'The little town of Malakal on the banks of the Nile lay below us. To Jack and me the flat countryside seemed utterly desolate.'
Original account by Stuart King taken from his book 'Hope Has Wings'
'Having piloted the plane from Khartoum I now took it in for landing; we stopped at the parking apron near the tiny square control tower and pushed open the hinged perspex canopies above our heads. Sweaty and uncomfortable, we looked at each other’s perspiring faces.
‘Hot!’ said Jack. ‘This is about the last place on earth I’d like to live.’ I agreed, with no inkling that one day I would call it home.
Stuart's wife Phyllis King, with their daughter Rebecca outside the first MAF house in Malakal, South Sudan
The path of the Nile
Jack took off on the next leg, about 330 miles, to Juba. As we climbed we bobbed up and down in the bumpy air rising from the scorching ground below.
South of Malakal the Nile again takes an enormous bend to the west. To have followed it would have led us too far off our direct track to Juba. Our maps showed various little rivers and villages that should offer landmarks to guide us safely on our way. We kept a sharp lookout for them, but it was the dry season and many of the lesser river tributaries were hard to spot and often impossible to identify.
The villages were not to be seen at all. The grasslands were frequently burnt into large black patches of irregular shapes and sizes, an enormously effective camouflage which further disguised the arid landscape. All we could do was keep our compass course and press on in the hot and hazy skies.
Lost in the skies
After about two hours we began to get anxious. According to our maps, the Nile should be coming into sight on our right as it swung back towards us north of Juba. But there was no sign of it.
The swift sunset would come at 6pm and it was already past five. We could get no radio contact. The fuel gauges were creeping down. A plane could just disappear in this vast featureless area. A forced landing would almost inevitably write it off. And what about us? The whole countryside seemed deserted: no villages, no signs of life.
Why hadn’t we yet seen the Nile? Had strong headwinds been holding us back? If so, by holding to our present course, we should eventually reach Juba. But what if a strong tailwind had already swept us beyond there? Or might a wind from the west have been blowing us towards Ethiopia? This seemed the most likely explanation.
Jack took a decision: ‘I’m going to alter course 45 degrees to westward. The Nile must be over there somewhere. We’ve got to find it. It’s the only reliable landmark.’ He swung the plane round to head south-west. The sun was now very orange, approaching the horizon, and visibility was dwindling. There was still no sign of anything and the needles in the fuel gauges had dropped perilously near to empty.
Suddenly I caught sight of an orange reflection just below the horizon. The Nile! The setting sun glinted across the barely discernible ribbon of the distant river. But where would we intersect it? Had we still enough fuel to reach Juba? At last we got close enough to identify our position. ‘The wind must have blown us about 30 miles off track,’ reasoned Jack.
'The fuel gauges were creeping down. A plane could just disappear in this vast featureless area.'
His decision had been the right one; we had arrived just north of Juba. We slid down through the twilight to the welcome sight of the small airfield and the tiny, primitive capital of southern Sudan.
We’d learnt another lesson. The vast distances, featureless country and lack of radio aids in parts of Africa could make the sky a very lonely place.
MAF work was going to need the best navigational skills and techniques available. It would be vital to develop and use these with utmost care. Though our small radio had gained us permission to fly into the Sudan, it seemed to work only within a few miles of a major airport. It couldn’t cope with long distances.
The next day saw a striking change in the landscape beneath us. As we flew yet further south, the scorched, flat and lonely vastness of the little-developed Sudan gave way to the green hills of Uganda. Well-defined roads ran between small towns and farmsteads.
For the last stage of our long flight out we went up to 11,000 feet, skirting Mount Elgon on the Kenyan border. Two hours later, Jack called out triumphantly: ‘There’s Nairobi!’ The city was clearly visible ahead. After 27 eventful days, we’d arrived at last.
The journey has ended but the story's just beginning...
Over 75 years ago, Stuart and Jack arrived at their final destination, Nairobi after 27 days of travel and having experienced many of the challenges that the fledgling ministry of MAF would later help to overcome as it developed into a seasoned, professional aviation operation.
Individual missions knew the challenges that faced their missionaries in the field but no-one had yet undertaken a comprehensive study of the needs of all of the ministries across a large geographic area.
There were significant challenges posed by the physical environment.It would take a new kind of mission; with a bird’s eye view of the needs, to dream of the impact they could have if some of the barriers to ministry were removed.
Nairobi was the take-off point for the Africa Survey that in the coming months would explore the challenges and need from the air. When Stuart and Jack reported back to their mission council after the survey had been completed it was the needs in southern Sudan that they highlighted. The country that Stuart and Jack crossed in the Miles Gemini is today, at the heart of MAF’s continuing ministry.
The first MAF base in South Sudan at Malakal