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Lets go to Timbuktu!

By Olivier Aubert

Since we left the coast of Iceland , we mainly flew south. The outrageous ecstasies and agonies of the North Atlantic experience seemed already well embalmed deep in our souls like venerable priceless mummies.

Europe was recovering from the craze of the latest mass-exodus, baking in the mild post-summer lights, slowly moving into the decaying autumn. I always loved that season and when I radioed Mike to tell him that September was one of the best periods in Northern Africa , not yet cold and still warm, he sounded delighted on his joyful established style.

Our trikes were definitely overloaded when we took off on a beautiful day from Annemasse near Geneva . It was the ninth of the ninth, nineteen ninety-nine, a date impossible to forget.

I twisted my neck to see my brother Reynald confidently installed in the rear seat, and immediately noticed that the boy obviously had taken for granted the particular quote - “it is never too warm up there” - thrown out during our party the previous night.

The Dear Old Boy was extensively wrapped up in suits, scarves, dark-faced helmet, mittens and balaclava, and for a short while, I wondered if that fearsome looking Michelin man was smiling or ready to bite me in the neck.

olivier flying over the desert

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Leaving Geneva

The wing felt heavier than usual, clumsy on steep turns and I thought that we were definitely smashing through the legal 450kg max take off weight limit established by the flying institutions. But who cared about rules at this exalting moment? Neither me nor Mike, who had his son Greg sharing his small aircraft. I was too happy to be heading to Morocco , one of my favourite countries, and to have Reynald as travelling companion was history. Last time we adventured together was during a breakout in the Algerian Sahara, ten years earlier.

It was an outstanding day in our lives. We were fully geared, high spirited, with wallets substantially refurbished and we were going to Africa , following a never-ending summer.

nigeria

Sheltering from a rainstorm

On our way to Gibraltar , we tried to avoid the critical mid-day turbulence, keeping in mind our overweight. My parents had only two sons, and we were both flying the same overloaded aircraft at the same time, and that scared me at some stage.

We left Europe on the 21st of September, in time to escape the rough weather that would soon seize the old continent. To cross the Gibraltar Strait , we had three life jackets for four, trusting our faithful Rotax.

That day, a strong “Poniente” blew us in less than twenty minutes onto the deserted beaches surrounding Tanger “la Blanche”. Morocco was gleaming as usual, we were in Africa and knew that we were going to make it to the Cape .

Back to Africa...

The visa must have been invented in Africa . The more Banana is the Republic the more difficult it is to get the visa. To combine the duties and pleasure, we chose beautiful Rabat as a place to stay for several days.

On the first Monday, as expected, Nigeria was already performing its usual uncooperative attitude and refused to issue a visa. After a week touring the embassies, I won the visa competition eight to seven and our passports looked like philatelic books. In Rabat , it was time to say goodbye to our passengers. The day we left, we discovered unfolding the wings that hundreds of snails had squatted in our sails.

Morocco was one of the nicest places we have seen along our route. But aviation of leisure is almost extinct, hassled down by strict rules imposed to civil aviation for high security reasons. And to keep drug trafficking under control, private helicopters are banned in Morocco , and ultralights with their “short-take-off-landing” potential are not really welcome.

flight training

Tropic of Cancer

On the fifth of October, while achieving the thirty thousand kilometres, we passed over the Tropic of Cancer. We were nicely cruising along the empty beaches of the Atlantic , edging the largest desert on Earth, when we looked to the East and realised that the Sahara was stretching its vastness to the Nile for six thousand kilometres.

We landed at Cape Juby where the famous French Aeropostale held a base in the 30’s. We were busy unpacking our gear and preparing a one-night camp when we spotted far in the dusk, a bouncing car approaching. We soon recognised the familiar metallic-grey painted Jeep of the Royal gendarmerie coming to meet and check us up. This was just routine procedure in the ultra-policed North African Kingdom. The gendarmes were extremely kind as usual, and before leaving us, they chased away the pack of kids that surrounded our camp. This was our first desert night under the billion stars.

We arrived in Nouakchott on a Friday in October, after four long days in the air. We had covered an encouraging two thousands kilometres since Essaouira, the Atlantic Pearl.

Mauritania was easier than expected. The officials did not bother us too much when we brought our papers and genuine smiles were on all faces watching our unloading process.

The very strict Islamic laws that used to rule Mauritania and the daily life of its inhabitants seemed to have tremendously softened as the years passed by. Dutch Beer and French Beaujolais were available at hotel bars, and during our night sortie on the following Saturday, young Moorish girls were proposed to us against green bucks or French notes. Africa is the mother of all continents when it comes to shaking habits, doctrines and beliefs.

girl in trike

Where's the gearstick?

Sahara

Mauritania is a desert country with lots of sand, almost only sand, and if there wasn’t the ocean to stop it, Mauritania would probably stretch its dunes all the way to the Caribbean . I strolled through the Sahara many times but I have never seen it like this. Weeks before we reached Mauritania , the whole country was blessed with record rains. The following days were Magic. No sooner had we taken off from the capital and left the coast behind us, we were already flying over a boundless sea of dunes.

mali mosque

A mosque in Mali

The make-up of the Sahara this day was unique. The abundant rain had soaked the ground and left a verdant carpet sprinkled with flowers. The darkish brown dunes were popping through the fine grass like attractive fudge cakes.

As we dawdled along the deep desert, we encountered the first Bedouin settlements with their immaculate white tents and herds of goats running around as we roared passed.

The refuelling stops in small villages along the only country’s tarred road were epic operations. Hundreds of effervescent peoples were running to the hand operated petrol pump, screaming and you-you-ting, and ultimately touching everything including the sweating pilots in their flying gears.

If these exceptional situations were precious moments in life, they also were critical and stressing. We were very much concerned about the parting procedure once the fuel would be paid and lids closed, and the dangerous propellers slashing through the invisible, so close to the agitated villagers. We had to start the engines right at the pump since our machines were too heavy to be pushed away from the crowd, and because the crowd would have followed the nomadic process anyway.

A day later, the conditions got worse. Visibility came down to a hundred metres at the most. The air was filled with a zillion of particles, dust in suspension, volatile sand, it was like heavy fog. To avoid the lethal “white-out” situation, we had to stay in constant contact with the relief by flying a few meters above the ground while permanently keeping each other visual. Time to play and hovering over the boundless sandpit was over. Late afternoon, we arrived in Nema, the Eastern-most town in the country.

airborne microlights

river niger

The River Niger

We progressed nicely as we had averaged 600 km per day since we left the Ocean, and Timbuktu was almost at hand.

While busy dealing with an exhilarated congregation and fuelling process, a shattered looking Cruiser stopped by. The police did not know how to handle such unusual visitors and got suspicious. Calls to offices and officials were made and the situation got more intricate. When they intended to keep our passports until the next day, my internal system “BAD” (Bureaucratic Alarm Device) started to ring strikingly. This meant danger! With terror, I pictured us grounded for days, waiting for a hypothetical decision from Nouakchott . To outfox the man, something radical had to be done fast.

Timbuktu

By a hair’s breadth I managed to convince the puzzled man that we would stay overnight at the town airfield and come early in the morning to talk to his chief, adding that we wouldn’t sleep well without our passports. He handed back the two endangered booklets.

That evening we evaporated into the Sahara , flying as far as the ultimate light of the fading day allowed. In the twilight, we landed on a lonely mesa overlooking a dry riverbed fringed with acacia trees. Once the engines were shut down, the silence was absolute and we cherished the glorious feeling of being fugitive birds.

Gliding above the Niger River and arriving through the air in Timbuktu was much more spectacular than by crawling in the loose sand with a suffering Land Rover. I had never imagined that one day I would be hovering over the old Tuareg town in a microlight.

Timbuktu had not changed a lot since my last visit in 1985. It was still the same old lazy dusty, declined and mysterious hamlet that attracts tourists with the only evocation of its enigmatic name. But still it had its charm and I felt Mike should see it.

The major mutation in the decaying town was the establishment of Internet. The new computers were nicely aligned in a freezing-cold classroom, but reassuringly enough, connection was impossible.

We passed smoothly through Mali , Burkina Faso and Benin , the very pleasant countries in West Africa .

All went well until we entered the Nigerian embassy in Cotonou . We wasted five days battling for visas. Day after day we sat for hours waiting for someone willing to take our money and stamp our passport. The long expedition started to take a strain on us and the bureaucratic hassles were the most painful at this stage.

Finally we managed to get the visas and took off for Port Harcourt our unique stopover in Nigeria . We carefully circumvented Lagos like a snake pit. If we could have avoided Nigeria altogether we would have done it without any hesitation. But the damned country was too big, the weather uncertain, and our long-range tanks had been left in Scotland . Too bad!

It was my third visit to that depressing country and each and every time, I swore to myself that it would be my very last time..........but here I was again.

trike flying from above

Anyone know where we're going?

Fuel stop

The flight across the vast swamps of the Niger Delta was exhausting, storms were threatening all over, and the marsh underneath offered very few landing places.

Near Port Harcourt , I had to make a blitz landing on an old road, as my fuel gauge went dangerously low. Mike stayed airborne, scouting the immediate surroundings for police patrols or in-coming trouble while I emptied my last can into the tank. Mike was busy diving and chasing a bunch of youngsters approaching on my track as I got ready to take off. Officials at Port Harcourt were not aware of my landing but found plenty other good reasons to bitter our visit. By chance, we had all our documents in perfect order and there was nothing the badgering vultures could grab on. We had to bargain everything from taxes to fuel.

trike fuelling up

Sixty litres of unleaded please

Although petrol is the cheap thing in Nigeria where for a few bucks one can fill up the tank and several cans, we had to pay a dollar for each litre. The whole afternoon went on with new deals, monkey bargains and interesting battles with interchanging enemies. We held the fort until late and finally got some breathing space when darkness knocked down the airport’s activity. We had a last fight with the sentinels, and won the right to stay with our machines. We sheltered under the wing of an old mutilated Boeing, which I assumed to be a 707. But this specific unit has been altered beyond recognition. Africa was a place that defeated the large machines of the West with untroubled ease. Around midnight , a violent Cumulonimbus stormed the airport and most of our things drenched badly.

We took refuge in the Boeing’s wheels compartment, the only dry place, and realised that we were on the twenty fifth of October, and that was Mike’s oddest birthday ever.

In the early morning I prepared the ritual coffee. Mike came to me holding his hand together. He brought a snail he had found inside his wing. The little mollusc was one of the many that had climbed into our wings in Morocco while departing Rabat three weeks earlier. This animal was an incredible survivor, having overcome the dry and heat of the Sahara , and the lack of food altogether. Last night deluge must have pulled him out from his temporary hibernation state. We could not abandon him in the bad place. I emptied a Tupperware can from its content, made holes in the lid, and collected some fresh grass on the fields.

flight training

We called him “R’bati”(inhabitant of Rabat ) and declared him official mascot of the expedition.

For some obscure reasons, which we tried to explain by the fact that we did not play the game of bribing the whole bunch of scavengers at Port Harcourt, Nigeria ATC did not send our flight plan to Douala which consequently created a shambles in Cameroon. Before arriving in Douala we flew past a prohibited zone well defined on our maps and stayed clear of it. But after landing, the army arrested us pretending that we had flown into it, naturally. Cameroon did not seem to have found a cure for their paranoia yet, which was already well cultivated in 1978 when I got jailed in Yaounde for spying activities.

trike flying in africa

Somewhere in Africa!!

African bureaucrats!

After the army interrogatory, came the gendarmerie questioning, followed by the airport official’s inquiries and last but not least, the police investigation. The latter was the most frustrating of all because the guy handling our case was a typical fanatic bureaucrat of the worst kind. Mike who couldn’t understand much French was allowed to go to the airport and stay with our aircraft. I was having cold shivers, and felt strange with joint and muscles pain and ultimately dizziness. Perhaps the deadly mosquitoes of the Niger had got me. I waited hours in a depleted office, facing a wicked police officer sitting behind a messy desk and waiting for his superior to finish some kind of dog funeral.

He kept saying: “You make big mistake, you are in trouble, you must wait!”

Neither my most diplomatic French nor my experience in dealing with toughest donkeys seemed to work that day and I felt useless. Bargaining with stupid bureaucrats is something I had done many times. I had developed a kind of mastering on that issue and I knew how to handle it the best possible way. Well, I thought I knew. But Africa has a way of rearranging the known and the unknown. After three days, we left Douala , relieved, liberated. Until the last minute, our departure was on the edge because some official signatures were missing.The bureaucracy in that particular country was a fact of life: Cruel, capricious, ultimately devastating.

girls around aircraft

A reception party.....african style

But, we survived again and every time we defeated a new obstacle - especially administrative - our friendship strengthened.

When eventually they let us go the weather was really awful. For the entire leg, we had to dodge around rain showers and storms, inevitably getting wet, and on a few occasions flirting closely with lightning. But even deeply soaked the faithful engines never failed or stuttered.

Libreville was the right place to reshape our cracked spirits before affronting the last challenge: Angola at War. The local ultralight pilots gave us the most incredible welcome.

Angola

At the Angolan Embassy, we had to fight for the ultimate visa for our expedition. The Angolans were not so happy to let us in. UNITA had intensified its diamond harvesting and again got plenty new hi-tech toys supplied by the moneygrubbers of the wise nations, strengthening its positions in the field. The killing of the innocent resumed, war raged madly again, and business flourished.

We passed the Equator for the second time while recapturing the World record of distance Milton has held since 1998. We outmatched his 37’000 kilometres when flying over the great Wonga-Wongue National Park , south of Libreville.Days later, we arrived in Congo Brazzaville and were again treated like princes by the guys at the Aero-club of Pointe Noire.

olivier with some girls

This was our last island of peace before we reached the Cunene River in the North of the war-free Namibia . Fever suddenly broke out. Malaria finally got one of us and it was naturally for me. Mike keeps on saying that I am the tough half of the team but paradoxically he never gets any disorders while I take them all. As every time, I mutated into a broken jumping jack, buried deep in my wet sheets, and dealing solo with pains and shivers. It was the seventh time I got hit by the ravaging disease and I thought that one day it would eventually kill me. But at this stage, the concept of loosing one’s life doesn’t bother. Malaria takes your brain into anaesthetic cloudiness where nothing really matters anymore, not even death.

Concerned about our safety and comfort, our friends in Pointe Noire had organised a contact in Luanda . Anything could happen in Angola , especially now that the perpetual conflict was on its fully blown cycle again. Patrick, a young French businessman and his right-hand man Raul were waiting at the bustling airport when we touched down.

mike blyth

Biggles....aka Mike Blyth!

Luanda International was the busiest airport we had landed at during the past seven months. At least, wars seem to boost anthills and motivate the ants to practice commerce. There was so much activity on the radio that it was hard to talk for more than a minute. The intense traffic was essentially made up by heavily polluting Soviet-made cargo planes.I watched anxiously a four-engined turboprop - obviously overloaded - darting down the runway. After rolling forever, the deafening metal dove, lifted up, slowly, leaving behind its struggling ascend, tremendous vortexes of unburned fuel. All these devoted flying warehouses were long ago out of business in the strict-ruled skies of the West, dismissed by the new environmental regulations.

flight training

Home Run....

But these cheap carriers from the bankrupted Russia gave the UN accountants’ headaches a formidable relief. Pollution wasn’t such a topic in Africa anyway. We taxied our mini-planes between lines of Antonov and Ilyushin monsters, almost unnoticed, which was a very good thing.

Patrick and Raul had the right connections in Luanda . They guided us through the wings and around the airport offices. Raul, a well connected man and very efficient was doing most of it, talking Portuguese with Ray-Ban sunglassed people in ties and walky-talkies. When the Shell employee asked us four US dollars for the hundred litres he had poured into our tanks, we thought he had missed a zero. But we were wrong, Angola sold us the cheapest fuel of the entire expedition. The days of flying through Angola were long, but easy. We sailed along the deserted coast all the way to the mouth of the Cunene River , the natural border between the two countries.

It was the 11th November, my birthday. All the bureaucratic nightmares and miseries were over, and that was the most beautiful thing I could have wished for that day. The two remaining countries, Namibia and South Africa were our homes, and we followed the majestic river all the way to the Epupa Falls.The remaining part of the expedition was a piece of cake over aviation-friendly countries. We felt incredibly free and light-hearted. We went to Grootfontein and picked up Manuela who had just arrived from Italy, then flew to Bushmanland to meet Martine, Melitta and Andre, our old friends, and later, Mike’s brother, Graham who joined the bunch in Windhoek. Namibia was mainly desert and savannah with plenty open land available for an emergency landing, should this still happen.

olivier aubert

Nearly home....

For the two and a half thousand last kilometres to the Cape , the adventure mutated into a five-star journey. We were six, sharing three microlights and a Land Rover loaded with fancy things and goodies.

Cape Town at Last!

We reached Cape Town on the 27th of November 1999 , exactly eight months after our first take-off at the friendly airfield outside Buenos Aires . Shortly before the last touch down, I turned on the GPS, selected “General Rodriguez” airfield in Argentina , pressed the “Go to” button, and after a few seconds the magic screen displayed the figures. Buenos Aires was straight across the ocean at almost the same latitude of 34 degrees, 6900 kilometres to the West. And, at our average speed, that would take us 70 hours to arrive. To link these two great cities, our expedition had covered 43’000 kilometres, and we spent 460 hours in the air. What a long detour!

I just wished that we go on and on and never stop. This trip has been an incredible accomplishment. But far more of an amazing achievement was the fantastic friendship and harmony Mike and myself developed during that expedition. We ended up as best of friends and that made 1999 one of the nicest year of my life. Thank you my dear friend! Like in 1995, I doubt I would have made it on my own, and sharing all these beauties and experiences with you gave it a much greater dimension.

As we were kissing everybody and downing considerable quantities of Cape Champagne , I was expecting Mike to ask: “What next?”

But this time we were much more tired than in Norway in August 1995. We would need some recovering time before daring The Question once more.

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