Africa’s landscapes are made on an epic scale, a fact best appreciated from above. From helicopter flights over Victoria Falls and balloon rides in the Maasai Mara to multi-day journeys across the landscapes of Namibia and Rwanda, we’ve selected some of our favourite flying safari experiences.
With its wild, remote expanses, Namibia is an excellent candidate for a multi-day flying safari. Travelling by Cessna, it’s possible to take in the grandeur of its landscapes from north to south in barely more than a week, with the bonus of breathtaking views as you travel. Nowhere is the scenery more unearthly than on the stark Skeleton Coast, its edges softened by frequent sea fogs, where colonies of seals share the sand with weathered whale bones and traces of shipwreck. The salt pans of Etosha are another curiosity, its waterholes providing a lifeline for endangered black rhinos and other creatures who’ve adapted to this harsh environment.
Even if you’re on an ‘ordinary’ safari – though no experience of Namibia is ever ordinary – there are opportunities to take to the skies. In the southern Namib Desert, Sossusvlei’s towering rusty-red dunes stretch to the horizon, a fact you’ll appreciate all the more on a scenic helicopter trip or hot-air balloon ride. Back on terra firma, you can lose yourself in the sheer scale of the place with tranquil stargazing sessions or treks up the tallest of dunes. Visit Namibia >
In Botswana’s staggeringly beautiful and road-free Okavango Delta, taking to the air is a fact of life and one that adds immeasurably to the appeal of any safari. Whether you’re flying to or from the international airport in Maun or transferring between camps, your light-aircraft journey will be enhanced by myriad game-spotting opportunities. Skimming low over the UNESCO-favoured fertile landscapes of this extraordinary inland delta, surrounded by the arid Kalahari basin, you might see elephants roaming the open forests, herds of lechwe drifting through the reedbeds or hippos bobbing along the rivers.
For photographers eager to capture the perfect image of this 2,000,000-hectare patchwork of cobalt lagoons, emerald waterways and golden islands – not to mention its wild inhabitants – a helicopter ride (available from Maun) provides a more practical alternative to a trip on a small aircraft. Assuming you don’t have a fear of heights, with the doors off you can relish unrestricted views not available in a Cessna. Even better, helicopters can hover in one place, giving you time to frame the shot without rushing. Visit Botswana >
After explorer David Livingstone first encountered the majestic Victoria Falls in 1855, he wrote that ‘scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’. Nowadays, the Flight of Angels is the name of one of Africa’s most iconic sightseeing adventures, a 12-to-13-minute helicopter ride that swoops around the world’s biggest waterfall in both directions before peeling off up the river to Zambezi National Park and back. It’s an unmissable chance to take in the sheer grandeur of this World Heritage Site and see it in the wider landscape – and a popular setting for marriage proposals.
If you’re not in a hurry, the Zambezi Spectacular is roughly twice as long, giving time for two looks at ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ between sorties to the sheer-sided Bakota Gorge, which zigzags downstream from the falls, and the upstream expanse of the national park where lions, leopards and elephants roam. Once you’ve seen Victoria Falls from above, be sure to see it face-to-face on foot for a different experience. When the flows are at their highest, from March to July, the ground shakes and the noise is deafening, so you’ll be in no doubt of the raw power of the tumbling water. Visit Zimbabwe >
There are few more magical sights than the Maasai Mara in the rosy light of dawn as you drift above it in a hot-air balloon. Below, on the endless dusty plains, the wildlife is taking advantage of the coolness to graze, hunt or wallow. Its edges softened by a fine early-morning mist, the landscape has a timeless, poignant beauty and – aside from the occasional roar of the burners – the only sounds are the grunts, squeaks and calls from below.
But stretching-for-ever savannahs are not the only landscape worthy of note. Upping the drama, the Great Rift Valley offers simmering volcanoes, rugged sandstone cliffs and lakes teeming with birdlife. At the country’s northern frontier lies the largest, the hard-to-reach ‘cradle of life’ Lake Turkana, where helicopter rides are a necessity as well as a route to panoramic overviews of otherworldly desert scenery.
To the east of the valley in the heart of Kenya, you can take in the scale of the Laikipia Plateau’s rolling rangelands on a private helicopter safari from Segera Retreat. The Retreat is also home to an impeccably restored 1929-model yellow Gipsy Moth biplane. Featured in Out of Africa – though Robert Redford didn’t pilot it himself – it was bought at auction in 2013 by the owners. Visit Kenya >
Despite its relatively compact proportions, Africa’s fourth-smallest country has a more varied topography than its nickname of the Land of a Thousand Hills would suggest. Its trio of national parks showcases this to perfection. In the north, named after its long-dormant volcanoes that soar above the clouds, the country’s most famous protected landscape provides a precious sanctuary for some of the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas. There’s a lost kingdom feel to its jungle-clad slopes, where the haunting calls of rare golden monkeys punctuate the non-stop birdsong.
Nyungwe, whose exceptional biodiversity rivals that of the Galapagos Islands, is a five-hour drive away in the country’s far south west. By helicopter, it’s a mere 30 minutes with the bonus of spectacular views west over shimmering Lake Kivu, a vast inland sea stretching along part of the Great Rift Valley. Within its 100,000 hectares, encircled by vivid green tea plantations, is one of the world’s oldest montane rainforests, an idyllic habitat for primates such as chimpanzees and L’Hoest’s monkeys, flamboyant butterflies and at least 140 orchids. Another scenic heli-hop away, this time on the eastern border, Akagera couldn’t be more different, with wide-open grasslands, acacia woodlands and Central Africa’s largest protected wetland. Visit Rwanda >