Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Even if it is just for bangers, everybody's doing it.

1. Come up with a better response to "Do you ever see lions?"
2. Do some push-ups(not daily or even monthly, but some as 2013 was push-up free).
3. Work on my 'Don't talk to the pilot, that fucker looks crazy,' gaze. Alternatively, say, "Did you hear that? Ah it was probably nothing," more often
4. Raft the Zambezi.
5. Give '100 Years of Solitude' another chance.
6. Get a properly exposed pic of a monkey leaping between branches.
7. Drink more vodka.
8. Refrain from smirking when someone identifies as "Flexitarian."
9. Delete item number five.
10. Decide what I want to be when I grow up.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Santa's Machine Gun

Let's take a moment of violent non-silence to celebrate the life and times of the contest winner responsible for the most popular gun of all time. Mikhail Kalashnikov's weapon starred in wars, skirmishes, and rap songs. The AK-47 even made it onto the flag of Mozambique.

Okay, back to the front. I did a stint as Black Santa's little helper the other day. We hauled bags of toys, Father Christmas, and a whole goat to a village in the middle of the Delta. The kids had a ball climbing all over the fat man in the red suit while the big kids went at the goat with knives and pangas(machete sort of things) to get it skinned and butchered quickly for the feast. The women took the hunks of meat and pounded them with mortar and pestle so the meat had more surface area to absorb the milk and salt mixture as it boiled into seswaa.

Everyone in the village did what people the world over do at festive occasions, recounted memories, told stories, shared laughter and food. I left the festivities early due to a squall line on the horizon. But Father Christmas wouldn't have left with me anyway. When he was done handing out gifts, he just walked into the bush until his red suit faded away. The kids here all think Santa lives in the bush. A lesson Megyn Kelly and her ilk would do well to learn: it doesn't matter whether Rudolph's nose is red from magic or too much coke, what color Father Christmas is, if he pilots a sleigh or as Brian Setzer and his orchestra contend, Santa drives a hot rod.

Friday, November 15, 2013


The rains have returned, albeit slowly. Things are very thirsty but most of the storms only bring wind and lightning without pula. The clouds build every afternoon and often begin doing their thing just as the sun sets. It makes for some stunning landscapes. One can usually see smoke from new lightning-strike fires in the morning.

Both of you that regularly follow this blog probably remember that last spring I found a baby mongoose so brand-new that it was still hairless. This year's crop of kits is now big enough to start moving with the group. They haven't really begun to hunt effectively but they have learned that when one of the band stands on its hind legs and chirps, that there is a sweet mound of termites ready to be eaten.

Speaking of termites, the first proper rain (47mm) of the season brought the termites out for their once a year mating madness. Somewhere between billions and bazillions of them filled the night air frantically looking for a mate. Every creature rejoiced at the bounty expect the tourists. Termites don't bite but that doesn't stop city folk that spent good money to see 'Real Africa' from freaking out.

Speaking of freaking out, I opened the engine compartment the other day and one of the hoses turned to greet me. I stood eye to eye with a boomslang. The boomslang is a highly venomous snake. It is difficult for a human to get bitten by one because it is a back-fanged snake and one would have to try to get one's finger all the way back to where the fangs hang. This knowledge did not stop me from screaming like a little girl. I was raised in a Catholic household and once watched my grandmother, arguably the most gentle, prim, and proper woman I've ever known, chop a grass snake to pieces with a garden hoe. All the more impressive because she was in her 70's by then and she wielded the hoe in her polio-twisted arms with ninja quickness.

Speaking of healthcare(I know, I know, but I'm feeling lazy about the transitions) the majority of the guests in these camps are Americans and once they learn that I'm not from South Africa they often try to engage me in a political conversation. I've come up with a new way to deftly steer the conversation to more benign grounds, "Ma'am, I'd rather talk about religion than politics. What are your feelings on circumcision?"

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Winner winner chicken dinner

My cousin Shawn gave me his copy of "Beat the Dealer," by Edward O. Thorpe years ago. Mr. Thorpe was responsible for casinos going from two to six decks in the shoe after he developed a card counting method that took away the house's advantage. I devoured that book over and again until its dog-eared pages were all bloodhounds. The book came with a chart that one could memorize on what pairs to split, when to double-down, etc. based on the dealer's up card. I spent way more time on that chart than on any of my college courses. I even geeked out and kept track of my college wins and losses(a couple hundred more w's) in a little notebook. My roommates and I used to sit around pounding beers and flipping cards as fast as we could while adding and subtracting ones to prep for our weekly trips to rob the natives.

Casinos are a great way to get a piece of culture when traveling. Someone said not to look for virtues, depravities can't be faked. I spent some time in a casino the first time I was in Amsterdam(in between the coffee shops and hookers, of course.) That was the first place I gambled where others could put money on your hand. I was up a couple hundred gilders(yep, it was a while ago) and all of a sudden lots of people were betting on the way I played. I double-downed cuz Thorpe said I had to and Dutchmen groaned as they placed more chips on the table. Then the dealer pulled a picture on a hard six-teen and people cheered, some of them even flipped me a chip or two.

So when I went to the capital city(in case you're wondering, it also has goats and cattle roaming the streets) to sort out my stolen passport and realized that it had a casino, I decided to have a look.

Tinted windows, clock-less walls, and free drinks for the players, yep I'll give it a go. I stood behind the only blackjack table that had a dealer and waited for a seat to open up. Then I realized only two people had money on the table. I asked the dealer if I could sit third base. Statistically the seat right before the dealer is the best over the long run. That's the first thing you need to get into your head if you're gonna be Thorpeian about your card playing, hot seats and hot shoes are for suckers. The dealer told me I couldn't cuz the 'Mouna modala is sitting there.' Okay, I guess that's the first thing to realize about a Bots casino- respect for old men even extends to the table. So she ousted someone younger than me and I took a seat right next to the shoe.

I changed 400 Pula and watched the pile ebb and flow while I struggled to dust off the chart. Luckily even the dealers move painfully slow in this country and I was able to keep a count though I was way out of practice. I got into the rhythm of the cards snapping, the fluidity of the chips re-distributed, and the chatter of the players. I kept hearing the dealer say something that sounded like, "Surrender." One time she said it and everyone but me tapped behind their chips. The dealer took half their bets then turned up her down card. Hard fourteen. Picture. She paid me and everyone at the table asked me how I knew. Cultural insight, for sure. That's how the Motswanans got this little paradise called the Kalahari Desert, they didn't want to fight the Zulus or the Boers for the fertile lands they'd occupied for centuries so they surrendered and moved.

All of a sudden I was playing cards with four people betting behind my hand. She dealt me two eights. I grabbed another chip and spread my pointer and bird. Mouna madala shook his head and said, "Eesh." You always split aces and eights, said I. "Ahh but you are taking a gamble." No shit mister, this is a casino. I bought me a new pair of kicks with the winnings and had enough left over for breakfast.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Reggie Jackson

Duck season opened the first Tuesday in October at high noon when I was a kid. The first time I skipped school, my dad picked me up with a canoe on the truck rack so I could, "Help on the farm." I bounded down the stairs and put on my hunting vest as I hopped into the old green Ford.

New to child-rearing hint: your child will think you have super powers, can beat up other parents, hang the moon each night, etc. for about eleven years. Wanna get five more years out of them? Play hookey. Encourage them to dodge the man, show them that the box everyone is supposed to squish into doesn't apply to them. Be warned, some of this will backfire later.

'A Sand County Almanac,' by Aldo Leopold is required reading in many intro environmental courses. We had a copy at Camp 25. Gary left it with an inscription pleading visitors to read the tenth chapter when visiting the area at that time of year. Mister Leopold captured the magic of the month, birds squawking as they headed south, the new crispness in the air foretelling of winter months to come, the miracle of chlorophyll retreating from the leaves back to the trunks of the trees, leaving a brilliance of color poets struggle to describe.

I had a hard time when I moved to Alaska. October sucks there. Fall colors have already given way to the bleakness before the snows. Rain comes sideways. Darkness steals seven minutes of sunlight every day. Friends with more money in their pockets leave to surf Baja.

Guess what? October sucks in Botswana, too. The first time around, I thought it was just cuz I was new to the place and unused to the heat. But no one prepares for this, the first maddening heat of the season. How could one? Pain is stored in the short-term memory. (A good thing. How much would life suck if you could still feel the first time you stubbed a toe?) Realizations I had an October ago like the fact that it's possible to sweat from one's kneecaps, come rushing back.

Tempers flare. Super nice pilots originally from Argentina explode when they see hard-side bags well beyond the 15kg limit. A smile and shake of the head a month ago becomes a verbal tirade about pulling the clothes out of the bureau before putting said bureau into hard-sided bag. People quit jobs. Others pick up the slack and hate every minute of it. Humor eludes, waiting for the statute of limitations.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What the World Wildlife Fund knows but won't tell you

Yesterday was my second Independence Day in Botswana. Last year I watched the Eagle Island staff get shellacked by the nearby village in a soccer match. The 47th year of independence found me at Selinda Camp, a wonderful lodge close enough to the northern border for one to climb the tallest termite mound behind the staff quarters and get three bars from a Namibian cell tower. The game viewing at Selinda is off the hook, out of hand, pumping at the moment. We saw four herds of buffalo with more than 300 head each, a pride of eight lions, and a herd of elephants so thick one could walk across(if one were insane) in a half hour flight.

The guests and I were invited to a dance celebration when we landed. Mousadis(Matswana women) tied skirts around the waists of all the ladies while informing them that it's the law of the land that no woman can be seen in trousers on Independence Day. I do love irony.

The 47th year of Independence also ended commercial hunting in Botswana. Here are some of my insights after a year in country reading(Blood Ivory by Robin Brown is a good place to start), listening and thinking about the shooting of things for money in Africa.

Cat hunting was outlawed five years ago. Prior to that, if a farmer had an issue with lions or leopards taking cattle, he contacted a professional hunter(PH). The PH brought in a client that paid the farmer for the privilege of protecting said cattle. Farmers cried foul when the law was enacted making commercial cat hunting illegal. The government acquiesced by allowing farmers to kill one lion or leopard per day if in the act of protecting one's cattle. In the past, a farmer tolerated the occasional lion kill because a hunter gave him thousands of dollars to kill a lion that took a hundred dollar cow. Now farmers kill every cat that gets close to the herd. One can't blame them for protecting their livelihood. That is the current completely legal and accepted practice. Better? Not even debatable if one leaves emotion out of the discussion.

Farmers will cry foul soon about the damage from elephants. There's no reason to believe that the government will react any differently to the elephant problem. Except that they may once again sanction culling of the herds as they did in the past. Who will they employ? Well, last time they used PH's shooting from helicopters. Herds were completely wiped out as opposed to just taking the most mature animals as a trophy hunter does. The argument that lions will keep the elephant population in check holds little water, especially since the lion population continues to suffer since the end of lion hunting.

Roosevelt created the National Park system because he wanted every generation to be able to hunt elk. Hunters are greedy that way, they want to be able to keep hunting. Sure there are bad eggs but with hunting outlawed only outlaws will hunt. It's estimated that three thousand mounas(Matswana men) are now out of jobs due to the hunting closures. What do you think people talented at tracking and killing animals will do to feed their families?

PH's and their crews keep poaching in check not only by employing those skilled at hunting to do so legally but by patrolling areas. The government proposes requiring each photographic concession to hire a patrol of four men to monitor poaching in their areas. They will not be allowed to carry firearms. How hard would you look for armed and desperate men?

The hunting concessions that are now open for photographic concession bidding are the areas that were deemed unattractive for picture-taking tourists when the concessions were re-divided to encourage photo-tourism in the 1990's. I've flown over some of those areas and I can agree with the original assessment, not places I'd spend thousands of dollars to visit.

Speaking of thousands of dollars, the average legally taken elephant was estimated to be worth $100,000 in licenses, fees, charter flights, etc. to the Botswana economy. The meat went to the village nearest where the elephant was taken. That's about ten times what the average photographic tourist puts into the economy. Monies will still be pumped in, but illegally and disproportionately.

But what concerns me most can best be understood by relating an amusing scene I witnessed(several times by now) when I first arrived between a camp manager and a chef.

Chef: We are out of spinach.
Manager: Why didn't you tell me yesterday when I placed the fresh order?
Chef: Yesterday we had spinach.

Monday, September 23, 2013

No tigers or bears but, oh my!

Don't move. Stop right there. Ryan, hold still. Two male voices, two high-pitched, all three quite frantic. Maybe it was because animals had already shown an interest in Ryan. He found the black mamba on the boat. Just a little guy but dangerous enough cuz the immature ones haven't learned how to control venom flow yet and tend to waste it when giving warning bites. He and a honey badger had shared a fright at night. Ryan was setting up his tripod for some star pics when from our perch at the bar of Haina Kalahari Lodge (Look it up, someday I'll learn how to make one of those hyperlink doohickeys), we heard a growl and an oh god followed by two creatures, one big, one small, scurrying in opposite directions.

But I think most of the concern heard in the voices was due to the fact that only 15 meters separated Ryan from a lioness. Mozilla (like the browser, he says when he introduces himself) had come to pick us up from our tents just like the other mornings. Most lodges I've been to let you find your own way to the main area in the morning, but Haina staff asked us to wait for a ride. The tents are quite spread out and the Kalahari is known for lions, big ones, in fact the biggest on the planet which is weird to me since there's fuckall water most of the year. Back in the 70's Mark and Delia Owens were able to prove through radio collar tracking that lions can go an entire year without water, save what they get from their prey in the form of blood, stomach goo, etc.

Anyway, back to the front. So Moz has already scooped Matt and Dominique when Ed and I hop in at the end of the path leading to our tent. We drive around a patch of brush and Moz says, those tracks are fresh. I look down from my perch in the game drive vehicle and follow the trajectory of said tracks. No shit they're fresh, she's standing right there. And she's staring at Ryan.

Moz floors it to get the vehicle between the cat and the snack. Ryan climbs in and says, did you see the kudu? We point to the lion. Oh geez.

Now that we're all safe and sound in the open-air vehicle, why not follow the pride of eight stalking lions for a bit before we go get coffee and maybe a stiff drink? Well let's at least exhale. I still don't get how or why lions don't just rip people from vehicles, but they don't as long as you keep your hands inside the bus. (Kind of like wax on, wax off-there's a reason you just don't know it yet) I reckon if one figures that out, she'll promptly be killed and the gene won't spread.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Creedence or Ike and Tina?

Two boats, three South Africans, four gallons of special creamer, five Americans, and one hundred eggs. Except I forgot to buy the eggs. Luckily our menu planner was inexperienced enough that we didn't miss them on our float across the whole of the Okavango Delta.

My days of dragging sleds and hauling heavy packs up mountains are behind me but I still like to do things most people don't. So when I learned that more people see the view from the top of Everest every year then see the Okavango from top to bottom or bottom to top for that matter, I figured I had to do it before my time in Bots was done.

The group had a mix of backgrounds, several have spent a month or more in a tent at one go, some had never been a day without a shower. All had river experience, some had power boat experience, but none had been on that stretch of water before. But the days of Livingstone are far gone. We had a map and GPS. The Delta doesn't follow the normal rules of the river and we sometimes found ourselves on the wrong channel. We could tell where we were on the map, it didn't really help us choose routes, but only to mark our progress.

The top end of the Delta feels a bit claustrophobic with papyrus and reeds beating the boat, filling it with leaves and spiders and more than a few bats, one of which lit for a moment on a whiskey bottle. "As soon as you see it, it's full taps." That advice from the scout boat on how to deal with the first blockage. Papyrus mat gets stuck in some of the tighter turns.

Water flowed below but since we weren't in submarines, it took about two hours of pulling reeds from in front of the boat, standing on the blockage with the occasional foot going through to the dark water below (best to not think about crocs that may be lurking) and using both boats together to plow through the 100 meter long mess.

On the fourth day (much the same as in Genesis- let there be light) we broke out of the reeds into the floodplain. The newbies got to see their first elephants, lechwe, and hippos. The swim spots got better which meant more sand over a wider area to feel better about the proximity of crocodiles. And we began to hear lions at night. We decided to do a layover day to rest up for the boat dragging session to come.

Xo(pronounced by making a 'k' sound while trying to get a piece of phlegm stuck in the back of your throat) Flats is the first place the water can truly spread into the grasses and make floating difficult. To prep, we did our best to drink as much beer as possible to lighten the load and lessen the boat's draft. We were told that Xo Flats would be the crux of the trip, especially so late in the season when the floods had mostly receded. But the forecasters were too pessimistic, we only had to pull the big boat a couple of times and never had to portage gear.

We stopped at Eagle Island for ice and a helicopter ride for the mates from the States. Two lions cooperated by feeding on a buffalo during the flight.

In the first five days, we saw only one boat and those folks were doing a day trip from Xigera (again with the 'k' but no phlem). The bottom end of the river is busier due to its proximity to Maun but still we met just a few groups headed upstream while we were on our way to a bacon cheeseburger at River Lodge.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Critical wind, LTE, and me

Winter's over here in Southern Africa. And apparently, we don't bother with Spring, just crank the heat and get down to it. Twenty or more species of birds returned on Sunday with more following every day. Now when the wind blows, it's refreshing in the way a hair dryer on low is refreshing while standing in full sun wearing overalls and a ski mask.

It is nice to have some wind again to fly in. The breeze cranks from the south until about halfway into my first scenic flight of the day when it switches and comes from the north, usually while I'm turning over a crocodile.

North winds make landing at the Xaxaba pad interesting, especially with a full load and DA over 6000ft. I came in on approach day before yesterday with a 20kt wind from two o'clock and did a go-around before I ran out of pedal. I had to go to 800 TOT and Gregory Hines the pedals to pull off the tailwind landing.

I thought about loss of tail rotor effectiveness(LTE) while doing my post-flight. The term was literally invented for the helicopter I fly. The U.S. Army did extensive tests and created the first literature on the subject. I still have lots to learn and because I went right into "real" helicopter work as opposed to instructing, I don't have a support group to discuss theory with over a cup of coffee while waiting for the next student to show up.

But this wasn't LTE, cuz the wind was right quartering headwind, not left. It had to be Critical Wind Azimuth. The Bell pilot operating handbook talks about the critical wind azimuth occurring at high altitude, be aware of slow turns to the right, out of ground effect hovering, etc. I can tell you that it's not just an issue in thin air or while hovering.

Those trained in American helicopters are taught to fear wind from the left and directly behind via the LTE diagram. Here's the thing, if you lay a critical wind azimuth diagram over an LTE chart, there is almost no good wind direction. Maybe a better way to think about it is wind speed relative to the power of your tail rotor. If the wind is cranking, take it on the chin or up the poop-shoot.

I didn't have time to over think why I was losing control of my tail, the cool thing is that no matter which issue you're dealing with, recovery is the same. Lower the collective push into forward flight and give it another go.

On another note, I saw a vervet monkey kill a page 47(you were right, Bridget, it was a crested barbet). Who knew they ate birds?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Billy Shakespeare, Sarah Palin, and me

I came to Africa with an above average American understanding of the Dark Continent. What makes me above average? My parents traveled Southern Africa a couple of times, I lived with a woman that tried to save a little piece Niger, and mom told me so. I knew about the kid with the flies on his nose that Sally Struthers wouldn't give a sandwich, the photo journalist that killed himself less than a year after winning a Pulitzer for a pic of a vulture, that Robben Island wasn't where cowgirls got the blues and I've asked an African-American working at Borders bookstore in Seattle to help me find a book called, "Nigger, the strange career of a troublesome word."

Once I made the decision to move to Botswana, I did little more than look at a map to refresh my memory. I didn't want to color my thinking before I arrived and settled in. But now I've been here a while and have read several books(from the history of elephant hunting to detective novels) and re-watched a movie about a coke bottle falling to earth.

So now I have a problem, I can't quite find the right word. Any writer knows that there are limits to what a language can do, that's why ski bums and eskimos have so many words for snow. Cream ain't corn and that's all there is to it.

For every German you show me that's jovial, I'll show you a thousand Brazilians late for dinner. Zulus don't steal because they're evil, they do it because one can't become a man by purchasing cows from his neighbor. Boys are better than girls at just as many things as girls are better at than boys.

The word "Racist" first appeared in 1936, referencing Nazi Germany. It has negative connotations and is horribly limiting. It doesn't revel in the differences between cultures, the reason to travel. We explore peoples, foods, and languages to find out how what a group holds dear makes them special. You are unique just like everyone else.

Korean Airlines crashed the shit out of several perfectly good airplanes before someone made them speak only English in the cockpit. There are good and bad things about peoples everywhere that need to be recognized, appreciated, celebrated. A discernist does that.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Traffic Jambanja

There's a photo I've wanted to take since I first got to Xaxaba. When the bigger planes like the Airvan and Grand Caravans come into land on these dirt strips, the sand on the edges of the runway makes beautiful swirls as the wake turbulence disturbs it.

So the other day, I'm scheduled to lift for Maun about 25 minutes after a Gippsland Airvan is due to land at Eagle Island. I brought my camera(the one Mik sent me, not the one that got stolen) over to the hangar. I pulled the heli out, pre-flighted, and watered the road(to keep the dust down, this is Kalahari Desert so some dust will get into the compressor no matter what, but control what you can control, right?)

I figured BBK would be on final approach any minute so I walked over to the strip and waited. It wasn't long and I saw the silver glimmer in the sky. I made sure I had the camera set on burst mode, focused on the other end of the runway, and crouched down.

I started snapping just prior to BBK touching down. I saw a zebra running full speed from stage left. From a thousand meters away I didn't know how close it would be but Martin(the pilot) knew it was gonna be close cuz he tried to lift off again. He had only pulled the plane up enough to clear a warthog when his right wheel clipped the zebra in the back. The plane twisted to the right and nosed down but Martin was able to recover and get it onto the left wheel.

The whole time I'm snapping away thinking I'm about to see this plane roll but he did a great job. Martin was able to stay on the left wheel until he lost inertia, then the belly pod made contact but he kept it straight down the centerline until it was time to pull the plane off to the side. It came to rest just by the windsock, mid-field off to the side.

One plus two on board, injuries: one zebra, damage: one wheel, one belly pod. The plane and the pilot are both back in the air.

I gave the pics to the air charter company with the caveat that they not be distributed without my express written permission. They gave the photos to CAA-B and The Botswana Police. Yesterday, SA Flyer called the air charter company and asked if they could edit the photos. So some jackass at one of those government agencies obviously passed them on. But in keeping with the cultural norms, no one will admit giving the photos away. Always more to the story in this place.

Friday, July 5, 2013

CSI Botswana

I never really know what day it is until I see what the kitchen prepares for dinner. Every day's just like every other when you're on an eleven months on, one month off schedule. I do get excited when I see the fire-making fixings pulled out by the pool cuz that means it's Wednesday and Wednesday night is Braai Night. Braai is an Afrikaans word that means 'grill-out, drink lots of beer, and talk about rugby.' The braai at Eagle Island takes place on a 200 liter drum that has been sawed in half and converted into a grill capable of holding an entire eland(world's largest antelope for those of you who don't know Will Shortz.)

Lately, I've been sent to other camps on Wednesdays and I haven't been around for braai night in a couple of months. It's just random but has turned into a running joke. This Wednesday was no different, I brought a group of Spaniards into town and had to night stop in the thriving metropolis of Maun.

A group of us went out for pizza to a place called Chaplin's. They do a good job with the food and the atmosphere but in keeping with how Africa's just a little behind or a little ridiculous, it's not possible to get a half Cadillac, half Happy Pig. Ah well, the eats and conversation satisfied.

We got back to the house to find two broken windows, bent burglar bars, and a bunch of stuff gone. A belly full of wine doesn't help much as far as solving problems of missing passports and pilot licenses go, so we turned in.

I woke early and irritated. It was the first time I'd been robbed and I can't say I enjoyed the feeling. I couldn't do much about the sense of violation but I figured maybe I could keep the helplessness at bay. I walked around the house and had a look at the access points.

If the Zombie Apocalypse comes to fruition, the skills I've acquired along the way will serve me well. I dug into my bag of tricks and pulled out my tracking tools. I studied the shoe prints from several angles and got them committed to the hard drive.

Then I followed him. Most everybody walks here so there are lots of feet pounding lots of trails. In some places the sand holds a track as if it were cast in stone and other times it's just an oval depression. Since it's winter there are lots of leaves scattered about. I had to keep going back and casting sideways every time I hit a patch of dead vegetation or trail crossroads. I did track him across several tar roads and tuck shacks(roadside stands where people sell crisps and cigarettes and the customers disturb the shit out of the trail.)

After about an hour and a half and the third Motswanan telling me that if I caught up to the guy I should just turn around and call the cops (I can't call the cops, Rra, he took my phone) I decided I should get to a place where I could easily find the trail again, mark it and go to the office. So the next time I crossed a road(and here I'm using the term as in half-way between a logging trail and a donkey path) I drug my heel deeply across the sand so I'd be able to find it again. When one walks with one's head down, one doesn't realize that one has covered more than 4k's.

At the office they sent us straight to the police station. The experience at the station went a little like this, repeated 14 times; "You were robbed? Who robbed you? Please write it down. No you must not write it like that. I will write it, you sign."

Finally the paperwork was done and they said they must come and collect evidence. I asked about the tracks, stating that the trail was still fresh but wouldn't be for long. No, no, it's okay you take the forensics men, and we will send the tracking team. While it was silly that we had to give the forensic crew(one man and one briefcase) a ride, I was pretty excited that we were gonna have a whole team for the tracking.

So what kind of dog does the tracking team have? No Mister, dogs are for drugs, we have a Bushmen.

I took the trackers, 2 Bayei men and 1 Bushmen to where I'd marked the trail. I'd heard about the Bushmen long before coming to Africa and was excited to see how the legend matched reality. This man was short and thin with smiling eyes. He took off and we followed. At the first crossroad he didn't even break stride. Occasionally I'd ask him and he'd show me a heel mark or a scuff. Really? Eh Rra, it's him, look. Two hundred meters down there'd be footprint that I could believe was the right one. The Bushmen covered the same amount of ground that I had in half the time and he looked like a man out for a walk. No one we met asked him what he was doing. When we got into a neighborhood, they made me turn back so as not to alert the suspect.

So far one laptop is back in the right hands and Find my iPhone ain't working.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hot for Teacher

Clouds filled the sky yesterday afternoon. I found it a bit odd since I haven't seen a cloud in three months. I asked my porter, Tsogo about it. I told him that where I'm from those clouds are called, 'Mare's tails' (alto cirrus for the geeks) and often indicate that it will rain within the next 24 hours. Tsogo started laughing and laughing and laughing, "But it's not the rainy season." Okay, well do those clouds mean anything to you? Like is a cold front moving in or..."They mean a lioness just had her cubs." Oh, right, that makes sense.

I took the Zambian Minister of Tourism, his wife, and two friends for a flight the other day. After the flight they asked me to join them for dinner. The friends have lived in Zambia for going on twenty years but still have lots to learn. Karen has long wondered why her gardeners jump whenever they see a frog. She'd asked them countless times but never got more than a giggle and usually just got a shake of the head. Fast forward to three years ago when she and her husband provided the funding for an AIDS awareness campaign. That helped break some of the taboos of talking about sex and one of her gardeners mentioned the frogs. Turns out that if you touch a frog, you have to sleep with your sister. Karen thought maybe her grasp of the language was lacking so she found an educated man, a minister that travels to the villages and gives guidance on various subjects. When she asked him if it were true, he got angry. "See this is the kind of thing I deal with on a daily basis, lack of education with the local people is appalling. It isn't the frogs, frogs are fine. It's the lizards."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Blinded by the light

Years ago my friend Stacy showed up for work more than a bit hungover. We all knew it by the way she pulled the ball cap way down over her eyes in an attempt to block out the world. But when you work the boot counter at a ski rental shop facing the world comes with the territory. So Stacy struggled through all the silly questions like, "Is that men's or women's size?" Well the form says 'your shoe size' so are you a man or a woman? Until she got to a group of people that stalled the progress of the line. They didn't seem to pay any attention to her. Stacy, normally soft-spoken, raised her voice but to no avail. She lost the little bit of cool she could muster for the morning and yelled, "What are you people, deaf?" And they were.

I greeted two guests the other day and brought them over to the map to show them where we would fly. I noticed straight away that the father had some sort of vision issue. When I pointed to the map, he followed the swing of my arm and bent close. His nose would've been less than ten centimeters from the map if he hadn't been standing a meter to the left of it.

After the orientation and required safety speech the man asked which seat was best for taking pictures. I figured that's where he wanted his son to sit, but no. I had a blind man snapping merrily away in the front seat while I struggled to find the words to guide his camera toward the wildebeest or zebras. If you look, ah shit, sorry. Do you see the, no of course you don't. In that direction...Faa-uck. I also noticed that he tensed up a bit when I turned. So I started saying in which direction I was going to bank before I initiated the turn. That calmed him considerably. And I directed his camera with lefts, rights, ups, and downs. I hope it helped but I can tell you that I'm glad I don't have to sit through his slide show.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Aerial Photography 101

I went to an awards ceremony for a local photography contest held in Maun the other night. It reminded me of going to similar shows in Alaska. When surrounded by beauty in nature, whether it be landscape or wildlife, taking a good picture is easy. Especially with the rise in digital camera/photo-doctoring technology, snapping a good photo is something anyone can do.

Creating a good picture is another thing entirely. I’m reminded of a friend in Hawaii ranting about all the people that came into his gallery and after looking at his work exclaimed, “Wow, you must have a great camera.”

You don’t go to someone’s house and after a wonderful meal say, “Wow, you must have a great stove.” No one has ever asked me what kind of pen I use. For the record it’s a Zebra (pronounced so it rhymes with Debra by everyone except Americans) 301. My friend Ryan gave me my first 301 more than a decade ago and I haven’t looked back since I dropped the Uni-ball.

But check out a photography magazine or website. They’re chock-full of fractions, lens sizes, and f-stop gobbledy gook. That stuff helps, sure, but first you need to know some real basics. Here’s what I know about how to take a good picture from a helicopter.

Lose the vest. We’ve already pegged you for a douchebag by the hat. Those things were designed to hold rolls of film. You don’t use film.

Turn off the flash. It’s annoying to at least one pilot and the reflection off the windscreen won’t help you land a NatGeo cover. Oopsie, I’m getting ahead of myself. Learn the buttons on your camera before you get into the helicopter.

Turn off burst mode. That way at the end of the flight you’ll only have 300 terrible photos to delete instead of 10,000.

Keep your lens zoomed out until you find the critter. Once it’s in the frame, adjust the zoom. And it works best if you find the animal with your eyes before you start looking through the camera.

To paraphrase Kenny Rodgers(who also wrote ‘The Condition of the Condition I’m in’) there’ll be time enough for looking at the pics when the flight is done. Fuck man, helis are expensive. Why waste your time assessing the photo you just took on a tiny screen in bright sun? This is an extension of the ‘learn the buttons’ category.

Realize that if you ask the pilot which lens you should bring, he will think of several responses which he can’t use in the name of good customer service such as, ‘If you have to ask me, the pics are gonna be shitty anyway,’ or ‘Why don’t you take the small lens? That way I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll run out of cyclic authority with a 6kg lens and your fat ass leaning out the door.’

Friday, May 10, 2013

Travel Advice

Don't buy trip insurance. Your sciatica flaring up two days before you head from your cushy EU country where everything works to the African bush? Definitely take a twelve hour flight and sit in coach seats. If that won't massage your aching back, perhaps you should try bouncing along in the back of a game-drive vehicle. Ignore the camp manager's suggestion to leave the bush. Complain when the doctor arrives in camp and tells you that your husband can't have any pain medication because he's severely dehydrated and you gave him two sleeping tablets at six in the morning.

Invite your guide to join your party for dinner, but wait until you sit down for the meal to make the offer. That way you'll get to see mad dash table moving/setting. Don't ask the guide to expand on life here in Africa. Rather ask him what he knows about your country. Yes, you live in a densely populated state with an obese governor. No, Baratile hasn't heard of him.

Stop the pilot from giving you his safety briefing by saying, "I flew in a helicopter two weeks ago." Listen to the pilot explain that regardless of how many times you ride in a 747, they have to tell you how the seat belt works with a look of disdain on your face. Then try to get in the pilot's seat. "Oh, sorry, in my Bonanza the pilot sits on the left." You see, sir, a Bonanza is an airplane. This is a helicopter. I agree, airplanes are much better for traveling across Florida. But the reason you're in a helicopter today is that the airstrip is closed and your Bonanza can't land on the soccer pitch.

Hire a helicopter to fly you and a professional film maker over your lodge as a part of your overall marketing campaign. Insist that because you paid for the flight, you get to ride along and use the film maker's still camera. Spend the better part of an hour trying to figure how the camera works while in the air. There will be another sunset tomorrow.

When the pilot says, "There's a hippo feeding on the edge of the river at our eleven o'clock," pipe up and say, "That's an elephant." There's no way the pilot will fly closer so that everyone in the helicopter sees the hippofuckingpotamus.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The gods must be crazy

The baboon-ravaged Bell got back into the rotation last week. Mitch took it up to the northwestern part of the Delta. Our other Bell still needs a doo-hickey or two sent from the States so I've remained in the R-44.

I had to fly it into town the other day so it could go to Jo-burg for a fuel bladder retro-fit. The bladders will decrease capacity, usable weight, and post-crash fires. Bad, bad, and good.

On the way into Maun I met one of the mobile safari companies to take three of their guests on a scenic flight. I'd been flying over some of the most productive parts of the Delta for the last few weeks and the last time I did a scenic on the southern end we saw exactly fuckall so I wasn't looking forward to the flight for anything more than logging time.

I greeted the guests and told them to hang tight while I removed the doors and attached the cameras. (On these short flights we insert clips taken of the guests via go-pro cameras into a five minute video that they get as a souvenir. At the end of the day one of us takes the videos to whichever bar attached to a camp site the guests we flew are visiting for the night, plays the video, has a beer, and maybe drums up a flight or two for the next day.) I slid the cockpit camera into its affixed mounting point and stuck the outside camera onto the fuselage with its suction cup.

The flight was great. We saw locals poling mokoros(canoes of sorts) through water and another group cutting reeds(either to re-roof their own homes or to sell). And the animals, geez. Two herds of buff, well over 200 head each, hippos, giraffes, zebras, and maybe 300 elephants. Not bad for a twenty-two minute flight. Plus two of the three were heli virgins.

I thanked them, told them to enjoy the rest of their time in Bots and went to remove the cameras/replace the doors. The camera on the suction-cup thingy wasn't where I'd left it. Fuckohshitohdear. Well one can't spend too much time wondering where that thing detached. A needle in a haystack would be a piece of cake in comparison. Just spread the hay out real thin and look for the shiny thing.

I turned to wave goodbye to the group and saw three Motswanans(yes, people from Bots are called Mots) running toward us. One wore a bright red shirt just like the reed cutter we had seen from the air. He held a go-pro camera in one hand and a suction cup bracket thingy in the other.

Something falls from a helicopter over a swamp, people are there to see it happen, they find the item, it doesn't land in water, they make it roughly two kilometers to return it before the heli flies away. No hopes of one educated in American public schools being able to figure the odds on that.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Monkey repellent

By the time my grandpa added the second cane, he often told me, "Not to wish your life away." I think I was pretty normal in that regard, shopping for used cars from about age 13 and a half, wishing I was in high school instead of junior high, that sort of thing.

I get it now. Not all that live in the moment new age mystic bullshit(I sat at an outdoor table having a beer with a retired-from-Silicon-Valley-when-I-was-31 blowhard in February. I told him about the idea of always creating new memories cuz that's what life is, the more you have to look back on, the better. "There's no past, no future, only now," he says. Okay, let's say you travel from San Diego for a business convention in Bangkok. Back in San Diego you have a wife and two kids. That's past. But here, now, in Bangkok you bang a hooker. You don't wear a condom cuz you can't get the clap, that's in the future. Then you go back to San Diego and two years later, you're divorced cuz you gave your wife syphilis. The surfer prophet paid his tab and left after that.) but the whole idea of enjoying what you're doing where you're doing it.

People I went to flight school with spent a lot of time talking about how they couldn't wait to get out of the Robinsons and into some 'real' helicopters. As if the little piston-powered machines don't fly or something.

I am stoked to be mostly flying a turbine machine but the R-44 is way more fun to fly than the Bell. One of the other pilots likened it to pulling a trailer, you need to plan way further ahead and mistakes are harder to recover from.

So, while I'm happy to be zipping around in the R-44 again, I really wish the baboons hadn't ripped the windscreen off my helicopter.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Delta Home Companion

It's been a quiet week here in the Okavango. Two planes down with engine failures in 4 days. Props to the boys behind the props. No injuries, no substantial damage to either aircraft and the passengers have kick-ass African memories.

The first incident involved a Caravan(the airplane, not the Soccer Mom chariot that saved Chrysler the first time) and falling oil pressure. The pilot noticed the pressure issues and smoke on the windscreen so he diverted to the nearest strip. The engine lost all oil pressure on final approach. When oil pressure falls to zero on a Caravan, the props feather because the pressure keeps them at the correct pitch. Feathered blades means less resistance which means greater glide which means over-shooting the airstrip.

Jao's a good place to overshoot because it's surrounded by floodplain rather than trees. Even though the water levels are rising, I reckon the plane touching down scared most of the crocs away.

A couple of days later I flew some concession managers around to meet with various villages within the concession. Once a year the villagers get together to discuss the concession agreement, air grievances and the like. At one of the stops, I was told to call World Headquarters. I did so and was put on stand-by for a medical evacuation.

A man of Chinese descent raised in the Shetlands came on line about a month ago. The Scottish Ninja piloted a Cessna 206 bound for Maun with passengers scheduled to catch the 1405 to Jo-burg. One moment, everything's groovy. The next moment, everything's quiet. Engine failure. The ninja put out a Mayday call(how many of you practice Mayday's when you practice engine failures?) and picked the best opening he could find in the mophane forest.

Botswana Defense Force heard the radio call and alerted Maun Airport. That got the ball rolling that I fielded. Our Scottish hero was light on his tabis (little big toe booties they wear so they can silently move about) so the worst that happened was the front wheel mount got boogered up.

I was told to stand down because no one was injured and BDF was able to fit all the passengers in their helicopter. Not only were there no injuries, but the folks caught their flight out of Maun.

That's the news from the Okavango where all the hippos are strong, the kudus are good-looking, and the Scottish Ninjas are above average.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Holy Jim J. Bullock

"Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle and never stand up. That way they'll just think of the vehicle as a big rock." That's my favorite part of the safety speech guides give guests before the first game drive. A big rock? You must be shitting me. Rocks don't talk, move, or have onions and garlic on their breath. "You'll be fine in a tent, as long as you keep the fly zipped shut." The big rock thing again? Fuck a bunch of that.

I've spent plenty of time in a tent in bear country. The first few nights, I either didn't sleep a wink or had mini-nightmares, I couldn't tell which. Either way, I didn't get any rest. Eventually I did learn how to sleep with half-ton animals brushing up next to my tent. Eat me or don't eat me but I gots to get some sleep. But never, ever was I under the illusion that the bruins would mistake my domicile for a big rock.

But I kept my mouth shut during the safety speeches. It didn't matter to me one way or the other cuz I knew that I'd be able to move faster than the CEO from Kansas City if(and when) the vehicle got attacked.

The thing was, it seemed to be true. I've driven right next to several different lions, both successful prides and lone animals with ribs showing (which certainly meant they were hungry) and they paid me no mind. I've locked eyes, felt my pulse rate increase, and lost the blinking contest from close enough to reach out and scratch one under the chin.

I've followed(in a vehicle) a leopard that stalked an impala when it certainly would have been easier for her to kill one of us. A cat that can catch and strangle an antelope that weighs as much as it does and then climb a tree with the thing in its mouth could easily beat me in a wrestling match. But it chose the impala.

So when Johnnie the mechanic suggested we go watch the lions feeding on the hippo that I'd found from the air, I was all in. It took a bit to find the right waterhole cuz things look different from the air, but we did eventually find them. A pride of seven that let us get quite close. The pics were taken from 10 meters but we closed the distance to half of that trying to get a better angle to the sun and they didn't mind a bit.

Then Hendri stood up. The gnawing, tearing, and slurping stopped. Muscles flexed and rippled under tawny skin. It was as beautiful as it was scary. One lioness stood up and slunk(I prefer slinked, but spellchecker doesn't like it) toward us, her huge head swaying with each step. Johnnie slammed the truck into reverse and mashed the pedal.

I figured I'd be fine unless Johnnie ran the undercarriage onto a stump. When the lioness jumped, she would knock Hendri out of the open-air truck and that would keep their attention until we got away. Sure, we'd have some explaining to do, but they wouldn't eat all of us, they still had a day worth of hippo on the plate.

Johnnie didn't hit any stumps, Hendri didn't fall out, and the lioness didn't leap. She didn't think we were a big rock either.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Home is where the heli is

I've slept no more than three nights in any one place since I've returned from leave. I enjoy bouncing around from place to place, camp to camp, dinner menu to dinner menu.

This morning I woke up at Abu. Prior to that, I was at Selinda. Well not Selinda proper, but the support camp. All the beds were taken at the camp so I stayed a twenty-minute boat ride and a two-hour truck bounce away from the heli. I had been looking forward to chatting with the guests in camp. They were on day 18 of a 24 day around the world trip put together by National Geographic.

The group flew from country to country in a customized 757(breakfast at the Taj Mahal, dinner at Angar Wat) that wasn't allowed to land in Maun because the airport fire department didn't have the required number of tankers. Well, it had the required number of tankers at one time but two had gone missing.

The guests flew all the way from Gaborone in several PC-12's. I was on my way to Selinda camp when they were arriving at the airstrip. It sounded chaotic until I got to camp and heard all the handheld radios squawking, that made me change my definition of chaos. I spoke with the head chef about how it was going. A wry smile grew on her face and she said, "Too many chiefs is all."

Because the camp was, "Full, full," I stayed with the camp service crew. I dug it. A relaxed South African couple ran the nerve center. I cooked dinner with them and had great conversation. What a treat to do some cooking. The only bummer was that the entire complex was mirror-less. I used to shave in the shower no prob, but with an electric razor, there's always a spot or two that you need to attack from many angles to get. Without a mirror you end up looking like a drunk that tried to put himself together for a third DUI court appearance.

You know what would be awesome? If someone got into the helicopter and said, "All we want to see are impalas, we don't care about anything else." They do say that just about every flight if you replace 'impalas' with 'lions.'

Flying back to back to back to back to back to back 45 minute scenic flights requires some serious effort to avoid becoming a robot. Luckily I'd never done a scenic in that part of the world so I explored and made every flight a little different. The one thing every flight had in common was that I flew over the lions eating on the hippo kill that I found on the first flight.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What happens when someone is around to hear it

Major renovations are underway at Mombo Camp. The back of house facilities are being completely re-done, new kitchen, laundry, and staff cantina. Once the guests go out on morning activity, the bird songs and hippo serenading are traded for a cacophony of hammers, saws, and worker bees squawking.

OSHA's African cousin doesn't have much of a presence here in the bush. One needs to keep one's wits about to avoid lions, buffalo, and snakes. During renovations the list grows to include holes, trenches, and extension cords strung at ankle height. People wearing flip-flops and hardhats carry three-meter-long boards and swing around while carrying on conversations, creating a real-life Three Stooges skit.

But with all of that madness it was a random incident that provided yesterday's entertainment. I was in the office corresponding with World Headquarters when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to see a branch the diameter of my thigh falling toward Liz, Camp Manager three hours back from a month of leave.

The branch hit her on the head and shoulder, knocking her into a sitting position. I stood up and the rest of the office staff followed as I bolted out the door. Chantel, guide trainer extraordinarre reached Liz at the same time as I. She took the lead and seemed skookum so I stepped back. I'm only a sub-contractor, not current on any medical certs, and new to the group so I relegated myself to the position of gopher.

Protocols dictated that camp contact their medical liaison and follow her direction. The chaos threatened to reach a hectic level, what with the phone-radio relay and the people holding sheets to shield the scene from the guests enjoying brunch.

They did a great job of securing the shoulder with sling and swathe. Due to a bump growing to a lump on the top of Liz's skull we were instructed to backboard her. I looked over my shoulder(holding a sheet) to see that someone had prepped the board by putting the spider straps on the ground, then the board, then Liz. I asked for someone to switch with me so I could help finish the backboard process.

Medical skills are the same as any the same as any other, to stay sharp they must be practiced. My skills in that department are fading but because I've helped board many patients, mine are still sharp enough to remember how the spider straps work. I asked Dittmar to lift the other end of the board and had Chantel pull the straps out from under the board and start picking the forest debris out of the velcro. Minutes later we were loaded and off to the airstrip to meet the plane.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Trip's over sunshine, back to work

I'm back in the bush. I dreamt of lions and woke to a buffalo rubbing up against my tent at 0300. I poked my head out the door and realized in the moonlight that it was an old dugga bull with a broken horn. No moving him, likely an ornery cuss so back to bed.

Mombo may be the best overall camp in the Delta. Five stars, entusiastic staff, and ridiculous game viewing. Not just on the drives or from the heli, but right in camp. The complex sprawls along the northwestern edge of Chief's Island with an expanse of floodplain where the sun sets.

Raised boardwalks connect the tents to various lodge facilities and allow game to pass underneath(except the elephants, at various points the boardwalk goes down to about a foot above the ground. These points are referred to as 'Valley of Death,' and 'Valley of Death-North,' because even in the daytime you need to check both ways before crossing)

We went on a short game drive yesterday afternoon. On the return, we went past the helicopter to throw thornbush around it to keep the hyenas from chewing on things. While there we noticed that the Caravan pilot overnighting had surrounded the rear tires with thornbush but had forgotten the front tire. We finished his job to build up some karma points. Should be able to kick a cat for free now. Only problem is that the cats here can kick back.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

On the catwalk

From Cambodia to Hong Kong involves some sticker shock, holy hell. Accommodation in Cambodia is about the price of a beer in Hong Kong. But that's the way it is when space is such a premium and the city has infrastructure beyond tarred roads. Skyscrapers are malls, office buildings, and billboards all in one.

British rule passed but exceedingly polite manners remained. The people looked Chinese but queued properly and while the streets were crowded, no one pushed or shoved.

I was in Hong Kong to meet my parents who came on business. On of the biggest fur fairs in the world happens there every February. The fair attendants were mostly skin traders and garment makers. The majority were from Hong Kong with a strong showing of Russians and Greeks.

We were invited to a fashion show hosted by the auction house where my parents sold their goods. Ten of the most respected designers in the world showed their wares to the invite-only crowd of three hundred, after the obligatory flutes of bubbly, of course.

As one might expect, those in attendance were two steps above average in appearance and all were dressed to the nines(save for the helicopter pilot from Botswana in his thrift store flowered shirt and jeans.) People jockeyed for position but were given assigned seats based on dollars spent. Because my family produced some of the goods on display, we were given the best seats in the house, fifty-yard line if you will. Dad and I got a kick out of that. He couldn't care less and I've been out of the business for some time.

The models were Russian, Eastern European, and American. They had the thousand-yard stare down cold. One of them had a hint of a smile but the rest looked angry. I guess I'd be angry too if I only got to eat a carrot for dinner and I had to puke it right back up to maintain my size zero.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Better segues needed

I've received several emails from confused followers. Not like the folks that donned the white Nikes, put a roll of quarters in their pocket(for making alien phone calls, toll booths, the jukebox where they stop to quench their interplanetary thirst?), and drank the Kool-Aid. But apparently I never overtly mentioned that I am currently on leave(it's always slow in Botswana this time of year so we take leave and charge our mental batteries for the coming busy season). The last post's title was a pretty good clue, though. Hopefully at least some of you "got" the reference to "Holiday in Cambodia." Thailand, Cambodia, and soon Hong Kong. Might as well get some city time, it's gonna be a while.

So I apologize, my brain merrily marches on serious tangents and sometimes I forget that not everyone can follow along. But as long as I'm back already, here's some stuff I meant to share yesterday. Though Cambodia is much more popular than even five years ago, one can still shoestring it with hostels and street vendors for about 7 bucks a day. Wanna live large? Forty bones oughta do it. Corruption abounds, from cops taking payoffs to teachers leaving early unless students throw some cash. They use American dollars and Cambodia Reil with all prices in dollars. People smile easily. Children wave. Motorbikes often carry four humans, several 100kg bags of rice, or about a hundred chickens slung by their feet to a bamboo pole.

My guide/tuk tuk driver asked me what I did for money. He didn't know the word helicopter, so I did my best Huey sound effects and moved my hand about. "Ahhh, you drive akamthomroy." Akamthomroy? What's that mean? "Flying dragon. All Cambodians call them that." Because we sent flying spitters of fire to stop the march of Communism and the lines on the maps got awfully blurred. Really? What do they call airplanes? "Airplanes just airplanes."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dead Kennedys

I sat over beers with some ex-pats in Phnom Penh the other day. That's the trick, isn't it? To find a pub with lots of ex-pats but few tourists. A good number of them had moved to Cambodia after years in Thailand. Thailand recently outlawed and cracked down on marijuana. Who wants to live in a place where it's acceptable for a couple of fifteen-year-old girls to get up on a stage and shoot ping pong balls(the modern celluloid ball discovered by James W. Gibb in 1901) at each other but will jail an individual for smoking a naturally growing plant whose medicinal and ritualistic uses have been documented for more than five thousand years?

One day in the capitol city was enough so I hopped on a ferry to Siem Reap. The trip took three hours longer than it should have. I noticed from my perch on the roof top that the lake was shallow enough that one could see the ripples caused by wind over sand close to the surface. The channel was marked by bamboo poles with empty plastic bags affixed to them. But one must have been missing cuz we grounded with a fright. Getting unstuck involved a bunch of fisherman wading over from their nets(nets that used empty aerosol cans for the floats) to push while all the fatties in the private cabin at the bow waddled to the stern.

I saw the sunrise at Angkor Wat the next morning. The experience was marred by the crowds, but stunning nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Meat on a stick

A handful of years ago, some friends and I over-nighted in Bangkok on our way to India. We found a sweet lurker deck above Soi Cowboy to imbibe while people watching. We all chuckled at the middle-aged men holding hands with young Thai girls(and a fair number of young Thai boys.) So I'm sitting in a bar in Bangkok yesterday. I look around and see middle-aged men and young Thai girls. No boys cuz they kick them out of the establishment, just like the sign says. But are they rubbing each one, looking for the Adam's apple as they walk through the door? Unlikely.

Anyway, I don't think I'm over the hill but...I must be near the top because the view from here is outstanding. I decide I've had about enough of the old man, young girl scene. Not because I'm prudish or anti-anything. But because I'm afraid loneliness might be contagious. So I decide to get out of the beer joint.

Ahhh...the martini. It's the quintessential cocktail, served in a distinctive glass. Some debate surrounds it. Ian Fleming's character says shake it while Kingsley Amis says stir. I like to shake it just cuz it's more fun. No one can agree on who said that they are like breasts, one isn't enough and three is too many, but whoever said was right.

I walked into a 'check out that fucking hipster' joint in San Francisco once. The place had twenty televisions(actually it's safe to guess that there was one in the ladies' room, too, so maybe twenty-one) all playing Charlie Chaplin movies. Speaking of black and white, I was the only one shaded in something from the middle of the rainbow. That place screamed martini. It came with the requisite two olives. Sinatra said one was for you and one was for the next beautiful woman to walk in.

The Nest is a roof-top bar in downtown Bangkok and definitely a hipster joint. You walk over a poi pond through a bamboo forest into a lounge back-lit with red recessed bulbs. An attractive woman wearing headphones with speakers bigger than Princess Leia's hair spins records. The five by ten meter movie screen behind her is mounted askew. The movie is some futuristic anime full of characters created by a coupling of Thor and Lucy Lu.

And the martini? Two olives on a bamboo skewer. The stem of the glass broken off so that it could be nested inside a globe filled with ice. Like drinking a cool cloud. Two was perfect.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Happy Anniversary

What a difference a year makes. I woke to what I thought was a lion roaring this morning. I ran out onto the veranda in my skivvies. I heard a bunch of commotion. Dammit. Just the kitchen crew messing about. Wait. There it is again. Yep a lion, two actually, calling to each other. And no, they don't sound anything like the one at the start of the MGM movies. That's a lion yawning with sounds of something else laid over the top. Like the sound of buffaloes running in 'Dances with Wolves,' total bullshit. Or cars peeling out, gravel doesn't make a squealing sound when it flies out from under a spinning tire.

My dad said he wanted to see someone make a Western that had streets full of horseshit. When the bad guy flipped over a table to hide behind, the good guy would just shoot the dumbass through the wood and be done with it. But that would put the special effects guys out of business.

Anyway, a year ago today(technically, 364.5 days considering the time change) I passed the check ride for my private pilot's license. While I was happy to pass, I was also quite concerned that the guy sitting next to me felt that I had the skills needed to fly a whirly-bird. I said as much. "Yep, you know enough to get yourself killed." Shit, I've known that for years.

Now I'm paid to fly a turbine machine over one of the last great wildernesses on the planet. Lucky. One in a million? In the words of Han Solo right before he flew up the bunghole of a gigantic space worm, "Never tell me the odds." My dad's friend Bob Zimbal says, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." And for the most part that's true. Luck of course plays a huge part. If I were born an untouchable in New Delhi the best I could hope for would be to rise from the sewer to become a rubbish collector. But I would have found a way to grab a broom and sweep bags of Marsala Munch from the sidewalks.

I sent out resumes the day I got my commercial license and fellow students in the professional pilot program laughed at me. I told them that I was holding a world-wide contest and whoever hired me first would win. They were concerned with minimum experience required and the like. What they didn't understand is that you hold the upper hand over anyone that has to advertise a position. They don't know anyone with the qualifications or the people they do know are folks they don't want to hire.

The tricks I learned in college like calling the secretary to make sure that they had received my cover letter so it would go back to the top of the pile went the way of the dodo with the rise of the internet. But not really, more like the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker. They're still out there. Those tricks work again. Hand someone your packet. Shake a hand. Drive the four hours from Phoenix to the heli-base on the North Rim. Say, "Yes I can be in Africa in two weeks." You can figure out how you're gonna pull that off after you hang up the phone. Work harder, get luckier.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

That oughta do it

I lamented to Mik via Viber, that the road trip I had been looking forward to was dreadfully uneventful. I've been in town the last few days and couldn't hitch a ride on an airplane cuz none were going to Khwai. That place can be reached via tarmac/cal-crete/trail so World Headquarters gave me a Land Cruiser truck and some deliciously vague directions.

Sam and I loaded a few drums of Jet-A into the back(the weight helps add traction for water crossings but hinders in the deep sand) and I headed north-eastish.

I'd been warned that the men manning the Buffalo Fence(a proper Big-Five barrier designed to keep wild animals separated from the domestics) would likely search the vehicle, demand to see my papers, and generally give me a hard time. But it was hot. They barely lifted their arms to wave when I zipped through.

Thalpi(his name tag reads, "Rock," for the tourists) waited at the bridge to guide me in the rest of the way. I knew from my time flying over the area that we had several water crossing ahead, and I wondered if the after-market snorkel would be needed to keep the engine running. Alas, it was not to be. We easily made it to camp just as the sun kissed the horizon.

I did my scenic flight and thought that I would do a longer one the next day but the Canadians changed their minds. Thanks again, Canada. I loaded the truck with empty fuel drums to take back to Maun and gave the windscreen a rinse. I offered to do the same for Mary's (local school teacher/nature lover/all around self-sufficient badass. She spent Christmas break in the heart of the Kalahari by herself, which she prefers but a student had given her a bed night in the lodge so she offered to show me some different trails on the way back) truck while she finished her coffee.

The engine caught and sputtered enough times that I figured Mary must have a trick for coaxing the '85 to life. But Mary couldn't get it started either. "I think it's the accelerator," said Mary. I had noticed that the pedal stayed pegged to the medal but I just thought it must be part of the charm of her zombie apocalypse vehicle.

I lay on my back and tugged on the cable leading from the accelerator. I got up, brushed off about a third of the sand that stuck to my clothing and asked Mary to pop the hood. I found the carb and saw two cables attached to it. I wasn't yet at the edge of my mechanical knowledge but I could see it from where I stood.

"Mary, give that cable by the gas pedal a tug so I can see which one does what." She did. A plastic doohickey hung snap-fitted to the end of the top cable but wasn't attached to anything else. I popped it off and saw the fresh break. Judging by how the rest of the crack had faded, the watchamacallit had been hanging by a thread for some time.

I found where the other end of the thingamabob should have been and asked Mary if she had any zip ties. Of course she did. I attached the two ends with the cable tie and Mary cranked it over. The cable tie may have kept the throttle open just a bit too far cuz when Mary let out the clutch, the truck leapt like a crazed stallion. "It's fine, Shane, better to have too much than not enough." I'm sure she'll have the mechanic adjust it when she has him fix her brakes, which brings us to part two of our series on bush mechanics.

Luigi moved with his father from Argentina when he was eight. About the time he turned fourteen, his dad said they were moving back. Luigi said go ahead, but I'm staying. Luigi is a bon vivant and a madman.

The brakes on his truck failed half-way between here and Kasane. That didn't bother him one bit until it was time to back the boat down the launch. He debated hooking another truck up to his to act as the brakes but decided that finding a truck big enough to do the job was too much of a hassle. So we're standing by the boat launch cracking beers, hoping that will give us some enlightenment as to how to get that boat the last ten meters so we can get onto the water.

Luigi disappears into the house nearest the boat launch and comes out with a jug of cooking oil. He fills the master cylinder and has one of us pump while he bleeds the lines. The brake pressure comes back, Luigi says, "I prefer olive oil but if you're gonna spend that much, you might as well use brake fluid," and we hit the river.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


The white man sees a black man(perfectly acceptable in this part of the world. You can't ask if the guy is an African-African can you? The American race movement should've stopped with changing from Negro to Black to avoid the word nigger. It's just color like blond or brunette. Afro-Americans aren't any more African than I am Irish. In fact, I'm more Irish than they are African cuz my family has only been in America since after the Civil War. I could get into the history of slavery and how the whites only got into the business at the very end. But that discussion should be explored with commercial hunting.)

So, anyway, the White man walking along the river comes upon a Black man lounging in the shade of a mophane tree. The Black man has a stringer with five fish on it laying in the grass by his feet. The White man says, "Did you catch all of these this morning? You must be a good fisherman."

The Black man smiles, "Yep, I catch all I need to feed my family in an hour or two every morning."

The White man says, "Why not fish a few more hours and catch ten fish? Then you could trade those extra fish for a net. If you cast the net across the river, you'd catch enough fish to hire a man to help you. Why in no time at all, you'd be able to rest in the shade of a tree by the river and enjoy your days."

The Black man looks at the White man and says, "That's what I'm doing now."

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Three little pigs

I moved outside when it started. First it bounced back and forth between the clouds far in the distance, the background, the completion of the scene. Hippos grunted and blew, sending spray from the Chobe River towards the heavens. The winds intensified and the lightening, having sufficiently stretched and warmed up decided it was time to start striking treetops.

I still couldn't hear the thunder because the bolts struck too far away. I felt the storm intensifying, wind grew stronger and the rains came. But I stood transfixed, bolted to the spot, mesmerized by the lightening.

Ed was born on the first of November. His mom, Donna(whom I probably owe about a thousand cokes) invited B.D. and me to join Ed for a haunted house tour followed by pizza to celebrate his personal New Year. We rolled around the back of the station wagon on the way to the big city.

Some JayCee volunteer led us through the gymnasium turned house of terror. I brought up the rear. We went past the bowls of spaghetti and peeled grapes, mostly bored with the whole thing, caught as we were between childhood and the land of grown-ups. Then we stepped into a room with a pulsing strobe light that was tin-foiled wall to ceiling.

The strobe light flashed on and off. I felt someone watching me. I turned to see a man wrapped in tin foil, only his eyes visible. Every flash brought him much closer. I pushed B.D. to push Ed to get the fuck out of there.

The same terror grew while I watched the lightening but I didn't want to move, knowing that seeing an electrical storm such as this must be a rare event. I tried but failed to count between the strike and the thunder to gauge the distance of the strikes. There were simply too many of them to distinguish between.

I gave up on that silliness when one struck closely enough to stand the hairs up on the back of my neck. The crack deafened but didn't make my ears ring. I wondered about that lack of tinnitus(the frequency of the sound or too much cumulative damage from sitting on the speakers at a Vegetable Spit concert as a teenager?) while I hid under the covers waiting for the storm to end. The strikes came nearly constantly, for an hour there was more light than dark.

I surveyed the damage in the morning. Fences and trees blown down everywhere and the helicopter cover shredded into a Betty Flintstone(Rosy O'Donnell, not the sexy cartoon version) dress. The wind knocked over three houses with straw roofs and wood walls at the nearby village.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Aesop's non Fables

The camp where I've been stationed was scheduled to be closed for two month's worth of renovations in Jan/Feb. That plan had been on the books for more than a year but the head office in London decided not to go through with it. Since the world's travel agents had been informed that it would be closed(and would open again in March as essentially a brand-new lodge, that should be fun for the managers to explain to guests for the next six months. "Where's the fitness center?") the reservations log was all blank spaces as per the old plan. So I was to move to one of their other properties.

I saw a beautiful sunrise, pre-flighted, and lifted for a 50 nm trip to the Northeast. The last 30 or so miles was brand-new country to me. I knew from my nav-log planning that I'd fly over a village, then an airstrip, then I should be on the lookout for some drums full of fossil fuels, they would be at my LZ along with a game drive vehicle and two guests for a scenic flight.

I landed, quickly introduced myself, and asked them to hang tight while I unloaded the fuel pump and removed the doors. After the safety briefing, I asked them if they had any questions. "What are we gonna see today?" Inner dialog, "How the hell should I know? I just got here, my main concern is finding this LZ again at the end of the flight." Outer dialog, "Every flight is different, that's what makes this such a fun gig."

It's challenging at this lodge cuz it borders a park that I can't fly over unless I'm 1000' AGL(above the ground), there are other lodges and game-drive vehicles scattered about, and there's a proper two-lane road that one can probably see from space. So you can imagine the difficulty of staying where I won't disturb others, get chased by BDF(Botswana Defense Force, keep the acronyms coming), or blow the illusion that the guests have of being in the middle of nowhere, all while looking for game, oh yeah, and flying a helicopter.

But I got lucky. We saw wild dogs, the most endangered predator in Africa(no it's not the cheetah. Cheetahs are thriving, they've learned how to live on the edges of wild and domestic areas. Sure they are genetically extinct, but that had nothing to do with human predation, they went through an evolutionary bottle-neck 10,000 years ago. Cheetahs are so similar that skin graphs, or is it grafts, yep grafts, from one animal to the next work 100% of the time without rejection medication. So if one of them gets a flu, they're all fucked, but not much we can do about that. Whoopsie, major tangent.) and they were hunting.

Wild dogs hunt by trotting after their prey. They only chase the sprinters, not the distance runners. After six or eight sprints, the impala or whatever is exhausted and they casually disembowel it while it dies a painful death. Sort of The Tortoise and the Hare, Stephen King-style. I only did half an orbit around the pack, doing my best to share from the air without altering outcomes. And while trying to find the LZ again, we saw a fair number of elephants, zebras, etc.

That afternoon, I joined a staff-only game drive and we had a great leopard sighting. I've been lucky enough to see a few but just to put it in perspective, one of the guys has been in Africa for 18 years, managed camps in South Africa, seen silver-backs fighting, etc. and that was his first leopard.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mammary memories

This was gonna be about Thabalolo, the first HIV positive person that I've known here in Bots to move on to the next life. I was gonna write about how somewhere between 25 and 40% of the population is infected. How no one talks about the disease, how shame surrounds those infected, how they often wait until they're too far gone for the anti-virals provided by government health care to make a difference or how the elders still tell the young people that condom use is white man's population control weapon.

But all of that depresses me, so instead this post is about tobacco and nudie mags.

I was with my first friend, Ed. We met at the age of six and have had many adventures. The one we're concerned with today involved the above mentioned items and a barn that housed hay and an old Model A Ford.

Ed lifted a couple of smokes from his mom's purse, then we headed down to the farm. There we acquired a couple of vintage Playboys. We climbed up into the loft and lit the smokes. After a cough or two, we had the hang of it so we busted out the bustys.

When the time came to ash the cigarettes, we looked around and were smart enough(but not that smart, keep reading) not to put ashes on the hay. Nor could we sully up Candy Loving's spread. I held out my hand. Since we weren't yet expert huffers, one of the cherries came off the end of the cigarette and burned my palm when it made contact. I let out a little yelp and shook it out of my hand. Back to the boobies.

By the time we got to the Party Jokes, the cherry had grown into a little fire on the dried hay. Ed and I stomped the holy hell out of it and then made a run for it. No way we wanted to get caught with Playboys, cigarettes, or a burnt down barn.

Sadly, no one from the next generation will get to have that sort of memory in the barn. Partly because porn is now downloaded from the web instead of found in the back of the closet under Grandpa's hunting shirts and partly because the barn fell down a couple of days ago.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

One hand clapping

Mr. Keegan taught physics at Rib Lake High School. He also taught algebra and calculus, it was and is a small school. By the time I met him, he'd been teaching in the neighborhood of twenty years. Mr. Keegan taught a few years, took a year off, taught a few more, took a year off and so on. I thought that was pretty damn cool.

One thing I wondered about in the Cool Department was his wardrobe. He bought one new, high-quality suit at the beginning of each school year. He wore the new suit the first day of school, then it became part of the rotation. Since he'd only purchased high-quality garments and had taken those sabbaticals, he had suits from disco through grunge in the line-up. He stood on his chair to start one class so we could all laugh at the pink plaid ensemble before moving on to the quadratic equation.

Mr. Keegan claimed that whether anyone was around to hear a tree fall, it still made noise. Noise was disturbance of the air. Sound was our interpretation of said disturbance. I found that explanation logical and elegant.

The sky turned the same shade of purple found under the hero's left eye in the seventh round of Rocky IV(see there's still a reason to learn Roman numerals) at about three yesterday afternoon. The wind howled and I heard a plane land at the airstrip. Knowing that no one was scheduled to arrive or depart, I went out to see what may or may not be up.

The pilot landed to wait out the storm with Maun reporting forty knots, gusting 60 from the south. Since the Maun International Airport's runway is 08/26, even if it's goat-free, which it isn't always, that's a bit much as far as landing with a crosswind goes. I helped the pilot tie down the plane, then we went to have coffee and wait for the storm to blow through.

By the time the wind died down, an African Armarula(they produce fig-like fruits that elephants eat after they've partially fermented. Yep, drunken elephants. The liqueur of the same name has an angry elephant on the label.) had fallen across the path, cutting cottage number twelve off from the civilized world. Over on the staff village side of camp, a sycamore fell on Chippie's cabin, crushing the tin roof like a can against a redneck's forehead. No one heard Chippie screaming until the wind stopped.

Rafters smashed into her shins and cut her up a bit but other than being pinned down and scared half to death, she made it through unscathed.

All it means is a hair dryer in every room

I hope by now you've drunk too much, skipped your workout, had an extra piece of pie, or done whatever else is the opposite of that silly resolution you made. All those things are good for is boosting the sales of the Thigh Master so Chrissy from "Three's Company" can get another boob job (Sidenote- John Ritter and Johnny Cash both died on September 12, 2003. Possible lesson; speed is better for you than coke. Remember, POSSIBLE lesson.) or lowering your self-esteem.

I started 2013 by seeing one of the rarest owls on the planet. We had a couple of bird nerds in camp from South Africa. They were standing on the path between me and my cup of coffee, super excited. I'm beginning to appreciate birds more than I have in the past. In part because we get lots of birders this time of year and it's more fun to say 'that's a Waddled Crane, they lay two eggs but as soon as one hatches they leave the other one behind, that's why you'll never see four of them,' than 'I don't know,' and in part because after you learn that why giraffes have urine the consistency of honey, how much more about them do you need to know? Check out the wiki entry for Pel's fishing owl. They couldn't even post a pic of it, had to draw the damn thing.

Anywho, I hit the coffee station and grabbed a piece of toast that I took 'back of house' to enjoy away from the guests. So I'm mid-bite when one of the relief managers (camp managers work 3 months on, one month off. While the managers are gone, the relief managers do their best to fuck everything up, from changing who bakes the bread each day to figuring out "better systems" to keep track of which guest resides in which cottage. In the beginning, I got very frustrated with the incompetence but I've graduated to the seventh level- amusement only.) says, "Happy New Year, Shane." "Happy New Year to you, how's twenty-thirteen treating you so far?" "I have a big boil on my ass, well not my ass exactly but where my leg meets my ass." Well, that's what I get for asking.