News: 23 Sep 2010, Chumbe










The crew called me about two to say they had arrived in Stone Town from Pemba and were on their way to catch the boat to Chumbe island. I was already in the airport so I filed my flight plan, and a return one for two days hence, and went up to the tower to make sure the controller understood what I intended to do. I found him praying so I respectfully left him to it, he was alone so it was a bit surprising to find rather a busy airport in the hands of a higher being for quite a time.

I set off for the short hop over to Chumbe. I'd seen the place from afar when Eve and I originally flew in from Dar, a small green island maybe half a mile long and a few hundred metres at its widest with a massive reef off to the south east, almost a lagoon; from a distance it looked as though landing there would be easy. Close up, it was a different prospect altogether. The lagoon was much too far away to land in and hope to succesfully taxi to a beach, the island is slightly crescent shaped with a small peninsula on the west side upon which is a massive Makuti lodge surrounded by tall trees. It was high tide, I had the option of landing on the south side of it in quite large waves and then I'd have to turn around to taxi downwind in 10-15 Kt of wind through a significant surf onto the only beach about the size of a postage stamp. There were no waves in the lee of the peninsula, but also no beach, just rocks and a jetty overhung by the tall trees, no possible way to get the FIB out of the water. I flew a bit lower to see what it was like and even at 50ft there was some nasty rotor coming off the lodge and trees, and how would I ever take off again? I'd either have to taxi around the peninsula and take off in big waves, or taxi a long way downwind and try to take off straight into the rotor. All in all it was about the most unsuitable place in all of Zanzibar and Pemba to operate the FIB from, I decided to return to Zanzibar airport and come back later to see what it was like when the tide had gone out a bit.

I called Thomas to tell him what I thought of it, I overheard some very choice german words as he explained my problem to someone. Remember, this place has a key part in the script, at the beginning of the film I'm coming from Dar, my nosewheel won't go down so I divert to Chumbe to land on water and this is where I first meet Matteius and do a repair to the nosewheel. This is now all in complete jepoardy if I can't land there, but I can't say I had any sympathy at all, it's a problem of completely their own making. First, and fundamentally, why are we doing the beginning at the end? When you've got variables like wind and tide and FIBs it's asking for trouble.

Let's be clear about one thing, I have no problem with a script, or time-shifting stuff, or the idea of wanting to have a technical problem. An expensive film crew must have a plan and can't just follow us around filming what Matteius or I might bump into, but the plan must also be flexible. In Cabo Verde we had a real technical problem with the brake cable going into the prop, which they filmed, and the repair superceded the fabricated one in the script. Here, we had a broken tip strut at Nungwe, which I'm almost certain they filmed happening, but they were not the least interested in the repair because it wasn't in the script. Added to that, Matteius is a photographer and I'm a microlight pilot, we both agree we are not actors and we don't like doing stuff again and again for the cameras at the best of times, but when you have to say stuff which hasn't happenned yet, again and again please, it becomes completely intolerable. If this is what they want then they should have hired actors.

While I waited in Cedrick's office for the tide to go out a bit he told me he'd advised Thomas months ago that Chumbe might not be the ideal place for landing, I supposed he'd persisted because the place has German management and he'd got some good deal for us all to stay there. At 5 pm I took off but found things worse, now there was the new added risk of the FIB hitting a coral outcrop. From the air it was obviously very shallow on both sides of the peninsula for some considerable distance, and rock, not sand. I did some low circuits for the benefit of the camera positioned at the top of the lighthouse and then returned to Zanzibar airport.

As I touched down it was immediately obvious I had a problem, something badly wrong with the nosewheel! I bounced to a halt on the edge of the main runway right next to taxiway Alpha and called the tower to say I probably had a puncture and very sorry, couldn't really move, please send help. I quickly hopped out to have a look, yes, a puncture, and I didn't really want to force the thing forwards or I might wreck the tyre or the plastic wheel which are a funny size and I only have a spare inner tube.

Cedrick walked over from his hangar to help. Eventually the airport sent a small ambulance, (perhaps the fire engines were resting) and we lifted the front of the FIB onto the back step and towed it slowly out of the way. I called the tower again to apologize for any inconvenience and they very nicely replied "no problem, normal operating procedure". I was lucky, it was an unusually quiet period and I don't think I delayed any arriving traffic at all, things would have been different if it was morning and something arrives every few minutes, including lots of big aircraft directly from Europe.

Of course all my tools were at Chumbe but Cedrick is well equipped and we soon had the inner tube out, it was a simple puncture, but he had no puncture repair kit. It was dark by the time Amini arrived to take me to the hotel and I asked him to go via a puncture repair place. It took a while to convince him that this was a normal puncture repair and not some kind of special aircraft repair, "Difficult to find at this time" he said, but he did find one.

As the tube was being fixed in a typically chaotic place on the side of the road in the dark I smiled at the extreme irony that here was a genuine problem with the nosewheel, I was effecting a genuine repair with no tools or spares of my own to hand in an eminently filmable location, and the film crew weren't there to witness it...

I eventually got to Mtoni Marine (luckly they had one room left) and called the film crew to say I'll try again at low tide early tomorrow morning. When I told them about the puncture, at first they thought I meant the FIB was punctured, "no no, the tyre" I said. "Is there any damage?" they asked. "No, none". They seemed surprized. "I once landed at Malakal in Sudan with three punctures" I said, "No real problem, but difficult to get the machine off the runway". I don't think they really understood.

Next morning it was the same, impossible to land at Chumbe, rocks everywhere at low tide, I returned to Zanzibar and was instructed by phone to go to some hotel which has a jetty from which you catch a small boat across to the island.

Upon arrival I was immediately asked to do the nosewheel-won't-go-down repair scene. Arrrrgh! "Tricky without a FIB, or even a nosewheel", I said. But we've planned you do the repair in the very nice workshop here, they said. (meaning a small makuti hut with a make-do workbench with a rusty old vice nailed to it). Eventually we reached a compromize where I got the island's mechanic to cut a bit of aluminium tube I have in my stuff to use as a camera mount, and then drill a hole in it, but I make no mention of nosewheels or indeed anything about what this so-called 'repair' is actually for, just that with a bit of initiative it is possible to make repairs to aircraft in the most unlikely places. Of course we had to do it again, please, several times so now I have some bits of aluminium tube with holes in them and a shorter camera mount. No doubt it will all be cut into some nonsense scene in the final film.

Later, Thomas told me they are planning to do everything backwards in Mauritius too, something to do with a conflict between the script and hotel availability, but they will definitely plan to do everything 'forwards' in Madagascar (nobody has been there on a recce yet). Seeing as the photographer they're using in Mauritius is a paramotor pilot and has a paramotor there, I suggested that today's farce shows just how badly things can go wrong if you do things backwards like this and perhaps it might be better if he did all the aerial stuff and I simply don't come to Mauritius at all, or they reconsider the script so it is actually going forwards in more-or-less our proper cronological order. We'll see what happens, I haven't learnt what sort of technical problem I'm supposed to be having there yet.

Even later, Matteius and I were wandering about on the reef at low tide. We were spotted by the film crew who shouted "can you do that again, please"! We laughed, it's THE catch-phrase of the journey. Matteius said this is the first, and most definitely the last time he'll be doing this sort of thing, in fact he feared the end result might be a bit compromizing to his reputation for being really quite an intrepid photo-journalist. He wondered how the other photographers we'll be having will manage, particularly the one who's lined up for Madagascar who is a real superstar of the trade (National Geographic Etc). I'm wondering how I can, how difficult can it be to try to just do it all in a much more natural order? Then there might be less need for us to do it again, please, and our interactions with the natives would be so much more natural.

Chumbe island is not your normal hotel, it's non-profit, run as a sort of eco-park and the immediate surrounding reef is protected. There are lots of eco-tourism awards hanging in the lobby of the main lodge, though I wonder how much net gain there is once you've flown the kind of people who can afford to stay here half way around the world. Nevertheless, it's an interesting place, the spiffy architect-designed bungalows are full of cunning energy and water collecting and saving features which do actually seem to function.

They also do a lot of work with the local community; next day a boat-load of 14 year old school girls came from Zanzibar to see the reef. It was apparently quite normal that none of them could swim, indeed none had ever been in the sea, and had no idea there was anything under the surface at all except fish, perhaps. They were all dressed up in life jackets, given a very amusing instruction how to use goggles and snorkel and after a short practice in shallow water were taken out to sea to be towed around in large inner tubes to look at the reef a few metres below. They were universally delighted, one girl said to me "it's the best day of my life! I had no idea it was like this, as soon as I get home I will be telling my parents and my brothers and sisters and my uncle all about this amazing thing!" All the more extraordinary for the fact that this stuff is right on their doorstep yet they never knew it was there.

This was the first time I tried my new and rather expensive Olympus 'tough' waterproof (<3m) pocket camera under water. I set it to an underwater colour-correction mode and dived in. The moment I immersed it a message came up on the screen 'Please check the battery door is closed'. I quickly passed it back to someone on the boat. After a day in the sun it seems to have recovered but I think I shall have to treat it as just spash-resistant from now on.

As they were finishing up back on the shore, Matteius and I simultaneously saw rather a nicely framed scene on the monitor of the big camera of a man tying a rope to a tree. "Press the red button, now!" we said. You can guess what Thomas said to the man, then the red button was pressed. Matteius and I groaned. This is the end anyway. Tomorrow I'm off back to Dar Es Salaam to wash, oil and pack the FIB back into its container so it is ready to go to Mauritius on monday. Poor Matteius and the crew will be doing some more stuff (again and again, probably) in Zanzibar and I think we all are all supposed to be flying home on wednesday, though they're going from Zanzibar to Germany and I'm going from Dar to London. Since Ethiopian leaves Dar in the evening then if things go well I might even be able to get home a couple of days earlier than planned...

Joint Aviation Services, suppliers of insurances to the expedition
Micro Avionics - Suppliers of pilot intercom and radio equipment to the expedition
Articole Studios - GRP mouldings
Cam-ARA - Suppliers of video equipment to the expedition
Polaris - manufacturer of the FIB
SKYDRIVE, the UK Distributor of ROTAX engines