Elisabeth Easther talks to Riaan Botha, chief pilot with Heletranz
I grew up in Johannesburg, miles from the sea, but my father was from Capetown so that's where we spent our summers, which meant holidays usually started with a 20-hour drive. But the journey was part of the holiday, and we'd stop at various places along the way and, once we arrived, we'd spend most of our time at the beach.
My wife is from New Zealand, so when we married the whole family came to South Africa and spent three weeks visiting game parks. We were at a massive lion and rhino farm where, once a day, they fed the lions. We rolled up to this massive lion enclosure, obviously you're meant to stay in the car as the lions come through the fields of long grass to feed, but there's always at least one tourist who leaves their car to get better photos. Although we didn't see anyone get eaten. At that same farm, they had lion and tiger cubs, and little zebras, a nursery where you could play with the animals, but some of the lions weren't really cubs any more and were actually quite large lions. My brother-in-law was backing up with his camera, to take a photo of his sisters and behind him we could see this lion starting to stalk him, crouching down in the grass, preparing to pounce. My brother-in-law had his back to the lion so he had no idea, when all of a sudden it jumped out of the grass and ran at him. The ranger threw some PVC pipe so the lion was distracted, but it was pretty terrifying. Afterwards we could all see the funny side.
In 1999, I went to London where I met my wife. Back then it was really hard to get a working holiday visa with a South African passport, except in the UK. I started doing construction work before working in bars and restaurants, and I also did a lot of travelling. One time my wife organised a surprise trip for us, but the night before we were due to leave, some friends returned from Australia with a whole lot of duty free. I think we drank about two bottles of bourbon when my wife told me we needed to pack our bags because a taxi was coming at 4am because we were going to Dublin. We both passed out in the taxi on the way to Gatwick and were very poorly dressed for Dublin, just jeans, T-shirts and Jandals. We were also pretty sickly by the time we arrived. As we were leaving the plane, heading to immigration, I was sort of limping but I couldn't figure out way. Then we both realised at the same time, we were each wearing one of the other person's Jandals, and it took us that long to figure it out. The rest of the trip it just bucketed down, it took us about three hours to get to our hotel using buses and we were soaked. My wife hasn't organised any more surprise holidays since that one.
While we were living in London, we bought a restaurant in Waihi Beach, the Porch Kitchen and Bar. We were looking for something to do in New Zealand, so we made an offer and six weeks later we were living in New Zealand. After about four years, my wife suggested I get back into flying. It was the only job I'd ever truly wanted. I'd done a bit of flying in England, but life kept getting in the way. I'd especially wanted to fly helicopters. I love how helicopters move in three dimensions, you don't need a runway and you get to see the most amazing places. There's nothing to compare it to. It would be easy to take it for granted, but for many people who fly with us, it's their first time in a helicopter and that helps keep it exciting.
I love flying over the South Island. It's magical and so vast. You can only see little glimpses when you drive, but when you fly you can appreciate how the landscape is just one big mountain range. I flew Barack Obama when he visited last year. He spent a bit of time chatting with us before each flight. He'd ask about our day and want to know about New Zealand and the landscape. He was awesome, but also just a normal bloke.
I live in Auckland and my family lives in the Waikato, so I'm away from home a bit and when I travel back to the family, I have to slum it in a car like everyone else. I'll see the traffic when I'm flying above it and I know that in about half an hour I'll be in it. We also lived in Australia for a while and when we moved back to New Zealand, it really felt like coming home. Except when the rugby's on, my blood will always be green when the rugby's on.
Riaan Botha is chief pilot with Heletranz Helicopters