The knocking at my cabin door yanks me out of a deep sleep. I hear the voice of our pilot, Chris: ‘we’re good to go, mate.’
It’s four in the morning. And it’s time to fly.
The night before we’d made a plan. Chris was to wake before sunrise and check the sky. If it was clear, and star-filled, myself and the crew would join him on the airfield to prepare the Jet Ranger helicopter for ‘first light.’
If it was clouded over we’d wait another 2 hours and film in ‘regular light.’ This second option gave us the luxury of a sleep-in, but the results would not b nearly as stunning to look at. The knock on my door at four a.m. gives me the answer. I roll out of bed and swat the coffee maker. First light it is.
On my way out I spot something in the corner of my cabin: a multi-coloured moth about the size of my fist. I take this to be a good omen.
It’s a short drive to the airstrip at Hluhluew (pronounced ‘Shlu-shlu-ee) and the orange sun is just emerging on the landscape. Now it’s a race to prep the helicopter in time to catch first light. We strap two cameras to the outside of the small chopper – one facing forward, the other pointing straight down under the belly of the cockpit.
Next up we take all four doors off the chopper – standard practice for aerial filming, but not something I’ve done before. I prefer to fly without the whole ‘doors optional’ thing going on.
The sun is getting higher, faster. After a safety briefing we’re up and away, floating above the South African treescape; flying towards the sun. Supply your own Icarus joke.
At 28 years old Chris is already a seasoned pilot. He’s flown in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) for three years, taking passengers in and out of the blood diamond trade. He also knows his way around mountains. He’s been shot at and he’s flown through hailstorms, freezing rain and high winds. If we make our day with time to spare, he’s promised to show us some ‘tricks.’
Yeah. I know. Um…Tricks?
We fly up and over the hilltops, then swoop down into the valleys, then back up again. We crest the top of most hills by about 50 feet, sometimes closer, and the view is spectacular. Zulu children run out of their homesteads, still carrying bits of breakfast in their hands, and they wave to us. We wave back and give thumbs up.
Chris is able to float down the side of the mountain sideways, giving our shooters a clear frame. He hovers, he doubles back; he repeats the move on the other side. After four passes of the Zulu homesteads it’s time to film some wildlife.
I experience a moment ‘tv producer’ fun. Chris is basically asking me what I’d like filmed, and how I’d like it. Fast? Slow? Head for that homestead over there? Pull up at the last second? Traveling wide shot, following the river?
It’s difficult to keep cool. I’m like the kid at the fairway who can’t get enough of the Tilt-a-whirl. ‘Can we go over there?’ I ask. Boom, it’s done. ‘How about that mountain, with the sun at our backs?’ Chris nods, and it’s done.
As a favour to our host Anton I’ve also got a Canon strapped around my neck: I’ve promised to take still photographs of the lodge. Photographs taken from the sky. Where I am. Without a door.
According to South African law it is illegal to fly directly over the Big Game parks. Fair enough. But there’s nothing preventing us from flying right on the bordered fence of Kruger National Park, and pointing our cameras towards the creatures. This morning it seems to be quiet until we crest another hill. Without shifting his gaze Chris says ‘Ten o’clock.’
We look ahead and to the left. Three giraffes. Further along, wildebeests. And then? White Rhino, moving faster than both the giraffes and wildebeests. Impressive.
And now it’s time for ‘tricks.’ Away from the parkland, and over a stretch of pineapple farms, Chris veers hard left then pulls back on the stick. My stomach lurches but I remember to focus my gaze on a point on the horizon. A second later we are flying in the exact opposite direction, and I’m not sure how. Chris repeats the move, only this time he drops 100 feet in the time it takes me to type the words ‘Acid Reflux.’
We veer a hard right, pull back, and now we are facing the sun. This time there is nothing for me to focus on, so I focus on keeping my breakfast down.
We’ve been airborne for an hour. With four passengers in our ‘light’ aircraft, it’s time to head back to Hluhluew air field as our gas is diminishing. We touch down, giddy and alive and awake. The solid earth seems more wobbly than the chopper now, as if we’ve just stepped off an extended roller coaster ride.
I look at my watch – it’s 6:45. Back at the lodge the rest of the crew is just waking up now. I know I should sneak a nap in at some point today, and I suggest the crew do the same. But who am I kidding? I know that as soon as we reach base camp, Andrew, Peter and I will flip the cameras to ‘playback’ and we’ll watch the sky-high footage before breakfast. All five cameras-worth.