It was a very interesting end of the week, starting off with a flat tire on takeoff, yet again. We were on our way down to Goma to fly hospital supplies and workers in to the mountains. Cher was coming along as we planned to spend the weekend with my sister, Lu, in Virunga National Park for her birthday. As we lined up on the runway to roll I noticed the right wing start going down a bit. Having just had this visual picture clear in my head for the last few weeks, I asked Cher to see what the tire looked like. Sure enough, it was completely flat. And it was NEW! With a brand new wheel and tube as well. I called the tower and told them I would be there for a bit, then called our guys to please bring out the compressor because the tire had not spun on the rim. Just maybe I could fill it. It worked, and we just put air in and then quickly taxi to clear the runway before having to stop. We filled again and got to the parking spot where we got a new wheel/tire on and were ready for another start. The new tube had a defect in it. Lets hope bad things really don’t come in threes!
It was a beautiful flight up to Katale strip were I dropped Cher off, but the mountain pass between there and Goma, only 20 miles away, was totally blocked by low lying clouds. The rainy season has started. I waited on the strip for over 2 hours. But the time was not wasted as the parks plane was in need of help. They had got some water in a fuel drum and then into the plane. This is always a danger when fueling out of drums and we get very anal about checking. They drained all they could get out through the low point drains but then on takeoff the engine coughed and sputtered at a very precarious place and there was still over a liter of water in it when I checked again. It had obviously got past the strainer drain and into the carburetor. I thought I got all the water out of the tanks by having some of the scouts sit on the tail, pushing it to the ground, with me shaking the wings and then draining again but water just kept coming. The clouds started breaking up so I got on my way again and I was able to get over the top of the clouds with big volcanoes on each side, where it was sunny on Lake Kivu bordering Goma town.
I loaded up the medicines and people and skirted rainstorms into the mountains and dropped into the little bush airstrip with no problems. But as I was heading back it became clear that I would not be able to do the second rotation and get back before dark. I dropped off the people at Goma with the promise to return the next day and headed the 20 miles over the pass to Katale to spend the night.
To my surprise, Emmanuel de Merode, the warden/director of Virunga had scheduled Cher and me in their new Safari Camp instead of the tents we usually stay in. It was amazing. Even in the biggest cities of Congo I have not seen anything like it. It was luxurious. Mikeno Lodge is very unexpected. The bungalows are constructed out of the lava so abundant in the area and masterfully done thatch roofs, which I love. There was a beautiful kingsize bed with lounge chairs around a lava stone fireplace and a big bathroom with an actual bathtub and the most lovely shower I have had in years. Hot water too! Everything was tastefully done and solidly built. And all of this with a spectacular view from the deck chairs off the verandah to the valley floor below, framed by mountains. We were impressed. We had fallen with our bums in the butter again.
We enjoyed a superb supper with visiting park board members and sat around the lodge fire afterwards before going down to the bungalow for a great night’s sleep.
I got up early the next day for the flight but one look outside showed we were in the clouds. I decided to have the wonderful breakfast on offer at the lodge since I would not be able to leave on schedule.
It was 10:00 a.m. by the time the clouds cleared and I had a chance to drain even more water out of the wings of the parks plane. Where was it coming from? I also took the cowling off and drained the carb bowl, which had lots of water in it.
It was a most beautiful day of flying, if you don’t count being harassed by officious officials. It is my least favorite part of life here. As the clouds burnt off they left clear skies with steamy smoke coming off two of the volcanoes and great visibility. A beautiful day at the office.
Back at Virunga I started up the parks plane, after getting a bit more water out of the tanks, and it seemed to run great. I changed the oil and filter and checked everything out before putting the cowling back on. I checked the fuel again and, being happy that it was finally clear of water, ran the plane up and down the runway at full power to make sure everything was working as it should.
There were no guests in camp that night and we celebrated Lu’s birthday in style with pizza and special chocolate cake that Cher and Lu had made. The staff joined us in our joy and a good time was had by all. The writing on the cake was Dutch I think. I’m not sure what it said, but it was a great evening.
The next day we’d be with gorillas!