2008 Missions

The Surfing Hippo


Mission: The Surfing Hippo
Date: 31 May to 30 June 2008
Requesting organisation: Paul Dutton, Ecologist
Location: Dolphin Coast from Ballito to the Mdhloti River, Kwazulu Natal
Pilot: Paul Dutton

The photo shows South Africa’s surfing hippo, frolicking in the waves at Ballito.

Bateleurs pilot Paul Dutton flew on five different days to track the progress of a hippo wandering along the Dolphin Coast from Ballito all the way to the Mdhloti River.  This is his account of what the hippo came to mean to him, and to many South Africans, before meeting an untimely end:

“The Dolphin Coast (the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal) whose beaches were once recipient of Blue Flag status and a holiday mecca for visitors, has become one of South Africa’s first victims of our planet’s irreversible climate change. Tourism entrepreneurs offering holiday venues “on the beach front” found their installations either teetering over the edge of the beach or, in some cases, sharing the tide with dolphins. Broken sewerage systems spewed raw effluent onto the swimming beaches, black flags replaced blue, and the and visitors stayed away.

That was March 2007 when the autumn equinox, a cyclone in the Mozambique channel, and a  strong on-shore wind came together to wreak havoc in a matter of hours. Mdloti to Ballito and was wiped off the tourist map. I was also a victim on the day when a tsunami-sized wave swept me and my friend, Meg Jordan, over a wall and onto the beach where we were left bleeding and somewhat broken – requiring the help of a local Titan, Wayne Labuschagne, who helped us out seconds before the arrival of another wave.

One year later a lone hippopotamus, seemingly a messenger of hope, suddenly appeared in the shore break off Ballito. Once empty car parks filled to capacity.  It seemed as though a holiday mood had returned to the depressed Dolphin Coast. Years before another hippo named Huberta walked and swam from St Lucia to the Eastern Cape over a period of two and a half years, capturing the imagination of the nation and getting more media coverage than the spectre of an approaching world war.  Sadly her journey was cut short when two ignorant farmers shot her and she now stands mute as an exhibit in the King William’s Town museum.

The latest wanderer became another flagship icon, symbolizing relief from the xenophobia, crime, and economic woes that dominated our media. At last we could send out some good news from our troubled country. The Bateleurs – Flying for the Environment in Africa once again responded to my call for help by supporting several flights in ZS-DLI Spirit of the Wilderness to  track the peregrinations of our hippo as it wandered the beaches at night, seeking pasture and sanctuary in various estuaries of the North Coast.  

Naming the hippo Nkululeko (Freedom) won Ms Maryann Grafetsberger a prize of an hour’s flight in Spirit of the Wilderness, helping track the hippo by its distinctive spoor above the high water left from the previous evening’s wandering.

Finally Nkululeko found the Mdhloti River with its fresh water and abundant pasture – but its sojourn here was short.  The custodians of KZN’s wildlife – without attempting to capture and translocate the animal – had it shot at night as it grazed the banks of the river.  A local man had been found dead with head wounds for which Nkululeko was accused as the perpetrator.

Nkululeko was unceremoniously dumped in a landfill and no-one bothered even to determine the sex of the creature, and we still do not have the details of  the autopsy that was supposedly done on the dead man.

Having been a game ranger in KZN I do not for one moment believe that Nkululeko was responsible for the man’s death. The killing of this icon by the wild life authority, eZemvelo, speaks reams as to how little thought is given to caring for our country’s natural wild treasures.”

Working for Wetands – Bushbuckridge


Mission: Identify Wetland Habitats Suitable for Rehabilitation
Date: 28 June 2008
Requesting organisation: Working for Wetlands
Location: Bushbuckridge, Limpopo
Pilot: Hill van Schalkwyk

One of our newest pilot members, Hill van Schalkwyk, volunteered to fly Craig Cowden and Anton Bothma to survey wetland habitat associated with the Sand River near Bushbuckridge in Limpopo.  The photograph above shows the survey team, comprising (from the left):  Hill van Schalkwyk – Bateleurs pilot, Craig Cowden – Area Manager for LRI, and Anton Bothma – the Project Implementor of the Eastern Wetland Rehabilitation project. The flight took place from Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport at the end of June, and this is the enthusiastic report from Hill:

“Flying my first mission for The Bateleurs was one of my flying highlights!  It is possible that I over-planned the whole mission as Craig Cowden, the Area Manager, was calm and collected and knew exactly what needed to be done. He was familiar with the terrain and knew the area well from the air.  We were accompanied by Anton Bothma who is responsible for the implementation of wetland rehabilitation in that area. He too knew the area well, and all their knowledge made my task of flying so much easier. We met at Kruger Mpumalanga airport which is an hour’s flight from my home base in Polokwane/Pietersburg. The day started slightly later than expected due to the poor visibility in the early morning and the heavy smog all the way to Nelspruit. When I was planning the operation I realised that the weather would have the final say, but in the end it turned out to be a brilliant flying day.

We departed Kruger Mpumalanga at 099h15 and arrived at our “site” – the Save the Sand project – 20 minutes later. All the points that I had carefully marked on my GPS were spotted in a flash by the two professionals.  They discussed issues that did not make much sense to me, but obviously knew exactly what they were looking for. The stable weather made it possible to fly low and slow – very safely!

The area near Bushbuckridge is clearly seriously damaged as a result of erosion and it was heartwarming for an outsider to learn about the interventions being planned to save the wetlands.  Unfortunately, as per anecdotes related by my passengers, some of the structures put in place to save the wetlands occasionally end up as walls in houses, or even as chicken pens!”

wetlands_bushbuckridge2_28062008The escarpment near Mariepskop

“For me one of the highlights of the day came when we had to fly to the top of Mariepskop where the old radar station was built in the 1950s. It was launched to establish a chain of radar stations along the border of the then Transvaal in order to protect the Witwatersrand area from possible aerial attack.  On the eastern side of the Drakensberg escarpment, facing away from the Blyde River Canyon, is the Mariepskop complex, a mountain enclave and centre of endemism of unsurpassed beauty. Mariepskop is the highest peak in the northern Drakensberg and from 1,945m above sea level, on a clear day, you can see the Indian Ocean and Maputo.

We returned by flying down a ravine back to the Lowveld and then straight on to Kruger Mpumalanga International.

Thanks a lot for the opportunity!”


Save the Sand surveyed by Craig Cowden

wetlands_bushbuckridge3_28062008This photo illustrates several large erosion gullies in the centre of the picture.

And here are extracts from the report of this same flight, from Craig Cowden:

“The flight was carried out from the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport by Hill van Schalkwyk.  This was Hill’s first flight for The Bateleurs, but he was more than capable of adjusting to the demanding requirements of the Working for Wetlands project team’s requests to “turn right – NOW”.

Nine wetland sites were identified with the project area, of which seven were prioritised as having ‘moderate’ to ‘high’ potential for rehabilitation.  The majority of the problems associated with the wetlands related to headcut and gully erosion.  Unfortunately, the wetelands within the project area have been severely impacted upon by over-grazing and erosion, with the majority of the valleys being seen as ‘lost causes’.  Due to the small size of the catchment the team was able also to fly over the Mariepskop Nature Reserve, identified as an area with potential for rehabilitation, in addition to the X32A quaternary catchment.

As a whole the flight was highly effective in reducing the otherwise difficult and lengthy process of identifying problems by vehicle or on foot, as well as eliminating the need t identify and contact landowners (to request permission to enter onto their land) within the project areas.”

The sixth and final flight for Working for Wetlands in 2008 will be presented in our next Newsletter.

Working for Wetlands – Maluti-A-Phofung


Mission: Identify Wetland Habitats Suitable for Rehabilitation
Date: 23 June 2008
Requesting organisation: Working for Wetlands
Location: Maluti-A-Phofung, Free State
Pilot: Dries Lategan

It was Bateleurs pilot Dries Lategan who answered our call for a volunteer to fly the Working for Wetlands team to survey the Maluti-a-Phofung area.  A message from Dries after the mission confirmed that weather conditions (minus 4 degrees C with heavy frost) in and around Harrismith had been perfect for flying, and that all the wetland areas between Harrismith and QwaQwa had been identified.

The photograph shows (from the left):  Dries Lategan, Bateleurs pilot, Trevor Pike of Land Resources International (LRI), Thilivhali Nyambeni – Provincial Co-ordinator for Working for Wetlands, and Doug McCulloch, also of LRI.

wetlands_maluti2_23062008This photo shows relatively small erosion gullies and headcuts threatening a large wetland.

Here are some extracts from the report by Trevor Pike of Land Resources International:

“The focus of the assessment was wetland habitat associated with the Elands River, particularly the northern areas of the quaternary catchments.  The flight was carried out from the Harrismith airfield by Dries Lategan in his Cessna 210.  Dries had previously carried out survey flights of the Wilge and Seekoeivlei project areas and was therefore well aware of the specific requirements for an aerial survey of welands.  This, together with his local knowledge of the area, was invaluable in producing a very successful flight.

Twenty-one wetland sites were identified within the project area, of which eleven were prioritised as having good potential for wetland rehabilitation.  An additional twenty-four wetlands were identified just outside the prioritised catchments.  Many of these sites had good potential for rehabilitation and will be considered when planning for future rehabilitation projects.”

Working for Wetlands – Ezemvelo


Mission: Identify Wetland Habitats Suitable for Rehabilitation
Date: 19 June 2008
Requesting organisation: Working for Wetlands
Location: Ezemvelo Area,  Eastern Gauteng
Pilot: Wouter van Ginkel

This photo shows wetland habitat associated with the upper reaches of the Honde River, with a few erosion problems.

Bateleurs pilot Wouter van Ginkel volunteered for the mission to survey wetland habitat in the Ezemvelo area, in eastern Gauteng.  The Working for Wetlands Team comprised Co-ordinator Retief Grobler, accompanied by Thomani Manungufula.  Here are some extracts from the report by Retief:

“The focus of the assessment was to identify wetland habitats suitable for rehabilitation in Gauteng that are primarily associated with drainage lnes forming part of the Upper Olifants River Catchment (Wilge River Catchment in Gauteng).

In general, surveyed drainage lines flowed in two different directions:  the larger area drained eastward along the Wilge River System into Loskop Dam . . . while the remaining area drained northwards along the Elands River System into Rust de Winter dam.  Both the Wilge and Elands rivers are part of the Olifants River Catchment.

The surveyed Gauteng portion of the Wilge River catchment is currently unaffected by coal miing and is largely intact, with the main land use being related to agricultural practices.  Wetlands in this area therefore considered as important sources of good quality water to the Olifants River, which helps to partially dilute some of the existing pollution.  Opportunities were therefore sought to protect (secure) existing wetland habitat by stabilising erosion features, while improvements in the provision of wetland ecosystems services, via rewetting of desiccated areas, were also targeted.  Tributaries of the Wilge River that were investigated from the air included the Osspruit, Honde River, and several unnamed ddainage lines. …
The survey was considered a success despite the hazy conditions typical of the Highveld during winter.  The Working for Wetlands tean expressed their gratitude for the flight and confirmed that they had accomplished what they set out to do.  A big thank you to The Bateleurs for affording us the opportunity to fly for a good cause!”

Third Monitoring Mission for Kgalagadi Cheetah Project


Mission: Third of our Monitoring Missions for Kgalagadi Cheetah Project
Date: 13 June 2008
Requesting organisation: Gus Mills and the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project
Location: Kgalagadi, Northern Cape
Pilot: Jay van Deventer

Bateleurs Director and pilot, Jay van Deventer, leaped at the chance to fly the third of our monitoring missions in 2008 for Gus Mills and the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project.  The photograph above shows Gus on the left with Jay on the right, and below is Jay’s delighted report following a delightful adventure:

Cats in the Kalahari, by Jay van Deventer

“It was Edgar Allen Poe who observed that one should ‘be careful what you wish for, lest it come true’. I reflected on these words whilst nursing an overheating motor from level with the red Kalahari dunes though punchy tight little midday thermals back up to our search altitude of around 4000′ agl. On top we had a 20kt northerly and ‘on the deck’ the wind was gusting around 5kts variable. I had been climbing and descending through the somewhat busy air for almost five hours and the concentration required to conduct the seemingly endless low speed orbits at near dune height, in sometimes nasty shear, had been taking its toll. This is where Allen Poe comes in:  I was getting tired but there was no doubt I was having fun.

cheetah_project13062008A dream mission with a dodgy airstrip

The flight I am describing was a ‘dream mission’ for me, flying low over a game reserve using a radio tracking system (attached to my beautiful Lambada with ziplocks and duct tape) which virtually guaranteed cheetah sightings – and doing it in one of Africa’s most beautiful wilderness areas.  What’s not to like?  OK, there’s the six hour commute over some pretty remote areas just to get the aircraft there, the wind shear, and the massive area to cover, engine temperatures, and the dodgy pan as a landing strip …    Doesn’t that sound irresistible? It certainly did to me, and once again flying for The Bateleurs was an incredibly memorable experience. 

The mission involved assisting Gus Mills (ex SAN Parks, now a private researcher) to locate his collared cheetah. It has been said that one finds the warmest people down the roughest roads. That is certainly true of Gus and his delightful wife Margie. They were more than generous.  Indeed, after only knowing us for one day, during which they fed and housed us, they gave us the keys to their home and their car and left!  How many times in a lifetime will someone trust you with their two biggest assets after knowing you for just 24 hours?

I had planned two days for the cheetah search.  As it happened the aerial tracking was very successful and by the end of day one Gus was freshly equipped with the GPS locations of all his cats.  I had a day in hand and since I had spent almost 12 hours flying in two days, I was happy to have an off day for some game viewing.  The passion and diligence this couple apply to their research efforts is impressive. Gus had all the necessary dots on his map and he was clearly torn between his desire to go out into the bush for a few days to study them and his perceived obligation to entertain us, so giving us their house and car seemed a reasonable compromise to them.  As I said, an extraordinarily generous and trusting couple.  Nicci and I had a super relaxed day of game driving and after a very comfortable night we drove ourselves to the airfield in Margie’s 4*4 for an early departure.  The keys?  We left those in the car as instructed.  Isn’t it fantastic that places like this still exist?

By the time we were ‘wheels up’ we had been in the Kalahari for only two full days, we had seen literally more than a dozen cheetah from a mix of ground and air, we had followed a leopard for some close-up night time shots, we had watched lions mating in their leisurely way and had delighted in the antics of gemsbok, springbok, ostriches, bat-eared foxes, grey-backed jackals and much more.  Leaving aside The Bateleurs angle, it was an exceptional trip to the bush.  Sometimes I choose the dirty or dull missions for The Bateleurs and then the free fuel seems reasonable. But what with the free accommodation and the quality of the whole experience, I wil not in good conscience be able to claim for the fuel burned on this one.  In fact it feels as if I should be paying someone. Thank you to Margie, Nora and Gus for a truly memorable trip.”

cheetah_project2_13062008The Kgalagadi Cheetah Project Tracking Flight, by Gus Mills

And here is a short report from Gus Mills, the researcher in charge of the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project:

“Friday the thirteenth of June might have been unlucky for the superstitious, but not for the pilots of The Bateleurs and the researchers of The Tony and Lisette Lewis Foundation’s Kgalagadi Cheetah Project. The day before Jay van Deventer had kindly flown from Gauteng to Twee Rivieren in his nifty little motorised glider. Until then the week had been characterised by strong winds, but by Thursday they had died down and Friday was an ideal day for flying. We currently have eight radio-collared cheetah and it is a tall order keeping track of all of them. After fitting the antennae to the wheel struts of his Lambada, Jay and I took off at 10h00.  By 14h00 we had located all eight individuals and managed to get visuals on half of them. Because they range so widely it is virtually impossible to locate all of them from the ground in a week.

Once again we are indebted to Tthe Bateleurs for their much appreciated support for our project and we look forward to future flights. Each of these flights is invaluable for this important cheetah conservation project.”