Join us on a ride in a 'flying chair' over the breathtaking beauty of this fearsome natural wonder of the world
An uplifting experience at Victoria Falls in Zambia
“Are you ready to fly through God’s kisses?” my pilot, who likes to play in the clouds, asks as we hover precariously above the greatest curtain of falling water in the world, in what is essentially an open-air flying chair. I manage a weak, almost inaudible, yes that I hope will be heard over the two-way radio, but it’s unlikely, given the strength of the wind we’re battling and the spray from the flooding waters beneath us. It doesn’t really matter because it’s one of those rhetorical questions; more a statement of preparedness.
It’s just after 9am on a summer’s day and from our position hundreds of metres above the ground, we’re about to fly directly into the mist blanketing Victoria Falls. It’s July and a peak time at this natural wonder in southern Africa, which forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s also when the Zambezi River is in flood and the falls are at their most significant, spilling as much as 500 million cubic metres of water a minute, with columns of spray visible from up to 50 kilometres away.
To say I’m petrified is an understatement. I haven’t let go of the handles on either side of the “flying chair” since we took off 15 minutes earlier – not even to wave at the mounted camera that’s going to act as proof that I did this. But it’s clear that my “senior pilot” (yes I noted that along with the “likes to play in the clouds” on his bio before take-off) Heiko Held is a pro, and despite the shuddering of the aircraft in the wind as we move through the spray, we get our kisses from the angels without incident and fly on, levelling out to also take in the herds of elephant and pods of hippopotamuses grazing in the 66-square-kilometre Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park below. A nice exclamation point to a journey that was something of an achievement for me.
The 15 minutes we’re airborne, fastened into this incredibly small aircraft, straps over the shoulders and around the waist the only things holding us in position, is perhaps the scariest, yet most exhilarating quarter of an hour I’ve endured on my recent travels, nudging out the open chairlift ride I took up a steep incline in Sorrento a few years back.
But, like everything, overcoming these kinds of fears is what makes travel liberating, and despite the toing and froing I did in the days preceding, I was determined I wasn’t going to miss out on this daredevil opportunity, especially given the location and the spectacle it affords. Who knows when I’ll get back here.
It’s not until we’re safely back on the ground that the magnitude of the danger flights such as these can pose becomes apparent. We land near the hangar, not back on the runway as the flights before us have. It’s here that I’m told all microlight flights have been suspended for the day on account of unfavourable weather conditions.
The news confirms that my fear was founded, in part. As I let out a sigh of relief, I feel grateful that I volunteered myself as one of the first in our group to fly as the final two in our party have been relegated to a safer closed-in hydralight aircraft – not quite the same experience, but from all accounts still worth doing.
As I remove my helmet I thank Held again for keeping me safe and putting up with the continual “Oh my gosh” verbal sprays during the flight. The German pilot gives me a cheeky smile and replies confidently, “I’ve been flying for 12 years and clocked up 28,000 flights, you were safe with me.” As safe as one can be in the wilds of Africa, at least.
We’re in Zambia on a four-day stay, based in Livingstone, the capital of the southern province. Named after David Livingstone, the British explorer and missionary who was the first European to make his way into this area, Livingstone’s proximity to the famous Zambezi River and the Falls – known affectionately as “the smoke that thunders” – has seen the area grow to become a popular base for travellers wanting to explore one of the world’s seven natural wonders and a side of safari action. While some might call the microlight a “wild” African adventure of sorts, it’s just one of a number of reasons to visit this part of Zambia.
We are staying at the well-positioned, 17-year-old Royal Livingstone Victoria Falls Hotel by Anantara, which sits on the banks of the Zambezi River. Now a part of the Minor Hotel Group, it shares the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park with its sister property Avani and is the gateway to the falls. During our stay we are able to access facilities at both resorts and enter the falls as many times as we like (entry is usually US$30 [Dh110]).
We get to the property by boat, which is a special experience. You can get there by helicopter or road, too, but this is by far the most safari-like arrival. As our small vessel navigates the channels of the Zambezi, smooth and marble-like as it is, the blast of water we’ve heard so much about becomes more visible in front of us. And as we pull up to the resort 10 minutes later, the spray is within reach, well almost – that’s what it feels like at least.
We don’t waste any time in making the journey to the famous falls. As we set off on the 20-minute walk through bushland and along winding pathways, it’s just a few minutes before we’re joined by some of the park’s four-legged residents. Metres from us stand a couple of giraffe munching on the leaves from nearby trees. It’s quite the welcome.
Perhaps not as thunderous as the one we get when we reach the main attraction on land, and it’s easy to see why – this is the only waterfall in the world that extends more an a kilometre and has a height of 100-plus metres. The last time I saw this much water in one spot has to be a decade ago when I was at Iguazu Falls in Brazil. I revel in letting the water saturate me as we experience the full brunt of this beast. Unfortunately, due to the masses of spray rising from the falling water blasting all around us, the full width of the falls cannot be seen from our position.
With the gates due to close for the day and all of us happily dripping wet, it’s back to the Royal Livingstone where in the days that follow more giraffes cross our path, I share an impromptu coffee on my terrace with three zebras who appear as curious about me as I am about them, and as we bundle into a mini-van for one of our final outings, four zebras cross our path one in front of other. It’s a zebra crossing!