My fingers instinctively tightened around the cyclic and collective as I braced myself. I reduced power and held the helicopter firmly in the ‘wings level’ attitude at 65 knots. The weather site Windy.com had been wrong.
I had seen that there would be headwinds for most of the flight, but nothing that scared me and certainly nothing so strong as to present a risk while passing over the Eastern Cape Mountains. Yep, I confess, one of my big fears is a combination of strong wind, mountains and helicopters.
A few minutes earlier I had climbed up to 5,000 feet, anticipating downdraughts over the escarpment at Somerset East. Now a turbulent 45-knot Berg wind was gusting on my nose.
I eyed the surrounding mountaintops suspiciously, looking for the best place to pass. Ahead was a saddle between two high ridges – tempting, but not wise, considering the possibility of accelerated wind due to the venturi effect.
Now, only a few hundred metres from the mountains, it was time to make a decision. The helicopter was descending at 500 ft/minute and the buffeting was increasing. A glance at the TOT and torque verified what I already knew – I was already on the power limits and not maintaining level flight. Without hesitation, I banked ever so gently away from the mountains and headed for stable sky.
Ten kilometres downwind from the mountains, the air was calm enough to begin my plan. I turned the machine back into wind and eased the cyclic back to hold a steady 60-knot climb at full power. My goal was to fly to a height that would give me a 500-ft clearance above the highest peak. Levelling off at 7,500 feet, I flew towards the mountains with every sense finely tuned, ready to react to sudden extreme turbulence or signs of downdraughts. My indicated airspeed was around 90 knots, so I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I saw my groundspeed was a mere 43 knots.
The wind was stronger at altitude, 50 gusting to 60 knots, but felt less violent, although I knew that at any moment I could fly into extreme rotor turbulence and possibly lose control. I had experienced this before while flying near a pathetic pimple of a hill. Without warning, the helicopter had violently rolled to the left and my hands and feet were knocked from the controls. It was something I wished never to repeat.
The mountain inched towards me, gradually passed below and, not soon enough, was behind me. I could breathe again. Lowering the collective, I began my long descent towards the distant helipad and coffee. Somewhere below in those wind-torn valleys were four young cheetahs that we had to find, dart and recover for relocation, but it would have to wait for a calmer day.
Predators throughout the world, like most things in nature, are endangered. Lack of space is the primary threat. Humans are encroaching on all the remaining game sanctuaries, creating islands of game parks surrounded by a sea of humanity. Then, with the unsustainable pressure on game reserves’ boundaries, the inevitable happens – poaching.
Bush meat poaching, using packs of mongrels and wire snares, is steadily decimating our wildlife. The fences, too, are stolen. Steel droppers are sold as scrap metal, and wood droppers and wire are taken to build fences around crops and make snares. Thus the path is opened for woodcutting and over utilisation of other natural resources within the reserve.
Park managers are generally lazy, disinterested, underpaid and often not even resident in the parks. Staff are ill-equipped and have no desire to get their hands dirty and so turn a blind eye. On top of this, there is no money to keep the parks going. Government has reduced financial support to all National and Provincial Parks to as little as 20% of required budgets, which barely covers salaries.
Where staff attempt to halt the carnage, they are not supported by their superiors. Arrests are futile, since there is no official will to prosecute and the poachers do an outstanding job of covering their backs by offering favours to the police. Eventually the honest park staff give up because they and their families are threatened with their lives if they dare interfere.
It gets worse from there. Administrative buildings within the park are looted and all re-useable materials such as roofing and windows are taken. Cattle and goats move into the park with herders, and the veld is regularly burned to encourage new growth for grazing.
Unfortunately, the scenario is the same in many privately-owned game farms and is accelerated by successful land claims.
You must be wondering what this has to do with helicopters.
Our task was to search the hills and valleys in the hope of finding four cheetah cubs and one lion. We had to find the cubs before they grew up and went solo. If that happened they would be virtually impossible to find. As long as they were with their mother we had a chance, since their mother was fitted with a radio-tracking collar.
They had to be relocated to prevent in-breeding between siblings. This is a concern in all fenced game reserves, where siblings can’t move away far enough to establish their own territories and find new bloodlines. The challenge for management is to try to mimic the natural process by moving individuals to other game parks, swapping families and mixing genetics.
The new day brought calm, cold, stable conditions, perfect for low and slow contour flying along the mountainsides to find our quarry. I climbed to 500 feet above the plateau and flew a slow steady 360-degree orbit at 40 knots. This allowed Dave, the veterinarian, to identify the direction of the mother cheetah using the radio tracking antenna. We both listened carefully for the faint ‘beep beep’ sound that the receiver would make if contact was established. The closer to the collared cheetah, the louder the beeps. This procedure works well in flat country. However, in valleys between mountains, there is always some deflection and false signals bouncing off rocks and ravines.
After completing a few turns to no avail, I headed for a new location about five kilometres away to repeat the process. It’s a time-consuming operation that requires patience and diligence, but eventually pays off. On establishing a signal, it is necessary to repeat the procedure in multiple locations to triangulate the signal. It’s easier said than done if the animals are skittish and keep moving.
Eventually we had a bearing and distance – they were somewhere in the long golden grass near a little hill. I set up a slow and low pass over their suspected location and all eyes in the helicopter were searching for movement. The receiver was pinging loudly, so we were on target, but nothing moved.
The mother generally lays low because she knows her camouflage is her best defence, but the cubs lack courage and bolt. They dash off in different directions, confused, but don’t go too far from their mother and after a 100 metres or so usually skulk back to her side.
Knowing the mother will anchor her cubs meant that, as long as I could keep track of her, I should be able to pick off one cub at a time until we were done.
On my third pass, there was an explosion of cheetahs from under a low bush to my right. The cubs couldn’t take it any longer and bolted off about 100 metres, stopped, looked back at the helicopter and mom, and then each lay down.
A cheetah is a small target that sprints, changes direction, stops and tries to hide. They are sensitive to heat exhaustion and to the immobilising drug, so it’s inadvisable to chase them far. The cleanest method is to match the animal’s speed, line up five metres away and hold steady for the vet to get a clean shot into muscle. The second option is a hovering shot, usually taken between branches of a bush under which the animal is hiding.
“OK Dave, it’s under that bush. Get ready.”
I flew slowly, edging closer a few feet higher than the bush, manoeuvring the helicopter a little left, forward, down, right, backward, until I could see a small gap between branches.
“There John, hold steady. Just move sideways a bit. Your tail is clear. OK, OK. Hold, hold …. Crap! The dart hit a branch.”
“I saw that Dave. Eish, it was so close, but I’m sorry, the rotor downwash blew your dart off. Maybe increase the dart gun’s pressure a tad?”
And so we continued. After three hours of focused flying, we had succeeded. The cubs were loaded into the back of the helicopter and flown a few kilometres to a holding boma from where they would be taken far away to start a new life of their own.
Then we had to find the lion …