Red Airstrips


Many bush pilots who have flown in Africa can relate to the difficulty of using a dirt airstrip. In Kenya, an airstrip approximately 20 km from Olorte had been the only useable airstrip in Entasekera since 2009. It allowed planes to fly passengers in, but not out. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t continuously serving a Maasai community. But it was.

Hennie Marais, is the founder of RedTribe, who are in partnership with a remote and traditional Maasai community to bring hope for a better future by improving health, education, and alleviating poverty. They often use MAF to fly medical professionals and other volunteers in and out of the community.

Hennie said, ‘The strip is very challenging, at 700m in length with a gradient, a high altitude and a dangerous tailwind. The combination of these factors meant that planes could land with passengers, but take off and depart with the pilot only.’ 
Any passengers left behind would have to use Hennie’s Land Rover to drive through the bush to Nairobi, a journey that can take anything from six to nine hours, depending on the condition of the road and weather. 
Hennie said, ‘The only way to overcome this was to lengthen the airstrip, so we offered the Entasekera Community to do that, but they could not come to an agreement. Since we are not part of that community we had to accept that we needed to find another airstrip.’

Much closer to Olorte was an old airstrip that had been built in the mid-1990s by a previous missionary family. As far as anyone can remember, it was last used to fly that family out 17 years ago; since then the land had claimed it back and the strip had been become rough, overgrown and unusable.

‘When I looked at where the airstrip used to be, initially I thought it was fine,’ recalls MAF pilot Daniel Loewen-Rudgers, who first inspected it on foot earlier this year. ‘But when I took a closer look, I saw anthills, I saw bushes, I saw trees, I saw the undulation of the ground, and I realised it was going to be a bit of work. And when Hennie and his team started working on it, then I think we really appreciated just how hard it was going to be!’

Due to the remoteness of Enairebuk, the location of the airstrip, it would have been very expensive to bring in heavy machinery like bulldozers. Hennie adopted the same approach as his predecessor who had originally built it.

‘We cast a cement slab and dragged it behind the Land Rover, and we made a roller out of a 200 litre oil drum, to compact it,’

Hennie explains. ‘It took 15 men six weeks to fill in erosion ditches, level anthills and also smoothen and level the strip. It was mainly done with hand tools, a three wheel tuk-tuk, and a Land Rover.’

Daniel explains how he made the first test landing at Enairebuk on October 21st with an empty plane, having done high, middle and low passes before touching down. 
‘From day one when you start training with MAF, you are already doing airstrip evaluations so it was pretty straightforward. I had already drawn up an entire airstrip chart after my previous visit, and it had turned out pretty much as I expected. As I flew in, I was able to look at the terrain and how it’s all laid out, and the chart I had drawn up was quite accurate, so it worked really well. I was able to assess it quite quickly because of the information I already had.’

The response of the Enairebuk community was very encouraging. Many people came to the airstrip, especially those who had helped with repairing and rehabilitating it. ‘Apparently no one believed that a plane could land there,’ says Hennie. ‘So when Daniel first landed people were amazed!’

On October 28th, pilot Christiaan Haak landed at the strip and then departed with passengers: a team of six dentists and ophthalmologists who had spent a week supporting RedTribe’s healthcare work in the area. This time people came running from all the local villages, some as far as eight kilometres away. Most people in the community have never seen an aeroplane and so it was a great event. 

‘Having this airstrip is going to make a massive difference to the ministry,’ concludes Hennie. ‘This achievement will help the growth and logistics of the projects RedTribe runs in this remote Maasai community. We can now fly volunteers in and out, which also means that I can spend more time on projects and less time driving people to Nairobi.’

The strip is very challenging, at 700m in length with a gradient, a high altitude and a dangerous tailwind.

Story & photos by Katie Machell