With butterfies in my stomach I watched as the Cessna 206 touched down on the hazy tarmac and taxied towards where I was sitting under a tree in the stifling midday heat. The pilot climbed out of the plane, tripped on his seat belt, dropped his hat, picked it up and banged his head on the wing of the aircraft all while introducing himself as Chris from Southern Cross Aviation. I knew from Russell that Chris was a very experienced bush pilot who had successfully landed an air craft on a tiny Island in the middle of Lake Kariba after experiencing engine failure so I felt quite safe flying with him.
With the plane loaded and pre flight checks done , we taxied down the runway which seemed t way too short for the load we were carrying. Chris gunned the engine and with the stall warning screeching , the aeroplane finally lurched into the air, skimming the tops of the Mopane trees before soaring into a cloudless blue sky . My unease evaporated as I gazed down on a shimmering water wilderness that stretched uninterrupted from horizon to distant horizon. This was a wild and remote part of the country that I was not familiar with and seeing Kariba’s iconic scenery from the air for the first time was breathtaking. After a short but bumpy flight, the Lodge was finally in sight and Chris dropped down low skimming the trees to “buzz” Rokhri Camp to announce our arrival . Banking over a herd of elephants cavorting in the Masampa Lagoon we landed up wind on the dirt strip and rumbled to a halt in front of a small rondavel with a jaunty sign that declared this dilapidated structure to be “Kiplings International Departure Lounge and Duty Free” evidence of Russell’s wry sense of humour!
This was an area with several camps and was only really accessible by light aircraft , Air Charters were to become a part of my daily life. Guests were given priority , fresh supplies, drinks, staff and all sorts of other goods constantly needed to be moved and with the charter costs being so high the efficient choreography of these flights was a priority. I settled into my job which involved the reservations of all the charter planes in our area for the various camps and occasionally we would get parties that organised their own charters or would even come in their own planes. Flying safaris were becoming increasingly popular where guests that were qualified as pilots would come out on safari in groups and hire aircraft to fly themselves around the various safari camps. This way they could enjoy both the experience of flying and going on safari. One occasion we had a group on a “self fly” safari that were Swiss Air training pilots and we had a wonderful time hosting them. They enjoyed their stay so much that they decided to spend an extra night so we could join them in celebrating a 60th birthday of one of the party mebers.
The following morning Russell left at dawn for a walking safari in Matusadona National Park , I went down to the Lodge to say goodbye to our newly found friends. As I got back to my office the radio crackled into life and the Duty Guide on the airstrip advised me that their planes had safely departed. I settled down to check my reservations for the day, only to be interrupted by the radio a second time as the panicked voice of the guide reported that the second plane had been trying to turn back when it had suddenly flipped over and plunged into the Masampa Lagoon. The next few hours were a blur and in spite of our every effort, all the passengers on board lost their lives that day.
That evening as I closed up the office , I looked down and in the corner of my desk lay a pile of neatly written postcards that had been given me the night before. I realized with goosebumps that these treasured memories would be the last exchanged between the pilots and their families. This incident not only affected the Kiplings staff but also deeply troubled the local Tonga community who lived along the shores of the lake, the Chief visited us and insisted on carrying out a traditional cleansing ritual, to appease the spirits of those who had died on that day. I’m not ashamed to admit that, to this day, I am not a huge fan of small charter flights , even though the turbine aircraft we use today are far safer and more reliable than the old piston engine aircraft of yesteryear.