Jimmy McLaren’s African adventure
There can’t be anything better than a gyroplane for feeling the freedom of the air. I could either describe this journey equally impressively in terms of facts and figures or as a thrilling experience.
We were ten people and eight gyros on a grand tour of Southern Africa: 4000 miles, 50 hours in the air from near sea level to over 6500 feet altitude and crossings 6 borders in 11 days. Each gyro had a 115bhp engine and capable of flying over 100mph. Starting from Johannesburg the tour went to the Okavango Delta, Victoria Falls, Lakes Kariba, Cabora Bassa and Malawi, the Mozambique coast and finally back through the Kruger National Park. Careful flight and logistics planning was required for customs clearance, the numerous fuel stops and overnight accommodation. This burden was almost entirely carried by the organiser Roelf Palm: arguably one of the best gyro pilots anywhere. I should add that my own carefree experience was only possible because his meticulous preparations. Also he and the other pilots also shielded me from the unpredictable African bureaucracy.
The landscape varied from salt flats to delta swamps, river gorges, massive lakes, sparse bush, dense bush, paradise ocean islands and high mountains. The views of the landscape and wildlife were spectacular. Though a few animals were briefly startled, most were oblivious to our passing. Of the numerous highlights it is worth mentioning the elephants, buffalo and antelope of Northern Botswana, the hippos and crocs in the Zambezi, and one majestic whale shark cruising up Mozambique’s Indian Ocean coast. We generally flew in a loose formation, usually with most gyros in view but at times it was difficult to identify the more distant gyros as they skimmed the bush. Nevertheless we were always in contact with each other on our radio chat frequency. Radio, GPS, a satellite phone and very reliable engines are essential for crossing the huge, untracked wilderness. Had anyone been forced to land, locating them might have been tricky and recover the aircraft even trickier.
Landing sites also covered the spectrum from remote dirt roads to full sized international airports. But most were private airstrips in the bush or beside a river or a lake.
The two mountain top strips were amongst the most spectacular. One was the diminutive Songa strip just inside Mozambique and the other was Kruger International on returning to South Africa.
It was disturbing to discover that there were almost no animals to be seen as we crossed Mozambique. It was suggested that this was a consequence of the 20-year post-colonial, cold/ civil war, when many animals were wiped out beyond recovery. On a happier note, we never travelled far without passing some sort of settlement: large or small from sprawling townships to isolated grass huts on hillsides or riverbanks. Some residents jumped for joy, others jumped for cover in long grass or water but most were delighted: smiling, waving and pointing at us as we swept into view.
We waved back as much as possible. I imagined only a flying saucer landing in Hyde Park would be as awesome to me. When we landed to refuel that the crowds got up close and personal. With remarkable speed they appeared in great numbers no matter where we landed. It was sometimes overwhelming but always impressive and friendly.
It was an epic and unforgettable privilege to be able to participate in this adventure. But for me the best memories are of the people encountered. I was already aware of the camaraderie of the South African flying community and I was not disappointed this time either. But I was also impressed by the resourcefulness and resilience of everyone who helped us on the journey both black and white.