Wings over Namibia
The annual flooding of Etosha Pan is called the efundja, when overflow from southern Angola spills into the shallow depression. Some years it’s hardly noticeable, but when Richard Adcock and his fellow pilots flew over the area in April 2011 every depression was filled with water and the pan itself looked like a lake. The map below shows their flight path.
We’re 400 km from Cape Town and we’re fighting a turbulent north-easterly wind. “It’s not supposed to be this hot,” I say to copilot Sean Curran as we fight our way north to Oranjemund, our entry point into Namibia.
In the distance, cumulus clouds sit heavily on the horizon. Only a week has passed since Namibia was hit by the heaviest flooding in decades. Moisture plus heat equals turbulence and thunderstorms, a pilot’s worst nightmare. Can we make it all the way to the Kunene?
Sean and I are members of the Western Cape Microlight Club and it has been 10 years since our last serious adventure with our flying buddies. This year, we decided it was high time we put ourselves and our aircraft to the test again on a long-haul trip somewhere wild. So we came up with a (relatively) simple plan: Fly to the Kunene River from Cape Town and back via Etosha over the course of 11 days.
There are 11 aircraft in our group: five fixed-wing planes and six trikes (also known as weight-shift microlights). The trikes don’t have a long flying range, so they have been put on trailers and will meet up with us inWalvis Bay in three days’ time. The support crew for the trikes is six people strong, in two vehicles: a Land Cruiser bakkie and a Ford F250. The ground crew is carrying 1 000 litres of extra fuel and, more importantly, a portable deep freeze containing about 200 litres of beer!
Sean and I are piloting a Jabiru 400, an Australian-designed “experimental category” aircraft, which basically means it can’t be used commercially. Flying one of these home-built plastic-and-aluminium creations is not for the faint of heart. You need to know the ins and outs of the mechanics so you can do field repairs, just as you’d need to know your Landy inside out if you’re planning an overland trip.
The cockpit of the Jabiru is fitted with all sorts of electronic flying aids – the only thing in short supply is packing space! Sean is on the left, the author on the right.
The weather is one thing, but we’re also having issues with the variable pitch propeller, which decided to go on strike soon after take-off in Cape Town. With the oil temperature touching the dangerous red zone, we have to find a place to land and cool the engine. Fast.
At Hondeklipbaai we touch down on a bleak dirt airstrip and coax some action out of the propeller mechanism, which only seems to work on the ground – not a happy state of affairs.
Luckily we’re able to dial in some extra pitch and the Jabiru lumbers along the runway and takes off sluggishly.
We make it to Oranjemund within the time limit and clear customs. Then we take off again and fly low over the Sperrgebiet to Lüderitz.
The extent of the diamond mining earthworks is hard to believe, but it’s just as amazing to see how the sea has claimed back the abandoned mined areas, flattening 25 m-high man-made walls of sand in only a few seasons.
High above the dunes
A low-flying two-seater plane is dwarfed by the dunes of the Lange Wand, the “Long Wall” in German, a section of coastal desert in the Sperrgebiet north of Lüderitz.
Flying at about 1 000 feet, the enormous dunes at Sossusvlei are put into perspective. It seems as if they reach up to our wingtips. The weather is near perfect, a bit hot and turbulent, but the sky is breathtaking.
We spend the night at Betesda Lodge and then aim north-west to Walvis Bay.
The valleys between the dunes are filled with green grass – like a giant quilted bedspread. There are no roads here at all. I wonder if anyone on the ground is aware of just how spectacular this scene is.
In Walvis Bay we meet up with the rest of our flying club buddies and their trikes. We also manage to repair the propeller system of the Jabiru – it turns out to be a simple case of dirt in the electrics.
From Walvis we fly north along the coast. It’s Monday, but it seems as if nobody is at work. The entire coastline from Mile 14 to Henties Bay is dotted with fishermen.
At Terrace Bay another gremlin rears its head: The propeller on one of the trikes is showing signs of stress. Another pilot volunteers to fly his Lancair Legacy to Omaruru to collect a new propeller – a round trip of more than 800 km.
The camaraderie among the pilots is what makes a trip like this so memorable. There is virtually no infrastructure of any sort up here and we are our own support network. There’s no other choice.
Trikes in trouble
Pilot Sean Curran readies the Jabiru 400 for the next day’s flight under an evening sky near Orupembe
The call comes over the radio: “I need to find a place to land… quickly!” It’s late afternoon and although it has cooled down quite a bit, one of our team members flew too close to a thunderstorm and got thumped, loosening some vital engine hoses.
Earlier, we left the Atlantic behind at Möwe Bay and made our way inland to Sesfontein via the Hoanib River. The river has a huge catchment area but only just manages to make it to the sea, even during times of flooding. The shifting sands of the Skeleton Coast always seem to gain the upper hand.
Flying along the mostly hidden river course from the sea side, we were treated to splashes of green and small lakes dotting the sands of the Namib. These oases are a haven for desert animals. We saw elephant, giraffe, warthog and gemsbok.
Now we’re above Kaokoland, looking for an old gravel military airstrip marked on the GPS near Orupembe, so the stricken plane can land. Normally, finding an airfield in this part of the world is easy – the straight lines and smooth texture stands out in stark contrast to the random texture of the stony desert. This landing strip, however, has vanished under a sea of grass.
With four aircraft buzzing around the GPS location, Sean and I pick the likely spot and manage to land, hitting a rock in the process and causing a puncture. The damaged aircraft is hot on our heels; fortunately it also manages to land safely.
But we’re not out of the woods just yet. We hear over the radio that two trikes are missing. It turns out that the gearbox on one of the trikes failed and the pilot had to do a dead-stick landing (no engine power) in the bush. This is lion country. Thankfully another trike managed to land nearby and collect the grateful pilot.
The rescue trike finally touches down safely at camp and we all listen to the story. The next day, the same trike returns to the one still down in the bundu. As he comes in to land, the pilot hits a ditch and wrecks the propeller. Now there are two trikes down in the same spot!
Rescue efforts are put in place. Late in the evening the two pilots are collected by the Land Cruiser after a six-hour slog through numerous flooded rivers. It takes three days for the luckless pilots to repair their aircraft, but they take to the skies again to complete the trip.
All along the Kunene
The Epupa Falls are quite a sight from the air, especially after heavy rain. Makalani palms and baobabs looked tiny next to the raging torrent.
Problem: The remaining fuel won’t last us to Etosha as planned. We’ve eaten into the 1 000 ℓ reserve with all the rescues and other unplanned trips.
The only option is to fly a 260 km round trip to Opuwo. At the Kaokoland “capital” we fill up with fuel at R17 per litre. To soften the financial blow, we treat ourselves to a meal at the Opuwo Country Hotel.
The Kunene is waiting. Near the mouth of the flooding river there is hardly any indication that humans have ever been here. The mouth is at least a kilometre wide. Turning east, we head upstream. The thought of crocs is constantly on my mind as we fly low above the river gorge.
The Kunene drops about 500m on its final 100km journey to the sea, and each of the unnamed falls and rapids looks positively scary. I think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Kurtz would be in his element here.
The rocky banks of Angola on the left and the steep dunes of Namibia on the right gradually give way to grassland, which becomes greener and greener the further east we go.
Past Marienfluss, the imposing peaks of the Otjihipa and Bains mountains loom ahead. I hold my breath as we climb and the oil temperature ticks into the red again. Then we soar back down and rejoin the Kunene, west of Epupa Falls.
The falls are a boiling mass of water. I’d love to see them from ground level, but we are unable to land at the nearby airfield, as it has been damaged by flooding.
So on to Ruacana we go. Tall makalani palms strain up towards us as we thread our way upstream over waterlogged fields. Like Epupa, the sight of Ruacana Falls in flood is something I’ll never forget.
Water, water everywhere
Francois Snyders from Namibia Wildlife Resorts has arranged permission for us to land at Okaukuejo in Etosha. A keen pilot himself, he has accompanied us from Terrace Bay.
Etosha looks nothing like the Etosha you usually see in coffee-table books and on postcards. That Etosha is a dusty, dry place – elephants caked in white dust, zebras shimmering in the heat waves quivering above the parched earth. This year, the rains have transformed every depression into a lagoon and the pan itself is full to the brim. It looks more like the Okavango Delta than a salt pan!
President Sam Nujoma and his entourage are sharing our airfield. The next day we wait for his party to take off before we begin our return trip via Windhoek. The scene below is like flying over a zoo. At one flooded pan I count five rhino, a dozen elephant, giraffe, zebra, warthog and gemsbok.
I’m sad to be heading south again. The far north-west of Namibia is still an unspoilt wilderness and offers the opportunity for real adventure – whether you like your adventure hundreds of metres above the ground or behind the wheel of a 4x4.
Long may it stay that way.