This month, Catrina Stewart heads into Wilson Airport, Africa’s quirkiest little hub, and finds that there is much more than first meets the eye.
Here’s a tip if you’re flying your own plane into Amboseli. Smear Stasoft, the fabric conditioner, onto every bit of rubber, and it will stop the hyenas from chewing the tyres. Chat up the oldtimers propping up the various bars at Wilson Airport in Nairobi and you’ll find a wealth of practical advice on how to avoid game on remote airstrips, or what to do if a buffalo charges your plane.
It’s not only Wilson’s incidents that are colourful, so are the characters – such as Zivota Boskovic, or ‘Bosky,’ the Yugoslav spitfire pilot who escaped the Nazis, joining British forces in Greece. In Alexandria in Egypt, he was handed a spade and a motorbike and told to dig trenches at El Alamein. Boskovic, who died in 1998, flew for the RAF during the war before settling in Kenya in the late 1940s and founding Boskovic Air Charters, still going strong today.
If there’s an airport that has spawned a spirit of glamorous aviation, then Wilson is surely it. In the early days, aviators flew by instinct, following roads and rivers to their destination, hoping for a cloudless day. When Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was deposed, it was here that his family flew to safety. When journalists sought a flight in to report on the latest African coup, their best bet was to flatter the charter pilots at the bar.
Modern-day Wilson is named in honour of Florence Kerr Wilson, who started the first commercial airline in Kenya. Since its beginnings in the late 1920s, Wilson airport has grown from a little aerodrome close to what is now Junction Shopping Mall, to Africa’s busiest hub on Langata Road, where an aircraft is said to take off or land every 55 seconds. From the dozens of miraa flights leaving for Somalia at dawn every morning, the UN flights heading out for Sudan and Somalia, to the little planes packed with tourists heading out on safari, Wilson is constantly on the go.
Aero Club of East Africa
For our walk, we start at the aero club at the furthest point of the airport, a popular aviators’ meeting point. Among its members is Harry Dyer, who recently downed his plane in Tsavo, and, despite suffering severe burns, ran five miles and crossed a crocodile-infested river to safety. In the members’ bar, photographs of late members line the walls, a fair number of whom died in air crashes.
Now in its 90th year, the aero club is trying to reinvent itself by encouraging young fliers to train up at its affiliated Pegasus School of Flying and bringing in experts to help younger aviators hone their skills. There’s a convivial Java Cafe here (with a playground), and a clutch of accommodation – around Ksh 10,000 pp per night – with overnighting guests free to use the members’ bar and pool.
Although Wilson attracted all the wrong kind of headlines last year when a group of British planespotters was arrested, it is possible to tour the hangars. The Kenyan Airports Authority will take school kids round, but for individuals, your best best is to ask one of the private charter companies clustered on the road leading away from the aero club to the entrance. Tours need to be arranged some time in advance, given enhanced security measures at Wilson, and are very much at the company’s discretion.
Amref Visitor Centre
Close to the entrance is Amref, known to many as the flying doctors. There is a small visitors centre, open from from 9 am to 5 pm (with a break for lunch), where you can learn more about its work and history. Founded in 1957 by three surgeons, it provided medical services to remote areas of East Africa. A tour of its operations centre indicates just how much it has evolved, whether it’s emergency evacuations across the region, or providing clinical and surgical services.
At the entrance to Wilson is the nondescript-looking Dambusters, once a legendary meeting place for pilots and crew. These days, it’s a dingier remnant of its former self, but still a fun drinking hole with a hint of nostalgia.
Although not strictly in Wilson Airport itself, who would pass up a visit to Carnivore, the place for a “beast of a feast,” just around the corner? Granted, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s nevertheless the ultimate nyama choma joint. In its early days, it was common for zebra and giraffe to appear on the menu. That’s no longer allowed, but some of its mainstays still remain, such as crocodile, ostrich and ox balls, roasted over a giant charcoal fire pit. If that still sounds a bit too exotic, there’s plenty of lamb, pork, chicken and beef on offer. Carvers move from table to table, serving up the feast. Topple the white flag of surrender on your table to signal ‘enough is enough.’