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Kalahari Cheetah Project
Dr Gus Mills
Pilot in Command: Andrew Conroy and Navigator: Derrick van Zyl
Author: Derrick van Zyl
Tracking and finding missing Collared Cheetahs in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for “The Batteleurs”
Aircraft Type: Zenair 701, Sky Jeep
It was a warm and windy day that Tuesday the 17th of November when Andrew and I took off from John Weston. Cloud cover was low and slightly north east. We were fully fuelled and heavy as we took to the clouds heading for Postmasburg. A big gravel runway was most welcome in a wind that was steadily picking up and like Tom Jones’s song,” and there to meet me was my Mama and Papa….was Jannie Visser.
Friend, pilot and resident of Postmasburg with a small runway on his property only the skilled would try in a hectic crosswind.
After fuel for the Sky Jeep and fuel for the flyers we were off to Twee Rivieren where the Nossob and Aoub rivers joined into one dry river bed on the South African Botswana border. The rivers are normally dry except when the sky opens in summer, transforming the landscape and everything comes to life.
A barren landscape of waves of sand dunes and an endless horizon bumped up and down as we looked for landmarks to confirm that the GPS was actually working.
Dr Guss Mills who headed the Cheetah Project met us and after refuelling and attaching tracking aerials to the Sky Jeep we headed for our digs.
I still remarked on Lions eating our tires as a small little fence separated them from us.
Margie Mills settled us in their Project House where the beers were refreshing and most welcome.
The next day started early and Guss and Andrew took off to get a bearing on the cheetahs.
After 1, 5 hours and variable signals on the tracker it was decided to re position the aerials. Flying conditions deteriorated in terms of heat and strong winds. We took to the veld in a Land Cruiser and with the tracker and quickly spotted Charlise (named after Charlise Theron because she was so well photographed) and her cubs.
They are used to the vehicle and we really got close. A duiker on an opposite dune soon pricked Charlise’s interest and a chase ensued right in front of us. Slowly she crept up on the duiker and then launched herself toward the antelope. Ears flat and tail swinging for balance she chased, bobbing and weaved as the duiker just managed to give her the slip and disappear over a dune. Heaving, nostrils dilated she came walking back, sucking in oxygen into huge lungs.
Not all hunts are successful Guss told us, survival for the Cheetahs are not easy in Kgalagadi.
We then went on foot following and re constructing a previous hunt where Charlise had killed a duiker and left only the stomach contents. Her four cubs demanded a lot.
I kept looking around as we were walking where Lions roamed and none of us had any weapons.
I remarked on this and Guss reassured that they would leave us alone. “Oh” I said “well that completely changes the picture”…. still looking carefully over every dune we crossed.
We were not eaten and beer and a swimming pool was the cure for the late afternoon heat and we looked forward to tomorrow, we wanted to fly.
The Fog rolled into the pre dawn, making flying impossible.
Guss remarked that in 10 years he has only seen mist like this on three occasions.
We hoped the “Slag” would burn off.
It eventually did and was again replaced by strong wind and heat. Mother Nature was telling us a story that we did not want to hear.
We spent the rest of the day observing lion, various antelope and raptors and eventually finding a fresh kill where another Cheetah and her Cubs were devouring a springbok that she brought down in the dry riverbed.
Friday morning Andrew and Guss took off and within one hour found the first missing group and then the second.
On the home run the third group was found. Mission Accomplished.
Friday morning found us taking off into the sun along the Botswana Border and then the fuel pressure dropped for no reason.
We kept along the border and tried to gain height. The road on the Botswana side was wide and welcome and on the South African side tarred but lined with trees.
We were full and heavy and anxious as the fuel pressure did not come right even after engaging the fuel pump.
She did not splutter and slowly the pressure rose together with our height and our spirits.
Again the waves of sand dunes stretching into forever kept rolling on and landmarks were scarce. The GPS was checked and re checked often.
Eventually Olifantshoek came into view and then we descended to Postmasburg from 6500 bumpy feet.
After Jannie refuelled us and the Sky Jeep, we headed for Jacobsdal with a strong hot wind blowing and low cloud streaming in.
Even sms’ing an ETA became a mission.
We just made Andrew’s runway on the farm before it really started blowing.
Bring on the next adventure.