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Mike's Pilot Log: South to South Adventure

It had been an amazing day's flying in the dust!

Olivier had the coffee made and was already packing his trike when I woke up. It was still dark, but the sky was clear and there was almost no wind. As it started to get light we discovered that a fine but dry mist surrounded us. Visibility was still about one kilometre, so we decided to take off and if the mist became too thick, we would land. We had flown in similar conditions before in Iceland and England and knew to stay within sight of each other because finding each other again in bad visibility is scary there is the real danger of a mid-air collision.

We flew towards the road and turned east. The visibility started to slowly get worse. Within an hour we were forced to remain within 100 metres of each other to stay in sight. It was a strange kind of mist, nothing was wet, there were no clouds and as the day heated up the mist did not burn off. Olivier and I chatted about the strange conditions over the radio.

After about two hours of being in the air, it seemed like I was burning more fuel than usual, so I turned around to inspect the engine and to make sure the chokes were properly closed when I noticed that the air filters were completely brown and caked in dust. I looked up at the wing and everywhere I looked on the trike, there was a fine layer of dust. So it was dust, not mist. I called Olivier over the radio and informed him of my find. He was as astonished as I was . actually, I wondered why it never occurred to me that it might be dust considering we were on the edge of the world's largest and harshest desert.

We landed in the road at a fuel station but they only had diesel so we turned around and immediately took off again. Five kilometres further on we landed again and again they only had diesel. The third landing was on the outskirts of a small town. We taxied the last one kilometre down the road, between a few buildings to the fuel station. Taxiing in town can be dangerous, because the local people have no concept of the danger that the propeller presents. We taxied fast to stay ahead of the fastest kids and bicycles. At this stop, it became really crowded. The men of the village arrived and they kept the woman and kids back a little. Olivier disappeared for a few moments to buy water.

It was a fight to get everyone away from us to start the engines and taxi out of the fuel station. With much waving of arms and screaming we were given some space and Olivier immediately rocketed into the air between the buildings. As I lined up on the road a car pulled onto the road ahead of me and four men clambered out and stood in the road. I was forced to taxi past them. One of the men tried to stop me, indicating he wanted to talk, but I waved him out of the way and taxied around him. He made another attempt at trying to stop me, coming close to the prop. I gave full throttle to get away from him, lined up on the road and took off. Some goats ran in front of me as I lifted off, but I flew over them by a safe margin.

The visibility became really bad. We were forced to fly at 200 ft above the road to keep it in sight and Olivier and I stayed within 50 metres of each other. Olivier was flying slightly faster than I was, so every time I started to loose him in the dust I would call him on the radio and he would do a steep 360-degree turn to the right and come up behind me.

After a further 30 minutes in the air we passed a pond near the road and turned to land. We taxied down the embankment and parked next to the pond. For the last two days we had only been able to obtain regular fuel which is not too good for the engines because when they are hot it creates pre-ignition, which makes the engine run hotter than usual, but also they will not switch off after turning the ignition off. They keep running like something fighting for survival, kicking around on the engine mounts. Sometimes the carbs fall off. The only way to stop the engine we discovered was to give full choke before switching the ignition off.

After rinsing the air filters in murky pond water and dishwashing liquid, we refitted them and taxied up the steep embankment onto the road. The day was very hot; I was flying in a T-shirt and jeans, but still felt hot in the air.

The town of Nema was supposed to be our overnight stopping place, but neither of us wanted to be surrounded by hundreds of locals, so we decided to head to the airport. The large and seldom used airport of Nema was 7 km out of town. We landed on it and taxied towards the brown airport buildings. In the heat of the day it was becoming increasingly turbulent and unpleasant. Also, we needed a rest from the stress of flying in such bad visibility.

A local black man in a rickety old Land Rover offered us a lift to the fuel station in town for 100 French Francs. It was too expensive so we decided that later we would fly over the town and try to land as near to the fuel station as we could. The airport had clearly been well set up with good equipment for an ATC and checking in desks, scales etc, but now the windows were broken and everything was covered in a layer of dust. In the fire truck garage a thin old man was lying down, with his daughter sitting near him fanning him with a piece of cardboard. Olivier asked what was wrong with him and the answer was a severe headache, so he gave him a powerful pain tablet and within a short while the man was sitting up having tea which Olivier had also made from the brown muddy water which they got from a well nearby.

I found a quiet side of the building and put my mattress down, took my shoes off and lay down in the shade. The heat, flies and flurries of dust and sand from the wind kept me from sleeping.

After a while Olivier joined me and we chatted about the flying. It had been the most incredible two days.

At 4 pm we took off in incredible heat. I estimated the outside air temperature to be about 45 degrees C. Amazingly enough the air was completely calm, with no turbulence at all.

The fuel station was surrounded by huts and brown mud houses everywhere. The main road had power lines running down both sides, so we circled the area trying to decide on a good spot to land. I landed on an open piece of ground between the houses about one kilometre from the fuel station. A soon as I was down the kids started running towards me. In my search for a place to land I didn't make a mental note of where to taxi to get to the fuel station, but Olivier said he knew. We taxied as fast as we could to try and keep ahead of the running kids. We taxied over humps and skidded down embankments, powered around houses and bounced through ditches. The ground was rough, some of the rocks in the way, huge. We raced as fast as we could, moving around the big obstacles and bouncing over the smaller rocks and rubbish. The kids raced between the mud houses to our right taking a shortcut through a huge ditch that we had to turn back from. We arrived on the main tarred road and crossed it to the fuel station and switched off the engines. Kids and adults alike arrived in droves, screaming with delight at these strange flying motorbikes, which had dropped out of the sky. It tried to keep the crowds back but had little success. Over at his trike I could see Olivier was also trying to deal with the situation. It became hot from the bodies pressed so closely together and dusty from them moving their feet around in the sand. They all wanted to touch the trike. From their prospective it's no wonder they think the white man is crazy!

At every stop we have done at a fuel station on the main road we have been questioned by the police and always the exchange has been pleasant and quick. After a quick look at our passports and the flight authorisation number for Mauritania, we have been allowed to continue, the police often stopping the traffic to allow us to take off. On this occasion we were questioned closely by two serious policemen and the police chief was consulted. The situation did not look good. Not being able to speak French, I couldn't help, so it was up to Olivier's ingenuity and negotiating skills to ensure we stayed free men. Olivier told them that we would be staying the night at the airport and that we had just popped into town to fill up. After thirty minutes of negotiations, he retrieved our passports and with full tanks, four litres of water and two Cokes, we prepared to taxi back to the so-called runway.

Again I followed Olivier. I discovered that whenever I turned the trike suddenly towards the kids, they would run away, so I used this technique to keep them a safe distance from my potentially deadly propeller. Olivier taxied over a small rise and out of sight. He called me on the radio and asked where the spot was where we had landed. I wasn't sure where he was and just then he said that he had found a spot big enough to take off. At the first spot that looked suitable I gave full power to take off. It was slightly uphill and the day was hot and my trike was heavy so after bouncing heavily through a few small ditches I eventually lifted off and was just able to clear the roof of a small mud hut. There were two chickens on the roof, which immediately also took off for a kind of very hard crash-type landing on the ground. I smiled to myself, partly from the relief of getting airborne before becoming a decoration on the side of someone's hut and partly at the comical picture the two chickens made. Olivier also remarked over the radio that he had taken ages to lift off.

We flew straight out over the desert towards the border. The visibility had improved and we could see for probably one km. After flying for about thirty minutes, we selected a flat spot on top of a kind of plateau and landed. I had seen a tiny village in the distance, but hoped that they hadn't seen us land. Fat chance! Within fifteen minutes we heard the sound of distant chatter and saw about twenty adults and children running in our direction.

Olivier decided that he would stop them some distance away and marched very businesslike to meet them. I watched the proceedings from the trikes. Within one minute Olivier had said his piece, turned on his heel and marched back. There was a stunned silence from them. After about thirty minutes of quiet yakking they dispatched their top man to us to re-negotiate the deal. He was a pleasant man of about forty, who had been in the military in Nouakchott, was the owner of the only car in the village and could speak French fluently.  Olivier chatted to him in French. Neither of us minded having one or two visitors, but the noisy crowds drive us crazy. Olivier told them that they could visit us in the morning, knowing that we hoped to get into the air at sunrise.

It was a pleasant night, again we listened to music while chatting and watching the stars. Strange moths fluttered around my head and face all night, making sleep difficult.

It had been an amazing day's flying in the dust.


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