Monday, June 15, 2015

Epic Air Safari: Final Reflections

What was I thinking?  Nearly 7,000 miles in just over a month...  Why do I love challenges so much?

I cannot even recall how I conceived of this incredible air safari.  Perhaps when I started exploring the north of Kenya by air and flew to the Chalbi Desert, Lake Turkana, and the estuary of the Omo River.  Those earlier adventures led to this big one: Kenya to Namibia and back in 34 days.  We visited eight different countries, fifteen camps, and two oceans, flying from one side of the continent to the other for the ultimate African safari.

The route flown: Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia,
Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya

The planning was intense.  It took me about eleven months of work, with many days in which I dedicated at least three to four hours to the preparation of this safari.

The biggest challenge?  You will not believe it, but it was finding avgas (aviation gasoline) for my Cessna 206.  And, of course, choosing the route, applying for the air permits, confirming entry points for each country, obtaining visas, getting the required vaccinations, and choosing the ideal itinerary and the right lodges.  There was a lot to  be arranged.  But we did it!  And now that the air safari is over, I am already thinking about the next one!

Who were the travelers on this trip?  Well, an oddly assorted group that turned out to be fantastic!  Four Belgians, one French/Swiss or Swiss/French man, depending on the mood, an American female 747 pilot who hates flying and being flown (especially by me!), a Californian couple on their third air safari with us, an Instagram-addicted young lady from New York, a Zimbabwean/British writer, two pilots, Michael and Vikash (who was hoping to fly his Caravan, but I ended up taking the yoke from him most of the time...), my wife, Antonella, and me, the white flying Maasai.  We took two aircraft: my giraffe-spotted Cessna 206 and a beautiful Caravan.

The biggest fright of the trip did not come from lions, buffalo, or elephants… but from a Botswanan woman in Kasane who would not allow me to file my flight plan to Kariba, Zimbabwe, because she said we had to file 24 hours in advance.  Luckily my meticulous planning paid off: I called Kariba Tower and the controller remembered talking to me three weeks earlier so he allowed me to fly in!

The biggest fright was not from elephants!

The most magical moment?  All of them actually.  But if I have to choose one, it would be when I was back at Campi ya Kanzi, relaxed that all went well, and asked my guests to name their three highlights of the trip.  Pierre said, I believe honestly, “Campi ya Kanzi, Campi ya Kanzi, Campi ya Kanzi.”  That was magical for me.

So let me take you through our 34 days of flying over the best safari spots in Africa.  I will let the images speak louder than words…


May 3-5: Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya
Location: Chyulu Hills near Mount Kilimanjaro
Highlight: Ernest Hemingway’s "Green Hills of Africa"

Our safari began with a full moon.  Late rains made the sky steely as it rose dramatically over the Chyulu Hills.  The next day, our guests hiked to the cloud forest, enjoying the Green Hills of Africa at their very greenest after the rainy season.  We then launched the air safari in magnificent fashion with a lamp-lit dinner in a lava cave.

Full moon rising over the Chyulu Hills

May 6-7: Nomad Serengeti Safari Camp, Tanzania
Location: Serengeti National Park
Highlight: The Great Migration


Great low-level flight with shining Kilimanjaro dominating the sunny plains.  Game everywhere feasting on the new grasses: zebras, hartebeests, impalas, giraffes, Grant’s gazelles, and more.  We land with a self-made GPS approach in cloudy Nairobi.  The first, and luckily only, weather challenge of the whole air safari.  Great flight over the Mara River all the way to Lake Victoria.  We enter Tanzania via Musoma.  The Frankfurt Zoological Society makes my trip possible by providing the needed avgas.

Nothing can prepare you for being in the middle of the Great Migration, especially when you can see endless plains with literally hundreds of thousands of wildebeest.

The Great Migration

Kopjes in the Serengeti as viewed from our camp

May 8-9: Kungwe Lodge, Tanzania
Location: Lake Tanganyika, Mahale National Park
Highlight: Chimpanzees

Great flight over the migration to Lake Tanganyika.  Visiting the oldest lake on the planet makes you feel insignificant.  This body of water is 12,000,000 years old….

The chimps like us, and they decide to have a picnic in the bamboo on the lake shore just a couple hundred meters from the lodge.  Perfect!

Chimpanzee in Mahale National Park

Making new friends on Lake Tanganyika

May 10-11: Kaya Mawa, Malawi
Location: Likoma Island, Lake Malawi
Highlight: Island paradise


A night with fever is soon forgotten.  I am back in the cockpit.  We exit Tanzania via Songwe and enter Malawi via the super-modern Mzuzu.  (See the photo below!)

Kaya Mawa is the perfect place for relaxation.  My paddleboarding is quite unsuccessful, but enjoying the beautiful lake is not!

Mzuzu Airport's international terminal

The view from our cottage at Kaya Mawa

May 12-13: Royal Chundu, Zambia
Location: Zambezi River
Highlight: Victoria Falls


Today all our guests fly in the Caravan with Vikash, while Michael and I decide to fly light and stretch the endurance of our Cessna 206.  We fly a very long leg all the way to Livingstone, Zambia.  The winds are good enough, so we avoid Plan B (flying via Lusaka).  Just three hours and twenty minutes -- no problem!

Victoria Falls is the world’s largest waterfall, a true wonder to behold.  My highlight here is the fabulous helicopter ride that Pierre generously offered Antonella and me.  We fly over the falls and into the gorge: fantastic!

The immense Victoria Falls


Taking a bubble bath next to the mighty Zambezi

May 14-15: Ongava Tented Camp, Namibia
Location: Etosha National Park
Highlight: Rhinos, lions, and diverse wildlife


A fenced private reserve is not my idea of the most thrilling setting for a safari, but the game is incredible.  Four white rhinos come to drink twenty meters away from the dining table.  Lions are next, and they keep us noisy company for the night.  Beautiful!  What I find less beautiful is that wood is burned in this delicate environment to provide guests with hot showers.  I’d be glad to take a cold one and keep the trees alive!  I am learning that lodges spend a lot of money to look good but not enough to truly be good.

White rhino mother and cub

Greater kudus in Etosha National Park

May 16-17: Serra Cafema, Namibia
Location: Hartmann Valley, Namib Desert
Highlight: Quad biking over the sand dunes


“Wow” is the only word I can think of to describe flying into the Hartmann Valley.  And “wow” is also the word to define Serra Cafema, which is a three-day drive from the nearest food supply.  It is wonderful to be back, but we all miss Clement, our guide here last year.  A super dinner under the stars next to the Kunene River is simply spectacular.

Flying over the Hartmann Valley

Quad biking in the desert at Serra Cafema

May 18-19: Naankuse Lodge, Namibia
Location: Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary
Highlight: Rescued wildlife and bushmen stories


The flight over the Skeleton Coast is incredible.  Simply stunning.  I can’t believe we are already halfway through our air safari.  Time and miles are literally flying by!

Naankuse is a lovely conservation lodge that hosts rescued wildlife, including lions, caracals, and wild dogs.  We have the special privilege to walk with tame cheetahs here.  My highlight is spending a chilly night with four bushmen and  listening to their story of Orion and of Scorpio.  I am already planning to do more with them next year.

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia

May 20-21 Wolwedans Dunes Lodge, Namibia
Location: NamibRand Nature Reserve
Highlight: Sprawling desert landscapes and dramatic sunsets


As we prepare to fly to Wolwedans, we encounter the first hitch of the trip.  The micro switch quits on the fuel pump in our Cessna 206.  Michael makes a temporary repair.  We take off for Walvis Bay in search of a new switch, but we soon learn that the airport is closed because of fog.  We turn around and fly to Windhoek, where we find great maintenance service and a new switch.  As it turns out, the fog did us a favor – we later learn that Walvis Bay has no maintenance department. We got lucky!

NamibRand Nature Reserve is the realization of a visionary man, who has returned hundreds of thousands of acres to the wilderness.  However, plastic water bottles and a generator at the pool are less visionary choices for an ecolodge.  The place is stunning, though, and our guide, Cecilia, is fun and entertaining.

A comfortable spot to view the expansive NamibRand Nature Reserve

Michael (my mentor pilot), Veronika, Vikash, Antonella, Bill, Sheri, and me

May 22-23: Jao Camp, Botswana
Location: Okavango Delta
Highlight: Elephants and mokoro (local canoes)


Today we fly from one of the driest deserts to the most incredible wetland – what a contrast!  The flying is simply superb.  And so is the lodge – magnificently built.  But once again, money is spent to look good instead of to walk the talk.  The lovely manager tells us, “This is a five-star ecolodge, where we run our generator only sixty percent of the time.”  The highlight for all of the guests is the sunset safari on mokoro, or local dug-out canoes.

Flying over the Okavango Delta

Adventure among elephants

May 24-25: Mana Pools Safari Company Tented Camp, Zimbabwe
Location: Mana Pools National Park, Zambezi Valley
Highlight: Walking among wildlife with excellent guides


We fly from the Okavango Delta to Kasane, Botswana, where, as I mentioned above, I have the nightmare of hearing that I cannot file a flight plan to Zimbabwe.  Luck is still with me; I call the tower in Kariba and magic happens. I file my flight plan, and we are up in the air again.

I initially felt intimidated by Zimbabwe, so I expect anything but a warm welcome here.  It is a Sunday, and even if I called three weeks ago to assure that a customs officer will be present, I sort of doubt it.  Yet when we arrive, everybody is super welcoming – a fantastic experience.

The flight to Mana Pools is beautiful, and the park is simply magnificent.  So are our guides, Bob and Gary, and our host, Milo.  I love everything about this place.  The simple but absolutely lovely camp, the food, the guides, the experience: the Mana Pools Safari Company Tented Camp is my FAVORITE of this air safari.

Our camp at Mana Pools

Not dwarf elephants, just giant trees!

May 26-27: Mvuu Lodge, Malawi
Location: Shire River, Liwonde National Park
Highlight: Boat rides among wildlife on the Shire River

We leave Zimbabwe with nostalgia.  In fact, we don’t want to leave at all!
The flight over the Shire River is spectacular.  I have never seen so many hippos and waterbucks… literally hundreds of them.

At the lodge, we are surrounded by bushpigs and bushbucks.  The birdlife is great here, too.  Our evening boat ride on the river is very special.  As we glide through the water, we see an elephant swimming and a greater kudu enjoying the sunset.

Evening boat ride on the Shire River

An amazing sunset among hippos and bathing elephants

May 28-30: Vamizi Island, Mozambique 
Location: Quirimbas Archipelago, Indian Ocean
Highlight: Scuba diving

Our next stop is Mozambique, which we approach with a bit of bitterness.  Just a week before leaving Kenya, I learned that Mozambique Civil Aviation would not grant us permission to fly within Mozambique.  We are allowed to fly in and out but cannot fly internally.  The only solution is to hire a charter plane, and we are certainly not happy about it.  But all is forgotten when we arrive at beautiful Vamizi Island.

My favorite place on the Indian Ocean has always been Kiwayu Safari Village, a paradise in northern Kenya created by my friend Alfredo Pelizzoli.  When I arrive at Vamizi, I think of Alfredo.  He would have loved it here.  This is my new Kiwayu.  It is simply the best spot on the ocean that I have ever seen.  And I have the best dive of my life here at Neptune’s Arm, which is considered one of the top ten best diving spots in the world.  Even before we leave, we already long to be back.


I am counting starfish...

Best al fresco lunch of the safari

May 31 - June 1: Mwagusi  Safari Camp, Tanzania
Location: Ruaha National Park
Highlight: Abundant elephants and baobab trees


Ruaha remains one of my favorite parks in Africa. Maybe because of the elephants or maybe because of the baobab forests or the Mwagusi River or the birds…  It is simply beautiful.

Mwagusi Safari Camp is charming, but the manager is less so. We definitely miss the one we met last year, but the staff and surroundings are as lovely as we remember them.  Our most memorable moment here is a sundowner surrounded by elephants feasting on baobab bark.

Elephants are great  well-diggers.

Magical sunset light over baobab trees in Ruaha National Park

June 2-3:  Mnemba Island, Tanzania
Location: Zanzibar
Highlight: Swimming with dolphins

Alfredo Pelizzoli along with two other Italians created this gem nearly three decades ago.  It is magnificent.  The food is amazing, the water gorgeous, and the full moon over the ocean unforgettable.  The water is as turquoise as you can imagine. Dives and snorkeling are fabulous. But most special of all is swimming with dolphins – that memory will remain forever.

The amazing turquoise water surrounding our private island

Getting ready for a full moon sundowner!

Michael, Luca, Pierre, Antonella, Bill, Sheri, Lisa, Veronika, Vikash
(Rebecca, Louis, Anne Marie, Robert, and Claire were only on the first part of the trip.)
 
June 4-5: Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya
Location: Chyulu Hills
Highlight: The view of Mount Kilimanjaro


How can it be?  We’re home already?  No, 6,808 miles went by way too fast.  Laughing moments, contemplative ones, exciting ones... they all passed by too quickly.  We saw so much on our safari and explored a huge portion of Africa.  I learned a lot and saw many beautiful places, yet I feel so happy about what we have here at Campi ya Kanzi and have not found elsewhere in our 34 days of travel: Maasai hospitality, a real community ecolodge, and a conservation partnership.

I am pleased to hear that everybody is contemplating the peacefulness of our plains before majestic Mount Kilimanjaro.  The last sundowner of our epic safari is on top of Olkiri hill with the most magical light wrapping the Chyulus.

The next morning, it is time to say goodbye to our friends, with whom we shared 34 memorable days.  Nearly five weeks spent together in harmony and great fun.  We say goodbye with a bit of sorrow.  We do not want this to end...

It took a long time to arrange the trip, but the memories of our adventures and the bond of friendship will remain for much, much longer.

Matasha contemplates his paradise.  I am grateful that the Maasai have opened their land to me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Epic Air Safari: Zanzibar to Campi ya Kanzi

4th June

Today we fly from Tanzania to Kenya, the last 261 miles out of 6,800 over 34 days.  We take a boat to Matemwe Beach and then drive to the airport.  Time to fly home.  It feels a bit strange… these 34 days have really flown by.  The flight from Zanzibar to Mombasa is lovely, but even  more scenic is the one from Mombasa to Campi ya Kanzi.  Tsavo is unusually green thanks to unexpected late rains.  The waterholes are full, and we see some elephants bathing in them.  The Green Hills of Africa are home, and today they emerald green.


We land to find Stefano and Samson welcoming us home.  Jacopo, with his broken arm, and Lorenzo are with our Maasai team, all lined up to greet us outside Tembo House.  It is nice to be home but also a bit bitter, as it means we will soon say goodbye to our friends who have been on safari with us.

The short game drive to Olkiri gives all of us a sense of peace and tranquility.  The vast green plains, the glimpse of Kilimanjaro, and the zebras, impalas, and hartebeest all welcome us home.  Barbara makes the night even more special when she plays the Out of Africa theme on her violin before dinner at Tembo House.



 5th June

Today is the last day of our air safari.  Some of us go for a walk, while others opt for a restful morning watching impalas, hartebeest, baboons, and warthogs at the waterhole.

My highlight of the day?  When I ask our guests to name three highlights of the air safari at lunch and Pierre, always very sharp with his honest and raw comments, says “Campi ya Kanzi, Campi ya Kanzi, Campi ya Kanzi.”  It is a nice feeling to know that our friends feel as much at home as we do and that they leave with the desire to come back soon, feeling that this 34-day safari was too short!  All went smoothly, and everything worked out as planned.

It is with a bit of sadness that we have dinner outside the Tembo House, watching the moon rise over the cloud forest.  Tomorrow will be farewell time.  We have a lot of memories to treasure from a fantastic month spent together discovering the beauty of Africa.  We toss to the next air adventure.

Thank you for reading my diary over the last month.  I hope I have transmitted some of the amazing emotions that this air safari has ignited for us.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Epic Air Safari: Ruaha to Zanzibar

2nd June

Today we will fly 271 miles from Ruaha to Zanzibar.  We have flown 6,268 miles so far, and we are nearing the end of our journey.  We leave the beautiful Ruaha National Park with a great game drive among elephants, kudus, and a hyena.  The flight is scenic over the Ruaha River.  And it's quick, too -- just under two hours.

We are back on the ocean now and a very beautiful ocean at that.  The drive to reach the boat that will take us to our private island, Mnemba, is charming, even if on quite a rough road.  Bread trees, nim trees, mangoes, bananas… all is green and lush.  We arrive on the fishermen beach and I see some fishermen struggling to bring their boar ashore above the tide line.  I help them to push it, and they are a bit surprised but smiling and happy!  A quick boat ride and we land on Mnemba, escorted first by a dolphin.  The hosting team awaits us on the beach.

I think about my friend Alfredo Pelizzoli, who created this beautiful lodge two decades ago.  It is now run by AndBeyond.  We all feel a bit confined by the corporate management and hosting but are all in love with the beauty of the place.  Bill, Lisa and I rush for a dive, while others take it a bit easier.

Sundowners on the tip of the island with the full moon rising over the ocean, sushi, and sashimi… how can you beat this?





3rd June

Mnemba Island is a nice cove for the doves, who came here to sleep and mate.  I like their cooing, but for some of us it is a bit overwhelming.

We go for a dive, which turns out to be really superb.  But the highlight of the day is the afternoon swim with the dolphins.  We are lucky to find a small family that is happy to have us around them.  They accept us, and we swim together for half an hour.  Really an unforgettable experience.