Once Was Enough:

A Canadian Bush Pilot's Visit to

    South Africa During Apartheid

       All the dogs were beauties and a couple of the Great Pyrenees we had raised were already champions. So my wife, Gloria and I decided to take them to a dog show in Toronto. We used our half-ton truck with the back rigged up to accommodate the two dogs and headed for Toronto. We left Sara, our daughter, with an old friend, who would look after her while we were gone.
      The trip was long and uneventful and we found a hotel close to the airport and settled in. Shortly after arriving, we got a phone call from a woman in Kenora. She asked if I was interested in making a trip to South Africa to do a little flying. I was currently between jobs and it sounded good. I opted to hear about it and discussed it with Gloria. We decided she would look after the dogs and I would proceed, if the job sounded interesting.
      A few hours later I got a call asking me to meet two people in the hotel bar. I went down to meet them and they outlined what they had in mind. I was to work for Oxfam. I would fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, via London, with British Airways and check in to an exclusive hotel at my final destination.
      This was in 1977, during the restrictive apartheid era in South Africa when whites and blacks were separated by law. Blacks couldn't use the same restaurants or toilets as whites, and everywhere signs reminded people "whites only" and "blacks only". During those days whites could be prosecuted for fraternizing with blacks. The blacks were only allowed in the city to shine shoes and generally do menial chores to provide whites with a superior life style.
      At this time I really didn't have much of an idea what South Africa was like so I accepted the $3500.00 cash they gave me and bought a ticket that would take me to South Africa. Gloria and the dogs visited with her sister in Ottawa and then flew back home, leaving the truck for me to drive back to Winnipeg on my return from Africa.
      I was given instructions to be in the hotel lounge every morning for 10 days and watch for a blonde woman who would contact me. I was to wear a yellow sweater that they had given me and told to carry a copy of the German publication "Der Spiegle" and be there between 9 and 10 am every day for 10 days after which I was instructed to go home if no one showed up.
      I was told to go to one of the local airports to get checked out on a light aircraft of my choice and do some flying so I would qualify when the time came to rent an airplane. Grand Central airport, between Jo'berg and Pretoria, seemed the logical choice because it was away from the heavy international traffic and had the right choice of aircraft for rent at their flying club.
      Everything went off without a hitch but it wasn't until the tenth day before the blonde showed up. Of course I knew it was her as soon as I saw her coming. She came up to the couch I was sitting on and said "you dropped something". She bent down, pretending to pick up something from the floor and handed me a note with a phone number on it.
      I called the number as soon as I got to my room and was given directions to another hotel where I would meet Bert Harrison, the man I was to fly out of the country.
      During the ten days I spent waiting to be contacted I went to the Grand Central airport and rented a Piper Arrow, which is a single-engine aircraft with retractable undercarriage. It was a fairly fast plane, about 200 miles an hour and adequate for the job I would be doing.
       I flew every day for ten days and became familiar with the procedures and the area and the flying club personnel, instructors, etc. I wrote some tests and completed the South African endorsement on my pilot license. I had been into many different airports in Canada and North America so it wasn't a difficult transition. In fact, the chief pilot for the flying school took one look at my license, which included Boeing 737, Hawker Sidley 746, Nisson YS11, DC-3, DC-4, float and ski endorsements and instrument ratings, accompanied me for one circuit in the Piper Arrow, and then said "you're on your own", which suited me just fine.
      I met some local pilots in the flying club bar and was invited to ride in a hot-air balloon owned by one of the patrons. I kept myself busy flying around the country and visiting local sights, when I finally got a message one afternoon to contact the man who wanted to leave the country. He was an anti-apartheid newspaper editor who had been living outside of South Africa since running afoul of those in power. He had slipped back into the country to get some money since the government did not allow money to be transferred out of South Africa. He would be put in jail if he was caught. My job was to fly him out of the country. He was staying on the 6th floor in one of the sleaziest hotels in Jo'berg. The hotel's very old elevator had a maximum capacity of 3 people and traveled about 2 miles an hour. The man I met was short and stocky with blue eyes and curly, reddish blond hair. He called to say we would be leaving for Mozambique the following day.
      In order to ally suspicions, I made out a flight plan to Kruger Park, a game park in the northern part of South Africa, instead of Lorenzo Marquee Airport in Mozambique where I planned to drop him off. Actually I had to fly directly east to drop him off and then head north to Kruger Park. After some discussion, we agreed that he should be dropped off on the old road between Mozambique and Jo'berg that was no longer in use, just outside the South Africa border. He had wanted to go to Maputo, as it is now known, but I was concerned about suspicions that could raise on my activities if it was discovered that I had landed in communist Mozambique. He was feeling insecure about the arrangements and suggested we rent a plane from another airport, east of Jo'berg, but I assured him that I was familiar enough with Central airport to feel perfectly safe there.
      The next morning I rented a car and picked him up at his hotel. When we got to the airport I parked in the parking lot not far from the gas pumps and went in only to find that the aircraft I had been using had been out overnight and had not yet returned. I had no choice but to ask to rent another type airplane. It was a Piper Musketeer, a shorter range aircraft that only went about 100 mph. I made some quick calculations after checking the weather and finding that I would have tail winds and concluded that I would have enough fuel to do the trip. I fueled the aircraft and went to let the man know we were ready to go. He was sitting with a newspaper hiding his face. We boarded the aircraft and started to taxi, only to discover that the mike did not work. I had to return to pick up another mike. Obviously no one was paying any attention to us and within a short time we were on our way.
      The trip was uneventful and we landed on a dirt road outside of a little village in Mozambique. The man got out of the plane with his suitcase, full of money or securities or whatever. A cow had been crossing the road as we approached, but was out of the way by the time I touched down. A very tall black tribesman walking along the road headed for the ditch as he saw us coming down to land. I didn't waste any time on the ground. Harrison explained to me that the jeeps coming from the nearby little town would be carrying armed men "who use live ammunition". He felt that he would be safe if he was walking, but wasn't sure about me and airplane.
      I got airborne as quickly as possible and headed for Kruger Park where I parked the airplane and went into the game park for a couple of days after renting a Mercedes Benz. I saw herds of wildebeest, giraffes, impala, zebra, lions, elephants, springbok and a variety of birds and other wildlife. I spent a couple of nights in a game camp where the baboons wandered around unfettered. I spent the days driving around and watching the animals before heading back to collect the airplane. I then flew over the mountains back to Johannesburg.
      Harrison asked me to wait in Jo'berg until I was contacted by a friend of his who wanted to be flown out of Cape Town. I took the Blue Train, which along with the Orient Express was one of the most exclusive trains in the world at that time. There were many servants, the food was excellent and the service extraordinary. For example, there was a special little compartment that was accessible to the hallway. If you put your shoes in it before retiring, they would be shined when you picked them up next morning.
      In Cape Town I went to the local airport to see where I could get another airplane. I stayed long enough to do some flying and make the necessary arrangements before heading back by air to Jo'berg, and to wait the 10 days as instructed. Nobody contacted me during that time, so I booked a flight and headed back to Canada.
      I chose to return home via Rio de Janeiro and New York. When I got to Winnipeg I spent a few days at home before leaving for Pickle Lake, Ontario where I would spend the winter hauling fuel in a DC-3.
      Oxfam called again a few weeks later and asked if I would consider going back to South Africa to do it again. They told me to take Gloria and our 2-year old daughter, Sara, as well. But Gloria had been to South Africa on a vacation a few years earlier and refused to consider taking such a risk. When I heard rumors that a Canadian pilot had been caught and put in jail in South Africa, I decided once was enough.

Image© by John S Goulet

Note from the Editor.  A true story by Lorne Alfred Goulet. Before he retired, Lorne had accumulated over 30,000 hours, flying mostly for Transair. He was with them during the wonder years as they grew from a bush operation to being Manitoba's regional airline. Transair was eventually bought out by Pacific Western.

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Editor John S Goulet



Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
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