The Kgalagadi Cheetah Tracking Mission – 3 of 2009

Nov 21, 2009

Mission: Kgalagadi Cheetah Project Radio Tracking
Date: 17 – 21 November 2009
Requesting organisation: Gus Mills of the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project
Location: Tweerivieren, Kalahari
Pilot: Andrew Conroy
Funded by the Tony and Lisette Lewis Foundation

The pilot’s story of the mission, by Andrew Conroy

My friend and fellow-pilot, Derrick van Zyl and I (Andrew Conroy) left Jacobsdal early on Tuesday 17 November for Postmasberg, where we had arranged with a flying friend to help us with fuel, thank you Jannie Visser!

From Postmasberg we flew directly to Tweerivieren a three-hour long haul over very barren land. There we met up with Gus Mills of the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project who fetched us from the Tweerivieren airfield. Tuesday afternoon was spent making our plans for the next day, and refuelling and fitting the tracking aerials to the plane.

Our early morning call came at 04h45 on Wednesday, and off we went looking for radio signals emitted from the collared cheetahs.  After and hour and a half of flying and not much success we called it a day and decided to reposition the aerials. We spent the rest of the day watching a group of cheetahs on the ground.

Thursday we woke up at 04h45 again, and headed off to the airfield for another try. After the pre-flight we were a bit concerned about the amount of fog around. After waiting a while it only got worse and Gus commented that in 10 years he had been there he could only remember three other occasions when the fog had been so bad.  We cancelled the morning flight due to bad fog and decided to try again later that afternoon. We spent the rest of the day watching a cheetah and her two cubs eat a springbok which they had caught.

KGA3_Cheetah_cubs
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On Friday we woke at at 04h45, as usual, and departed for the airfield with the weather looking much more promising than the day before. We took off into the rising sun and started our search for the elusive radio ping. After one hour our luck changed and we located the first missing group;  a short while later we had the second group located;  and on our way home we found the third group.  Mission accomplished – and just in time as the hot Kalahari heat was starting to throw us around a bit. The rest of the day was spent refuelling and relaxing around the camp pool.

Saturday we woke up at – guess what? – 04h45 and were off to the airfield and on our way home. A fter take- off we noticed a drop in fuel pressure and were not sure if we should return or press on. We decided to press on, monitoring the fuel pressure like a hawk, but fortunately it corrected itself after a while.  We concluded it must have been a small vapour lock or something like that. Three hours later we descended from 6500 feet to Posmasberg for fuel and coffee –  thanks again Jannie Visser!  After that it was a bumpy ride back to Jacobsdal and a few cold beers on landing.

Thank you to The Bateleurs for the mission and thank you to Dr Gus and Margie Mills for their hospitality.

Bring on the next Bateleurs mission!

KGA3_Fitting_Aerial
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Report from the beneficiary: Report to the Bateleurs on the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project Radio Tracking Flight – November 2009
by Gus Mills of The Kgalagadi Cheetah Project
Funded by the Tony and Lisette Lewis Foundation

Just after midday on Tuesday 17 November new Bateleurs pilot Andrew Conroy and his flying assistant Derrick van Zyl touched down at Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in his blue and yellow Skyjeep after a tough five-hour into the wind flight from Kimberley.   After lunch we tackled what I thought might be the challenging job of fixing the antennae to the wing struts. However, being a farmer, Andrew was quick to make a plan and we soon had the equipment securely fastened.

Because of the uncertain weather we had been experiencing in the Kalahari, especially the strong winds, we decided to make an early start.  We rose at 4.30 am and although the wind was already blowing quite briskly were airborne just after 5 am. I was especially interested to find a group of four sub-adults that had recently broken away from their mother, so I was pleased when, ten minutes into the flight I picked up a signal. However, my elation soon turned to frustration when I lost the signal.  After circling a few times I picked it up again only to lose it a few minutes later. This trend continued and I was unable to determine the direction from which the radio signal was coming.  To make matters worse the wind started blowing harder and harder and we were being tossed around like a cork in a rough sea in the two seater Skyjeep.  I was relieved when Andrew decided that we had had enough and returned to Twee Rivieren.

KGA3_Proud_mum
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That afternoon as the wind continued to blow strongly we attempted to rectify the antenna problem on the ground. However, I was unable to establish exactly what the problem was and eventually we decided to use just one antenna as this seemed to be more reliable than working with two. Just before dark we made a brief flight to try out the single antenna and actually located a cheetah.

On wakening on Thursday morning at 4.30 am we were relieved that the wind had died down. However, by the time we arrived at the landing strip an ominous cloud bank had formed on the horizon. While Andrew was doing his pre-flight inspection the clouds moved closer and within minutes we were engulfed in a most un-Kalahari weather phenomenon  –  mist. An hour later the mist had shown no sign of burning off and so we decided to abort our attempts to fly that morning and instead went out to track the cheetah we had heard last evening from the ground.

Fortunately by Friday morning both the sky and the wind conditions were reasonable and we were at last able to complete a flight in which we found the group of sub-adults as well as another three of our radio collared cheetahs.
We are most grateful to The Bateleurs and Andrew for his patience and their commitment to our cheetah project.

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