Forget long-haul travel – take a small plane for a spin, see inaccessible parts of the world and revel in the freedom to fly where you want. From the air, even slums look beguiling; the sweeping vistas of Africa, with its great herds and natural beauty, are enough to make you believe in divine creation.
But best of all, it’s much cheaper than you think. After seeing five countries in 20 days, I had spent 42 hours in the air at a cost of $100 an hour plane hire, plus $50 an hour for fuel. Add on payment for the pilot and split the cost between three passengers, and we each paid a ridiculously reasonable figure of just $2,590/£1,480 per person. That’s less than the cost of a conventional three-week safari.
So it was that five months after a drunken New Year’s resolution that turned into a bewildering reality, two friends and I set off in an old yet charming Cessna 182 – call sign ZS-CRO (Charlie-Romeo-Oscar). It was a journey that would take us over the very best scenery and parks of Southern Africa. In three weeks, I got a bird’s eye view of the highlights of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique.
Granted, flying in a small plane still isn’t exactly comfortable.In fact it can be quite hair-raising: a head wind can slow you down so much that you end up desperately searching for an unlit bush strip in the gathering gloom. Or a bird strike could mean a forced landing in the bush. But for all this, I can’t think of better, more spectacular way to see Africa.
Etosha National Park has one of the best floodlit waterholes in Africa – and it’s at a public campsite. We detoured just to spend a night there and got special permission to land at the camp airstrip. There are two dirt runways, but a wildebeest was standing in the middle of one of them and wouldn’t move even after we buzzed low – standard procedure for clearing a runway.
Our journey took us over the clear, turquoise waters of the Bazaruto Archipelago. We landed at Vilankulo airport, where we received a bill for $125 for keeping the airport open for an hour to allow us to land! The next day we flew out to Benguera Island in the marine park. It was only a few kilometres so we kept low, buzzing tourist boats and fishermen.
One afternoon we took the plane up to go wildlife spotting above the Okavango. We came across a couple of small herds of elephant and a massive herd of Cape buffalo. We made a couple of passes over them, but were careful not to fly too low and stampede them – it could put them, and anyone on the ground, in severe danger.
The cockpit of the C-182 was quite cramped – rather like the inside of an old-style Mini!
But despite that, Turlough, our pilot, was completely at home in his tiny space, flying us high over the wastes of Namibia. From up here you get a unique perspective on the geography of an area, which helps put the journey into context.
We flew across the great Namib Desert, towards the quaint German town of Swakopmund, over miles and miles of these strange parallel dunes. From the air they looked like tiny bumps; at ground level they would have been an enormous, near-impenetrable barrier. This was one of the best things about having our own plane – we could see so much more of the region, areas that would otherwise have been almost impossible to reach. It made each journey endlessly fascinating.
We had to queue with the jumbos before being allowed to take off. And we were escorted to the gate because we were carrying a Leatherman knife – essential to file down any nicks in the propeller. If you don’t do this the propeller can shatter in mid-air.
It would’ve been fun to fly closer to Table Mountain but this was some of the most restricted airspace on the trip.
We always carried emergency rations, water and even a tent and sleeping bags in case we had to make an unscheduled landing. On this occasion we were supposed to be picked up from the strip but our lift never arrived – we ended up pitching our tent next to the plane!
Only from the air can you truly appreciate the size and geography of Victoria Falls. There is an altitude exclusion zone above the falls, and it is strictly controlled as there are microlights and helicopters flying lower. It was a nerve-wracking experience hanging out of the plane at this height and looking down into the frothy chasm below.
There is nowhere on earth like Sossusvlei. In fact, Sossusvlei is more like Mars than earth. The highest sand dunes in the world circle a series of hard, cracked, white clay pans called vleis.
We took the plane up for a jaunt one afternoon. Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat I was right next to the open door, and took pictures as the sun started to set. In the golden, late-afternoon light, the dunes glowed luminous red.
Legally you can’t fly low over national parks, but this was taken just outside the park border, where you can fly as low as you like. Our plane had a parachute door, which could be opened in flight to make photography easier. Although this looks peaceful, I was sitting by the open door in a howling wind, skimming above the ground.
We were quite surprised to see the plane still in one piece as the hyenas round here have a habit of eating tyres.
Landing here was interesting. It was moving past dusk, this strip has no lights and the GPS coordinates were wrong. We were looking about 3km in the wrong direction, and were just about to have to choose an alternative landing spot between dense forest and the crocodile-infested Zambezi when I saw the lights of a lodge to one side. I could just make out a road in the gloom and figured it could lead to the strip. We banked the plane and – thankfully – there it was beneath us.
Thirty minutes later, we were sitting at the bar at Chongwe River Camp, sinking a cold beer!
Steve Davey leads his own exclusive range of travel photography tours, Better Travel Photography , with land arrangements by Interpid Travel
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