Ever wanted to build your own plane? If you’re sick of Ryanair, Easyjet and all those budget airlines, it may be time to consider a more do-it-yourself approach. And anyone travelling to South Africa for this summer’s World Cup Finals should check out this unique, home-made multi-purpose South African aircraft from Independent Airways.
The plane – the one plane – may look a bit ramshackle. That’s because it is. But it’s also a great feat of ingenuity and the triumph of the human spirit.
Let’s take a tour. First thing you might notice is the absence of wings. No getting away from that one. (It’s possible that wings have appeared since I last visited, so apologies if my pictures are out of date.)
The next thing is the scale. You can drive a small car underneath this plane. You can live and work inside it. The plane’s creator does.
It’s got two floors. So on entering the aircraft, no only do you find out whether you’ll be invited to turn right (like I always am) or left (like I never am), you may even be invited to ascend to the more exclusive upper floor. This aircraft aims to punch above it’s weight – think Dreamliner, 747, Airbus 380.
But then put those thoughts out of your head. And think of a more sensible comparison. Something like the Shorts Skyvan.
They have a lot in common. The Belfast-built Skyvan has the word “van” in its name. The South African-built Independent Airways plane is constructed from sections of van. Volkswagens. There’s a significant difference of course. The Skyvan flew. Not necessarily a comfortable ride for passengers landing at and taking off from Belfast, but definitely an airborne journey.
Yes, alright, Belfast isn’t necessarily the best place to come over all snooty about technological superiority. We also built the Titanic and the Delorean car. They both had, er, teething problems. And South Africa is in the World Cup Finals and we’re not – whichever team from Ireland you support. (I was going to say something cross about the French and fair play inside these brackets, but I’ve got over it.)
Back to the plane. You enter by climbing the wooden ladder, and opening the van door that’s furthest forward. It’s dark inside, and temperature controlled. The corrugated iron sheets and cannibalized vans shells mean it’s hot inside on hot days, and probably pretty cold on cold nights. The living quarters are to the front – all a bit Wallace & Gromit or Heath Robinson meets Bladerunner. To the rear is a double height workshop, where miniature model planes are constructed from metal oil cans. The floor’s a bit dodgy at the back, so you have to be careful you don’t suddenly exit through the fuselage.
Bafana. The creator of this plane is the estimable Sibusiso Linda Mbhele.
Sibusiso built the plane – his home – from scavenged bits and pieces. He lives there. He works there. In a unique home that’s self-designed and self-built. He’s a prime candidate for the UK’s Grand Designs TV show. And all this in the remote scattered rural community of Amazizi, with little in the way of mains power, mains water or mains anything.
He’s one of those guys who’s living proof that you do not have to accept what you’re given, what’s expected or what’s thought to be possible. He’s also probably a bit mad too. His neighbours think so anyway. But sure you’d have to be. In a good way. And what visionary is gets credit from the people who knew him when he was a wee boy?
If you want to visit the big plane or get yourself one of the little ones, head to the top north west corner of KwaZulu Natal province in South Africa, where it backs on to Lesotho. Take the road from Bergville or Winterton towards the Royal Natal National Park. The Amazizi rural area is just outside the park. You may need a guide to help you find Sibusiso’s plane.
If you’re going to South Africa for the World Cup – first of all, I’m jealous. It’ll be great. The preparations have been meticulous. The people are ready. The one stadium I’ve been inside at Durban was magnificent. Secondly, take time out from the football, the vuvzelas and the cities to visit the Drakensberg mountains which overlook Sibusiso’s plane.
It’s worth visiting the area even if you’re not a fan of odd constructions. The people are hospitable and interesting. It was an Amazizi playwright who introduced me to Sibusiso. The Drakensberg mountain range is awesome. You can drink from the source of the world’s second highest waterfall, the Tugela Falls, on one of the area’s breathtaking walks. The Royal Natal National Park is calm and mellow. Is this the best place to visit in South Africa? Yes.
I was inspired to post these photos by – well, by Sibusiso of course – but also the pictures of quirky Mangaweka Airport in New Zealand’s North Island. (Seen at the Caffeinated Traveller blog.) They set my mind wandering back to happy days in Amazizi.