The sun has just risen above the snow-covered summit of Mount Kenya when Ben Simpson lifts off from the backyard of his tin-roofed cottage on Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau. A lean, sun-weathered 39, Simpson is among the most-experienced and -sought-after bush pilots on the African continent, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Summer 2014 issue.
Simpson has flown relief missions to Somalia in Cessna Caravans, delivered emergency supplies by helicopter to paragliders stranded at 5,660 meters (18,570 feet) on Mount Kilimanjaro, conducted geological surveys for East Africa’s growing natural gas and oil industry and helped nature-documentary filmmakers amass hundreds of hours of aerial footage.
He’s piloted his French-built Eurocopter AS350 B3 through the Rwenzoris -- aka the Mountains of the Moon -- whose treacherous winds can turn in mere minutes from dead calm to more than 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour. And he knows the locations, far from any road or airstrip, of the crystal-clear swimming holes of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, the hottest spot on the planet.
The U.K.-born, Hong Kong–raised Simpson is the director of Tropic Air Helicopters, which he co-founded in 2004 with Jamie Roberts, the bush-pilot son of a colonial crocodile hunter who guided Britain’s Prince Philip on an expedition to Lake Turkana in 1963. Working with three other Tropic Air pilots, Simpson and Roberts create private wilderness safaris to scenic, secret places in Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia and Uganda. For the ultra-adventurous, they’ll stage excursions to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and beyond.
Designed for “hot and high environments,” according to Simpson, the AS350 B3 is one of the most powerful and versatile civilian flying machines on earth, capable of an 8,800-meter landing on Mount Everest.
Ultimately, though, it’s the pilot’s knowledge of local conditions that makes a flight safe. Simpson and his colleagues can, for example, pinpoint the location of every anti-aircraft battery along Ethiopia’s northern border with Eritrea and -- equally important -- the commanders of Ethiopia’s air bases know them, by the helicopters’ Tropic Air logo and distinctive sky-blue paint job.
Tropic Air’s rarefied safari clientele amount to perhaps just 60 people a year, but it’s a viable business nonetheless, thanks to bills as breathtaking as the landscapes.
The quote for an eight-day itinerary to Ethiopia in one helicopter for up to four passengers starts at $145,000, depending on the number of flying hours. In Ethiopia, that might include the famous, monolithic, rock-cut churches of Aksum and Lalibella, along with excursions to photograph Ethiopian wolves in the Bale Mountains and tribes living a pre–Iron Age existence on the banks of the Omo River.
“The amount is entirely inclusive, meaning every activity, meal, bar bill, tip and, to a degree, souvenir is picked up by us,” Simpson says. “Once we depart, the client never dips into his pocket.”
My personal plan is a bit less extravagant: a morning flight with a mountain landing in the vicinity of Tropic Air’s headquarters at Nanyuki, a colonial-era farming town just south of the equator and a gateway to the parks of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District.
‘Glacier to Desert’
Simpson and I fly westward at 190 kph over Kikuyu farmland and Dutch-owned flower hothouses into an acacia-studded landscape on the Great Rift Valley floor where Masai and Samburu pastoralists graze camels, cattle and goats. Soon, we’re following the Ewaso Ng’iro, a fat, brown ribbon of river wending toward Samburu National Park.
“From Mount Kenya, I can fly you through six climatic zones, from glacier to desert, in just 25 minutes,” Simpson says over the headset.
Though he has lived and flown in this region for two decades, he says, he never tires of Kenya’s landscape, which he loves to share with his two sons, ages 9 and 6.
“Every day is new,” Simpson says. “The clouds, the grasses, the wildlife.”
I’ve flown in helicopters in New Zealand and over the Persian Gulf, but the sporty AS350 B3 seems effortlessly maneuverable, an extension of Simpson’s body and mind.
Riding with the backdoor open, it’s hard to decide which is more thrilling: feeling as free as the fish eagle that flies so close alongside us that I can see its golden eye; skimming low to make out a sunning crocodile; or the sudden sight of a dust-covered elephant herd, the adults instinctively forming circles around the youngest calves.
“The elephants get a bit skittish, because there’s poaching and because they associate the helicopter rotors with vets and darting,” Simpson explains as he whirs away to leave the pachyderms in peace.
In the spirit of community service, Tropic Air discounts helicopter flights for conservation professionals and furnishes free flights to local primary students who score in the top three in their class on national exams. Apart from furthering conservation and education, these relationships help create experiences for clients who wish to support remote schools or observe firsthand an elephant or desert lion being radio collared.
A helicopter can provide a shortcut up Mount Kilimanjaro or one of East Africa’s active volcanoes, transporting clients with little time or taste for exertion to places other travelers glimpse only from a distance. We’ve made a plan to alight atop a monadnock in the Lekuruki Community Conservancy to meet up over a thermos of Nescafe with Roberts, who has been carrying John Balsom, the photographer for this story, in a second helicopter, shooting aerials.
Now 51, Roberts founded Tropic Air in 1990 after a wealthy American safari client loaned him the money to buy his first three planes. From this modest start, he grew Tropic Air into a three-pronged business consisting of aircraft servicing, a fixed-wing fleet and the helicopter division, of which Simpson is the managing director and 40 percent partner.
Initially, the pair conceived the helicopter service as a local tourist operation -- shuttles to game lodges, fly-fishing day trips and honeymooner breakfasts on Pride Rock, the cliff that inspired the artists behind Walt Disney Co.’s 1994 animated musical The Lion King. But in 2006, Ralph Bousfield, a fifth-generation Botswana-based wilderness guide with flowing hair, a celebrity following and a $2,500 day rate, suggested to Tropic Air’s pilots it was a no-brainer for them to focus on the high-end safari market.
In the early 20th century, wealthy travelers might go on safari for three months, stalking elephants on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, accompanied by porters bearing tents, furniture and fine china. Despite the global recession, there remains a steady supply of deep-pocketed safari goers: Persian Gulf princes, Russian oligarchs, social-media moguls.
Competition is fierce among the elite guiding community in pursuit of the rare seven-figure, multiweek odyssey, replete with mobile tented camps, cases of Dom Perignon and an entourage of bodyguards, chefs, medics, nannies, professional photographers and even lap dogs. The reality, however, is that most clients are cash rich but time poor, prefer to travel light and want to see an entire country in as little as three days.
“For a client seeking a real experience that is not part of the cookie-cutter safari package, helicopters are manna from heaven,” says Bousfield, who has guided the likes of Ethan and Joel Coen in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert.
“In one week, you can cover what in some countries would take a month in a 4x4. Plus, a helicopter doesn’t leave tracks or require building remote airstrips, so the ecological footprint is fairly light.”
‘Sense of Adventure’
As a board member of the China Global Conservation Fund, Karen Lo wanted to visit Virunga National Park in the DRC and better comprehend its funding requirements. During four days in February 2012, Simpson flew Lo, 42, to the far reaches of the 7,900-square-kilometer (3,050-square-mile) park, Africa’s largest and oldest, to track and photograph something no tourist had ever seen: the park’s isolated population of Grauer’s gorillas living in deep forest on the slopes of Mount Tshiaberimu on the eastern edge of the Congo Basin.
“It’s rare to work with an operator that shares the same sense of adventure that I do,” says the Hong Kong–based Lo, who works in finance and has gone on six trips in total organized jointly by Tropic Air and its sister company, Roberts Safaris. She had no qualms about touring a park used as a private pantry by the DRC’s renegade militias.
“Tropic Air is willing to take me places and do the hard stuff that other operators say no to.”
Search and Rescue
Tropic Air may fly to remote spots, but some of the most-interesting -- and potentially perilous -- locales lie closer to home. Simpson and his colleagues conduct search-and-rescue operations on 5,200-meter Mount Kenya, the second-tallest mountain in Africa, after Kilimanjaro. Imposing ridges flank an idyllic landscape of glacial streams, trout-filled lakes and an indigenous forest of bamboo and fern pine, habitat for leopards, elephants, bongos and albino zebras. Mornings are clear, but rapidly mounting mists, suddenly plummeting temperatures and falling rocks can create a deathtrap for climbers, hikers and mountain bikers.
“Tropic Air employs some of the best pilots I have flown with,” says Michael Spencer, 36, a mountaineer and paramedic from Montana who’s now based in Nairobi for Remote Medical International, which coordinates search-and-rescue missions on Mount Kenya, among other locations.
“They have not only the best equipment but the willingness to take calculated risks and go the extra mile for those who need help.” Simpson, who first moved to Kenya at age 21 with a commercial pilot’s license and $1,400 in his pocket, learned important lessons for helicopter flying while pursuing a hobby: paragliding.
“Paragliding on the slopes of Mount Kenya first taught me how air meets mountains, flowing upward and creating unpredictable eddies behind rocky outcrops. Even today, it helps me visualize where the smooth air is,” he says. “In a helicopter, you don’t want to fly in the eddy, because the rotor blades become less effective and, in extreme circumstances, they don’t work at all.”
Paragliding also helped him woo his partner and the mother of his two boys.
“She was a cook working for the Borana Lodge, and I would land on the lawn on purpose just so I could meet her,” he says.
The romance of Kenya’s aviators and aviatrixes is legendary -- so much so that the hotel at which I’m staying was originally a 1930s love nest for a Manhattan socialite who abandoned her husband to run off with a French bush pilot. These days, it’s the helicopter itself that overstimulates.
“We try to limit flight time to three hours a day, because the visual experience is just too intense for most people,” Roberts says.
When they’re not enchanting safari clients, the pilots are helping to protect the animals that remain Africa’s most valuable and vulnerable tourist resource.
On my last day in Kenya, Mario Magonga, a charismatic former Kenya Air Force colonel, flies me out to meet one of Tropic Air’s most unusual repeat fliers: Tarzan, a pitch-black, 45-kilogram (100-pound) Dutch shepherd trained as a military assault dog. Two years ago, following an upsurge in poaching, Magonga helped establish a helicopter-assisted anti-poaching squad known as the Rapid Response Unit, based at Ol Pejeta, one of the Laikipia Plateau’s eight private rhino sanctuaries, which together hold more than half of the country’s black rhino population.
Tarzan and a team of five men, funded by local ranchers and conservation donors and trained by a former British Special Air Service officer, are on constant standby in case informants, trackers or new experimental drones come across evidence that poachers are operating. A five-minute flight from Ol Pejeta, Tropic Air can deploy the men by helicopter to any conservancy in the region within 20 minutes.
Ol Pejeta game guards used to protect their charges -- including four of the world’s last seven northern white rhinoceros -- with antiquated shotguns and handguns. They were no match for poachers armed with AK-47s and working for syndicates selling rhino horns for up to $30,000 a pound.
Now, the 32 guards who rotate as rapid responders have German G3 automatic rifles and Kenya Police Reserve status, which gives them government authority to implement Kenya’s shoot-to-kill policy for poachers resisting arrest. Bodies are left where they fall in the bush as a warning.
Along with the threat of high-caliber ammunition, poachers have reason to fear Tarzan’s penchant for shredding the meat off a man’s arm from shoulder to wrist if he struggles.
“I found a huge puddle on the floor of the helicopter after a deployment,” Simpson recalls back at the Nanyuki airstrip. “I had a client booked, and I thought, ‘Oh Christ, that dog pee is gonna smell.’ The handler grinned at me and said, ‘No, man, that pool was a liter of his saliva.’”
Like the celebrities, politicians and titans who travel with Tropic Air, Tarzan was anticipating the ride of a lifetime.