OVER ZIMBABWE ON A WING AND A PRAYER

Above the African landscape Michael Bywater steps out of the world of modern aviation into a network of death-defying light aircraft and cargo jets. He finds it's the only way to fly
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The little rest cabin behind the old Boeing 707 cockpit was like a shanty town, a hostel or a workmen's hut: the ramshackle, disorderly housekeeping of men who spend too much time together and have much on their minds. A litter of aircrew meals uneaten (foil covers torn back, the contents rejected at a glance), of meals yet to come, of luggage and flight bags, plastic rubbish sacks, a picnic cooler filled with melting ice and soft drink bottles, their labels peeled off and floating disconsolately on the water, emergency oxygen bottles and mufti, an old mattress serving as a prayer mat and the loadmaster's in-flight couch. And documents, the drift of paper which keeps the world's aircraft aloft - waybills, invoices, weight-and-balance forms, customs papers, technical logs, waivers, exemptions, weather reports and flight plans.

For most of the travelling world, aviation is a homogenised and monochrome business of sleek jets, fresh paint, laminates and subdued lighting, where hours are marked by intermittent chimes, like a cramped and penitential monastery. Matins, lauds, compline: passengers may now smoke, someone wants a sick-bag, the captain wants his lunch, please fasten your seat belts for landing...

No matter how hard they try to make an identity for themselves, airlines remain indistinguishable. One corporate colour scheme is much the same as another, the seats work in the same way, the films are as desolate, the cabin crew smiles as forced. We eat our processed food, breathe our processed air, and sometimes yearn for a time when travel had some mystery, variety or texture.

It still exists, it's just out of sight. This old workhorse, for example, operates out of central Africa for all points of the compass, criss-crossing the world, hauling cigarettes and vegetables, food-aid, machinery, babies' cots, mining equipment, Japanese consumer electronics and, once, 36 tons of mud. These elderly jets are the tramp steamers of the air, as dusty, soot-streaked and romantic as their maritime forebears. But while the coasters and cargo ships steamed upriver into the docks for all to see, the tramp jets leave at night, arrive before dawn, and spend their lives invisibly, in the cargo areas of airports. They are transportation's proles, tucked away from the offended gaze of the slicker, snootier passenger lines.

You used to be able to take ship on a cargo vessel, climbing the gangplank in the London drizzle while stevedores shouted, shown to your solitary cabin by a grumpy supercargo and thereafter ignored while the crew got on with their work. Today's tramp jets generally offer no such facilities; but I was lucky. A fellow pilot, a friend who works in the African air cargo business - let's call him Baxter, since that's not his name - felt like doing a bit of flying in Africa. He had planned to go with a woman whom he had taught to fly, but her boyfriend had put his foot down; would I like to come instead? It would cost nothing: we could fly down to Khartoum on one of his freighters, and then hitch a ride on whatever else was going.

Yes.

The crew was already aboard when we arrived at dusk and had been there all day, it seemed. They didn't like airport hotels, didn't particularly like sleeping, and were happiest in their accustomed places. The commander, a stocky veteran of 30,000 flying hours, known as Captain Insh'allah after his invariable pious qualification to any command decision, was anxious to be away. He told us to make ourselves at home, and sat there, thumping his hand on the four throttle levers like a man absent-mindedly patting the neck of a horse. There was another passenger to come, the brother- in-law of a company bigwig, but when he hadn't arrived by 9pm, Captain Insh'allah started the four old turbojets and called for taxi clearance. I stole the ground engineer's seat in the cockpit and we creaked and lumbered into the Sussex air.

After a few minutes, I went back into the workmen's hut. "The nose-wheel won't come up," I said, "and we're 20 tons over landing weight, so they're dumping fuel and then we're going back to Gatwick." "Nice try," said Baxter, "but I'm not falling for that one."

He finally fell for it when we came blasting over the runway threshold, unnervingly fast, unnervingly heavy. Captain Insh'allah hadn't bothered dumping all the excess fuel. He had found a loophole in the operations manual.

"But we're still 15 tons overweight," I bleated.

"No problem. The manual says we can land 15 tons overweight, in an emergency," said Insh'allah.

"But what's the emergency?"

He peered at me over his half-moon glasses. "The emergency," he sighed, "is that we are landing 15 tons overweight. Insh'allah."

It was a perfect landing; and as we taxied back to the stand we could see the bigwig's brother-in-law, sitting in a crew bus, waving and beaming. He thought we had come back for him.

We left the following evening, after they had fixed the nose-wheel: a $10 microswitch. Isn't it always? Here's a tip: get into the $10 microswitch business, and you'll never go hungry.

This was the plan: five hours in Khartoum airport, pick up another tramp jet down to Harare, collect our own hired aeroplane - a little Cessna 180 bush-plane, or possibly (there was some question mark over this) a Cherokee Six, the Range Rover of the air - and head off into the bush.

Things didn't quite work out like that. Stuck for what seemed like an eternity in Khartoum, we finally reached Harare after hitching a missile-dodging ride on a Sudanese government cargo plane running troops and supplies down to the inglorious and disgraceful civil war in the south, before then going on to load up with Zimbabwean cigarettes for the return trip. Harare airport isn't a particularly inspiring place, but after five days in the armpit of Africa, Baxter and I were wildly over-excited to be there, climbing giggling into the sort of taxi you usually only get to see in the blurred and grainy news footage of the aftermath of a multiple pile-up.

"What bring you to Zimbabwe?" asked the taxi driver.

"Freedom!" we cried, "Cold beer! Loud music! Bad women!"

"No problem!" said the taxi driver. "You get all that in Harare!"

Half-an-hour later, we had been dropped at our hotel. A grave and scholarly looking waiter informed us that we had visitors. "A person," he murmured, "and ... some sort of woman."

I sent Baxter off to deal with it. The taxi driver had returned with a small, spherical prostitute, so lacking in allure that her choice of trade was a mystery. It was as if a deaf man had taken up piano-tuning. Baxter sent them away, and we settled down to plan our first day's flying.

Here is some good advice. If you are planning a flying holiday in Zimbabwe at any time, I suggest that you check in to the Selous Hotel, Harare, and simply stay there. You can always tell lies when you get back home. It will save a lot of trouble in the long run and, what's more, it is now one of my favourite hotels in the world. To hell with your Hiltons and Hyatts and Marriots; to hell, indeed, with Harare's own swanky Meikle's Hotel, full of Japanese executives and American busybodies, all trying to pretend that this is how they live all the time. The Selous is a small, utility, no-frills place, with a set school dinner every night and a proper breakfast in the morning and, most importantly, the sort of staff the Hiltons and Hyatts and Marriotts would kill to get hold of. We got to know them all rather well, in between taxi rides out to Charles Prince airport, the light aviation field that serves Harare.

Eventually, after being royally buggered about and subjected to the grumpy, purse-lipped, narrow-gutted racism of the white-supremacist flying club Rhodies and the snaggle-toothed vainglory of a particularly terrible Essex Git on a learn-to-fly holiday, we finally got fixed up.

Or, rather, stitched up. A plausible red-headed doofus agreed to rent us an ageing Cessna 172 aircraft, which is the Ford Cortina of the sky. "It's just outside on the grass," he said, "the registration's Z-WDD." After a short check-ride, he said, we would be free to fly away in it.

We went outside to look over our aeroplane. It sat there unevenly on its fragile-looking undercarriage, dented, with streaks of oil and corrosion on its peeling paintwork. Inside it was no better. The seat belts were frayed; several of the instruments and controls were placarded unserviceable or had little signs explaining that they needed to be banged hard or twiddled or that what they said wasn't what they meant. The artificial horizon and gyro compass were like relics from a museum.

"You do the check-ride," I told Baxter. The check pilot, a smart young man whose day job was flying Boeing 737s for Air Zimbabwe, pottered up, grimaced at the aeroplane, smirked at Baxter, and off they went while I mucked about with maps.

After a short period of time, I heard the engine running up at the far end of the runway, and Z-WDD started to move, accelerating like a Reliant Robin. As they passed me, there was a splutter, the engine died briefly, then picked up again, and presently they were airborne and climbing away like a piece of newspaper precariously borne aloft on a light breeze.

In due course they returned, landed shakily, and taxied in. Baxter was ashen.

"How was it?" I said.

"Deathtrap," said Baxter.

Next day, we set off for the Eastern Highlands, to try out Deathtrap. It was worse than I had imagined. At first, I thought it was Baxter, buggering about; instead of climbing away rapidly to get as much height as possible, he was hugging the ground, weaving around hillocks and trees as we rocked gently in the turbulence.

"Cut it out," I said, sharply.

"Fine," said Baxter; "You fly it."

It wasn't Baxter. It was Deathtrap. Something was terribly wrong with the aeroplane. It lacked what you might call oomph, with the result that the window of opportunity between stalling speed - when it was simply going so slowly that it would fall out of the sky - and flat-out was no more than about 15 miles an hour.

There was no point in fiddling with the throttle: just jam it full open and leave it. Climbing was a matter of pulling back on the control column until the thing was just above stall speed, then lighting a cheap Zimbabwean fag and biding your time. To level out, you pushed the controls forward until it stopped climbing - about half an inch would do it - then hoped to catch it before it started heading ponderously for the ground again. After much trial and error, we found we could make about 75mph over the ground.

For the first hour or so, we just sat there, chain-smoking and waiting to die. But Deathtrap somehow managed to keep chugging along, and we presently relaxed enough to look at eastern Zimbab-we unfurling beneath us. This was high, rich land, a range of hills running along our starboard wing, and the Nyanga mount-ains ahead: an ancient range, marking the eastern border of the country and eroded into gentle, female curves. We wanted to fly low over these voluptuous hills, following their contours and weaving among the streams and valleys, but we didn't trust Deathtrap to see us alright. So, instead, we decided to fly north along the western side of the Nyanga range, then turned westwards back towards Harare, passing over great farmlands which became more ordered, more agribusiness-like, the nearer we came to the capital.

We skirted Harare International airport's private patch of sky and, after a brief but bitter skirmish in which Baxter lost all self-possession, seized control of Deathtrap, and inexplicably went the wrong way round the landing pattern, shouting at the air traffic controller and causing a number of harmless and innocent aircraft several minutes of annoyance and alarm, we were on the ground again and getting a severe telling-off from the controller.

That evening, we managed to reach a command decision. We had intended to set off at dawn the next morning for a protracted trip, but it was quite clear that Deathtrap was effectively un-airworthy. It was disappointing, but we were mature and experienced pilots, and we were not going to get in that bloody thing again.

At dawn the next day, I was just leaving my room to fetch Baxter when the phone rang. It was Baxter. "We'll be off, then?" he said. We could have covered the ground almost as quickly, and rather more cheaply, by car. But covering the ground was not the point. No car journey could ever match the experience of flying low over the 150-mile length of Lake Kariba; of seeing the Victoria Falls, spray flaring like a conflagration as it crashed through its astounding natural letter box cut into the rock; of the ancient hill- fort of Great Zimbabwe seen from the air; or of flying slowly, throttled back, over the wildlife of Hwange National Park (which used to be called Wankie Park, but no more of that); of breasting the mountains south of Kariba Dam itself, and seeing the great artificial lake, like an inland Mediterranean, emerge slowly through the thick haze of burning grasslands. And, most glorious of all, perhaps, the lakelands south-east of Masvingo (formerly Fort Victoria): an alchemical mixing of the beauties of Scotland and the highlands of Japan, yet quite unlike anywhere else on earth.

Travelling by small aeroplane involves a different cast of the eye, quite literally, a different angle on the countryside. You don't see it in passenger jets, which blast in from 30,000ft at the last minute, the land tilting submissively in the mechanised industrial embrace of cityscape, outskirts and tourist facilities. From a mere 1,000ft or less, the equilibrium between sky and ground is altered; gravity is almost palpable, and its defiance becomes a conjuring trick, establishing a delectable tension between your droning cocoon and the life below. The landscape becomes like a souk, through which you wander without buying. But, unlike the ground-based tourist, who can believe himself to be a participant, you can't pretend to be anything other than a spectator. The enforced detachment sharpens the vision. You learn to read the land like a map, in full relief, on a scale of 1:1.

We arrived back at Harare at sunset, carrying an air traffic controller who had caused us some difficulty at another airport earlier that day. Now, having hitched a lift, he was telling us about a special trick for getting into Charles Prince in short order: cut the corner, then fly through prohibited airspace, descend below the official approach altitude, no problem. When we demurred, he seized the microphone and began barking instructions and position reports to the Charles Prince controller, who didn't seem pleased. It was all a bit difficult, and it was the first time I have ever had two approaches buggered up by the same controller, once from outside and once from inside the aircraft.

We put Deathtrap away, hating it and glad to be alive. But we both hung around, and when Baxter was looking the other way, I gave Deathtrap a little pat on its snout. Then I looked the other way, and I think I heard the dull donk of a hand making gentle contact with aluminium.

I slept most of the way home, rolled up in my sleeping bag on top of 30 tons of mangetout and chilli peppers, pre-packed and destined for Marks & Spencer. We didn't run out of runway at Nairobi, crash into the Pyramids in thick fog, run out of fuel, or obliterate the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. But it was a close-run thing on all four counts. Close for us, that is; Captain Insh'allah didn't even break a sweat. Just another night's work on the old tramp jetline.

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