AFRICA — On Safari – First stop, Haina Lodge, Kalahari Desert

In this chapter of my blog and perhaps in future posts I’ll credit photos to others, probably mostly to TJ Shembekar one of my fellow adventurers. My Canon 60D camera is unwieldy in a cramped cockpit so I relied on a smaller pocket camera, a Canon 750, for that. Now, if I ever find my 750 – wherever it is – I’ll have lots more pictures from the air. Enough self-pity and whining, on with the adventure.

Two days before departure ZS-RIO, the Cessna 182 assigned to me, experienced an in-flight problem with the throttle, and had to make an emergency landing. Fortunately, the pilot landed safely back to Lanseria precluding a forced landing at a remote airfield. A mechanic pulled the cowling off and quickly found the problem; the throttle assembly had fallen apart and was beyond repair. Surprisingly, a new-in-the-box replacement was on the shelf. He made the repair and the airplane ready for a test flight in just hours.

In relative time, that test flight was scheduled for yesterday. Next problem, the pilot required for the test flight was not available until this morning. The safari organizers picked up the seven of us and our baggage right after breakfast at the Hertford Hotel and delivered us to the Lanseria Airport for the beginning of our trip. I crossed my fingers that I would have an airplane to fly.

While the other three airplanes were loading up and going through their pre-flight checklists, RIO was overhead the airport being checked out for safety. At last, forty minutes behind schedule, I was packed and ready.

First stop, customs and immigration to have our South African visas cancelled to allow us to legally depart the country. WHAT??? That’s when I discovered that South Africa did not refer to a geographical region but instead to a sovereign country and travel here was not going to be like driving from California to Texas. Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were separate countries. The laws are you much show you legally left a country before you were allowed to enter another; requiring exit and entry visas. Who knew? Finally, with fresh ink in my passport and all the paperwork done, it was time to FLY!

Lined up in the center of the runway, I pushed the throttle all the way forward and started rolling down the runway. When the airspeed indicator reached 60 MPH, I tugged gently back on the controls and moments later RIO floated off the ground. Yes, I confess to a tiny bit of anxiety over setting out on a daunting experience with a newly repaired engine; the feeling lasted all of thirty seconds. As the lead aircraft of a loose formation of four, I heeded the coaching of our tour escort sitting in the right seat so the others could make their takeoff run and join up with us, headed northbound for Gaborone, Botswana, ninety minutes away.

Topping off the fuel tanks at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, located 15 kilometers north of Gaborone, took longer than clearing through the paperwork. This was the first refueling stop of several we would make along the route. Technically, we still had enough fuel to fly another four hours and the next fuel was only three away. But caution always trumps chance and headed out over the wilderness is no time to gamble. Some wise old anonymous sage once said, “Three things are worthless to a pilot in the air: runway behind, altitude above, and fuel in the pump.”

The Kalahari Desert stretches flat toward infinity in every direction. Rocky hills and occasional mountains break where I live in California’s share of the Great Mojave Desert, the terrain. Not so the Kalahari.

Kalahari 1

Comprising almost 400,000 square miles, the desert is the driest region of Southern Africa. Classified sub-arid, the Kalahari Desert averages about four inches of rain annually. Water from bore holes (Afrikaans for wells) is undrinkable in this area because of the extremely high salinity. How the animals can tolerate it surprised me.

The Haina Lodge borders the Kalahari Game Preserve’s northern reach.  The rule on any bush airstrip is to first overfly it to check for animals, then do a short field landing in case you either missed seeing a critter or it came out to see what you were doing. In our case, our ranger/guide had already driven up and down and the runway was clear.

Haina Airstrip 1

In short order (as the cliché goes) all four planes were landed and parked, gear transferred to the Toyota Land Cruiser, and we were off to the lodge to freshen up.

Land Cruiser 1

On the short ride to the lodge we spotted our first of dozens of antelope we would encounter at Haina.

Impala 2 Kudu 3Impala 4

The top picture is a male Impala with females in the background; center is a male and female Kudu; two shy female Implala are on the bottom

Bedroom accommodations at Haina were Spartan and you might notice, rather open. With the gentlest of

Haina Tent

breezes blowing, and the night temperature in the single digit Celsius range, cold was an apt description. Adequate quilting and a large hot water bottle under the covers made the chill tolerable during the night.

The lodge facility made a difference. Comfortable furnishings and great views. An excellent dining room with a formally trained chef who knew her stuff.

Lodge 1 Lodge 3 Lodge 2 Lodge 4 Chef 1

We spent most of our second day tracking a male lion that wandered through our tent camp during the night. No luck spotting him however in spite of lots of tracks in the sand.

Lion Track 2 Lion Track 1

Birds were not to be ignored. I saw only a small percentage of the thousands of bird specie in Africa. This one is a Kori Bustard which, according to the Sasol book on Birds of South Africa can weigh up to 18 kg, almost 40 pounds!

bird 1

Termite mounds were in abundance, mostly with a tree growing up the middle of it. It surprised me that the plant wasn’t destroyed, but maybe careful harvesting is the secret to a successful termite colony. Didn’t come across any aardvark on the trek.

Termite 1

Other than antelope, our only animal sighting was a family of warthogs.

Warthog 3 Warthog 1

Following an early drive on our second morning at Haina and indulging in a “Full English” breakfast composed of eggs, back-bacon, sausage, potatoes, mushrooms, and a grilled tomato slice, along with toast, sweet buns, coffee, and orange juice, it was time to pack up the airplane and head for our next stop.