Game lodging

Despite having had the aeroplane for some years now, we have not, until now, used it to actually go on holiday. Our April holiday plans were extensively disrupted by the different (and constantly changing) kids’ term dates. My son also insisted on going to his residential community service camp (who are we to stand in the way of community service?), and this meant that a family holiday was out of the question. And thusly it was decided that the two of us would head away for a couple of nights in the Madikwe Game Reserve.

Getting there

Madikwe is only about 250km in a straight line from our house but by road it’s closer to 300km and can take up to 4 hours. With two airstrips in the park it seemed like the ideal opportunity to fly there.

DateAircraftRouteFlight TimeTotal Time
15 Apr 2021ZU-IBMFAGM(Rand) – FAMK (Madikwe East)1.5276.1

Our lodge (Thakadu River Camp) agreed to collect us from the airstrip – 20 minutes away, so we were all set. The first small hurdle was that my wife packed her usual (large) bag before I could suggest smaller bags – so that required a repack. This precipitated a slight decrease in my popularity but the bag would not have fitted through the door or the baggage hatch……

Route avoiding the FALA(Lanseria) Class B

This is the best time of the year for flying in most of the country – high pressure systems dominate and convective activity is minimal. Still, temperatures are high enough to generate some turbulence later in the day so the plan was to get going reasonably early. This translated to an off blocks time of about 9h30 local.

As with many routes from Rand Airport, there is no direct routing – the Class B(TMA)’s of Lanseria and OR Tambo loom large and there is no chance of a clearance through these, even in the context of COVID related reduced air traffic. However, there is no rule against flying right up against the airspace and this is what we did before we were able to start a climb to smoother air as we passed the Orient Glider airfield near Magaliesberg town.

The Flight Information Service frequency was fairly congested for a weekday morning but we were eventually able to make contact and confirm that there was no reported traffic at our requested level (where we were already due to the delay in making contact). The area covered by this Flight Info frequency is massive – about 800km by 300km and it’s often difficult to know when you can broadcast. An aircraft at the other extremity of the zone could be broadcasting but you can’t hear them, so there are a lot of blocked transmissions. Anyhow, it’s purely an information service – no separation of VFR traffic is provided at all.

Routing to the northwest of Johannesburg

FL85 was smooth and cool which kept the passenger in seat 1B happy. All too soon it was time for a passenger friendly 200fpm descent down to 5500 ft to join overhead the field at Madikwe East. The runway is about 1500m long (7500ft) and regularly accommodates the single engine turboprops that ply the charter trade and the odd business jet.

Conventional wisdom suggests doing a runway inspection prior to landing on game reserve strips to ensure no beasties on the runway. All to often people do extremely low level beat ups of the field which are dangerous and don’t achieve very much – I was planning to do a negative circuit at 500ft and spy out the lie of the land – as it turns out the vegetation is pretty sparse and has been cut well back from the runway so from 1500ft overhead I could be sure there were no animals approaching or on the actual runway.

An annoying amount of left of the line parking….

I was still sure to warn my wife that a late go-around was very likely if any NORDO animals did ‘taxi’ onto the runway. This eventuality didn’t arise and we were able to roll out all the way to the ‘terminal’ building at the end of the runway without troubling the brakes at all. Awaiting our arrival was our ranger Satys who appeared unfazed at all the bags that came out of such a small aircraft.

I had given some thought to protecting the plane from animals for the 3 nights we’d be at the lodge – I received all sorts of advice like making sure there was no food in the plane (good), covering the canopy (good), not touching too much of the aircraft outside (fair) after landing and urinating on the wheels (not going to do that) to prevent hyaena interest. I elected to go with the standard canopy cover, pitot and plugs and hoped that the (un-spatted) wheels of the lodge C210 parked next to us would be more tempting than mine.

Buttoned up

With that we settled into the back of the open vehicle and set off on the 20min drive to the lodge. We had 3 great days – two game drives per day, full board in luxury semi-permanent tents. Game viewing was excellent – lots of lions with cubs, cheetah, elephants galore and a fair spattering of interesting bird life.

Welcome cocktail

The COVID pandemic has had negative effects on the tourism industry – the lodge was never more than half full so we almost always were the only guests on the game vehicle. They have an interesting take on buffet food though – there is one person with gloves and a mask on who serves the food to you from the buffet – it’s a little awkward but I suppose it may decrease the transmission risk somewhat.

It had to be done…
Bucking the trend

All too soon it was time to make the trip back to the airfield (to leave – we had made many game drive trips past the airfield where 2 lionesses had four cubs about 50m from the mid point windsock….). Cursory inspection of the runway when we drove up revealed no animals but by the time we’d loaded the plane, preflighted, done all the requisite PDP (pre-departure pee) maneuvers and warmed up a large herd of Impala had taken up residence across the runway.

The wind was calm but the ranger had left already so my plan was to taxi all the way to the other end of the runway, hopefully scattering the Impala as I went and then turn and depart. It’s quite nerve wracking taxiing an aircraft up to a herd of antelope – the Rotax is not exceptionally noisy so we went very slowly. The Impala leisurely wandered across the runway but I had my hand on the ignition ready to cut it if any came near. Eventually we were able to make our way to the departure end and could do our run ups.

Run up completed, we lined up – and blow me down if there wasn’t another antelope crossing the runway. However, I could see it was at the halfway point and that was 700m away. 50ft obstacle clearance at a DA of 7500ft at MGW in the Sling is 650m. I calculated the DA at 5250ft and we were well below max gross. We elected to do a short field max performance takeoff – which is quite spectacular in the Sling because the elevator gains authority at 30kts and she’ll fly off into ground effect at 48kts. We were passing 150ft as we passed the middle of the field – well above the antelope which by now had moved off. I wouldn’t have done this in another aircraft – I would have called the ranger back to clear the runway.

Clear of cloud and with reference to ground features

In my continued quest to avoid turbulence we planned our return trip at FL95 – as we were climbing the 5-6/8 layer I thought was higher than 9500 became apparent at 7500 – fortunately the clouds were only about 500ft thick and we were able to climb through a gap between them putting us on top with good visual reference to the ground. I was watching the weather in Jhb on the METARs which were reporting FEW at 3500AGL so was convinced we’d easily descend without going IMC, which was the case. It’s a bit of a waste to climb all the way to FL95 for such a short flight. However, with departure airfield at 3500ft and arrival at 5500ft it’s not that much of a climb, the clouds were at 7500 and I wasn’t going to fly low over the Magaliesberg so it was worth the effort.

Pilates berg National Park and Sun City Resort

Avoiding the glider airfield (FAOI – Orient) I decided to duck under the Lanseria ClassB/TMA. Big mistake. The ground level ranges 5500-6000ft in this sector and the airspace started at 6500ft. It’s do-able and most people do it, but in future, I’ll go all the way around rather – flying 500-600ft over built up areas is overrated. Lesson learned.

On arrival into Rand, we were given the unusual (for me) clearance to overfly the field and join on the left downwind for 29 – where we made a thoroughly unremarkable landing – 1h05 after departing.

3 replies on “Game lodging”

Looks like it was a fantastic trip. While the idea of using the airplane for travel is a familiar one, your destination was quite novel compared to many of the places I’ve been. I also always enjoy reading about the subtle differences in regulations and terminology between here and there. And a single Flight Information Service frequency for an 800 km swath of airspace? Yikes! We have similar self-announce frequencies in various uncontrolled VFR corridors here (e.g., over the Hudson River in NYC, the VFR corridor through the Los Angeles Bravo, orbiting Niagara Falls), but the amount of airspace covered is significantly limited compared to what you described.

I was curious about the phrase “negative pattern”. Is that a pattern flown below the usual pattern altitude?

What did the passenger in seat 1B think of the maximum performance take-off? That stood out to me after the care you took in making a gentle descent on arrival.

Looks like the antelope weren’t the only wildlife challenges on the runway that day. How did you scare off that vagrant lying on the centerline? 🙂

Thanks Chris – it was a great trip….

Yeah, ‘negative pattern’ is something I heard once and picked up on – my understanding is that you simply fly the pattern without descending to the field – i.e you fly along the runway at pattern altitude. Not sure if it’s a recognised term…

The max performance takeoff was a well briefed short field departure to above giraffe head height and then level acceleration for a normal climbout – no complaints from the right seat!

“Well-briefed” is a critical procedural step in any non-standard operation with a nervous flyer! Well done! Honestly, if “giraffe head height” were a factor in my day to day flying, my daughter would fly with me a lot more often than she does! 🙂

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