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.