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African bush © Simon Chamaille Crash landing in the African bush

Alone, badly injured and dehydrated, Greg Rasmussen shelters under the fuel-dripping, inflammable wreck that was once his plane.

Words: Greg Rasmussen
Images: Peter Blinston

When my pilot pulled out at the last minute, I blamed Murphy's Law. If I was to track animals from the air, I was going to have to fly the plane myself. It must have been Murphy, too, who ensured that I was dehydrated before the crash.

High and dry
At my last stop, Sinamatella, a diesel shortage meant the pumps were only operating for a few hours a day, and so there was no water. No matter, I thought, I'd be able to drink all I wanted after I'd finished my tracking flight the next day.

I was airborne shortly after sunrise, and soon heard the first signal from a rhino radio-collar. I established its position, increased power and started climbing again. Then it happened. A wind hit the plane. My right wing dropped. The tail lifted and I was in a tight spiral heading for the ground. There was no way out. I saw trees and rocks and then - thump.

Out of the frying pan ...
Blood trickled from my nose and, far more worrying, my legs were totally lifeless. With some relief, I realised I could at least wiggle my toes. The impact had detuned the radio, and the keypad was frozen. I had no idea if anybody would hear my Mayday call. I heard leaking petrol, and knew I had to get out. Using only my arms, I pulled out of the cockpit and dragged myself away.

... into the fire
I was lucky to be alive, but I knew that I'd broken both femurs. I had to untie my boots to relieve an explosive pain in my feet - but how? It took me two hours to unpick my laces with a thin stick and push them off at the heel with a bigger one. It was midday and very hot. My lips were cracked and the dryness in my mouth indescribable - I was seriously dehydrated. My only option was to seek shade under the inflammable remains of my plane. As I moved, I felt my muscles contracting around the jagged, broken femurs and a sickening creak in my pelvis. That, too, was broken.

A hard day's night
The sun set around six. Elephants lower down the hillside trumpeted and stampeded. The soft "ooogh, ooogh" call of a lioness. I had never before felt so vulnerable in the bush. I beat hard on the windscreen and all went quiet. It was going to be a long night.

Two hours after daybreak, I heard an aircraft engine, which then faded away again. And, eventually, footsteps behind me.

Halfway to Victoria Falls Hospital, the helicopter lurched sickeningly to the left and right. "Nearly had a bird strike," the pilot said. Bird strike, I thought - or Murphy at work again?

For more about Greg Rasmussen's African wild dog project, contact the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.

From an original article in the January 2004 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine - Tales from the bush.

Greg Rasmussen © Peter Blinston
Greg Rasmussen © Peter Blinston



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