The barge was tested for the first time on the lagoon near Fisherhaven with a 10-ton load simulated by filling three large tanks with water. It passed the test with flying colours and the barge has since also passed its acceptance tests in the waters of the Okavango Delta.

A spirit of adventure was the driving force behind entrepreneur Dave Austin, better known as the owner of African Wings, accepting the challenge to build a barge sturdy enough to transport building material and equipment from the mainland to an island in the western section of Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

“It was a mammoth task,” says Dave, in retrospect. “I attribute our success in pulling it off to my father, Neville, who designed the vessel, and to Charl Henn who worked tirelessly for 10 weeks, sometimes through the night, to complete the project on time. Charl has an incredible work ethic – without him, we would never have made it. And, in his day, my dad was a technical design engineer, so he was well qualified for this assignment.”

It was Grant Truthe, a family friend living in Botswana, who referred Dave to Kudu Safaris,
a German outfit that is building two camps in the delta – namely Setari Camp (meaning tree in Setswana) and the smaller, Kala Camp (meaning ranch in Setswana). Once the camps are complete – which should be in May/June next year – the barge will be used to transport guests from the mainland to the islands, and for safari cruises.

The build

“It’s built of steel,” explains Dave, “but it has been protected with an industrial coating, and it will be in alkaline waters, so it won’t rust. An upper deck can be attached which means it will be able to serve as a pleasure and sight-seeing vessel.”

The 10 metres long and 2,7 metres wide vessel made of steel was so big a larger truck had to be found to transport it to Botswana where it is now fully operational and after the construction of the camps, it will be converted to a passenger’s vessel with an upper observation deck.

The barge is flat-bottomed and has a 115hp Mercury, four-stroke engine. It’s slow but ideal to manoeuvre effortlessly through the delta. It weighs four tons, can carry eight tons comfortably, and has a 20-ton displacement.

There is six tons of floatation under the deck and the bow is hinged to enable vehicles to be driven on to it. Space allows for two vehicles or a tractor and trailed grader. At 9,5 metres long, 2,7 metres wide and 5 metres high it is an impressive-looking barge.

Dave says the barge is the largest vessel of its kind that has been built in Hermanus. “Not only was it a first for us, but also for our town. Hopefully, this will lead to similar projects in future.”

Dave who owns African Wings – and takes visitors to the region on scenic- and whale watching flights – is an aircraft engineer by trade. He gleaned his boat-building skills from a stint on the Zambezi where he initiated river safaris, and he got into steelworks when he settled in Hermanus. So, although not kitted to work on such a big project, he had the expertise. “We had to make up much of the equipment we required,” he explains.

The trailer to carry it all

One such ‘self-made’ apparatus was the trailer used to transport the barge to Fisherhaven
for testing. “I fell upon an abandoned eight-ton farm truck that was big enough for our purpose,” says Dave. “It was stuck in bushes. I cut it out, removed the body and turned the chassis into a trailer. Here I would like to add my thanks to the Hermanus traffic police who helped with traffic control during the transportation of the barge – they were extremely obliging and cooperative.”

And what will become of the trailer? “Who knows?” asks Dave. “Perhaps a logging company
may need it – or I could get another commission to build a barge!”

The driver from the company commissioned to transport the barge to Botswana, was in awe of the load and, after much deliberation, had to get a larger vehicle for the task.

“I’m thankful to report that ours has been a success story,” said Dave with a smile of relief. “The vessel is working as planned, in the delta.”

What’s next for Dave? He is a visionary, so there are many projects and ideas under his
wings.

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