On a wing and a prayer
Nairobi's charming Wilson Airport harks back to bygone days, writes Kevin Rushby
We are sitting on the runway and Dino Bisleti, flight operations manager of Air Kenya and our pilot, has finished his pre-flight checks and is relaxing for a minute. It's a small plane. I'm in the seat right behind him. I do something unthinkable in the sterile, faceless world of modern air travel. I begin a conversation with the pilot. How did he start his flying career? He points along the line of aircraft hangars that line the apron at Nairobi's Wilson Airport.
"See that blue and white sign? Boskovic Air Charters. [Zivota] Boskovic was a Yugoslav Spitfire pilot [with Britain's Royal Air Force] who came out to East Africa after the second world war. I joined him back in the 1970s. He used to fly by instinct - no flight plan, nothing. He'd just set off. We were taught real bush flying by him."
If there is anywhere in the world that welcomes the glamorous spirit of aviation, it is Kenya. Think Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen (OK, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa) in a biplane waggling their wings over remote airstrips where the grass is kept down by herds of wildebeest and zebra.
The wildlife bit is still true for many landing sites, where the departure lounge is nothing more than the shade of a handy acacia tree. And Wilson Airport is the great-grandaddy of such places, the original. True, it has long since grown past the acacia tree stage, but it is still a million miles from the anodyne boredom of most international airports: it is leafy, charming and rather eccentric.
Bisleti knows a thing or two about those remote airstrips, having flown into most of them: "One morning we found ourselves with a flat because the hyenas had eaten the tyre."
We get the go-ahead from the control tower, a delightful 1930s building that looks more suited to supervising cricket matches than air traffic, then roll along the tarmac past an odd assortment of hangars, some modern and bright, some with traces of art-deco styling, some sinking beneath rampant vegetation. They bear names such as Pioneer Aviation, Superb Aviation and Africair.
There are plenty of aircraft to admire: you can fly down to the coast from Wilson in a Dakota DC-3, the sort of plane loved by Indiana Jones, or you can sit behind the pilot in a more modern Cessna Caravan nine-seater, workhorse of the East African bush. The system here is one Jones would recognise: company hangars where a lone technician might be tuning an old Pratt & Whitney propeller engine. You go to your company hangar, check in under the shadow of the plane, then lounge about, eavesdropping pilot-talk.
"I once had a five-foot monitor lizard as a stowaway - it jumped out when we were airborne. My God, it was chaos!"
"Coming out of Juba, the loader got stung by a scorpion. He won't forget that trip."
Much of Wilson's traffic is bound for regions that tempt few tourists: South Sudan and Somalia in particu-lar. World Food Programme, United Nations and NGO flights keep a hectic pace on the two runways. But there are other things going on, too: there is a lucrative business in flying mira'a (the popular narcotic also known as khat or qat) up to Somalia. Trucks rush in every morning with bundles of leaves and shoots that are loaded and dispatched to Mogadishu.
There are reminders, too, of the violent struggles going on out there in the African bush. The day I was at Wilson a Kenya Wildlife Service plane touched down from the eastern town of Voi carrying the bodies of two wildlife rangers. They had been shot dead by poachers in the increasingly deadly war over ivory and rhino horn.
Pilots on mercy missions have been shot at; others have had to scramble and escape. And the excitement's not restricted to the non-tourist world: Bisleti recalls landing and throwing open the pilot door only to find a pride of lions looking up at him. He and his passengers waited three hours for the big cats to finally saunter away.
Wilson started life as Nairobi aerodrome in the late 20s, as an airstrip on the outskirts of the burgeoning capital of British East Africa. Florence Wilson saw an opportunity as the high-rollers of white society began setting themselves up with the latest airborne toys - many of them disastrously (Finch Hatton was one of several fatalities) - and hunting safaris were at their peak. What really helped Wilson's project, however, was the start of commercial aviation. In March 1931 there arrived from Cairo, Egypt, an Armstrong Whitworth Argosy operated by Imperial Airways. This wonder of the age could carry up to 20 passengers at stupendous speeds of about 160km/h for 640 kilometres. Because of this relatively short range, airstrips were established in the remotest locations, simply to allow planes to refuel. Wilson started flying passengers in to connect with services to London and Cape Town. The airport became a regional hub.
Unfortunately for her, the outbreak of war in 1939 ended that success story. Her entire fleet was confiscated by the British government and, after a decade of meteoric growth, Wilson Airways came to an end. The airport, however, continued to develop and prosper and, in 1962, was renamed as a tribute to her pioneering spirit.
"If you are interested in the history," Bisleti shouts over the roar of engines, "when you get back to Wilson, go and see the Aero Club. It's a goldmine of photos and memorabilia."
The club is a private members' affair, but it does allow visitors in at lunchtime. There's a panelled restaurant, a terrace overlooking the airfield and a garden with a small swimming pool. The bar is a thatched-roof classic, with a Spitfire engine perched in one corner and a Pratt & Whitney in another - somewhat impeding play at the pool table. The walls are plastered with memorabilia from the golden age: faces of magnificent aviators at moments of great victory and newspaper cuttings of terrible crashes and the obituaries that followed.
Back on the tarmac, we're heading off again. This time the wind is in a different quarter and we are switched to the alternate runway, the one that takes you out over Nairobi National Park. The pilot pushes the thrusters and we shoot forwards. Within seconds we are airborne and climbing. The pilot glances out of the window and turns to the passengers. "Pair of giraffes on the left side of the plane." He takes a second look. "And a silver-backed jackal."
It's the kind of public announcement you just don't get at most airports these days.
Guardian News & Media
Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies a ''proper-sized'' plane daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Alternatively, it is possible to fly via Bangkok on a number of airlines.