There is a joke: ‘Mum, when I grow up I want to be a pilot.’ ‘Wait a minute son, you’ll have to decide which you want as you definitely can’t do both.’ There may be a little truth to this, seeing the young bucks who fly between bush camps, but don’t let it put you off.
Why fly? Well, although many main roads are good in Southern Africa, even allowing for road side cattle, donkeys and game, the distances are vast. Away from main routes, roads tend to be bumpy sandy tracks; fun for a game drive but not a four hour transfer. So small aeroplanes are the best mode of transport for travellers visiting a number of camps during a multi base safari holiday in Africa. It starts with a flight on a scheduled airline into one of the main airports; from there, transfers could not be easier.
Maun in Botswana, effectively gateway to the Okavango Delta, is typical. It is ranked as the second busiest airport in the whole of Southern Africa; the figures however are not based on the number of passengers, but on the number of flights. Here, in addition to the occasional international flight, the tarmac is crowded with small aeroplanes equipped to carry from two to twelve passengers, which fly the length and breadth of the local area, criss-crossing the Delta and hopping between sandy landing strips. It is more like taking a taxi than catching a conventional flight, however. There is no checking in or waiting; no security or baggage collection. Oh, and the views are spectacular.
On African safari holidays, transfers usually take place in the late morning after game drives, and airlines operate a day to day schedule accommodating the needs of visitors. The airstrips become a meeting point for guides who exchange news and goods. Sometimes, pilots, passengers and guides chat at leisure while guests assemble; but frequently there is a ‘hot stop’ and the engine keeps running while passengers and supplies are quickly manoeuvred on and off.
Bush pilots can also bring guests in the late afternoon, depending on itineraries, and stay at camps overnight, ready for the next day. In many of the smaller camps they will join an activity and supper; in others there is pilot accommodation. They can spend several days at a time in the bush, travelling between camps and it is rather reassuring for the nervous traveller to see the pilot joining guests for breakfast, making it virtually impossible to miss the flight.
These short flights are an excellent way of building up flying hours for young Bush pilots. But do not be concerned by their average age. In hospitals, they always say that routine operations are better performed by registrars rather than consultants because they carry out those procedures every day. The same is true of flying small aeroplanes between landing strips: it is the bread and butter of the young bush pilots and they are experts in their craft.
To book flights in Africa, for peace of mind, use an experienced agent in the area who can advise on the best airlines, routes and transfers. Charter or scheduled flights are both options. And if you are very lucky, you can sit next to pilot.