“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.
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…
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
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.
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…..