National Geographic : 1957 Jul
Flight to Adventure I rejoined Tay at Mutwanga, and soon we took to the air again. From the Mountains of the Moon (after a side trip to Zanzibar) our route lay east and then north; Nairobi, capital of Kenya, was our jumping-off place for central Ethiopia, a high, cool country of rugged mountains and lofty plateaus, as different from the tropical Congo Basin as Maine is from Florida. Our brief side excursion southeast from Nairobi may be described, literally, as the high point of our whole flight. We flew over Kilimanjaro, Africa's loftiest mountain, which rises in solitary splendor from Tangan yika's plains to the ice-capped height of 19,340 feet. We circled the mountain, gaining altitude each time. Since we had no oxygen, we watched for signs of the lightheadedness that sometimes precedes a blackout at such alti tudes. Finally above the summit, we flew right over the great mountain's symmetrical crater and looked down into its yawning crevasses from 21,000 feet. Special Permission for Desert Trip The flight into Ethiopia was going to be difficult. Much of the country is high, moun tainous, and exceedingly rugged. Part of our route lay over the Great Rift Valley, a series of huge cracks in the earth's surface that stretches from southern Africa to Syria. Desolate, almost roadless northern Kenya is usually barred to single-engine aircraft. We had to obtain special permission from the British authorities, which they granted only after they learned of our flights over North Africa and the Congo. We decided to follow a roundabout route: northeast from Nairobi to British Somaliland, then west to Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia - two sides of an enormous triangle. The available airstrips were reasonably close to gether, and there were even isolated dirt roads we could follow. Early one morning we took off from Nai robi, aiming for one of these roads. We fol lowed it across the scrub of northeastern Kenya to Wajir, a small white fort sur rounded by a village of mud huts. We circled three times, a signal prearranged by the British authorities, and then attempted to follow the road on to Mandera, where we could land and gas up. But unfortunately (and contrary to our map), there was not one road leading from Wajir, but four. Tay picked one. I chose another. We flew over my choice until it veered off to the north. The copilot assumed an "I told you so" air, and we angled toward her choice. Twenty minutes later we came to a fork. Again we disagreed. I chose the smaller road because it seemed to parallel the com pass course, but it soon narrowed to little more than a footpath. Just as we were about to admit defeat, the track suddenly broadened into a well-traveled road. We followed it and relaxed when a narrow ribbon of green showed up in the distance. This was the Dawa River, which led us on to Mandera, a small outpost where the corner of Kenya touches Ethiopia and Somalia. Grease Glistens on Somali Hairdos The moment we landed on the grass air strip, hundreds of people came running from all directions. They were different from any Africans we had seen before-tall, handsome Somalis of the eastern Hamitic family, with long stringy hair wiped with grease. Men and women alike wore ample lengths of orange-brown cloth draped from shoulder to knee. Having no words in common, all they or we could do was stare and smile until two Britishers, the local administrators, came running up. I quickly refueled Charlie with five-gallon tins of gas, while several hundred Somalis watched. We took off immediately, turning down an offer of "a spot of tea" with the two Englishmen. Hargeisa, chief city of British Somaliland, lay 400 miles away. We would be flying by compass the entire dis tance, there were no emergency airstrips, and we had to make it by dark. The terrain between Mandera and Hargeisa was as bleak and deserted as a landscape on the moon. So we kept to a compass heading with the utmost care and passed the time playing a sort of grim game-spotting small patches of earth where we could land in dire emergency. Some two hours after we left Mandera, thunderheads began billowing up around us an ominous sight, for a thunderstorm's turbu lent winds can wreck a small plane in seconds. Then, to our relief, we spotted a distinct dirt road leading toward Hargeisa, now only 20 miles away. Contacting the airport by radio, I got more bad news.