21 May 2013 Eastgate Airport, Hoedspruit
Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport lies just outside the town of Hoedspruit, in the Limpopo Province. Situated at the foot of the Klein Drakensberg mountain range, Eastgate Airport is part of the Hoedspruit Air Force Base, which is an airbase belonging to the South African Air Force. The base was officially opened on the 1 July 1978, and was designed to be a highly protected wartime base, with armoured and underground hangers and revetments (barricades of sandbags set up to provide protection from blasts or to prevent planes from overrunning when landing). It was also earmarked for NASA shuttle landing in the 1980’s. During the 1990s, an unused portion of the base was converted into a civilian airport known as Eastgate Airport.
How it all began
Mr Johann Roode (then the owner of the Kapama Game Reserve, on which Camp Jabulani is situated) started negotiations with the government in the late 1980s. It was the late Mr Roode’s dream to have a local airport on the air force base that inter-connected with the Kapama property. In 1994, when the previous government handed over the reins to the now existing government, intensive negotiations continued, culminating in the official opening of the Eastgate airport in July 1996. Mr Roode was absolutely delighted, and it was he who suggested that the airport be named Eastgate Airport, as it would serve as the Eastern gateway to the region.
Mrs Nicky Krugel, who was working with SA Express at the time, met with Mr Roode two-and-a-half years prior to the opening of the airport. She was conducting a marketing initiative for the Lowveld, and SA Express was in the stages of promoting the use of smaller aircraft for shorter runs, which would result in better fuel consumption. During their discussions, Krugel shared her experience in airline, airport and car hire. With the opening of the airport, Mr Roode employed Krugel to manage the entire operation.
BA-Comair were first to buy shares in the Eastgate airport. On 29 March 1996 the first flight, operated by BA-Comair, flew to Hoedspruit and landed at Eastgate Airport. Under the banner of the Eastgate Airport, the airport and all BA-Comair flight procedures (reservations, ticketing, check-in etc.), including contracted companies such as Budget Car Hire, were run by Mr Roode’s staff. Except for Krugel, all ground staff came from the rural areas. The office was run under Mr Roode’s supervision for a year and a half, until SA Express took over flight operations 1998. The car rental contract was given to Avis Car Hire, who then took over all operations.
In addition to scheduled flights, Eastgate is ideally suited to the handling of private charter flights. Initially, Eastgate airport only had a Jet-a1 fuel aircraft available for charter flights, which were first operated by Comair and later by SA Express. A few charter flights landed on the air force base, and were serviced at Eastgate Airport. Over the years charter flights increased. Road transfer companies also became more prolific, as they operated return transfers from the airport to the respective lodges. Larger bus companies that conducted tours in the Kruger National Park also re-routed their scheduled tours to fly in and out of Eastgate airport.
From Johannesburg, it’s only an hour and 15 minutes flight to Eastgate Airport. Because it’s a short flight, the aircraft flies lower than usual, affording beautiful views of the beautiful African landscape. Tourists have even been known to have sightings of cheetahs when landing at Eastgate Airport. With the surrounding game reserves, the Hoedspruit Air Force Base makes use of cheetahs to manage and control the wildlife on the aerodome, as cheetahs are a great deterrent of small game species, keeping them off the runway and making landing safer. This project started as a trial project on Air Force Base Hoedspruit in 1993 when two female cheetahs were released on 17 July 1993, and was subsequently permanently implemented after it proved to be very successful. To date six cheetahs have been released onto the base. The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) played a major role in the implementation and management of these projects.
The Personal touch
Once a plane has landed safely, passengers proceed to to the arrival hall, while the luggage is brought by a tractor and trailer. The arrival hall is the same area where security screening takes place. Military personnel examine carry-on luggage as there is no x-ray machine, while friendly staff check passports and do the necessary paperwork. There’s a restaurant at the airport which serves light meals, as well as a curio shop and foreign currency exchange office.
Today SA Express operates two direct daily flights from Johannesburg, as well as direct flights from Cape Town three times a week on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays.