Zimbabwe, Botswana, and fun in Namibia

Conditions were perfect for flying; cool and calm. I drove over to the football field a couple of hundred metres away. One of the teachers turned up. He had ridden 5km on a dirt road on his push bike to get there, which would’ve been challenging in the dark.

The Children in the Wilderness liaison officer turned up, plus a 4×4 which I’d hired as I didn’t want to push my truck too much on the dirt roads.

A few of the locals helped to set the balloon up and we inflated. More and more children turned up. By the time it was hot inflated, most of the whole school there, which was impressive seeing it was a holiday.

I gave a number of the kids tethered rides before I took off. They were so happy and excited to experience their first time in the air.

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I could feel the wind increasing a bit, so I decided to take off. The liaison officer came with me.

I’d done quite a bit of study in the days and months leading up to the flight using Google Earth and various forecasts. The area was covered in Acacia trees. If you landed in one of them, the balloon would be ripped to pieces, their thorns are huge. Before I took off I had to make sure the wind was going to the only clear area. Luckily it was. When I got in the air, I was surprised to see how few landing places there were. I had made a Plan B, but even that seemed to be covered in trees. I had to make a quick decision whether to fly on, or land right away. I decided to go on.

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The area was very flat. The expanse of Acacia trees was impressive. We were moving quickly, 45km/h at 1000ft above the ground. I lined up fields where stock was grazed in another village around 10kms up the road, and had a nice 15km/h landing.

People came from the village to see what strange object had just landed. My passenger knew quite a number of the locals, so everyone was very jovial. My retrieve vehicle turned up and quite a number of people helped to pack the balloon and load it.

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Quite a few people were waiting back at Jakalasi School. We loaded the balloon onto my truck and chatted with everyone for a bit before making my way to the Botswana border.

I decided to take the back road to avoid the police. Part of it was tarred, but most of it was dirt, (which was surprisingly well maintained for a good part of it). It took four hours to reach the border. I only encountered one police checkpoint, and the offices there were very chatty and polite. Nothing like what I’d encountered a couple of days before. I told them about the flight and they were keen to see the photos I’d taken.

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The Zimbabwe/Botswana border formalities on both sides were easy and I was through in about an hour. I bought a sim card and changed money just after the border. As I was going back to the truck, I realised I’d left the radiator cap off, (There’s a second filling point for the radiator which is easy to access). Luckily I have a second cap which I got in China when I was having problems there, otherwise I would’ve had some problems.

I set off for the town of Maun, 550kms away. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it that day, so I pulled over at a service station to sleep for the night, (my number one camping spot).

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Botswana is very flat and the driving is generally easy. They’d had a bad rainy season last year and the particular road I was on suffered quite badly. I didn’t realise that sections of the road were bad before going on it, so I was surprised the first time when it went from quite a good road, to almost no road with big potholes.

About 200kms out of Maun I realised that my brakes were getting worse and worse. I pulled over and saw leaking brake fluid out of one of the wheels. The road didn’t have much traffic and it was straight and flat, so it wasn’t a big drama. My engine brakes worked well, so I managed with that.

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By the time I got to Maun in the early afternoon, I had almost no brakes, so carefully made my way across town to the Wilderness Safaris Botswana headquarters. One of them took me to a mechanic who they knew. The mechanic was really good and just happened to have the part I needed. They replaced it and got me going. It was a Saturday and they worked a few hours after closing time, which was really good of them. I had a number of other issues, so I said I’d be back on Monday.

I parked at the Wilderness Safaris office that night.

I met up with a Ace the next day. He had got in touch with me through the project’s Facebook page. He was keen on learning how to fly and I said we’d catch up when I got to Botswana. He just happened to live in Maun, which was rather fortunate. He took me to a restaurant by Maun’s old bridge, which was made from dirt and logs. Amazing to think trucks used to have to cross it. He also showed me a couple of other chill spots along the river where the locals spend their Sunday afternoons. It was great to get a local’s perspective, and we had a good chat.

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I was at the mechanic’s at 7.30am on Monday and spent a good part of the day driving around Maun buying parts and getting the truck sorted. I also caught up with the Children in the Wilderness team and we went over the plan for the flight a couple of days later. We also visited the school I’d take off from, Gxhabara Primary School.

I had to refuel the balloon. I thought it would be relatively straightforward, but it wasn’t. For some reason the gas wouldn’t decant into my tanks from the 45kg bottles, even with the correct fuel fittings. A forklift fitting will also fit a balloon tank, so I asked if anyone came to refuel forklift tanks there. One of the guys said that a company nearby had a fitting. We went there, but they couldn’t find it, so went to another place and asked the owner. As it turns out he was a New Zealander and had lived there for 30 years. He started the first major transport company delivering goods into the Okovango Delta, (I’m sure he would be able to tell some good stories because it’s an extremely difficult place to get around).

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He said they had got rid of their forklift and thought he’d sold the hose for scrap just a week earlier. He had a big look around and amazingly found it in some deep, dark corner. Who would’ve thought my saviour would be a New Zealander!
I went back to the gas station, refilled the tanks, (still with some difficulty as the tanks were not the right size and the calculations of the filling machine are all done by weight. We got there in the end though.

Amongst all of that, the flight permission was being sorted out. It was an extremely busy day and I was happy to put my feet up in a motel which Wilderness Safaris had provided. My truck was at the mechanic’s and couldn’t be driven.

I was picked up the next morning by the three Children in the Wilderness staff, and taken to Gxhabara Primary, where I talked to the 1200 kids during assembly.

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Straight after, I went to Wilderness Air to sort out the flight permission, and visited the Air Traffic Control Tower at Maun Airport to let them know about my flight and how a balloon works. Maun Airport is amongst the busiest in Africa as far as movements go. Small planes are constantly going in and out to lodges in the Okovango Delta. Guests can’t get to lodges any other way than by air.

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I also met with one the Civil Aviation Authority at their office and got the final flight approval. It’s always a relief when it finally comes through.

I visited the mechanic’s again and transferred the balloon onto one of Wilderness Safari’s pick-ups, as my truck was still being worked on.

I picked up Ace before day break the next morning and headed to the school. We got the balloon set up with the help of a couple of the teachers. More and more people turned up, including about 500 kids, which was an impressive number considering it was 6.30am and school started at 7.50am.

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I managed to tether a number of kids, much to their delight, and took off at around 7am. The wind can pick up dramatically in that part of the world, so I didn’t want to stay too long at the school for safety reasons. Like Zimbabwe, I had to plan the flight carefully due to the lack of landing spots. I took one of the Wilderness Safaris staff who overseas Children in the Wilderness, Lesh. It was 35km/h at about 500ft. The sunrise was spectacular over the vast flat area. Some of the Acacia trees were flowering and the different colours of the expanse of trees was beautiful. We flew out of Maun and over a couple of villages and farms. I spotted a field to land in and was warning Lesh about a fast landing. I managed to get right down low and the balloon slowed dramatically in the inversion layer. We had a stand-up landing, which was amazing considering just above the trees our speed was still 25km/h.

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The field felt like it was the middle of nowhere as there were trees all around. Two farmers came to greet us, there was no one else around. Lesh walked with the farmer to show Ace and one of the Children in the Wilderness staff, Mary, the way in. We packed the balloon. We’d landed next to an Aardvark burrow. It was huge. A person would be able to go down it.

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We headed back to the Wilderness Safaris office, and then onto another school Children in the Wilderness works with, to speak to the 800 kids there. Some of them had been to watch the balloon in the morning. Many of the kids came to shake my hand after the talk. I was completely mobbed in fact. It was all a bit of a laugh.

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After tidying up some loose ends back at the office, I spent the afternoon taking it easy at the motel. It had been an extremely busy week.

I was picked up the next morning and taken to the airport. Mary had arranged for me to go on a supply flight to a couple of the lodges in the Okovango Delta with Wilderness Air. I flew with a South African pilot who was hoping to fly in South Sudan after Maun, doing supply and passenger flights. They get paid up to US$3500 per flight, but it’s very dangerous.

It was great getting a bird’s eye view of the Delta in the Cessna Caravan. It’s a massive wetland which extends for hundreds of kilometres, and full of wildlife. We landed on the gravel strip and unloaded the week’s supply of food with the help of the lodge staff, then we were off to another strip less than 10mins away. It was amazing to fly at 500ft to the next strip. I could see the elephants, buffalo and giraffes, as well as a huge number of other wildlife.

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There was a good crosswind into the strip, so it was a good workout for the pilot. He did an excellent job to get in. We picked up a passenger, and then headed back to Maun.

All in all it was a fantastic experience.

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I picked up the truck, and then made my way towards the Namibian border. It was easy driving and I made it to the town of Ghanzi, where I parked that night, (next to a service station). Botswana looks more or less the same; flat with low lying trees and shrubs, along with wetlands now and again. It’s sparsely populated, only two million people live in Botswana.

I found a printing shop the next morning. I had to photocopy and scan a few documents for the Namibian flight permission application.
I made it to the border at around noon. Border procedures were straightforward, taking just over an hour to complete.

The flat landscape gave way to hills and mountains. I was impressed by the dramatic features and colours of some of the mountains. It was beautiful to drive around sunset to see the changing colours. I made it to the town of Rehoboth that evening and parked at a service station for the night.

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I was woken before 6am the next morning by the service station staff. All the trucks needed to move on before the manager got there. I headed off, turning off the tarmac and onto the dirt road towards the tiny village of Solitaire. The gravel roads are generally very good in Namibia and you can cruise along at 80km/h for most of the time. There were some corrugated parts though: the road maintenance company had gone bankrupt, so the roads weren’t as good as they should be, (the government bailed them out a few days later).

About 50kms from Solitaire is an amazing Pass. The road drops about 2000ft towards the desert. The pass is only 4kms, but it’s very steep and windy. It was the most impressive scenery I’d seen on my travels in Africa.

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I arrived into Solitaire in the morning and waited for the local balloonist, John. He was arriving from Windhoek later in the day. Solitaire only consists of a service station, a restaurant, 2 lodges and a few houses, but it’s a major tourist stopover point as there’s nothing much else around in the way of services. When people saw my truck, they would come up to me and ask what I was doing. I met some really interesting people. Some Australians were very surprised to see an Australian truck there.

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John came later in the afternoon, bearing news that the military had contacted him asking where the balloon was and why it didn’t have permission to enter the country. They were even threatening to arrest me. The news came as a surprise, the CAA had been very easy to deal with up until then. We think the military had thought I had flown it into the country.

John was very good and it took a couple of days to get everything sorted. I sent the Customs stamp to show it had entered legally overland. In the end the permission was relatively straightforward to get.

In the meantime I got to know everyone in Solitaire. We had a couple of nice dinners, one with a couple from the USA who own most of Solitaire, and the other was a bbq with some of the locals.

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I also visited the largest balloon company in Namibia 100km away, Namib Sky. They have a very impressive and successful operation and it was interesting to see how they ran things. I also caught up with a balloonist friend who worked for them, Sancho, who I knew from flying in Turkey.
Unfortunately the road there is very corrugated and I got a puncture on the way there, and again on the way back. Luckily in both cases it was only discovered when I had arrived at the destination, so it wasn’t a problem to repair the tyre using their workshops. It was the first flat tyre of the whole trip.

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On one of the nights, I was asked to help out with an animal count. Three of us drove around a couple of farms from 9pm-12am counting animals on a specific route. It was collecting data for part of a thesis for a Namibia University student.

I headed back to Windhoek and spent six days in Turkey for a wedding. The flight permission had been granted for when I got back.

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On my arrival back into the country, I was shocked to see that my truck had been ransacked. I parked it at a service station close to the airport and was assured it would be safe as they have 24hr security, as well as cameras. They had taken just about everything, even all my clothes, linen, towels, etc. I couldn’t believe it.

The police came to look, before taking the truck to the police station less than a kilometre away. After filing the report, I realised they had taken my tracker. I got online and found the location where it was, only 500m away! The army were temporarily camped at the police station as they were doing something at the airport, so the police got ten of them, plus ten of their own and we went in three cars to raid the house. A number of guys ran into the fields when we arrived and most of the police/army guys chased them. It was just on dark, so it wasn’t easy.

In the meantime, I went in with a couple of police and searched the house where the signal was coming from. Sure enough we found the tracker and about 25% of my things, (most of it not important, like chargers for example, but I was happy to get two of the most expensive items back).

The suspect was interrogated and told the police where another guy was, so we went and raided two more places not far away, but found nothing. Three guys were arrested in all. Funnily the two main suspects are called Bonny and Claude.
Thank goodness for the Smartbox tracker which was sponsored by the logistics company, DB Schenker. It’s used for tracking freight usually, but it proved invaluable in this case.

The next day was spent getting more evidence. The person had been caught on surveillance and he was identified. He wasn’t caught though and had fled to another town. The police are on the lookout for him.

I saw the exact movements of the guys and it showed they had gone to Windhoek to a few addresses after the robbery, before coming back again. I was quite certain about two houses, which was close to two open markets. I went there by myself to have a look around in the rare case I might find something. It was a very dodgy place and I was very cautious. Unsurprisingly I didn’t find anything. As I was getting into the truck, I was told by a guy there was a problem with my truck. It is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but for some stupid reason I went and took a quick look as I thought someone might’ve tampered with something while I was away. I made sure the truck was locked.

Sure enough there was nothing and I told him to stop playing games. I climbed back into the truck and looked around. I spotted a guy on the passenger side about to get into the truck. He though I had central locking and would’ve jumped in as soon as I unlocked. I yelled at him, then the next minute another guy reached in and grabbed the keys from the ignition. I jumped out like a flash and jumped on him. He threw the keys away, I grabbed them, got into the truck and got out of there as fast as possible.

Not a nice experience, especially as I knew there was a good chance it was a trap. My heightened senses saved me in the end I think. It was extremely lucky they weren’t armed.

I went across town to a shopping centre to buy clothes and things for the truck which had been stolen.

The plan had to be to fly in Solitaire the day after I got back from Turkey, but I’m now going to have to put it off until after my flying season in Dubai. All my balloon documents, pilot’s licence and logbook, were stolen, so it probably wouldn’t be a good idea if I flew here without those.

I was going to drive to Gaborone and leave my truck there, but I’ll leave it here now, (in a very secure place) and attempt to fly next year.

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I’m staying in a police compound until I fly to Dubai on Wednesday. Not the best way to finish a fantastic few months, but definitely an adventurous one. Life would be boring without such exciting stories I guess.

About the author: Andrew Parker

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