On a Natural High
Written by Brian Johnston
If you possess both a pilot’s licence and confidence, you can now embark on a self-fly safari in South Africa and cover the highlights of this vast and scenic country in breathtaking style.
Remember the 1985 movie Out of Africa, and the scenes in which Robert Redford takes Meryl Streep on a joyride in his aircraft, high above a marvellous landscape of flamingo-saturated lakes and rustling grasslands? There are few of us who haven’t dreamed of such a moment. In South Africa, several self-fly safari companies are now turning the celluloid dream into reality for anyone with a pilot’s licence and a sense of adventure.
Those with the qualifications can take to a private aircraft and fly among massive clouds, which drift like vast cotton balls across an immense African sky. But if you aren’t a pilot, don’t despair: flying safaris are still available, accompanied by your own ‘chauffeur in the sky’. Soar over the dramatic peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains, skim a coastline where cliffs and splendid beaches unfold, and land on airstrips in the middle of the bush – although you might have to ‘buzz’ a few stray wildebeest or zebra out of the way before you do so. At night, the display of southern stars from the cockpit is so extravagant you’ll wonder whether you are hallucinating.
Many self-fly safari companies do most of the hard work for you, assisting with flight itineraries, filing flight plans, and offering suggestions on routes, as well as keeping pilots updated on weather conditions. Taking to the air shortens the time it takes to get about this expansive country, so flying gives you a much more varied experience (not to mention the adventure and excitement) than the same time spent behind the wheel of a car. You can be skimming over the neatly pegged vineyards outside Cape Town one day, flying along the coast of the famous Garden Route the next, and by the end of the week, taking in the bush scenery of Kruger National Park on the far side of the country.
Being on the ground brings its own rewards and an entirely different perspective on the wildlife, especially during driving safaris that are usually part of the package at luxury lodges. Wildebeest move through a dry riverbed; a row of giraffes is outlined against a blue sky; two cheetahs prowl through golden grass that crackles in the sun. As dusk stains the sky red, you may hear the quintessential sound of Africa: the roar of a lion satisfied with its kill.
Travel with your own wings and, of course, you will have a bird’s eye experience for yourself. Certainly, one of the best things about a self-fly safari is that it brings back all those youthful feelings from when you learnt to fly in the first place: an overwhelming sense of freedom and adventure. Touch down at dirt strips in the heart of the bush, or tiny runways at far-flung towns, and test not just your piloting abilities but encounter the African frontier, where leopards still lurk in thickets and elephants trumpet. Anyone up for a further challenge in the sky will also find companies offering exotic aircraft for rent: an open-cockpit Tiger Moth fabric-and-wood biplane, perhaps, or even a vintage military jet.
Wherever you fly and whichever lodge you choose along your flight route, you’re likely to find a warm crackling fire at the end of the day. Lie back in your chair and listen to the calls of bats and monkeys, and the distant, defiant trumpeting of an elephant – and you’re under the spell of South Africa once more.
When to go
July and August – the South African winter – are ideal months to visit Kruger and the north and east of the country, with lower temperatures and no mosquitoes. This is also the dry season, when wildlife congregates at waterholes. However, low cloud can sometimes prevent early morning departures.
Most destinations in South Africa are well served by luxury safari lodges, many with private landing strips. Among the best are Kwandwe Private Game Reserve (www.kwandwereserve.com), along the Great Fish River north of Port Elizabeth; Ngala Private Game Reserve (www.ngala.co.za) in Kruger National Park; and Phinda Private Game Reserve (www.phinda.com) bordering the St Lucia wetlands and coast in KwaZulu-Natal. Ulusaba (www.ulusaba. virgin.com), the private game reserve of Sir Richard Branson, is another first-class lodge set in Sabi Sands in the northeast.
Getting off the ground
Pilots wishing to fly in South Africa must take both a written and flight test; the latter verifies your ability to use navigation aids and land at three airports. Paperwork for your pilot’s licence and validation certificate can usually be completed in a few days. Many operators also offer courses on bush-flying techniques and bush survival. For more, see websites such as www.selfflysafari.com, www.aerosafari.com, www.skyafrica.com and www.africanflyingsafaris.com