I often used to fly around and visit other bush lodges when I had the time off. This usually took place over weekends and mostly on a Saturday. I often stayed for lunch and then flew back in the late afternoon. Most of these camps were situated along the Okavongo River in the Okavongo Delta in Botswana. It was great fun flying low level over the water checking out the crocs sunbathing or the pods of hippo in the shallows. Sometimes I would even see herds of buffalo as large as 1000 animals or more. Elephant and the occasion rhino were also a welcome sight. Only problem with these low level flights aside from no area for a forced landing, was the bird life which posed a real danger. Cormorants and Fish Eagles posed the biggest threat.
One morning early I pre-flighted a little Cherokee 160 I regularly used as I prepared to fly to meet a mate of mine who was managing a new lodge about 40 minutes away. Sometimes I got lucky and was able to use a Cessna 210 which belonged to the National Parks Board but mostly I settled for machines like the Piper and a C172.
The lodge I was visiting was active in a breeding program designed to re-introduce the black rhino to the area. They had been wiped out by poachers and the government was keen to return them to their natural habitat. Anti-poaching had been made the responsibility of the Botswana army and they made use of their airborne forces (paras) to do the job. They implemented a shoot to kill policy and zero tolerance of any poachers found in the Delta. My mate had radioed in and told me that their resident female black rhino had given birth to calf and everyone was pretty excited. Both mom and baby were housed in a large 2 square kilometer compound so the chance of sighting them was very good.
Following the river and routing North 40 minutes later, I found myself overhead Mvuu camp. Mvuu means hippo in a local dialect. Descending down to 500 ft I started my arrival procedure which included a low level shoot up over the lodge coupled with a wing waggle. This was to alert Chris who would then proceed to the dirt strip 5km away by vehicle to fetch me. The runway was 09 and called for a short field approach to clear the river and a 20 ft baobab tree which marked the threshold. Before landing, a full flap low level runway inspection was called for before resuming a circuit for landing in order to scare away the antelope herds and the occasional zebra, warthogs and wildebeest. Backtracking, I taxied to a stop under some mopani trees that lined the strip and shut down. I opened the cabin door to let in the morning air and then busied myself with logging the Hobbs and watching a herd of Impala return to the grass strip and graze. Chris usually took about 15 to 20 minutes to fetch me depending on whether or not he was busy with a tourist game drive or not. Sitting in that early morning shade and watching the animal and bird life was an incredibly effective de-stress exercise. After about five minutes, I noticed that the impala ram in the herd on the runway was getting edgy and he started to make snorting noises which was usually the prelude to full flight. It did not take long before the impala herd bolted across the runway and into the bush. I looked around to see if I could pick up the source of the panic. Impala are very skittish animals and I suppose that it is natural seeing that they find themselves at the bottom of the food chain. A loud fart in the still morning air would be more than enough to send a herd into a panic run! I eased myself out of the cockpit, stood on the wing and checked around but saw nothing untoward. I then heard one of the lodge vehicles approaching and assumed that it was the cause of the impala flight. As the game vehicle came into sight on the far side of the runway, I grabbed my flight bag and was just about to step off the wing when I saw a tail flicking from under the trailing edge. A lioness had decided that the additional shade offered by the wing was just what she wanted. As the game vehicle approached, she got up and ambled off. Such is life in the bush, always expect the unexpected. Once in the vehicle, we followed the lion some distance before she slipped into really thick bush. There was a group of tourists on the vehicle and it was their first lion sighting for the day.
Back at the lodge, Chris and I caught up with one another’s news and I was introduced to some of the new family pets which included a banded mongoose, a grey bush squirrel and baby hornbill that had fallen from the nest and was now being raised by Chris’s two daughters. At lunch Chris gave me a brief on the condition of the new baby rhino and we agreed to set out after the meal in search of mom and her new baby. As we sucked on our pipes after lunch, one of the local guides came to Chris and told him there was a serious problem and that he had to come quickly. I joined him and we ran around to the front entrance of the building where we found the remnants of an anti-poaching patrol. I say remnants because one of the guys was dead and had been shot in the chest. One other ranger was wounded in the hand. They explained that they had been on patrol in the area when they came across a large group of poachers that had just shot and killed a bull elephant. An estimated 10 or 12 were in this group. A gunfight erupted and the four rangers were seriously outnumbered. This had all happened only two hours ago and the rangers had evacuated the dead and wounded back to camp by borrowing a canoe called a makoro. Flowing downstream with the current it only took an hour to get to camp. While Chris de-briefed the r angers, I sorted out the wounded guy, put him on a glucose IV, bandaged his hand and gave him a jab of antibiotics.
Chris decided to take 5 of his lads to the site by vehicle and he asked me to give aerial cover and guide them to the location. Chris armed his guys with R4 automatic rifles and they set off. The lodge chef was to be my co-pilot and extra pair of eyes. I estimated that he weighed about 300 lbs and I hoped that the heat, short runway and AUW would allow us to get airborne. The fact that I only had half full fuel tanks was a plus.
I lined up with the dirt runway with the horizontal stabilizer almost touching the baobab tree, had no flap and held the brakes and powered up. The runway had some little speed bumps down its length so we kept on getting airborne prematurely every time we hit a bump. At 50 knots I rotated and at the same time gave myself 15 degree of flap which gave me a positive climb rate to clear the tree at the end of the strip. I climbed to and leveled off at 1500 ft and set course. The idea was to orbit over the elephant carcass and guide Chris and the boys into a position while relaying pertinent tactical information to enable him to lead the assault. After the minutes we saw the elephant on its side with the poachers swarming over the carcass. They had already hacked off one of the tusks. I called Chris in on the target and started to enter a wide orbiting pattern around the site. While I was chatting to Chris, my chef gave a squeal and jumped in his seat. He cried out that something was burning his butt. Before I could answer, I heard a couple of loud clipping noises like dry sticks being snapped and realized that the bastards were shooting at us. As I powered up to climb, the rear window exploded and that convinced me to clear the area while I climbed. I remained visual while guiding Chris and climbing to 4000 ft where I leveled off and returned to orbit the poachers. I could still see muzzle flashes from their AK47 rifles and they seemed fixated on bringing the aircraft down. I continually monitored fuel content just in case we had caught a round in either wing tank. The poachers were so intent on me in the air; they barely saw Chris and his boys until it was too late. After a brief 3 minute firefight, Chris and his rangers had knobbled 9 poachers. We assumed that the others had fled during the firefight unnoticed by either Chris or I. After the all clear from the ground I flew back to camp to drop Chef and pick up the wounded ranger for his flight to the town of Maun where there was a good hospital for him and a couple of cold beers and a nice clean bed for me.
The flight on the way back was noisy to say the least. We had also picked up two rounds in the fuselage and one in the elevator during pre-flight before the medevac. Given the amount of ammunition hurled at us, I think we got off lightly. Chris and the chaps returned to camp after spending the night in ambush near the carcass. No one returned so they had probably skipped it into Zambia during the night and were long gone. Chris and the rangers removed the ivory and loaded as much meat as possible to take back to their families. The rest was set alight and burnt just incase the poachers were lurking nearby hoping for some scraps.
I never got to see the baby rhino until she was 4 months old and I paid another visit to see Chris. I had to use the C172 as the Piper owner was highly pissed at me for the bullet wounds in his bird. His insurance eventually paid out after some gentle persuasion by the Botswana Minister of Natural Resources and all was forgiven. The injured guide healed up quickly and he and the other rangers were awarded medals of bravery and a cash bonus for their families. Chris got promised military anti-poaching patrols and another female black rhino for his breeding program. I went back to work guiding at my bush lodge so everyone came out OK except the dead ranger, Amos who left behind a wife and young kid.
And so the sun sets on just another day in Africa!