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

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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