Don goggles, scarf and fur-lined jacket and take to the skies of northern Kenya in the exact 1930s biplane used in the movie Out of Africa. This little yellow aircraft soars above the savannah on the flight of a lifetime. It’s your chance to experience a piece of Hollywood history, and one of Kenya’s best safari experiences.
This journey was all about nostalgia and my love of flying. It was the perfect complement to our safari in Kenya. I’d seen the movie Out of Africa, and watched how Denys Finch Hatton (played by the suave Robert Redford) and Karen Blixen (the glamorous Meryl Streep) soared above the African savannah in a little yellow biplane. I, too, wanted to fly like that…
The day had finally arrived. I was standing on a grass runway in the Laikipia region of Kenya, wrapped up warmly in a sheepskin jacket, scarf around my neck. In front of me stood a squat yellow biplane.
‘This is in fact the original aircraft from Out of Africa,’ said my pilot. ‘It was bought at an auction by Jochen Zeitz, owner of Segera Retreat on the Laikipia Plateau. He restored it to flying condition and returned it here to its spiritual home in northern Kenya.’
He explained that the Gipsy Moth was constructed from a plywood frame. It was a tremendously popular class of aircraft in the 1930s, with an estimated 85 out of every 100 planes in Britain being Moths of some form or another. Out of thousands built during that period, less than 20 DH60 models remain registered in the UK, and not all of them are still airworthy.
‘This beloved Gipsy Moth flies today as an important part of the rich histories of Hollywood, aviation, and Kenya,’ he said. ‘And now, let’s go do some flying!’
My pilot had thousands of flying hours under his belt, so he was the ideal person to take me on this incredible journey. We walked over to plane: stocky, gleaming and pretty as a picture. We stepped onto the wing and into the open cockpit.
I pulled the goggles over my eyes and gave a thumbs up. The sound of the engine coughing into life was followed by the seductive drone of the whirling propeller as it kicked up dust. My heart was racing.
Down the runway we bounced, gaining speed. Then suddenly we were airborne, the green plains falling away from us as we aimed at the clouds. The sweeping views in every direction were simply spectacular. My spirit soared as we shadowed an augur buzzard, then dived away to follow a river snaking through a sea of grass. The plane banked with each bend, emulating its sinuous shape. I spotted cigar-shaped crocodile and boulder-like hippo.
Next, it was up over a mountain and down through a verdant valley. I saw a family of elephant and a vast herd of wildebeest making for the water. We swooped low over a lake and a flock of flamingos rose into the air beside us. The sky turned pink as their graceful wings beat in unison. I let out a yelp of excitement. Then up and up we soared again.
Back on the ground, I climbed out of the cockpit feeling elated. Over a cup of tea, my pilot told me a bit more about the plane and its history. Jochen Zeitz is the founder of the Zeitz Foundation and former CEO of Puma. He purchased the Gipsy Moth (built in 1929) at a Paris auction in 2013. It was then fitted with a new, Australian-built engine and painstakingly reassembled in Kenya by Henry Labouchere (a British engineer and Tiger Moth fundi).
‘The biplane’s registration, G-AAMY, honours record-setting English aviatrix Amy Johnson,’ explained my pilot, pouring us both another steaming cup. ‘She was tragically shot down in 1941 by an over-vigilant, British anti-aircraft battery after being unable to correctly radio in the day’s codewords.’
G-AAMY famously appeared in Out of Africa, the film based on Karen Blixen’s memoir of her years in Kenya. I remember how the film had conjured up indelible images of quintessential Africa: breathtaking savannah, bountiful wildlife and snapshots of Kenya’s rich tribal culture. I must admit that the movie was one of the reasons I’d come to Kenya.
At the heart of the film was this yellow-and-black biplane (its registration altered slightly to G-AAMT), which floated above dreamy landscapes and became a symbol of the passionate romance of adventurer Finch Hatton and Blixen. Their performances – and that of the plane – had captured my imagination, just as it had so many millions of viewers across the world.
For the production of Out of Africa, G-AAMY was shipped from the US to England and then transported to Nairobi in a jumbo jet freighter aircraft. The Gipsy Moth was flown for approximately 50 hours of filming in Kenya, during which time it roused a large flock of pink flamingos, just as we had done! It’s a scene to which the cinematographer, the late David Watkin, specifically attributed his Academy Award for camera work.