Packing up your stuff and heading off on what would turn out to be an epic adventure across Africa, might sound like an exciting and yet daunting prospect that most of us would love to do, but finding the courage to do it, might be another story. Well, Arnaud Bazaille did exactly that and is willing to share his adventure below. For those on Instagram he also shares his photos, find him by searching @WildFrenchyThe Rotor Break
by Arnaud Bazaille
Africa, a continent I have always been attracted to. I was just never sure where I would start exploring this vast land. Then, a few years ago I got a call from a good friend of mine, letting me know that the company he works for is looking for a seasonal pilot to fly in the bush for the safari industry. And there it was, the first opportunity to start exploring this amazing continent. A couple of months later I find myself on a flight bound for Botswana. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure where this country was on the map, somewhere in southern Africa, but that’s all I knew about it.
I have been traveling quite a bit since I started flying but the idea of being able to do it over a huge extent of land filled with wildlife was just exhilarating. I had no clue what to expect, like I suppose many of us when you get to a new contract far from your homeland, but it will turn out to be one of the best moves of my life, opening many doors and opportunities for me all over the continent.
The main operation was to transport tourists around fancy lodges and doing sightseeing tours over the Okavango Delta. On my first few days, my chief pilot brought me with him to go and do some unexpected flights including ‘Game Capture’. I had heard of it and saw some videos online of guys flying R22s herding cattle in Australia, but I would never have thought I’d be in one of those helicopters one day. A herd of buffalos had been roaming too far into community land and the wildlife department wanted to capture them to bring them back to the protected area and away from human contact. I’m sitting next to my chief pilot as he is flying and throwing the machine around to push the dozens of visibly annoyed and angry beasts towards what we call a “boma”, a manmade trap to load the animals into trucks. I’m a bit worried at first but I soon get the feel for it and start enjoying the challenge. Welcome to the bush !!!
Back from our trip and after some familiarization with the area, I am being sent on my own to one of the lodges deep into the flooded plains of the Delta where I will be spending most of my time for the next few months. My eyes cannot even begin to be amazed at the landscape in front of me. I am flying under 500 feet as we are sharing the airspace with a large number of fixed-wing planes also transporting people around. You can hardly access this environment via road, a boat can be used seasonally, but the most efficient and fastest way to get where you need to go is by air. During the busy season, there are lots of Cessna Caravans crossing from east to west or north to south to reach all the different lodges. You need to be on top of your radio communication while controlling the helicopter and being a guide to your passengers, not an easy task at first. Everything goes well and we often meet on the ground with the other pilots. I can’t get over the fact that I am now flying over huge herds of elephants, zebras, buffalos, sometimes I even get the privilege to spot prides of lions or a leopard. Predators aren’t easy to find as they hide from the heat during the day and they are more active at night, making it a lucky sighting if you see them from the helicopter!
Being in the bush amongst the wildlife means you need to learn how to live with them and you quickly realize that you need to be very careful. The lodges aren’t fenced all the way around (most of them) so you always need to be aware of your environment when you walk to your helicopter to get ready. Sometimes, it’s better to just drive a car as hippos or buffalos might be on your way and believe me, you don’t want to be on foot when they’re around. Today, I have a full day of short scenic flights to do, we have a lot of freedom and we don’t have any circuit to follow. We just go and see what we can find. We take the doors off the helicopter to give an exceptional and unique experience to our guests. The photographers really appreciate it as they do not have any glare from the windows and can get clearer footage. After a full day of flying, refueling, giving safety briefings and sharing my knowledge of the Delta to the passengers, it is finally time for a good rest and a beer. I am meeting the people I flew earlier in the day and they are all thrilled with their experience, mission accomplished!
For my next adventure, my boss calls me and tells me that I need to go with our medevac helicopter to an event, the Makgadikgadi Epic, an annual skydiving event over a prehistoric salt lake. I am supposed to be on stand by if any emergency arises but I might also end up dropping some of the skydivers out of the chopper. I have never done it before and I need to check with my chief pilot if he can give me some tips. A couple of days in, some skydivers come to me and ask about the possibility of using me for some jumps. One of them is highly experienced, he has done a multitude of free falls from a helicopter and he gives me more advice and guides me on how he has been doing it before. We climb to 4,000 feet above ground, I have three people on board and when I am ready and stable over the landing zone, they gently get on the skid and in one go, let go and start falling like rocks. I end up being all by myself in the cockpit, descending in a right hand turn back to the ground to pick up another load of jumpers. What was likely going to be a quiet few days turned out to be pretty fun and interesting.
When you live in the bush, you become familiarized with conservation, wildlife is precious and lot of organizations and people are working hard trying to protect and reintroduce animals in their original environment where they have been, unfortunately, over hunted or poached for their ivory or horn. The rhinoceros is one of them, and I got the chance to work and be part of this endeavor to reintroduce them back into the Okavango. Agreements between countries give the opportunity to move and relocate them around as long as there is a guarantee of protecting them and helping them to thrive in their new home. There is still a lot to accomplish, having a proper security force, educating the community and stopping the demand for what some people think, can help cure diseases or can make you stronger, but it’s good to see that proper means are being used to go in the right direction.
Another day, another contract. This time, it’s election time in Madagascar. The candidates for the future position are campaigning around the big island in order to gain votes for their victory. This piece of land is quite difficult to get around and the distances between villages and towns are quite far apart, the best way to get to the people is to use helicopters, when you can afford them. A couple of candidates are able to do so and I will be flying one of them with his staff for the next three months. First I need to get there from South Africa, which means cruising over the beautiful coast of Mozambique all the way up to Nacala before crossing over around 250 nautical miles of water to Madagascar. That’s quite an adventure and the first decent ferry I am doing in Africa and across multiple countries. We are several helicopters and it’s actually good to have company for this kind of journey. After four days, we finally reach our destination in Antananarivo, the capital of the country and where the campaign will start. For the next few months, we will fly the whole island from coast to coast and inland, admiring the beauty of a unique environment but sadly a really poor country with deforestation and loss of habitat for the local fauna.
April 2019, Mozambique is being hit twice by a cyclone within a month, the coast is smashed and the local authorities are looking for helicopters to help with search and rescue as well as with bringing food and medication to the villages. As soon as our boss gets a confirmation, my Chief pilot and I are embarking on a new adventure leaving Botswana. Two days later we reach Pemba, Mozambique. NGOs are all over the place, helicopters from different parts of Africa are here to give a hand with first response. It’s a bit of a mess as we get there but it will slowly take form to get more efficient within a few days. There are some huge Mil Mi-8/17 from the World Food Program coming back and forth to the airport. First, we will be assigned to bring officials and people from the disaster relief department to assess the damage all along the coast and on some islands where they expect havoc. From up there we can see that some of the villages have been flattened out, nothing is standing anymore and help is needed. For the next few days and weeks, we will be on a mission to get everything we can to the local community until the roads are fixed and help can be brought in via truck or car.
Just back from an awesome journey in Zimbabwe, I have just been told I will be part of a unique safari experience happening in the southeast corner of Angola all the way up to the source lake of the Okavango river feeding the whole delta during the flooding season. This part of Angola has been untouched since the end of the civil war and there are still plenty of minefields around. The idea is to go spend a couple of days next to the Cuando river and then make our way up to the highlands where we will find the origin of the water. This river flows down to the south and crosses three countries over six months. I am really excited about this trip and being one of the first expeditions by helicopter in this part of the country since the end of the fights, we need to be sure everything is well organized. For that, our guide is in contact with some people at the Ministry Of Tourism who will turn out to be very helpful for our journey. Routing deeper inside the country, following rivers, we also planned to do a stop at a famous battlefield southeast of the city of Cuito Cuanavale, the Battle of the Lomba River, where remains of tanks and helicopters can still be found, here they got shot down or destroyed. We are reaching our final destination at the lakes a couple hours later where we will be camping and enjoying the peace and quiet of this little paradise. I would have never imagined being in this part of the world if it was not for my job.
After three busy seasons based in Botswana, it’s time for me to move on to a new adventure and the next one will bring me in a totally new area in Africa, on the Western side. An anti-poaching contract is opening in northern Benin in the Pendjari National Park and they need a french speaking pilot to work in the area. I seem to be a good match for the position and I decide to go. To start, I will have to ferry the helicopter from South Africa all the way up to Benin, the longest and most challenging ferry I have ever done crossing not less than 10 countries for almost 3,000 nm over 5 days, all by myself. This will be one of the best experiences of my flying career and will bring me where I am writing these lines now, back to what I loved the most beside flying in Africa, conservation work. Here, under African Parks Network (Have a look at Gaël Yann LeMartin’s great story A Day In A Life…. An Anti-Poaching Helicopter Pilot!) , rangers are being trained and deployed in the bush to protect animals, landscape and people from poaching, illegal fishing, and wood trade as well as threats from extremists coming from the Sahel region. This is a new challenge for me, here you need to always be on top of your game and be vigilant when you fly next to the border with Burkina Faso. The job is fascinating and I feel like I am contributing to the greater cause.
This about it for my journey in Africa so far, the adventure isn’t finished yet and there is still plenty of places for me to discover. Not sure if the next contract will be on this continent but once you have had a taste of Africa, it is not easy to get rid of it, and you always want to come back !!!!
Arnaud Bazaille is now an Anti-Poaching Helicopter Pilot on a contract in Northern Benin in West Africa.
You can follow his adventures, which cover Safaris, Conservation and now Anti-Poaching all over Africa on his Instagram account @WildFrenchy.
Stay tuned for Part 2 later this week, detailing Arnaud’s 3000nm, 5-day ferry trip across 10 countries.