Safari on the fly

Above and beyond ... a microlight plane above Kruger National Park.
Above and beyond ... a microlight plane above Kruger National Park. 

There is nowhere for wildlife to hide from Terry Smyth as he takes in Kruger from the heights of a microlight.

I'M FLYING up the Crocodile River in a microlight aircraft, swooping from 500 metres to almost skimming the water, pushed along at 80km/h by a single propeller, almost touching the backs of hippos cruising the green waters and crocs basking on sandbars - and sending wildebeest, buffalo, impala and kudu scampering up the banks.

I've been on safari by jeep, by elephant and on foot, even been caught in wildebeest traffic in the great migration through the Serengeti to the Masai Mara.

But up here, veering off from the river, tracking west across the bushveld, dust rising from herds of elephant thundering below, this is a unique encounter. From up here, no drama or comedy of the natural world is hidden behind hill or bush, just out of sight. With a living map of Africa laid out beneath me I'm thinking this is the ultimate safari.

That living map is a stretch of the South African province of Mpumalanga - formerly known as the Eastern Transvaal - in the north-east corner of the rainbow nation. Bordering Zimbabwe to the north and Swaziland to the south, Mpumalanga sweeps eastward from the high ragged peaks of the Drakensberg escarpment (which the Zulu aptly call Ukhahlamba - "the barrier of spears") across the lowland plains and Kruger National Park to Mozambique.

I'm a guest at Kwa Madwala ("place of the rock" in Swazi), a 4000-hectare private game reserve on the southern side of Kruger National Park, outside the farming town of Hectorspruit and about a 45-minute drive from the provincial capital, Nelspruit. Nelspruit is 300 kilometres from Johannesburg: you can get here by coach, train, rental car or by air. Kwa Madwala has two four-star camps and one three-star. I'm staying at the most impressive of the four-stars, Manyatta Rock Camp. Perched on a hilltop and built to blend in with massive granite boulders, the camp has separate domed cabins set among the rocks.

Each cabin is airconditioned, with two twins or a queen-size bed, en suite with spa bath and a wooden deck with an outdoor shower.

Within a minute's walk of your cabin is a communal bar and dining area with a high arched, thatched roof, a game-viewing deck and a rock pool. Outside is a traditional-style boma (eating place) at the foot of a towering monolith. Around a campfire ringed by stones, you can eat, drink and be merry until the flaming logs turn to glowing embers. Yes folks, this is really roughing it.

A typical visit to Manyatta Rock Camp is a two-night stay. The tariff includes accommodation, five meals and game drives in the reserve and in Kruger National Park. Elephant and aerial safaris are optional extras.

Yesterday, rattling around the bush in a four-wheel-drive, I got up close, but not personal, with the Big Five - elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo - and notched up a few rare sights and sounds: young bull elephants play-fighting, tusk clicking on tusk; kudu bucks locking horns; a baby elephant at a waterhole, taking a bath with an aunt's gentle assistance.

All well and good but nothing quite compares with an aerial safari. Microlight flights take about 15 minutes but seem like hours and are over all too soon.

In an open airframe, with 360-degree vision and the wind whirling, you really know you're flying - by the seat of your pants. And the seat of my pants is safely buckled into a comfortable seat - much like a pillion seat on a cruising motorcycle - behind Rob the pilot. A former 747 pilot for South African Airways, Rob swapped jumbos for micros and hasn't looked back.

"On 747s, after 9/11, they locked the door and there was no more interaction with the public. Now, on microlights, I get to meet new people every day. Mind you, it's impossible to get a drink on one of these things," Rob says. "There's no room for the trolley."

Rob tells me he never tires of flying over this line of country. "The landscape changes from hour to hour," he says, "and at this time of day from minute to minute."

I can vouch for that. From a dirt airstrip in the bush near Kwa Madwala, we take off in golden afternoon light. Soon the plains, sky and distant mountains are threaded with crimson and as the big, fat African sun prepares to call it a day, the river turns from green to copper to silver.

Here's a tip: carry nothing that might slip from your grasp. The propeller is behind you. If you must take photos, carry a small happy snapper with a strap. Better yet, don't carry a camera at all - give your eyes a treat and burn the experience into your memory.

Rob lets me fly the kite. The controls are sensitive and responsive - and I'm loving it.

We bank around and buzz the camp. A man showering on his cabin deck shakes his fist at the sky and scuttles inside. Talk about laugh! And I'm wishing I had ignored my own advice and taken a camera.

"Always expect the unexpected," Rob says, assuring me that does not include engine failure. Taking the controls, he loops back to the airstrip and lands, smooth as silk.

I step off feeling like Biggles, home for tea after an absolutely spiffing adventure. Back at camp, I'm sitting on my cabin deck with a mug of coffee and binoculars, savouring the remains of the day, watching elephants amble by and the cautious grazing of the ubiquitous impala: the kangaroo of Africa and, for predators, an all-you-can-eat buffet on the hoof. As birds find their evening voices - deep bass to high tenor - there's just time to wash the dust off and change for dinner.

As I'm showering on the deck, a microlight zooms by. Startled, I drop the soap.

Later, at dinner, I notice a bloke at a nearby table showing his friends something on his camera, and they're laughing. A lot.

The writer was a guest of Bench International.

Trip notes

Getting there

South African Airways flies six times a week from Sydney to Johannesburg, priced from $2181 return, with connections to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport near Nelspruit. 1300 435 972, flysaa.com.

Staying there

Kwa Madwala private game reserve's Manyatta Rock Camp is priced from 1600 rand ($228) a person, a night, twin share. +27 82 779 2153, kwamadwala.net

Touring there

Bench International hosts five-day stays at Manyatta Rock Camp, with microlight safari, elephant safari and four-wheel-drive tours in the Kruger National Park, accommodation, meals, guide and park entrance fees. 1300 195 873, benchinternational.com.au.

More information

southafrica.net; sanparks.org.

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