3 min read
You can know a lot about a place by its airplanes.
A friend told of a flight she took in Africa back when there were smoking and non-smoking sections. On this particular flight, however, those sections were divided lengthways, right down the middle of the plane. Pure Africa.
You have to admire the originality of the arraignment. Adhering to the law while giving the passengers what they want, in a fresh new way. Of course, you could ask, “Why down the middle of the plane? Why not front and back… like the rest of the world?”.
But why bother? Africa is an original. Literally. We all come from there… before we wandered off to our mathematically impossible ‘four corners’ of the globe.
Africa is the world’s primeval mold… and it still retains its edges. Many of our modern improvements drop onto the continent but have yet to subdue its character. The land’s ageless spirit rises through these layers of tech, mixing quite brilliantly with man’s toys.
It’s a place where monkeys leap out of trees to snatch tourists’ smartphones. Where you can be attacked by a leopard or a hippo but also get a pretty good Wi-Fi signal.
I find technology in the jungle completely entertaining. We text and email amongst ancient trees and timeless savannahs. We drop in and act like we’re setting the agenda, then one good African rain and splat - no outside communication for days. It’s humbling and it’s healthy.
Though maybe not at that particular moment.
Our Little Piece of The Sky
Anyway, we’re climbing into a little six-seater at the airport in Durbin, South Africa. This is a big airport with lots of big commercial jets but we’re headed to the bush in the only type of plane suitable to land on a dirt airstrip.
Though the plane is tiny, it’s still a commercial flight so the co-pilot does the typical safety briefing, albeit just inches from us. It’s a no smoking flight. That’s good - don’t have to worry about the person next to me becoming the smoking section.
The co-pilot also points out the emergency exit. Amazingly, it’s the same entryway we came through just moments before. Check.
And we’re off, soon bouncing above beautiful plains and forests.
The tiny plane loudly rattles and I retreat behind my noise canceling headphones. These cans have saved my ears in noisy old choppers above the Andes and two-seaters skimming the Trinity Alps.
Technology doesn’t just conquer nature, it also conquers other technology - survival of the newest, biggest, bestest.
As we shake, hum and bump through the sky I recall with irony just days before - me and my video crew were in Toulouse France, at the Airbus Assembly plant. There we ascended an A380, the largest passenger plane ever built. The unfinished craft was crawling with technicians, scopes and miles of cable stretched along on the floor for the incomprehensible testing going on.
It was almost obscene, as if we were viewing the aircraft’s innards – its guts splayed out for display. Civilians should never see this much technology behind the scenes. So many thousands of wires and connections that could become undone. I tried not to step on the wires.
Now in our little six-seater I recalled the A380 can hold as many as 800 passengers. How could the same sky hold up so many of us? Newest, biggest, bestest.
Our Little Patch of Dirt
The A380 is a monster of technology but still, no match for the little airstrip I now saw appearing below like a bald spot in the jungle.
We were quickly coming up on my/our first dirt airstrip landing and it felt comfortably fitting to be in this tiny little plane, heading for that tiny patch of dirt, at this particular moment.
But up ahead there’s suddenly dust kicking up. Animals on the airstrip? I want to close my eyes. But, somehow I believe I need to keep them open to help with the landing.
Like all landings, the touch down will be a blip of magical thinking and surrender. Only a little bouncier… and then the usual post landing flush of victory. Followed by feelings of ownership and satisfaction.
Why is that? It’s not like I have anything to do with the landing. Maybe I just enjoy basking in the Pilot’s glory.
Phhht! Ok, we’re down and I do feel very accomplished.
As we rumbled to a stop in the dust, I could see bunches of warthogs running off on the side of the runway. So that was the commotion. Warthogs. They are hilarious. Have you ever seen a warthog run?
They scurry about with rapid, tiny steps, like portly commuters scrambling for the 5:15 back to New Rochelle. Plus, their tails shoot straight into the air - like those poles that rise up from the backs of bumper cars.
Yes, that would be a good analogy – warthogs are the bumper cars of the animal kingdom. Who are also running late for the 5:15….
We’ve landed in Phinda, a private game reserve. We’ll be staying at their Forest Lodge. These are beautiful glass-walled structures. We each get our own. Amazing.
This client wants video of the lodge, the game drives, nighttime safaris, river cruises. You name it. We do it all – track leopards, witness a kill, go tracking, spot black and white rhinos…
I will write stories in depth and detail about all of it. Just not now.
Because this post… this is an aviation story set in Africa. So, I’m going to cut to the end of our stay at Phinda and jump right to our ride back to the airstrip.
There’s a small plane waiting for us back at the airstrip. It will take us to our connecting flight in Johannesburg (or Joburg as the locals call it). There, we’ll take a night flight to Frankfurt, Germany. Then more flights to NY and LA.
As I recall from our arrival, it’s a quick run between the airstrip and the lodge… but not this particular afternoon. Because shortly after we start down the little dirt road - a path really - we soon find ourselves stuck behind one enormous bull elephant.
See, even here in the jungle there’s traffic! I ask our guide why didn’t he call ahead for the jungle traffic report.
The big bull takes up the entire path – he’s bigger than our Land Cruiser – so there is no going around him. Hence we get a panoramic view of his backside as he lumbers along, stopping to eat leaves and bark… then emptying yesterday’s leaves and bark, inches from us.
We’re hardly moving. I’m thinking about our little plane and making our connecting flight in Johannesburg. I am enjoying this magnificent elephant but find that I’m also wiping my hands. I get a little sweaty when I’m late.
My mind goes to other congested airport runs where I was anxious to make a flight:
- stuck on the Van Wyck to JFK
- creeping on the 405 to LAX
- schlepping the 95 to Miami International.
- And now, bumper-to-bumper here in the bush.
Unlike with those other commutes, we can’t vent or hit the horn. This guy is more than twice our height and weight so it would be foolish to startle him, although he knows we’ve been tailgating. He’s checked us out a few times, nonchalantly eyeing the pack of us with our cameras and hats and water bottles and suitcases and ear buds.
Interesting. He’s the elephant. And we’re the clown car.
Finally he wanders off the trail, wraps his trunk around a tree and starts shaking the thing to death.
That’s our cue to accelerate from two miles an hour to a brisk ten. Now we’ll make good time.
Phinda Terminal One
We finally roll out into the clearing, to the airstrip. There actually is a terminal – it’s a small wooden table that holds pitchers of water for us and some cups.
The plane this time is bigger – it seats ten, maybe fifteen passengers. I’m thinking, OK, we lost a little time on the commute but at least there’s no airport security to slow us down.
That’s when I found out there actually is.
Here in the game reserve, they aren’t concerned about terrorists per se, unless you consider warthogs and rhinos to be militant. It’s a different kind of terror out here – the one where your plane taxis for takeoff and is suddenly on a collision course with a wild beast.
We climb into the twin prop plane. It has a center aisle with one seat on either side – about five rows worth. This is jungle first class. As I peek out my window, I can see several Land Cruisers tearing down the runway… er, air strip chasing a group of warthogs.
The warthogs speed off with their quick, tiny steps, tails shooting straight into the air. Some scamper into the bush but others keep circling around in confusion as if looking for that 5:15 to New Rochelle.
The Land Cruisers herd them off. As they scamper, the jungle’s cutest animals look back at the chasing vehicles, indignant.
A few rhinos at the edge of the clearing take all this in. us in. But they've seen this routine before and so go back to doing Rhino stuff.
Our pilot fires up the plane’s two engines and we taxi down the strip, bouncing and passing the confused warthogs and lounging rhinos at a safe distance.
We speed toward the edge of the clearing, lift and circle over the jungle. Below us, our animal friends look to the sky at our noisy departure.
Through our windows, we see them below and wish them well in their busy, timeless neighborhood.
Especially the warthogs. We hope they make their train.