My Life as a Pilot - Webpage 9 - page 135 - 153

Four Men in Africa

A young man with a heart for adventure has outfitted an expedition to East Africa, with airplanes and film cameras.

We sit, four men, in an open tent. Schneeberger, the film maker, is a small, tough and sinewy fellow. During the war he was the hero of Tofana. He held onto the "Rock of Terror" until the enemy blasted him into the air. He had eight men left with thirty dead. He talks little but one could build houses with each word he says.

Then there's Suchocky and me. We are the two pilots on the expedition.

The fourth man, "Father" Siedentopf, tells a story. He relates the famous tale of the shot at Köttersheim.

The African night looms outside the tent. Jackals howl, hyenas issue their grovelling laughs. The deep rustling of the old forest treetops echoes behind us like the sound of the sea eroding the shore. When someone enters the tent you can see the Serengeti's ghostlike vegetation shimmer in the moonlight, sleek as the ocean during the doldrums.

Siedentopf talks. From time to time his shag pipe glows, swinging like a fiery ball in the dark and casting light on his lean, tanned face. He was once one of the richest men in the German east. He owned an entire crater full of fertile volcanic soil, wildlife and water. It was as large as a German principality.

He lost everything. Now he's the guide and consultant for our travelling party.

"I see," he relates, "a peephole in the iron trussed gate of the fort. A peephole in a theater curtain. We're three hundred meters away in the groundcover. 'Now you'll see something to remember' I tell my boys. I have the eye of a sharpshooter.' I take position, aim, and fire. The peephole closes up as the iron lid falls down. I hit my man. It was —"

"The English commandant from Köttersheim," Schneeberger finishes his story, "and now we will crawl off to our sleeping bags."

Siedentopf stands up. "It's a cross to bear," he sadly says. "Everyone knows the story of Köttersheim. From the North Pole to the Sudan. But I've only told it to you three times..."

Each day we cross over the Serengeti. It's always wild. Giant herds of gnus flanked by strange birds, a tower of giraffes, lion prides, sturdy and thick legged rhinoceroses which chase our shadows. In rage they stick their short horns into the air.

It's blindingly bright. From above in the glass-clear air we can see for a hundred kilometers. Despite this the work is hard. Images pass by in an airplane so quickly that the camera can't capture them. We have to decrease the throttle and fly against the wind and close to the ground. Only then can we get usable pictures of animals.

A pride of lions, two males and three females.

Caption from the bottom of page 136 reads: In the Interior of Africa

Caption under picture reads: A lioness set to spring upon the machine flying only a few meters above the ground.

Caption under picture reads: Schneeberger and Suchocky inspect the damage done to the plane by the lioness.

Caption under picture reads: Herd of Elephants near Lohme.

I fly six meters above them with the stick clenched between my legs.

A couple of times the lions raise their heads and look up suspiciously, but they remain prone. The females are different. They've raised themselves up, never letting the plane out of their sight, nervously pawing at the sand.

Suddenly one of them leaps off the ground and up under the right wing of my plane. I'm so amazed I almost drop the camera.

Suchocky and Schneeberger follow me in a second plane. They fly very slowly, barely three meters off the ground. I turn and gesture to warn them.

It happens again. Like a streak of lightning the yellow body of the lioness rises up from the ground. A swat of the paw against the wing. Suchocky's plane sustains a hit, strafes to the ground, corrects itself then soars barely a meter above the ground back east to our campsite. A long, silver shred of material flutters behind the plane in the breeze.

The lioness in question rolls in the sand. The other cats are standing and staring up at us.

In camp we establish that the front spar has been torn through, the rear spar and the stablizer are torn up. There must have been tremendous rage behind the hit. One can see claws, hair and drops of blood.

I learned something for the first time—animals attack planes that are in the air. I had thought they would only attack us if we landed in their territory.

We fly over the valleys of Esimingor. Suchocky and Siedentopf are in their "Klemm" and I'm alone in the little "Moth." Below us there are thorny bambles, dusty and scrub-like greenery of euphorbia.

We want to land and take pictures. Suchocky soars down first. He barely touches the ground then takes off again.

A round, flat stone which was laying in the field has risen up and stormed after him. It's a rhinoceros.

It all happens so fast that my eyes can barely follow the action. Suchocky's plane lurches, hits a termite nest and crashes to the ground.

The cloud of dust settles. The plane is laying there, its broken landing gear sticking up into the air.

I land directly next to it, The rhinoceros stamps around the place drawing the circle ever tighter. Two rifle shots and the thick-skinned creature snorts and disappears into the brush.

"Suchocky, Siedentopf!" I yell.

A rueful voice answers, "Here!" Suchocky must have slided down into the rear of the plane during force of impact.

It's impossible to turn the "Klemm" back over, at least for one individual. I take out my bush knife and cut into the flank of the airplane.

Suchocky crawls out with much effort, stetches out on the grass and lays there. The crash seems to have deeply shaken him.

I run around the plane looking for Siedentopf. There—a brown hand—it's raised up from beneath the tail of the plane, motionless.

"Siedentopf!" I exclaim. "Siedentopf!" and push myself up against the tail of the plane with all my strength.


Endless moments, then the voice of the old Afrikaaner:

"Damned pig sty. It stinks like the plague in this ape crate!"

After five minutes with the bush knife I've freed him.

I fly both of them back to camp. Suchocky must lie down immediately but Father Siedentopf shows up at the communal tent for dinner later that evening. Crooked and lame but he jokes around and downs enough corned beef for two people.

Three months later—we've already been back in Germany for a long time—I visit Suchocky in the Berlin hospital. His face is small like a ten-year-old's and he only weighs eighty pounds. Cirrhosis of the liver, the doctors say.

He shows me a letter from Father Siedentopf. The old trooper has been emaciated to a skeleton. In the last few weeks he's lost twenty-five pounds, he writes.

They died just about the same day.

I believe that the place where they crashed was infested with rotting carcasses. The doctors with whom I've spoken about the case just shrug their shoulders. They also don't know what caused it.


Suchocky and Siedentopf are out of the picture. It's just Schneeberger and me working alone. We relocated our place of business to Babati in the Ufiume-Niger region. Early in the afternoon we fly out and three quarters of an hour later we land. By auto the trip would take ten hours.

We descend to the Fig Tree Hotel. It attracted our attention from above. Four small, round, straw-roofed huts like beehives a vast distance on the steppe. Nearby there's a flat, elongated structure like a housing unit for miners. A giant fig tree stretches its dark green crown of leaves over the sky.

Lord Lovelace constructed the hotel in the middle of the steppe for automobile tourists and pilots. It's one of the most remarkable guesthouses I've ever lived in.

In each hut there are two clean, white-sheeted beds and nothing else. However in the main building there is a bar which would do justice to any European luxury hotel. In there you'll find Martell, Hennessy, Muekow and old Black and White.

We stretch out on sugar barrels at the bar enjoying civilization in liquid form. The door is open. One looks out past the tree-shaded courtyard to the distance where the steppe swims to an end at the horizon. A pair of Negro women pass by carrying earthenware jugs on their heads. Thin figures in unique swaying motion.

"I estimate we'll find good business here," Schneeberger says.

I nod.

The sky has slowly become overcast. On the flight back there was already a thin cover of clouds in the northeast. It grows until it becomes a wall. A blue shadow passes over the yellow but sun-faded earth.

"It would be a good idea to bring the 'Moth' under cover."

We go out to where the plane sits at the small airpark. It's already very dark. The steel blue of the sky's dome seems covered by a black shroud. We secure the seaplane and start to cover up our little "Moth."

At this moment the sky rips wide open. A tornado wind comes down, rips way the canvas cover, and sweeps up the plane and us like dry leaves. And then there's only water.

You can't distinguish individual drops, it's a compact flood swirling beneath us and foaming up over our feet.

It only lasts a minute and then the downpour is over.

Before me, barely fifty meters away lie the sad remains of the "Moth."

"Snowflea," I shout out pitifully.

He pops out from behind the airplane debris, his hair in crazy strands all over his face, looking like a drowned rat.

The bartender took away our glasses. "I thought you gentlemen weren't coming back," he said with a friendly smile. We ordered new martinis but this time in water glasses. For medical reasons; we're shivering from the cold.

Should we capitulate? Leave the dead "Moth" where it lies and go back home? Or plot a new course, glue the smashed-up crate back together and start again?

The martinis warm us up like a heating pad on the stomach. Outside the bad weather has moved out and the evening sun glares harshly in the western sky. Glistening puddles and dew drops on the steppe grass add to the humidity.

We will continue to fly.

The next day we drive to Aruscha. We get our mechanic, Baier, out of the the travel service headquarters and take along two German carpenters from Aruscha. They are master craftsmen in glass and metal. Equipped with large glue pots they eagerly climb on board for the new assignment.

They work for days. "Snowflea" jumps around outside with a camera and take pictures of slim Babati girls, broad-chested and proud men, and several Negro children. "They look so good," he says, "because people can't see the dirt on them."

I, on the other hand, have lots of time on my hands.

Remarkable people conduct business in Lord Lovelace's Fig Tree Hotel. They're mostly auto tourists and sometimes dark characters who want to conduct shady businesses with the tribes of the south. The local people, farmers, are more pleasing. Anyone who can live here all year long amid such solitude is either very cleaver or a clod.

There is an American who's large and broad shouldered with a dome-shaped bald head. He comes every second or third day into the bar, drinks three Black and Whites, pays his bill then leaves. He's called Sullivan.

The bartender tells that Sullivan's wife ran away from him. Supposedly she was quite beautiful and he's still waiting for her.

One evening we get into a conversation. Typical men's talk about cocoa beans, cotton plants and the new tariffs in the Empire. At the end he invites me to a buffalo hunt going on the next day.

The morning's still gray when he picks me up in his car. It rolls over the steppe with the groups of trees swaying up and down like islands in the fog.

We stop at a small patch of thicket. There's a giant boulder. Sullivan indicates that the area is a natural hunting spot. He crouches down in the densest part of the thicket. He will lead the drivers. I'm alone. The forest before me is like a green wall behind which the glaring sun shimmers for the breadth of the steppe. It's quiet. The silence of the midday. Cicadas trill in the brown grass. The cacaphony of bird cries floats down from the treetops. The drivers press on quietly. Buffalo have keen senses of hearing.

A rustling. A black head with broadly spaced horns pushes through the wall of leaves. The buffalo senses something and goes out into the open. It's a strong old bull. A maverick who will spend his last days away from the herd.

He is eighty meters away. I lay down and shoot. He flinches, sluggishly turns around and trots back into the woods.

Sullivan shows up at the same time. He nods to me and I run back. With his rod he points to the dark green leaves of a bush where there's bright red, foamy blood.

"Shot in the lungs," he says knowingly.

We concur that now I'll set up in a different spot. On the open steppe thirty meters away from the edge of the forest. Sullivan goes back to the drivers.

This time I hear the buffalo for quite a while. Snorting and wheezing he breaks through the underbrush. There he stands, his head bowed, the tiny bloodshot eyes pointed in my direction.

I fire the fatal shots and he collapses amid the firing. Blood streams from his mouth and drops fall from the wound in his head onto the sand. I stand behind him. It is not a heroic deed to shoot a buffalo. The weapons unfairly tip the scales of the battle.

The black men storm out of the brush and scream. Sullivan is among them.

"Wouldn't you like to have your victorious hunt photographed?" he asks.

I shake my head. I comprehended the irony in his question but I wasn't going to do anything about it.

"That's good," he says. "I would have been disappointed if you belonged to that group of people." What type of people he meant, he didn't say.

The black men fall upon the buffalo with their long knives, disembowel and cut off large pieces of the flesh. They light a fire and roast the meat for a meal. It's still a bit raw but it tastes good.

We drive back across the stoppe to the Fig Tree Hotel. The sun stands in the west, a fiery balloon which make the entire landscape shimmer in a red haze.

"You have no idea," he begins, "how the hunt is carried on here."

Caption under photograph reads: I filter water for feverish Schneeberger.

Caption under photograph reads: Harald [sic] Lloyd's swimming pool in which one can walk with a diver's helmet.

Caption under photograph reads: The foreign team in Cleveland: De Bernardi (Italian), Orlinsky (Poland), Al Williams (America), Udet, Cubita (Czechoslovakia).

Caption at bottom of page 145 reads: National Air Races, Big Flight Day in Los Angeles.

"A fellow comes along who's hunted nothing all his life but dollars. Already onboard the ship, he has his secretary wire the White Hunter in Nairobi: 'Mister Moneymaker would like to shoot three lions, two buffalo, and one elephant. In three days if possible.' The White Hunter gets the hunting permits from the English government and outfits the expedition with everything from chief cook to rifle cartridges. They call that a 'Safari.' Then they go off to the hunting camp. The lion's already there, devouring a zebra we've provided for him."

The man with the money shoots, the lion dies. "Even the Prince of Wales didn't chase down his own," the White Hunter whispers and closes his eyes. This way he can avoid the hunter's look of dumb pride and the bare spot in the brush where the dead Simba fell. Thus the hunger of the age is driven to corruption.

Then the man from the USA has his picture taken above his prize, most times with his foot on the lion's mane.

If the White Hunter isn't completely hardboiled he feels ashamed. At one time he may have been a hunter but the money has ruined him. Now he sells himself as the leader of hunting expeditions. He gets rich and fat on it, has cars, villas and servants. Indeed, the expert hunter has gone to the devil.

The sun has diappeared below the horizon, the moon ascends. The women sing in the Babati villages.

Schneeberger is already asleep when we return to the Fig Tree Hotel. We have a table set out in front of the cabana and order drinks.

"I knew someone once," Sullivan says. He drinks his whiskey without soda like water in big, thirsty gulps. "He was a hunter! He came down here for wild game. He hired a white hunter since he had the money.

"The white hunter provided the lion, an old beast who happily dined on his zebra cutlet.

"What did he do when he saw it?

"He laughed out loud, shouldered his rifle and said, 'I can shoot cows at home too!'

"Shortly thereafter I met him here at the Fig Tree Hotel. He was a Canadian, a grand fellow. Pilot, racecar driver, crashed a couple times and patched back together like an old innertube.

"'Life is a curse,' he says, 'and fun just takes you to the border where death begins.'

"He wanted to hunt with the natives, so I put him in touch with a Massai chieftain."

"Have you ever heard," Sullivan asks me—by now on his third glass and addressing me with the familiar pronoun—"how the black fellows go after elephants?

"In the night as the herd sleeps, the hunter sneaks up through the underbrush armed only with a short, broad bush knife.

"It has to be a moonless night otherwise he'd be seen immediately. He chooses the strongest bull for its ivory. With a jab of his knife the hunter cuts off the trunk and then disappears back into the brush. He's only got three seconds otherwise he's never seen again.

The injured bull jumps up high, crazy with pain. He runs through the brush onto the steppe backwards. An elephant without a trunk can no longer run forward. After fifteen hundred meters the elephant collapses and bleeds out.

"It's certainly a beastly business, but it's honorable combat all the same. For every ten elephants there's at least one dead man.

"The Canadian told me that. He had taken part in such a hunt once.

"He was out with the Massai for four months then he resurfaced in our area again."

"And then?" I ask.

"It was worth it," he says.

"They came across a lion. One of the mavericks which travel through the steppe alone. Such animals are as rare as great men.

"They never eat carrion. They only kill young, fresh and strong animals. They drink the blood, take around half of the tenderest meat, then leave the rest for others.

"In their wake swarms of smaller lions always follow. Imperial courtiers who dine on the remains of the king's table.

"They tracked and pursued these lions. Fresh animal cadavers pointed out the path. After a few days the Massai turned back since they'd gone too far away from their villages and their women. They wanted to go home.

"However the Canadian stayed on the trail. He tried to think like a lion in order to figure out his destination.

"At night young calves stood bleating in the steppe. He crouched above them in a raised platform tormented by mosquitoes after his blood. He had hidden himself in the stomach cavity of an eviscerated zebra. But the lion didn't come.

"He chased the beast for days. He had become emaciated. Then he encountered it.

"It was in a clearing in the steppe grass. The lion stood there, barely fifty meters away from the man. He grabbed his rifle off his shoulder—but didn't shoot. He couldn't shoot.

"Only a hunter can understand this. Suddenly he had the feeling that this animal, this proud and regal beast, was closer to him than any human being. He set his rifle down and looked at the lion. And the lion stared over at him with his topaz yellow, sad eyes.

"In fringe of the withered steppe grass the feline heads of other lions popped up. The entourage was there and it smelled booty. Suddenly one of them shot out of the clearing and headed directly for the man.

"The large lion turned his head. In three steps he was with the other lion, swiping his paw into the scruff of the its neck. As quick as lightning the smaller lion collapsed.

"The Canadian went slowly back to the platform, looking back several times. But the lion did not follow him."

"If someone other than him had told me that story," Sullivan says, "I would have just laughed. But nothing untruthful has ever come out of the mouth of this man...Incidentally," he continued after a brief pause, "One can easily clarify

"the reason for the outcome. The young lion had trespassed against the rights of the stronger lion."

"I'd like to meet your Canadian," I say.

Sullivan stands up. "Dead," he says. "Crashed and burned up in an overland flight to the south. Supposedly there wasn't much left of him."


The rainy season approaches. The horizon is covered by a gray veil. The expedition crack troop has departed Aruscha and driven to the coast. However Schneeberger and I prefer to fly back. We take our reserve aircraft, a B.F.W. The Moth has been glued back together but its of no use for such a long stretch of flying.

The day of our last takeoff is like a folk festival. The Babati girls jump up and down around the plane with jiggling breasts. The barkeep waves his little white cap and even Sullivan comes over from his farm. He carries a packet wrapped in sturdy brown paper under his arm. It looks like a chid's car but instead it's the horn of the buffalo I shot a few days ago.

"You are a hunter," he says. He shakes my hand as if he's trying to tear out my arm. This is the greatest declaration of affection which he is capable under these sober circumstances.

Then we fly away.

The flat steppe disappears, the three thousand meter high pinacles of the Mau range rise up to us, the gigantic, lightning-silver

shield of Lake Victoria and then, unforeseen from the north, the green sea of treetops of the primal forest. A putridly sweet smell of decay rises up from it.

Schneeberger works, taking backlit pictures.

Suddenly a bang as though someone is pounding on the plaen with a hammer. The reserve tank has loosened from the ripped strap and is rolling back and forth. I look below. There are treetops with eighty meter high trunks; no clearing, no human settlements. Swinging down and landing are impossible. To the left the water of Lake Victoria. On the flat shore there are crocodiles, which look like moving tree trunks. You can see them quite clearly. "Hats off in prayer!" I think.

Schneeberger stands up, extends his upper body forward, unclamps the tank with both hands, and holds it steady using his bodyweight in support so that the hose to the gas line doesn't rupture. If he can hold it until we reach Jinja we'll be saved. Now we soar close to the treetops. The smell of the forest is unbearable but above at higher altitude it's so cold Schneeberger may not be able to hold it for long.

"Can you keep it up, Flea?" I scream. The drone of the motor drowns out my words.

He doesn't answer but his small, sinewy body covers the tank as though it were made for it.

Jinja, the Ibis Hotel. A piece of European civilization secreted in the middle of the African wilderness. We swoop down and land.

I have to help Schneeberger out of the plane. He's stiff from the incredible strain. He develops a fever in the nighttime.

A representative from Ford helps us to repair the damage.

"Always keep to the major roads when going through the Sudan," he tells us as he leaves.

Over Lado we see elephant herds. They create a passage through the high grass by the hundreds. Clouds of dust rise up like steam around them.

Gas line rupture. We have to land. Below us marshland and brush. Back to auto tracks. There—a sandy place, wonderfully flat. It's good to have made practice landings. At scarcely fifty meters the plane rolls to a stop.

We're in the swampy lowlands of South Sudan, thick with tire tracks since autos drive through it every eight to fourteen days. The ground exudes bakery oven heat with no protective shelter close by. We throw the canvas tent over the plane and lay beneath it. Schneeberger groans for water while in a fever.

I go searching. In one place the grass is greener. There must water there. I look. There's golden brown, brackish swamp water in a hole. I sterilize it in an empty oil can. It's complicated work. I filter it through my nightshirt. Schneeberger drinks it down in short, thirsty gulps. I can barely keep up with his need. Near sunset a pair of negroes prowl around the tent. I gesture to them and they disappear. Finally one of them comes forward. It is the chief's son.

Understanding each other is difficult but we finally learn that we landed in the area occupied by the Lau. They recognize the airplane but are filled with fear and subservient.

When they notice that our bird is grounded their behavior immediately changes. We're somewhat dependent upon them and they let us know it.

I ask for milk. Four hours later the African brings our empty canteens back and stretches out his hand. "Five Schillings," he says. I shrug my shoulders and offer him my cigarette case. It's made of brass, beautiful work of a Munich craftsman and it glistens like gold. He takes and examines it then presses the push button. Honestly, he's looking for the brand stamp. He scornfully purses his thick lips and gives the case back to me.

"No gold," he says.

I no longer dare to offer him the glass beads that I carry with me.

We stay put for two days. Schneeberger's in bad shape. The Lau tribesmen get more daring by the hour. I must stay with the tent so I can keep them from stealing from us. The heat is unbearable. My brain is seered. Eventually one succumbs to dull incredulity amid a sick friend, no food, and inhospitable natives. And then the rainy season is almost upon us. It can take weeks before a car will come through here.

On the morning of the third day there's a soft buzzing in the distance. It swells to become a droning ... the singing of an airplane engine. It dives down. It's a small puss moth. I rip the cover off Schneeberger and point even though he has already noticed the silver glare of our bird.

The pilot circles twice then lands. A slender, wiry man in khaki. He introduces himself as "Campbell Black."

Caption under photograph reads: Our expeditionary ship in Nuugaatsiaq.

Caption at bottom of page 153 reads: In Greenland

He brings us cigarettes and most important of all water, fresh drinking water. The Shell Station in Juba, where we had last refueled, had telegraphed to enquire if we had arrived.

English generosity, English hospitality.

In the afternoon a large military two-seater lands and brings us repair equipment, new materials and an invitation to visit Wing Commander Sholte Douglas in Chartum.

We're there by the next evening. The commander welcomes us with a smile.

I want to thank him but he just nods.

"In nineteen-seventeen we stood at the same front," he says, "and that glues us together, even if we were on different sides."

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks