Planes, Trains, and Waterfalls

A South African company revives a 1950s airliner and the lost art of elegant travel.

Fifty years ago, Metroliners plied short-haul routes around the world (above, a Swissair 440). (NASM 00023486 (SWISSAIR PHOTO+ VERMESSUNGEN AG ZURICH NEG. #7453, METROPOLOTON))
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Once the restoration was complete, Vos had the aircraft weighed for local aviation authorities. "The weight ended up 2,400 pounds more than had been declared when we purchased it," says Vos. "So hello! We're 11, 12 passengers down on [weight] numbers we expected." Vos thinks Canedo simply passed on a number the Bolivians may have been given when they bought the airplanes. Canedo disputes the charge, but it doesn't change the situation. "We've got airplanes now that cannot fulfill the job they were purchased for," Vos says.

When the other passengers arrived at Pietersburg airport, it was evident that the story of van Niewehuizen's confrontation with the New Yorkers had made the rounds. I'd seen him only briefly since he'd stormed off the Jeep. Now he'd reappeared to shepherd his passengers through security and immigration. His mood had improved: When asked about the New Yorkers' newly condensed luggage, he responded with a smile and a story about a Rovos Air captain who had ordered the contents of a Convair's baggage hold offloaded and set on the ramp so that the entire group of passengers could repack.

Even small adjustments to the Convairs' payloads make a difference to weight and fuel numbers, and thus safety and profit. Having already removed a row of unsold seats to compensate for 175 pounds of freeloader (me), Rovos banished Wolman to the twin-engine Piper that would follow the Convair to Zambia with the extra luggage. When it can, Rovos flies the lighter of its two 440s. Metroliner ZS-BRV weighs in at approximately 500 pounds less than its virtually identical-looking companion, ZS-ARV (though the latter sports a larger nosecone), yet even the lighter airplane suffers, eating up lots of runway during takeoff from Pietersburg before settling into a 20-minute climb to 13,000 feet.

Flown nonstop to Livingstone, the Convairs might cover the 525 miles in two hours and 10 minutes. But because the 440s shave weight by leaving Pietersburg with a partial fuel load, they must refuel at Francistown, Botswana, after just 70 minutes in the air. Then there is a 75-minute flight to Livingstone.

Once aboard the Convair, I felt bad for Wolman, who'd had to climb over suitcases and duffel bags to wedge himself in the Piper. Aboard the Convair, I jaunted down cushy green carpeting and plopped myself into a wide leather seat. Above my head, shallow shelves just deep enough to hold coats and hats ran the lengths of the cabin walls. I also took note of the Art Deco-style Convair nameplates on the seat armrests, and the tasteful porthole curtains. And then there was the pièce de résistance: a pedal-operated rail car commode installed at the behest of Vos. Considering the weight limitations, a 25-pound toilet (and the 20 liters of flush water) seems an odd choice, but it played to rave reviews. "When you sat on the toilet your knees weren't up to your chin," said passenger Rose Orenstein of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. "It just felt reasonable."

The refueling stop in Botswana was made more interesting by heavy rain that had cooled the air but washed out local electricity. Passengers milled about the darkened Francistown International Airport terminal drinking from juice boxes and trading stories about game preserves. Others stood outside and smoked.

After an hour, the flight attendants announced that the airplane was fueled, and the 41 of us tramped across the ramp and up the Convair's extendable airstairs to our seats. The rain had abated to a drizzle. The second leg began with another long takeoff roll and shallow ascent over the flooded bush surrounding the airport.

Service aboard the aircraft was meticulous and slightly over the top. (The same was true of the train: Upon returning to a suite from dinner, one finds a bottle of champagne sitting on a turned-down bed.) The flight attendants began by passing out embroidered tablecloths and long-stem yellow roses, followed with an offering of wine or mango-orange juice. Next came a light lunch of cheese and cucumber on a baguette, beef and onion skewers, a phyllo dough pastry, a spring roll, and a spicy fritter. Delicious.

The day's early start-8:30 a.m.-and the dull noise of the slow-spinning (just 1,000 rpm) propellers encouraged napping, but lunch renewed the passengers' interest in the landscape. At low altitude and low speed, Africa can be absorbed on a per-village basis. South Africa's countryside-its low Drakensberg Mountains, paved roads, and occasional farms-looks like rural Virginia or Kentucky. But Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia scrolled steadily underneath us like the Africa of National Geographic articles: squat trees, muddy rivers, and patches of red soil. A commotion in the cabin marked the arrival of the money shot: Mist from Victoria Falls creeping upward in wisps above the Batoka Gorge. Moments later, the bump of the tires touching down and the roar of the propellers reversing signaled the end of our flight.

In the time it took to taxi and deplane, enthusiasm for the day's adventure had vanished. Everybody wanted to be there already, to relax poolside at a posh hotel before venturing to the falls or nearby game parks. In the Livingstone airport parking lot, hotel shuttles idled as we awaited the luggage airplane, which was 30 minutes behind us. The fogged-in aircraft, the refueling stop, the lengthy wait for our bags-these would have had U.S. travelers screaming. But here such complications are shrugged off as "just Africa."

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