Zimbabwe is without a doubt one of the most scenically beautiful countries in all of southern Africa. The green waters of the Limpopo river to the south and the mighty Zambezi river to the north form the natural borders of this landlocked country, and in-between you will find a kaleidoscope of stunning landscapes and natural wonders.
Many might wonder why we SkyAfricans advocate so strongly for Zimbabwe, but quite a few of us used to live and work there, and still know of places that most have never heard of and that have long disappeared from standard tourist guidebooks.
There is no doubt that the country has suffered under the dubious politics of Robert Mugabe and his cronies, and many years we had to strike it off our own destination list because logistically it was no longer possible to fly there. But two years ago all that changed. Avgas is once again readily available, hotels and lodges are back in business, and customs and immigrations are handled professionally and with ease. You’ll need a bit of know-how and the right contacts, but we’re glad to be able to return and showcase a different side of Zimbabwe to our clients. A Zimbabwe of thundering waterfalls. A Zimbabwe of friendly faces and big smiles. A Zimbabwe filled to the brim with beauty, adventure and a sense of freedom. We’re happy to be back!
In August 2014 we set off on our now beloved Zimboland Safari trip with seven persons and three planes. Our group consisted of Reinhold and his partner Isolde, father and son team Helmut and Henrik, as well as Isolde’s sister Gisela. Representing SkyAfrica was father and daughter team, Karl and Erika.
Our first order of business was to sort out the seating arrangements for the trip. Naturally every aircraft should boast at least one pilot, and it was also clear that nobody wanted to fly by himself or herself, and so Isolde joined Erika and Karl in the PA28 Piper Dakota, and Reinhold declared himself Helmut’s honorary co-pilot in the C-182. Gisela arrived a day later, and we informed her that she would be flying in the C-172 with Henrik, who at the tender age of 17 had only just obtained his South African pilot licence one week prior to the trip.
This was perhaps not the news that a person new to light aircraft flying wanted to hear, but we assured her that Henrik had gained copious amounts of flying experience from a young age, that he often navigated through the Alaskan wilderness in a Super Cub, and that he and his father had successfully flown to North Pole together. In addition, Henrik obtained his pilot licence under the critical eyes of his SkyAfrica flight instructors, and had already completed a bush pilot course. Ergo, in our eyes he was a very competent and safe pilot. With a hint of healthy scepticism in her voice, Gisela said she trusted our judgement.
Aircraft and Crew
Pilots: Karl & Erika (SkyAfrica)
DAY 1: Brakpan to Protea Ranch
Flight planning and pre-flight check complete, our luggage safely stored, and we are ready for take-off. Today is going to be a relaxed flight to get us settled into the rhythm of flying as a group. We depart our airfield FABB in loose formation and fly over the golden Springbok Flats savannah to the Protea Ranch Hotel, one hour out. A low-level pass over the grass runway chases away a herd of blesbok antelopes and we safely land. Friendly staff come to greet us and take our bags to our rooms whilst we make a B line for restaurant and bar, where we enjoy an ice-cold Gin & Tonic and some good steak.
PS: Gisela thinks her pilot is fantastic!
DAY 2 – 3: Polokwane – Matopos
After a peaceful night we gather in the breakfast area to take advantage of the wonderful buffet of fresh fruit, juices, bread, pastries, and eggs made to order. We even pack a few sandwiches for “on the road”. With a tummy full of food some of us make the short walk from the restaurant to the lodge’s airfield, whist others enjoy the comfort of being driven there in a golf buggy. One wouldn’t want to exert oneself too early on in the trip!
The first flight of the day is just a short hop from the Ranch to Polokwane International Airport (FAPP), where we complete all departure forms, fill up the tanks, and discuss today’s routing on our official workbench – FAIs wing.
We takeoff on runway 01 and climb to flight level 85 heading north west. We are accompanied by puffy cumulus clouds that ever so often we gently pierce through, and as we leave the Blouberge and Soutpans mountain ranges behind us we cross the Limpopo river, which forms the northern border of South Africa to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. In order to see more of the ever-changing landscape below us, we decide to descend to 300’ AGL and watch the relatively flat Mopani bushveld morph into a panorama of impressive rock formations. Our routing leads us into the Matopo Hills, an area of green wooded valleys and granite kopjes with giant red boulders often stacked dangerously on top of each other. We circle around “World’s View” – the final resting place of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia, today known as Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Erika gently guides the PA28 down onto runway 13 of JM Nkomo International Airport (FVBU) in Bulawayo, the capital of the Matabeleland. The airport is brand new, and was built as a kind gesture by the new colonial masters of Africa – China. We refuel and secure our aircraft on the apron, clear customs and immigration, pay our landing fees and file the flight plan for the next leg of our journey. Only then are we ready to hop into the mini bus where our driver Ushungublu is patiently waiting for us with some cold drinks, and drive through the city centre of Bulawayo into the Matopos Hills to our bush camp.
They have an interesting road system in parts of Zim. There is only one narrow tarred lane that is used by both sides of traffic. When you see oncoming traffic approach, both cars manoeuvre their vehicles so that one set of wheels is on the tarred lane and the other in the sand when they pass each other. Works like a charm, and is sure to keep down the cost of road maintenance. The same can’t however be said for the cars driving on it!
Amalinda Camp is a beautiful bush camp in the Matopos. The rooms are built into massive granite boulders, and we thoroughly enjoy the cosiness of the camp by the fire. We take a little hike high up on to the rocks where we have an amazing view of the red sun setting over this magical landscape, turning the granite boulders into fiery orange globes.
The next day we head into the National Park to try and spot a herd of white rhinos that were meant to be in the area. Two armed rangers, whose main purpose it is to protect the rhinos from poachers, accompany us into the bush on foot, and after 30 minutes we finally find what we are looking for. We watch in awe as these graceful giants peacefully graze in the high grass before us, and are saddened that they are so often threatened to be wiped out entirely. Their horns are sawed off in order to deter the poachers, but these do grow back.
We move on to our second Matopos camp – Big Cave Lodge – which has also been gorgeously built into the rock. We are extremely grateful that our vehicle is a four-wheel-drive, as any other vehicle would have had enormous difficulty conquering the steep incline over the smooth rock path that leads up to the camp. We have a few hours to enjoy our surroundings and relax before heading to the burial place of Cecile Rhodes, which they call World’s View, for a sun-downer. It is said to be one of his favourite places, and in his own words Rhodes said: “The peacefulness of it all: the chaotic grandeur of it: it creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we all are.”
DAY 3 – 4: Hwange National Park
Today’s destination is Hwange National Park, which lies approximately 200km north west of Bulawayo. The park boasts an area of 14.651 km², making Hwange Zimbabwe’s largest national park.
In Zim all flight plans have to be submitted 24h in advance, and as we already did so on our arrival we are soon cleared for take-off on runway 13, and cleared direct to Hwange. We fly west along the Victoria Falls train line, built by Cecile Rhodes in 1890 as part of his dream to build a railway line from Cape Town to Cairo. Just imagine: a distance of over 100,000 km, and in the year 1905 they had already completed one third of the track. These men certainly did not just talk the talk.
An hour after departure we contact Hwange National Park Airport (FVWN) Approach on 119.9 and receive landing instructions for runway 26. Even though it is technically wintertime in Zimbabwe, we are once again welcomed by sunny blue skies and 29 degrees Celsius in the shade. We bounce up to the tower to greet our friendly ATC and submit our next flight plan, and then it’s off to our camp in an open top Landover. Camp manager Andrew has some ice cold Castle Pilsners and water stored for us, which in this heat is much appreciated.
The drive quickly becomes a game viewing experience as we pass grazing giraffes, chirpy birds, a family of warthogs, elephants and zebras on our way to the camp. The Hide Safari Lodge is a tented camp located within the Hwange National park. Every tent has a marvellous view of a watering hole that welcomes a huge variety of animals to drink and bathe on its banks over the course of a day. You can even enjoy this sight from the comforts of your outdoor shower and bathtub. Our hosts are friendly and attentive, and we want for nothing.
Andrew has built two underground tunnels that lead into a viewing room directly at the watering hole. This allows you to safely watch giant herds of elephant and buffalo as they drink, socialise and play in the mud directly in front of you. This experience was definitely one of the highlights our trip. Another was waking up to find lion tracks within the camp. A lion mother and her cubs had needed a quiet place to rest for the night, and our camp apparently seemed like a good spot to her.
DAY 5 – 6: Victoria Falls
We were really looking forward to today’s flight, however African politics threw us a bit of a curveball. Our flight was meant to take us over one of natures most beautiful sights – Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning the smoke the thunders, but more commonly known as the Victoria Falls. The spray of the falls can often reach up to 300m in height and can still be seen from 30km away.
But thanks to the SADC (South African Development Committee) Summit, this stunning flight over the falls was not to be. The airspace over the falls was closed out of safety concerns for the 16 African leaders taking part in the summit. I’m not sure if our colourful SkyAfrica airplanes really ever posed such a great threat, but nevertheless, our “SKY formation requests Flight of Angels” was denied, and we landed politely in Victoria Falls Airport (FVFA).
Our guests Simone and Pierre had come to Vic Falls a few weeks before us (and the summit), and had taken some beautiful photos of their Flight of Angels. I have included these below. Many thanks to the both of you!
Thankfully, there is plenty to do and see at the Victoria Falls, and we spent our time there exploring the falls on foot, enjoying a scrumptious meal at the oh so posh and colonial Victoria Falls Hotel, bought charming African souvenirs at the local market (i.e. old bank notes with the denomination of $100 trillion Zimbabwe Dollars), and enjoyed a game viewing experience of a different kind – namely on the back of an elephant!
DAY 7 – 8: Lake Kariba
Our flight plan for today had been submitted upon our arrival, so we were anticipating a swift departure from FVFA. We made our way to the apron, but were promptly stopped by security staff. The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo was on final approach! We watched with amusement as the president of one of the poorest nations on earth proudly stepped out of his private Boeing as if he was Barack Obama on Airforce One. He was greeted by traditional African dancers, a luxurious red carpet (of course!), and a hoard of Mercedes Benz, Audis and Hummers waiting to transfer him and his massive delegation to the conference. The whole circus lasted about 30 minutes, and we were finally allowed to head to our planes.
It is to be one of the most beautiful flights on our entire journey. After take-off we follow the mighty Zambezi River that has over centuries carved its way through the land. In the distance we see the spray of the Victoria Falls and bid this stunning natural wonder farewell. We dive into the Zambezi gorge and enjoy how the landscape magically changes around every river bend. Suddenly the gorge walls disappear and we are met with the wide-open space that is Lake Kariba. The Lake is 280km in length, and the fifth largest dam on earth. We fly low-level over her blue waters and wave back at the friendly fishing boats and houseboats that pass below us. It does not take long before we spot the first elephants and hippos sun tanning on the banks of lake. Awe-inspiring.
After 2.5 hours we reach Fothergill Island (FVFG). We do a low-level inspection of the runway to ensure no animals will get in our way, and land softly on the red earth. A boat chauffeurs us and our luggage to the nearby Spurwing Island, and we are greeted by its welcoming staff. The lake looks very inviting, and we are tempted to go swimming – if it wasn’t for those pesky crocodiles and hippos that make the whole thing seem like a very bad idea indeed. So the lodge’s swimming pool will have to do for now. We do however enjoy a wonderful game drive in the park, a serene sun-downer cruise on the calm waters of the Lake, as well as a fishing tour in the Sanyati Gorge, where the closest thing we come to catching is the small crocodile sunning itself on a rock just a few feet away from us. The stuff memories are made of.
DAY 9 – 10: Mana Pools
After take-off from Fothergill we can’t resist doing a low-level pass over the lodge as our way to say goodbye. We reach our next designation, Kariba Aiport (FVKB), in 20 short minutes where we fill our tanks for the next leg of the tour – Chikwenya Lodge in Mana Pools National Park. In Shona “mana” means “four”, and relates to the four large pools along the Zambezi that retain water even in the dry season.
Once more we follow the soft curves of the Zambezi River and use this opportunity for close formation flying and taking some aerial pictures of Helmut and FIJ. Large families of hippos’ cooling themselves in the river look like submerged submarines from the air. Elephants leisurely grazing on the riverbanks are dwarfed by giant baobab trees scattered throughout the countryside. The soils in great parts of the Zambezi valley are arid and not suitable for livestock farming – and thank the heavens for that! Otherwise we would most likely not be privy to this beautiful and largely untouched scenery before us.
After a thorough runway inspection we touch down on Runway 13 on the rough Chikwenya Air Strip (FVCK). We secure the aircraft and cover the tyres with a few thorn bushes we find in the surrounding scrub. This protects them from lions and hyenas, which seemed to think fibreglass and rubber is a bit of a delicacy (no joke!)
The lodge is stunning, and from the pool deck you have an amazing view of the Zambezi valley and its wild inhabitants. At night we have to be guided to our rooms by the camp rangers, as you may encounter a hippo or lion who decides to make its way home at the same time as you.
Of the many activities on offer we decide to go on an early morning game walk. Game viewing in a 4×4 vehicle is great fun, and nobody should miss out on that experience, but walking through the African bush and being part of nature takes it to a whole other level. Kaz is our ranger guide for the 6am walk, and we wander amongst elephants, kudus, eland (the world’s largest antelope), baboons, and then come across a drag mark in the sand that turns our leisurely walk into an episode of Columbo. Kaz identifies the tracks next to the drag mark as leopard, and we decide to follow the track to see if we can find the leopard and its kill. Kaz releases the safety catch on his rifle and we quietly march behind him in single-file. After about 15 minutes we come across a gruesome scene that explains the final act of our murder mystery. Multiple hyena tracks fuse with those of the leopard and Kaz notices signs of a struggle. The hyenas must have attacked the leopard as it dragged its kill, a male baboon, to the safety of a nearby tree, and stolen it from him. All that remained of the poor baboon were his jaws and tail. May he rest in peace!
Although we also came across fresh lion tracks we did not spot any on our walk, but shortly after returning to camp Kaz tells us that the lions have been found – at the airfield! We hop into the Landrover and drive the short distance to the field, and there they are. Four grown lions leisurely lying in the shady brush only about 150m away from our aircraft on the opposite side of the runway. It’s a good thing we didn’t come across them whilst collecting thorn bushes for our tyres the day before.
Another big „must do“ is a boat ride on the Zambezi. We grab a few fishing poles and head off onto the river. First we catch little Nile bream as bait, before trying our luck with the sharp-toothed tiger fish. But even if lady luck isn’t quite on your side you can enjoy a cold G&T whilst listening to the grunting hippos and watching the fiery red sun setting behind the hills. What more can one ask for?
DAY 11 – 12: Great Zimbabwe & FABB
We have a big day ahead of us, as today will be our longest day in the cockpit. We suggest swapping pilots just for fun, but Gisela is having none of it. She and Henrik are now a well-oiled machine and she intends to stick with her pilot of choice. Looks like we didn’t oversell his qualities as an aviator prior to the trip!
Whilst loading the plane and doing the pre-flight check we keep one eye on the surrounding bush for lions that might still be roaming the area. The Chikwenya team stand guard until we are all safely off the ground. One last wiggle of the ailerons to say goodbye and we swoop down low, flying east along the Zambezi until Chewore where we change our heading towards Charles Prince Airport (FVCP).
We climb from 1,200’ out of the rugged river valley to 6,500’ as we reach the high plateau, also known as the Highveld. Below us we notice the remnants of many previously beautiful commercial farms and grounds that used to help keep the economy going, produced food for its people and provided jobs and security. Today they are either severely neglected or destroyed, or used for small-scale subsistence farming. A very sad chapter in Zimbabwe’s history.
FVCP lies northwest of the country’s capital Harare, and we land as SKY 1, SKY 2, SKY 3 Formation after a flight time of 2.5 hours. Here we refuel and meet up with our beloved and long-lost flight instructor Mark Lister, who in the meantime has denounced his vegetarian ways and become a meat eater again. He greets us with a wry smile and a bag of Biltong (South African dry meat delicacy similar to the American jerky), and a few cold drinks. Today he is a captain on Beechcraft 1900 in the Congo.
After a further 1.5 hours we arrive in Masvingo International Airport (FVMV). Masvingo, formerly known as Fort Victoria, is the oldest colonial settlement in Zimbabwe, but not our intended destination. We secure the planes and drive the 30 kms to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. This ancient city was once the former main hub of the Kingdom of Monomatapa, which had its heyday in the 15th century during which it enjoyed healthy trade relations with the Portuguese and Arab world. For a long time the place was thought to be the home of the Queen of Sheba, but today experts still argue about the exact origin of this city.
On departure from Masvingo we encounter “guti”, which is the local term for light rain and clouds lingering on the granite hills surrounding us. The cloud layer doesn’t seem very thick and we can already see the sun burning holes through it. We climb to 600’ and fly in a south-westerly direction to Buffalo Range (FVCZ). The ATC knows our colourful SkyAfrica aircraft well, and gives us warm welcome over the radio. Here we complete all of our departure forms and pull out the US Dollars one last time to pay for our Avgas and landing fees. We are all sadly aware that our amazing Zimbabwe adventure is soon coming to an end, but it seems the universe it trying its best to postpone the inevitable as it sends us a strong headwind reducing our groundspeed to 90 knots, instead of the 150 knots we had the day before.
We cross the Limpopo River once more, notice the fruitful South African farms below us, and comment that this is what Zimbabwe looked like 15 years ago. After 2.2 hours we land at Polokwane (FAPP) and officially re-enter South Africa. Shortly before 17.00 all three SkyAfrica plans safely land back at our home base FABB – Benoni Brakpan Airfield.
We end the trip on another high note by congratulating Henrik on his South African pilot licence and proudly handing him his certificate. The flying community has gained a competent young talent, and we are sure the Comm licence will follow shortly.