Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sky high over Vic Falls

At 3am I woke up with the butterfly feeling one gets the morning of an important exam. I was due to go microlighting that day and was not looking forward to it one bit. It had been Ravi’s suggestion and as everyone else was off rafting or bungy jumping, I felt I should really do something vaguely adventurous. I ticked the box and that was it…no going back.

At the aerodrome I was faced with three go-karts with wings and didn’t feel particularly reassured when I saw them buzz down the runway then take off at the angle more akin to a rollercoaster ride. When they returned they would plummet out of the sky and land suddenly. Only when a lady, aged in her late sixties, removed her helmet to reveal an explosion of white hair and grinned from ear to ear did I think that I might be ok.

My number was finally called and I made my way out to the orange go-kart. Here I met the pilot, John, an American who spends 8 months of the year in Scotland and then 4 months in Zambia flying microlights. I explained that I was nervous and he really put me at ease with his cross between friendly military (most of the pilots here have a military airforce background) and fatherly approach.

Before I knew it, I was strapped in with a helmet pulled tight over my head and had the voice of John talking to air traffic control coming through the earpiece. We taxied out to the end of the run way, revved up the engine then quickly, yet beautifully smoothly we took off.

As soon as our tyres left the ground my nerves disappeared entirely; there was something utterly serene about flying in a microlight. It was mesmerizingly calm up there bare foot in the sky being buffeted by the wind. Ahead of us was the wide plain of the Zambezi peppered with low lying islands and pools where family groups of hippos wallowed. The first of the rains had arrived and the once sandy grasses had sprung to life creating a thin carpet of green across all the islands. To one side, in the direction we were headed, a cloud of mist rose high in the sky…my first sighting of Vic Falls.

It’s the end of the dry season here so the water levels in the Zambezi are low; many of the islands will disappear beneath the river in a few months time as the water from the rains in Angola finally makes it down to Zambia. It’s actually a good time of year to visit the falls because you actually get to see them; in May when the river is at full force, the power of the waterfall forces mist to rise 2000ft in the air – far higher than the height we were at with the microlight.

As we flew closer to the falls the evidence of the Fall’s dramatic history revealed itself. Large gorges, like deep clefts, cut through the ground ahead of the falls – the scars of previous falls. As the water from the Zambezi wears away at the rock, Victoria Falls is moving slowly backwards, upriver. The Devil’s Cataract is a gorge in the making; give it 200,000 years or so and it will join up with the main body of the falls.

The falls are immense. The Zambezi suddenly plummets 180m down a sheer cliff into the gorges below, the power and sound of which have earnt it the local name ‘the Smoke that Thunders’.

John calls in to confirm access into Zimbabwean air space and he banks to the right offering me spectacular views of the Falls. He points out Livingstone island – one of the permanent islands in the Zambezi – and tiny people jumping in and swimming in the Devil’s Pool, which hangs right on the cusp of the Falls. He also points out the bridge that links Zimbabwe and Zambia and we see the small ant-like shapes of people waiting to bungy off it. Deep in one of the gorges, the rafts of the white water rafters prepare to hit the first of many rapids.

We tilt back around and take in the mighty falls from a different angle. John tells me to smile at the camera attached to the left wing so that I can have photos of me in front of the falls – evidence that I did in fact make it up there! As we travelled over the falls we cut through some of the clouds of mist and they unexpectedly warmed my bare feet.

And then, all too soon, it was time to head back to the aerodrome. We dip low over the Zambezi where John points out the distinctive shapes of crocs and hippos just below the surface. We bank again, call in to land and descend, our wheels touching the ground effortlessly. It was a truly memorable experience and one I’d fully recommend to anyone who’s ever in the area.

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