Wings over Africa 

Posted on 11 April 2023

In memory of a great bush pilot.

2003, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. ‘Happy days,’ says Colin Bristow as he passes me the airsick bag and flies into a cloud somewhere over Zim. 

I am temporarily insane. Who else chugs heavy anti-malaria tablets with a half-bottle of home-grown tequila, scarfs a serious breakfast and goes flying in a little Cessna 210 at noon, when there’s nothing up there but tatty modern-day pterodactyls, bad-news thermals and a bush pilot with evil intentions? 

This hell in my head begins the day before at home in Joburg. We have just returned from the Karoo with a couple of bottles of Agava Spirit, a sharp liquor distilled outside Graaff-Reinet in a huge white hangar. 

The stuff is so popular that they’re exporting barrels of it to Australians, who are mixing it into their Outback Coolers. Some say they’re even sending it back to the Motherland of tequila, Mexico, because there is something wrong with the Mexican cactus that year. 

Photographer Les Bush comes around to visit. Travel writer Bridget Hilton-Barber pops in for lunch. I say let’s road-test the Karoo juice. They say fine. I go off to fetch the Agava, and remember that I have to take my Larium because of the upcoming trip to Mosquito Country. 

And that’s my big mistake, right there. Larium and tequila: a monster no-no. 

The following morning, hungover to the max and filled with a kind of chemically induced terror, I catch an SAA flight up to Bulawayo. But not before making the near-fatal mistake of diving into an English breakfast at Johannesburg International. 

Sweating profusely, I stumble off the flight at Bulawayo, which looks like the deserted set of Casablanca 

Apart from a few Russians working on an Antonov transport plane that streams black paraffin smoke from its engines, there’s not much happening at the airport. 

Bulawayo. Whenever I go there, I expect to meet Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly striding down the main street, both wearing those summer frocks they were famous for, with a couple of adoring Hollywood extras in tow and a really corny script to work with. The jacaranda-lined streets and Art Deco buildings give Bulawayo a 1950s look. 

And then I stray directly into the hard glare of Colin.  

‘Are you ready for a big adventure?’ he asks, with a devilish glint in his eye. He knows. Oh, he knows. 

Illustration by Jess Nicholson

This is in January, the Deadbeat Season from the Delta to the DRC, when mosquitoes rule and electric storms light up the skies all along the Caprivi Strip. High on tequila afterburn and psychotic from the medication, I waive the barfbag option and concentrate on the Marabou Circuit Court outside my window. They look like ruffled old judges waiting for the jury. I feel like the accused, serving out his sentence. 

We land at Impalila Island, are picked up by two rangers and driven to a customs and immigration shack nearby. An English couple who have joined us at the airstrip is making rude remarks about the officials who are sort of lazing their way through the afternoon. It’s nearly 45*C in the shade and, up here, that’s what you do to get through such conditions. You slop around. Didn’t these Poms understand this? I want to strangle the Brits. Colin stops me. 

Dawn brings a measure of sanity and a fishing expedition. There is bird life everywhere along the banks. Lozi tribespeople pole their mokoros up and down on listless liaisons.  

Was this what Livingstone first saw when he came to these parts? Maybe they weren’t wearing Rolling Stones T-shirts and Chicago Bulls caps, but for the rest, it might well be back in the 1800s and Wow! Look at that smoke coming from the river! Why, they’re waterfalls! Let’s name them after our Queen then, shall we? 

We head back to the lodge and take refuge in a cup of tea while Hayden, our guide, messes about in the shallows with his rod. Within minutes he has caught a teenage tiger fish and his more respectably sized uncle.  

‘You should see them when the storms come,’ says the lodge manager, Simon Parker, as we sit talking in the curio shop. ‘The water boils with tigers eating the baitfish eating the insects.’  

He tells me about a monster tiger some call The Steam Train. Others call him The Pig with Fins. 

I want to know how such a superb island lodge can exist out here, with nothing for company but sneaky finger-biting fish and Lozi tribesmen on mysterious mokoro missions. 

‘Meat comes in from Namibia, fuel from Botswana, dry goods, fruit and veggies from South Africa,’ he says. ‘You deal with trucks, flights, border posts and VAT – running supplies into this camp is a matter of genius.’ 

It’s also a matter of being mates with the right bush pilot, someone like Colin Bristow, whose little Cessna can land practically anywhere, bearing clients, liquor, groceries, gifts, friends and news from afar. It’s the lifeline to thousands of people working the lodges from that side of the Atlantic to this side of the Indian.  

And then Simon half-whispers to me: ‘Let’s take this outside. There’s a black mamba in the rafters.’ 

End of interview. Also, end of a hangover. I proceed to glide out of the Impalila curio shop like a racing mongoose with a dire case of somewhere else to go.  

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 print issue of Getaway.

Originally written by Chris Marais; Illustration by Jess Nicholson 

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