Thursday, October 8, 2009


New Year's Day 2009 dawned after a lovely night-time thunderstorm. The air smelt fresh and I felt a sense of anxiety and anticipation. The next five days would hold a number of firsts and a fair amount of the unknown. Planning, which is one my strengths, had been kept to a minimum because helicopter flying is dependant on the weather and that you certainly cannot plan!

We took a scheduled flight FAJS- FAGG (Joburg to George) arriving around midday. The Outeniqua Mountains were covered in thick cloud and after what seemed like an aborted approach (and seeing the mountain really up close) the pilot found his way under the cloud to a safe landing at the airport. We made our way to the booked rental car with the first drops of rain. Arriving in Mossel Bay 20 minutes later, it looked grey, dreary and dull underneath thick, heavy low cloud with strong wind that whipped the sea into a white frenzy. We had come to collect a helicopter and this was not a good start. Being New Year's Day, most places were closed and at first we could not even find an open coffee shop. The queue was out the door at the first fast food venue and the room at the guesthouse was not ready. What were we to do?

We drove out north east of town on the Aalwynsdal road to the Mossel Bay Airfield. (FAMO) It was quite impressive for a small place with a newish clubhouse (2001) and a growing number of hangars. This is the home of Springbok Aviation Academy and a Microlight School, which also offers tourist flips. The weather meant there was not much happening here but at least we had an idea of the first departure point.

Next morning at 6 am, the clouds were still thick and low and there was certainly no sunrise. By 7am there was a thin ray of light on the horizon, by 8am we saw blue sky appearing and with a quick call to the weather office, we sprang into action. We were airborne by 9.30 am in the R44 and this was the start of 5 fabulous days of flying and tourism from Mossel Bay to Johannesburg. The routing was coast wise to Plettenberg Bay, Port Elizabeth, Port Alfred, East London, Coffee Bay (wild coast), Margate and then across Kwazulu Natal to the Midlands and on to Ladysmith before home to Rand Airport in Johannesburg. This article covers the first half of this journey, from Mossel Bay to Port Alfred.

It was peak holiday season but far from a perfect summer's day. There were small parts of the coast where the sun umbrellas were packed together making a kaleidoscope of colours. Then there were stretches of coast with little activity barring a few lone fishermen. The various resorts flash by rather rapidly in a helicopter, so we passed Klein Brak, Groot Brak, Herold's Bay and Wilderness before we blinked. Some of these are reporting points for George Airport, so you can't only enjoy the scenery but must remain active, reporting position on 118.9. ATC at George were more than helpful in ushering us through their airspace with a final call at Wilderness.

Just before Wilderness, we passed the Kaaimans River Rail Bridge, which is a photographer's favourite. It reminded us of the steam train Outeniqua Choe Choe that was a much-loved scenic tourist trip between George and Knysna. This time we were in the air, not on the tracks and so had a somewhat different perspective! Approaching the heart of the Garden Route, we travelled slightly inland to admire the "lakes " district - Rondevlei, Swartvlei and Groenvlei. The clouds were darkening again and without the sun all the water looked grey, the grass green and the whole landscape more like the British or Irish countryside than sunny South Africa in January. You can certainly see why this is prime dairy country as the cows have the best pasture imaginable and hence many fantastic cheeses are produced in this area. Next it was the massive Knysna Lagoon and the impressive Heads and on towards Plettenberg Bay.

Before the Robberg Nature reserve, we turned slightly inland for the Plettenberg Bay airport and what a busy place it was! As we approached runway 12 at FAPG there is a small wooden cabin and green field on the left, which is the skydiving club. It is immediately adjacent to the airport and we saw and heard about a number of skydiving flights in the time we were on the ground. We landed almost exactly an hour after take off and hover taxied to the fuel bay where a Gyrocopter was being refuelled. We were next in line and it was all very professional. Meantime there were two private jets preparing for passengers and take off. Two other planes landed and they were all lined up on the small apron. It is little wonder that there are plans to expand this runway and airport to handle Boeing 737's. The big question really being can all the regulatory matters be accomplished before 2010?

While at FAPG it was time to finalise our plans for the rest of the day. Further calls to the met office and examination of the weather websites, meant we were going with plan B. This meant finding accommodation in the vicinity, as we would not follow Plan A to travel all the way to Port Elizabeth (PE) due to cloud moving in and strong winds at PE. This would eliminate the pleasure of coastal helicopter flying and we wanted the best views possible. We had researched our preferred accommodation venues on the Internet but had no firm bookings due to the unpredictability of the weather. Thankfully due to a cancellation, our first call was successful in finding a room for the night and a lawn to park the helicopter, within view of our room.

Leaving the airport we flew out east towards Robberg, which was shrouded in a strange mist. We then went around the landmark Beacon Isle Hotel and across the famous bay towards Keurbooms River mouth. If we were following line of sight for our destination, we would have turned inland at that point. However be aware of a small area of restricted airpsace, which is home to Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and the Elephant Sanctuary. Any one or all of these are great tourist attractions, but one must fly around them so as not to disturb the animals. The region is also the centre of the local polo industry and the farmlands looked magnificent and picturesque.

We zeroed in on our co-ordinates and found the landmarks we had been given to locate Redford House. This guesthouse is about 20km by road from the airport in an area called The Crags and it had taken us 10 minutes in the helicopter. Set back from a large dam is the original historic farmhouse and a cottage. The owners have added a period style separate building with the guest rooms and also a summerhouse by the lovely swimming pool and tennis court. (Behind which the helicopter was parked). This provided a perfect setting to relax and admire the immediate surroundings. Here, we were enjoying an idyllic summer setting: pink Hydrangeas, crimson Watsonias and iceberg roses. What was our worry about the weather? Four seasons in one day, as the Cape is notorius for!

Our upstairs room was a welcome retreat with every attention to detail. Spacious and bright in a Provençale style with a long bathroom the width of the room, offering separate shower and old-fashioned ball and claw bath! The drinking water was cold and fresh, coming straight from a nearby fountain. One could taste this was not municipal tap water and really did not need bottled mineral water as that is what you essentially have on tap! A special touch was the orange cookies and good night chocolates, which at other establishments seems largely to be a thing of the past. Next morning a freshly prepared and tasty personalised breakfast was served in the farmhouse kitchen and one could not ask for more. This was going to be hard to beat!

Now day 2 of our adventure and we started all our weather checks and phone calls ahead about accommodation and landing permission. With everything sorted, we bid a fond farewell as we took off again at 9.30 am for an hour's flight to Port Elizabeth. Once again it was partly cloudy and the moods of the land seemed to vary with the weather. We flew just inland and had great views of the old Bloukrans Pass road and the magnificent modern bridge cutting out all those twists and turns. Oh how grateful we were to be flying as we passed overhead the toll road at Tsitsikamma and the beautiful green forest below. With all the development along the precious coast, one realises how critical these National Parks are, protecting some of our awesome coastline. With a strong tail wind of 20 knots, the land was whizzing by as we passed Storms River and followed the N2 towards Humansdorp, a centre for this agricultural region. Just before the town, we passed the Krom River, which was dammed in 1984 to create the Impofu Dam. The water was sadly muddy brown, but its size was impressive, though we later established it was only 80 % full.

We could see the dunes and beaches of St Francis Bay and Jeffreys Bay in the distance, as we cut across to the Gamtoos River mouth and called Port Elizabeth (FAPE) approach on 120.4 (that is the reference in the Airfields directory despite our flying about 800 ft AGL) They routed us via Seaview towards the airport. The tower (radio 118.1) was most helpful in our landing via runway 26. We were swept past the tower on downwind and the turn into the wind seemed like a crazy sideways slide over an ice rink. The windsock was horizontal with the wind at 24 knots gusting 37 on finals as we crept slowly past the commercial aircraft with our final approach speed indicated at 60 knots. With a ground speed of 35 knots everything happened in slow motion. PE certainly lived up to its other name of "the windy city "! We headed towards the general aviation area and the Shell refuelling station adjacent to Sheltam Air. My husband, the pilot, recalled previous comments from our editor about really having only earned your wings once you have landed in the wind at PE!

Once our tanks were full of Avgas we set off again routing east across the city and past the construction site of the new 2010 stadium which looked impressive indeed. We had to report at Swartkops River, then Sundays River, before we reached some totally unspoilt coastline with the wind swirling the sand across the dunes. This section of land has been incorporated into the Addo Elephant National Park to preserve these biomes and with the Marine section there is now the possibility to sight the big 7. (This includes the Southern Right Whale and the Great White Shark.)
There are two specific landmarks in this naturally beautiful area, namely St Croix Island and then the Diaz Cross Memorial. The latter commemorates the arrival of Bartholomew Dias in Algoa Bay in 1488. This site seems to be well supported by tourists and there were a number of people making the walk, reported to be 4 km from the parking lot, to the top of the hill where there is a replica of the original "padrao" (cross).

Next we flew past Kenton-on-Sea and the beaches of Port Alfred, which led us to the famed Kowie River mouth, where we flew into the Royal Alfred Marina. After this 45 minute windy leg, we were ready for a break and to soak up the relaxed atmosphere of the little boats chugging around the Marina. The sun had emerged again to show the Marina in all its scenic glory with the Halyards Hotel at the far end facing the town and Kowie River Bridge. The latter was spectacularly lit up that night and in my opinion belonged in a glitzy city more than a coastal holiday town. The nearby Port Alfred Airport (FAPA) is home to the renowned 43 Air School, but we had arranged permission for a private helicopter landing and overnight parking, which is always a treat. If you know enough about an area and what you need, it is surprisingly easy to organise this, with local co-operation and the friendly folk of the Eastern Cape. The 3 children of the chef of the Halyard's Hotel were eagerly awaiting our arrival and making us very welcome, helped us with our bags to the reception!

It was Saturday night, which meant it was seafood buffet night at The Halyards. This pleased me no end as a coastal treat, but there was adequate choice for everyone, including carnivores. There seemed to be a never-ending supply of freshly prepared calamari and queen prawns in addition to a full range of fish pieces, paté and salads. The calamari is certainly worth writing home about. This tasted fresh and tender, battered to perfection and so different to the normal frozen fare served up at the franchise stores. It seemed they were really using local produce as the chokka industry is centred in this area. Perhaps they had another secret but I was impressed. (Especially as at the previous night's restaurant in the Crags we had been told no calamari was available, as the truck had not delivered!) Finally there was the dessert buffet to tempt the taste buds, which included crème caramel, profiteroles, lemon meringue pie and the warm alternatives of apple pie and malva pudding. At last the wind had calmed down and it was time to prepare and rest, ready for another day.

In the next post will cover days 3 -4.

Website References:

Reservations: (044) 534-8877

Central Reservations: 046 624 8525 (tel) 046 624 8529 (fax)

Google Maps: Redford House

View Larger Map

Google Maps: The Halyards Hotel

View Larger Map

No comments: