Over Africa


I‘m not normally a nervous flyer. I eat the meal, drink the wine, watch the film. On long flights, I even sleep. It’s much like being on the ground. But is that because I don’t realize I’m flying? Through the air? Take away the tranquil decor, take away the meals and the film — take away the roof especially — and that’s flying, and then I’m nervous.

 So I was nervous, sweltering in equatorial heat on a sun baked airstrip in northern Kenya, flapping at the flies, as a tall, good-looking English-American pilot put the finishing touches — not to mention the cowling — on his shiny red biplane number 5YCAG. Andrew Garratt is the owner and main man of the Classic Aerial Safari Company, whose aim is to offer the genuine “Out of Africa” experience to tourists in Kenya. For passengers in his reproduction 1935 open-cockpit plane, he orchestrates the complete works, fitting them out with a brown leather flight jacket, white silk scarf, leather helmet with goggles and earflaps with radio receivers through which they listen to Mozart.

But Andrew had flown to this airstrip in Navaisha to have his Waco biplane serviced, not expecting to pick up a passenger on her way to the Mount Kenya Safari Club. A friend had lent me a black leather jacket to keep me warm at 11,000 feet and my sunglasses would double as goggles, but I had nothing to protect my ears. “Not even cotton wool?” Andrew worried, fearing I might wind up deaf after the 50-minute flight over the Aberdare Mountains.

That particular concern wasn’t even on my list.

Two hours after we’d arrived at the field, the newly serviced plane had been checked and double-checked and was ready for takeoff. It had been pushed out onto the airstrip, and the Jacobs motor (nickname: “shakin’ Jake”) was sending tremors from the Waco’s nose to its tail. Ostriches, who probably don’t realize what strange-looking birds they are themselves, patrolled the other side of a chain-link fence, eyeing the quivering 5YCAG suspiciously.

Time to climb aboard. Andrew, who had been a very relaxed conversationalist so far — chatting about his boyhood in Pennsylvania where he’d cut grass and answered the phone at a local airfield to earn flying lessons, and about quitting the U.S. Air Force after eight years to bicycle from Europe to Africa — suddenly morphed into a pilot, with a pilot’s preoccupations. I was not to step on the (fabric-covered) wings but only on the black plywood tread. I was to step on the leather seat of the front cockpit and then ease myself down into it, like an egg into a crate, keeping my feet off the puckered pouch on the floor, right in the center, which housed something or other important. The controls in the front cockpit were disconnected, he said (good!), and I was to give the thumbs up from time to time to let him know “everything was all right.”

“What do you mean ‘everything’?” I asked, suddenly fearing responsibility.

“Just that you’re comfortable,” he said. “We’ll be taking off northeast, flying through a saddle in the Aberdares to Mount Kenya. Should arrive by one.” So there I was in the Meryl Streep seat, my oversize leather jacket bunched tightly by the lap and shoulder harness. The seat had straps for two either very slim or very friendly passengers. The needles in the dashboard dials began to flutter, and a stick labeled “throttle” described a mysterious arc all by itself on the left-hand side of the cockpit. The little plane hurtled frantically forward and I realized I could not see where it was going, my view totally blocked by the high curve of the dashboard. Out the sides, there was a view, threaded over by rigging that held the top wing to the bottom and served as a kind of harp for the wind to play on.

We were aloft, and the noise, as Andrew had warned, was horrendous. It was as if the plane was screaming — and who could blame it with the abuse it seemed to be taking. I concentrated on the low-pitched heartbeat of the motor, a steady pulsing that was never interrupted, though I constantly expected it to be, by that cough I remember hearing in war films. Time for a thumbs up. The wind flattened my arm each time I raised it, so after three tries I seemed to have been pantomiming thumbing a ride in the air, which was not inappropriate. Not long after takeoff, the screaming turned to something like singing, and this is no doubt where Mozart kicks in for the Safari
passengers. Below were little settlements in the Great Rift Valley, tiny shelters giving scale to the steep valley wall, the Escarpment, over which we were flying. The flat valley landscape stretched out of sight behind us, pale green and glistening except where the clouds threw shadows over it like purple blankets.

Then we were up over the Aberdare Mountains, thick green billows of bamboo and montane forest, a dark, secret place, home to monkeys and leopards, lions and elephants and once to the Mau Mau. Clouds began to roll in under us on the right. On the left, the sun was still shining. In the thermals, the tiny plane slipped and slid, its forward movement momentarily suspended as if it were dangling on a string. Another thumbs up, in case Andrew was worried for me. He must have been encouraged, because he executed a half-turn and stood the plane on one wingtip. As if pointing with it, Andrew was showing me a slender silver waterfall, tumbling in three leaps down black wooded slopes into a shining thread of river. Much later, a similar maneuver signaled a herd of elephants at a muddy water hole. The biplane soldiered on over lumpy forest that looked like an agitated sea. It was almost three; we would be nearing Mount Kenya. Except in the early morning, this majestic snow-clad mountain on the equator is shrouded in clouds. I’d heard that one pilot had three times flown a plane into it. The Safari Club is carved into the mountain’s wooded lap, and even when we circled over the clubhouse, pool, villas and golf course, Mount Kenya itself was invisible. Andrew made a tight little landing at Mawingu, the bush airstrip, and his second pilot, Jim Dale, came out of the gum pole office of Classic Aerial Safaris to help me out of the plane. Turn around, step on the seat, stand on the black tread, jump to the ground. The flight hadn’t bothered my ears, but my knees wobbled.

I had a question for Andrew. “If I couldn’t see forward from my cockpit, how can you see where you’re going from yours?”
“A good question,” he answered. “I can’t.” In the office I glanced through the guest book: “My heart and soul sing with emotions, Jan”; “I cried tears of joy, James”; and from Wilhelmina: “O that my life could have ended at the moment of climax when I touched the hand of God and He smiled upon my soul.” In “Out of Africa,” Karen Blixen had written: “Every time that I have gone up in an aeroplane and looking down have realised that I was free
 of the ground, I have had the consciousness of a great and new discovery.
‘I see,’ I have thought. ‘This was the idea and now I understand everything.’ ”

I didn’t stop to write in Andrew’s book. I wanted only to get to a telephone and call home.