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Bush pilot adventure: on flight safari into the Okavango Delta

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To go on safari in the Okavango Delta, regardless of where, you will need to let yourself be flown by a bush pilot into the world’s largest inland delta. We were ready for it…

Following our already spectacular safari in Chobe National Park (our travel report is here) the Okavango Delta was next and it was waiting for us. We had heard and read a great deal about it and were eager as beavers to fly into the huge wetlands!

Because our initial safari leg had taken us to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, we were driven to the Botswana border, where we unloaded our gear and passed through the customs shack on foot to be delivered into the hands of the next driver on the other side.

He took us a few more kilometers to the small airport at Kasane where he delivers us to a friendly safari staffer who checks our passports, tickets and weighs our baggage (in a Cessna the maximum baggage allowance is 20 kilos INCLUDING carry-on bag and camera). Even Katja having managed this time to pack the minimum, the young man confirms that everything is good to go and then he delivers us into the hands of a friendly airport employee who gets us through passport control.

Tarmac at Kasane Airports with our bags

Our “light baggage” ready for the flying safari

When we finally stand on the small airport’s tarmac, we are not surprised to be handed off once more, bags and all. The only intriguing thing is that we are taken charge of this time by a young blonde speaking Afrikaans-accented English who proceeds to lead us to a 4-passenger Cessna. “Yaaah”!

Must be a student with a summer vacation job. Wearing a spiffy yellow reflective vest. Of course, standard article of clothing when you work at an airport.

Michaela Meiswinkel and Katja in front of the Cessna

Katja getting ready for the air safari

Well and good — but couldn’t the young passport checker himself have simply brought us to plane? After all, it’s just a few steps. All right, fine. Job-sharing Botswana-style… why not?

Michaela loading luggage into her CessnaThere’s not much time for me to muse about the national economic sense or nonsense of it, because something astonishing happens in short order. The blonde hunkers down under the wing and starts unscrewing (!) a panel in the side of the plane below the cockpit. Without much ado, she stows our bags in a small compartment that looks like it’s about 20 centimeters across, then with the screwdriver tightens the cover again, next opens the airplane door and, looking at us clear-eyed with an encouraging smile, says “Ready for boarding?”

Ahem, say what now? This just CAN’T be our pilot, right?!
And where is our co-pilot?

But now the dear girl strips off her yellow safety vest and proudly arranges her pilot wings on her chest and straightens her shoulder insignia: We are now looking in awe at Michaela Meiswinkel, bush pilot. All of 26 years young, already a flight instructor, she is one of only eight female bush pilots in southern Africa!

Man o man!

Experienced pilot that she is, she does the usual pre-flight checks, confers with the tower, closes the little window next to her and before Katja and I know it has us confidently airborne. It’s a bit bumpy up there, but that’s normal for the flight over the Okavango Delta due to the thermal rises above swamps, rivers, savannahs, meadows and lagoons differing quite a bit and creating a lot of air pockets as a result.

Katja and Walter on a flight safari

Katja and Walter airborne on safari

Quite a happening in its own right!  Add to it is that the racket inside the plane makes conversation impossible: in lieu of it, from time to time Michaela points to a green and blue colored aeronautical map with many lines and markings, and then down to the green and blue colored Okavango Delta accompanied by a meaningful nod each time.

Aha! Roger! Read you loud and clear!

Airy view of the Okavango Delta

View of Okavango Delta from the air

The approach to the small airstrip, a single, lonely runway of pounded sand almost lost in the bush, also has a special charm: Michaela makes a first pass at right angles across the runway to make sure no wildebeest, impalas or other anomalies are gamboling on it. Then, banking in a wide turn, she lines up the plane’s nose on the runway and sets us down right on target and soft as warm butter.

Well done, Michaela!

Galopping wildebeest on airstrip

Wildebeest welcoming committee at the airstrip

Bush pilot with a passion

Two days later, we get a happy surprise when we see Michaela in the evening at Tubu Tree Camp again: We are told that she will be the one again to fly us to our next camp, the much-praised Kings Pool Camp at Linyanti.

Bush pilot Michaela on Safari at Tubu Tree Camp

Michaela on safari

We share a meal in the evening and let our bush pilot who obviously loves her job regale us with wild aeronautical tales, like the time an American refused to get into the Cessna when it dawned on him that Michaela would be piloting it.

The next morning, they drive Michaela to the airstrip to pre-flight her Cessna A2-ANT for our hop. We are still sitting at our leisurely brunch, when we are suddenly told we would have more time in camp. Hmm?

We look at each other nonplussed and then notice that there is a bit of commotion around the bank of radio transmitters. And then we find out: Hyenas! During the night they had chewed up the horizontal stabilizer and rubber tires on Michaela’s plane. We’re stuck. With hungry hyenas all around!

Man o man o man!

Hyena chewing the Cessna tail wings and tires

Hyena bite marks on A2-ANT’s horizontal stabilizer

Fortunately, the Wilderness Air hub in Maun is not that far away, so that after only a two hour delay we are flown to our next destination by on-call duty pilot Kaone (or “Pink Panther” as everyone calls the tall, gangly bush pilot).

Bushpilot Kaone flying Walter out of hyena trouble

Walter with bushpilot Kaone

Grounded, Michaela can do nothing but wait for a mechanic to rivet the stabilizer to the plane again and bring some spare tires.

A few days later, as we were leaving Maun, we see the freshly-riveted A2-ANT parked. And in the parking lot we bump into Michaela, now richer by one more tale to tell about hyenas. She’s there with her boy friend who is also a bush pilot! And also wears the dashing Wilderness Air pilot uniform.

“Love in the bush,” you could say ;-)

Flight safari boarding on Moremi airstrip

Flight safari boarding on Moremi airstrip

Cessna wing and antenna

Cessna wing with antenna

Cessna and safari Rover

Wilderness Air Cessna

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About Author

Walter Schaerer’s extensive background in the travel industry, passionate enthusiasm for photography and a firm belief that luxury destinations can also be affordable; were some of the main factors that motivated him to create the travel blog travelmemo.com. In his day job Walter is an online marketing manager based out of Zurich, Switzerland.

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