Last Saturday, I flew my small 4-seat plane – a Mooney 201 – from Johannesburg to Kasane in northern Botswana, stopping en route in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone. With me were Michael, co-author and friend, and Peter Münder, a German journalist who writes travel articles about places in which authors set their stories. He flew out from Frankfurt on Friday night to arrive in Johannesburg on Saturday morning. Michael met him and whipped him off to the satellite airport of Lanseria, where I was waiting, plane at the ready. We were going to take Peter on a whirlwind tour of Botswana, visiting the places our Detective Kubu had visited on his various cases.
We stayed at friends Salome Meyer and Peter Comley’s home in Kazungula down the road from Kasane. On Sunday morning, well before sunrise, we set off in an open vehicle to visit Chobe National Park. Chobe has perhaps the greatest concentration of African elephants anywhere. There are probably 50,000 in and around the park. Maybe many more, as people have stopped counting.
For about eight hours we were captivated by the wildlife. We tried to find a pride of lions, whose roars kept enticing us on. We watched countless elephants on the bank of the Chobe River, and had a remarkable sighting of a hippopotamus out of the water in bright daylight, which made a mock charge at our vehicle, opening a mammoth mouth to warn us off. (Did you know that an average adult human being can nearly stand upright in the open mouth of a large adult hippo?) And we also saw many majestic giraffes, prehistoric in look, peering over bushes and trees, and enjoyed sightings of puku, impala, and warthogs in abundance.
That afternoon we took a boat ride down the Chobe River and watched countless elephants (or ellies, as we call them) coming down to drink. But the greatest treat was watching two teenage ellies cavorting in the river. We watched for nearly half an hour as they played – one pushing the other completely under the water, only to be wrestled under a few moments later. Sometimes all one could see was two trunks poking out of the water like snorkels; other times elephant feet flailed the water as their owner turned upside down. Just like kids, we thought. And all the time, a matriarch stood on the bank watching the play. If the two teenagers wrestled their way a hundred metres down the river, the matriarch would follow. If the kids moved upstream, mama was there to keep an eye on what was happening.
This is the true magic of Africa.
But there was more to come. Driving back to our lodgings after dinner in Kasane, we had to stop on the main road to let a herd of elephants cross. And a few minutes later we stopped again to watch two hippos that had left the Chobe River for their evening repast. And as we fell asleep, there was the snorting of hippos and the eerie cry of hyenas in the background.
It is hard for people outside Kasane and Kazungula to believe that elephants and other wild animals cohabit with human beings in the town. And in relative peace. If elephants are on the road in the morning, the school and shops open whenever people can get through. And what is wonderful to me is that most people living in the area would be devastated if they didn’t see their ellies every day.
Needless to say our German correspondent friend was mightily impressed. And even more so after we visited the local police station where several of our fictitious villains have been detained. We had a tour of the modern facilities, but what always catches visitors’ attention are the two massive boabab trees on either side of the station. One of these is hollow and was used as the local prison for many years!
That is the good part of the story. And now the bad!
On Tuesday morning, I had preflighted and refueled the plane for a flight over the Savuti Marsh to see water flowing in a channel for the first time in 30 years. Then we were going to fly over the Okavango Delta to Maun, then to Gaborone for dinner with the Commissioner of Police. The Mooney was parked on the ramp and we were getting ready to go. A Cessna 206 had also just refueled, boarded its passengers, and started to taxi for take-off. I was next to it as it started moving and expected it to turn left towards the end of the runway. But no! It kept moving straight ahead. Right at my Mooney!
I shouted. Michael and Peter shouted. The fuel attendant shouted. But the pilot was oblivious, obviously thinking of something else. To my horror, the Cessna taxied straight into my plane. Its propeller smashed into the spinner of my propeller, sending a shower of shrapnel in all directions. Fortunately none hit anyone. It is hard to describe the despair I felt.
To cut a long story short, the authorities in Botswana were excellent and quite efficient. But I had to spend the rest of the day filling out forms and waiting for investigators from Civil Aviation to do their thing. And then we had to find flights to Gaborone and Johannesburg for all of us, and then to George for Peter and me. That too became a headache, literally and figuratively. There weren’t enough seats for us to travel together, so Peter and Michael went to Gaborone, while I managed to get seats on a couple of private flights back to Johannesburg. And then was lucky to find 2 seats back home to the Indian Ocean coast.
This morning I met Michael and Peter who flew from Gaborone to Johannesburg to land at about the same time as thousands of World Cup fans. I had to wait about an hour for the two to clear Immigration and Customs. This gave me a taste of what the players will experience on the field of play. Throughout Oliver Tambo Airport hundreds of vuvuzelas blasted. What a cacophony. National colours of the 32 teams were everywhere, and the spirit and energy were very exciting. Everone was smiling and laughing. Then a plane-load of Mexican supporters danced into the Arrivals Hall, swirling their huge wooden rattles. The battle was on – vuvuzelas retaliated en masse. And the rattles rallied. Hence my headache! Tomorrow’s Games’ opener between South Africa’s Bafana Bafana (the boys, the boys) team and the Mexicans should be heard around the world.
Meantime, ZS-LDB, my beloved Mooney, sits on the apron of Kasane Airport, with broken nose and a sore heart. It too will hear the roars of the Bafana Bafana crowd a thousand kilometers away. And be sad it is not in the country to urge the team on.