African Safari self flown? Yup, welcome to Good Enough Retreats, keeping it real in Etosha and more.
If your vision of a good vacation involves real predator and prey action, being far from home, and searing heat in January, then southern Africa is for you. I’m not a seasoned sub-continent person, but I’ve been there enough that it is something I like to write about, if only to bait a few jet owners to financing my next trip back.
Let me qualify that by saying that if you own a jet don’t take the jet. Sure, when the love was new with the jet, you had visions of taking it KTEB direct to FBMN to show off your range capabilities in your new Global or whatever, but really – save your money. First class on Virgin isn’t terrible.
So here’s my overview of the self fly luck that baited me into my last trip: We got lucky airplane-wise, a Cirrus SR22 for some silly dry rate that made no sense to me. I have to qualify the luck by saying that the SR 22 is a bit like taking penny loafers hiking – it is only something you’d do if you had no other shoes. But a deal is a deal, and we knew we could rely on old friends if we wanted to fly in somewhere really rough.
The savings from having this awesome magic carpet was substantial enough that I felt like the entire indulgence of going to Cape Town and and Franschhoek like sophisticated wine conversant hipster travelers could now be justified. Yes, we’d go to places that had Michelin ratings and what not. And my wife made me promise not to ask for poutine, or use any North American vulgarities that would clearly show we were from Maine, or… Quebec.
We were fortunate enough to meet some lovely Russian mobsters who had recently developed a strong interest in land and vineyards. They were heavily armed, had impressive rows of pinotage grapes growing, and hired the best staff you could imagine for the attached restaurant that hemorrhaged money in an equally impressive way.
What I Learned
I’m not going to deny I had a great time. But before I get into that, let’s talk about the issue of time and governments and how they (governments) don’t value your time. You really want to fly that machine yourself (legally)? Well if you have an FAA license then you can’t fly things that say A2 (Botswana) or ZS (South Africa) on the side of them – legally, even though it might have been made in the USA. So you need to validate your license – that’s a few days, but hey, its Africa, so give it a week or two. (Or, next time – call Mark.)
Despite the drama of doing our own stuff, it was, in my wife’s words, the trip of a lifetime. We don’t get out much but when we do we like to make it memorable and a healthy reminder that the planet isn’t hostile or friendly, it is just massive and doesn’t have an opinion about your existence. Namibian landscape will reinforce that as you gaze out the window and wonder if this is where all the Mars movies are filmed.
Lesson #1: Outsourcing pilot stuff makes your time off better.
In fairness – I should have hired a pilot. I’m not a hedge fund manager though, so I was already pushing the limits of consulting income with the Cirrus rental so that never really entered the equation.
Here’s why that previous sentence is shortsighted, penny wise and pound foolish: The amount of days I burned in Franschoek at the cheapest B&B in town to get my stuff done at the Stellenbosch Flying Club would have easily covered an eager young South African looking for an adventure. Many travel hungry South Africans pine for Namibia. Think of Namibia is the Canada of South Africa.
Having someone else do the flight planning, figuring out how to get legal charts, talking local talk with the exit border guy, entry border woman, etc. would have saved huge stress and time. Best example? Leaving Namibia we had to get fuel somewhere else, reposition to a military base, taxi by a lot of very intimidating weapon clad people in dark jump suits and then find a building to ask permission to leave Namibia. Having someone walk me through that would have been ideal, since it would be my first and last time for awhile completing that exercise.
Papework done, we then had another to do item: More fuel. (You can never have enough when you are chartless, iPad only and haven’t been to the area in 20 years.) So we left big air force base near border (this one actually) and repositioned to get fuel at Tsumeb, to get enough fuel to make it to Maun. Reason #47 to have used Mark or any eager local to fly with us? They would have had a bigger plane and would not have needed to now look for fuel, as the rains moved in and the pump at Tsumeb’s breaker tripped in a building that no one knew the location of. I had a brief chat with the guys running the pump about doing a hunt for this elusive breaker box and they agreed – it could be done and we decided that rather than wait for the guy that knows more stuff, we’d look for the breaker. Breaker found, we pumped our fuel, whipped out the MasterCard and were on our way.
Lesson #2: Not one iPad, but two – and keep them cool
This was my first full immersion into the world of ForeFlight, the beauty of the iPad and how it did everything. The Cirrus is no slouch, however, with an Avidyne glass cockpit, dual Garmin GPSs that display everything you are doing on them on your big screens. Forgot your maps? That’s ok, the Cirrus avionics do everything and if there is weather and you need to get an idea on where the super bad stuff is, the strike finder displays info on the navigation overlay so you can drive around stuff at any altitude below it that allows you to see. (Botswana and eastern Namibia are flat as a pancake sauf the Tsodillo Hills and a big fault that helps define the Okavango Delta, so running around at 500 AGL is a true pleasure, safe and allows you to get a true sense of how fast you really are going.)
But the iPad / ForeFlight combo – as most GA pilots (and even big boy pilots) will tell you is the crack cocaine of situational awareness. You just can’t get enough and you want more. It’s inexpensive and habit forming. But – a word to hot and cold temperature operations people: At 120 degrees Fahrenheit the iPad will shut itself off. So if you find yourself barreling along comfortably high and smooth to your destination (in our case Rostok) and the one you relied on goes blank – you’ll be doing the old version of IFR flying: I Follow Roads. Luckily there was an intersection near the runway (off the C14) and we used it to hang a right to line up with Kheuki’s strip. In looking at this image – you can appreciate how tough it is to spot his runway. The camp stands out a bit more in the bottom right of the image, but in the upper right corner you can see the clear line of the strip trending northwest / southeast. (Btw – highly recommend Kheuki’s spot – not part of any camp group or Co. but you can pitch a tent in his camping area or rent somewhat snazzier Star Wars-esque dome lodge things. They even employ meerkat scorpion cleansing patrols of the rooms, so your visit is incident free.)
Anyway, all of the above is infinitely easier if you keep the iPad cooler than 120°F.
Lesson #3: Arachnophobia no more.
My wife didn’t appreciate the introduction to the Guinea Pig sized spider that insisted on sharing the shower with us, but the fact is that she got over it. I went first and assessed the calm and non-confrontational nature of whatever it was. Frankly it was hot outside and the cool canvas near a shower is heaven for a hard working spider.
The reality of worming your way into a high end Wilderness Safari camp is that you can’t really have an excuse to not use the shower. (Note: Wilderness Safaris, and many camps in the Okavango Delta are off the hook luxury – the fact that the spider won’t leave makes the whole shower thing more distressing – you can’t not use the facilities just because of one reclusive peeping Tom. Odds are it was tired and it didn’t bother us on our two nights there.
Lesson #4: Africa is big, Namibia is bigger.
I never spent any time to speak of in Namibia prior to 2012. I had seen it from afar in 1995, but the reality is that I just had no idea. Not only is Namibia big, but it is varied. The neighbors (Angola, Botswana, and South Africa) can’t really compete with what Namibia will offer you – where else can you go to an old Bavarian looking town, sip the best beer in the continent, dip in the Atlantic with 40,000 screaming sea lions at your side, and then switch it up to bright red dunes that are a prelude to an endless Martian landscape. This vast place is dotted with communities nestled in gorges that are hundreds of feet deep and boasts a flamingo rimmed shallow pond the size of two Luxembourgs. (More on Etosha here.)