Rhett's Ramblings - African Aero Safari

By Rhett Shillaw


25.02.2024





It's often the best jobs that seem to appear out of nowhere. Like fog on a winter's morning, they tend to take you by surprise. I find these spontaneous, out of the blue flights the most enjoyable. Such as with life. When you don't have the time to form opinions and expectations, you rarely end up disappointed.


While instructing with Cirrus South Africa, I was introduced to owner and organizer of At the time, he was looking for a pilot to help him with some flying. Someone not afraid of the bush. Happy to make the experience enjoyable for the clients. Above all, spend ten days flying a cross-border navigation through some of the best parts of Southern Africa.




Having experience in both customer relations and flying in Africa, I raised my hand without hesitation. One phone call was all it took for me to commit to the task.


?Dave's Company offers top end safaris around Southern Africa in an assortment of light aircraft. These trips are completely customizable with all the logistics expertly planned out by Dave himself. With his relationships throughout all the major travel destinations, every single detail was arranged down to the tee.


My job came in flight planning and logistics. Since Africa can be rather wild at times, it's often advised to take a guide along on these trips. As the Pilot/guide my job was to ease the process of border crossing and other basic PIC duties throughout the trip.





Greasing palms and understanding African people and cultures can help save a lot of headache, heartache and time. Treat the bureaucracy correctly and you should make it through without too many issues. Step on the wrong toes, and they have the ability to make your life a nightmare.


As a foreign national, it is possible to obtain a license validation and do this all yourself. However, you would need to write a theory exam, which is not as straight forward as you might expect. The process would take at least 2 weeks. Up to a month if you failed the first attempt.





Needless to say, the guests we had for this trip opted for a guide. Having a local pilot as a guide did not mean our trip was problem free, there were still many snags along the way. I'm just glad they weren't alone in dealing with it all. It's far too easy to be taken advantage of out there.


The fact that I was an instructor allowed the guest to fly to their hearts content. Besides travelling around Africa, cruising low and slow over the continent is more than half the fun!


Kitplanes for Africa


Our trip began in the early hours of the morning. We departed Lanseria for a 4-hour flight to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to clear customs. From here the first lodge bush guide picked us up. After completing the extensive paperwork, we jumped aboard the cruiser. En-route to our first overnight lodge, Big Cave Lodge in Matobo National Park.


With the evening beginning to set in, the excitement amongst us all was too much to sit still. Instead, we opted for an evening game drive. Rock paintings, rhino tracking and a beautiful African sunset with a deliciously refreshing drink is how we ended off day one.





After our morning game drive the next day, we departed for Bumi Hills. Following the rivers that feed into the lake we finally came upon the camp. Perfectly perched above the banks of Lake Kariba. Bumi offers exceptional views of the lake and the wildlife down below. In hindsight the low-profile Cirrus we found ourselves travelling in was ill equipped for Bumi.


One of the more challenging runways we faced on our trip. With stones the size of golf balls and just over a kilometre of runway. Marsh on one end and the lake on the other. It takes some skill to get in and out unscathed.




This was one of my favourite stops of the trip. An incredibly intimate experience with only a handful of rooms. The staff were exceptionally friendly and professional in accommodating us. Being treated like royalty for 3 days is easy to get used to. Apart from the magnificent rooms overlooking the elephants at the water's edge, there is so much on offer here.





Morning and evening game drives can be traded for a boat cruise on the lake. Scouring the coast for wildlife, of which there is plenty. Fisherman's paradise as bream and tiger waits for a fight. The camp also contributes significantly toward the local community. Many of the staff come from these rural communities. Living in the bush and fending for themselves.


Bumi offers the opportunity to experience these unique cultures. Allowing guests to engage in other eye-opening experiences. Bumi also helps in giving back to these communities.





After the incredible 3 days on Lake Kariba, we were scheduled for the next stop. Following the lake's shores to the West and winding river to the North, we set course for Victoria Falls. The first sign of our arrival was the mist hundreds of meters in the air. The Smoke that Thunders. Victoria Falls. With special clearance and observing strict flight rules, to avoid the scenic helicopters below and inbound traffic above.


We diverted for this natural wonder of the world. Circling overhead is a wonderful thing. Walking along the edge of the steep gorge, hearing the thunder and feeling the mist on your face is another thing entirely.





As the unrivalled adventure capital of Africa, Vic Falls has lots to offer. From white water rafting and bungee jumping to a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, the options are limitless. After a few days we had had our fair share of activities and tourist attractions. Two days later we would cross boarders again. This time into Botswana, headed for the Okavango Delta.


Following the Zambezi River again for a short 50 nm hop over to Kasane, Botswana to clear customs. From here we would steer into the heart of the Okavango and yet another luxurious Wilderness Camp.




This time far from any other civilization. Surrounded by the wilderness somewhere in Northern Botswana. In the bush, your days are governed by the movements of the animals. Mornings and evenings are reserved for the game drives. During these hours the plains are cooler and the predators are usually more mobile. If you're lucky you might find some them on the hunt. The remainder of the day is spent mostly relaxing. Reading a book or lounging by the pool. Watching birds and other creatures unique to life in the bush.


Being completely immersed in the bush is an experience unlike any other. No fences surrounding the camp, all your senses are heightened. On the first night I heard a rummaging sound under my stilted room. Well aware that the only thing separating me from the sound was flimsy canvas and my zipper door. Peeking out of the mosquito mesh, I managed to finally identify the culprit. A massive bull elephant, foraging for some of the only coconuts left in the delta. The ones on our small island of a sanctuary.



Speaking to the ranger the next morning, it is apparently quite common. Elephants have an insatiable appetite for coconuts and have been known to break into camps to reap these tropical treats. ?Another friendly warning on arrival was that on occasion, leopards and lions have been spotted amongst the rooms too. Don't wander alone at night was the advice we were told. In case you feel threatened, each room is equipped with a small hand-held air horn. Enough to deter any animal from whatever they are doing. So, they say.


Another two days and we were set for our second last stop on what had turned out to be an incredible adventure for all involved. An experience I'll remember fondly for the rest of my life. ?Returning to South Africa, we would make one more stop in the Limpopo Valley the place where Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa meet in Mapungubwe National Park. Also known as the Thuli Block.





A World Heritage Site offering panoramic views of the Limpopo River and a conservational area teaming with wildlife. Here we had the best game sightings of the entire trip. Three different kills and ticking all the remaining boxes on our sightseeing checklist meant great success.


After our stay at Mashatu Game Reserve I would have one more leg with the guests. Dropping them off in Welgevonden one of south Africa's finest private game reserves, not too far from Johannesburg. Not knowing the guests from a bar of soap, long trips like this can go one of two ways. Fortunately, I have nothing but praise for the experience we shared together.


?By the end of the trip I was made to feel a part of the family. A big thank you to the guests and all those involved that helped make our journey possible every step of the way. This was the trip of a life time. Without being involved in aviation, I'm not sure I would have had the opportunity to experience this otherwise.








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