Friday, March 21, 2014

Keep the tips

I kicked it enjoying another cup of coffee knowing I only had one flight at 1345. The camp manager found me and told me that I needed to contact World Headquarters. I spoke with Hannah on the sat phone and learned that I needed to pick up the Doctor for a med-evac from a place I'd never been and then bring the patient directly to the hospital (also a never been.)

I got the skinny from Andrew on both LZ's, hung up the phone, filled jerries with fuel for the trip back to Maun and cranked up. The Doctor's helipad wasn't in the GPS but I knew she lived upstream of a point that was in the GPS so I put those coords in and aimed a little to the left.

We found the injured party quite easily because they waited for us on a soccer pitch behind a gate into Chobe National Park. Buildings stick out like beacons in the unchanging landscape of the Kalahari Desert. I did an orbit and landed. While the engine was cooling down I spied a man in uniform with a machine gun approaching. I put up a hand for him to stop. He stopped so I figured I wasn't in too much trouble for landing in the Park.

I got out once the blades stopped turning and introduced myself. He said it was fine, just that he needed to make sure I was after the man with the bandaged hand not rhinos.

The Doctor did an assessment, re-bandaged and we were off. The hospital sits south of the airport and I was approaching from the north. I requested clearance to cross the active runway and land at the hospital. 'Negative, you do not have clearance.' Maun International(and I use the term loosely) Airport is quiet except for two hours of every day when people are brought in from bush camps to catch the flight to Jo-burg.

Of course this was one of those times. There were several planes in the circuit with two on final. I did orbits and said, 'Tower I was told by ground crew that I have approval to land at the hospital. I have a doctor and patient on board. Can I have clearance to cross the active runway or may you please call an ambulance to meet us and give me clearance to land on the apron.' Three sixty knot orbits worth of silence. 'A2-Hotel Lima Alpha you are cleared across zero eight direct to the hospital. Advise on the ground.'

It's really cool that they put a helipad in when the Maun Hospital was built but you gotta wonder how they chose the site. 'Look at this spot, it has trees, wires, and lamp poles, plus the mechanical turbulence from the building will make the towering approach jump from high risk to super high risk. It's perfect.' It was the first landing at the helipad with a patient and things went well, considering. Hopefully we can work the kinks out for next time.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich Recipe

Surprise your friend by saying hello in the Jo-burg airport when she thought you were only going to meet up after going through customs in Windhoek, Namibia. Wonder if you've slipped through a wormhole when the driver is waiting for you at the airport with your name spelled correctly on the sheet he's holding. Get further confused when an operational electronic billboard rises above litter-free streets to welcome you to the capital city. Walk from the hotel to the iconic Joe's Bierhaus and order beers that aren't lagers to wash down the plate of ostrich and oryx steaks. Throw the waitress for a loop when she brings the bill by saying, 'In my culture, the woman pays.' Walk back to the hotel in a warm downpour, hoping you haven't made too many wrong turns but knowing that it don't matter none cuz hypothermia doesn't exist at 30 degrees C. Get the rundown on how to pitch the rooftop tent, keep dust from impregnating all the camping and cookware. First stop, fill the tank, second stop, grocery store. Buy food, wine, and mozzy repellent (though your travel partner won't use any even after her ankles look like the kid that got the worst of it before chickenpox vaccine was invented.)

Brown bread
two eggs
bleu cheese

Load the back of the baakie (truck), turn on the fridge, hit the highway. Head north and east to Etosha National Park. Meet the first unfriendly Namibian, the woman who's job it is to welcome you into the park. Marvel at how easily the rooftop tent pitches. Let roaring lions serenade you to sleep. Wake and strike the tent while it's (relatively) cool. Drink coffee. Head north, see giraffes, zebras, and a leopard. See litter along the road and realize that you may indeed still be in Africa. Spy an Augusta-Westland 139 and wonder what in the wide world of sports it's doing in northern Namibia. Check the map, realize that Angola is on the other side of the river. Continue to drive a bit too fast on a road the map doesn't recognize. Come over a rise and hit a dip full of water with too much speed, break the two eggs, let the bleu cheese marinade in the yolk white mixture, get a fright. Slow down.

Sneak off the road and camp illegally just south of Epupa Falls. Mess around with shutter speed while taking pics of the falls, go for a swim in the pools where the locals are washing bodies and clothing. Try to follow the road to complete a loop. Turn around. Ask the commander at the police post if you should carry on. 'Ah it is difficult.' Okay, yo-yo back to the next turnoff.

Become mesmerized by the constantly changing scenery. Caramelize the onions on the one burner propane stove, preferably while watching a killer lightening storm from one of the most beautiful and desolate places on the planet. Check out the nest of sociable weavers and wonder if the trees ever fall down from the weight of the nest (they do.)

Swim in the Atlantic Ocean, keeping an eye on the pile of shoes and clothes on the beach so you know how strong the rip is moving you.

Wonder why everyone said, 'You gotta go to Swampkumund,' until you realize that it's cuz that city has lots happening if you spend all your time in Maun, Botswana. Wrap the leftovers from the second dinner not created on your one burner to put in sandwiches the next day.

Work up an appetite by climbing Dune 45. Enjoy the view from the top, all alone. Fascinate in the gecko that lives on the dune that puts on the brakes by splaying his legs and tail in the air and digging his belly into the sand.

Roll the dice by booking a scenic flight in a 210. Thank the French family for taking the empty seats and making the flight more affordable. Take pic after pic of dunes and coastline and fairy circles and wonder what it would've done to ship morale if you crashed on that coastline.

Sautee the pears. Layer the bread with caramelized onions, pears, and bleu cheese. Patiently and continually turn the sandwiches so the bread doesn't burn while your traveling partner watches, convinced that charcoal is on the menu for the evening. When you can lift up the top slice of bread and the rest of the concoction comes along for the ride, the gooey goodness is ready to eat.

Cut the sandwiches in half. Serve with boxed chardonnay, opera music from a park employee's cottage, and a billion stars in the sky.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This one time, in the Serengeti

I arrived in the Dar es Salaam airport and tried to find the visa line. Eastern Africans que much like Indians, which is to say not at all. A uniformed man with a gun on his hip randomly takes passports, completed visa forms and entrance fees from new arrivals and throws them in a basket. I finally got my turn and he looked at the fifty dollar bill and said, 'One hundred dollars.' I pointed to the sign on the wall and said that I didn't need multiple entries so it should only be fifty dollars. He said, 'One hundred dollars.'

I checked out the duty-free shop and spied 'Brut-Alaska' cologne. I took a sniff. They got it wrong.

My flight to Kilimanjaro wasn't on the departure board. A voice behind me asked if I was going to Zanzibar. 'Not this trip,' I said as I turned around. The Belgian informed me that her flight also wasn't listed and that she had inquired to be informed that, 'That man who does the board is on leave.' 'Sounds about right,' says I.

She had just come off the mountain. We split a beer, the big one cuz big or little it'll run ya 4000 shillings. The Belgian nurse was very jealous that my family would be meeting me in Arusha. Her family refuses to leave Europe so she travels on her own. Even though it wasn't on the schedule, her plane boarded on time, as did mine.

The 'rents and my sis/hubby got to Arusha a few hours after me. We hugged it out and I told them that we would get breakfast at 0600, the transfer to the airport at 0700. Fast forward to the next morning. Six a.m. and the driver shows up and says we gots to get. We rush to the airport sans brekkie, wait for the pilot to pitch, get dropped off at an airstrip in the southern part of the Serengeti with no one waiting to pick us up. So far, so African.

And so was the bush. Eastern Africa has game densities that are hard to conceptualize. The plains stretch away for miles and are filled with wildebeest and zebras and gazelles and the things that eat them. We found a cheetah with five cubs less than an hour into the game drive that began from the airstrip when people showed to pick us up. From there it was on to lions from three meters away. Super fun to watch my family experience that for the first time.

The whole Tanzanian portion of my leave was wonderful. It's been way too long since I've spent more than a long weekend with my family and the most time I've spent with the newest member, my sister's husband Pete. She chose wisely.

Pete and I had what must be the best beer and potato chip episode ever. We kicked it while the African wild dogs slept off breakfast. Not sure why the name was changed from 'Painted dogs,' not ferocious enough, I reckon. Anyway, the dogs were sleeping and I suggested that we just hang and wait. By that time we had seen approximately 17 bazillion wildebeest and seeing as wild dogs are the most endangered predator on the continent and a pack of 13 needs to eat a baby wildebeest for breakfast, skip lunch and have a sensible (baby wildebeest) dinner, and they don't hunt at night, I reckoned we'd get to see another kill if we were just patient.

Two Kilimajaros (the beer, not the mountain) later, the hungriest dog woke up. The social structure of the dogs demands that the one whose stomach is growling initiate a play session with the pack to entice them to hunt. After the session, the dogs trotted off and we followed.

It didn't take too long to get a mother and baby separated from a group. Dogs have a reputation as violent killers because they eviscerate the victim by pulling the guts out and beginning to eat while the animal is still alive. The kill looks violent but in some respects is better than the way the cats and hyenas do it.

Dogs can't choke their victims because their jaws are so small. Ripping the guts is painful but quick. You'd be hard-pressed to identify the species two minutes after the first bite. Lions sometimes take twenty minutes to fully choke an animal. If you're gonna die anyway, you'd probably choose two minutes over twenty, wouldn't you?