For those of you who don’t know it yet I’ve taken a pilots job in Zambia flying tourists on safari for flights over Victoria falls ( Yes….in a microlight!). These are my first impressions.
I’m located just across the border from Zimbabwe in the town of Livingstone adjacent to Victoria Falls. The Victoria falls and Zambezi river separate the two countries.
I’m renting a cottage in the bush country just outside Livingstone. You need a 4 wheel drive vehicle to get to it but in spite of its remoteness there’s something special about it.
The other night a herd of elephants came crashing through the garden. I must admit that I was completely frightened but at the same time I was awestruck. They do a lot of damage when they pass through an area. The fence was torn down and a number of trees were uprooted in the process. I can say unequivocally that African elephants are BIG! I see elephants nearly everyday on my way to the airfield or at the airfield. I’ve already learned to read the tell-tale signs in the bush for elephants. If you don’t read the signs, you’ll end up in the wrong place at the wrong time….all at your peril.
To be honest, on my third day in Zambia I was ready to get on a plane and head home. The other pilots (1 Australian, 1 Brit, 2 Zimbabweans, and a South African) were constantly giving me tips on living here. Most of the information involved advice for avoiding elephants, hippos, crocs, and other beastly things. For example….If you come between a hippo and the water you’ll likely be bitten in two and dragged into the river bottom never to surface again. If you get too close to the elephants they get nervous and might charge and make a pancake of you. If you loiter to close to the edge of a river or pond a croc will sneak up, drag you into the water and give you the tumble of your life …like you’re in a washing machine…..eventually biting you in half.
Apart from that……it’s a nice place.
I have seen some amazing things in just a week. Zambia is teeming with African wildlife. Throughout the day baboons invade the airfield….dozens of them. They walk about with their little ones in tow as if they own the place. They keep there distance most of the time which is good because they will attack if you corner them. Everyone here seems to ignore the baboons as if they don’t find them interesting. Perhaps in time I’ll be the same but I find the Baboons fascinating. I could watch them all day.
Last Tuesday the Australian pilot (John) and I drove down a track towards the river (The Zambezi), only about a half mile from the airfield. As we came around a bend there were four big elephants behind some trees and bushes about 20 feet from us. John stopped his jeep immediately and prepared to quickly reverse down the track but the elephants on this occasion weren’t showing any signs of aggression so we just stayed put and watched them for 10 minutes or so. It was amazing. The experience can’t be adequately described in writing. It wasn’t just about elephants, it was the fact that I was within a few metres of elephants in the wild. I was in THEIR domain rather then the other way around.
When the elephants moved away we continued down to the rivers edge. The Zambezi is a beautiful river…just what you would expect in Africa. This time of year the inlets and small tributaries are fully covered on the surface with lilies. Cranes and exotic birds can be seen here and there. It looks idyllic and peaceful but as John said..” Don’t get too close to the edge mate, there’s likely a croc or two staring at us from beneath the lilies” Whilst we didn’t see a crocodile we did see a hippo that suddenly appeared from underneath the lilies a few metres from us. It looked at us for a moment or two and then submerged not to be seen again.
As to the weather, it getting hotter by the day. October is the hottest month of the year reaching 44+ deg at midday (110+ deg F).The rains come in November and that will cool things down a bit. It’s not too bad in the cottage as there are ceiling fans but I’m reluctant to open the windows in the evening. Mosquitoes are out in the evening and malaria is rife here. I’m told that in spite of taking prophylactics I’ll eventually be hit with Malaria. It’s not about if but when. John has had it a number of times as have all the others I’ve met. It’s nasty stuff. I’m told it’s far worse than the worst flu you’ll ever have. The bush people (my neighbours) get Malaria regularly. Sadly, if they can’t afford to buy medicine in town they die. It’s a hard life here for people in the bush.
Whilst waiting for my Zambian commercial flying license (required for public transport work – flying tourists) and my work permit, I’ve been flying with the other pilots to familiarize myself with the flying routine. I’ve made a number of flights in helicopters and microlights over the falls and it is spectacular! The falls are one of the 7th wonders of the world and I can understand why.
Batoka Sky is a seriously professional operation. They have 3 helicopters and 4 microlights. The job mainly involves flying tourists over the Victoria Falls and the game park with an occasional flight assisting park rangers with air support for herd management. The flights over the falls are 15 minutes in duration so it’s a very busy and high pressure environment. Each pilot does about 10 flights in succession in the morning and about the same again late afternoon.
They’re not shy of work as there are tourists queuing up everyday from 07:00 onwards. The workload during flight is intense because there can be 6 or 7 aircraft flying the same pattern over the falls and game park at the same time. Each aircraft occupy a flight level with 200ft separation between levels so flying accurately is an absolute necessity. It’s a bit intimidating when you see a helicopter passing above and below you with only 200 ft of separation.
Whilst trying to fly accurately you also have to remember that you are the tour guide to a customer that has paid a lot of money for the flight. You have to recite a plethora of historical, geological, and geographical information about the area, the sights, etc….. all whilst communicating with other pilots and ATC! Oh I forgot…..you must also remember to frequently snap photos using the wing mounted remotely controlled camera. WOW..these guys are good!
Well that’s it for now. I’m going to go and meet my neighbours….a group of bush people living in a half dozen mud huts with thatched roofs. I can just see the village from my porch. Must be about a half mile away. Just hope I don’t meet up with any elephants while on foot.