Thursday, June 10, 2010

Good times; bad times

This week I was going to write about one of the natural wonders of the world.  The Okavango Delta in Botswana certainly fits the bill.  However, an unusual event makes me write this alternative blog.  The Okavango can wait until next time, or maybe the one after.

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.


  1. Stan

    What a bummer!
    Well, better on the ground than in the air, I suppose.

    You would not believe the amount of airtime being devoted to South Africa on Brazilian TV.

    Or the amount of warmth it has generated for your country and its people.

    Good luck tomorrow against Mexico.
    About 150 million Brazilians are rooting for you guys.
    I hope Mandela makes it to the game.
    If he does, it'll give us goosebumps.

    And be sure to watch us kick North Korean ass on Tuesday.

    If there was ever a country that deserves it....

  2. Stan, I concur with Leighton that if something is going to happen to a plane, it is so much better that it happens on the ground and no one is hurt.

    This post is special. Every part of it sings with life!

    I have no compunction wishing South Africa and Brazil best wishes for success in the World Cup. The US faces England on Saturday and the news reports in the US suggest that just maybe the US could beat England if lightning strikes twice in sixty years. The US did beat England in 1950 although it appears that England wasn't cup worthy either that year.

    I have watched many "soccer" games over the years because my children played. It is something of a rite of passage in every city and town in the US. My oldest missed the point of the game. She was shown her position and she stayed there, right where she was told to be.

    Enjoy the games.


  3. Hi Stan,

    I hope your plane will be fixed quickly and that you go through the least amount of bother possible. The story leading up to the accident was amazing, I cannot imagine what it is like to see these animals in their natural habitat and I had no idea about the hippos enormous jaws. It seems these blob-ish creatures are full of surprises, I remember reading an information bulletin board next to a hippo display in a zoo and there is said that hippos can run as fast as 40 miles an hour which did not strike me as likely seeing the shape of the hippos on display. However I would assume a zoo would check their sources before putting up the info board so I am inclined to think this might be true. Did the hippo charge the car at great speed?


  4. Fortunately the hippo only made a mock charge! It took a couple of steps towards us and then opened its mouth. However I think your zoo was wrong. My guess is that the top spee would be no more than 40 km/hr. Even that seems high. Did you know that the hippo is the most dangerous animal in Africa? It kills more people than any other animal?

  5. Terrific update on the goings on in SA. I'm not sure which is wilder, the fans at the WC or animals you mentioned. I suspect it's the fans. My grandson plays soccer (OK, 'futbol') and the game is terrific to watch but I have to say that watching 282 minutes (SA vs. Mexico, France vs. Uruguay, US vs. England) to see 3 ties and 4 goals wasn't the excitement I'm used to from American football and baseball. It must be an acquired viewing experience.

    Sorry about your plane. I hope it mends soon.

  6. Hell on Earth: Eating hákarl to a chorus of vuvuzelas.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  7. Stan,

    No tornadoes here, but other parts of the state were hit. Sorry about your plane. Was the pilot of the other plane texting while taxing?

  8. Probably! Either that or chatting up the chick in the back seat!