Caprivi Strip, 2014 Part 30

by david on May 25, 2015

Helicopter Ride

I have ridden in quite a few fixed-wing aircraft before, anything from a 1940 something de Havilland beaver to Cessna’s, to Beechcraft, to Mooney’s, to the new Boeing 777, but never in a helicopter. The opportunities have been few and the cost has been exorbitant, so I just have never gotten around to it. Today was going to be different, because I was going up in a whirly bird. This was mostly out of curiosity and partly to comfort my better half. I have never been able to convince her smaller planes are safer than large planes (as their glide paths are much better and can often safely glide to the ground if power is lost), and she had a few reservations about an aircraft with no wings at all. I had been lucky enough to fly over Vic Falls in 2009 on the way to Charisa National Park to do some hunting and the views were spectacular. With Janice being a photographer, I wanted her to have the opportunity to see the falls from above and the helicopter seemed to be the perfect platform.

First thing upon arrival at the heliport (aside from being bombarded with souvenir trinkets) was the safety instruction. It was all pretty basic stuff: don’t open windows, hands and feet inside; if you crash in the water watch out for hippos and crocodiles, etc. Next, we were individually weighed to make sure we did not overload the aircraft and to ensure an even weight distribution once we were on board. I really did not think too much about it until they loaded the copter. They put the two largest (Johann and myself) in the back seat and a tiny young lady in between the two of us. This arrangement meant I had to keep my back forced into the seat as tightly as possible or block the middle passenger’s view. I chose to do the former, as it would have thoroughly ticked me off if someone had blocked my view for the whole ride. I could see pretty well, but it was difficult to take photographs. I basically had to point my camera and hope for the best. Thankfully, I have pretty good had eye-hand coordination and the pictures came out fairly well.

The ride itself was fairly smooth and there were only a few down drafts. The looks on everyone’s face as the chopper dropped 50 or so feet during those downdrafts was priceless. I knew from my previous flight over the falls that the air did funny things as it heated and cooled and was halfway expecting a few “bumps in the road”. I had meant to mention this to everyone else, but it somehow slipped my mind. Too bad I only remembered after the first drop with everyone’s startled looks.

The ride was short, but the views were outstanding. The wind was slight and allowed the mist created by the water’s headlong rush into the gorge to put on a fairly spectacular show. The contours created by the mist moved slowly enough to form a shape resembling one thing for a moment to transform into something completely different as you watched. These wraith-like figures ascended and descended, moving as they saw fit, putting on quite a show. I thought about taking some video, but as the pilot had a flight plan not necessarily aligned with my desires, this was not possible. Every time I wished the pilot to jig, he seemed to jog and I was forced to stay with still photography.

There are two more advantages to aerial reconnaissance. From above the zigzag path carved by the water over the millennia becomes evident. The “First Gorge” is the one the water falls into as it goes over the edge. There are five more gorges after that. From the ground, the only way to see more than one at a time is to be at the point where the river flow changes directions allowing you to see two gorges at the same time. Otherwise, each gorge appears to be a single chasm with a river running through it. I can only imagine what the early explorers thought as they tried to navigate it. The river becomes impossible and when portaging it must have seemed a never-ending group of canyons to walk around. Following the wall of one hoping to come to its end, only to discover it continues at acute angles, must have been a source of great frustration. The sheer size of the Zambezi River is another aspect best appreciated from the air. At more than a mile wide (5604’), where it flows into the first gorge, it is truly an impressive body of water. During the dry season, there are dozens and dozens of small islands looking almost like stepping stones when viewed from altitude. Only two of the islands are large enough to stay above the waterline during the rainy season. Boaruka Island (or Cataract Island) near the western bank, and Livingstone Island near the middle somehow manage to keep above the torrential flow. Once again, my mind drifts back in time as I imagine trying to paddle across the river without getting caught up in the current and swept too close to the edge. I wonder if I would have been smart enough to have stayed far enough away from the edge and shudder at the thought of going over. All too soon, the helicopter turns and makes its way back home. Be it all too short the ride and the photographs it yielded were the time and expense it took to acquire them.

Once we have safely returned to terra firma, we headed over to the gift shop to wait for our “customized photo CD” and “live action DVD”. I was somewhat skeptical the pictures would be any better than our own but decided to keep that opinion to myself. The photos end up being surprisingly good and there were few group pictures taken as we exited the aircraft that we would have otherwise not have had. There is one that I have to grin at every time I look at it. The helicopter is in the background and the five of us are walking all abreast. There is a certain swagger to our stride and we look like some group of commandos returning from a successful mission. I hate to admit it but this is one time I am glad I kept my mouth shut and deferred to the wife’s opinion.


Looking at the falls from up river.  A few of the gorges are visible in the background. Looking at the falls from up river. A few of the gorges are visible in the background.


Most of the length of gorge one.  Most of the length of gorge one.


All six of the gorges. All six of the gorges.


A little better view of the gorge's twist and turns.  A little better view of the gorge’s twist and turns.


Our helicopter. (photo courtesy of Zambezi Helicopter Co.) Our helicopter. (photo courtesy of Zambezi Helicopter Co.)


The picture that reminded me of something out of a movie.  (photo courtesy of Zambezi Helicopter Co.) The picture that reminded me of something out of a movie. (photo courtesy of Zambezi Helicopter Co.)



Wednesday: Laid Back / Daredevil

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