Skubie's Blog 2016

Poachers Paradise, the Zalingi Hills, 60 miles South of Rungwa with plenty of caves to hide in and impossible for Rangers to patrol, but not for Skubie!

This year was an abbreviated mission because we needed to reposition Skubie's replacement from South Africa to Tanzania.  As you can imagine, there is a lot of paperwork involved (the Africans have learnt well from their colonial masters!), and it took ages to navigate through the morass.

Then, when the aircraft arrived, we discovered some engine issues which had not been disclosed by the previous owner.  These were major, and necessitated us having to replace the engine, with associated costs that we would rather not talk about.  However, we now have an essentially brand new aircraft which is much better matched for the mission than the original Skubie was.  It was a fine aircraft and did much good work for the past 3 years, but unfortunately was a bit too fragile for the conditions.

There is an old saying "It will all be OK in the end.  If it's not OK, it's not the end"  Considering all that has happened, that is going to be our new motto!

Final Update for the year

December 20th Tuesday

Twas the week before Christmas....  Again, abject apologies for taking so long to finish updates for this year, but the feet haven't touched the ground since returning from Africa.  I write this now from Australia, where finally I have time to sit down and organise things.

As previously mentioned, we have a new pilot, Ferdi, who very kindly volunteered to help STEP out for 5 weeks after we were scheduled to return to Europe.  As can be seen from the following photo, it was great to inject some new, enthusiastic blood into our operations, after what was, a fairly bruising few months for us, (previously related below).

Ferdi and me at Makwasa.  October 2016

Ferdi took over at Makwasa airfield and ranger station, continuing flying with the rangers, after I departed.  Anne & I had done most of our flying from Ruaha National Park & Rungwa game reserve and its airfield, where, as we moved closer to the wet season, the conditions grew more and more marginal.  It is a difficult airstrip at the best of times, and when windy conditions set in, it can be impossible to operate out of there safely.  You can usually take off, but landing, especially in gusty crosswind conditions can be difficult and downright dangerous.  After I had flown back from Rungwa to Kibebe farm, in order to pick Ferdi up and to check him out on Skubie, (a 3 hour flight against strong headwinds), both Ferdi and I made the reverse trip back from Kibebe to Rungwa.  As Kibebe is at 5000 feet altitude, We elected to carry just over 1 hour's worth of fuel, in deference to my 83 Kilo bulk.  I had made the mistake of taking off from Kibebe heavy once, and almost didn't live to regret it, so from then on, I had great respect for Density Altitude.  The plan was to refuel at Ruaha, where there was supposed to be 70 litres of fuel waiting for us.  Ferdi flew this leg, and after one touch and go at Ruaha, we landed and taxied in for refuel.  After hunting around at the Baobab fuel tree, (and not finding the promised fuel cans), we reluctantly resigned ourselves to spending the night at the Bandas, when a pickup arrived, with two very cheerful Tanzanians, and the promised fuel.  We were soon airborne, with me in charge this time.  At this stage, Ferdi had less then a couple of hours experience with the aircraft, and since we had no idead what the winds would be like at Rungwa, I thought it best to fly the approach and landing myself.

The plan was to fly a recce to Makwasa the next day, but the wind, (it was blowing quite strongly when we arrived), socked us in and didn't give up for three days.  Miraculously, on the last possible day, it cleared up and we were able to head off to Makwasa, this time with Ferdi at the helm.  Sadly, Anne could not come with me to Makwasa this time, though she was desperate to see it.  As it was, I only spent one night there, leaving Ferdi to commence duties the next day.  After the challenges of trying to land at Rungwa, Makwasa was a breeze, being long and straight, with no trees alongside the strip to amplify gusts.  That afternoon, Trevor and crew arrived in the Landy, bringing much needed refreshments and supplies.  The next day, after Ferdi returned from his first recce with a ranger, we had a group photo beside Skubie II.

Out with the Old, in with the New - Group shot with yours truly, Ferdi, Trevor and Rangers at Makwasa airfield.

Just in case you were wondering why all those guns the rangers were carrying were necessary, just take a look at the photo below, taken at dusk alongside the airfield.:

Uninvited Guest

We left Ferdi to the tender mercies of the rangers and the wild animals, (we asked the rangers when we first arrived if there were many wild animals in the area, and we were told no, only lions (!)  Well I guess thats OK then), and headed off by road back east, via Mpululu, to Msembe headquarters in Ruaha.  One more night there then onto Iringa, where I was finally reunited with Anne, and then the final flight down to Dar to stay with our friends Mark and Karina.  It was luxury to have a nice hot shower at their place again and relax in the cool of their air conditioning for a while.  Since last year, when we lost the original Skubie on the ground in high winds, we have been paranoid about it occurring again with this aircraft, so we have invested in stronger tiedowns.  These have a special design that actually embeds itself into the ground deeper if it is pulled on:

our new tiedowns

Plus, the hangar at kibebe, which currently houses "BOB" (5H_BOB), a Cessna 152 belonging to Peter Fox, has been extended to be able to include Skubie.  As such, he will be protected from the elements for the remainder of the wet season, and will be there, waiting for us to fly him next year when we arrive.  We really can't tell you what a relief that will be to get straight into flying without all the other crap we have had to put up with over the past couple of years!  See you then!

September 30th Friday

Apologies again for tardy updating of the blog, however, many things have happened (all good since the engine was replaced!).  We have since spent 10 days in Rungwa, where we flew out our 25 hours till the first service.  Rungwa, is a Game Park as opposed to a National Park, hence hunting is allowed (nay encouraged).  Sadly, during the 18 or so hours that we flew around there, we hardly saw any Elephants or in fact, game of any kind.  This is despite the country being well watered, with big rivers where ordinarily game would congregate.  It does seem like, with the hunters there, they have either shot the animals out, or they were smart enough to move to less idyllic but safer pastures.  With Elephants, this seems indeed to be the case, as whilst we did not see a single Ele in these well watered pastures, we did see quite a few in the middle of nowhere, dry and parched environments, where no doubt they felt safe. However, we have been very priviledged to fly surveillance over this park, as in parts, like the Zalinge Hills, it is phenomenally beautiful country to fly over. Amazingly there is a hunters' camp right on the boundary of Ruaha National Park and Rungwa Game Park, so when the animals from the park decide to walk across, the mainly dry river boundary, they are fair game for a hunter, who can drink a beer and just wait. A little disconcerting! And there is another Camp being built 5 km up stream! We have been busy distributing maps to the animals with GPS locations of areas to avoid, plus ofcourse flying over them to just make them aware that we are there...albeit for a few minutes. Anyway made us feel better!

We have been staying at the HQ of the Park with no running water and no where to cook, so we have been frequenting the large metropolis of Rugnwa village. Now as Aussies, we know what Outback towns are like, but they are luxury compared to this.May I say start by saying though, that the people are fantastic. Welcoming in every way. We were quite the novelty with our white hair, especially for the children who wanted to do high 5's with us all the time. But as they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

The dead centre of town, Rungwa main street


Luxury accommodation off the main street...


We have also had the privilege to work with some of the most dedicated,hard working rangers we have ever met, with support from them at all levels. They never failed to greet us with a cheery smile each morning as we prepared to fly and we really felt that we were valued. As per the situation at Ruaha Naional Park, there were no up to date maps of the park and no GPS coordinates of any of the areas they wanted us to patrol, so I (annie) ended up helping to find some relevant maps from what appeared to be old WW2 vintage army maps. Then Chuck translated their UTM coordinates int Lat & Long, for our flights.

Annie re-organising the map room at Rungwa

Skubie II is performing well, though this is a challenging region for a microlight.  Everywhere here is high, and of course hot, so we have to fly early in the morning when it is cool and the engine performs best.  Rungwa in particular is a challenging strip, situated at 4200 ft, and always having a crosswind that forms a rotor when coming accross the trees.  every landing there has been a nailbiter, though unlike the original Skubie, we do have enough roll control with the Zenair's full span ailerons to handle anything.  Every morning we have to "gurgle" the engine ( a bit like burping a baby ).  That entails rotating the prop, 8 to 10 times to make sure oil gets distributed through the sump.  After this, the engine gives a satisfying belching noise, which lets us know all is well.  I don't know what we would do if the engine did not "gurgle".  Probably frantic calls to Dave in Durban I would suspect!

Annie burping the baby....

From Rungwa, we flew back to Kibebe farm for the 25 hour service.  Eve Jackson, a bit of a legend in microlight circles, as she flew the first microlight from London to Sydney back in the 1990's, had kindly volunteered to help, given as she was a qualified mechanic (and I am not that comfortable with mechanical things!).  During two action packed days, we managed to perform the service as per Rotax specifications, and I flew her out of Kibebe and back to Msembe so that she could catch her Coastal flight back to Dar.  Again, a few histronics getting off the strip in Kibebe, as we were heavy, and high, (5200 ft), so the aircraft was struggling; but we made it!

I remained at Msembe after dropping Eve off, and waited for Anne to arrive in the Landy with all our gear.  A few cosmetic changes have been made to the park, such as some new signs, but in essence it has not changed at all.There is room for a bit of innovation, but let's' not go there!  We have now been here in Msembe (Ruaha National Park) since Tuesday, and it feels like we have never been away.  The only disappointment is that we were not able to secure the Bandas this time as they are full.  That is where you share your space with ele's strolling through, giraffes sleeping outside your door and lions just being noisy.However, we have a cottage right next to the aircraft which is quite comfortable, and we can keep an eye on the aircraft.  Apart from the vervet monkey's stealing half our food and the gas running out in the first few days, we are surviving. Here in Ruaha, we are flying 20km squared, transects for STEP, which we hope to be able to repeat monthly, so that we have an idea of how the elephant population changes with time.

Skubie II put to bed for the night, with the usual magnificent Ruaha Sunset.  Note extra heavy tractor tyres for tie downs.

Not having this aircraft overturned! Hangar being built in background...but not for us sadly.

After here, we are back to Rungwa, then returning to Dar on the 24th October to leave for France on the 26th.  Will post some photos soon to flesh all this out.  Thanks for your patience!

September 9th Friday

Apologies for the sporadic updates so far.  Reason being that our engine issues were bigger than expected.  We initially thought that we just had a gearbox problem, but turns out the gearbox shares the engine oil so that metal slivers were found in the engine oil filter.  This means they could have scored the sides of the cylinders so we couldn't take the chance and had to order a new engine from South Africa.  As to cost, don't even ask!  Given that we had no work until the new engine was fitted, we went down to South Africa to catch up with our friends, something that we were going to do next year.  

As usual the engine shipping to Dar did not go smoothly, (please check Anne's post below), but as usual with anything we have ever done in Africa, the engine arrived literally at the last minute.  Even a day later and our mechanic friend Dave, from SA, wouldn't have been able to do the engine change for us due to prior commitments.  As it turned out, the routine engine change we had been promised was anything but.  Although we were replacing with exactly the same engine, as the original engine was quite old, and the new engine was not exactly the same size.  The only way we could fit it into the original engine mount was to remove all the ancillaries, carbs, ignition coils spark plug leads etc, almost disassemble the engine, put the shell into the mount and reassemble it.  Quite a task, I can tell you.  So what should have taken 3 days stretched out to 4.  We even had to grind down a flange on the starter motor to be able to fit it into the engine mount, as the new starter was too big.  This proved an even bigger task than normal as we couldn't get a battery powered grinder and had to use a plug in one, for which we had to get a diesel generator which proved a bitch to start.  After serveral attempts at pulling the starter manually, we decided to try to pull the starter cable with the land rover and promptly broke it.  In desperation, I thought I would use white man magic and found a battery which proved to have enough charge to kick over the starter motor (which was in such poor condition that we thought it wouldn't work).  Thus charged, Dave managed to grind down the offending flange and the motor fitted finally!

One way to start a gennie, not necessarily the best...

However, we weren't yet out of the woods.  Rotax in their wisdom, (and probably as part of a deal with the oil pressure manufacturer), insisted on providing us with a new oil pressure gauge, and specifically said we could not use the old one in the aircraft for safety reasons (which was bollocks).  Now Dave, our mechanic friend, (also a 9000 + hour instructor extraordinaire), is an absolute magician with mechanical stuff.  Yet he couldn't figure out how to connect this thing up, which didn't have a connection plug set up, so he had to make up his own loom.  It was a disaster from start to finish, and we had to put the old oil pressure gauge back in, but not before many phone calls to SA and another whole day wasted.  Then there was another, extremely delicate ignition setting that we hadn't been informed about which apparently Dave had disturbed when he installed the engine, which caused another day of strife before it was sorted out.  All this of course, eating into the time Dave had before he had to head home.  (Not to mention that he had to check me out on the aircraft before he left!).  So, yet again, we went right down to the wire, Dave checking me out on the aircraft just prior to heading off back to South Africa.  Stressville personified.  Wouldn't recommend it to the average 65 year old, (and we definitely feel average now!).

Out with the Old and in with the New....  Dave & myself with the old engine removed.

Anyhow, all done now.  We are preparing to do some actual work now, out at Rungwa Game Reserve, where we will be heading off to, Monday or Tuesday.  More to come soon.

August 30th

The following from Annie:...

Well as the major paper pusher of the almost flying duo, I thought I would share with you some of the bad luck that we have had without going into all the boring detail.

Here are some examples of why we felt we were being persecuted by some alien force.

When organising the insurance, the guy we were dealing with, was permanently out of the office, until someone else took over.The company had no record of our dealings so we started again. eg lost 2 weeks.We took up heavy drinking! Just as we agreed to buy the engine, the SA rand went up 15%. So we had to pay another $US 2,000. After we had purchased it the Rand went down again, because Zuma wanted to arrest his finance minister! We took up cigarettes! The person I was dealing with at Comet who sold the new engines, was then sacked! Then when the engine was due to be flown out on the weekend, the Engine was off loaded from the cargo plane as dangerous goods.  We lost a week before it was loaded on again as not dangerous, then when it arrived in Dire Slum (Dar es Salaam) we  had to pay dangerous goods handling fees. So figure it! We checked into an asylum! And further more, all the delays meant that the 2 people who were at Coastal Airlines who offered to help us with the customs, were now on holiday, so we needed a handling agent at the last minute. Due to the lateness of the engine arrival, all of our free accommodation contacts disappeared out the door as they were either on holiday or full! Did not matter as we were already ensconced in the asylum! Combine this with the fact that if it delayed any more and our mechanic mate from SA, would not be able to install it, as he had a holiday booked. 

So we will give you the address of the hospital so you can send any drugs you can freely share.

July 7th Thursday

Just a quick discussion about the things that have slowed us down this year.  Firstly, for some reason that escapes me, the South African CAA does not allow non-South Africans to own a South African registered aircraft.  Hence, even though we had bought and paid for the new aircraft, we couldn't change the registration into our name to fly it up.  This is truly bizarre and makes you wonder about the sanity of the person who thought this rule up.  Luckily, the previous owner was willing to remain as the registered owner, for the purposes of flying the aircraft up to Tanzania.  However, we had to employ a lawyer to amend the sales agreement so that we still remained the legal owners.  This made things a little difficult as far as insurance goes, but it has been resolved.

Then, partly due to delays associated with this, our ferry pilot had to pull out due to family matters, which was initially devastating, but then, almost immediately we had another volunteer for the job.  His ex-wife!  Also a highly qualified pilot and instructor.  Truly, The Lord moves in mysterious ways!

We are now just waiting for overflight clearance to operate in Tanzania as a South African Registered aircraft until the end of October.  This clearance took 6 weeks to receive from the Tanzanian Civil Aviation Authority last year, but we are hoping that this time, it will be more streamlined.  After this period, the aircraft will be de-registered and re-registered on the Tanzanian register.  That will be another bureaucratic horror, but lets take it one nightmare at a time :)

When we receive this, we can then buy our tickets to Tanzania, so that we can be there when the aircraft arrives.  Until then, cooling our heels in the Dordogne, staying with our good friends Peter & Karen Kowalik, as our house is rented out.  It's a bit frustrating but at least our tennis is improving!

July 21st Thursday

Good news!  Our overflight permit for Skubie II came through yesterday, so we are hot to trot!  The aircraft will be flown up by our friend Anette Kruger, a very experienced instructor pilot, and should arrive next week at Kibebe farm strip, just south of Iringa in Tanzania.  From there, it is just a short hop (45 mins or so) to Msembe headquarters in the park.  It's great to be on the move again, as it is always dispiriting to be sitting around waiting for bureaucracy, which we did a fair bit of last year.

August 28th Sunday

Apologies for not updating the log for a while, but quite a lot has happened, and not all good.  Firstly, for the good bits, I have yet again passed my Tanzanian Aircrew medical, though, truth to tell, it wasn't too onerous.  Basically, if you can stand up from a sitting position without fainting, and walk around the doctor's surgery without bumping into things, you have passed.  The eye test, for example, was a formality, given that his office was so small, I had to imagine how blurry the letters on the wall card would have been if I had been at the correct distance.  Plus he gave me a 20% discount on my blood pressure since I was paying cash!  There is a similar dodge available with the Yellow Fever inoculation card, which apparently all travellers must have this year.  If you want the certificate in your inoculation book it's 15,000 Tzs, but if you actually want the jab as well, that is 30,000 Tzs (15 US).  With money, all things are possible here!

The major good news though is that Annie our Ferry Pilot, (and ex wife of a very good friend of mine), arrived on time with the Zenair, which she had flown the 3000 Km's all the way up from South Africa, via Mozambique and Malawi.  The aircraft performed flawlessly on the way up and she landed safely at Kibebe farm late afternoon Tuesday, 1st of August.  It was very windy and she had to make two attempts to land due to the excessive crosswind.  

Once she was safely down, it was drinks & celebrations all round!

Anette, our ferry pilot, also an instructor, to check me out.  She is a very brave woman, just how brave, we were about to find out!

Now for the bad news.  The next morning (early), as Anette and I were checking out the aircraft prior to going flying for my checkout, we heard a graunching sound coming from the gear box area as we were manually turning the propeller.  After some calls to Rotax in Sa, they asked us to remove the oil drain magnetic plug to check for metal shavings.  There should normally not be any with a healthy engine but ours had heaps.  Initially, we thought we could get by with a new gearbox, which would only have been a few hundred dollars, but Rotax informed us that since the engine and gearbox share the same oil, the engine itself was likely damaged and would have to be replaced.  This was a huge blow to us, as you can imagine, since we couldn't fly any more with that engine.  It was a miracle that Anette had made it up without incident, across 3 countries and 20 hours of flying without incident.  An engine failure over some of the country she had flown over would have been disastrous.

Unable to believe our luck (or lack of), yet again, we resolved to try to get a new engine, and flew down to Joberg for a couple of weeks to organise it.  Our good friend Dave, from Ballito, volunteered to come up with the engine and install it for us.  Since he was an instructor also, he would check me out on the aircraft after the new engine was installed.  As it turned out, the trip to SA was a good thing as my SA license had expired and I needed to do approximately 3 hours of flying, plus a flight test to renew it.  This is sheer unwarranted bureaucracy, since i had already done more than 86 hours on a microlight last year, but a French Registered one, but of course SA doesn't recognise those hours!

Anyhow, that was all done, and we jetted back to Dar to await the arrival of the engine, two weeks later.  (for some inexplicable reason, the engine had been sent via Amsterdam, and luckily for us the transfer to Dar happened without incident).  Again, no-one had told us what to expect so we had a very stressful morning yesterday (Sat 27th Aug), trying to brief a receiving agent quickly to make sure that the engine was processed by Tuesday.  Dave, our mechanic/instructor was due on Wednesday, and could only stay a week max, as he had business back in SA.  Anne had been organizing the paperwork so she headed off to find the agent, whilst I hung around outside customs looking after the bags.  She was surrounded by would be agents who all wanted the business, and insisted on following her everywhere, until she eventually told them to piss orff.  (That is the correct South African pronunciation).  We had planned to head off to Zanzibar after the engine was organised, hence my carrying all the bags around with us.

Eventually the agent was briefed and we just had enough time to catch the Coastal Air flight to Zanzibar at 1230.  The idea being, that we would have a few days chillin' out in Zanzibar before the engine was released and we drove up to Iringa with it on Thursday.  With a mad dash, we made the flight and immediately after touching down in Zan, we started to relax.  It really is a magnificent place to unwind.  It really is unspoilt, like Bali was 30 years ao, and incongruous sites greet you on every corner, such as the one below:

Anne standing by a chained up soft drink cooler outside the local Police station.  

Obviously, you would have to be a serious crim to steal a Coke from under a cop's nose!

Anyway,  we are now ensconced in our el cheapo hotel in Stone Town, which actually has beed upgraded since I last stayed here two years ago whilst getting my Tz license.  There is now Wifi, air conditioning, a fridge in the room, and the bed bugs have been kicked out.  Probably won't be writing much until we have the engine installed in Iringa, as there will be a blur of activity once the engine is released and we start installation.  However, keep checking to see the next instalment...