Skubie's Blog 2013
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Yellow Wood forest towards the Eastern Soutpansberg
September 28th : Saturday
Today we put Skubie to bed for the next 7 - 8 months. Gave him a wash and then took his wings off and put them inside the trailer. Without wings, Skubie doesn't take up much room in the hangar, and Ant will have no trouble maneuvering his Wilga in and out. It was a bit of a sad day really, because it was nice to know that Skubie was always ready for his next mission, and now he was hobbled. Amazing how the time has flown by, it seems only yesterday that we arrived in Durban, ready to start, and now it's almost time to head home. Still, we will be back next year and Skubie will be waiting impatiently in Ant's hangar, ready to go.
Skubie and Ant's Wilga in the hangar
However, we still have a few places to visit before we head off, and on Monday, we are off to Mapungubwe, an environmental reserve just south of the Zimbabwe border, for a couple of days. Then back down to Durban before returning to Jo'berg and flying back to France.
September 27th : Friday
Back in Louis Trichardt again, and planning to put Skubie in hibernation this weekend. We haven't made any headway with the heating issue, but will hopefully be able to get Ant's mechanic friend Kubus, to modify the radiator and fix the slow fuel leak that we have developed, before we return next June. Funny how, as a trip comes towards it's close, you seem to run out of time to do all sorts of things you had planned! We are here in Trichardt till next Monday, then off to another reserve up North called Mapungubwe for a couple of days, then down south to Durban again to catch up with our friends there, who did so much to make this trip a reality. Also, given the increase in temperature, a swim in the ocean might be a lure, I can't deny!
September 22nd : Sunday
No rest for the wicked! After a very pleasant couple of days staying with Ant & Norma, we decided to head off back to Kruger again, this time to check out the southern portion of the park. One of our new friends from the Bateleurs, Roger Ford (airline pilot in real life), had offered us his little holiday home on the southern outskirts of Kruger, to stay for a few days. We couldn't pass up a chance like that so we quickly rented a car from Avis, and headed off. Unfortunately, the week coincided with a public holiday and school holidays, so Kruger was pretty busy. It is not a lot of fun being stuck behind a convoy of vehicles, many strewn at crazy angles across the road, all with occupants struggling to see a lion sitting 500 feet away. However, we soon headed off on our own, away from the tarred road and onto some of the dirt secondary rods that criss cross the park. This was ultimately more rewarding, as we got some great footage of Elephants and even managed to locate a pair of Rhinos ourselves.
The following day, as that was the actual public holiday, we were advised not to to go to Kruger, as it would be too busy, and indeed, we might not be let in, as on such days, there is a maximum quota of vehicles allowed. Instead, even though the temperature soared to 35 degrees, we went for a walk along the southern boundary of Kruger, which is marked by the crocodile river. There was an electrified game fence between us and Kruger, but we still managed to see a whole heap of animals coming down to the river to drink. Buffalo, Kudu, Impala, waterbuck, hippo, Elephants, Wildebeast; you name it, it was there. The place where our friend's holiday home was, turned out to be a "Kruger Lite". Plus, it was very pleasant just wondering along the river bank watching the animals, so much so, that you forgot about the fence between you. However, the relentless heat soon got the better of us, so we headed off back to the shack. Summer has really arrived with a thud, no spring involved at all!
A bit of monkey business in the heat
The next day, we wasted a little time by having to go into town to repair a puncture that we had picked up whilst going over a large pothole which had miraculously appeared on the side of the road. This had managed to dent both sides of the left front wheel, plus we lost the plastic wheel cover as well. We took it to a place called "High Q", which had been reccommended to us by a petrol attendant. It took all of ten minutes to fix and cost, (wait for it), 4 US dollars! We were so happy, we gave the guy a ten Rand tip (1 dollar US). I can't even imagine what it would have cost back in France. It would have probably entailed much head shaking and suggestions that a new wheel may be required, and probably a new tyre. (The tyre appeared undamaged, and when the wheel was beaten out again, held air pressure with no issue at all). These are the sorts of things (along with wine) which are ridiculously cheap here.
September 19th : Thursday
With the Vhembe vegetation survey cancelled, it appeared that we had suddenly run out of work! We had originally planned to fly another mission to try to locate the Samango monkeys again for Birthe Linden, but the swiftness of the arrival of summer conditions stymied that plan. All of a sudden, it was both hot and windy, upwards of 28 degrees by 8 or 9 o'clock and 15 to 20 knots, making it both difficult and dangerous to fly in mountainous terrain. That trip may have to wait until we return next year, as it is most unlikely that the weather will become cool or still moving into summer. Hence, we decided on some continuation flying for ourselves, so that Anne could try to streamline the use of the Gopro when utilised in animal counts. This we had quite a pleasent flight one morning just flying over Moyo reserve again photographing the animals from 300 ft. The Sony handheld camera gave excellent results, as the high megapixel count allowed us to zoom in on both herds for accurate counts, and individuals for recognition. Sadly, the Gopro is optimised for video, so the still frames from there, whilst great for vegetation surveys, did not provide enough detail to accurately recognize even the species of animal we were counting.
Our last night in Moyo, we had dinner with Willy, and sadly packed our bags for departure. The following morning, our bags and spares were loaded into Willy's "Bucky", and we folded ourselves into Skubie for a 7.30 departure to return to Louis Trichardt airfield. As we wanted to finish off some photography along the Sigurwana road, to record some of the deforestation carried out by locals cutting firewood, it took us an hour and a half to get to Louis Trichardt. By then, the day had warmed up already, so Skubie's water temperature gauge was hovering on the maximum. After we had shut down and put Skubie in the hangar, Willy rolled up shortly thereafter with Skubie's gear and our bags. She graciously offered to take us to Ant & Norma's, as that is where we were going to spend the next few days.
September 16 - 17th: Monday - Tuesday
We decided to slip over the border to Botswana, to visit a friend of Ian's, Stuart Quinn, who runs the Tuli Wilderness Reserve, just across the border ( http://www.tulitrails.com/)
Ian wanted to talk to Stuart about forming a transfrontier park, also taking in Moyo, and some of the surrounding properties. We were invited along because of our association with Ian and Lajuma, and Stuart very kindly donated a night's accommodation to us. A significant gesture because otherwise, the accommodation is 110 US per person, per night (for self catering). This however would normally include a 4 hour game drive.
The drive to the border was not long, about 50 Km, and once through the border, the tar road changed to dirt, (even though this was the main highway through to Botswana. Once through the border, all the fences we had seen on the South African side, disappeared, because the land on the Botswana side belongs to the various communities, instead of to individual landowners as in South Africa. As a result, the whole northern area of Botswana is a gigantic game park, where, from next year it will be illegal to shoot any game, by order of the President. Yay! As a result all of the hunting game farms have moved on, over to South Africa.
Pont Drift border post. Through the gate is the Limpopo river and Botswana
So basically we were entering a sort of giant Kruger park, lions & elephants along with other dangerous and bitey beasts roaming around, even on the main road, (such as it is). Of course there isn't the concentration of game here as there is in Kruger, but that will change when they are no longer being hunted. The whole area is in fact called the Tuli reserve, and the lodge we were visiting was only 20 k on the other side of the border. It has been really hot the past couple of weeks, (hence Skube only flying in the early mornings), and it was no exception when we arrived at around 2 pm. The temp was soaring to 37 degrees, so the only sensible thing to do was to lie down, and wait for the 4 pm game drive. Ian however, decided that he must have his "medicine", which turned out to be a can of beer. In the event it didn't do much good, as it was too hot to have any effect.
Too hot, even for Lions!
Promptly at 4 pm our ranger Jerry arrived. He was a slim local chap who had been a ranger there since even Ian remembered. They greeted each other like the old friends they were. Jerry was renowned as the "leopard spotter". He was the only ranger there pretty much guaranteed to find you a leopard every time; much to the other rangers chagrine. The other guys reckoned that they must have been wearing anti leopard deodorant. Leopards would appear to Jerry casually, even on the drive to work. During the deepening twilight, we were hoping to see some Elephants, which Tuli is famous for, but "only" saw a collared lioness who seemed to be quite bored with the whole heat business. As the twilight wore on, we weaved our way through the Mopane bushes catching glimpses of black backed jackals, and veritable hordes of helmeted guinea fowl. We had never seen so many fowl in one place. Literally hundreds.
When dusk turned to darkness, we went Leopard hunting along the banks of some dried up creek beds. Using the tried and tested spotlight methodology, we soon spotted a pair of beady eyes half way up a tree, reflected in the spotlight. Unfortunately, by the time we managed to move into position, the leopard, (for it was he), had flown the coop and it took a few more minutes of driving around to relocate him. In the event, we managed to spot him in binoculars but it was but a fleeting glimpse. Leopards can be devilishly difficult to sight though, so we were well satisfied.
The next day, another morning game drive, punctuated by an exciting diversion, (on foot), with Stuart (ranger and owner), to try to see some spotted hyena in a rocky outcrop located some distance from where the landrover was able to go. This was pretty exciting given that one is not allowed to wander around these game parks on foot without an armed ranger. Again, we managed to fleetingly glimpse the hyena, but sadly, without being able to zoom in and photograph him.
After lunch, it was back to Moyo, a relatively uneventful trip, except that the SA border guards decided to confiscate our avocadoes and green peppers, on the grounds that you are not allowed to bring them in to the country. When we pointed out the fact that both were in their original packages and with the supermarket seal from Louis Trichardt (hence originated in SA, so strictly speaking, we weren't importing them), it carried no ice with them. Ian's theory was that being so remote, they didn't get regular fresh vegetables so confiscated whatever they could. It certainly seemed that way to us!
September 14th :
Rare animal sighting at Moyo Eco Reserve! This is possibly an exclusive world first photo of the rare tusked Elephant Shrew sighted at Moyo yesterday:
We originally had a mission scheduled for today for Ian, to do an aerial vegetation survey of the Vhembe reserve area, using the Gopro camera to take video of the entire flight so that alien and invasive species can be targeted, and also to see what vegetation cover there is. Onto this flight we were going to piggy back another mission, searching for a collared Lion that had been lost track of. The collar gives off VHF radio signals, so it was hoped we might be able to pick up the signals fro the air, like the hyenas.
In the event, the trip was cancelled because we could not get permission from the landowners to overfly their property. We think they were a bit wary, because they have Rhino over there and don't want their positions generally known. (as if we would do that). However, they are not to know, and now that dialog has been initiated with them, maybe when they trust us a bit more, we can get permission later. So this mission may be postponed till next year, however, by then, the Lion will well and truly have flown (so to speak).
The days are now getting very hot, as the summer nears, and it is limiting Skubie's useful flying time. Basically, from 6 am till 9, we can handle, but after that it is too hot for the radiator, and also too bumpy because of thermal activity. The bumpy air is just uncomfortable, so not too serious a problem, but the radiator issue will be looked at before next year.
Today also, Ant and Norma Scott arrived from Louis Trichardt at around 10 am, in their Cirrus 4 seater. What took me one hour of flight time, took them 20 minutes. (Those with functioning brain cells will remember that they have very generously offered to put Skubie up in their hangar at LT, and refuse to accept payment). They are here to spend the weekend and check out Moyo. Of course, the Wilga would have been the aircraft to arrive in, as it is perfect for dirt strips, but Ant is still having trouble getting it re-registered from its Polish registration.
Ant arrives in a blaze of dust.
This afternoon it hit 37 degrees, so a siesta was called for after lunch. Then a game drive, and then preparing food for the Braai. Should be a great night as Ant usually has a few stories to tell!
September 13th 2013 (Friday)
I was feeling lucky, despite the inauspicious line up of the dates, so we went flying. We had the previous day off as it was forecast to be windy, and windy it was. We weren't complaining though, as we really needed a late start after all the early mornings. Just gave us a chance to catch up on doing the boring mundane stuff. Every time we do a mission for someone, there are always photos to download and video from the Gopro to analyse. Plus we have to keep up with emails and of course, I have this self imposed blog which I have to update. Thus, a pleasant day was spent, pottering around, (and Moyo is a great place to potter around in), but another early start awaits!
So today was not forecast to be so windy, and that was the case as we took off at 6.15 am, but it rapidly became almost as windy as the previous day. However, we managed to get the full flight in, even though the aircraft was really fighting the thermals for half the time on station and all the way coming home. There was a hefty headwind coming back, and our groundspeed according to the GPS was only 36 knots, or only 40 miles per hour, so it seemed to take an age to get back to Moyo. (Probably, because it did). However, we did finally see some Baboons, which was a cause for much celebration! Only a small troop of 5, but it did prove that we could see the little critters, and they were in fact, raiding crops. We have the guilty individuals on film!
Safely on the ground, (at which point I breathed a sigh of relief, after all, it was Friday 13th, 2013!), I went for a well earned kip for a couple of hours. Early morning starts do get to me because I wake up around 3, in anticipation of the alarm, then can't get to sleep again, or just get to sleep when the alarm goes off. Not ideal when you are trying to be alert for a flight! Still , Moyo is a wonderful spot to hang around, especially having a drink around the Braai after sunset.
September 11th : (Wednesday)
Make that 3 early starts in a row. Today we were looking for Chacma Baboons who have been raiding Farmers crops, west of Alldays township. Flying from Moyo, it is 35 to 40 minutes to get on station, and the weather was predicted to be hot. As mentioned before, Skubie's engine is not comfortable in heat, so hence the early start. Also, animals tend to eat early in the morning, so we were hopeful that by getting to the farms in question we would catch the baboons in the act of a raid. The concern is that farmers tend to over-exaggerate the number of baboons in a troop so that they can get some action (ie, culling the baboons). Leah, the person flying with me today, tends to think that the problem is not as bad as it is made out, so the idea is to see how many baboon troops there really are, and communicate that back to the farmers.
In the event, we were airborne at 6.25 am and on station by 7.10 or so. Didn't see one Baboon, not one. Saw several warthog, which are a similar size, and even some Guinea Fowl, which is really incredible from 300 ft, so that tends to imply to us that the technology we had in our possession (Mark 1 eyeball), was capable of finding Baboons if they had been there! After 1.5 hours of fruitless grid flying we returned back in increasingly bumpy air as the thermals started to build up. Basically, I have come to the conclusion that we can't fly much after 9 am when the day is projected to be hot. (Today it got to 35). There are far too many thermals and also Skubie's radiator temperature starts heading towards the redline. In the event, we were back on the ground by 9.10. It still takes a while to put Skubie's wing covers back on, so we didn't leave the airfield till ten.
Poor Anne, then volunteered to head off to Alldays with Leah to pick up some petrol for the aircraft, as we had used it all up in the past couple of days. She also went to the "Chinese" shop in Alldays in an attempt to buy some Soy Sauce. Incredibly, they didn't have any! Apparently, it is called a "Chinese" shop because a Chinaman runs it, but he doesn't have anything remotely Chinesey in it. We live and learn. There is an "Indian" shop as well, but it doesn't have any Indian stuff in it either.
September 10th : (Tuesday)
Uggh! Two "O Dark Thirty" starts in a row. The first, on Monday at Louis Trichardt, to reposition the aircraft at Moyo, and the second, at Moyo doing an anima count. One of the things I didn't like about the Air Force was the early morning starts, and now I am doing them by choice! there is no help for it however. The temperature on Monday for the re-positioning flight was set to soar to 33 Deg C, which is too hot for Skubies engine, especially at 3000 Ft, hence, it was important to get airborne before the heat of the day, and to be on the ground by 9 am. From Lajuma, this means a 5 am start, as it takes over an hour to get to the airport. Then today, we wanted to do a game count, and the game are most active around dawn, hence, another 5 am start!
However, once you suffer the initial pain of crawling out of bed at 5, the rest of it doesn't feel so bad; and then, when you get airborne in the cool still air, watching the Wildebeest and Eland herds fleeing the path of the aircraft, it is positively beatific! We had decided to do a second count of the game at Moyo, as Ian suspected that we had missed some of the animals on the first count. This time we decided to go lower, (150 ft instead of 300), to give the Gopro camera a chance to pick up the game as well, and also to scare any animals that may have been hiding under foliage, out into the open so that we could see them. However, after all this, it turned out that the count was very similar to our first count, so this gives us confidence that we have done it accurately on both occasions.
On the final landing this morning, we noticed a dead Impala on the other side of the fence adjacent to the runway. Worrying that this animal might have been shot by poachers, we went to have a look. We initially thought that our worst fears were confirmed, but all will be explained in the latest Skubie Report.
September 7th : (Saturday)
We decided to have a holiday from our holiday and visit Kruger National Park, and we have just returned from spending 5 days there. Kruger is enormous, 360 Km long and with an average width of 65 K's. That's more than the distance from London to Leeds and that is just the South African side. The transfrontier region in Mozambique is just as big, though much less developed. It can take literally hours to cross, as the maximum speed is just 50 Km/Hr, (for obvious reasons, you don't want to kill any wildlife that may have wandered onto the road, or kill yourself by smacking into an Elephant at high speed).
This guy was just behind us as we pulled into a water hole
We didn't even see him till we were backing out to leave.
He was not even 20 ft away.
Within 5 minutes of entering, we had seen a young lioness crossing the road, literally within sight of the entry gate. At the gate there was only a boom as a barrier, so these guards there actually don't have much protection if a lion came by. Entering was a bit like the Movie Jurassic Park, seeing the lioness reminded you that you were now in a different world, where, if you were on foot, you could be hunted for food. It sort of sobers the senses a bit!
It is a cathartic sort of existence, driving around at 25 Kms per hour, looking for animals. It is really relaxing, and we actually started sleeping through the night again, (all our early morning starts had disrupted the body clocks a bit). We saw pretty much the "big 5", except for Rhino, throughout our 5 days there, plus some other rarer species like the Nyala and the red Hartebeast. I will be sorting through the photos in the coming days and posting some of the better ones as I find time.
What were these guys waiting for?
A Klipspringer where he is supposed to be, on a rock.
Next week (Monday), we leave Lajuma for Moyo Lodge again for a couple of weeks, using that airstrip as a base for a survey of Chacma Baboons, and also to do a vegetation survey of Vhembe Reserve for Prof Ian Ghaigher. Predicted to be hot again on Monday (32 C), so it will be another early start, to get to Moyo before it gets too hot. The aircraft was designed for cooler climes (like England!), so we have to be careful with overheating if the day gets too hot. We are potentially looking at installing a larger radiator next year, but thats another story.
September !st : (Sunday)
The previous Friday we were loaned a vehicle to drive into town ourselves. A first to drive that atrocious road ourselves. Having never driven a 4 wheel drive before, we both had a go, and at the end, felt like experts. The main purpose of the trip was to go to the airfield and to wash Skubie, as he was getting very sandy and grubby. There were dark sandy stains all over the wings which, apart from looking unsightly, would affect the airflow over the wings. and make it less efficient. There was no water available at the airfield, but as usual, Ant came to the rescue and opened his other hangar which had a hose and water supply. After a couple of hours, Skubie was as good as new, and we headed off for a drink at Mikes kitchen, (about the only decent eating place in Louis Trichardt - we don't even know of any bars there).
Ant had invited us around to stay the night, and we offered to take he and his wife Norma out for dinner to thank him for him, very generously, allowing us to use his hangar. In the event, they offered to cook and the dinner out was off the table. After a later than normal night, enjoying their tremendous hospitality, and drinking more than was strictly necessary, we had to get up early to get back up the mountain, as we were going to climb Lajuma Peak that afternoon.
It was a magnificent walk, amid an area of amazing natural beauty. It took us one hour and 40 minutes from the camp to the peak (5714 ft), and about the same back. Quite different from our walks around the Dordogne, and pretty challenging rock climbing in places.
After that, it was an early night as we had yet another early morning flight, this time to to the "Monke Gorge". This was in a wild area an hours flight from Louis Trichardt airfield, atop a plateau. The gorge is about 20 Km's long, and very rugged. The Samango Monkeys were seen there about 4 years ago, but a team that went to that area couldn't locate them. Hence the attempt to locate them from the air. Sadly, the distance was so far that we would only have about 30 minutes on station for a two and a half hour flight.
In the event, we managed to see some baboons, but the Samangos were elusive. However, it did show that we could make out the type of monkeys they were from around our standard viewing height of 300 ft above ground level. This was our last flight around the Soutpansberg, and we are having a holiday from our holiday next week nd driving to Kruger for 5 days of game viewing. Can't wait! Watch this space.
August 28th : We have had a few days of inaction due to weather. Low cloud, and wind, plus really cool to cold temperatures. It gave us a chance to settle in to our new abode. The building, (called The Barn by the researchers), is set in a little clearing in the forest, with two gigantic rocks, over grown by a couple of Fig trees. There is a Braai, (of course!), just outside, and we have that burning brightly most nights. We are so impressed with this Braai concept that we are going to put one into our back courtyard at our place in France. Very convivial to sit around with a bunch of friends with a drink, after the sun goes down. Below is a wide angle shot of our set up here.
Our digs at Lajuma Research Centre
To the left is the kitchen/shower/toilet area, and our bedroom is the middle hut amongst the huts in the centre. Note Fig tree growing around massive rock to the right. As mentioned, while it is generally quite warm to hot here during the day; as it is winter, we do get some cold spells that come in, when the mountain is cloaked in a wet mist and we don't see the sun for the whole day. During such times, it can get quite miserable, and too cold to sit around the Braai. During such times, we were grateful that we had a pot bellied stove in the kitchen to huddle around.
Anne huddled around the pot bellied stove
During the day, we are entertained by a troop of rare Samango monkeys, who are fun to observe, but who occasionally become very cheeky. We have on occasion, not battened down the kitchen hatches securely enough and the little buggers managed to get in, with predictable results. Their food of choice is Bananas and Avocado, which they took on both occasions, plus left a little brown calling card, which now goes into our reference book of scatology. They have now become so bold, that one of them actually tried to climb in through the window whilst we were sitting on the verandah! See picture below......
Samango with head through window
This was the leader of the troop, who I nicknamed "Sir Mango" (Geddit?)
When not being naughty, the Samangos can be unbearably cute, as the following shot shows:
Who me? I never ate that Avocado.... Maybe it was him...
After a few days off, due to the aforesaid weather, things started happening thick and fast. Some unexpected good weather meant that we pushed the Hyena hunting mission forward and pre-dawn on the 27th saw us getting up at 4 am to head off to the airfield. This is normally referred to as "0 dark thirty" in Air Force parlance, but 4 am is even a bit worse than that. One of the reasons I left the air force was I couldn't stomach the early starts, but here I am now, full circle! The reason for such an early start is that as the Sun climbs, it gets hotter and windier. Wind is not a good thing for a small aircraft flying around a cliff face, and we wanted to minimise that. Also, Brown Hyenas are nocturnal creatures and we were hoping to catch them before they went to bed. It takes an hour to drive to the airfield, leaving at 4.30, so we get to the hanger and have the plane out by 6 am. We then tested the radio antenna that was supposed to locate the radio collars on the Hyenas. Anne substituted for a Hyena, and walked around the airfield while we checked that we were receiving signals in our headsets. All was in order, so we were airborne by 6.30. We continued to receive signals from the Anne & her collar, even up to 1000 ft above the strip, so headed off with high hopes.
Marriane, our French Hyena hunter, with Yagi antenna mounted around her neck.
After spending a fruitless hour and a half, criss-crossing the mountains however, we heard nothing. Except that we managed to pick up a test collar that had been activated at Lajuma to ensure that the equipment worked. After that disappointment, we had yet another two missions scheduled. One was a Vegetation survey around Lajuma for Ian, and the other was a flight (bit of a jolly really), for the daughter of one of the landowners (called Noeks), who had allowed us to overfly his land. Since both these flights were covering the same area, we decided to roll both these missions into one, to save time and petrol. Then we had the bright idea of trying for the Hyenas again, with Noeks manning the portable aerial in the back seat again. This flight was duly flown, and apart from getting some very nice photos of her father's lodge, plus some great video for Ian's vegetation survey, the Hyenas were yet again AWOL. Little buggers had probably gone to bed early, yet again. Disappointing, but there it is. Apparently, Brown Hyenas are extremely difficult to catch.
August 22nd: For someone who hates early starts, I am having my share of them on this trip! Today, we had to do the mission for Liesel, which consisted of taking aerial shots of her property from various directions so that she could plan nature walks, plus perhaps use the photos on her website. As the day was forecast to be hot, 28 degrees, we needed to get airborne early. Especially as Anne had to do the walk to Leshiba again so that I could take her as photographer. Hence, we were up at 5.30 am, and out at the airfield by 6, just as the sun was rising. It still took an hour to prep the aircraft, so I was airborne at 7, and landed at Leshiba at 7.03. It wasn't entirely straightforward though, as there were maybe 30 Wildebeast grazing on Leshiba strip, and I had to swoop in low overhead to scare them off. A herd of Wildebeast in full flight, manes and tails streaming, is a marvellous site. By the time Anne had arrived, the regulation wind had come up again, as usual, a tailwind and crosswind rolled into one. Very bumpy on take-off, but I managed to control the rotor that sent us towards the trees on the opposite side. I was thankful that this was my last takeoff on the mountain! I thought it would be too bumpy to carry out Liesels work, but I thought I would give it a try as I would just have to come back again another time if we didn't get it done.
In the event, it was relatively smooth, and we managed to take some glorious shots of the lodge and surrounding areas, such as the Vulture pool. After that, I headed towards Louis Trichardt, but on the way, we orbited a couple of time to take some photos of some illegal wood cutting which has been going on for some time on Liesel's land. This is going to cause problems with erosion if it is not stopped, so we were there to provide the aerial evidence.
What luxury to land at Louis Trichardt with it's 5000 ft tarmac runway! We ere down and finished by about ten past nine. Prof Ghaigher was there to pick us up, and after we had deposited the aircraft in Ant Scott's hangar (thanks heaps Ant!), we were ready to head up to Lajuma, where we would be spending the next few weeks. That afternoon, we settled in at our digs at Lajuma. Basic accommodation to be sure, but we absolutely loved it. Our own kitchen shower & toilet, set in a wonderful natural glad with Samango monkeys chattering in the tree next door and Hyrax looking like overgrown tailless rats running around on the wall outside. And the greatest luxury, a fast internet connection in the kitchen so that we can catch up on all the emails that have been piling up, plus, update this blogg!
Endangered Samango monkey in the tree out front
Anne is never happier than when organising a new kitchen
August 19th: Liesel from Sigurwana had invited us over for coffee and cheese cake followed by a game drive, so we were looking forward to that. The cheese cake was superb, just like mum makes, with raisins and lemon, and the setting was phenomenal, as Sigurwana used to belong to Lord Peterson, a British aristocrat, who had constructed a magnificent African style mansion in the natural amphitheatre where Sigurwana sits. Just a glorious house with steeply sloping thatched roof and thick wooden beams everywhere, set off with natural stone. The game drive afterwards was fantastic also. The area is really full of stunning vistas and natural beauty. We saw most of the game that resides there, all kinds of antelope, including the rare Sable antelope, and of course Kudu, Bushbuck and Impala. She also has 5 Giraffe, of which we saw one, who wasn't at all bothered by the vehicle.
Liesel, Chuck & Peter at the Vulture Pool, Sigurwana
Liesel won't keep Elephant, or Buffalo, as she wants the reserve to be safe to walk, and indeed has installed many walking trails. There are Leopards of course, but they are mostly nocturnal and have never been known to even approach humans. In fact, they are extremely shy, and not a threat at all.
After the previous day, which was very hot, a cold front had come in, and we were shivering on the viewing area of the Land Rover, especially as we climbed towards the higher areas of the property, approaching 5000 feet. We went past the remains of a stone hut where a rather bizarre episode of South Africa's history had played out. It centred around a man called Robey Leivrandt, who was an amateur boxer who qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Whilst there he became so mesmerised by the Nazis and their ideology, plus the personality of Hitler himself, that he became a German agent, tasked with assassinating Jan Smutts, the South African president at the time. Smutts had a holiday home nearby, where he used to come to relax.
We headed off back as we had another early start scheduled the next day. We had decided to come off the mountain because all the next missions were longer, and we just couldn't carry enough fuel out of there and still be safe. Plus, whilst Anne enjoyed her early morning walks to Leshiba, to do that every time she needed to go flying was not really practical. We had arranged with Ian to stay at Lajuma and fly out of Lousi trichardt. Much safer and useful!
August 18th: Sunday A 5.30 am start this morning, as we had to get back on the mountain. It was going to be hot (31 C), and poor old Skubie's engine doesn't like the heat, being from a much cooler clime. Hence, I wanted to get up on the mountain by 8 am, before things started heating up, and the winds and turbulence made themselves evident, making it difficult to land. It was Airborne by 7, it was a beautiful morning, and still quite smooth as we approached the Soutpansberg mountains. They were a glorious sight stretching off to the East towards Kruger and Mozambique.
Looking East over the Soutpansberg at 6000 ft
Again, it turned out to be no picnic putting the aircraft down again on that minuscule strip, as we had (yet again), another crosswind with a slight downwind component. The aircraft was of course heavy as well, with both of us and all our gear, necessitating a higher approach sped. To cap it all, the sun was shining straight down the runway, meaning I couldn't see all that well in the final stages of the approach. In the event, I plonked it down firmer than usual , landing about a third of the distance in, and immediately stood on the brakes. The extra mass meant that the brakes were much slower to take effect and they also began to fade after a few seconds. I started heading off to the left side of the runway, but managed to control it, pulling up with 20 metres to spare. That strip really was marginal. We have already made a decision to leave the mountain on the weekend, as we cannot operate out of there with a useful fuel load. I, for one, will not be sorry!
Phew! Just made it....Skubie on the ground with 20 meters to spare!
August 17th: Up at 7 today, slightly later, but we needed it. as we were both quite tired, (haven't had so many early starts since my AirForce days!). Ian's son Emil (who part owns the lodge), arrived with his in-laws and they tend to eat quite late. As we had had the brai thing happening the previous night as well, with drinks and a late meal, no way could we have got up at six again. We were airborne though by 7.45 for Ian's survey, and it was lovely and smooth. We saw just about all the animals on the reserve, Kudu, Bushbuck, Ealnd, Wildebeast, Zebra, Steenbock, Impala, Duikers, Bufolo and even 5 Giraffe, easy to count as they always hang around together. Obviously, the smaller game like bushpig etc, were not really visible. There are no Elephants on the reserve, though the farm next door has them, and there are plans to take down the fences in the future to allow the animals to mingle, but that is still some ways off.
That Saturday afternoon we thought we would venture into Alldays, a small outback town just 20 K's from the lodge. This was the nearest bit of civilisation apart from Louis Trichardt. Basically, it is a one horse town, where the horse has died. A main street, two petrol stations at either end, with an Indian and Chinese 'supermarket', (neither of which contains anything you would want to buy), But one of the petrol stations boasts another 'larger' supermarket, carrying more mundane things, but is no bigger than a large lounge room, so not a hell of a lot of choice. We filled up a jerry can of fuel for Skubie, so we would have enough fuel to get back to Tolo, 93 Unleaded (I have never heard of 93 Unleaded), and headed off back to Moyo.
On the way we called into an infamous bar called the At Se Ghat (pronounced Atsehat). It is basically the only local bar around the place, but quite a cut above your average bar in the Aussie outback. Designed in a circular Kraal like fashion, the bar is made of beautiful old wood, with all kinds of stuff hanging from the ceiling.
On examination, some of this stuff turned out to be old animal traps, so not so endearing! The walls were covered with old photos, which on closer examination, turned out to be photos of hunters with their respective kills.
These guys sure are proud of themselves.
I count at least 20 warthog with a Kudu in the photo on the left.
I'm afraid I just don't get the hunting bit. I can understand hunting game for food, or having to cull animals if they get too numerous (because all their natural predators have been shot out!), and I could imagine having to do it myself, but I would certainly not enjoy doing it, or feel proud of it. Yet here are pictures of hunters, with rows and rows of Warthogs, all lined up (around 20), with beatific, proud and happy, (almost ecstatic) expressions on their faces, as if they had just done some amazingly good thing. I mean, all they did was shoot a defenceless animal, that was no threat to them at all, just going about it's little piggy business. Plus, they shot it with a high powered rifle with telescopic sight. Where is the sport , or even challenge in that I ask you? It would be like me playing Roger Federer in a tennis match, and Roger happily boasting afterwards that I had not even won a single point! Really. Then what is the point of doing this over and over again 14 (or more times), killing far more animals than you possibly could eat, just so you could line them all up and pose for the camera? I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. It's just not even remotely fair, so what is there to be proud about? They are just the school bully kicking the kids from the kindergarten class. Sadly, the hunting photos ruined what could have been a cosy, atmospheric bar for us.
Buffaloes at Moyo, relaxing in the shade
That night, Emil told us a story about a couple of his friends who flew a microlight to the Northern edge of Kruger called 'crooks corner', on the border of Mozambique, where they landed (illegally), on a sandy patch in the park itself. After congratulating themselves on their illegal adventure, and no doubt, having a drink to celebrate, they attempted to take-off again. Unfortunately, the sand was too soft with the weight of both of them and all the did was taxi around for a while, attempting to get airborne. After doing this for a while, and running short on fuel, the pilot decided he would only be able to take-off one up, and left his companion on the ground, whilst he headed off to try to get a vehicle to pick him up. Our intrepid adventurer was thus left to fend for himself, amongst the lions and Elephants. He did approach an elderly couple who were driving by, and were astonished to see him out there, on foot (you are not supposed to get out of your car in these parks because of the lions etc). When they asked him how he had got there, he told them quite honestly, that he had flown in, (not explaining by microlight), whereupon the two old folk thereby assumed he was batshit crazy and fled. It now turned out that his pilot friend only managed to get help and a vehicle organised after the park gates closed, so he was left to spending the night out in the open, on the savannah amongst said Lions and bitey beasts. That surely must have been the most frightening and uncomfortable night anyone from our 'easy' western culture has spent. He must have been a gibbering wreck by mid-morning when his friend finally managed to pick him up!
As for the survey flights, they went well, and Ian did a reasonably accurate total count of all the animals there, although he undercounted the Eland due to the fact that they like to keep out of the sun under trees. But, for the most part, he was happy with the results, so to our relief, we have been invited back, to do an aerial survey of the vegetation in the Vhembe reserve, which is north of Moyo and stretching all the way to the Zimbabwe border.
August 15th (Thursday): We were due at Moyo Game lodge to meet Professor Ian Ghaigher, a lovely, kind, unassuming sort of bloke, to help with animal counts at the lodge and also to do an aerial survey of the vegetation. Prof Ghaiger was the person I had contacted initially asking about the possibility of helping out at his research station ( http://www.lajuma.com/ ), and in fact, if it hadn't been for him, we would never have got this trip off the ground, hence we were anxious to do his work well. We got up at six with the idea of getting off the ground early to get up there by 10 am. The wind however was up, very unusual in our (limited) experience as in the mountains, the wind tends to build up as the rocks heat up. We prepped the aircraft anyway, which took about an hour. Untying it, pulling the wing covers off, connecting headsets & radio etc, just in case the wind dropped. No such luck, so we left the aircraft tied down, but otherwise pre-flighted and ready to go, and then headed back to Tolo house, a ten minute walk. We hung around for a few hours, during which time I trudged back to the airfield on a couple of occasions t to check the wind, and finally, at around 1130, I judged that we could head off. Not so simple though, as after I took off, Annie had to walk to Leshiba airstrip so that I could pick her up and take off from there. As we were fully loaded, with computer bags and spare clothes in each wing locker, plus extra 2 stroke oil. (Ian had some fuel waiting for us, but we needed a specific type of oil as well). Plus all the camera gear too. (Anne has by now become a professional camera operater).
Hence we were very heavy, even coming out of Leshiba, with it's 800 metres. In fact, I was so worried about not getting off the ground with Anne on board as well, that I rationed myself to 2 T-shirts and 2 pairs of jocks and socks (for 3 days). Once on the ground at Leshiba, I paced out the strip, just to satisfy myself that it was as long as I thought it was. In fact, I paced out 830 metres. However, because we were so high and it was rapidly warming up, I worried that we might not have enough oomf to get airborne at all, (after all, Skubie only has 65 horses, and at that altitude, probably only 55 of them functioning). I made a mental note of a tree for a distance marker, 3 quarters of the way down the strip, that if we weren't airborne by then, I would abort the takeoff.
In the event, we were airborne in two thirds of the strip length and climbing reasonably well, with a bit of power in reserve. So, airborne at around one thirty, seven and a half hours after we had woken up. We set course for Moyo Lodge, 32 nautical miles to the North West, and about 35 minutes flying time, (or two and a half hours drive). It was bumpy as usual around the mountains, but the view was stunning, Once away from the mountains, heading Northwards towards Zimbabwe, the air was as smooth as silk, and we were cool and comfortable cruising at 5500 ft. The landscape was featureless, a dry grey brown grassy plain, classic semi-arid savannah woodland, stretching Northwards to Zimbabwe and west to Botswana.
The GPS was predicting that we would arrive at 1408, and sure enough, 5 minutes out, we could see the game lodge with its long brown dirt strip, out to the left. As I passed over, I could see Ian's car parked there, waiting for us. The landing was uneventful, as we were only at 2000 ft and a 1000 metre runway. What luxury! The luxury didn't stop there. Ian showed us to our rooms, and they were glorious. Beautiful big bath room with outside shower! Tolo house, our base on the mountain, was much more than we could ever have hoped for and extremely comfortable, bit this was a cut above anything we had even imagined. Full maid service, breakfast and dinner; we had paid 250 US per night, for this standard of accommodation in Namibia, and here it was all free, because we were helping with the conservation effort! Ian had even laid on beer and wine for us. Luxury indeed!
Skubie at Moyo with Ian & Anne
After dropping off our stuff, we headed to the student's lab area where there was internet access, and I started mapping out the extent of our operations the next day. The best way I had found was to plot it all on Google Earth, and then transfer the Lat and Lon coordinates onto my GPS, creating a spiral shaped flight plan, starting from the outer boundaries of the reserve and working inwards, so that the whole area was covered. Together with catching up on the week's emails, deleting tons of spam and answering queries about the house, we didn't head back to the lodge until after six, by which time it was quite dark, and the fire in the bria (a quintessentially African circular fire out in the open) beckoned, where Ian was waiting for us with drinks in hand. Frankly, we had been prepared to be living in tents during our work here, and had even brought sleeping bags, but the level of accommodation here has been amazing.
Tuesday (Aug 13th): We decided to fly into Louis Trichardt this morning to catch up with Ant Scott to thank him for letting us leave the trailer in his hangar. We headed off to the aircraft around eight to get it ready for flight. With all the coverings we have attached to protect Skubie's wings, it usually takes about an our to prep him for a flight to Louis Trichardt. The wings need to be protected from the harsh sun, otherwise the canvas will perish, and we could be up for an expensive recovering job.
Once the aircraft was ready, it was around 9 ish, so Anne headed off to Leshiba by foot, to meet with me at the airstrip there. Unfortunately, the airfield at Tolo house is so short, (300 m), that I cannot take off with a passenger, or with any significant amount of fuel for that matter. In fact Ant, had crashed on this very strip, attempting to take off in his microlight with two on board. I had independently decided that I wouldn't try that even before I heard about his mishap. Hence Anne had to walk to Leshiba, about an hour or so away, so that I could pick her up and fly out from there with safety, as it is 3 times as long, and 3 hundred foot lower.
The takeoff and trip to Louis Trichardt was uneventful, except that the radar controller at Makhado airforce base was constantly asking my whereabouts as they had a jet flying in the vicinity. The SA Airforce has had their hours per pilot reduced to 2 per month, so a jet in the air is a rareity! After landing, we called Ant and he shortly appeared to take us into town. He told us the story of one of his workers who survived a Black Mamba bite. Apparently he was on the back of a lorry which ran over a huge Mamba, and the Mamba reared up at the back to strike (it was that big). The guy was about to hit it with a shovel when the the truck driver in fright, let in the clutch and shot off, pitching the unfortunate worker ont the Mamba. He received a bight full on the chest, and instead of heeding the advice of his co-workers, he elected to run back to the lodge and not be driven, Very bad move, as it just spread the venom further through his body. There is an old wives tail that if you give someone who has been bitten by a Mamba electric shocks, that will dilute the venom. This is based on the fact that venom consists of proteins and water, hence electric shots will break it down. Needless to say, this is total rubbish, but his fellow workers, in effect, tried to shock him back to health. By the time the helicopter arrived from nearby Makhado airforce base, what the Mamba hadn't done, the shocks very nearly finished off. He survived, but only just!
Ant took us back to the airfield at around 230, but it was much too windy to take off, so we went back to his place for tea with his wife Norma. It was still pretty windy by 4pm , but I judged that it was dying down so elected to take off, into what was now a 15 kt wind instead of a 25 kt. The flight up was difficult because visibility was bad into the sun, and also, it was still pretty hot (25 down from 28), so the engine was close to overheating. However, with a series of step climbs I was able to control the temperature and we made it over the ring of mountains into the natural amphitheatre where the strip was. The wind was from the west so the approach had to be made into the sun, which was also slightly down wind. I jumped on the brakes as soon as we touched down, but due to the crosswind and some fading on the brakes, I was unable to hold the aircraft straight, and it drifted to the right, slightly running up the sandbank on the side of the runway. It wasn't at all dangerous but it was a bit frightening all the same.
As we landed at around 1700, there was only about 45 minutes left to tie down the aircraft, and then walk home, so we were in a bit of a hurry to complete it all. We resolved to buy more tiedowns so it would be much quicker than with strings and bungees. We finished around ten to six, so we walked home quickly, just on dark, to deny the Leopards their dinner!
The bad weather never really eventuated, though I suppose that low cloud down to the trees constitutes bad weather, however, the high winds that struck Jo'berg didn't touch us at all. Just as well, as I am not sure how Skubies tiedowns would have worked in high winds. We went out to the airstrip Sunday to check on Skubie, plus do a bit of work and so a troop of Baboons running across the airstrip. They went over in dribs and drabs, and I suppose it must have taken a few minutes for all of them to cross. There must have been at least 50, followed by a majestic old male who slowly ambled across and pretended he wasn't scared at all, swaggering across. However, once over, he hared off after the others, dignity forgotten! They were shortly followed by seven or so Impala. Apparently the two species are often found together for mutual safety, with one looking out for the other. Amongst Impala, there is always one animal with his head up, keeping a lookout. Then he will drop his head to feed and another head will pop up. Baboons have excellent eyesight also, so Impala make use of their warning cries if danger approaches. Also, Impala will quite often feed on the Baboon's dropped fruit.
The airstrip from the cell phone access point.
Skubie is white spot lower right Not very long is it?
August 09: Very early start this morning (6.30), as I had to head over to Leshiba to take a Hyena researcher flying. It was our first “mission” and we were a bit nervous. I was due over there at 8 am and Anne was going to walk over there to meet us. Supposedly an hour's walk.
Un wrapping the aircraft took us about an hour as we had put reflective wing covers on, to protect the fragile fabric from the harsh African sun. I was airborne by 7:55 for the short flight (5 mins) to Leshiba. Again, bumpy conditions, and it took the third approach to finally get on the ground. The researchers, Katie and Sam were already there waiting, and it felt good to be overhead on time. Sam was going to fly, and I explained to him that we would probably only be up there for about 40 mins as I couldn't load up fully with fuel, due to weight restrictions on takeoff. They were happy with that. The idea was that he had a hand-held receiver which would pick up the transmissions from the Hyena collars, if we were close enough to receive them. We realised there was almost no chance of finding them on this trip as we didn't have enough fuel, but resolved to fly out of Louis Trichardt next time so we could carry more fuel.
The takeoff run was 303 meters with Sam on board. Katie measured it with her GPS. Basically, this means that had we attempted the mission from the Tolo house airstrip, we wouldn't have made it! Hence the decision to fly from Leshiba was well justified. We headed off towards Sigurwana, and flew right over the Lodge. This was an area where the Hyena were thought to be, then North towards Bergtop airstrip, which was clearly visible from 5500 Ft. The aircraft was climbing sluggishly at that altitude with Sam's 75 Kgs. (I can hardly talk, weighing in at 83 Kilos). However, one thousand foot or so above the mountains, it was a glorious view. We then turned East to start to head back. Sadly, Sam heard nothing but static in his head phones, so the VHS collars on the Hyenas were nowhere to be found. However, he had a different perspective of the ground situation and was very glad to have gone on the flight.
As usual, bumpy as hell coming back into Leshiba and again it took three attempts, the final one down wind, to get land. Anne was still not there when we landed so I asked Sam & Katie to go look for her. She was walking through the Leshiba park, which had two Rhinos. They are white rhinos which are not as belligerent as the Black Rhino, so I was not really worried, but just in case! Of course, she turned up almost immediately afterwards, after a few unscheduled detours. Directions here seem remarkably fuzzy. People just wave their arms airily and say stuff like, “just follow that track and keep left”, not mentioning that there are several tracks off to the left that one should NOT take!
Anne and I eventually took off for Tolo house again. I had figured out the technique by now for taking off to avoid the rotors, (use brakes to keep straight until flying speed achieved, instead of going on the rudders straight away). As a result, the takeoff run was slightly longer but no unscheduled tree cutting! Very little fuel left at this stage, less than 10 litres, so Anne, sadly, had a very short orientation flight. It took us 3 minutes to fly what had taken her an hour and a half. Safe on the ground, we battened down Skubie for some bad weather that was due for the weekend.
Skubie at Tolo, battened down for the storm due on the weekend.
Note bags filled with sand for weight, and protective covers for the wings.
August 08: First takeoff was a bit hairy as there was a slight crosswind component along with a tailwind component. I decided to accept the tailwind component as there was a bit of a downhill slope. However, as it turned out I was airborne in 200 metres (100 metres left), but that was just me, with a passenger it would have been a different story. I headed off to Leshiba to check out the strip there. Very bumpy, especially around Leshiba strip which is in the middle of a natural bowl, surrounded by small hills, which the wind eddies around. Took a couple of attempts to get in and again had to accept a tailwind component as too bumpy to approach onto wind. The takeoff was pretty hairy too, as there are trees on either side and the crosswind tends to curl over them producing a 'rotor' effect. Upon acceleration I found that even with full rudder I was still heading towards the trees! I was airborne by now so the only option was to bank steeply away from the trees. Pretty interesting at 20 ft!
After that little scare I decided to call it a day. I had accomplished what I wanted to, checked out Leshiba, and shown that we could, in future, pick up passengers there.
That afternoon, we attempted to get to the favoured internet spot, on the top of a nearby mountain. Reception was very patchy, and it appears that the Cell phone company that we purchased our USB modem from has not got very good coverage here. A wast of 3 Gigabytes and 60 US dollars! After a fruitless half hour or so not downloading much, we headed home as it was 5 o' clock and it starts to get dark very quickly around here. Walking home in the dark is not an option, as by dark, Leopards regard humans as food.
August 07: After suffering all night with a cold picked up in Durban from Sam, the assistant at Grouteville airstrip, Anne & I met Ian and Oldrich who had driven over from Lajuma research centre to meet with us to discuss future work. Turns out most of our work will be at a game lodge north of us near the Zim border. They want to do some aerial photography of the endemic plant species in that area.
After our meeting we suggested going over to Lajuma to meet one of the researchers we were going to be working with. Little did we know the difficulties of getting around here on the ground, and that Ian and Oldrich had driven for two and a half hours to meet us, even though Lajuma is just on the other side of the hill. They graciously provided lunch when we got there, but our researcher was nowhere to be found. So they brought us back over the hill to an area where we could walk back to Tolo house. After hiking back through the Yellow wood forest, we stopped at a ridge with glorious views over the valley, and they pointed us down a trail that would bring us back home (after another 2 hours!). It was a glorious walk and we reflected that to have been driven about the African bush with two knowledgeable guides and a three hour bush walk back to a remote bush lodge would have cost us hundreds of dollars for the experience.
August 06: After an enforced day off, due to landroving problems, we were finally ready for the attempt on getting Skubie up the mountain. Anne and I went to the airfield to begin assembling the aircraft. Peter was already in town getting the landrover starter motor fixed. nAssembly went fine although we had a bit of difficulty with the main wings as usual. Anne had to take the rental car back halfway through while I continued to phaff around checking stuff. We had contacted a guy called Ant Scott, who very graciously agreed to let us park the trailer in his hangar for a couple of months. Whilst I was test flying the aircraft, his wife rolled up to help put the trailer away. Then Anne & Peter headed off up to Tolo house after loading all the gear, and I was left on my own to fly up the mountain.
What was going to take them an hour and a half by car was going to take me 15 minutes and after flying over some gorgeous scenery, I turned left base for the Tolo landing strip. It was shorter than I had been used to (300 metres), and I only just stopped in time. Note to self, next time go around if not touched down by one third in. the challenge will be in taking off with fuel and a passenger.
We were to stay with Peter at Tolo house, where Niel and Liesel Wright had very graciously offered a bedroom for us, sharing the house with Peter and his soon to arrive wife Monica. Neil & Liesel have a fabulous lodge on the other side of the mountain called Sigurwana http://www.sigurwana.co.za/ , and had also prepared the airstrip for us, as it had been out of use for a while.
August 04: Arrived safely in Louis Trichardt after overnighting in a little place called Van Reenen. We stayed in a little B&B there in a 19th century miner's cottage. Very quaint and very cold! This town is over 5000 ft up and regularly hits -15 C. There was a fantastic pub nearby called the Green Lantern and we repaired there for drinks and dinner. Really great spot, like having a drink with friends in your own house. People were really friendly and although veggie meals were thin on the ground, we had a very serviceable omelette & chips. Very early start the next day as we had a good 10 - 11 hours of driving ahead of us. Finally hit Louis Trichardt at about 6 pm. The next day was a bit of a drag. After looking at the dirt road we had to drag the trailer up, I decided we would fly Skubie in. However, I left Anne minding the trailer and the car at the bottom and went up the mountain with Peter the caretaker to have a look at the strip and install the wind sock if possible. The rest of the road went from atrocious to abominable, and my early decision to bug out about taking the trailer was well founded. To cap it all, the landrover's diff started making horrendous noises, and we just made it to Tolo house, where we plan to be staying. Peter hared off to pick up a replacement landrover, which, coincidentally had only just broken down the previous day, with broken steering and crapped out starter motor. Luckily, he had managed to patch the steering but it still needed push starting. Whilst he was away doing this I went to inspect the airstrip.
I had heard that there were leopards in the area, and I asked Peter if they ever attacked people during the day. He replied, "Not usually". Well, what about unusually, I asked. After all, it would only take an unusual occurrence to have major consequences for me! When I asked him where the airfield was, he pointed vaguely back toward where we had come from. "Can't miss it, and anyway, if you get lost I will just follow your tracks". Right, I thought, those would be the same tracks interspersed with leopard tracks which he would follow to where the cat had dragged my mortal remains! I found the airfield, no problem, but all the way, I saw rather large paw tracks which appeared to belong to something much larger than even a grossly overweight moggie. However, I wasn't attacked by a leopard, (as usual). After pacing out the landing strip, it was the advertised length and had a decent surface to land upon, so I was very happy. Now, all I had to do was get back to the lodge safely, hoping the leopard behaved as usual. So now all we have to do is wait for at least one landrover to be fixed, so that our gear (and Annie) can be carted up the mountain, and the I can fly Skubie in. Stay tuned!
July 31 2013: Spent the previous week or so, basically walking around with our hands in our pockets, while we were waiting for Skubie's ignition system to be fixed. For the more technical amongst you, aircraft engines have two independent ignition circuits, but on ours, the second circuit stopped working a couple of weeks before we shipped Skubie out. Dave Daniel from Comefly said his mechanic could fix it. When we arrived, it turned out that Dave was, not only the airfield owner, chief pilot, examiner & airworthiness inspector, but the mechanic as well! (talk about a one armed paper hanger!). Skubie is now successfully assembled and flying again with both iginitions working, and plus carbis cleaned and rebuilt. Better than new!
Skubie after his first test flight at Groutville, after engine problems fixed,
with Dave, the Chief flying instructor, Chief Mechanic and chief bottle washer!
Today we are going for a short test flight, and then dismantling Skubie to put him back in the trailer for the long drive to the Limpopo. (12 hours). There will be only sporadic internet up there so there may be a delay updating this page. Please keep checking for updates though. By the way, I have no idea why the comments section is not working. I will have to check it out when I have more time.
July 15 2013: Arrived in Durban after a stunningly successful first week. Navigated the civil disobedience of the Cairo International transit lounge, and managed to get to Jo'berg unscathed, (apart from consuming a few glasses of surprisingly decent Egyptian wine). We were pleasantly surprised at the huge crowd of cheering, smiling people waiting for us in arrivals at Jo'berg, but then they streamed past us to meet their loved ones, leaving us on our own. However, our friends from the Bateleurs, had arranged pickup from the airport and the B&B they had recommended, actually turned out to be their headquarters! Sven, who heads up the Bateleurs, also arranged for us to meet lots of interesting people, most of them pilots, but all of them passionate about the conservation cause. Cups of tea morphed into glasses of wine and the meetings morphed into dinner and drinks. One person of note was Sven's friend Jonti, who was a combination of Bill Bryson and Billy Connoly rolled into one. He came out with some literally explosively funny comments at times, which left you fearful for the security of your underwear. We were overwhelmed by the welcome, with people congratulating us on what we were doing, and wishing us well. We felt a bit like Obama, having got the Nobel prize already, but not having done anything to deserve it yet! Unlike Obama though, WE will; so watch this space!
Current Situation July 2013: We are on our way! Due to logistical issues in getting the aircraft from Walvis Bay to SA, we are now going direct to Durban. The aircraft arrives in Durban on the 16th of July. We arrive in Jo' Berg on 10th, for meetings with the Bateleurs (http://www.bateleurs.co.za/), then onto Durban on the 12th. We will base ourselves initially at the Comefly Pilot Centre (http://www.comefly.co.za/), where Dave Daniel has graciously agreed to provide hangarage for us, and mechanical assistance for re-assembly and test flying of Skubie, (the name Anne has given to our little craft). We will spend about 3 weeks there, acclimatising and orientating ourselves for flying in South Africa, plus getting used to air traffic procedures. Then, it's the long flight up to the Limpopo to start work.the first week in August; so watch this space!
Current Situation December 2012: We have now received definite confirmation for 11 missions, helping researchers and wild animal parks with aerial photography and animal censuses, in the Limpopo region of North East South Africa. All of these are planned for August - September 2013. We will still be taking the aircraft to Namibia in the first instance, and then after some orientation flying, onwards to the Limpopo. The long range fuel tanks have been tested successfully and give us a 7 hour endurance to dry tanks at economical cruise setting. That translates to a range of over 500 miles. We are also fitting wing lockers to the aircraft, as we will need to take extra baggage on these longer repositioning trips. Together with this, we are going over the aircraft carefully to ensure that everything is absolutely serviceable for the challenging conditions we expect to find in Africa. We have already fitted larger balloon tyres on the main wheels to help us deal with rough strips and landing grounds. The aircraft is on track to be shipped to Africa sometime in May, for arrival at Walvis Bay in June.
Current Situation at July 2012: We have now repositioned the aircraft in Southwest France and are carrying out test flying along with simulated missions. One potential shortcoming with the aircraft was identified after our trip to Namibia last year, which was the long distances we may need to cover to reposition ourselves. As a result, we have purchased and fitted long range tanks which will extend our endurance. (please see the Aircraft page for more details). This gives us a mission capability normally associated with much more expensive aircraft such as Cessnas and Pipers. We are currently testing the tanks on the aircraft and plan to take it to Africa in May or June next year. The exact date will depend on an itinerary which is being developed for us by a charity in the Limpopo area in South Africa, who plan to use us in surveys for various research organisations they are working with.
Update at September 2011: We visited Namibia for 3 weeks on a fact finding mission as this was an area we were hoping to do some conservation related activities. It is a beautiful and unspoilt country and we made some wonderful friendships. Some members of the Namibian microlight society helped us selflessly, picking us up from the airport and even putting us up for the few days when we didn't have any accommodation organised. We also visited the base camp of a charity we were hoping to work with in the Ugab. We spent a magical night there on raised wooden platforms as elephants came through the camp browsing gently on the nearby foliage. They really passed within touching distance and we were overawed by the sheer immensity of these wonderful animals.
Update at March 2011: We have bought a Shadow microlight and are just awaiting suitable weather to test fly it (a perennial problem in the UK). All being well, we will fly the aircraft down to France for a few months to practice flying some sample missions, and then will ship it to Namibia later this year. We are in contact with EHRA in Namibia, an Elephant conservation charity, and will be working with them in the first instance, doing surveys and potentially filming a documentary.
Update at Dec 2010: After a solid year's work we are now in a position to pursue the purchase of the Microlite aircraft. At one stage, we were looking at maybe trying to get the extra funds to buy a Cessna class aircraft, but have decided that the microlight is still the best option, so have begun searching for a suitable aircraft.
Current Situation at Jan 2010: As self-employed contractors we are able to organise our work around future activities in Africa, and we had hoped to buy the microlight aircraft this year. However, due to the the financial crisis, we now have to start saving once more. Our services as pilot and spotter could be immediately utilised if an aircraft was made available, or a sponsor forthcoming to buy it.
Keep posted for further news!