Over Africa

Frequent traveler Maryalicia Post discovers what flying is really about -- journeying to Mount Kenya in a reproduction 1935 open-cockpit plane.

Published August 6, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

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 while you're at it -- and that's flying, and then I'm nervous.

So I was nervous, sweltering in equatorial heat on a sunbaked 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 3."
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
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 3; 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.

By Maryalicia Post

Maryalicia Post is a freelance writer.

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Africa Air Travel