Flight Review: Safarilink's Cessna 208B Grand Caravan
Need to get out of the city and into the wild? That's exactly what I did when I visited Nairobi, Kenya, and decided to go on safari. A flight from the city center to the middle of nowhere didn't take long, but provided plenty of unbelievable sights — including a tower of giraffes on one of the runways — and I got to see it all for myself on what would turn out to be one of the most spectacular flights I've ever taken. Here's what it was like to fly in a Cessna 208B Caravan on Safarilink from Nairobi's Wilson Airport (WIL) to the Ol Kiombo Airstrip in Maasai Mara National Reserve.
A friend of mine had recently returned from Kenya and swore by the services of her tour guide. I usually like to book things on my own, but due to some unexpected work complications, I couldn't pull the trigger on my trip until just a few days before I left. Needless to say, I was glad to turn over all the arrangements to a trusted guide, who booked my flights and accommodations for me, including the short hop from Nairobi to the African bush. The flight, normally bookable on Safarilink's website for $208, would be included in the price of my package. The only downside was that I had to wire him payment directly and couldn't earn 3x points on travel like I would have if there had been a way to charge the whole thing to my Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Nairobi's Wilson Airport is just a couple miles from the city center and about 10 miles west of the much larger and well-known Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) — it seemingly comes out of nowhere as you're navigating the city streets.
At one of the busiest light aircraft airports in Africa, Safarilink's terminal is modern, airy and comfortable, but with very few amenities. The check-in process was easy and my bags — both carry-on and checked — were weighed (15kg max!) and tagged. Fortunately, I would be returning to Nairobi, so I was able to lighten my load and leave some of the nonessential heavier items with my guide.
I received a printout of my itinerary and a boarding card and waited for the flight to be announced. I had arrived extra early for my flight — it was one of only two per day, so I didn't want to risk missing it — and had to make do with the terminal's non-functioning Wi-Fi and uninspiring coffee.
On the plus side, if you love looking at a variety of small aircraft, this is the place for you. Dozens of planes sit mere yards away from the terminal and the windows are large and plentiful.
About 30 minutes before flight time, an announcement was made and we made our way out of the terminal and into a nearby building for the security screening. There we waited again, with even fewer amenities, before walking out to the plane.
These were close quarters for the aircraft and I started to feel a little queasy when I saw the condition of the ground. Let's just say potholes plus small planes didn't add up to a great feeling of confidence.
Boarding and Aircraft
Boarding went quickly, with about six other passengers climbing up the few steps into the aircraft, and many of us pausing to get photos taken next to the plane.
The Cessna 208B Grand Caravan holds 12 passengers (in a 2-1 configuration) and two pilots — and there's nothing separating the two groups, so it felt more like a flying minivan with mom and dad seated up front and the kids in the back. Seat belts fastened across the chest and the slip-covered seats did not recline. There were no flight attendants, lavatories or amenities, except for the views and the experience of flying over a city and into the African savannah.
The single propeller was loud and there were some bumps — but no skidding into potholes! — as we rambled down the runway. Soon enough, we were cruising at a maximum of 165mph and our pilots were so relaxed, they started reading the newspaper. The altitude was even low enough for them to check their phones for messages.
20 minutes later, we were landing on a small airstrip for an unmentioned stop, just after a zeal of zebras had cleared the way. A few passengers got off the plane and after a few minutes of taxiing back to the end of the airstrip, we were all set to take off again.
And that's when I experienced the most unusual flight delay I've ever encountered: giraffes on the runway. The pilots aimed the aircraft toward the majestic animals in an effort to scare them away, and after some loud encouragement from a man on the ground, we were back heading toward takeoff. I could not believe what I'd just seen.
Just short of an hour after we'd left Nairobi, we landed at Ol Kiombo, a simple airstrip where safari vehicles awaited us nearby.
My safari guide introduced herself and then carried my luggage for me — on her head. I was less than an hour from one of the largest cities on one of the largest continents but I was in a whole other world.
Traveling abroad is all about experiencing different cultures and this was as different of an aviation experience as I've ever come across. No lounges, no first class — this was not a luxurious flight by any measure, but being able to fly into the African bush in such a way was one of the greatest travel experiences of my life. I'm not keen to encounter more wildlife at my local airports, but I'd be happy to fly Safarilink again and enjoy navigating the latest chapter in humankind's journey to coexist with nature. Besides, I always am happy to earn points with a new frequent flyer program!
Have you ever flown with Safarilink in Kenya? Tell us about your experience, below.
All images by the author.