The Vintage Air Rally is over. Twelve started. Seven finished.
The successful flyers in their vintage 1930s-era biplanes crossed the finish line in Stellenbosch, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Cape Town midday Friday, South African time.
Pedro Langdon, the never-say-die Canadian, made it, and in one piece, too.
Maurice Kirk, the eccentric Pom, was not so lucky.
After being detained briefly in Ethiopia, Kirk, 72, took off for Kenya but somehow made a wrong turn in midair and ended up in South Sudan instead. Not cool. On landing, Kirk was apprehended, robbed, beaten, jailed and, for his troubles, came down with malaria and sepsis.
Kirk, sadly, was not among Friday’s finishers, but he is alive.
The intitial 12 flying teams began the Vintage Air Rally trek on Nov. 12, on the Mediterranean island of Crete.
Rally participants represented numerous countries, from usual suspects like Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S. to less usual suspects like Cyprus, Egypt, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
The motley crew of DH82 Tiger Moths, Travel Air 4000s — first manufactured in 1928 — Antonov AN2s and Boeing Stearmans tracked down the length of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town in 35 days — flying, as South Africa’s Mail & Guardian put it, somewhat uncharitably, “very slowly.”
This race was never about speed, though.
Nor was it really a race, not in the true sense of the word.
This was a flying exhibition, an air show in the purest sense of the expression — a meeting of early-20th-century derring-do and 21st-century aviation knowledge.
The idea was to recreate the famous 1930s Imperial Airways Africa Route that linked Cairo with sub-Saharan Africa and the emerging economy on the continent’s southern tip.
And while most present-day Africans can be forgiven for shrugging at a nostalgic throwback to colonial times, it was the kind of flying adventureAntoine de Saint-Exupéry dreams were made of.
A bureaucratic tangle on Ethiopia’s border with South Sudan — a “miusunderstanding” over paperwork and the required legal documentation — momentarily grounded the entire fleet, with a couple of flyers, Kirk among them, provided mandatory room-and-board as guests of local border authorities.
All in all, though, despite the occasional engine failure and “navigational misunderstandings,” the Vintage Air Rally proved a success. The flight crews who made it to the end say the memories — low-level flybys of the Egyptian pyramids, Ngorongoro Crater, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Maasai Steppe, Zanzibar and Victoria Falls — will last a lifetime.
No vultures were injured during filming of the Vintage Air Rally, which is just as well as one of the charities supported by rally organizers was the South Africa-based conservation group Birdlife, backers of the #SaveTheVultures campaign.
The African vulture — arguably the continent’s most familiar and widely recognized bird — is in serious trouble, owing to indiscriminate use of poisoned bait (to kill jackals) and elephant poachers, who know that circling vultures can alert passing game rangers to the scene of their crimes.
Vintage Air Rally flying crews will be able to dine out on their tales of adventure for years to come.
It’s not often, after all, that dinner conversation includes anecdotes that begin: “As soon as we landed, these guys with military uniforms and big guns surrounded our plane.”
The misunderstanding in Ethiopia required the intervention of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the Mail & Guardian — though a sceptic can be forgiven for thinking Sec. Kerry might have had more important things on his mind at the end of November, not least being the imminent handover of his job to a former executive from ExxonMobil.
In the end, though, it proved a smooth landing for more than half the flying teams to take off in Crete. As The Amazing Race’s Phil Keoghan would say: “Two continents, 10 countries, 13,000 kilometres, 8,000 miles in 35 days.”
Lita Oppergard, 68, from the great state of Alaska, told Agence-France Presse (AFP): “I thought Alaska is huge.
“But flying through much of Africa, like we’ve been through, I cannot even begin to get into my head how vast this continent is. It is just sheer, utter wilderness . . . beautiful.”