Letter from Onni, published in Duvbo IK’s Annual Magazine 1955

I had obtained my pilot’s certificate and was going in my own plane, a three seated Auster 5, on a longer flight, together with a Swedish mechanic from the Ethiopian Air force. We teamed up with another small plane, flown by two other Swedes.

We planned the travel route so that we were flying from Addis Abeba to Marsabit in north Kenya and after that to Nairobi, Mombasa, Malindi, Zanzibar, Dar-el-Salam, Kilimanjaro, Nairobi and back to Addis Abeba. None of the planes had a radio and therefore we could not communicate with each other in the air or with the radio stations at the airports. All we could do in the air was to try to keep together as best we could. And off we went.

When we approached the final destination for the first day, Marsabit, we lost sight of the other plane in the heat haze. We began looking for the airport that should be situated somewhere in the midst of the mountain massif. The visibility was bad, due to the low sun being in front of us. We slowly let the plane descent and started preparing for landing, while eagerly looking for the airfield. Without warning, the engine stopped and we lost height rapidly and the airport was still not to be seen anywhere. We were now on the edge of the massif, which on the south side declined towards vast desert areas. Fast action was required! We decided to stop looking for the airport and instead glide down along the slope in the hope of finding a suitable place for landing. There was a strange silence now that the engine was dead and we soared down like a bird. Then suddenly the engine started whirring again and we breathed out in relief.
It only worked for some 20 seconds and then it went quiet again. That kept happening for a couple of minutes and it helped us gain some height over the slope below us, which had now approached precariously. We headed for nearest level ground, but that was still several kilometres away. Then the engine cut out for good and the altimeter showed that we were descending alarmingly fast and got closer and closer to the undulating hill. A couple of thermal winds helped us gain a few metres a couple of times, but…

Even the edge of the desert, which we were approaching now, showed to be rather undulated and not at all suitable for landing. Now we were only approximately 40 metres over the ground and we could not keep the plane up any longer, so we would have to land. We landed in a curve to avoid a big sandbank to the right and during the last few metres in the air, the landing gear scraped against the dry shrubs on the edge of the desert. We got down without mishaps but it had been an exciting time.

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When we stepped out of the plane, a heat like in an oven met us, it was not long before the shirt clung to the body from sweat, and we started feeling thirsty. We had eaten our afternoon snack in the plane an hour back, thinking that we would soon land in Marsabit and did not worry about rationing food and drink. All we had left now was a drop of tea and an egg and we did not dare to touch the tea.

We soon discovered that the trouble had been the magnet, but since the sun was going down, we decided to spend the night trying to sleep under the plane. The inside was like a sauna. Darkness fell fast and we stretched out on the warm sand with a seat-cushion each as a pillow. Sleeping was impossible. Loads of insects and bugs irritated us and we had a full time job, trying to get at them under our sticky shirts. In the dark, we heard different sounds from animals that were coming closer, wherefore we preferred to get back into the cabin, even though it was hot and uncomfortable.

The next morning we started repairing the magnet. The work took several hours and the heat increased bit by bit. We were so thirsty now, that we avoided talking to each other. The only place where we could get some shade was under the wings, but it was hot even in the shade.

During the descent down to the desert the previous day, we had lost quite a lot of petrol, when the float jammed. When we measured, we found that we only had around 17 litres left now, i.e. enough for maybe 40 minutes flying. Would that be enough to warm up the engine and fly up to the mountain top? We did not think so. We decided to try to figure out our exact position by pacing the distance to a couple of hills that did not look too far away. We walked for hours, but it turned out to be much further than we had estimated, so we had to return to the plane. Our thirst was almost unbearable now and when my friend offered me a Läkerol (a Swedish throat lozenge), that he found in his equipment, it turned many times worse. The lozenge stuck like a lump of pitch in the dry palate.

On our stumbling walk back to the plane, we caught sight of a caravan of people in the distance. We hurried towards them as fast as we could, shouting and whistling, but the distance was too great for them to hear us. We had to reach them, we thought. They must have water and it looked like they were carrying burdens on their heads. When we came closer, we saw that they were ostriches, walking in line. From a distance, they looked just like people who were carrying something on their heads. We had to sit down, for the run had made us even more tired, hungry and thirsty. We went as far as to try to hit guinea fowl with stones, where they wandered around in the scrubland. They were walking around only a few metres away, without showing any fear of us. When we got closer, they annoyingly moved away a few metres.

We now decided to start the engine and fly northeast, towards the only road, stretching from the south up to Marsabit. After that, we would follow the road as far as we could and possibly try landing on the road and go by foot to Marsabit. The start went well and we reached the road after the calculated 20 minutes flying. The road turned out to be very bad and not suitable for landing. We followed it for some distance and happily spotted a small native village with inhabitants. We now decided to land on best suitable, or maybe I should say “best unsuitable”, spot. Come what may, we needed water. We spotted a little slope and we landed there. That we managed to land without seriously damaging the plane, was more luck than skill. The plane jumped and skipped over tussocks and scrubs and we had to veer to both sides to avoid the small trees.

As soon as we had stopped, a bunch of natives gathered around the plane and they looked a bit suspiciously at us, babbling in a language that we did not understand at all. We tried to sign to them that we were thirsty. They led us into the large hut that probably belonged to the chief, and, from an animal hide that hung off the wall, they offered us some dirty brown water that you normally would not want to wash your feet in. This water tasted like a Godsend. All you had to do was to push the flies aside and gulp down several bowls.

When I had quenched the worst of the thirst, I took out a cigarette, struck a match and lit it. The natives looked at my cigarette and one of them asked to have one. I gave him matches and a cigarette. He put the match to the cigarette without striking it on the striking surface first. Then he waited for it to start burning, but nothing happened and he looked very bewildered. It surfaced that they had never dealt with matches before.

When I later took out a Läkerol lozenge, they wanted to try that. I gave the nearest man one. He sucked it a few times and then passed it on the next man, who did the same and so the lozenge passed round the group.

When I later started doing a few tricks for them, the whole assembly came to life. They drove out the remaining sheep and goats that were still in the hut and instead most of the villagers, there were not very many, gathered inside. I swallowed burning matches and cigarettes and they soon regarded me as a big medicine man and now the atmosphere changed to our advantage.

Through signing and a few words that they understood, such as “Marsabit” and “police”, I managed to make them understand that I wanted a message sent off to the Police Commissioner in Marsabit. After I had written down a message on a piece of paper, they sent a rider off on a mule. He very soon came back, since he had met a lorry that was on its way south from Marsabit. The driver had promised to take us with him.

While we were loading our things onto the lorry, an English military aeroplane came right over us, on its way towards Marsabit. After a while, another one showed up and they caught sight of us and started circling over the place. We understood that they were looking for us and signed to them that all was well. They answered, by sign, that they had comprehended and they continued north.

On the way, we saw very many elephants, which was interesting to us, who now saw wild elephants for the first time. We were overjoyed when we arrived in Marsabit. The other plane with the two Swedes had found the airport. They had waited for a while for us to arrive, but had then started searching. The next day, they had even alerted the English Air Force in Nairobi, asking for scouting help, and it was those planes we had seen.

After a bath and a change of clothes, dinner tasted splendid and, in front of the open fire, we told them about our adventure. We stayed with the hospitable Police Commissioner and his wife a couple of days, during which we picked up our plane and gave it an overhaul. The first night, when we walked over to the building where we should sleep, we had not walked more than ten metres from the main building, when we stopped dead in our steps by a lion’s roar. We could only see a pair of eyes, reflecting the light from the building. The Police Commissioner came running out with a rifle and a lamp, but the lion luckily retreated. The following night, we walked straight into three buffalos that were standing right outside the door. Even that time, we got away scot-free. The biggest problem for the Police Commissioner was the elephants, who roamed around in the area, destroying the small garden that he had struggled to keep alive in the drought.

It was with deep regret that we left the nice family a few days later. Our next destination was Nairobi and we arrived there without trouble. When there, we could read in the East African Standard that we had been missing and that searches for us had been on. We now had to tell the whole story to the press and the next day, there were flaming headlines on the front page about our rescue and our adventures. My wife, who was waiting at the beach hotel in Nyale Beach by the Indian Ocean, did not know anything about what had happened to us until she read about the adventure in the papers.
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We spent a week by the sea and had a wonderful time with salty dips, goggle fishing and surfing, before we continued south to Zanzibar and new adventures that would take too long to enter into.

to be continued…

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