Yesterday, I climbed into the flight simulator in my husband’s office, put on the Virtual Reality goggles, and magically, I was in a Cessna 170, dodging 10,000 feet high mountain peaks around Letseng-la-Terae in Lesotho – or Letseng Diamond Mine as it is today – a key location in my novel Diamond Mountain.
With the help of my dad, whose stories of the 19 years he worked in Lesotho underpin Diamond Mountain, and Eivind, my husband, who was a bush pilot when I met him while I was managing a luxury safari lodge in Botswana, I’m striving for as much accuracy as I can for my 1960s, Lesotho-set novel of illegal diamond buying, medicine murder, impossible choices and romance.
Of course, there are no mountains in Botswana but Eivind was a flight instructor in Calgary, Canada for several years, so he understands the perils and excitement of mountain flying in the Candian Rockies and the relationship between thermals, clouds and mountain ranges. He helps me get into the mind of my hero, and into the cockpit of the planes my hero flies.
Here, back in Melbourne, I stare through the window at the imposing nineteenth-century Gothic lunatic asylum across the road before lowering myself into the seat of the flight simulator where, with the flick of a switch, I can be in any of the small planes the hero of my book flies that made up Basutair’s fleet in the 60s: the Piper Tri-pacer, the Cessna 170 and the twin-engine Dornier.
Flight Sim – Research, work or just good fun?
As of yesterday, Eivind’s fabulous flight simulator is now equipped with a motion base to really throw you around for a fully immersible experience.
A control column was the first piece of equipment he acquired in order to build the strength in his wrist needed to regain his pilot’s medical and return to flying after his ankle and wrist were shattered in a motorbike accident in the Victorian Alps three years ago. Since then, he’s built a complete flight simulator and the consequences of this “therapeutic” office equipment have seen him regain sufficient strength and dexterity to get his medical back six months ago and helped him through his Airbus A330 endorsement when he’d had no practical flying for three years.
For me, a writer who doesn’t fly but who needs to research the problems and exhilaration experienced by a mountain pilot hero navigating dangerous terrain and impossible temptation, it’s a dream come true.
Dad’s aviation stories set my novel in motion
It was dad’s twin stories of a pilot playing a trick on a dad and of another inexperienced pilot who had to make a forced landing in a mealie (maize) field in the Orange Free State when flying mum who was seven months pregnant with me, that kicks off my plot in Diamond Mountain.
As dad tells the story of his experience: “In 1958, I was flying out of Mokhotlong to Maseru where I was to catch a plane to London on overseas leave. We were flying between the jagged peaks of the Maluti Mountains when the engine of the plane stopped. It was a single engine plane and there we were, drifting over jagged peaks with no hope of a suitable place to make an emergency landing. The pilot looked at me and asked, “What do we do now?” I said, “You’re the bloody pilot, you tell me.” He looked blank and perplexed then said with a laugh, “Oh, I forgot to switch over to the other fuel tank.”
I well remember my early concerns over any change in the sound of the engine – or it stopping altogether – before I got used to flying small planes in the Okavango, so this is where I started my novel.
Stuart Price, the English former evacuee who’s returned to Africa to build his twin time so he can fly for South African Airways but is stuck for four years flying single-engine Cessnas and Tri-pacers, pulls this stunt on Philippa, the District Commissioner’s daughter, to put an end to her increasingly personal questions. As a result of this and bad weather when they drop below the cloud blanket, they end up ditching in a mealie field where they’re rescued by the son of an Afrikaans farmer and put up in the guest rondavel, the kindly farmer’s wife believing Philippa’s fabrication that they’re newlyweds.
As I wanted to describe the logistics of cutting the fuel or adjusting or ‘leaning’ the mixture as required by the high altitude, Eivind set up the cockpit of the Cessna 170 on screen and I put on the VR goggles so I could see exactly how far I’d have to bend or lean to make writing that scene accurate.
Air Travel in early 1960s Lesotho
But back to the reality of air travel in Lesotho in the early 1960s. When dad first worked in Lesotho in 1958, Basutair operated three Trip-pacers which could carry three passengers plus luggage. The flight from the capital, Maseru, to dad’s home in Mokhotlong was about an hour’s flying, including over the Maluti Mountains with peaks up to 10,000 feet.
There was no road alternative as the road from Mokhotlong to Maseru had not yet been constructed, so the only alternative to flying was going on horseback which took a minimum of five days.
The Mokhotlong airstrip, which was 650m, was at the bottom of dad’s garden and dad’s chicken coop was the fuselage of a DC2, a reminder of aviation exploits gone wrong in earlier years.
When I was a baby and mum and dad needed supplies like anthracite to light the stove and fires, and paraffin and mealiemeal and flour, the fastest route across the border into South Africa was the treacherous Sani Pass with its 1:3 gradient, hairpin bends that sometimes required three reverses to negotiate and 1000ft sheer drops.
In 1963, the year Diamond Mountain begins, Basutair had a Cessna 170 and two Tri-Pacers. Around that time it also had a twin-engine pre-WWII bi-plane, the six-seat Rapide Dornier. Drakensberg Air also flew the Dornier from Ladysmith in Natal to Mokhotlong, mostly taking mine recruits to the gold mines in Johannesburg.
The Dornier was, as dad was fond of telling us, a great little plane “as long as the worms in the woodwork held hands” so it didn’t fall apart mid-flight – not his joke but that of mountain aviator Don Nash whose various exploits inspire some of the incidents in Diamond Mountain. However, Dick Southward was the pioneer who got Basutair operational, and Dad’s memoirs contain many stories of the aviation exploits of Dick, a keen fly fisherman, Don and others during the 50s and 60s.
Next week’s blog will be about the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Lesotho and the country’s medical facilities in the 1960s.