Flying above the watery wonderland of the Okavango Delta is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but for a lucky few it is a daily adventure.
We flew into the heart of the Okavango with bush pilot Ben Jordaan to Sanctuary Baines’ Camp on the border of the Moremi Game Reserve. During the dry winter season, the delta swells in size and attracts wildlife from near and far to this desert oasis. The views from the one-engine Cessna were out-of-this-world, with the ever-changing channels crisscrossing the Kalahari sand.
Flying out of the gateway to the Okavango Delta, Ben has been a line pilot for just over a year now and has about two years to go before he leaves behind the dust and donkeys of Maun. Not only does he have to deal with extreme weather, but also watch out for birds of prey in the air and wild animals, from warthogs to elephants, on the narrow dirt airstrips of the Botswanan bush.
The 15-minute flight over the Delta with its clear blue streams winding around forested islands was mind-blowingly beautiful. We didn’t have to swerve to avoid any birds and the game had been chased off the runway before we came in to land. Ben set us down smoothly on the camp’s private airstrip and with a smile and a wave he was up in the air again, off on another adventure.
After an action-packed safari with Sanctuary in the Okavango Delta, we caught up with Ben to find out more about life as a bush pilot in Botswana.
What got you up in the air?
I was studying a BSc Human Life Science degree and kind of lost interest in that along the way. I wanted to do something a bit more adventurous job-wise. I finished the degree and started flight training and did a tour through Namibia and Botswana in 2010. When I saw Maun I knew I had to come back here to work and now I fly a single engine piston aircraft over the Okavango Delta in Northern Botswana. Couldn’t think of a better place to kick-off a career in aviation.
What is it like to fly over the Okavango Delta?
Flying out here, there’s never a dull moment. You’re either looking out for birds – vultures, eagles, storks, you name them – or animals on runways – elephants, giraffes, impala, warthogs, whatever feels like adding spice to your day by running onto your runway. You always need to be ready to abort your take-off roll or go around when there are animals on the runway, running in front of you at the last minute. Go-around procedure is a very common practice for a pilot out here and so are manoeuvres to avoid flying into birds.
Then, of course, there are challenges with the various seasons. Summer is hot, with temperatures up to 35 – 45 degrees Celsius, affecting aircraft performance out of short dirt airstrips. Rainy season brings massive isolated thunderstorms, which you have to navigate around, wet muddy runways and drenched shoes. Winter is great for game viewing and temperatures are more bearable.
The Okavango Delta always has something to offer, something that fascinates you. Whether flying down a river at 500 feet AGL watching crocodiles shredding away at a dead giraffe or elephant, or dodging a massive vulture at the last minute and seeing it pass under your wing – when everything seems to slow down and you look into the eyes of this creature you share the skies with.
Which is your favourite kind of plane to fly?
At the moment I am flying the Cessna 206, C210 and GA8 Airvan. Each of these machines are perfect for the job in their own way. The 206 is the donkey of the Delta, been here for so many years, proving that it still deserves its place in the skies over Northern Botswana hauling freight and tourists day in and out and never letting you down. Airvans are also very versatile machines, with great big windows, which makes it perfect for scenic flights and big pods for loading freight and luggage. If you need speed, the C210 is the go-to aircraft. Lovely machines to fly, very comfortable and cruises at around 20 km/h faster than the other two. I’m soon starting my training on the Cessna 208B Caravan – a turbine engine aircraft. It’s such a beast of an aircraft and I can’t wait to start flying it.
Thing is, all the aircraft we operate out here are used as they are simply the best aircraft for the job. Yes, they get extremely hot inside in summer months, but considering your 15 minute flight would take 6 to 10 hours drive in a 4×4, which most definitely won’t be too comfortable either, I’d take the hot plane any day!
What is the most amazing sighting you’ve had?
While flying I once saw a big herd of Lechwe antelope running through a flood plain, with the late afternoon sun setting over them, water splashing behind them, with the sun reflecting from the spray – quite a special moment.
Also, as the water levels of the Savute Marsh started dropping towards the end of winter, I flew over the marsh at about 500 feet, surrounded by literally thousands of elephant and buffalo quenching their thirst with the last remaining fresh water the marsh had to offer.
The amazing thing about it is that once the summer rains come in and the world around you transforms from a brown dry barren landscape to this incredibly green and lush woodland, these vast numbers of animals migrate all over the place and you won’t see that many together again until the end of the following winter. Nature at its best!
What do you love about flying?
It’s a fantastic opportunity to be out here, living here, working here and flying a plane in one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Watching the African sunsets over the floodplains of the Delta, while enjoying a sundowner with a Fish Eagle calling in the background is something you can’t just read about, but have to come experience for yourself.
Like I’m sure each niche in aviation offers, being a bush pilot truly tests you in ways you won’t understand until you are here, sweating it out six days a week, 11 months a year. I couldn’t think of any better place to start my career before moving on to flying bigger aircraft in airlines.
All photos © Marcus Westberg