I am flying on a wing and a prayer. Quite literally. As my knuckles tighten and whiten on the microlight frame, I gaze down to the sun-grilled earth 1,500 feet below: an unnerving void invaded by two vast atomic plumes of spray from Victoria Fall’s thunderous cascade. It’s simultaneously awe-inspiring, divine and humbling, a holy trinity of emotions suggesting there is a God – and right now I’d like him to protect my soul.
The high-altitude, high-heart-rate flight is the first of three extraordinary adventures across Zambia and Botswana. I also plan to drive through the Okavango Delta’s surging seasonal floodwater before quad biking into the bright, white, dazzling Makgadikgadi salt pans: radically different experiences united by the promise of magnificent widescreen wilderness beneath a cyan sky.
Forget lying in: the four hours after dawn and two approaching dusk, free of thermals, turbulence and heat haze, are the best times to head for the heavens. I rise before the sun, driving through copper-toned winter bush to the dusty airstrip outside Livingstone. A short, sharp taxi and we are up, rising smoothly towards a top speed of 50mph.
As the mighty Zambezi – never merely the Zambezi – wriggles into view, pilot Pascal Muguto deftly handles the control bar while delivering volleys of facts. We are approaching the river’s mid-point – 745 miles from its birth in Zambia, 930 miles from its death in the Indian Ocean – soaring above a 200-strong herd of elephants, a clutch of buffalo and wallowing pods of hippos.
The best is yet to come. The falls are about far more than the mile-wide chasm where the Zambezi plunges into frothing oblivion. As we buzz around its eastern tip, I gaze down on a mesmerising zigzag of five massive gorges: prior incarnations of the waterfall from the past 100,000 years, each one left high and dry when the predatory current eroded a new channel through soft sandstone. Why wasn’t fourth-year geography this absorbing?
It’s ludicrously dramatic. It couldn’t be anything else given its local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya: The Smoke That Thunders. The largest curtain of falling water on earth, it contains roughly 550 million litres a minute at peak flow. As we fly a figure-of-eight directly overhead, Muguto points to the spot where, seven years ago, a guide grabbed a tourist slipping towards the edge. He saved a life, only to slide over himself, dropping 355 feet into the abyss. “It didn’t end well”.
It feels less threatening from the sky. I realise my vice-like grip on the microlight in order to wave nonchalantly at the wing-tip GoPro. Soft sun strokes my face, clean breeze fills my lungs, wild Africa zips between my feet. I’m almost euphoric. Sadly, there isn’t time to bottle the sensation.
More water awaits. All 11 cubic kilometres of it – the volume surging into Botswana’s Okavango Delta each year. Fuelled by downpours in the Angolan highlands, its liquid tentacles spread across the northern Kalahari like a giant squid. I head west from Livingstone, crossing the mighty Zambezi alongside lorries stacked with copper ore, before flying on to my camp on the Boro River.
As my Cessna descends towards the petite jungle airstrip, I pass a tangled web of ochre islands swaddled by Prussian blue water and threaded with ilala palms and delta trees: a mesmerising 3D scan of the brain of the wilderness with pulsing neural pathways of ambling elephants and buffalo.
In 2010, the epic flood stranded the five-room camp I’m staying in. ‘Food, fuel, guests, everything had to arrive by boat,’ recalls my guide John. ‘It took 20 minutes in a motorboat, then a 40-minute drive just to reach our safari vehicles on higher land.’ It’s less biblical today, but the Okavango’s annual inundation still provides a game drive like no other.
Over the next two days, my Land Cruiser’s bonnet regularly vanishes beneath the water as a tannin-hued deluge pours through its doors. I see elephants use their trunks to snorkel across swollen rivers, antelopes sprint across floodplains in an eruption of spray, and buffalo graze on semi-submerged grass, as if a Vietnamese rice paddy has been transplanted into Southern Africa.
Naturally there’s fabulous wildlife. Cheetahs chasing reedbucks at 75mph, leopards dragging freshly killed impala onto tree branches and a male lion ripping into a bloated hippo carcass. But my biggest thrill? It’s fuelled by diesel. My speedboat rips along twisting papyrus-lined channels, back end sliding out around 90-degree turns, arriving in a pristine lagoon at the exact moment the setting sun alchemises its surface into liquid gold.
So much for the wet; I’m thirsting for the dry. It requires 40-minute flight to the south-east of the Delta, where the semi-arid Kalahari surrenders to a splatter of immense salt pans. It’s hard to credit that several millennia ago they were the darkest depths of Makgadikgadi, a lake larger than Switzerland. Now the flat, radiant salt crust reaches to a horizon where earth and sky meld together. ‘Look at it,’ urges my guide, Joshua. ‘Your eyes scream “enough please, no more”.’
At dusk, I straddle a quad bike, wrap a kikoy scarf around my face and press pedal to floor. The dust rises in my wake as I accelerate directly into the ‘great nothing’ of the Sua Pan. After 20-minutes I cut the engine, dismount and lie down on the brittle crystals. The utter silence is disconcerting but slowly I detect a rhythmic murmur – the sound of my own blood flowing through my veins. Above me, a coal-black sky is saturated by a monsoon of stars. I can’t move. I feel the same quasi-religious awe as I did flying over Victoria Falls. How ironic: what started as three high-octane blasts of man-made fun has evolved into one of the most spiritual trips of my life. Amen to Africa.