On Safari in Botswana (2008)
This story has nothing to do with flying airplanes other than to relate how much fun charter operations can be on the "high end." I was on my second safari of three in one month and wrote this letter to our dispatcher from the previous company destined to be our dispatcher of a future company. If you want to know how we got to this point, see Airport Selection.
19 May 2008
I know you are sore at me for stealing your favorite flight attendant, but you really shouldn't be. I know everyone thinks Brad is the best thing since sliced bread, but he really is no big deal and you shouldn't be so upset. Let me explain.
It all started about 47,000 feet above Namibia when Brad started up on the baboons again. "I see a baboon, I'm gonna kick his ass."
"You can't do that, Bradley," Rick offered helpfully, "he's got four sets of opposable thumbs. You are outnumbered before you even start."
"Doesn't matter," Brad said with a huge swing of his fists, "I'm gonna wail on the first one I see."
I could never tell what Brad was really thinking but decided it didn't matter. He was the best flight attendant we ever had on the airplane: he kept the passengers happy, he was good with all sorts of food, and he almost never whined. As long as Brad was happy, I decided to be happy. "What's for lunch?"
"Well I got bad news and good news, pilot." I felt the leading edge of gloom about to rain on my forced happiness. "They cancelled the crew catering again but not to worry, I picked up a few things at the grocery store in Cape Town and you won't go hungry."
A few minutes later he reappeared with the largest omelets I'd ever seen. While Rick scarfed his down eagerly in a few gulps I examined the strange yellow concoction. "What kind of eggs are these?"
"Well it was actually only one egg, but it made enough for all of us with some left over."
"Yup, you like it?"
"I guess it's okay," I said, "but what is this meat?"
"Take it away."
Debbie, it isn't that I am ungrateful for his efforts, but the Kudu is a poor excuse for an animal on hooves and biltong is the nastiest jerky you've ever tasted. And here I was providing the safest, smoothest ride available in Africa this day in May at Flight Level 470.
We landed in Maun and parked our sleek, 100' foot long Gulfstream next to two Cessna 182s. Our passengers piled into one on their way to Safari. The single engine prop spun to life and they were off. Ah if only we were so rich and lucky. My daydream was interrupted by the handler who came to the cockpit with the obligatory bad news, but this bad news was the worst.
"Where are you guys staying for the next seven days?" he asked, "somebody cancelled your hotel reservations and there are no rooms available at any price."
I let that sink in, expending half my energy on the Neanderthals at the charter company who must have screwed this up, the other half trying in vain to come up with a Plan B.
I crept down the stairs, trying to think, only to see a young man at the bottom, waiting for me. He was dressed in a short sleeved white shirt with four epaulets, the steeley-eyed aviator image only marred by the freckles on his face and the short pants failing to cover his bony knees.
"Good afternoon captain," he said in a bit of a Dutch accent, "I am Ludvig your pilot for your trip to Okavango."
Ludvig handed me a small white envelope carrying a letter from our lead passenger, who was thanking us for our efforts thus far with an all expenses paid week-long safari to the Okavango Delta. Life is good after all.
"A piston single!" Rick was beside himself with glee. "Can I drive?"
We piled into the airplane, Ludvig and Rick in the front seats, Bradley and I in the next row, our luggage behind us.
Now Debbie, as you know, lots of professional jet pilots have a story or two to tell about why they are great pilots and lousy passengers. Not me, I am only too happy when a professional pilot is at the controls of a fine air machine with me as the self loading cargo. The trouble is, this machine had a spinning thing in front and both pilots at the controls were young enough to be . . . well, they were young.
The flight took about half an hour, we couldn't have been doing more than fifty knots. Ludvig was from Amersterdam, as it turned out. He was here building time on his way to career with the airlines.
We arrived at Gate One of the Okavango Delta Airport. It was little more than a grassy clearing in the jungle. I found myself worrying about the various gopher holes and other ruts in the ground as we bounced to a stop. Not to worry, it was a landing we all walked away from. (I've done worse and bragged about it.)
Camp Okavango is in the middle of the Okavango River Delta and is surrounded by marsh land and lots of animals. This is where the very rich come to rough it, say they roughed it, but still have a few creature comforts. There were about forty of us safari tourists there, all well healed, well to do, and well off. Many of them had names with prefixes like "sir" and "lady" and these and others also had suffixes such as "the third" and "of the house of" something or other. To that they also had us three: Bradley, Rick, and Eddie.
They had 24 tents but only two for us. I was thinking about pulling rank and taking the single for myself. But we still have another Africa trip in June and I have to convince Brad he wants to take it for us. So Brad gets the single while Rick and I learn to tolerate one another at close quarters.
I know that you know I get a lot of abuse from other corporate pilots with more military pedigrees than mine about how I've never had to live in a tent. Well now I have . . .
Sure it was a tent with a real bed covered in mosquito netting and running water and a shower and . . .
It was still a tent.
We spent the mornings on motor boats speeding to nearby islands, followed by canoe trips to smaller islands, forced marches in search of the local animals. We were flanked by tour guides one of whom always carried a rifle. They never discussed the rifle and always made it seem we were just out for a nice walk with our friends in the animal kingdom.
At one point, minding our own business, a hyena crossed our path close enough to pet.
"Don't pet the hyena, Eddie." Our guide, Banda, was always looking out for us.
Banda read from a long list of rules, admonishing us to keep quiet and to walk only in single file. Unlike Imperial Storm Troopers who walk line abreast, we would walk one-behind each other to mask our numbers.
"Kudu," our guide said.
"What's that, Bondo Putty?" Brad could never get that name right.
"Kudu," Banda repeated.
And so it was. So at last I saw the meat that had been tormenting me this trip. Brad chewed happily away from his plastic bag of kudu biltong. He knew better than to offer me any.
Over the days we saw elephants, impalas, wart hogs, crocodiles, and lots of birds. Banda took them all in stride. Of course we had seen more than our share of each of these so far on this trip.
The only time I felt threatened was when Banda gunned the motor boat to avoid a few hippos. "They will overturn the boat if you go too slow," he said.
A lot of these safaris involve long hours looking in vain for promised animals that we would conclude don't actually exist. Years ago, in Kenya, I remember spending eight hours in a Land Rover looking in vain for a lion. "They only exist in American zoos," I told our driver back then, "I don't believe they actually exist in Kenya." Even then I knew how to make friends across borders.
Here in Botswana, however, we saw everything promised except the baboons. Those we heard at night. A loud, terrifying screech, it haunted Brad and he greeted us each morning with sunken eyes. The wails of the nights kept me up a time or two as well.
It may have been drama for our benefit for perhaps it was a real and present danger. We were not allowed outside our tents after dark without an armed tour guide.
"They are more afraid of you," Banda told us, "than you are of them."
How can Banda know how afraid we are, I wondered to myself. And if that was so, why did Banda always carry a rifle at night?
Seven days of this was probably a few days too much. Every evening there was a party at the big tent. The food was local cuisine and was actually not too bad. The beer was also local and wasn't very good at all. The hard liquor was all imported and got better with each passing night.
On our final morning Brad declined an invitation to another forced walk and decided to sleep in. As I stirred restlessly willing myself to consciousness, I heard a slam and a yelp from the next tent. It was Brad and he was fighting mad. "I'm gonna kill you!"
Rick and I rushed over to his tent where we spotted him brandishing a chair against a frantic baboon he had cornered in the closed side of his tent. "I'm gonna kill you!" The tent cot had been overturned and what little furniture that was still unbroken was tossed carelessly to one side, the baboon's side.
"Nobody is going to kill nobody," I declared, hoping two negatives will make a positive.
"But he ate all my biltong!" Brad cried. "He's gonna be sorry." Brad lunged at the baboon who got ready to parry the assault. I jumped between the two and held them both by the scruffs of their necks.
"You two better behave or I'm gonna have to do something drastic," I bluffed. "Can't you two get along?"
"Hell no!" Brad said. The ape spat at him, the loogie barely missed Brad's face.
"Okay then," I said in my boldest tone ever, "it's going to be a fight then, but we're going to do this civilized. You got that?"
I shook Brad and he tore his glare from the ape to me. "This is going to be a fair fight, Brad. No kicking, no hitting below the belt, no furniture! You got that?"
"Yeah, I got it."
I shook the baboon with equal force. "As for you: no spitting or biting. And no fair using more than two opposable thumbs at a time. You got that?"
The baboon nodded. I was trying to referee a fair fight, one that humans and primates could look back on with pride. So I tried to relax my grip on the two combatants at an equal rate but Brad used his free arm to wheel back just as I let go and the baboon leaped free of my grip and straight through an open window.
We declared Brad the winner by default and toasted to his good health. The crisis was averted.
Now we have to decide who is going to pay for the damage to Brad's tent.
So, Debbie, as you can see Brad is just more trouble than he is worth. So you might as well stop calling him and stop being mad at me. Besides, we are booking Brad for every trip we've got into the next year.