the authorities had caught me. I did not of course do it on purpose and as soon as I realised the panic I was causing I quickly climbed away to a higher altitude.
There were massive herds of animals everywhere and the children were so excited to see it all. The pampas-type grasslands eventually came into view at last and soon after leaving the Etosha Pan behind us I caught sight of a herd of elephants near some clumps of small trees. I shouted to the children to look out for them and did a rather steep 360 degree turn to the left to retrace my track. By the time I returned to the point where I had first spotted them they had completely disappeared! I marvelled as to how such a largish group of mammoths could suddenly hide in such relatively sparse surroundings.
Having settled down on course again and climbed to a reasonable altitude, not only for passenger comfort but to give me a much better view of what lay ahead, my concentration now focussed on the most difficult part of our whole journey since leaving England – how to find a small village in the middle of nowhere? The large grasslands and scrubby-type bush seemed to stretch to infinity.
I held the compass course as accurately as possible with no idea of wind direction or strength if any. We plodded on for mile after mile of featureless terrain, although there were more trees appearing now interspersed among the endless grassland. After what seemed an eternity, a few tracks came into view ahead. The one I was looking for though should be more distinctive – then I saw it! Right on ETA a well-marked jeep-track crossing at right angles. I banked sharply to the right to follow it and in doing so suddenly found myself crossing two more tracks. Then there were tracks everywhere! Which one should I follow now? Making a snap decision I chose the first one that I’d just crossed. I couldn’t believe my good fortune because a few minutes later a small village came into view. I hoped and prayed it was Villa Pereira d’Eca.
In accordance with previous instructions I flew low over the village a couple of times then set course in a north-easterly direction as advised. Once again there was not just one track but half-a-dozen radiating out from the village. With little choice I selected the most likely-looking one and followed it. A quick glance at the fuel gauges reminded me that I had better find a landing spot very soon or otherwise I would be forced to put it down on the first flat stretch of ground available. Then there it was! Parallel to the track and off to the left of it lay a red-coloured laterite dirt strip. A quick fly past at low level to make sure it was okay then a low-level circuit onto a final approach, plonking her down just past the threshold. Doing a ‘one-eighty’ as the Rapide slowed down I taxied back into the cloud of red dust I’d just created to a small parking area I’d noticed as we came into land. Swinging the plane around to face the landing strip I allowed the engines to idle for a couple of minutes and shut them down. We climbed out into the fierce shimmering midday heat pondering our good fortune on finding it. Good old lady luck had saved me again! I could only assume that all the plusses and minuses throughout the long flight had somehow evened themselves out; it was nothing short of a miracle we found the place. I stood there by the plane, listening with an immense feeling of relief to the crackling and creaking sounds coming from the engines as they cooled off.
The heat was so intense that the children, having been cautioned to watch out for any nasties like scorpions etc, sat under the shade of the lower wing out of the blazing sun, which was just about overhead at that time of the year. It was then that we noticed we were not alone – lots of pairs of eyes were looking at us from the shade beneath a clump of trees at the edge of the strip! Alarm spread over the girls as they came scrambling up to us for protection. I must confess that I wasn’t too happy about the situation myself. Who were they and what were their intentions? Then I noticed they were all native women; most of them bare-breasted as well by the look of it!
Thinking back on it, I can well imagine their curiosity at seeing an ancient canvas covered biplane land at this remote semi-jungle strip, disgorging four white females and two white men! Realising they were friendly we beckoned them to come forward and meet us but they were too shy and just giggled amongst themselves.
Anne suddenly remembered a box of Black Magic chocolates that someone had given her as a parting present. She rummaged through the luggage and found them, albeit a trifle soggy now with the heat, and offered it to them from a distance. They just shyly laughed but couldn’t pluck up the courage to come forward, so we each pretended to eat a chocolate apiece, displaying make-believe pleasure in doing so, and then Anne went slowly towards them holding out the box in front of her. One of them, obviously their leader, coyly came forward, taking it from Anne, and retreating rapidly to the curious throng of women behind. They immediately crowded round the one with the box and within seconds had scoffed the lot! Then one of them put the empty box on her head and they all clapped hands to show their approval and pleasure.
Just at that moment a jeep came tearing along the track kicking up a great cloud of dust behind it, coming to a screeching halt beside the Rapide. The back of the jeep was piled high with our cans of fuel. The Portuguese-speaking man in charge told us in halting English that after refuelling we would have to accompany him into the village to clear formalities, by which we assumed to be Customs and Immigration. Angola of course was still a Portuguese colony then.
The refuelling took some time as we were obliged to open each of the sealed cans in turn, pouring the precious fuel through our chamois leather to ensure we filtered out any water or impurities. Finally it was completed and having been positively assured the aircraft would be left in the safe hands of one of the uniformed chaps left to guard it, we jumped into the back of the jeep and sped off into town. The formalities were minimal as expected, with lots of stamped General Declaration forms handed over which seemed to satisfy them. Then we were treated to some coffee with cool drinks for the three girls. Passports stamped; aircraft documents inspected and stamped; all necessary fees paid, then back into the jeep for our next and final leg of the day to a place called Sa da Bandeira where we intended to nightstop.
According to the Aerad radio chart I still had covering Africa, Sa da Bandeira was a prominent enough strip to have its own radio beacon. So soon after take-off I tuned into the frequency given on the chart and began listening for the 3-letter call sign in morse. Not really expecting to hear anything from that distance away though and would probably not come into range for at least another hour or so.
The terrain was now getting a lot greener with more hills and small rivers appearing. There were a couple of large rivers shown on the map which I was hoping would pinpoint our position. In fact we came across more than two but none of them where I expected them to be, or flowing in the direction the map indicated. Apart from an occasional small native village or two we saw no sign of life except the endless jungle and hills. I noticed also that in order to keep a healthy distance above the ground I needed to nudge the Rapide higher and higher until I was registering about 8,000 feet on the altimeter. This was only approximate because I had no way of knowing the exact pressure datum to set the altimeter to anyway.
After a couple of hours I started searching the ADF dial for any radio beacon I could find, as the frequency and call-sign stated on the chart simply gave no indications whatsoever. I was beginning to get a little concerned because there was no signs of life appearing anywhere and we were rapidly approaching our ETA. Supposing I had drifted off course without realising it?
If I missed Sa da Bandeira altogether I could see no other town or settlement on the map within miles of our track. As I scanned the dial for the elusive call-sign, I noticed a strong signal coming from our one o’clock position emitting a call-sign of ‘SB’ in morse. It bore no resemblance to the call-sign and frequency on the Aerad radio chart but surely the ‘SB’ must stand for the SB in Sa da Bandeira I thought? It was Hobson’s choice so I turned towards the needle and lo-and-behold a town soon appeared with a long concrete runway close by. I had been calling on various likely frequencies over the radio but no response so I did a circuit and came in to land. It was Sa da Bandeira alright but as it later transpired, they had changed both the VHF frequency and the call-sign of the beacon without informing anyone in the outside world!
The altimeter after landing still showed about 6,000 feet on it and I later discovered that the actual airport elevation was in fact 5,778 feet above sea level – our highest airfield of the entire trip so far. By now though, the engine cowlings were sooty-black with the over-rich mixture. How I wished we had paid more attention to this problem before leaving the UK! My concern now was for the morrow’s flight which would involve much higher altitudes than we’d so far encountered, due to the mountainous terrain between Sa da Bandeira and the Atlantic coast.
The Portuguese Air Traffic Controller at the airport’s control tower was friendly enough and we managed to get through the formalities and refuelling without too much ado, although the language difficulties presented a few problems. A taxi was organised and we were soon arriving at a delightful old Colonial-style single-storey hotel run by a charming Portuguese lady. She made us very welcome and after a most satisfying meal we went for a stroll in the flowered gardens.
As it was still early in the evening Linda suggested we all go for a swim in the hotel’s pool. The others declined so I went along to keep her company. Linda was still only fourteen but well developed and advanced for her age, with a somewhat curvaceously slim figure; a fact that did not go entirely unnoticed by me! She seemed to sense this and was not reticent in tantalisingly showing off her well-formed shape as we merrily splashed around in the water. I had to sharply remind myself that she was not only well under-aged but also still my responsibility in a manner of speaking.
We stayed in the pool until it grew dark, thoroughly enjoying the clean refreshing water, then strolled leisurely back through the sweet-smelling flower garden, abundant with well scented frangipani, bougainvillea, and other fragrant tropical flowers, to get dressed and join the rest of our party. Long after Anne and the girls went to bed, Ron and I stayed chatting to our charming hostess over numerous drinks listening to fascinating tales of her life in Colonial Angola. What a far cry from the war-ravaged devastated country it is today!
February 4th 1964… Next morning after a sumptuous breakfast, probably the last of its type for some time to come, we bade our charming hostess adios and took a taxi out to the airport. Before long we had climbed aboard our trusty Rapide once again and after settling in and closing the rear door I started both the engines. I called-up the Controller on the new frequency they gave me before departure and in halting English was given clearance for taxy and take-off for the next leg of our journey which was Luanda, the capital of Angola. This was good because after Luanda it would be coast-following all the way around the west coast of Africa to Tangier. No more fumbling around in unknown territory!
The poor old girl took a lot longer than normal to get airborne from the very lengthy concrete runway and felt rather sluggish after lift-off – probably due to the high elevation and temperature. Soon we were back over hilly jungles interspersed with numerous water courses. I was flying about 8,000 feet and eyeing the approaching high ground ahead, separating us from the low coastal plains we were heading for, with more than a little trepidation. If only I could have leaned-out that mixture to give more power and thus gain more height, to say nothing of the fuel economy it would have afforded.
The American WAC maps showed scanty detail, due to lack of survey information available, and urged extreme caution with the suspect spot heights. The pilot I met back in Cape Town had warned me that when he flew in this region previously he had observed mountain peaks way above the heights marked on his map – some as high as 9,000 feet or more. I too began to notice the high ground appearing around us was well in excess of our cruising altitude, but with no mixture controls fitted it would be impossible to out-climb them. I held the course marked on the map as accurately as possible, trying to keep to my assumed track and avoid the rising high ground at the same time, searching for a lower route through the mountains.
Before long though I was in among the hills-cum-mountains which must have been at least 9,000 feet if not more. I had been flying for some time along the valleys in this undulating region, having seen no sign of life for the past hour at least. Nothing in fact except but jungle-covered hills all around me. Then the unthinkable happened!
That confounded starboard engine began to miss the odd beat or two occasionally. I knew the warning signs all too well! Before long the rough-running started and only by easing the starboard throttle back progressively in stages could I get it to run evenly. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time or in a more inhospitable place. There was no question of turning back now, I simply wouldn’t have made it on one engine. My only option was to continue straight ahead and hope and pray that I would soon be out of the mountains and able to descend down over lower ground.
Soon I was forced to retard the engine back to idle to stop the vibrating and misfiring. Now it was giving drag instead of thrust! I had the port engine running flat-out by this time and slowly descending straight into the seemingly solid mass of high ground ahead. If only I could get out of this high ground to the coastal plain ahead! It flashed through my mind that all rivers must eventually run to the sea, so I started following a rather largish river which twisted and turned through a valley in the mountains. Soon it was winding through gorges with rapidly rising ground on either side of me whilst I gradually descended lower and lower. What an awful predicament to be in! By this time I was wreathed in sweat with my left leg getting very tired – it began trembling with spasms in trying to hold the left rudder over to counteract the asymmetric thrust caused by the port engine which was going at full throttle under maximum power, but the aircraft was still losing height gradually.
Awful thoughts began racing through my head! Supposing the river took a right-angled bend? There was no way I could have banked the Rapide round it in time to avoid smashing headlong into the sheer side of the gorge. I made up my mind that at the next sandbank I saw on one of the inside bends of the river, I would try and put her down on it, hoping we would survive the inevitable crash landing. Even if we did manage to survive, how would we get back to civilisation in such a remote and inhospitable terrain?
They had previously told me that this part of Angola was real lion country! How could we survive without weapons to defend ourselves with? And what about the females on board – always assuming we all survived the landing? I would have to leave them with the aircraft and somehow make my way alone to civilisation to get help. Even if I survived unscathed it could take weeks for me to reach assistance. All these dreadful thoughts went racing through my head as I banked sharply round each river bend with the gorge getting steeper and narrower all the time. It was then, for the first time ever in flying, that I began praying to the Almighty to please get me out of this hopeless mess I’d landed myself in…
Stay tuned folks – more to come later!
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