“For 2010, I need close-ups of African Fish Eagle while diving for fish, I need baby birds, I need Leopard and Elephant and Rhino with colourful sunsets.” World famous and award-winning photographer Anette Mossbacher demanded on the phone from “Swissyland” as she calls it, with her distinct German accent.
So of course, I chose one of the Ker & Downey Camps in the Delta and one of the Rattray Resorts for our next trip and started organising a C182. We met at Lanseria and loaded the old aerie in such a way that Frau Mossbacher could take photos all round and her 14-year-old daughter plus a mutual friend of ours sat in the back. On starting the C182, I noticed that she pulled a lot of amps and started laboriously, but when the engine took the ammeter showed a slight charge, with the needle jumping slightly from 0 to the + sign and back again repeatedly.
It's a hop and skip to Gaborone over beautiful, mostly semi-arid and mostly empty countryside and we checked into Botswana without much hassle. I had to smile at the typical way the ATC spoke: RRRRRoggggg for affirmative, and Sikish for six, the familiar differences meant I was finally heading back into the bush.
From Botswana's Capital to the gateway of the Okavango Delta, Maun, it is exactly 307nm. At precisely 152nm my electrics died. With the magnetos responsible for generating their own power and therefore still able to provide ignition of the piston engine via the sparkplugs, the engine kept running nicely and I had time to think of how big this mess was that we found ourselves in. I immediately decided to fly on to Maun and not turn back. Firstly, the pax would then still make their expensive pre-paid lodges. Secondly, Maun is FULL of little piston engines, for example Cessna 206s, so the chances of getting this little Cessna repaired seemed bigger there, than back in Gabs.
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Hoping the pax wouldn't notice, I was thinking that I must be careful to keep Heading nicely now by relying on the compass more, as the DI (Directional Indicator) had a bad drift, and that I would have to use my handheld radio as we near the exceptionally busy airspace of Maun. No use putting the transponder on 7600, because we had zero electrics. The air speed indicator showed a continuous speed of 110 knots and by my calculations we would reach Maun exactly 27 minutes past the next hour. The airspeed indicator and Artificial Horizon are air driven and therefore not impacted by the loss of electric power. The noise of the engine was very loud now and I casually looked at my map, to see how I would recognise if I've drifted off to the left or the right of Maun, in case we wouldn't have it on the nose at the eta. According to my fuel calculations, we had enough fuel to search for Maun for a good 40 minutes and land with legal reserves.
The pax were looking outside peacefully, and the teenager was napping, a typical sight: children often react to air sickness by sleeping. In that moment I got a hectic, slightly painful, tapping sensation on my right shoulder, and my friend in the back pointed hysterically at the two fuel gauges waving her arm towards and away from them for good measure. They were electronically actuated and had both failed to “E” for empty without power. Shouting “No fuel! Empty, empty, no fuel!!!!”, above the engine noise. Now the other occupants were all alerted and I quickly explained we still had 2.5 hours endurance and that the engine is fine regardless of no electrics. Repeatedly circling my index finger in circles with the one hand and holding up my thumb with the other, to show that the engine is fine in case they couldn't hear me well. I asked the rear pax to give me the handheld radio, which was in the back, and which I had showed them during the emergency briefing pre-flight, but had said was highly unlikely to be needed.
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At the top of the hour, I gave Anette the map and shout-explained to her that Maun will not be easily detected because there were no high-rise buildings but a town and a river and trees. We would have to compare the blue squiggles of the meandering river on the map to the actual river, in case we were West or East of Maun in about half an hour. Single Crew CRM (Crew Resource Management) … now I knew what that meant… I also knew that the runway was West/Easterly and wouldn't be easily spotted coming in low-level from the South. 10 miles from Maun it was clear that we didn't have Maun on the nose. I decided to fly West and see what we could see, listening out on the hand-held radio with one hand and flying with the other.
Eventually I recognised a dusty village called Toteng beneath us in the sand and shouted that we were west of the field and had to turn back, following the river. Thank goodness, I had been on this road with my trusted Landy 2 years before and recognised the area. As we came closer to Maun airport, I had to warn other traffic and tell ATC about our predicament. Shouting into the handheld above the incessant engine noise we requested priority clearance and sent all the other traffic into orbit. My ear hurt from pressing the equipment against it trying to hear above the static. It was easy to spot the long tar strip once knowing its approximate location.
Pressing the handheld radio to my ear, I set up for a flapless landing, coming in 5 knots faster on final approach and convincing tower to let us go straight to the maintenance facility, as we wouldn't be able to start the engine again for taxi, and that I would walk the pax over to domestic arrivals immediately. A relieved crew and pax entered the airport building and went straight through the charming little terminal, over the road, and fell into the well-known pub 20 m further. There, many of my colleagues were already sitting, enjoying their first after-duty drinks. I addressed them all, asking if they knew anyone who could quickly take my pax to the lodge ASAP. They held up their alcoholic beverages and shouted: “Not us!!!!” accompanied by much laughter and back slapping. In those days, finding a sober pilot after 15:00 proved to be a mission, almost impossible.
After a lot of phoning around, one chap piped up: “I remember that Champ (not his real name) said he was going to shower first, before joining us, do you want me to call him for you?” “Yes, please!”, my hopes surged once more. He handed me his phone and Champ answered, with splashing water noise in the background: “Howzit!” “Howzit, could you possibly fly three pax to Camp quickly? My aircraft has electrical problems and everyone else is already at the pub.“Ja, no, man. I'm already late joining them.” “Please, man, you're literally the only one who hasn't drunk anything yet.” “Damnit! I should have just joined my mates immediately.” “I'll buy you drinks after the flight.” The cash strapped youth didn't hesitate. “Ok, how many?” “Two rounds for you and your mates.” “Ok I'll do it, let me phone ops.”
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Relieved, I went back to my pax, who were hitting the double Gin & Tonics hard, with two empty glasses each in front of them already collecting condensation. “I found us a pilot, willing to take you to your camp. I'll fetch you when he arrives. Just stay put.” Leaving the pub, I heard the other pilots looking forward to free drinks later…
After Champ and the pax had left for the camp, I went back to the maintenance facility. The madala Bakwena mechanic had already diagnosed the problem: the rectifier was blown. He could fix it, but he would need until tomorrow afternoon. He seemed exceptionally competent, so I left him to it and returned to the pub, waiting for Champ to come back so I could buy him his two rounds.
The next afternoon I joined my pax in time for the sunset boat cruise to the heronry. Moyo, our guide expertly managed to position us for Anette to photograph swooping fish eagles near the hatching sight. The crocodiles were waiting patiently underneath the nests for the exceptionally ugly baby Marabou Storks to fall out.
All was well for a while. Since the camp was full, I had to sleep in the pilot tent that night. Freezing my bum off, trying to fall asleep, I listened to the lion roaring close by, the bell frogs doing their thing and the hippos laughing. The lion was obviously on the move, as the roaring came closer and closer as time went by. Shivering, I got up and searched for more clothes to put on. It must have been around
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21:00 and as I got back into the rickety wire bed, I realised that the lion was getting closer and closer. The tent fabric was thin, and when I started hearing the lion's inbreath between roars, I started to get worried about what kind of protection the dark green material could actually provide. At this stage, no longer feeling the cold, listening with all my might, I heard him grunting next to my bed on the other side of the flimsy material, as he lay down in the sand. I'll never forget the soft and gentle noise the sand makes, when a lion gets comfortable at a distance of about ten cm. The tent vibrated with his roar.
“I'll never fall asleep now”, I thought, lying rigidly still in bed, hands crossed over my chest, already in coffin pose. When I woke up, the sun was out and the birds were chirping. I had missed the morning boat ride and the camp had dispatched a staff member to come looking for me, as I was also absent from breakfast.
“Captain, wake up and come for breakfast.”
“I am not coming out. There's a lion somewhere outside my tent, stop shouting and look for the thing. Be careful.”
I heard his footsteps squishing in the sand as he circled the outside of the tent. Then he started laughing as he came to the side of my bed. In between the laughter he managed to get out: “Hahhaaaa, come and see, hahahah!”
I ventured out and saw the indentation, where the lion had lain, right next to my bed. One could even see the spots where his huge mane had made a pattern in the sand. His huge pawprints were clearly visible as well. The staff member laughed even harder now, at my surprised eyes and ashen face. I was grateful that I didn't have to fly that day. I was finished.
The gratefulness soon completely evaporated when I heard the plans for the day: “Walking Safari”.