Daredevil derring do: a madcap dash across Africa in vintage biplanes

“There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa, and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime,” Beryl Markham wrote in West with the Night, her 1930s autobiographical account of flying vintage planes across Africa and, eventually, the Atlantic ocean.

That was then, this is now. The Vintage Air Rally, which took off — literally — from Crete earlier this month with Cape Town, Africa as its final destination, is the longest, most ambitious biplane flight ever tried in modern times.

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In 1928, Lady Sophie Marie Heath, of Ireland, achieved the first solo flight from the top of Africa to the bottom, an 8,000-mile journey from Cairo to Cape Town.

This time around, pilots flying a fleet of 15 vintage biplanes — all produced before 1939 — will attempt to repeat history.

This is no lark. The rally has been a cooperative effort involving national governments, sponsors, charities and aviation enthusiasts from Belgium to Botswana.

The yellow Gypsy Moth, the De Havilland biplane memorably flown by Robert Redford in Out of Africa, is among the magnificent flying machines trying to accomplish the near-impossible.

The rally is in part to raise money for charities; the group Prepare2go, for example, is raising funds for UNICEF and endangered vultures. The flying teams will scatter tree seeds along the way, to raise awareness in the need for reforestation across some of the planet’s most arid landscapes.

Interestingly, despite the tensions and conflicts across much of the continent, nearly all governments appear to be on board. Egypt willallow pilots to land at the pyramids in Giza, for example, the first time the Egyptian government has allowed landing permission by the pyramids since the early 1940s.

The rally will generate welcome positive publicity; Kenya, Sudan and Zimbabwe are just a few of the countries that see the tourism benefits of vintage biplanes flying over the White Nile and Maasai Mara on their way to Victoria Falls and, eventually, Cape Town.