We were flying with five aircraft in very loose formation all along the South African coast. Starting in the north, close to the Mozambiquan Border, passing the beautiful Eastern Cape shore line, then the garden route and finally planning to end up in Capetown and surrounds, for a bit of a wine tour, with different types of accommodation in between. 5-star luxury lodges interspersed with absolute rustic, no electricity, very little water accommodation. Hence our favourite saying of the trip: "If it's brown, flush it down, if it's yellow, let it mellow."
The indescribable beauty of the wild ocean meeting the varied landscapes will be one of my most treasured flying memories, as was the brilliant food cooked with just a fire place.
In-between the flying we were deep sea diving, game viewing, watching huge Leatherback Sea turtles laboriously digging big holes and laying eggs at night, learning how to cook salted fillet in the fire, and generally getting to know a bit about the other participants on this tour. It was quite a mixed bag: beer loving Germans, funny Dutch, well-travelled, yet understated British/Irish, relaxed South Africans and typically vocal Italians, true to form with lots of hand gesturing.
In the beginning I was Safety Pilot for a guy, let's call him Paddy, who was fantastic: hugely tall, which already gave him a lanky appearance, kind, with interesting stories of his South America based charities to tell, with a great sense of humour. Just the type of person one wants to sit next to, when one is confined to a cockpit for most of the day, every day. There was just one big issue: he experienced problems landing the aircraft nicely. It was different problem at every landing, so nothing one could easily fix. In all my instruction years I had never experienced anything like it. Since we were next to the ocean, I couldn't even blame the Density Altitude. After what felt like about 22 harrowing landings, the chap stated: "I'm not doing too well, am I?"
I was so relieved that he voiced this, and thought this was the understatement of the century. Aloud I asked him if he would mind swopping around aircraft and crew for a bit, to check if that could work better.
My colleague agreed to exchange clients, so that he could tell me what he thought and the guest pilot could start fresh with a different aircraft and a new person sitting next to him. Sometimes that's all it takes to make everything work out better.
I'll never forget my colleague's face after his first landing with the guy, it was a mixture of sheer disbelief, shock and wonderment.
I couldn't stop laughing when I asked him: "So, how did it go?"
"Was he this bad the whole tour so far?"
"Ja. Shocker, hey? All's well until he kicks full rudder for no apparent reason, or pulls too hard on the stick in the last moment, or pushes on the stick too long, or forgets wings level, etc. hey?"
"Wow! I can't believe it. So has this been going on the whole time?"
And so, it came about that I could fly with the Italians for the rest of the trip. That was great fun. The accent was something to get used to, they had a habit of putting a sound at the end of every word, like an extra, shortly spoken "a".
The most memorable landing was at FAPJ: Port Saint John's. Part of the old Transkei Military Base named after an old Portuguese Shipwreck; this is one of the most dramatically beautiful scenery on Earth. This is wild country. Cows on the beach, cows on the strip, huge crashing waves, interesting rock formations with a few cows in attendance and lots of unspoilt nature. The tarred strip is located on top of a Tafelberg, at about 1230 feet, ending in a sheer cliff, dropping down to the trees and then ocean below, right next to a massive river mouth and directly adjacent to the wild shores of the Eastern Cape. We were the first aircraft in the formation, and had to chase away a number of cows from the approach side of the airfield. After one or two low level passes, it was time to land. Since the cattle stupidly kept on going back onto the tar after being chased off, I decided we could just hop over the extensive herd, and land after, the strip was long enough. On short finals I realised something wasn't right with the strip. It looked bumpy and uneven and wet in small patches and muddy, not really tarred at all. I couldn't figure out what I was looking at. On our shared frequency I voiced my concern to the next aircraft.
One of the other aircraft then decided to go for a landing and the mystery was solved, when they touched down: the strip was full of cattle faeces. Hence the rough looking surface and the different colours of little mounds, the older ones being darker in colour. As we landed the noise of the churned-up cow pooh hitting every available surface of the Cessna was deafening. It sounded like a million wet lappies hitting hollow metal. No brakes applied during landing meant we could safely navigate the slippery mess until we parked on the little apron next to the other 4 aircraft. Alberto popped open the door on his side and stood in wonderment looking at the brown, green, beige, black and yellowish reeking stink stuck on and dripping from our once white aircraft. The stench was stunning in the heat. Already the flies were settling on the wings.
"What-a is-a this-a???"
"That's cow pooh, sir."
"Is-a what-a?" Alberto looked like he wanted to be anywhere else at this stage, eyebrows raised as high as they could go and a few huge frowns furrowing his forehead, reminding me of my Ridgeback's puzzled look, the first time she saw wolves howling on TV.
"It's pooh. It's sh*t. From the cows. It's cow sh*t." I repeated myself, because Alberto still looked puzzled.
Accompanied by a typical Italian hand gesture: all finger tips touching each other facing to the top and shaking the hand repeatedly from the wrist whilst raising the arm to face level, Alberto shouted: "Where-a is-a this-a cow-a? It-a has a problem-a!!!"