Five Fab African Airfields
By Jennifer Stern
Johan Wiklund has been a commercial pilot for 26 years, and he’s recently flown a 62-leg route from the very north of Scandinavia to the very south of Africa so he’s seen more airports, airfields, aerodromes and air strips than most people. While chatting to him after he landed in Cape Town, we got onto the subject of airports – the good, the bad and the ugly. And we chose to focus on the good. So here are Johan’s five favourite airfields in Africa.
Lokichoggio, North-west Kenya
This obscure airfield close to the Sudan border in what Kenyan’s call The Forgotten Part of Kenya has seen better days. Once a thriving hub for humanitarian aid, and military and diplomatic operations, dignitaries like Jimmy Carter and UK’s Princess Anne passed through its dusty precincts. It’s slowed down a lot since then, but it’s a fascinating place. Rusting plane wrecks bear witness to Loki’s heyday when it literally buzzed with in excess of 40 flights a day. Johan had a pretty uneventful landing there and met up with a Swedish missionary couple who had built a school for 450 children. It made him feel small when he compared their achievement with the not insignificant – but in comparison tiny – fundraising drive attached to his flight.
Lattitude: 4.2050° N
Longitude: 34.3450° E
Facilities: All the usual stuff like immigration, bureau de change, small restaurant, etc. And, also, more cargo capacity than you can possibly imagine.
Main attraction: It isn’t humming like it used to, but there is still a kind of a frontier feel to it. And the wrecks lining the runway almost form a museum of a kind.
Wilson Airport, Nairobi, Kenya
Established as the Nairobi Aerodrome in the 1930s, this iconic little airport has seen some legendary flyers, and the on-site East Africa Aero Club has a pub full of White Mischief-era memorabilia. So when Johan landed the little DH60 Moth, it fitted right in. One of Johan’s motivations in doing this trip is to publicise the importance of general aviation (as opposed to commercial aviation with Boeings and Airbuses). And Wilson is a great little general aviation airport with loads of charter flights taking off to safari camps, scheduled flights to small destinations, and a host of business and humanitarian flights. Johan loved the pub, which is almost a museum, and he was particularly chuffed when he was shown to his room at the Aero Club. It’s the one Beryl Markham used to sleep in. They would have got on well, these roommates separated by a few decades.
Lattitude: 1.3200° S
Longitude: 36.8150° E
Facilities: While Wilson is a small airport, it has everything you need including car rental, immigration services, bureau de change, etc. It also has an awesome pub with fab history, and the wonderful East Africa Aero Club with characterful (but limited) accommodation.
Main attraction: The history and the vibe.
Abu Airstrip, Botswana
Johan had flown in to Maun and was a bit disappointed that is wasn’t quite as wild, or as “bush” as he’d expected. In fact, it’s a miniature international airport. But after taking off from Maun and landing at Abu airstrip, he felt much better. If he thought this what Maun would look like, he was about three decades out of date. It’s a great little spot – really, just a runway, and what seems to be endless bush. And, of course, the best part was getting there – flying over the Delta – low and open to the elements. And below him – meandering waterways, bright green riverine vegetation and animals – lechwes bounding off through the shallows, elephants ponderously munching on the vegetation and the occasional hippo half-submerged in the crystal-clear water.
Latitude: 19.421650° S
Longitude: 22.548600° E
Facilities: A runway.
Main attraction: It’s so quiet, and you just know you are in Africa.
Zwartkop Air Force Base, near Pretoria
What Johan particularly liked about this stop was that his grand old lady De Havilland Moth felt right at home amongst the many perfectly restored and/or maintained vintage aircraft. Established in 1921 Zwartkop is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) operational military air stations in the world. It started off as a military base and has changed character a few times. Right now it’s home to the SA Air Force Museum and a number of historic planes and – in theory – the air force is moving out, but it’s taking its time. And another attraction for Johan is that his predecessor and compatriot, Gösta Andrée landed there in 1929. Johan’s journey is a loose recreation of Gösta’s trip, but he hasn’t stuck rigidly to the original route for many practical reasons. And Zwartkop was one of the places that Gösta would probably recognise with ease.
Latitude: 25.8069° S
Longitude: 28.1644° E
Facilities: It’s a military airport so it doesn’t have a duty free shop or anything, but the SA Air Force Museum is well worth a visit. Getting in involves a bit of red tape, but just make sure you have ID and it shouldn’t be an issue.
Main attraction: Historic airfield with lots of vintage planes, and a great museum.
Andrew’s Field, Agulhas
This is a really minimalist airfield; it’s really just one long runway hacked out of the fynbos, and a few hangars. And it’s also the most southerly landing strip in Africa so it was the closest Johan could land to Cape Agulhas – not that he was that anal about actually flying to the very, very, southern tip of Africa. But it was nice to get this close. He spent a night there (in a guesthouse, not on the runway) and did get a chance to stand looking out to sea with nothing between him and Antarctica except lots of ocean, some whales and a few albatrosses. And it was his last stop before his final leg to Cape Town.
Latitude: 34.7453° S
Longitude: 20.0319° E
Facilities: One runway, some hangars and lots of fynbos – but there are guesthouses, restaurants, etc nearby.
Main attraction: Sooo close to the tip of Africa.
For more about Johan’s flight check out www.capetocape.net