Flying in Africa is a heady mix. I’m not much of an aviator, airsickness having too often prevailed, but sweeping low along the dry bed of the Shashe River that marks the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe, noting kraals, cattle herders (or rustlers), tangled threads of animal tracks, changes in vegetation from bank to bank, provides a tempting beginning.
Seeing Africa from the air across nearly 3000 nautical miles offers up both the scale and the variety of the continent. In three weeks we fly across five countries and touch the borders of three more – and our journey is a mere drop in this vastness.
There is an element of the surreal: meeting a bull elephant on a runway in Zimbabwe, being heralded by a line of (commercially savvy) Masai, spears and bright robes turned dark by the setting sun as we touch down on the red gravel of the Ngorongoro crater rim, protecting our tyres with thornbush for overnight stops in the Serengeti (hyena have an acquired taste for rubber).
Elephants gather around waterholes in Hwange; hippo and crocodiles loiter along the red sand fringes of Lake Kariba, built for hydro in the 1950s. The extent of the Rift Valley can surely only be perceived from the air, and Victoria Falls is an inverted mountain of falling water. In our travels we pass landmarks that reference the poetry and stories of my childhood – the Magaliesberg and Limpopo of Kipling, Jock’s Bushveldt, Dr Leakey’s Olduvai Gorge and National Geographic’s Grumeti.
The Zambesi River is a lush green highway of reed beds and sand-spit islands populated by hippos, large and languid until an internal spat causes an eruption of lumbering bulk and stretched jaws. At Seronera our guide tells us he once saw a hippo cut a fully-grown crocodile in two: Africa is not a place for casual swimming.
But for me the flying highlight is the Crater Highlands of Tanzania. Set in a moonscape of volcanic cones, breached caldera, red dust and salt pans, Lake Natron, smooth as glass beneath the building storm above, reflects the sun and clouds in a monochromatic pastiche. The Mountain of God, Kiliman can Mungu in Swahili and Ol Doimyo Lengai to the Masai, shivers through the dust cloud swept up from the breached and crumbling caldera of Kiliman Meru, which has been dormant since 1879 (Lengai is more current – the mountain was buried in “a grey lunar snow” in 1967 and was most recently active in 2013). Visibility is hazed by the red dust, but still it is the best way to see this landscape in its impressive entirety.
As for airsickness, there have been moments, mostly caused by river flying and game spotting manoeuvres, but the African air is smoother, and maybe the distraction offered by the richness, diversity and sheer size of this bewitching continent helps as well.