The adventure begins. Again.
When flying to Zambia with South African Airways, passengers are allowed to bring two suitcases weighing no more than 23kg each. However, the luggage allowance for the internal flight from Lusaka to Mfuwe is just 15kg with 5kg hand luggage with Proflight. The clerk weighed both my cases (one was filled mainly with school supplies for Su) and looked at me over his spectacles. “That makes 40kg, now please add your hand luggage,” he said. My hand luggage (it is wise not to pack your camera, lens, binoculars, laptop, iPad, Kindle, etc into checked in bags because of the risk of theft) weighed another 10kg. I begged and cajoled, I grovelled, I played the medical equipment card, all to no avail. “The flight is overbooked and overloaded. You will have to pay 600 Kwacha (US$60) excess baggage,” he told me. Sigh. The trick is to smile and bear it.
I was allowed to keep my hand luggage with me until the last moment, when I handed it over outside the small plane. This meant I was last to board, and I took my seat at the back of the plane. The co-pilot stepped into the cabin and said that we were tail-heavy. “Would anyone like to sit up front with us on a jump seat?” he asked. My hand went up like a shot before the other passengers could work out what was going on. He picked me out and I moved my 80kg body from the back to the front of the plane.
I had a small shelf to sit on, just behind the pilot and co-pilot. The air steward fitted a panel behind my back, separating us from the other passengers. I was surrounded on three sides by banks of instruments and switches. Being a veteran of Flight Simulator, I actually knew what half of the dials meant. In front of me there was a gauge consisting of the outside edge of a wheel. The red line had moved into the green zone, indicating that the plane was balanced enough to fly safely.
“We normally have just 400kg of luggage, but today we are carrying 530kg,” said the co-pilot. “Thanks for helping us out. We’ll be a bit busy for the next few minutes, but we can have a chat once we are at cruising height.”
Air traffic control was having a torrid time, with four planes scheduled to depart at 16:00. The Emirates plane got priority, then there were two Proflights and a private Cessna waiting behind it. At every stage of the departure process the pilots were checking and recording data. The pilot read from a laminated checklist, with the co-pilot responding.
We took our place at the end of the runway. The co-pilot grasped the throttle at the top and the pilot put his hand on the bottom and the engines responded. We reached take-off speed and gradually began to ascend. Or rotate, as the pilots would say. Once we were at cruising height (17000 ft), the co-pilot explained the main features of the dashboard. We checked out the weather radar, but could see clearly which masses of cloud we needed to avoid.
After an hour or so, we began to descend and the co-pilot pointed out the airstrip at Mfuwe International Airport. In the distance, to the front of us was a menacing dark bank of cloud, seemingly joined to the forest by a thick vertical rainbow. The co-pilot was not distracted by this; he made a perfect landing and parked the plane next to the fuel bowser – we were too heavy to carry enough fuel for the round trip, so we needed to refuel.
After the other passengers had disembarked, the steward opened the hatch and I backed out of the cockpit. As I stepped onto the tarmac, I stopped and listened. It was too early for the cicadas. There was no sound at all. Pure silence. What a magical place South Luangwa is.