Race for Rhinos – Sua Pan, Botswana, June 20186 min read


“Aeroplanes, race, world record, Magadigadi Pan, Botswana – are you interested?” an excited Warwick Broad almost shouted down the phone to me earlier this year.  All this information took a while to sink in while he went on about how exciting this prospect was to him.

Race for Rhinos was holding its fourth event in Botswana and had decided to raise the bar by challenging the World Air Race participant record up to 120 aircraft from last year’s 104.  An annual event staged, in or nearby the great salt pans of the Magadigadi, saw the competitors racing around the park trying to beat their handicap speed.

I agreed to join Warwick as his navigator.  My brother Peter, Dave Rogers, Andrew Brown, Stu Gunn, Solly and Miena Ferrera made up four teams from Zimbabwe.

The Race for Rhinos is an initiative of the Botswana Government and Chris Briers was the race organizer. It complements the South African Air Race Circuit and has the added benefit of highlighting the plight of the Rhinos worldwide, but obviously focusing on Botswana.

The 2017 edition of the Race for Rhinos saw four rhinos being released into the Magadigadi National Park. The South African bred animals were supplied to Botswana on a country to country arrangement. The Botswana Minister of Environment, Conservation, Natural Resources and Tourism Affairs explained further that a deal, swopping Rhino for Wild Dogs, was to be explored.  The Minister was on hand to issue out the trophies at the end of the Race.

Sua Pan was the location for the event. Capital Sounds events spokesman Brian Emmenis told the competitors that “Sua City”, which consisted of the conglomeration of tents, prefab structures and a hastily prepared airfield, was built in just ten days.  Prior to that the ground was just bush.

An amazing achievement housed over 500 people consisting of the aircrew, support staff, foreign guests and dignitaries, all in tents.  There were continuous hot water showers, clean toilets, lighting, beds and bedding in each tent, a huge hall where three meals a day were provided, a coffee machine which had three baristas working twenty hours a day preparing take away cappuccinos (for free!!)

Two days of races were staged, each just over 210NM (approximately 388kms) which, in our Cessna 182 1967 model, took us two hours twelve minutes to complete.  How many people can say they have had the privilege of flying over one of the greatest wonders of Southern Africa – the Botswana salt pans of the Magadigadi?

Day one took us south of Sua City in a big arc with 4 turn points. The land is flat for the most part and the brightness of reflected sun from the white salt made for eye searing pain at times. Our set speed was just above normal cruising speed and the aircraft was operating just shy of the red on each dial, which for us super careful Zimbabwean pilots was a little uncomfortable.

Navigation was relatively easy.  It was more about keeping the pilot’s concentration on his heading and ensuring the right altitude. “Warwick! Bearing! Altitude!”  Ten minutes later, “How is your compass? What height?” and so on.  I kept a nominal watch on my map to ensure we were on track, on time.

The departure was something else altogether.  We had set take off times, roughly thirty seconds behind the plane in front of us. We were marshalled onto the airstrip with hand signals from ground crew right up to the point where a red/amber/green light would finally tell us when to go.

Due to the huge number of aircraft, the radio had to be kept clear in case of emergencies. Your run-up had to be done well in time, so when the green light lit up, the hammer went down, hurtling you down the runway with other planes still clearly visible just in front of you. The discipline was exceptional.

After each day’s race, the afternoons were filled with various air displays by aerobatic aircraft. The team “Raptors” and the star of the show “The Puma Flying Lions” displayed their skills by skiing on the water less than a hundred meters away from a shoreline filled with awestruck people.

Accommodation was in two man tents, erected in lines, with two beds inside and wires supplying power for a single light bulb.  The nights were an experience.  Our bodies, fuelled with free cappuccinos, made sleep a difficult target, so I lay there thinking about the day’s events well into the night.

Not that I have ever done this, but I can imagine that sleeping near a pan filled with amorous bullfrogs would have had this same auditory result.  Tents offer absolutely no sound proofing so snoring from a tent some thirty meters away might well have been right inside your own canvas boudoir.   Get ten or so guttural breathers snorting in discordance and the night can seem to never end.

However, the sun always comes up and winter in the Magadigadi is a very cold affair at dawn.  A speaker system blared out “Reveille” followed by “get-up-and-go” music.  By this time the cappuccino machine was in full operation, providing a caffeine fix to keep us awake for the rest of the day.

Every day, each aircraft had to be scrutinized for any artificial navigational devices and the crew had to be on hand when the search was done.  The exercise was repeated at the end of the race.  All you had to work with was an old 1:250,000 map, your compass, Direction Indicator (DI) and airspeed indicator.  Cheating was not an option.

The final day pitted the aircraft against each other using handicaps and the results from the previous day.  If everything went according to plan the slowest planes took off first, with the fastest one last and at the end of the set route everyone, all 116 machines, would pass over the finish line at the same time.

Whilst we flew around the course, we slowly overtook a few planes and as we drew near the finish line a jagged gaggle of much quicker ones went flying past us.  Our speed was about 135kts, the fastest plane ran at over 200kts.

Warwick Broad, the pilot, with his navigator, Chris Sheppard ended up 46th.  Andrew Brown and Stu Gunn 76th, Solly and Miena did not finish on Day 1 due to technical issues but performed very well on day 2.

Great national pride rested with the team of Peter Sheppard and Dave Rogers flying a Glasair Sportsman who topped the Zimbabwean rankings with a more than respectable 5th overall.

Was the World Record achieved?  Certainly the 116 participants beat the previous Air Race attendance of 104.  More importantly, the event raised much needed awareness of the plight that Rhinos in Africa face.