Friday, October 30, 2015

The HALO Trust

(information to complement the War Ghosts story, below)
The HALO Trust is the largest humanitarian demining organisation in the world.  Their aim is to make the land safe for people in former war zones to live, farm and travel through.   It operates in 16 countries and has been in existence since 1988.  They train and employ local people who know the terrain to lift mines both manually and using various kinds of demining machinery.

HALO has been working in Angola since 1994 and has lifted over 68 000 landmines in around 570 locations around the country.  They also dispose of weapons and ammunition.

Between 2005 and 2015 the Cuito Cuanavale operation has cleared 25 minefields with another 40 still to be tackled.
 In Kuando Kubango Province The HALO Trust has destroyed around 32 000 anti-personnel mines and 14 000 anti-tank mines.  It is estimated that around 40 per cent of the mines have been lifted.  

Read more about the work of the HALO Trust here

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

War Ghosts

(This story first appeared in the October 2015 edition of SA 4x4 Magazine)

At first it is the red-tipped stakes I see rising about a metre from the white Angolan sand.  A double row of them marks a narrow corridor of death snaking through the bush.  Then I see that between the stakes lie partially uncovered anti-tank mines.  Twenty-eight years ago I was a soldier on the frontline of battle.  Now the frontline is still here and the mines fight on like a lost regiment, not knowing that the war is long over.  It is the mine-clearing NGO, the HALO Trust that forms today’s opposing army as they painstakingly find and destroy the mines, making the land safe for the people of Angola.

Disabled and rusting SADF Olifant tank in the Tumpo minefield

A belt of anti-tank mines yet to be destriyed by the HALO Trust
I’m in the Tumpo triangle near the Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale.   It is in Kuando Kubango Province, a place the Portuguese colonists called The Land at the End of the Earth.  It was the scene of the biggest land battle in Africa since the Second World War.  The SADF took part in the final battles of South Africa’s involvement in the Angolan war here.  I am part of the backup crew for a group of former conscripts who have come here in support of their friend Johan Booysen who was here during the war.  Johan had contacted me after reading my book about my own trip back to Angola and asked for advice on putting together an expedition to Angola.  Then he invited me to join his group.

Johan is joined by his good friends Kobus, Steve and Wayne, all former conscripts and his daughter Tammy who is in her mid-twenties.   He is journeying in search of peace:  with himself, with Angola and with its people.  This will be an adventure.  It will be something much deeper too.    I have made this journey myself, I understand Johan’s need to make this physically arduous and emotionally difficult return.  It is a pilgrimage of sorts.

Johan towers above the rest of us.  He used to play fly-half and his friends call him Bosch after the legendary rugby player Gerald Bosch.  He takes a strong lead amongst the bikers and is very much the man in charge.   Yet I think I recognise something just behind his eyes.  Perhaps it is the post-traumatic stress he’s carried from the battlefield.  I recognise it in him, because I have undertaken this pilgrimage myself.

It takes us five days to reach Cuito Cuanavale.  And it will be a 5000 kilometre round trip before we return to Johannesburg.  After a long journey through two cold Kalahari nights we reach Maun.  On the way we’ve dodged the potholes, suicidal kudus and insomniac donkeys.    The roadside is unfenced and the donkeys seem to enjoy playing chicken with the cars.  The two designated drinkers on the rear seat of Johan’s Hyundai people carrier have worked their way through the slabs of lager while I have dozed and Wayne has relieved Johan at the wheel.  The two trailers we are towing with two bikes apiece have behaved themselves impeccably. 

And on the bike
At Maun we meet up with Patrick Ricketts and his support vehicle.  Patrick is a former Umkhonto we Sizwe veteran and makes regular visits to Angola.   He is outgoing and loud and laughs a lot from a mouth hidden by a massive bush of a moustache.  Importantly, he has helped with the tricky visa process and he will be expedition leader from here.   The group will proceed from Maun on the motorcycles and in Patrick’s old Land Rover. 

As we leave the next morning Tammy has her first fall on the sandy access road barely 200 metres into the journey.  With no damage except a little dented pride, she gets back on and heads into a very long day that will end after dark at Rundu.  

 I cram myself into the Land Rover along with the other five non-motorcycling members of the expedition.  Anthea, a friend of Patrick’s who I know from my 2012 expedition, reclines across the baggage in the back for want of seating.  The over-worn seats are as hard as those in the Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicle I first entered Angola in in 1987. 

Also in the vehicle is Gobbs, an earnest man with white hair and the demeanour of a sensitive soul.   He went into exile in the mid-seventies in the wake of South Africa’s political unrest.  Naked, he crossed the Limpopo into Botswana on a dark night with his clothes in a bundle on his head.  He tells me of how he was terrified of being taken by a crocodile.  Gobbs survived the ordeal and went on to do military training as part of Umkhonto we Sizwe.  This is an emotional journey for him too;  it’s his first visit to Angola since being based here during the apartheid years.  He has a daughter in Angola and they became separated during the dark days of the past.  It occurs to me that we are from different sides of the conflict, each with our own wounds, each on a healing journey.  One day, Gobbs tells us, he hopes to be reunited with his daughter.

The Road to Caiundo:
Travelling through four countries means six different sets of customs and immigration officials to deal with on both legs of the journey.  It’s a tedious yet necessary part of our tour.  Eventually we are through the hour long Angolan bureaucracy and the drivers are adjusting to driving on the right hand side of the very poor roads.  Tonight we will sleep in Savate before heading onwards to Menongue via Caiundo.

Between the border and the town of Caiundo, the road is one of thick loose gravel and bad corrugation. There are huge pot holes and dongas and in places the cars have to be put in low-range to pull through the sandy patches.  The bikes and support vehicles are separated from time to time.   Now, in the distance, through the thick dust hanging low over the road, I can see a motorbike.  It could be one of ours.  Or it could be another Angolan on a small capacity commuter bike.  As we get closer it’s clear that we have caught up with our bikers.
Bikers on the road to Caiundo

Tammy, the least experienced of the group is doing well, though struggling to keep her bike upright at times.  After four falls she is crawling along and looking tense.  Johan is bringing up the rear to make sure she’s alright.

As soon as we reach them they stop.  Tammy is off the bike and has whipped her helmet off and is saying “I’ve had enough!   Uncle Wayne can ride the rest of the way.”  Her concern is justified.  We are up to two hundred kilometres away from a hospital if one of them gets hurt. 

Wayne, the back-up rider, pulls on her pink trimmed biker’s jacket, which is a little short in the sleeves and tight at the shoulders.  He dons a spare helmet and pulls off with a lot of throttle.  I watch the rear wheel twitching and worry that he hasn’t given himself time to assess the conditions.  No sooner have we started off again when we reach the good tar road at the town of Caiundo.  Tammy has managed a couple of hundred kilometres of bad gravel and has quit only about four kilometres short of the tar.

Although the conditions are tough the Land Rover is munching up the dirt.  Johan’s original concern was that the Land Rover would struggle to keep up with the bikers when things got rough.  But the bikers have different levels of experience and the Landy is happily barrelling along at 80kms an hour so we are faster.

We fly over the corrugations and the vehicle is rattling almost too loudly for conversation.  Patrick is trying to catch up with Steve, who is riding out in front.  Occasionally the vehicle slews, exaggerated by the weight of the trailer, as the he avoids a pothole.

The river at Savate

Washing and collecting water at Savate

Dinner with a General
We arrive in Menongue, the only big town on our travels in this country.  It is from where the Angolan air force MiGs flew sorties against the South African forces during the war and from here they supplied the front line at Cuito Cuanavale and beyond.  We hang about while Patrick goes to check in with the Administrador.  I notice how much building has happened since my last visit.  The town is looking more prosperous.  There’s even a little kiosk selling a very decent cup of coffee.  Eventually the vehicles return and we head towards our campsite for the night.

The mine clearing NGO, the HALO Trust, have allowed us to camp at their base.  In a paddock of lumpy grass they have erected a couple of tents for our use.   The bikers are exhausted after another full day of riding and are grateful to roll out their sleeping bags

Tim, the Halo trust area manager is looking anxious.  He’s heard that the Menongue grapevine is chattering about the convoy of South Africans driving around town.  The Angolan authorities can be wary of outsiders.  Especially if the right people don’t know who you are and why you’re there.

I try to reassure Tim that Patrick is friends with an Angolan General and has observed the local protocol, but he looks unconvinced.  “Really,” I say, “you don’t have to worry, Patrick has already been to visit the General to pay his compliments.  Everything’s cool.”

As I’m talking I hear Patrick’s loud voice call out, “Hey, General Nando!”  The retired General  Fernando Mateus has arrived.  Driven by a uniformed colonel he says he’s come to see how we’re settling in.  Soon Tim is practicing his Portuguese on the Colonel and looking visibly relieved to have us endorsed by such seniority.

Soon the anxiety shifts from Tim to the three female members of the group.  The general has announced that the women must not camp but stay at his house instead.  But before they are whisked off in the green army Land Cruiser we are invited to join the General for dinner at The Ritz Lauca.

We’re dusty, sweaty and in need of a shower.  So we feel a little self-conscious as we slope through the shiny reception of the hotel.  I half expect someone to turn us around before we get to the restaurant.  Until I remember who we’re with.  I also wonder with some trepidation, what this is going to cost us.

At this point I realise that the bikers are missing.  Somehow in the confusion and darkness at the Halo camp they’ve either been forgotten or have carefully avoided being corralled with the rest of us.

I’m at the opposite end of the table to the general who is talking intently to Patrick.  After a while the general breaks from his conversation says something to me.  Gobbs speaks Portuguese and acts as our translator.  ‘The General wants to know how many Russians you saw when you were fighting in Tumpo .”  I tell him firstly that I didn’t fight in the Tumpo Triangle.  I fought in the battles on the Lomba River and a few more leading up to the assault on the Angolan Brigades at Cuito.  But no, I saw no Russians.  Though I heard reports that there was a handful of Russian advisors in the Brigades we faced.  This seems to please the general.  He asks the same question about Cubans.  No, I didn’t see any Cubans either.  It seems I’ve proved the General’s point though I’m not entirely sure what it is.  Perhaps he is making the point that it was the Angolans alone who faced down the formidable SADF.  But I’m here as a peacemaker and I’m not entering into the ‘who won at Cuito’ argument, which other former soldiers seem so ready to do. 

Encouragingly though, the general tells me that he would like to see more former SADF soldiers visiting Angola.  “So that those of us who actually fought can discuss the truth about what happened at Cuito Cuanavale,”  he says as, to my relief, he pays the bill for dinner.

We all have our own versions of ‘the truth’.  But it is good when former combatants are able to reach out to one another to discuss their experiences in the spirit of peace-making rather than post-war point scoring. 

The next day we drive to Cuito Cuanavale, a town that was reduced to rubble during the South African assaults.  The G5 artillery could reach it from over forty kilometres away.  But even since my visit in 2012 the town has grown and developed.  There’s a Chinese built hydro- electric scheme being constructed.  There’s a bank and a shiny new cell phone shop representing one of the national providers.  A young man speaking pretty good English, rare in these parts where most speak Portuguese, helps me with my local connection problem.  It’s good to see these changes following the devastation of war.
Cuito Bikewash

The Tumpo Triangle
It’s time to go to the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war:  The Tumpo Triangle.  It’s a wedge of land bordered by the Cuanavale, Cuito and Tumpo rivers to the east of Cuito Cuanavale. The HALO Trust has offered us a rare privilege:  they will guide us through minefield, a journey too hazardous for us to do on our own, to see their frontline in the battle against the landmines.

End of the tracks.  SADF tank taken out by a mine

After several kilometres on bush tracks, we reach a makeshift parking lot and finish the journey wading through the deep sand on foot.  It reminds me of my time here in ’87, and of trudging along bush-tracks, humping  cases of mortar ammunition back to our vehicles from the echelon.  But now the only thing I’m shooting is my camera.  And the tanks I’m shooting at were long since disabled by the Angolan anti-tank mines.  They sit there, rusting and sinking into the white sand.  I notice how this one has driven itself off its tracks, terminally crippled.  I’m viewing a piece of military history.  And it’s my personal history too. 

Next to the broken tanks the Angolans have erected flagpoles flying their national flag high above the treetops.     Rows of white stakes snake off into the bush.  A few metres wide, the stakes mark the former mine belt which thwarted the South African armour.  The mines now safely destroyed by the dedicated HALO Trust teams. 

Landmines litter Angola in their thousands.  And all sides are culpable.  The HALO Trust is doing valuable work here under difficult conditions.  Yet the big donors like the USA and EU have cut their funding to the Angola programme significantly.  They believe the Angolan government is now capable of funding demining itself.   And there are concerns about alleged government corruption. It seems grossly unfair to the people who are trying to make lives farming on the edge of the minefields.  The Halo Trust has cleared over 27 000 mines around Cuito Cuanavale alone and estimates that it will take many more years before the area is completely cleared.

A little way away there is a piece of taped off ground.  A mass grave found during the demining activity.  It could be where the UNITA soldiers are buried.  Many of their infantry were killed by FAPLA artillery as they advanced with the South African armour.  It’s a reminder that this battle was also part of a bitter and bloody struggle between Angolan factions in a civil war that lasted thirty years.   I find it sad that no flag flies over this site as they do over the broken tanks.  This grave of unknown soldiers is surely the most important reminder of the devastating human consequences of war.
UNITA mass grave
After the grimness of the minefield there is moment of levity when the local police chief gets his Land Cruiser stuck in the deep sand.  After much advice shouted by onlookers, Patrick takes charge and uses the winch on his aging Land Rover to rescue the Toyota from further humiliation.
Land Rover rescues the Police Chief's Cruiser
Back at the Cuito administration buildings, Johan and his friends give out the educational toys and books that they have brought for the schoolchildren of the town.  They want to give something back to the community, a gesture of goodwill from a former enemy.  The exercise becomes a little chaotic as the over excited kids make a frenzied grab for the goodies.  But there seems to have been no harm done and one can only hope that the good intentions of the former conscripts have been communicated beyond the language barrier.

The convoy of bikers, support Land Rover, and the TV crew in their shiny Toyota Hilux 4x4 hire car head back to Menongue for a final night at the HALO Trust camp.  There comes a time in an expedition when a difficult decision has to be made.  And safety should always be paramount.  In this case the bikers have decided that not all of them are experienced enough to be sure that they’ll make it back along the dirt road unscathed.  Their purpose has been achieved and that they’ll not risk riding the bikes back along the hazardous sandy gravel to Namibia.  With the help of the general they secure the services of a small truck to drive them and their motorcycles to the Katwitwi border post.

The border post is already closed when we get there.  The local police show us where we can camp and we set up camp and cook and forage for some final cans of Cuca lager at the local tavern.  When the bikers gun there engines in the morning there is a strong sense of achievement in the air.  They have the long road to Maun via Rundu to travel back to their people carrier and then home to Johannesburg.  They have had an adventure, they have supported Johan in his quest to deal with this dark piece of his past.  Maybe the war-ghosts have been put to rest once and for all.  Time will tell.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Crowds and the Quiet

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Times Travel Weekly - 21 September 2014

The crescent moon and a star are twinned by their reflection in the wide Zambezi River.  Crickets chirp and frogs burp on the river bank below the camp.  In the distance an owl calls.  As I sit by our campfire, the horizon loses the last sliver of light and it is peaceful being the only tent in the campsite.  I am camping at Island View Lodge, a quiet location 14 kilometres east of Katima Mulilo in the eastern Caprivi and a good place to pause between busier places.

August is out of local school holidays, but it is in the middle of the European summer holiday and thousands of tourists criss-cross the country in hired 4x4 bakkies with shiny, silver canopies and roof-top tents.  Island View specialises in fishing but the Euro-tourists are looking for the Big Five.  Instead of the hire bakkies and the overland trucks, this site hosts a handful of South African and Namibian fishermen and incredible birdlife.

This is proved the next morning when I see a large black bird wading in the shallows on the opposite bank:  The African Openbill.   Before it arrived a black-winged stilt, dainty with a white head and body and red legs, was foraging in the shallows.  Earlier a Fish Eagle flew upriver before landing on a mound of flattened reeds.  At lunchtime Hartlaub’s Babblers and Southern brown-throated weavers, attracted by our cheese and biscuits, annoy my wife who prefers her birds to be at a distance or with a nice sauce. They land on the table and on the chair backs.  One is even so bold as to land on her shoulder.

Throughout the day, men in Makoros pole past.  Upriver I see them pulled in close to the bank, fishing.  They fit well here, moving slowly and silently, the polers’ long, easy movements reflecting the river’s slow, sure progress.   Tiger fish jump and sometimes the birdsong is broken as a tourist fishing boat putters upriver.  Four pied kingfishers come and go from a bush nearby, chasing each other low across the brown water.
At this point the water of the Zambezi has made its way from Zambia, through Angola and will touch Botswana before it enters Zimbabwe and spills over Victoria Falls.  It is Africa’s fourth longest river and the largest African river to empty into the Indian Ocean which it does on the coast of Mozambique.

I sit listening to the piping whistles of the bul-buls and the trilling of a crested barbet and gradually between the whiffs of wood smoke I catch the aroma of the loaf I’m baking in the coals.  It will go well with the ripe camembert I have in the cool box.  My thoughts are interrupted by a marauding vervet monkey and while chasing him I’m rewarded with a sighting, in the green canopy, of a Purple-Crested Turaco, a striking bird with vivid red wind ends and reminiscent of the Knysna Lourie. 

 A week later we are in Etosha.  The stark barrenness contrasts markedly from the lush green ribbon that follows the course of the Zambezi.  The white, rocky landscape, the shimmering glare of the pan and the sparseness of the thorny bush possesses a different, harsher beauty. Another contrast is that the park is packed with hire bakkies and overland trucks.   At the waterholes I feel as though I’m jostling for elbow room.   At Halali camp we choose a pitch backing on to the bush with no neighbouring sites but that doesn’t stop a French couple from squeezing their bakkie onto it next to us and two nights later a hire car full of young German women from doing the same. 

At the camp waterhole a skittish black rhino is spooked by the spectators who can’t help themselves but chat as they come and go.  The animal prances and snorts and runs at shadows.  A game warden we talk to later tells us the Black Rhino are doing well in Etosha and that they are more likely kill each other as they battle for territory around the waterholes, than they are to be killed by poachers. 

One morning, there are lions at the first waterhole we stop at and a spectacularly huge herd of zebra, so large that even the elephants keep to a small corner.  There are around forty vehicles parked up and the occupants are enthralled.  The Italians in the tour bus close by seem overawed and their excited chattering grates against the trampling and snorting of the zebra.   The man in the car next to ours shakes his head at the disturbance.  “Unbelievable,” he says as his wife reverses the car and they head for somewhere quieter.  The tourists look cool in their Out of Africa outfits bought in Milan or Rome, white silk scarves flung around their necks, but they’re not well versed in waterhole etiquette. 

I’m glad I came to Etosha, I like its aridness, the watery haze above the pan alive with the winter heat and the rivulets of springbok streaming in single file towards water holes.  Though I’m relieved when we leave for less crowded locations.

Journeying first west, through Damaraland and then south along the Skeleton Coast, we find antidotes to the crowds of Etosha.  Of these, Spitzkoppe is one of the best.  Massive domes of red granite rise over 600 metres from the surrounding flat monochrome of the desert and 1728m above sea level.  It’s easy to understand why this awe inspiring feature was considered a spiritual place, a place of shamans. 

Our site feels isolated.  The ablutions are a few hundred metres away at the gate.  There is a long-drop nearby and walking back in the darkness I can see the flickering glow of our campfire accentuating the redness of the boulders.   The comfort of the little fire and the protective boulders create the temporary feeling of home in the vast empty landscape.  The rock art at Spitzkoppe is estimated to be between two and four thousand years old and in the little circle of light thrown into the world by our fire, I feel a sense of connection with all those other humans who have sat around their fires here.   Like a pilgrim arriving at a cathedral designed to inspire awe, I feel the spiritual draw of Spitzkoppe.  I can understand how the anomalous feature of these mountains rising dramatically from the landscape facilitated spiritual connection for those earlier inhabitants of this area.

The next day a guide shows us the rock art.  His name is name is Edward Auseb though his Damara name, !Kharibasen, resounds more beautifully around the Spitzkoppe, or more appropriately, the Ç‚Gaigul, meaning “last large mountain before the north”.  He shows us the shamanic depiction of the “golden snake” and paintings depicting hunts and rhino, elephants and people.  In the twenty-four hours since Eddie was last here, someone has drawn a big heart in charcoal next to the ancients’ art.  Lenana apparently loves Paul.  The sacred quietness of Spitzkoppe does not impress itself on everyone in the same way.

On the road south we find other wild and peaceful places to stay.  Places away from the throngs with their guide-books.  Lesser known places that, for now, will remain quiet and secret.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dogfights and Dreams - A story of hope

 This story first appeared in the Aviation News Journal May/June 2014 (Canada)

The first time I heard Arthur Piercy’s story was in 1987 when I was a 20 year old infantry conscript deep in the Angolan bush.  I was part of a force involved in South Africa’s last big invasion of Angola.  We’d watched the aging aircraft of our air force singe the tree-tops as they roared overhead before “toss-bombing” the Angolan brigades we were about to attack.  At other times we would watch the Angolan MiG 23s as they circled high above the forests searching for our positions.  We knew that the Mirage F1, the SAAF’s main fighter aircraft, was no match for the more advanced Soviet MiG 23.

Under the cover of the trees and camouflage nets our commander told the assembled platoons that one of our Mirages had been shot down and the pilot had been badly injured during a crash-landing.

25 years later I met the pilot in a coffee shop in a mall near South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria.  I had stumbled across him again on the internet just before I was about to embark on a journey back to the battlefields of Angola  to deal with some of my own history.  Arthur was unwittingly part of that history and in a way, I was part of his.  So I contacted him and arranged a meeting.

We sat opposite each other in a mall, sipping coffee and exchanging war stories as modern South Africa went about its shopping around us, two war veterans from another time and a forgotten war. 

I’ve heard many war stories, and I’m no stranger to the intensity and fear of the battlefield, yet as Arthur relates the story of the dogfight that put him in a wheelchair, I find myself breaking out in goose-bumps.  It’s clear that as he tells me about engaging with the MiG23 at 1600 kilometres per hour, that he is reliving every second of the fight.  The adrenaline surge as he turns his Mirage around to face the Mig that has just screamed through the centre of his formation.  Flipping his weapon’s safety switch to “cannons” and then the moment when the MiG fires the heat-seeking missile.  “There was a bright orange flash from his left wing and then this incredibly fast telephone pole came hurtling towards me trailing a solid white smoke trail. What’s more is that it was cork screwing so I was never sure where it was going.”   He’s been trained to fly directly at the missile.  It causes difficulties for the missile’s tracking system.  He needs every ounce of his willpower to keep his aircraft on a head on course with the thing that is trying to kill him.  But he manages.  “I kept breaking towards it and I watched it corkscrew over my right wing and disappear.”  There’s a faint explosion behind him and the aircraft shudders slightly.

The way Arthur describes the dogfight I almost feel as though I’m in the cockpit with him;  it’s a mixture of excitement and sour old adrenaline, like a bad taste in my mouth, from my own memories of battle.  I’m with him heading for the ground at full throttle, I’m with him as he wrestles the aircraft out of the dive and levels off just above the tree-tops l and races towards home-base in Rundu, so low that he hopes he isn’t creating a dust cloud for the MiGs to follow. 

He goes on to explain the calculations he has to make about fuel consumption to enable him to nurse his stricken Mirage back to the Rundu air base. He is losing fuel due to the damage caused by the missile.  Once out of danger from the enemy he climbs to an altitude that will extend his aircraft’s range.  In the end he makes it back but with a terrible problem.  The tail of the Mirage is damaged.   The drag-chute, which will slow him down on landing, has been blown away by the exploding missile.  Without the chute the F1 overshoots the runway and eventually comes to a halt after crashing through the perimeter fence.  Unfortunately the ejector seat malfunctions, spitting Arthur out of the cockpit and onto the ground where he lies, still attached to the seat. 

He’s badly injured and the fire-fighters rush to help him but he tells them to attend to the burning airplane.  The flames behind the air intake are dangerously close to the hundred rounds of cannon ammunition.  Arthur doesn’t want to be shot by his own aircraft.  He wakes up ten days later in hospital.  He will never walk again.

The second time I meet Arthur is at the South African Air Force museum near Pretoria.    The museum coffee shop looks out at the apron on which stand a selection of geriatric airplanes.  Among them is an old Impala trainer and an Avro Shackleton maritime search and rescue aircraft used by the South African Air Force from 1957 until 1984.  

I’m meeting Arthur to find out more about his Dreamwings project and, more specifically, to see the specially adapted airplane he is building.  To regain his private pilot’s licence he has to demonstrate that he can get behind the controls without assistance.  When we drive over to the hangar to see his airplane I notice that it takes some effort, although he’s well practiced, for him to transfer from his wheelchair to the car seat which is at a similar height.  How difficult will it be, I wonder, for him to get into an aircraft?  The car is specially adapted so that all the controls are operated by hand and the aircraft will be similarly easy for him to operate.

 When I see the aircraft, I realise why he has chosen the four-seater Seawind amphibian.  The half-finished ‘plane is squeezed into the hanger between old military spotter planes, a transport helicopter and even a more modern Rooivalk attack helicopter.  With its high-level wing and the engine mounted on the tail-fin, the Seawind is low to the ground and, as he is building it from a kit, he has modified it with a special door in the side of the cockpit to facilitate easy entry.  It seems perfect.  Equally important is the fact that the aircraft has a range of over 900 nautical miles, a good long range which will be essential if Arthur is to fly it around the world.  The fact that he can land it on water adds an element of versatility

Remarkable as it may seem for a quadriplegic to be restarting his flying career again, what is more remarkable is that Arthur intends to fly the Seawind around the world on a mission to promote peace.  And at the risk of sounding like one of those awful shopping channel advertisements:  there’s more.  Through a third party, Arthur has managed to get in touch with the Cuban pilot who shot him down.  His hope is for the pilot, Major Rivas, to fly a leg of the journey with him: a reconciliation of former enemies.  Having recently met several former liberation fighters who were active on the same battlefields as me, I understand how such a meeting can help an ex-combatant to put the past to rest.  I can tell by the turn our conversation takes that he is itching to discuss the ins and outs of aerial combat with the man who pulled the trigger on that telegraph pole!

As with so many dreams, Arthur needs to raise funds to pay for completing his aircraft and to embark on his around the world flight.   This amounts to a substantial sum of money and will, in all likelihood, require the assistance of a large corporate sponsor.  Until then, his Dreamwings project will remain just that, a dream. 

For more information or to contribute to the funding of Project Dreamwings, visit Arthur’s website: