John Bassi – That big rock has different meanings to different people. To a Capetonian driver or pedestrian it’s an old familiar, unthreatening friend, always there, solid, and it makes Cape Town…Cape Town.
Hikers get to know nooks and crannies and appreciate the grandeur, they get to understand the dangers that lurk in steep ravines and often photograph Tahrs sprinting along 1m wide ledges thousands of feet up on sheer cliffs before vanishing into little dark caves.
Postcards from Blouberg show a grand iconic mountain island floating in the sea.
The list of people who have slipped and fallen to their deaths is long and a reminder that to drop off a vet to recover an immobilized goat on a random cliff cannot be done without extreme caution.
For me and my team of two who were about to venture, hovering, into every ravine, gully, crevasse, at every level from the foot to the plateau in a helicopter, the mountain represented one big scary unforgiving place with no margins, and no escape route if things went south.
The objective sounded simple enough, deploy 100 camera traps, establish an artificial feeding site with livestock feed inside a bin and dart a whole lot of Tahrs.
We would go for young males, females and adults, fit them with GPS tracking collars, take samples and ear tag them for identification, and by so doing, all of this would over time provide enough data to understand how these agile goats utilise and move around the mountains. To add an extra little challenge, we also had to locate, dart, recover and load a couple of goats into the helicopter and relocate them to opposite ends of the mountains. This would provide useful information on how these animals move and find their way.
Sounds simple enough.
‘considering immigration to Siberia’
After selecting my two team mates, Charlotte, both highly competent and fearless professionals, the veterinarian and Jane, project leader who knows the mountain intimately, we met up at Newlands where we sat and discussed the various scenarios we thought we may encounter. For example, at what height would we start our search and on which section of the mountain? If we flushed a mixed group which animal would we select? If they bomb-shelled and did their usual thing plummeting down the mountain, what would be our recovery plan?
We then went carefully over how to deploy the vet onto a sheer cliff face and then recover said vet, pinnacle bussing and de-bussing procedures, safety procedures, how to communicate obstacles that would endanger the tail and main rotors, contingency plans if conditions made it impossible to uplift again.
The more we discussed the practical reality of what we were going to attempt, the more I realised just how daunting this would be, and how small the margins were. But we had to give it a go; we were determined to succeed.
Weather conditions were the go/no go determining factor and we studied numerous predictions aiming for wind speeds of no more than 1 to 3 m/second. Anything beyond this would be impossible to operate in, considering we would be flying at ground speeds of less than 15 knots, hovering, rearward flight and having to do vertical climbs, descents and hovering turns, often inside ravines with blade tips ten metres from the cliff face.
To give an idea of just how perfect things had to be, we eventually flew approximately 20 sorties over a period of two years, so unpredictable is the Cape weather.
We checked all our equipment and then re-checked, wanting to minimise our exposure time in hostile landing zones. A few rolls of toilet paper were added to our equipment, necessary to throw out the helicopter to mark a bush where an animal was immobilized. Taking a GPS position proved futile because it’s impossible to find an exact coordinate on a vertical surface.
Eventually, having chewed on every scenario I thought possible, and having managed to scare myself to the point of considering immigration to Siberia, I decided that there is only so much planning one can do and no matter how you plan, things in real life will always be different.
It was time to commit, look ahead at the weather and all be on standby to go.
May, June and July 2020, in the middle of hard lockdown, we were the privileged three, set free to fly, explore and be outside in the most beautiful playground in South Africa.
‘next run in was the real thing’
Muizenburg beach is always busy, the sea is usually so full of surfers that from above it looks like ants in sugar, little dots everywhere. Instead, the entire beach was covered in Kelp gulls basking peacefully in the sun. No humans anywhere. No cars, no traffic. The world below was devoid of humans…so beautiful. The water, usually has a brownish tinge to it from the sewerage pipes near Pelican park/Zeekoevlei, but today it was aquamarine blue with clearly visible hammerhead sharks foraging in the shallows.
I wondered what to expect at Cape Town International, apprehensive that there may be complications entering the airspace and getting fuel. Instead I was greeted by an exceptionally friendly chatty ATC, a silent airspace, aprons lined with sleeping jets from SAA, SA Express, Mango and Safair. Every available open piece of ground as far as the eye could see was covered in thousands of rental cars, bumper to bumper. What a very strange feeling to be the only aircraft in the sky approaching Cape Town International. The staff on duty were all exceptionally friendly and it somehow felt like we were all bonded in some kind of unique club.
Refuelling was efficient and within 20 minutes I lifted off for Newlands to meet my crew, with a good luck and have a great day send off from the ATC, very different to the normal formality.
Lifting from Newlands is always tense, because the helipad is in a hole surrounded by really tall trees, and on this lift there was an extra heavy silence, nerves were definitely on edge with the great shadow of mountain rising before us. I climbed in silence, focused in my own world completely in tune with the feel, sound and progress of the helicopter, the weather conditions and my escape route, until reaching the highest cliffs above Rhodes Memorial blockhouse.
I eased closer in towards the rock face and all our eyes were scanning. Searching for any movement, I traversed slowly, 15 to 20 knots and 20 metres from the cliffs from 2nd waterfall ravine along to knife edge and the eastern side of Devils. We both saw it at the same time, a group of four Tahrs broke cover and bounded effortlessly along a narrow ledge. “Charlotte, are you ready, harness secure, 10 o’clock, same level as the helicopter moving toward the cave.”
“I’m ready, see them, I’m loading a dart for the juvenile.”
With total concentration I turned the helicopter with the starboard side towards the cliffs since it is from the back right seat that the vet is positioned. I hover taxied slowly towards the cave edging closer and closer until we were 15 metres away, then held steady.
‘what would be our recovery plan’
We searched with our eyes into the dark hole in the mountain, desperate to get a clear shot. I moved the helicopter gently forward, down a little, backwards and suddenly we saw a patch of brown fur between rocks. Charlotte fired and her dart hit target. The goat sprang into life and ran at full speed along narrow ledges, then attempted escape by leaping vertically downwards landing perfectly on all fours and bounding off again. I struggled to keep up my rate of decent to keep track of the animal but managed to not lose sight of him as he ducked into a small bush where after a few minutes he peacefully went to sleep.
Now the real fun was about to begin, how to get to the animal?
I pulled away from the mountain to gain perspective of my work area and to relax my hands on the controls for a moment. Then, I flew in as close as possible to where the goat lay, impossible to get vertically above it without a rotor strike on the cliff, but close enough to mark his position on the GPS and to throw a roll of toilet paper onto the bushes where he lay.
With the animal’s location marked, I flew up onto the top of the mountain to drop off Jane, wanting to be as light as possible for my looming pinnacle landing to offload Charlotte. Flying back down to the goat I then searched for a rock where I could balance part of the front right skid long enough for Charlotte to climb out. I needed to find a place where the blades would fit and a place that was safe enough for Charlotte to be able to move without risk of falling down the cliff. After a few attempts in different places, we found a rock more or less at the same contour as the goat and about 40 meters away. Approaching my target in a slow flat profile and performing a dummy run to make sure I could get in and out safely as well as to ensure that there was enough room to offload Charlotte, I satisfied myself that it was do-able.
The next run in was the real thing we had been training for. But nothing could prepare me for the actual reality of holding the front end of the skid steady, balanced on a rock with a thousand foot drop off, a clearance of a few feet between the blades and the rocks, and the reality of watching Charlotte climb out and crouch beside me with a massive grin and a thumbs up.