Friday, September 28, 2012

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Anyone that's worked the service industry knows that what the customer sees doesn't tell the whole story. Snobs send wineglasses back when they spot a thumbprint, then happily wolf down the T-bone that dropped to the floor as it was plated, rinsed off, thrown back on the grill for a quick re-heat and delivered to the table with a smile.

We joked that an establishment earned two of its five stars just for being in Alaska. Africa takes that to the next level. Don't get me wrong, the accommodations and food stand up to anyplace in the world, unless you need a daily newspaper and a plasma screen television to be happy. And if you do, you are one pathetic fuck.

The lodges here do their best to keep guests satisfied. For instance, two days ago we took a honeymooning couple on a scenic flight. Jacque (one half of the South African couple that runs EIC) ran to me as I headed out to pre-flight and handed me a bucket filled with ice, flutes, and a bottle of champagne.

On the other side of the coin, the only vehicle (land-based) that runs at the moment requires that the driver hold his door shut while under way cuz somebody (actually nobody fessed up to it, it just "happened") opened the door while backing up and hit something which bent the door past its hinge stops. It reminds me of when we used to show up at the train in Whittier with our old Chevy pick-up, "Don't worry, you're not renting the truck. Most of our kayaks float." Inner dialogue, 'Next train's not till tomorrow, sucka.'

But the service can only be as good as it can be. Tourists want to see natives employed at all the lodges? Cool. But if you're from Thailand, newly wealthy(meaning the children will be educated in private schools where they learn Queen's English but you weren't), and you request a special morning drink from your English-as-a-distant-fourth-language server, don't be surprised if you fall asleep on the boat. It's because your iced-coffee was an Irish-iced-coffee, because you said 'iced' twice and neither one of them sounded quite right.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Safety is no accident

We took the South African licensed 206 back to Maun two days ago. It will finish out the last 16.4 hours remaining before the hundred hour inspection on a elephant collaring and tracking project in Eastern Botswana. Then it heads back to SA cuz our company isn't renewing the lease on that machine and just when I was getting used to its idiosyncrasies.

Both 206's that our company owns have after-market tail rotor blades. The Jetranger is famous for LTE or loss of tail rotor effectiveness. The US Army discovered the phenomenon with their Jetrangers back in the late fifties or early sixties and literally wrote the book on LTE. ('Wrote the book' sidenote for the heli-geeks:My Kiwi-Russian mentor received his ground instruction from Wagtendonk himself.)

The South African machine has what Bell calls "High altitude," blades on the tail. They're basically just bigger but they do make a difference, though it's still easy to run out of pedal. When that happens, the tail rotor can't overcome the torque created by the main rotor and the heli spins out of control and if you live, you get to update your c.v.

The aftermarket pedals make a tremendous difference, which is good. They do take some getting used to, which is bad. The first time I raised the collective on A2-HAS, I would've hit the fuel drum with the tail if Vasya hadn't tapped the right pedal. I had too much left pedal in anticipation of the torque and those cute little blades with swept leading edges grabbed a bigger bite than I needed.

After the scenic flight, Vasya took me to a little clearing so I could do some hover work and get used to the different blades. A couple of pirouettes (moving the helicopter in a straight east to west line while spinning slow controlled circles at hover height) and I started to get the hang of it.

Instructors: If you really want to prepare your commercial students (and yourselves) for real-world helicopter work, start every lesson with a scenario that challenges your student's flight planning and decision-making ability. People try to overload ships. One's ability to confidently look at a pile of cargo, do some math, and say, "Either we do this in two trips or we don't do it," will keep him alive. Do lots of downwind takeoffs and landings, sometimes it's the only way in or out of a spot. Make them get into confined spaces with half an orbit, unless it's a government contract, no one's gonna pay for a pilot to do six or eight cirles at more than a grand an hour. Spend some time in the shaded areas of the H/V diagram. Autorotations are super fun but engine failures don't occur at the percentages we train for them. Train for what's gonna get pilots in trouble.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How to train an Elephant

How to Train an Elephant

I’m waiting in the main lodge at Stanley’s Camp. I transferred some guests here so they can “Walk with the elephants.” When we were kids, my brother wanted a pet elephant in the worst way. Maybe it was after the circus came to town, I can’t recall. I do remember asking Dad how the man taught a horse to count. “Shane, that horse was the same age the last time the circus was here. It doesn’t know how to count, it knows if it stomps it’s foot until the man takes off his hat, it gets a sugar cube.”

We grew up on a farm, so we already had most of the usual critters; dogs, rabbits (we used to play with the rabbits and our dog at the same time. She’d playfully flip them with her nose, carry them by the scruff of their necks, chase or herd them back to us. Jody behaved so well around the rabbits that my brother and I let the rabbits out to play with her and then we went about seeking the day’s adventure. We returned to find disturbingly little of our three rabbits scattered about the lawn. Country lessons come with harsh finality.

A succession of horses, bookended by two Shetland ponies and an Appaloosa Dad christened ‘Ugly’ because it had eyes of different colors. In between we had several quarter horses, one of which was pregnant when we bought it, unbeknownst to us. I broke the foal with some direction from Dad on how to go about it. My sister was the first to ride it after me. She took it across the road by the pond where it promptly threw her. Kelley came back holding her broken arm. Dad said, “I guess it ain’t broke yet.”

But Kyle kept asking for an elephant. Always aware of an opportunity for his children to teach themselves, Dad told Kyle to do the research, see what it takes. Asian elephants need seven bales of hay a day. The African elephants like the one I’m watching right now, are bigger and need even more, up to 200 kg of food and 180 liters of water. And never mind the dung, what a job it would be to shovel all that shit.

The first thing you do is tie the baby elephant to a post. Actually, the first thing you do is get yourself a baby elephant. How one goes about that, I haven’t the foggiest. Females stay in herds of mothers, daughters and immature males. Since it takes about ten years before an elephant has learned enough from its mother to survive on its own, the matriarch vigorously defends her herd and the substantial time and energy given to raising young.

But let’s say you did acquire a baby elephant. What you need is a stout post-think telephone pole- and a chain. You chain the elephant to the post. Over the course of several days, the elephant will pull and pull, forgoing food and water, trying to get away. If it succeeds in yanking the pole out of the ground, breaking it off or somehow getting loose, that elephant will never be contained.

If the chain holds, eventually the elephant will give up. From that day forward you can tie the elephant with string and he’ll never struggle. He has a long memory and will not forget that it’s futile to resist. See, they do remember but they don’t reason.

Now you can go about the business of teaching it to wear a saddle, trumpet on command or what have you. But they do remember and if you’re not careful they may turn on you. Our company has done two med-evacs involving elephants, actually one was a rescue because armed farmers fired on the elephant before it could stomp the man to death, the other was a body recovery. And it wasn’t really a body recovery, it was more of a parts and pieces clean up in aisle seven. Chunks of the man were strewn over a large area, suggesting that the mother tore him apart with her tusks and tossed the hunks with her proboscis.

In the end, Kyle decided he Dad was probably right, an elephant would just be too much, “Hey Dad, what about a buffalo?”

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Shouldn't it be low density altitude?

I dreamt of rain last night. I'm told the rains are still a month and a half away but things are changing. Yesterday we had scattered clouds, that's pretty significant cuz I'd only seen three clouds total before that. Quite a change from the last places I've lived, where stainless steel rusts and mushrooms grow in minivans.

The clouds come from the evaporating Delta. Depending on whose stats you believe, somewhere around sixty percent of the water disappears into thin air. The rate of atmospheric absorption increases along with the rise in temperature. Mornings start above thirty degrees these days and we'll have highs in the mid-forties on a regular basis soon. For those of you unfamiliar with the measuring system used by the rest of the planet, twenties are comfortable, thirties hot, and forties require Gold Bond in your undies to maintain sanity.

My running take-offs improve with each passing day. By mid-afternoon the Jetranger protests with more than two passengers and half tanks. With rarely more than a breath of wind to use to my advantage, choosing the right gap between the trees becomes imperative. Tsogo (our heli washing, baboon chaser at Eagle Island Camp) refuels between scenics while I give the safety briefing to the next batch of guests because taking off with more than 32 gallons of fuel puts the TOT (turbine output temp) needle uncomfortably close to the red line.

Life in the Delta changes as we tilt closer to the sun. The snakes are awake and the crocodiles are feeding again. They used to laze on hot rocks, but now the crocs attack the red lechwe (members of the deer family adapted to spend most of their time in water, webbed hooves and all) that just days ago were able to graze next to the indifferent reptiles.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

And the Blowfish

Just in case you think I spend all my time on photo safari or kicking back sundowners with wealthy tourists, I saw a different side of Africa yesterday. We have a government contract to deliver bahuti (every citizen of Bots over sixty gets a monthly pension) to six villages scattered about the Delta.

These villages live the same way they have since time began. The northern enclaves subsistence fish and have water for gardens. In the dry season (which curiously is when the Delta has the most water) they catch extra fish that they take to market along with reeds cut for thatched roofs or weaving of baskets and hats. Looking at the twisted mess of oxbows and marsh from the air, one wonders how in the wide world of sports they ever find their way.

The southern and easterly villages have a harder go of it. Some of the year they have enough fish to eat and if they’re lucky, extra to cure for when the water dries up. Farmers suffer all manner of trials. The plants that can get enough water are either eaten or trampled by elephants. So they concentrate on beef cattle.

Farmers get 8x8 kilometer concessions but that isn’t enough to raise many cows in this environment. They stay out with their herds for weeks at a time, always pushing the cattle to fresh pasture. Neither fresh nor pasture should be used to describe the grazing land. It’s usually a step or two between clumps of dead grass. Lions and leopards kill cattle and cattlemen on a regular basis. I picked up a copy of the Ngami Times (Maun’s weekly newspaper) the day I arrived. There was a blurb about a farmer being killed by a lion on the front page, below the fold.

That farmer lived in Ditsipi, the last stop on our pension delivery. The government official (Agnes, a six-footer who’s knees were constantly pushing into my seatback as I flew) and the state policeman (who dozed with the barrel of his AK-47 on his foot and his head on the butt while Agnes passed out a 250 pula reward to the folks that survived six decades here) walked to the village center while I put the cover on the helicopter (ever wonder why Bruce’s Custom Covers don’t fit on the R-44? It would’ve earned a C- in 8th grade Home-Ec but nobody’s built a better mousetrap yet.)

The whole village turns up to watch the action, try to get money from their newly rich relatives or scam rides to town. Last week I had to drive out to meet a helicopter. I gave him fuel, he gave me an engineer. We drove through a little village and a man flagged me down to ask if I could give his wife a ride to town. I said sure, hop in the back. Before I knew it, I had fifteen people in the bed of the truck with more chasing us as I drove away. Imagine giving one a ride and seven people trying to hang off the skids as we took off.

Local Knowledge

I was chilling at the Fish Eagle Bar (voted top ten most romantic places on the planet to have a drink by the New York Times in 2007, a fact the camp managers go on and on about) when one of the guests asked me why they weren’t allowed to go to their tents unescorted after dark. “After all the pathway is lit and what’s the guide gonna do, sacrifice himself?”

I could tell she was a New Yorker so I took a guess. “Well these guys weren’t born in Brooklyn,” pause for laughter, “So they have a better idea of how things work here. It’s more about avoidance but if need be, they will tell you to stay while they run so the animal chases them instead of you.” We talked about how to tell if the elephant is bluff charging (if it’s ears are out, head up and trumpeting, it’s trying to make itself look big), why you face the cats (they prefer to attack from behind) and the best way to outrun a hippo (you can’t, they can reach speeds of 35km/hour. Mr. Bolt does something like 40). You turn lots of corners and head for the roughest terrain possible cuz their stubby little legs aren’t as agile as ours.

At Chief’s Camp, even the guides travel in pairs after dark cuz there are lots of lions. That’s the place where the zebra was killed right by our heli. But here at Eagle Island, the workers are allowed to travel by themselves. There aren’t any lions here, just elephants, hippos, and leopards.

I scanned the bush on either side of the path (elephants or hippos) and the trees overhead (leopards) with my headlamp on the way back to my tent. I thought I heard a man coming my way. Probably one of the guides, on his way to fetch his guests from their post-dinner drinks round the fire. Weird, that I couldn’t see his light.

I had been concentrating on the sides of the trail but I brought my light to the center of the path ready to say, “Geez Tsile, you scared me.” I wish I could say my senses were keen enough that I saw the glint of the tusk at the edge of my headlamp’s beam, but he was less than ten meters away. I could see both tusks, both eyes, and both ears (folding back.)

Adrenaline surged and I took three quick steps to my right, which put me 30 meters into the brush and toward the light of the guest tents. I guess that satisfied him because he didn’t follow me. Feels great to get that first elephant scare out of the way.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Today's Episode

Twitchers come to the Delta from all over the world for the birding. Many species live here year round, while others come to feast on life brought by the water and leave when it dries up. The colors on the birds paint a stark contrast against the brown grasses this time of year.

I want to learn the major birds so if I’m asked I can answer at least some of the time. I can resort to the tricks I learned while guiding in Alaska where you pick a direction and a color (that’s a White Northern….) or making regular words sound Latin (why it’s a purple byriverus) or the surly method (it’s a duck, I said no standing in the raft.)

I already know the lilac-breasted roller, but I saw one this morning that wasn’t in the kindle book on my Mac. So I went to the camp library. It contained several guidebooks but the only one on our avian friends featured birds of prey. Next I went into the main lodge. Every coffee table has a beautiful book or two. There it was, “Birds of Botswana.”

Stunning photography of both male and female of the species fill the pages. Birds sitting, drumming their wings, or flying over the Delta make up the book. I flip and flip and there it is, the yellow and black bird I saw when I stepped out of my tent this morning. Of course the book is only pictures, no words. I always skip the wingspan blah, blah, blah but it's kind of nice to know the name, right? If anybody asks I guess I’ll say, “You can tell by the crest and the little splash of red under the eye, that there is a page 47.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Balls Deep in the Bush

I sent three c.v.'s, copies of the last six pages of my logbook, and five passport photos to Civil Aviation Authority-Botswana yesterday. When I returned to the office Andrew, wild-eyed and a bit disheveled (he was supposed to be back from the bush on Saturday but trips kept coming up so he had to fly people to and fro while the emails, texts, and phone messages piled up. The life of a owner/manager/pilot is three times as hectic as it is glamorous), sent me to his house to quickly pack a bag. I hopped in the 206 with Vasay (pronounced vasher) the Russian-Kiwi to head to Eagle Island Camp. Talk about an interesting accent. Eagle Island is one of three camps that Orient Express, the world-wide tour company, runs in Africa.

Vasay has been based at Eagle Island for the last year. It's safe to say that he's over it. His Tolstoy is beating his Hillary. But he agreed to stay on until his replacement, me, is up to speed. We spent the day landing at various airstrips, flying scenic routes, and discussing what to do when "Ze damned baboons break into hangar" and destroy the windscreen.

Because I packed a bag on such short notice, I brought the camera but not the cord, so I can't show you the elephant dung that was on the path outside my tent this morning. And even if I remembered the cord, you wouldn't be able to see the lions eating on the zebra that they killed less than a hundred meters from our helicopter two days ago because the hyenas dragged the carcass off last night.