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Soarin' Safari: Africa From Above

From a pilot's-eye view, the magnificent wilds of the South African bush fulfill the imagination.

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By Bill Thomas
Sunday, September 13, 2009

"I always get nervous before taking off," says bush pilot Peter Ragg. In an hour, Ragg is scheduled to depart for Mozambique, or "Mozie," as pilots call it. The flight from Lanseria International Airport in South Africa across 300 miles of wilderness can be full of surprises, and he doesn't want to run out of daylight. The Austrian native has been hired to do a week's worth of aerial mapping from his Cessna 182. But it's not just the flying that has him concerned. It's malaria, which is rife in Mozambique. Ragg has already suffered two serious bouts.

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"You basically want to die," he laments over lunch with a few bush pilot buddies at the airport. "The worst thing imaginable."

Nearly as bad, all agree, is Lariam, a widely prescribed antimalarial drug whose nasty side effects can include hallucinations, anxiety and depression. "No way you can fly on that stuff," says Nick Hanks, who moved to South Africa from Upstate New York nearly 15 years ago and now operates an air safari service. If there's a dean among local bush pilots, it's probably Hanks, 62, one of the most experienced flyers in the area.

The consensus around the table is that because it's late May, fall in the Southern Hemisphere and the end of malaria season, mosquito repellant should be more than enough protection. Hanks claims he never uses anything else. That matter apparently settled, everyone wishes Ragg good luck, and soon his Cessna -- stocked with an extra supply of insect spray -- is airborne for Mozie.

***

Lanseria airport, a short hop north of Johannesburg, is bush pilot central in this part of the world, the place for information and advice on topics ranging from health hazards, weather conditions and the latest outbreak of political unrest. During South Africa's apartheid era, which ended in 1994, the airport was reputed to be a depot for spies and arms smugglers. Today, it's a modern aviation center, with a new terminal, a restaurant and a runway that can handle large passenger jets. Despite the upgrades, one thing about Lanseria, veteran pilots say, hasn't changed. In a country that makes small planes an essential means of transportation, whatever you need to fly from Point A to Point B is available here. If I'm going to see South Africa the way bush pilots do, Lanseria, Hanks says, is the place to begin.

I have been to Africa before, but I've never seen it from the cockpit of a plane -- and never thought I'd get the chance. So when Hanks, whom I met at a Washington reception, invited me to join him in South Africa for actual bush flying, I jumped at the offer.

The day I arrive, Hanks is busy getting ready for a group of Americans due the following week for a self-fly safari. He and his wife, Christina, 58, run the company -- Hanks Aero Adventures -- helped by Nick's niece Charlotte, who came to South Africa two years ago to take up flying. Hanks supplies the planes and prepares all necessary paperwork, including detailed hour-by-hour itineraries for excursions ranging as far away as Namibia, about 750 miles west of Johannesburg. (Costs begin at $9,500 per person and cover 15 days of travel and training, all meals and most double-occupancy accommodations.) Guests can stay at back-to-basics bush camps or such posh resorts as Singita in Kruger National Park, where rooms go for $1,200 a night. Occasionally, Nick even leads the way in the same vintage Helio Courier plane that he and his wife flew from the United States to South Africa in 1995.

"The Helio has an interesting history," says the lanky New Englander, adjusting his trademark cowboy hat. "It was designed by two college professors and used by the CIA during the war in Vietnam. It's not very fast but can take off in a space the size of a tennis court, which makes it ideal for the African bush."

The next day, Hanks will be taking the Helio to investigate an airstrip in Lapalala, a northern area near the border with Botswana. There's a rhinoceros research center in the vicinity that some of his clients may want to visit. He'll need to take pictures of the dirt strip, then land to make sure it's serviceable. I'll be playing co-pilot. The fact that I've never flown a plane before doesn't seem to matter to him.

Lapalala is in a region known for its rugged beauty and big game. Our flight plan will take us across South Africa's northern plains, known as the Transvaal, over a 6,000-foot mountain range and into a valley so remote that a small airplane is often the only way to get in and out. "Should be interesting," Hanks says, as the sun goes down and Lanseria's runway lights come on. "You can only do this kind of flying in Alaska and Africa."

And he doesn't like cold weather.


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