Ed’s letter: Death (and sex) in the afternoon

Posted by Justin Fox on 20 August 2018

Wildebeest Migration. Image: Shripal Daphtary

It was a plumb assignment early in my Getaway career. The Great Migration. Damn, it was going to be good. As it turns out, it wasn’t. At least not until the very, very end.

Five of us waited on the grass runway beside a limp windsock. We were a forlorn bunch. Our Kenyan safari had gone all limp, robbed of its climax. Yes, there’d been good sightings – plenty of fornicating mammals and any number of kills – but we’d come to the Masai Mara for the wildebeest migration and had not been rewarded.

A chartered Cessna landed and the pilot stepped out. He looked vaguely Eastern European with a bushy moustache, sunglasses, red cravat and dismissive manner. Chivvying us into our seats, he tossed the luggage aboard and we were off. ‘I must to make quick stop at another lodge and pick up English nurse!’ he shouted above the propeller noise.

We landed again minutes later and there she stood, a lone figure at the end of a gravel runway. She was petite with long auburn hair and smouldering eyes. Our pilot was transformed. Stepping from the plane, he was charm personified. ‘Madame, you must to fly up front with me,’ he said, helping her into the co-pilot seat. He leaned across and asked: ‘Have you seen the migration, my dear?’ ‘Unfortunately not,’ she replied.

‘Well then, let’s go look for it!’ he said with Errol Flynn panache. We soared into the Mara sky. Instead of heading northeast on our logged flight path to Nairobi, we flew south towards the Tanzanian border. The Cessna was low, tree-top low. Our pilot had turned fighter ace, banking the ungainly aircraft from wingtip to wingtip, describing turns that matched the Mara River’s meanders. The Cessna had morphed into a biplane and we were in Out of Africa or perhaps, heaven forbid, The English Patient. The pilot hardly took his eyes off the nurse. There was adrenaline, but no fear. He was flying on passion and instinct and the script didn’t call for a crash just yet. At any moment, I expected a call from air-traffic control at WilsonAirport to chide us home. We must’ve been close to Tanzanian airspace. I imagined cotton-wool puffs of flak finding its range around us.

‘Over there!’ shouted the pilot. Dozens of nervous wildebeest stood at the river’s edge, hooves in the water, waiting to cross. Behind them in lines unending came an army of animals, marching in ranked order. We banked hard to starboard over a wide plain. As far as our eyes could see, the earth was covered in wildebeest and zebras. Hairs stood up all over my body. You’ve seen it on TV; you know what to expect. But nothing quite prepares you. A million animals on the move. We flew up the middle of the plain, parting a sea of beasts. On and on we flew, and on and on they came, streaming out of the Serengeti. Then we climbed high and looked down on an Africa teeming with life. Out of the blue, I thought of Patrick and his last flight.

In 1998, fellow Getaway photojournalist Patrick Wagner was flying with a group of adventurers from the Masai Mara to Wilson Airport in low cloud. Their plane smashed into the Ngong Hills, made famous in Out of Africa. No one survived. I felt that something had come full circle, something was being laid to rest. But my emotions were too strong and too confused to properly understand at the time.

After landing, we piled our bags into a matatu taxi and waved at the nurse standing at the airport bus stop. Just then, our pilot emerged from the terminal. As we pulled away, I saw her handing him a piece of paper with her phone number.

September is the climax of the migration. Now is the time to be there. Until November, wildebeest and attendant zebras (see page 14) will be pouring into the Mara. It’s the greatest wildlife show on Earth.

I hope you enjoy our September issue,

Justin

This month’s contributors

David Robbins, Port Elizabeth, page 82

David always wanted to live in Port Elizabeth, but never has – at least not yet. So he welcomed the opportunity to write about the city and its art for Getaway. PE Central is a thrilling place, he says, packed with cultural stuff and a boisterous nightlife. He’s travelled widely in Africa but he always comes back home. ‘I love the energy here, and PE has plenty of that.’

Ondela Mlandu, Wild Coast, page 50

Our multimedia journalist spent seven days among thick green forests and rolling hills, travelling along the old Transkei coast. She leapt off sea cliff s, learnt how to dodge cows and potholes and drive at a comfortable 40 km/h, and had an eye-opening experience of how supporting local communities through tourism is much more than just a business.

Teagan Cunniffe, Botswana, page 88

Feeling she had a gap in her portfolio, professional photographer Teagan decided to try out a photo safari deep in Botswana. She has dived with blue sharks and faced gorillas, but the action snapped on this assignment is her most exhilarating wildlife encounter to date: spending hours in an underground hide surrounded by elephants

Elise Kirsten, The Karoo, page 16

Whether she is mountain biking,jumping out of aeroplanes or enjoying the simple pleasure of a bush walk, our digital content manager loves sampling the multifarious experiences of travel. Recently, she took a trip to a new game reserve set in the great nothingness of the Karoo. Here she discovered a tenacious variety of fl ora and fauna and a place that captured her heart.

This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Getaway magazine.

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