‘E’ on the Petrol Guage Stands For Enough -A Flying Safari in Namibia
I was beginning to realise that not having enough petrol was the least of our worries.
We are off-roading up and down huge sand dunes in the middle of a Namibian desert when steam starts to rise from the engine. The fan belt has broken and what a nightmare! Sue and I haven’t left our tights in the flying safari plane. Our rust bucket Land Rover is stuck in the desert, overheating, with a brick doing something crucial on the clutch. At least not having any petrol isn’t really an issue anymore. Given that these are the most expensive 4 days of my life you might think I’d be a bit put out at our situation – but no. I am having the time of my life.
So how does one combat a broken fan belt without tools or tights? You drive with the bonnet up, trying to cool the engine, and your head stuck out of the window to see the way. You freewheel down sand dunes as far as possible before giving up and making your clients walk the rest of the way out of the desert. Why is this fun? Because you are with Andre – one of the renowned bush pilot Schoeman brothers, on the most amazing flying safari in Namibia. You may all be in love with the dashing British explorer, Levinson Wood right now, but roly-poly, bearded Andre is the man for me.
Andre Schoeman – bush pilot extraordinaire
Andre has energy, enthusiasm and encyclopaedic mind that makes you see the fun and adventure in any moment of adversity on a flying safari. “What? Scared? Don’t be an imbecile! You are fine! You are with me. Chill. Enjoy. Laugh. Go with it.” So that’s exactly what we do. We all look at each other and think… “cool… today is not our day to die. Today is the opportunity for a great story for the next dinner party.”
“A Land Rover is like a mother-in-law… always sick… but never dies.”
We ditch the Land Rover in the middle of nowhere (to us), and he makes a mental note to call his brother to arrange for it to be picked up and mended… sometime soon. “It’s by that sand dune with the tufty bit of desert grass where the lizards like to hang out. O, and chuck some more petrol in it will you?” Andre is our pilot and guide, mother and father, spiritual guru and cult leader. I’m on a four-day flying safari in Namibia with Amit, a young, handsome, blue-eyed boy from India and Sue and Pete from the UK. Sue’s a police detective with great stories (that I can’t tell you or I’d have to kill you), Pete’s an ex-teacher with winning charm. And, of course, “Amy” – the slightly rusty, more than somewhat unkempt yet divine aeroplane whose charms have wooed the likes of Brad Pit. Yes… Brad sat on her lap and made her soar.
“Pilots do not use the word stuck… we are just temporarily immobilised.”
“Bugger,” says Andre, “I knew I should have taken that faster!” The Land Rover is temporarily immobilized on top of a perfect triangular sand dune. I am starting to enjoy it now. I wonder if all clients are so lucky. How is my hero going to get us out of this one? Hmmmm… oh, I see… dig out the sand a bit, get a whopping, great jack and stick it under the back end… jack it up enough that you tip the Land Rover high enough to drive over… brilliant! Hang on; I haven’t quite got the perfect shot…. My next dinner party is going to be a hum-dinger!
Amit – “Aren’t the markers for the landing strip over there?”
Andre – “Ah yes…. Well, this is close enough.”
Andre is a mix of a father figure, Crocodile Dundee and ski instructor. I desperately want him to be proud of me; to think that I am worthy of travelling with him on this flying safari. I am determined not to be scared in the plane, to always ask intelligent questions, to make him laugh and pretend I understand all the complicated geography (Andre is the kind of man that can make even rock formations sexy ). I’ll just be the best client he has ever, ever had.
Andre is my superhero. A very ordinary looking man who has lived a very not-ordinary life. A life that has been full of incredible and diverse experiences set in stunning, stark, dangerous scenery. Raised by a remarkable father who founded diamond mines and built ports in this most desolate and unforgiving of coastline environments. Andre has flown helicopters in the war with Angola, shot a leopard and never forgiven himself, is a scientist, geologist, conservationist, politician and biologist. He is a fascinating man to talk to.
“If at first, you fail… Erase all attempts of your first effort,”
It is my turn to sit at the back of the plane. We have been flying for about 10 minutes. I don’t want to appear stupid in front of my hero, but I feel compelled to say something. “Excuse me, Andre… is this flap thing meant to be up?” I’m not sure what is flapping against the window, but it doesn’t look right. “Ahhhhh,” says Andre in his ever-calm, understated fashion. “The luggage door appears to be open.” He does a mid-air “jiggle” with the plane from left to right, and the door shuts itself. So cool.
“I guess we should check that all the luggage is still with us when we land.” Yeah… probably a good idea. I believe “Sod’s Law” is the phrase I’m looking for here. We all have minimal luggage for this four-day trip. I have a daypack with a few pairs of knickers and a toothbrush. Of course, that is not the bag that falls out. The bag that falls out is the one filled with camera equipment, iPhones, iPads, house and car keys, credit cards, passports and other essential personal possessions. At some point during our 20-minute flight over very remote Namibian bush Sue’s rather valuable bag has fallen out of the plane.
Sue is a police detective, and she is at this point a close second to Andre on my hero list. She has just lost this bag and is amazingly calm. Andre my #1 hero goes into understated superman mode. He is calm. “OK… you guys go and visit this village, and I am going back to look for the bag.” What? That sand coloured bag that has fallen into a sand coloured desert? I am sure he will find it. NOT. We spend the next few hours trying our hardest to enjoy our experience and secretly trying to work out how Sue and Pete are going to be able to make the rest of their trip work without the contents of this bag.
A few hours pass. We wait for the plane to land and Andre to appear. We know that he hasn’t found the bag… how can he have found it? In thousands of square meters of the desert on a flight path that he doesn’t normally take (avoiding an incoming plane) with no idea when it fell? Suddenly trumpets trumpet. Life goes into slow motion and soft focus. My hero, my Andre, emerges from the plane as calm and collected as ever yet, dare I say, slightly strutting? Slightly pleased with himself? …clutching…a sand coloured and sand covered bag.
Not a man who easily accepts hugs and kisses my Andre is deluged with our excitement, happiness, disbelief and general hero-worshipping. Have you heard the story about the coke bottle that fell from the sky in Africa? Here is out version; the bag that fell from the sky.
Andre had flown back to the start of our flight path ready to instigate some form of desert bag search (he told us later how he didn’t really have a clue how he was going to do that.) As he landed, a local man was walking out of the bush towards him. The local man told how had been walking in the middle of nowhere when suddenly a bag had fallen from the sky! The local man remembered that there was a place, not too far, where crazy foreign tourist types flew in and out on their flying safaris. He wondered if this could be where the bag from the sky had come from. He decided to abandon his journey and bring this bag to the flying machine people, in case someone needed it. Really…what are the chances?
My hero made sure that the local man was well compensated both monetarily and with an outpouring of thanks. He may never know it, but blessings and wishes for luck rained down on him and his family from four very, very grateful foreigners.
Amit: “there is a fly in here….”
Sue: “Nobody open a window!”
Our final campfire is a celebration. How lucky we’ve been. That we survived the broken radiator, the temporary immobilisation, the human eating crocodile, tea in Angola, the bag falling out of the plane, the fact that the rusk biscuits ran out after day 2! That the 4 of us passengers got on so well (When Amit and I were waiting at the airport to find out who was sharing the trip with us we feared a large German couple called Bergit and Boris…)
The moment of truth has arrived for me. That point in every traveller’s trip that you long for and dread at the same time…. the guide’s adjudication. Andre takes me to one side and says….. “Anyway…….” In that way that he always does; to prepare you for what’s coming next. I feel my heart jump into my throat… he is going to give me my client score…..
”It was great having you on the trip, Becky.”
I have passed the test. Andre has enjoyed my presence. I am an OK person. I passed.
We hope this article has peaked your curiosity about a flying safari in Namibia, flying safaris across Africa, Namibia and Africa in general. At Curious Travel we can arrange safaris and cultural trips across Africa. Contact us if you are interested to discuss what adventure means to you and for us to come up with some ideas.
Curious Travel design and operate trips by working closely with the best local suppliers that fully respect and work within the communities and destinations that you will be visiting. Contact me to request a conversation or further information.
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Becky Harris is an entrepreneur, travel guru and founder of The Curious Travel Company. She is addicted to travelling, especially with her daughter who, at nine years old, has already visited around 26 countries. Follow her on Instagram at @becksterfer – becksterfer.com