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“NOVEMBER FIVE ONE ZERO PAPA WISKEY, ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?” the big thickly accented but good-natured African voice booms through our headsets. We all share a chuckle, as this transmission from Gaborone Control nicely sums up our ongoing challenges with radio communications in Africa.
A glance at the GPS indicates that we are at latitude south 24°, longitude east 26°, which places our three-plane air safari about 30 nautical miles northeast of Gaborone, Botswana. Radio communications continue to be a challenge for the Safari pilots, and based on the number of times the controllers ask us to repeat our transmissions, we are just as difficult for them to understand. When planning this adventure, we did not think that the radio would be one of our biggest challenges; funny how the need for effective communication becomes the dominant factor for so many human endeavors.
We are at 4,500 feet, and a thousand feet below the kaki-tinted Kalahari Desert stretches off to the north where it merges with the sky on a fuzzy horizon. If I were blind-folded, transported in space, and dropped in this location at this altitude, I could easily think that I was in the Australian outback, or the south western deserts of the United States. But dropping down low reveals addition clues, as we see small farms of a few scrawny cattle eking out a living in this hostile environment.
This day was planned as a long one, and lack of fuel at Pilanesberg has made it even longer. Our journey began at 4:00 AM at our Impodimo lodge, and if all goes well will end around 6:00 PM as we reach our lodge at Vumbura. First we bounce along for an hour, shivering in the dark in open safari vehicles. Reaching the airstrip, we load the planes, shoo some wildlife off the runway, and depart south for a 70-mile hop to Rustenberg. The thirsty Beavers top off with 138 gallons of fuel, and we make a short hop to Pilanesberg to clear customs out of South Africa. Yes, you read that correctly, in Africa you clear customs out as well as in. After filling out four forms, and paying landing fees, the South Africans deem us worthy to depart their country, and we off on a long 382-mile leg to Maun, Botswana.
Maun is a large international airport, and has a really great air traffic control system that none of us can understand. To the amusement of the Botswanian pilots, we explore the full extent of the ramp looking for the fuel “bowser,” where we again replenish the tanks with avgas, the lifeblood of the safari. Clearing customs is more or less the reverse process of leaving. After a little dust-up regarding our good mate Claudia, who has the misfortune of carrying a Colombian passport, the Botswana authorities – against their better judgment – reluctantly admit us yanks into their beautiful country.
The adventure continues…