One of the cool things about this Blog has been the connections I have made with old friends I haven’t seen or heard from for a long while. I recently received greetings from one of these friends who reminded me of some adventures I had not thought of in a long time. I thought I would just write one of those stories down here as a tribute to the amazing work of truly wonderful people, from very hard times in history that should not be forgotten:
First landings at new airstrips are always interesting and have that little extra anticipation to go along with the unknown. When the war in Mozambique was heating up in Tete province and there were thousands of refugees fleeing into Zimbabwe and the relative safety there, we were asked by Y.W.A.M. to transport their people and supplies to the camp that was forming near the northwest border town of Mukosa. There had been an old airstrip in the area from Rhodesian war days but we could not find a sign of it flying over. So Don Winter and I landed at the closest airstrip we could find, which was the Catholic mission station at Marymount. It was a long way away but one of the priests volunteered to drive us up there in his beat up little Mazda pickup and we bounced down the dirt road for about an hour to get to the camp.
As we looked around for an appropriate place to land in the area we found a section of road that was long enough. The only problem was that it had some “obstacles”. As the road came around a corner to the straight, useable part there was a huge Baobab tree right on the approach end which would mean we would have to clear that and then drop down quickly to use all the length we could. Then the road climbed uphill in about 4 little steps. These steps had the effect of throwing the plane back up in the air as soon as it was on the ground. It was narrower than we would have liked but this was a short-term solution in an emergency situation so we cut overhanging branches and got it pretty good. The only turnaround was at the top of the hill where the straight part of the road teed into another dirt road so we were also limited on length. The other small problem was that there was a minefield on the other side of this dirt road. So, I guess you could say there was motivation to get stopped in time. There were even signs with scull and cross bones and DANGER MINE FIELD in big red letters. It was going to make for an interesting strip.
The minefield was a left over from the Rhodesia days and it circled the whole northern border of the country. Over the years the mines had shifted and it was very difficult to de-mine. There was probably not a lot of willingness to take out the deterrent anyway, so many of the refugees sneaking across the border got their legs blown off and other terrible injuries.
We drove back to Marymount and jumped in the Cessna 206 for the first landing at Mukosa. Don got in the left seat to make the first landing and did a fine job. Then we changed places and I made a couple of landings. Then we headed back to Charles Prince airport where MAF Zimbabwe had its base.
The next day I did the first operational flight into Mukosa with Y.W.A.M. people and I even brought along our Africa area director, who was visiting and wanted to see the camp. A lovely landing, if I do say so myself. We turned the plane around and pushed it off the main part of the little road as much as we could and went to the refugee camp. It is always a bit staggering to see people starving after a long walk to get to some dusty place with no food or water. And there were many injured. The Y.W.A.M. nurses were working with them and it felt good to be doing a little to relieve some of the suffering.
It was getting late and we needed to make a start if we were going to get back to Harare before sunset so we headed back to the plane. We loaded up and I started the plane. The dust was quite amazing and I felt a bit bad about dusting up the crowd of people that had gathered to watch.
I added power slowly so as not to pick up too many stones as I started rolling over the rocks a bit before putting in the rest of the power for take off. But with the downhill grade I gathered speed quickly as I crested the first of the steps. Just as I went over, to my horror a bus came around the corner skidding sideways to take up the entire width of the road in front of me! There was no way I could stop the plane in time and I was accelerating pretty well, so I continued the take-off and popped over the bus with meters to spare.
I circled the airstrip and waited for the dust to settle to see what would happen. The bus was still sitting in the same place. He sat there while I circled 2 more times. Then finally he started straightening out the bus and carried on up the hill.
The next day I was back with another load of medicines and I looked all up and down the road in the area before landing. I walked down to the refugee camp and into the makeshift clinic where they were working with patients. There was a new Dutch nurse there, Anneke Douma. I had met her once at Don and Marian Winters’ house, but didn’t know her well. She greeted me and said, “you had an exciting day yesterday!” I said, “Oh? How is that?” She reminded me about the bus and I agreed with her. She said it had been exciting for her as well. She was on the bus! She told me of how they had come around the corner only to see a propeller coming out of a huge cloud of billowing dust. The driver had panicked and skidded sideways in the road while yelling at the passengers, “Everybody prepare to die!”
After that we made a point of sending a person to the bottom of the hill each time we took off to signal that the way was clear for the takeoff.