By moving the Icarus Trophy to Africa, we've made it spicier than relaxing in a bath of Naga chilis. In order to see just how dangerous and awesome it's going to be, we sent the equally brave and stupid Simon Walker and Pete Stocken to do some top-level guinea-pigging for us.
Here's Simon's report.
I've just returned from The Icarus Trophy 2018 recce trip. It was bloody amazing. And that’s despite missing out all the good bits because of the weather this time of year. The actual Trophy is going to be epic.
We had a plan, as well as flying as much as possible, our priorities were to get flying permissions from the authorities in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, check out the start and finish locations, scope the border crossings and work out where we might need to supply fuel dumps in the super-remote areas.
That was the work bit, but along the route, there were some incredible highlights. Flying along the Zambezi, seeing Victoria Falls from the air and flying over the wildlife is breathtaking. We saw elephants, giraffe, zebras, bok and hippos from the air. This was bucket list stuff, and this was even though it was the end of the rainy season and the bush was green and overgrown, so the animals were dispersed and hidden from us. For the main Trophy, we are promised even more beastie spotting opportunities as they gather around watering holes.
Although we didn't see any, there were lions about. On our first day, we came across a freshly severed giraffe leg on the road. For some reason, my teammates were reluctant to get out of the pickup to take pictures. Wimps.
One bonus of having deadly animals about in the wildlife areas in northern Botswana is that the road verges are cleared so that truck drivers stopping to pee have a 20m head start if they are not to be a lion’s lunch. This means there are land-out options if you stay within gliding distance to the (one) road. If you crash into the bush you are toast. The bush is impenetrable even for the most experienced 4x4 bush drivers, filled with thorn-bearing trees that will completely shred your wing. This section is not one where you can cut corners.
Camping in the proximity of picturebook wildlife is ‘interesting’. At various times, we had elephants, hippos, crocodiles, baboons, bok and warthogs just a few meters away from camp. Baboons are thieving bastards. Pete had to recover my Agama floatation device which was pinched and carried up a tree. A big stick and much shouting did the trick.
The flying was great but different to much I’d done before. You have to hit sunrise to maximise flight time so we were up at 0430 most days. Tough, but rewarded with amazing African sunrises.
By 10 am it's getting uncomfortably thermic. Assuming you don't get a thunderstorm, there is a shorter evening flying window from about 1630, but remember it gets dark super quickly, and you don't want to be wandering about in the dark wondering where to camp.
It's also often nil wind, high (4700 ft in Johannesburg, 3300 ft for most of Botswana) and hot, making launching with heavy loads tricky. I made a few expensive gear-damaging cockups and you really need to acclimatise and practice before the off.
Because of the time of year, we had to miss out some good bits which will almost certainly make the actual route. The most famous of these are the Makgadikgadi Pans which were flooded and impassible for our support vehicle. We saw them from the air and they promise to be a highlight, stretching 100km is all directions at the midpoint
Even with extra fuel stashes, there will be some very long legs on this route. We flew legs of 3.5hrs plus, all of us carrying extra fuel in bladder tanks. Get some practice with your bladder tanks - on my first flight I caused an engine out (over the Chobe National Park on the Zambezi) because my bladder tank got squeezed causing the carb to flood. Got it sorted, but it's a hell of a way to learn what not to do!
The Icarus Trophy is going to be amazing and it’s no wonder we already have pilots signed up from all over the world. If you haven't signed up, do it now. I promise you won't regret it.
Find out more about The Icarus Trophy right HERE.