A bird’s-eye view of South Africa

By A.B. Gondwe

You’re floating dreamily high above the earth, oblivious to time or sound.

Far below the world stretches out to the horizon in every direction. Buildings look like tiny doll’s houses; cars move like pinheads on a road that looks like a pencil line. Snow white clouds drift by below you, so close you can reach out and touch them.

Your are looking at the world through the eyes of a bird.

No-one who’s ever ‘flown’ in some or other way – in an aircraft or a hot air balloon, parachuting or hang-gliding – will deny the magic of seeing the world from high up above. You may be safely ensconced inside the protective capsule of an aircraft; or you could be unprotected out in the open with the wind rushing through your hair and adrenaline pumping through your body as you hurtle to earth or drift gently along on streams of air.

Either way, could there be any better way of seeing the multi-dimensional variety and beauty that is South Africa?

There are many more – and better – ways of viewing the world than from a commercial airplane as you commute between cities and business meetings. Do yourself a favour you will never forget: take some time off an go flying, whether in a helicopter, fixed wing aircraft, hot air balloon, dangling under a hang-glider or parachute, strapped into the seat of a microlight plane, or whatever mode of aerial transport you can find. Just make sure its reliable and safe!

Luckily, in South Africa we are spoiled for choice with many operators offering flips and trips in or under a variety of aerial vehicles, wings and gliders.

Helicopter and airplane flips

 A relatively large number of operators offering a variety of scenic helicopter flips are active all-over South Africa. Aircraft range from the very latest civilian aircraft to older ex-military stock. South African pilots are subjected to strict medical and licencing requirements in line with the highest international standards, so you will be in safe hands.

In Cape Town, for instance, a number of companies operate from a helipad in the V&A Waterfront. These offers awesome trips over the city, around the mountain, up the West Coast, over Robben Island, to Cape Point and over the Winelands, among others. Trips last between 25 minutes and an hour and can cost between R1,000 and R6,000 per person depending on the duration and destination.

For a fee from R4,675 per person you can fly in the iconic Huey army helicopter that came to symbolise the Vietnam War. The choppers take off from the V&A Waterfront for an action-packed ride along the edge of Table Mountain, across the city and Robben Island, low level flying skimming the waves along the beaches of Big Bay and Melkbos with the wind rushing through your hair as you sit in the open side door.

There are chopper flips in places as varied as viewing wild animals in the game parks, to the red dunes of the Kalahari, the beautiful coastline of the Garden Route, spotting great white sharks or southern right whales from the air, or circling over the city of Durban and environs. You name it, and someone will fly to it.

There are also fixed-wing aircraft operators around the country who offer a variety of sightseeing flips or adventure activities. For instance, Percy Tours of Hermanus offer Cessna plane flights, and skydiving among other airborne activities in the Western Cape. A hot favourite is watching the whales at Hermanus from the air in one of their planes.

Hot air ballooning

For those who would like to try this superb experience, there fortunately are quite a number of hot air balloon operators and agents across South Africa and in the neighbouring countries. Hot air balloon operators in South Africa offer aerial experiences of such splendid natural scenery as the golden sands of the Kalahari and its wild animal population; the towering splendour of the Maluti Mountain range, part of the Drakensberg system at Clarens in the Free State close to the Lesotho border; or the sheer beauty of the timeless, lonely Valley of Desolation with is dolomite columns that rise high and precariously from the valley floor.

Or you can join the birds above Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind to take in the Africa from where we all originally came. Another hot air balloon trip elevates you high above the Vaal River and the small town of Parys, and drifts across the more than 2-million years old Vredefort Dome, site of the largest meteorite impact on earth.  Yet another awesome game-viewing balloon ride can be enjoyed over the Pilanesberg National Park departing from Sun City, allowing for absolutely the best way to view the park and its many animals. Or check out the Western Cape and the Winelands from a hot air balloon?

Hot air balloon experiences are tailored to cater for a wide variety of events, from balloon safaris, to game viewing, adventure rides, scenic trips, romantic rides, and rides geared specifically for birthdays, anniversaries, engagements or other special events. Most of the hot air balloon operators will throw in champagne or other liquid refreshments on board, with a champagne breakfast at the end of the flight, either in the veld where you have landed, or at a nearby hotel, lodge, game lodge or wine estate.

Flights usually last about and hour, with some lasting up to about 3 hours, depending on the route, occasion and what terrain or sites are covered. The cost of trips vary according to the duration and distance, type of event, extras thrown in and so forth, but can be between R1,000 and up to about R8,000 per person, with discounted package deals for two persons or more.

Paragliding & hang-gliding

Not sure what the difference is between paragliding and hang-gliding? The main difference is in the glider’s shape, with hang-gliders consisting of sailcloth stretched over a rigid metal frame in something like  a V-shape with a strap-in harness underneath for the pilot,  glider’s shape. Whereas hang-gliders are rigid structures, consisting of sailcloth stretched over a metal frame, a paraglider consists of a wing similar to that of a parachute or kite-surfer with a harness suspended underneath it. Another difference is speed, with hang-gliders tending to reach faster speeds. Both relay on seeking out updrafts of air to prolong the flight which can last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more.

Both of these offer a wonderful way of viewing the world from above, whether you are experienced or have never done it before. If you are a first timer, you will be tandem strapped to a professional pilot underneath the glider. Take-off is by jumping or running off a high mountain ledge or slope. Once airborne, depending on the conditions, you can rise to more than 500 meters above the ground.

Launching spots around Cape Town include a number of mountains, but the launching pad on Lion’s Head is a favourite, with paragliders usually landing on a grass field next to Clifton 4th Beach below. Other favourites here are Sir Lowry’s Pass at Somerset West or the Hermanus mountains. If in Gauteng, there are a variety of launching sites such as one next to the Dunottar Military Base near Springs or the Magaliesberg mountains near Hartebeespoort Dam. In KwaZulu-Natal various Drakensberg sites are much favoured.

Microlight flying

This mode of airborne transport purely for the thrill of seeing the world from high above, has also become extremely popular over the years. There microlight clubs and airfields all over the country. Basically, a microlight aircraft is a small fixed-wing aircraft that weighs less than 175 kilograms, with a small engine for propulsion and a harness to sit in under the wing. If you cannot fly one yourself, there are many pilots who will take passengers along. Or you can join one of the many microlight flying schools around the country to learn how to fly and obtain your licence.

Skydiving and parachuting

Both are another wonderful way of experiencing a bird’s eye view of the world below while getting a super adrenaline fix at the same time. Again there are numerous clubs, schools and airfields dotted all over the country where you can learn to parachute or literally take the plunge strapped in tandem with a qualified jumper/instructor. Anyone who has done this before will insist that there is no better way to experience the absolute thrill of flying, floating or freefalling far above the earth.

Tandem skydiving is the most popular way to take your first jump and does not require any skill or qualifications.  A first-time parachutist/skydiver will experience first-hand all the thrills of skydiving without the full commitment of doing the qualifying courses for accelerated free fall or static line jumping.

But you can of course always learn to parachute with a static line – a method that was evolved from military parachuting. With this, students receive approximately 6 hours of ground training and jump the first time from a height of about 3 500 feet. Or you can experience the exhilaration of free-falling on your very first jump via an accelerated learning process rather than the traditional static line progression.

There are many other wonderful airborne activities to be enjoyed, from those better suited to adventure-seeking adrenaline junkies, to the more sedate forms of ‘flying’ are focused on a gentle sightseeing journey from the vantage point of great height. Some of these activities include flying in ex-military jets, aerobatic aircraft, or old vintage aircraft with open cockpits. Or you can consider gliding (in gliding aircraft without engines) or going for flips in a gyrocopter. Whatever your fancy, the wide open blue skies can be your playground from where you can see the world like a bird.