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African Safari, a poem by Robbi DeVries

Africa, the dark  and wild continent…
And yet we summoned the courage to go:
12 Seattlites, 3 de Havilland Beavers,
And  two of our Aussie mates in tow.

For some, it was the promise of adventure
Which enticed us to travel so far.
For others the bucket-list loomed heavily,
Other life events setting the bar.

It is no easy feat shipping 3 airplanes
Half way round the world for ourselves to fly.
But with dreams of scenes from “Out of Africa”,
No price to pay was too high.

So with great expectation we left Cape Town
Eager to slip the bonds of controllers and fly…
Unhindered and free, o’er the Kalahari to see
Lions, Ellies, and zebra from on high.

While the books and movies had painted
The idyllic dream of the unemcombered flight,
The reality you see, was just not to be,
As the controller exclaimed with delight…

“5-1-0 Papa Whiskey, are you listening to me?”

The pilots and passengers were all experienced,
In listening to radio calls,
But the Afri-CANS was such, we just didn’t get much,
And sometimes nothing at all.

With the trials of communication soon forgotten,
To Tswalu at 90 knots we sped.
The vast African plains, the ever-changing terrain,
Excitement building for what lay ahead.

At the remote airstrip there they were waiting,
The safari guides and trackers and staff.
After drinks and a snack, into landrovers we packed.
Forge ahead! Let’s see lions and giraffe!

We bounced the rocky trails of the savannah,
The sight of impala eliciting a thrill.
Then the radio crackled signaling our tracker.
Some cheetahs and just made a kill!

The pace of our vehicles was heightened
As we sped toward the Predator Zone.
Abruptly we slowed,  a slight shiver of cold,
Only whispers heard ‘bove the landrover’s drone.

The tracker and guide exchanged silent signals
As through Acaia and bush brush we plowed.
And just when you thought, all had just been for naught
There they were… what this trip was about.

20 feet away- magnificent cheetah brothers
Lying there calmly munching their prey.
While a bit hard to view, realistically we knew…
It’s survival… we would not look away.

And so it went each day of the safaris,
With the 6 a.m. wake up calls.
Back to camp for a feast, a nap and then tea,
Another game drive before the night fall.

Evening drives were capped off with “sundowners”,
Having drinks by ponds where hippos lazed.
Vewing stars so amazing, Southern Cross brightly blazing,
Sharing pics and events of our day.

The night time brought dinners in bomas,
Entertained with native dancing and song.
Feasts fit for a king, prompting our own ladies to sing,
Even if our tune was all wrong.

In the daylight we were free to be mobile,
Wandering  through camp with wildlife among.
But with dark came the fear, of night predators near,
So on our escorts, the rifles were slung.

Each camp has its own special memories,
Like Ellie’s having drinks ’round the pool.
Or flying over Vumburra, in search of Mapula,
Found alive with a new baby. How cool!

We blogged video of lions doing a “take down”,
And of monkeys stealing apples and things,
A mama rhino and baby, just lazily grazing…
Beside the tarmac in front of our planes.

After seventeen days on safari
We’d checked off most on our multi-page plan.
The big five, the ugly three, the birds, plants, and trees,
The dunes of the great Phinda Sands.

Enchanted by the African people,
Intrigued by the African land,
Tswalu, Impodimo,Vumbura, Mashatu
Mala Mala and Phinda were grand.

Still, the original dream to fly Africa…
Unfettered and solo and free,…
Had not quite yet been accomplished,
So on we flew, the east coast to see.

What a glorious surprise was awaiting-
The spectacular African Coast.
Of a  more wild and unspoiled coastline
Very few other countries can boast.

As we rounded the tip of the continent…
The pilots their dreams finally fulfilled,
Soaring free as a bird, from the cockpits we heard
Clicks of cameras as SD cards  filled.

Many thanks to Mike, Doug , and David,
And the co-pilots who helped make the way.
And to Hanks Aero for the trip of a lifetime,
And amazing memories we’re taking away.

Each of the members of this incredible adventure will take away a unique perspective of the land, the animals, the people and the culture of the relatively small part of this vast continent which we explored. For me, it was to be reminded once again of the  sameness, not the differences, of humankind, as well as animals the world over,  and just how inter-dependent the systems are-each playing their own role in perpetuating the fragile circle we call life.

With the invention of the aeroplane, the world is, indeed, a smaller place and only though general aviation are we are able to experience adventures like The Great African Air Safari.

May you always have a “tailwind”,

Robbi DeVries

The 43 Flight School


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We visited the 43 Flight School in Pt. Alfred, which turned out to be a world class operation. The original 43 Air School opened in 1942 as part of the Joint Air Training Scheme during World War II. Approximately 100 aircraft, mainly Avro Ansons and Airspeed Oxfords, were used to train navigators, bomb aimers and gunners.

Today, a team of  professionals with extensive operational experience (airline, military and commercial) provides training of an international standard to some 300 airline, military, corporate and self sponsored students from around the world.

Most notable were all the great aviation witticisms posted around the campus. Here a few:

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Cows on the Beach by Anne Simpson

Editor’s note;  This blog includes content, such as OMG, that may be offensive to some of our more discerning readers who are, well, out of their teens.  The material reflects the personal language of the author, who was acting on her own recognizance, and does not necessarily represent the official  language of the GAAS team. :-)  

Departing Phinda and our guide Sam

Departing Phinda and our guide Sam

OMG! – as the texting generation says.  What a day of flying we had!  As usual we departed the Lodge on time, at least according to the DOT, within 14 minutes of schedule.  And again as usual we said our long and heartfelt “thank yous” and “goodbyes” to our rangers and trackers.  Then we took off to probably the greatest surprise of our flying scenery.  The east coast of South Africa is beyond stunning.  It was one “look at that” after another.  Miles and miles of beautiful beach with some of the best surf in the world.  Sand dunes that flowed north and south but also piled up into small mountains as they reached far inland.  Steep cliffs broken at regular intervals by

N67DN over South Africa Coastline

N67DN over South Africa Coastline

gorges carved by rivers flowing into the Indian Ocean.  The green hills were spotted with the thatch roofed round homes of the farmers and they were pink, or blue or aqua marine.  And everywhere, cows on the beach.

Cows on the beach contemplating the vast Indian ocean while contentedly chewing the cud

We flew just off the shore and low, sometimes dropping down to barely above the waves where we watched the beach and the cows speed by in our lightening quick 100 knot beavers!   I even got to do a lot of the flying.

Surfing the dunes

Surfing the dunes

Cap’n Anne at the controls

It was spectacular and I think I have been bitten by the general aviation bug.  As the only airline pilot in our “lodge” I have enjoyed watching the three beaver pilots plan each day’s flying, plotting their courses on the charts, doing their preflights and checks lists and then flying these beautiful, old tech, workhorses.  I have more than once joked about “having my people” do many of these chores and also commented on how hard general aviation is but these guys are the real deal.  They love to fly and they all do it very, very well.  So well, in fact that they were celebrities at our next stop and last layover of the trip.

Port Alfred, is home to 43 Air School.  It is the largest flight school in South Africa and all 300 plus students live right at the airfield.  When we taxied in after Doug’s grease job on the grass strip our “flight of three” were greeted by about 100 students.   They looked in the cockpits, asked about our trip and jostled to help push the beavers around the ramp into their spots for the night.  A few of 21+ year olds even joined us in the Wright Room, their student union, for a debrief beer.

43 Flight School

43 Flight School

43#2

Flight students checking out the Beavers

With only one more day for this “lodge of beavers” to fly together before being packed up and shipped home, I have to say it’s been a GAAS.  We’ve seen the big five plus hippos and cheetahs and baboons and impalas galore and we’ve even seen cows on the beach!

Thank you Doug and Robbi, Mike and Kay, David and Polly and the rest of the crew for making this the once in a lifetime adventure we imagined it could be.

Watercolors of Africa


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Our Safari mate Ann Hanson painted these watercolors during our trip, Ann says:

Some experience Africa through their camera and some through watercolor. It feeds my soul!

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Happy Hour with the Hippos by Anne Simpson


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Those of you who are avid followers of this blog know a traditional part of the afternoon game drive is the “sundowner” stop to stretch your legs, watch the sunset and of course eat and drink (because it has been a couple of hours since the last meal).  It is also a chance to swap stories with rest of the “beaver lodge” who may have spied a different animal or two.  We’ve seen some pretty cool stuff while standing around with a cocktail in hand.   Baboons in Madikwe, a rhino and her calf in Mala Mala and last night three hippos.

_DSC7683Our group’s two land cruisers stopped beside a good size waterhole where the rangers and trackers set up the a table with snacks and beverages.   Our entertainment this evening as the sun goes down is two adult and one adolescent hippopotami lounging in the pond.  Lounging is the best way to describe what we are seeing.   They kind of bob around with just their ears, eyes and nostrils above the water, then take a dunk down and pop back up wiggling their ears as they emerge.  We had learned in Vumbura that they stay in the water all day only coming out at night to graze.  They are susceptible to sunburn if they aren’t careful!   This evening we learn from Sam, one of our rangers, that hippos kill more people than any other African animal.  They do not see well, but they hear and smell and you do not want to be between them and their water in the morning.  Apparently hippos will go out of their way to “eliminate” a threat.  Check out the size of month on our sundowner neighbor!

_DSC7690As it gets darker the rangers begin to get anxious about packing and loading up as this is the time when these cute little guys start getting hungry for dinner.   We’re all a bit slow with our cocktails enjoying the the evening when waves start forming on the pond and two hippos head for the shore, fortunately not the one nearest us.  An enormous body is attached to to what now appears to be a rather smallish head, all things being relative and Sam announces “he is going to toilet”.  As the hippo stands in about a foot of water he starts wagging his tail, swinging his rear end and distributes poop in a large area behind him.  Then, as all hygiene conscious mammals would do, he washes up by retuning to the deep end of the pool.

What a way to enjoy a gin and tonic!

The Case of the Missing Kitty – Part II

This just in from Ali!

Shortly after you left yesterday I made my way to find Mapula.  I met with the manager of the reserve and with the help of a tracker/guide we set off looking for the missing cheetah. This was about 12:30. We headed straight for Eagle’s rock ridge, close to where we had picked up the strongest signal while flying over the area. We climbed the rocky ridge to try pick up her signal. I only heard what seemed like a very feint signal so going with my gut we headed in that direction to climb another mountain. Luckily it was not just my imagination as the next hill there was a definite “beep”. Unfortunately it was in the direction of the boundary of the reserve and also in an area very thick with Mopane bushes.

Homing in on the AWOL cat

Homing in on the AWOL cat

We drove the boundary road along the fence, checking regularly on every small ridge as we progressed. We confirmed that she was indeed on the correct side and still within the reserve but in an area very very thick and with little road network. We drove along the road to as close as we could to her location and then veered off into the thick bush. It was quite hard going, we wanted to approach her in the vehicle as she is habituated to our land cruisers and not to people on foot. We finally found her resting under a bush at about 4pm!

Mapula the cheetah

Mapula the cheetah

She got up as she saw us so we quickly turned off the vehicle as not to disturb her, but both Jon and I though she looked injured as she got up. Her hair was a little matted as well. Once she had relaxed in our presence we slowly made our way for a better view of her. We were relieved to see that she didn’t have any visible injury but as she got up once again she seemed to walk in a very strange way. She then went into the bush directly behind her and looked down into it as though sniffing for something. She then slowly walked off to lie a little further away in the shade.

This is when we realized that something was moving in that very bush, and after a little while we heard soft chirps similar to that of a bird and a grey ball of hair moving around!!!  Yes, a CHEETAH CUB!!!!! We were so happy to be able to witness what has got to be one of the youngest cheetah cub in the wild!!!

Cheetah cub (not Ali's)

Cheetah cub (not Ali’s)

Although we never got a good vision of it due to the thick bush we were able to confirm at least one cheetah cub. Mom soon returned to comfort her little baby and lay down in the bush nursing her little one.  We stayed with them for about an hour hoping to get another glimpse of it. At one point he peered at us through the grass and we were able to confirm that his eyes were open. Cheetahs are born with eyes closed and only open after about a week to 10 days so we think that it is a couple of weeks old.

This was an incredible experience for me, probably the best wildlife experience I have ever had! I cannot thank you enough in your help to find our proud new mother!

She is in an area that sees very few lion and hyena activity so we hope she will stay there and raise her little one successfully. I will monitor her over the next few months, with as little disturbance as possible.

Thank you so so much for all your help, I really appreciate it.

Enjoy the rest of your trip and hope to see you again!

All the best

Ali

Showdown at MalaMala by Judy Runstad

 

MalaMala lions at kill

MalaMala lions at kill

We left our camp at MalaMala at 6:30 AM, and soon began tracking a pride of three lionesses,7 cubs, and one big male as they stalked the herd of Cape buffalo we had been in and amongst two evenings earlier.  We started tracking at 6:45 AM, and followed them over every imaginable terrain as they patiently stalked their prey. One of the Land Rovers even got high-centered after one particularly frenzied drive into the bush in pursuit of the cats, and had to be towed free.

The cubs followed close behind the lionesses, but the big male lion brought up a distant rear, or so we thought.  A number of the small buffalo looked like sitting ducks, but our rangers said the lions were very hungry and would be looking for a larger specimen.  Several times, the lions stopped to rest and the cubs would curl up with them.  We thought they had given up.  But at a silent signal, they would all get up and resume the hunt, slowly dividing the buffalo herd.

At approximately 9:30 am, they made their move.  They got a large female buffalo separated from herd and took her down.  The buffalo tried to charge and butt with her horns, but the lions were too fast.  First one lion, then a second, then a third jumped on her back.  The three lionesses worked together to bring her down; then the male lion who we thought was far behind suddenly appeared and leaped for the buffalo’s throat and the kill.  The cubs all piled on, the doomed buffalo gave one last anguished bellow and died.

Showdown At MalaMala

The feast began.  I have to remind myself that without this kill and others like it, the cubs would starve.  Still, it is hard to watch…violent death, survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle…whatever you want to call it, this morning was a powerful illustration of The Wild Kingdom.    We are glad to have witnessed the hunt, the skill, patience, and cunning of the lions, their communication and strategic moves.   But I personally hope I never see a kill again.

Mashatu – The Case of the Missing Kitty

“It could be wishful thinking, but I may have heard a faint beep,” chirps the petite voice of our zoologist, Ali, over the intercom of Beaver N67DN.  Our spirits lift – perhaps our search is not in vain.

 A thousand feet below us lies the Mashatu Game Reserve, located at the far eastern corner of Botswana. The seemingly endless plains range from savannah to riverine forests, marshland to sandstone outcrops. We are navigating on a small sliver of land between South Africa, just over the Limpopo River to the south, and the Republic of Zimbabwe, just to the north.

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Search in progress

With both passenger doors removed, the howling gale-force cabin turbulence is making communication difficult. To my right, sits Mike Lester, aka “Mikey”, deftly cranking the waypoints into our GPS. Behind me sits Ali, residence zoologist, bravely holding her directional antenna through the door opening into the 80 mph slipstream, listening intently through her earpiece for a tone from a radio collar. Next to her is Steve Gale, our clever Aussie mate, who integrated Ali’s direction finder into the Beaver – in the middle of Africa – with not much more than a Swiss Army knife. In the very back, Ali’s husband Mike is kneeling in the cargo compartment. So with both doors off and a guy in the back with no seat or safety belt, if anything bad happens, I’ll have some explaining to do.  But hey, there’s not much need for cheetah tracking in Seattle, and as my buddy Mark Schoening would say, “it’s time to surf the now.”  So surfing we are doing…

Ali searching for the leopard

This all started last night, on our “predator” game drive with Ali.  Ali, 27, is a researcher on the preserve, and is currently focusing on the Cheetah population. Ali took a break from her studies to take us out on a drive looking for “predators.”  Our mission was to track down a Leopard wearing a radio collar, using her nifty VHF direction finder. After several hours of bouncing through the preserve, we located the elusive feline enjoying a fine dining experience of fresh Impala. (By the bloody looks of it, he apparently orders it rare) Anyway, after successfully executing this mission, we took a rest from our toils, and traded tales of our feat while sipping gin and tonics. All very civilized.

Ali mentioned that Mapula, a female Cheetah wearing a radio collar, had gone missing, having last been spotted in early April.   The cheetah might be located through aerial surveillance, but no airplanes were available.  Enter, stage left, The Great Africa Air Safari.  The Beaver pilots took the bait, and a scheme was hatched to use one of our planes to find the truant kitty.

Over the next few hours we got the requisite permissions, loaded up the

Ali and direction finder installed on the Beaver

Ali and direction finder installed on the Beaver

direction finding gear, worked out a basic search plan, and bounced over the dusty trails in the Safari vehicle to the airstrip.  We spent another hour assembling our Beaver-based-direction-finding-system,  then stood back and all agreed that Rube Goldberg himself would be proud.  With all systems go, we lifted off around 1:00 PM.

 

Following our plan, we headed east, following the south border of the preserve. Ali had her antennae poked out the left side of the Beaver, Mike was directing our search plan, and I was, well, keeping the Beaver in the air. Over the next 45 minutes we searched most of the park, and picked up exactly nothing. Mapula, the runaway cheetah, was not to be found.

“I heard another beep.” says Ali, with a hint of excitement in her voice. And then, a few moments later, “THE BEEPS ARE GETTING LOUDER,” shouts Ali over the din, and suddenly we are high-fiving all around. Over the next ten minutes, we fly a precise military spiral flight pattern, which is to say we bumble about over the terrain below, and narrow down Mapula’s location to within a few hundred square yards.

With an eye to the fuel gage, we reluctantly return to the Limpopo Valley strip, and plop the Beaver down with minimal structural damage. It is too late in the day for a ground search, so we head back to camp and regale our mates with feats of derring-do.  By the end of the evening, with some help from a few gin and tonics, the Great Africa Air Safari team has single-handedly saved the cheetah population in Africa from extinction.

Northern-Tuli-map

Map of N67DN search route

In fact, all we know is the location of the collar, which could be attached to a happy cheetah, or just her collar laying at the bottom of a hyena den.  The next step is ground reconnaissance, but unfortunately we depart for Mala Mala tomorrow and will not be able to “help”.  (I suspect to Ali’s relief…)

Ali has promised to update us with her ultimate finding. To be continued…..

Doug

Mashatu – Walking the Bush by Anne Simpson


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We climb out of the Land Rover and gather around our tracker, Sam, and photo copyour guide, Cornell (like the university and he seems to contain about the same amount of knowledge).  The brief Cornel gives is serious and is highlighted by the .375 H & H rifle capable of taking down a lion or even an elephant.  The animals in the reserve are used to seeing the vehicles and know they are harmless.  Our group on the other hand, will be viewed as predators, or worse for us as intruders, as we walk through the Savannah on our “hind” legs.  Rule number one, do not run – that is also rule number two and three.  Stand your ground and look fierce – really?  OK we say and off we go single file and very quiet.  100 feet beyond the truck we find signs of a recent lion feast perfectly cleaned up by hyenas.   Cornell reminds us not to run and a few of us want to know if that means from right here back to the truck!

We do not encounter any lions during our 90 minute walk or anything else that might be interested in eating us but we are watched intently by a herd of impalas whose big horned boss snorts commends to his harem of does. Mostly we spend the time learning  about animal conservation in Africa.  Cornel shows us trees that have been uprooted by the elephants.  Madikwe has an elephant population that is double what the reserve can sustain.  This overpopulation is destroying habitat for many of the other animals and is a serious challenge for the park management.    The huge pachyderms are protected and they also have very strong family bonds and excellent memories.  Cornell told us that past attempts to control the population by removing the old and sick actually created “juvenile delinquents” because the youngsters remembered the harsh treatment of their family members.

photo The walk was a wonderful way to spend some time in Africa’s outdoor classroom not to mention work off a bite or two of the always-abundant meals!

Mashatu – Biking in the Bush by Charlie Conner


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After flying airplanes, driving and walking we finally get to ride mountain bikes, one of my favorite modes of transportation when I want some adventure, exercise, and a slower if not safer pace.

This morning Anne, Mosa, (our guide) and I, set out for a ride around the DSC_1371area to see what we could find.  A very short distance from the electrified compound gate Mosa stops us for a briefing.  He tells us the equipment he is carrying:  water, rations, first aid kit, pump, and a Winchester .458.  On an earlier trip to Kenya when I inquired why this caliber, the guide responded “because we want to be on the winning team”.  I know from other inquiries that none of the guides I have come in contact with has ever had to use his firearm on an animal; it’s more of a 7kg. insurance policy.  We are instructed on hand signals and emergency procedures in case of conflict with wildlife.

DSC_1363 We learn that we are riding tubeless tires filled with self-sealing material that hopefully prevents flats in case of contact with thorns.  One of the most prevalent trees in this area are the acacia, which are full of thorns about 2” in length and as sharp as needles.  On the ground are plants similar to the goat heads I am used to from the pacific northwest.  I don’t think it would be possible to avoid multiple punctures outside the manicured walks inside the walls of Mashatu lodge where we are staying!    We learn that we will avoid trouble by riding in open territory where we can hopefully see animals in the distance and not get too close to those of most danger, elephant, leapord, and lion.  If we come in contact we are to use our bicycles as a shield from danger, kind of like the Seattle Police on May Day.  Those animals will hopefully be confused and stay behind the steel and rubber barricade.

DSC_1378 We ride single file on the single track along the Agate Kopje ridge, where we can see miles in all directions.  The ridge is covered in agates, crystals and assorted beautiful rocks, some with high iron and copper content.  Anne wants to bring a planeload for the fountain, but they belong here. Besides that, we are all bigger now after eating only 5 meals a day, plus a few snacks at cocktail hour. We don’t want to over gross our aircraft.  Oh, and what appears by the river but a lodge truck with mid morning tea prepared. It’s tough roughing it like this.

We see impala, baboon, crickets, eland and kori bustard, the world’s largest flying bird, which weighs in around 20 kg.  We encounter a heard of elephants and it’s time to deviate course to high ground.  Elephants have poor eyesight however they can feel vibration though the earth, best not to be noticed in close vicinity.   Only one tire goes flat.  We pump it up, the slime works, and we make it back just in time for another meal and a Mashatu Alligator (haircut).

Charlie Conner