What it's really like flying in small planes over the bush
29 Jan 2018
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Is it scary to fly in tiny planes in Kenya?
I’m terrified of flying, which is rather ironic given the number of air miles I manage to acquire each year. If I could take a train to Tanzania or a bus to Botswana, I would. Anything to avoid being cooped up and helpless several thousand feet in the air with seat-kicking kids, sorry excuses for meals, and the inevitable middle seat elbow wars. Flying however is a necessity when you want to explore the remote corners of the world, especially somewhere like Kenya where the game reserves are so far apart.
I was visiting Kenya for the first time with my other half, Peter, and I couldn’t decide whether multiple flights on tiny planes would be thrilling or nerve racking. Either way, it was going to be an adventure.
We flew in a triangle, beginning in Nairobi and stopping at both the Samburu and Masai Mara National Reserves, before finally heading back to the capital. It was a bit like catching a bus, albeit one with wings and far better views.
The whole operation was pretty laid back and quite a different experience from taking international flights - in a good way. The domestic terminal at Nairobi Wilson was simply a couple of hangers with a small departure lounge next to the runway. Our names were ticked off a list and we were handed a coloured ticket to make sure we got on the correct flight. Before long we were crossing the hot tarmac to board our first plane, a DeHavilland Twin Otter, and it immediately became clear why baggage was limited to 15kg per passenger.
It was the second smallest plane in the fleet, with just 18 seats. There were no seating allocations inside, so we picked a spot at the front by the window. I wanted to see how many elephants I could spot, whilst Peter was fascinated by all the cockpit instruments right in front of us. We were able to watch take-off and landing through the windscreen and the pilots were so close we could chat to them. They were really friendly and handed a box of mints around as our inflight snacks. It was the same on each flight, and every plane also had a stash of bottled water for anyone who was thirsty. Always handy since it’s so hot out there.
The seats on all the bush planes are a lot smaller than on larger aircraft, so it would be pretty cosy on a full flight. However, we travelled in January and only had to share with a few other passengers, and sometimes none at all.
Our favourite flight was on the even smaller Cessna Caravan, which took us from the Samburu to Mara North. The seats were more luxurious and it felt very exclusive, especially as on one occasion we had the plane to ourselves!
At one point we landed in the middle of nowhere to refuel from a vehicle that was waiting for us at the side of the runway. Peter and I hopped out and went to wait in the shade, chatting to a couple of rangers who made sure that the strip was kept clear of animals for approaching planes.
So what were the flights like?
Let’s get one thing straight. These are small planes, and turbulence is always going to feel much more alarming than on large international flights. In these little planes a slight zephyr can seem like an approaching tornado, but strangely we got used to the movement pretty quickly. Possibly because we were distracted by the wildebeest, giraffe and impala down below. At one point we even saw hippos wallowing in the Mara River, and yes, I got to see my elephants.
The landings were rather bumpy, which isn’t surprising given that the runways are just dirt, but we never felt unsafe. I think being able to see what was happening outside made it easier. There were always a few spectating zebras staring disinterestedly at the approaching planes. If they weren’t concerned, then neither was I.
I was almost sorry when we finally landed at our various destinations. It turns out that this sort of flying in Africa is actually a lot of fun, and there really was no reason for me to have worried. It's all part of the safari experience, and I’d take soaring in a tiny plane above the plains of Africa over a monotonous and soulless transatlantic flight any day.