Channel 4 in the UK is currently airing a series called ‘Worst Place to be a Pilot’ which follows a number of pilots working for Indonesian airline Susi Air. These pilots fly to some of the country’s most remote areas where landing strips may be simple dirt paths carved on a mountain ridge, where volcanic eruptions and storms can cause turbulence and where general air safety records are some of the worst in the world (though improving).
Flying is often a means to an end when it comes to travel – when you fly you skip a lot of the good bits, the changing scenery, the encounters, the adventure, but sometimes it is a big part of the adventure. Only very rarely does this happen when flying in big jumbo-jets. Even so, I remember one of my very first long-haul flights; I was going to Zimbabwe via Johannesburg from Zurich. The flight started by going over the Alps before reaching the Mediterranean in time for dinner. As we crossed over into Africa night had fallen but I couldn’t sleep and kept staring out the window in wonder. Heading over the vast plains of East Africa I could see lightning flashes far below.
Over the years I have taken many such flights, the novelty may have worn off but looking out over a cloudless landscape is still something special. Whether it’s seeing the vast sands of the Sahara or Norwegian fjords or flying past Aconcagua, South America’s tallest mountain at sunset, there’s something magical about seeing the world from up high.
For the real adventure, however, you have to fly in much smaller planes, the kind of plane where passengers need to be weighed along with their luggage. Firstly these planes, Cessnas and Caravans, fly closer to the ground giving great views of the land below, but also, they tend to fly to more remote places, islands, jungle enclaves, going off the beaten path, and that is exciting.
Last year I spent two weeks in Suriname and Guyana, two countries on the edge of the Caribbean in South America. On this single trip I took five such flights, some of the best I’ve taken. The first, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, was in Surinam, flying to a remote jungle lodge over 100kms from the closest community and 100s of kilometres from more developed civilisation. Flying over an endless sea of green is fascinating but it’s the final approach, suddenly, out of nowhere an open field appears into the view and the pilot circles and descends, finally landing and taxiing… right to the lodge.
In Guyana the road to the interior is long, and the country’s biggest attraction, Kaieteur Falls, is only accessible by multi-day hike, or flight. Again the flight passes over vast expanses of jungle, and again, appearing out of nowhere our destination appears, a mighty waterfall, nearly 100m wide and 221m high as the Potaro River tumbles over a limestone escarpment. After a stop at the falls, we continued our journey to Iwokrama, by then the weather had turned and it was raining, this made landing on the dirt runway a tricky business, and probably one of the hairiest landings I’ve experienced as the plane touched-down and skidded slightly before the pilot, in perfect control, stabilised the Caravan and taxied us safely. It was a hairy landing, but, once again, it was exciting.
After a few days of exploring Guyana’s interior with its savannah and rainforest we had to catch a flight back to the capital, Georgetown. Our transfer to the landing strip was by boat, which, let’s face it, is another fantastic way to travel. Arriving at the landing strip, the plane wasn’t there yet so we sat on the grass and waited. And then it arrived, flying very low, just over the trees. We boarded and the pilot asked us whether we wanted to fly above the river. A little confused we consented and the pilot took off over the trees, only to come back down and fly just a couple meters above the river following its course. He may have been a bit of a show-off but it was exhilarating.
In some places we chose to catch a small plane purely for sight-seeing purposes, over the Nazca Lines in Peru or the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but the most memorable scenic flight for me was in Zambia, at the mighty Victoria Falls where there used to be the option of flying over the falls in and old Tiger-Moth plane. This plane, dating from the 1940s, is open to the elements and has only two seats, one behind the other. This was a training plane and there are controls on both seats so after passing over the falls the pilot offered to give me control of the plane, nothing fancy, just keeping it straight for a couple minutes, but great fun non-the-less.
French photographer Yann Artus Bertrand has made a career out of taking photos of Earth seen from the sky, getting in an aircraft, big or small, and looking out the window, it’s easy to see why his photos are so popular.