The Kariba Glide, a dream come true

by Sally Wynn-Pitman

At 6.30 on 17th May 2019, two light aircraft took off from Harare into the crisp morning light, on a mission that had been 20 years in the planning.  They headed for Kariba.  Peter Wienand (right) was behind the controls of his sleek, white Lambada motor-glider, with Dick Pitman (left), his co-pilot and navigator beside him.  The back-up Cessna 182, piloted by John Reid-Rowland with a crew of two, followed. The plan – which had taken shape over many months (years even), was for the Lambada to climb under power to a height of 15,000 feet above the Kariba Airfield (where the air is so thin that the pilots have to use oxygen), to point the motor-glider in the direction of Bumi Hills and to switch off the engine.  The glider would drift gently across the huge inland sea of Lake Kariba, covering some 70km and, hopefully, (depending on the weather conditions, wind direction and speed) arrive overhead Bumi Hills to complete a safe landing on the airstrip without using the engine at all. The team in the backup aircraft would rendezvous with the Lambada mid-air (not an easy feat) to photograph this extraordinary gliding “first”. The glider, with engine off, began its epic journey with a strong headwind which threatened to hamper progress but Nyami-Nyami, the river spirit of the Zambezi, was obviously in favour. 

As they descended, the wind direction changed and they were propelled slowly but surely in the direction of Bumi Hills with the breeze behind them.  Meanwhile, the backup Cessna circled high over the dramatic scenery of mountains, inlets and bays at the southern shore of Lake Kariba, with the team keeping in touch by radio and searching the vast cloudless morning sky for a glimpse of the glider.  Far below, lay the deep gorge of the Sanyati River where it meets the deep blue waters of the lake; the sand-fringed peninsulas of Spurwing and Fothergill – protruding out of the flatlands of the Matusadona National Park – islands no longer because of this year’s alarmingly low water levels. Suddenly, extraordinarily, the glider slid into view – hanging in mid-air like a beautiful white bird against the azure blues of the Ume River estuary, and the magnificent backdrop of the Matusadona National Park. The photo-opportunity “fly-past” was brief – a few quick grab-shots, and then it was gone in a flash and a blur as the engine-borne Cessna quickly overtook the powerless bird borne only by the wind and the air.

As the wooded slopes of Bumi Hills approached, fringed with a skirt of red sand and green shoreline grass, the Cessna descended to land.  An important detail in the planning of the Kariba Glide was the need to clear the Bumi airstrip of any wandering wildlife in advance of the glider’s final approach.  There would be no second chance involved in this exercise. The team from Bumi Hills Anti-Poaching Unit were willing and happy to assist with their vehicle, along with the management of Bumi Hills Safari Lodge. They, too, were excited to play a vital role in this unique adventure.   The Lambada arrived overhead with 5,000 feet to spare – much to the delight of the two pilots inside.  For the first time since the start of the glide, they were able to relax and enjoy the beauty of the lake, the islands and the mountains below as they circled overhead, gradually losing height. All their painstaking calculations of wind direction and speed, distance and height, pre and during the flight had paid off.  Their final destination – the thin ribbon of bush airstrip nestled behind Bumi Hills was in sight.  Now for the final approach.  First a glide downwind, then the turn (carefully calculated to allow enough height) and then the approach glide into a strong headwind.  Peter applied the air-brakes judiciously in the tricky manoeuvre down onto the airstrip. At 9.31am, with one last, playful toss of wind from around the side of the hill, Nyami-Nyami released the glider to the ground with a bounce.  It rolled smoothly forwards to a final stop right in front of the welcoming party. Two ecstatic, and somewhat incredulous pilots emerged, beaming from ear to ear!

Now it was time to celebrate and relax.   Rhino Safari Camp in the Matusadona National Park, across the waters from Bumi Hills, had kindly agreed to host the gliding team for the night.  The short boat transfer and a delicious lunch was followed by a wonderful afternoon and evening’s game-viewing among the elephants and waterbirds on the shoreline.  A full moon rising and a crimson sun setting behind Kariba’s famous tree silhouettes provided the perfect celebratory setting.  They had done it! Peter’s dream to glide over Lake Kariba had at last become a reality!  Now there’s a new challenge – where to for the next Big Glide?!

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