TAKE A MICROLIGHT SAFARI
A remote safari lodge in Africa has come up with a novel way to track animals – by air. Matt Carroll gets a bird’s- eye view
I’VE never really had much luck with safaris. Ever since I first went on one to South Africa six years ago and found a scorpion in my bed, things have never quite gone according to plan.
There was the time I returned home to find my legs covered in tiny ticks ( which I naively mistook for freckles); or the occasion when I woke up to find a spider the size of my hand clinging to the inside of my tent. Fortunately it wasn’t poisonous.
I also have a habit of falling asleep during game drives. While everyone else sits on the edge of their seats, intently scouring the landscape for a glimpse of the Big Five, I’ll inevitably wake up in time to see a large, leathery rear end disappearing into the bushes – which hardly counts as ‘‘ seeing’’ an elephant.
This time, though, things were going to be different. Because instead of being cooped up in the back of a Land Rover, waiting for my guide to stumble across a big cat, I was about to take to the sky in a microlight. From a thousand feet up, nothing would avoid my omniscient gaze. Plus it’s very difficult to fall asleep when you’re flying through the air at 90km/ h, strapped to an armchair with wings.
At first glance, this was exactly what the aircraft resembled. Apart from two seats – one for the passenger and one for the pilot – the only things to keep us airborne were an engine bolted just centimetres behind my backside and a hang-glider-esque wing above our heads.
‘‘ If the engine fails, the plane will just glide and we’ll find a small clearing to land,’’ said the owner and pilot, John Coppinger, evidently reading the concern on my face during the pre-flight briefing.
‘‘ You can put these machines down pretty much anywhere.’’
One thing was for sure: we wouldn’t have to worry about landing in a builtup area. South Luangwa National Park is about as middle of nowhere as it gets; more than 14,000sq km of pristine wilderness in the east of Zambia, where man is just another option on the lunch menu for the lions, leopards and other predators that roam this vast landscape. The only signs of civilisation are the odd tribal village and a few bush camps, such as Tafika Lodge.
Owned by John and his wife, Carol, this was my home for the next few days: a collection of six reed huts sprinkled around the bank of the mighty Luangwa River.
Remote it might have been, but each cottage was the size of a hotel suite – with two double beds, an al fresco shower and flushing toilet.
The moment I kicked off my flipflops, time slowed to a luxurious crawl; the only sound to disturb the silence was the wind in the trees and the occasional snort from a disgruntled hippo.
There are hundreds of them here, beached on sandbanks in the middle of the river, their bulbous bottoms giving them the appearance of fat old ladies basking in the sun.
Don’t be fooled by their air of indolence and incapacity, though: get on the wrong side of one and you’ll find two tonnes of teeth and muscle coming your way at 50km/ h.
FLYING LOW: ( clockwise from above) A microlight safari at Tafika Lodge; dining area; and one of the rooms.