Can Tiny Planes Save the African Beasts?
By Richard Bangs, photos by Didrick Johnck

A group of explorers hops across the wildlife-filled desert areas of Namibia and Angola on a scouting expedition that will start a new era in wild animal counting.


"There is an elephant holocaust going on in Africa today," says Paul Maritz, the last gentleman adventurer. "Up to this point elephant counts have been done by error-prone Mark 1 Eyeballs, and nobody believes the numbers. You really can't motivate people to take needed drastic actions unless they are convinced you have the facts. And so we need to get the facts."

Rhodesia born Paul and his brother David have created a flying machine they think can do the job: the BushCat, a lightweight, low-winged vehicle, designed for the bush.

A BushCat is like a kayak, beautiful in its simplicity. It is low maintenance, largely modular, so any part can be replaced with ease. It is less expensive than other light sports aircraft on the market, and significantly cheaper than a long-distance drone. The idea is to attach a visual spectrum high-resolution camera working in tandem with an infrared camera to the undercarriage, fly the width and breadth of Africa, and with intelligent software that uses algorithms derived from the facial-recognition world, determine near exact numbers of land animals. This could be game-changing. Paul has commissioned a company in Cape Town to create the software, but in the meantime, he wants to test the BushCats and be sure they are up to the task.

So, Commander Maritz, as known to some in the flying world, has gathered a dirty dozen of scorpions and scofflaws to wing from Johannesburg north through Namibia to the Angolan border to test the BushCats' suitability in some of the remotest, most unforgiving landscapes in the world.


We take off into the high, white roof of Africa, above a dazzling checkerboard of moving light and shade. There is nothing quite as perfect as a small plane, in that perfection is attained not when there is no longer anything to add, such as in a rich man's jet, but when there is no longer anything to take away.

Our first leg takes us to Kimberley, passing over a lake with 20,000 lesser flamingos, to the Protea Hotel on the edge of The Big Hole, largest man-made ditch in the world, where diamond miners scrambled in the 19th century. Then after a refueling stop at a small dirt strip at Griekwastad, we head north to Dundi, on the edge of the Orange River in the Kalahari. When I founded Sobek Expeditions at the ready age of 22, I went to the library and made a list of all the wild rivers and waterfalls I hoped to see in my turn through life. Augrabies Falls, on the Orange, was on that list, and now at last I'm flying over it with Paul at the controls, in a panther black BushCat named Kitty. The river below runs copper, an ember in a canyon hearth.

Later I make the short drive to the rim of the granite gorge, and gawk at the "place of big noises," and it is a loud talker, a tumultuous crowd of currents. But perhaps even more sensation-worthy are the darting, gremlin-like rock hyraxes, closest living relative to the elephant.

Into the Wild Landscapes of Namibia

We cross the border into Namibia, named from a Hottentot word for "desert." In the jigsaw puzzle that is Africa, Namibia is the piece that got left behind. The barren state, larger than Texas, lies north of South Africa's western border and most of its eastern edge abuts Botswana. Namibia was a German colony until the end of World War 1 when the League of Nations entrusted South West Africa, as it was then known, to South Africa as a mandated territory. The country gained independence in 1990, yet it remains one of the emptiest domains on the continent. Some 42% of the land is under conservation management.

We flare across a blindingly bright wilderness, dropping in at Keetmanshoop for customs and immigration. We wheel now into the vast, rocky ocean that is the Namib Desert, an endless retreat of ravines, ridges, and terraced escarpments, the compacted age lines of the earth as deep and hard and revealing as the dark weather-carved face of an aged miner.

Augrabies Falls

Out of nowhere there is suddenly a gash in the skin of the continent, the Fish River Canyon, "The Grand Canyon of Africa," 160 kilometers long and 27 kilometers wide.

We explore the canyon and spend the night at a lodge on the rim. In the morning we unlace the stays and take off down the dark canyon, along fissures and folds etched with spidery schist. The ribs of the main canyon spread below like an x-ray.

Our next goal: Lüderitz, a preserved in aspic Bavarian town on the edge of nowhere. We begin to fly over dunes, which look like the tracks of giant snakes slithering angrily across the landscape. Once we reach the coast there is a wall of fog, but not at the air strip, a few kilometers inland. We next fly to a Fitzcarraldo-like enterprise, The Neuras Winery, producing 3,000 bottles a year in the middle of a desert, for a day and night of indulgence.

Crossing the Paths of Beasts

In the air the next day we look down to see the elaborate stitchings of animal trails. Tracking the paths of animals was an important element in the education of early man, and we feel as we are dialing back to a more vital time.

Now we begin to see wildlife, animals that have snatched beauty from the barren desert. And in these crafts we can easily photograph as they parade down the bleached sands of dry river beds. We are close enough we can see springbok spronking; oryx prickling their ears, wildebeest kicking dust, and the mad clash of zebra hooves along the gravel.

As we fly a setting more sky than earth, the light changes the sand from beige to pumpkin to scarlet, and the shadows form ever shifting patterns and textures, like a gallery of abstract art. There are crescent-shaped dunes with gentle windward slopes. And dunes that multiply in ever more dense colonies, and linking to form sculptured chains perpendicular to the prevailing winds.

Our target is Solitaire, a town suitably named. It is the last gas on the way to the Sossusvlei Sand Dunes, among the most popular sights in the country. In addition to petrol Solitaire offers up Moose McGregor's Desert Bakery featuring the best apple strudel in Africa. A sign says, "Many people have eaten here and survived."

Johan van Zyl, one of the pilots, elects to land his BushCat Zebbie on the main road, and motors the plane into Solitaire, past rows of gawking tourists, up to the gas pump, where he leans out the window to the attendant and says, "fill 'er up."

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