It was our final day in Victoria Falls. Not the actual falls, but the town in Zimbabwe that they have aptly named after their very own natural wonder of the world. Over the previous two days, we had been rafting in the gorge below the falls and dined on a boat on the Zambezi River just above them. We had walked the length of the falls, 1.7km, inside the national park, and been drenched by its powerful spray. In some places, the spray came down as heavy rain from a clear sky. We were awe-struck by the natural beauty of the “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, The Smoke That Thunders. The Victoria Falls were every bit as impressive as we had expected, and more. But we weren’t done with them yet.
Today we would have our most epic experience here. We were picked up in the morning, by a driver who seemed slightly confused. Perhaps it was the early hour, as the sun was yet to rise. He was to take us across the border from Zimbabwe to Zambia. The Victoria Falls divide the two countries, so to get the full experience, you must visit both. Thankfully, he managed to drive us to the first border checkpoint without drowsing off. We exited the car, showed our passports to the unofficial looking Zimbabwean officials, and were ushered into a second car. There are specific taxis allowed to take you through the no-mans-land between the two countries, which pretty much only consists of a baboon-infested bridge over the gorge. They primarily use it for bungee-jumping, and as we would later learn, Vic Falls is definitely the adventure capital of Africa.
Our previous driver and the new taxi driver exchanged some foreign words, and off we were. He only drove us for 5 minutes before dropping us off at the Zambian border, where we again got our passports checked and stamped. At this point, we hadn’t seen another soul, except for a few huge baboons patrolling the bridge, looking for trouble. Or so it seemed. We were happy about our taxi, and that we didn’t have to meet those fellas, face-to-face, on this dark and gloomy morning.
Everything went smoothly, and we were picked up by our third driver of the day. Quite impressive, seeing as we had been on the road for all of 20 minutes. Luckily this guy could bring us to our final destination; a small landing strip in the middle of the bush. We had booked and prepaid a microlight flight for the two of us, and it was almost time for take-off. Unfortunately, the cashier expected a cash payment of 350 USD. After a few phone calls to various African phone numbers, it turns out that either our first, sleepy, driver forgot the cash, or the second taxi driver jacked it. Not to worry, we just had to pay, again, and our local agent would surely refund us before leaving the country the next day. After a bit of discussion, and not wanting to miss out on the experience, we went ahead and paid again. As they say, TIA, This is Africa.
First up was Kia. She met her pilot, an expat whom we had just seen arrive on his motorcycle, in full leather outfit, wearing some bad-ass sunglasses. He had Top Gun written all over him. You are seated behind the pilot, slightly elevated to maintain a perfect viewpoint. A GoPro camera is mounted on the tip of the wing because they do not want stupid tourists dropping their heavy cameras onto the innocent bystanders near the falls. Fair enough.
Without further ado, they took to the skies on what was a very short runway. A microlight aircraft needs minimal space to take flight because as the name indicates, it weighs very little. It is not a traditional looking aircraft, but more akin to a hand-glider. It is powered by a propeller in the back, and aside from that and the passengers, there is not much weighing it down. The engine is right behind you and makes a hell of a noise. The entire frame of the beast vibrates visibly, and at first, it doesn’t feel particularly safe. Then you start thinking about African aircraft regulation, maintenance, and safety-records, which doesn’t help at all. However, as soon as you are airborne, all that is quickly forgotten. The engine revs down again, and you glide smoothly through the air. Unlike a hot air balloon, the ride can be bumpy at times, but it never feels dangerous.
In fact, it is a very simple aircraft, so not much can go wrong. The wing is made of light fabric, just like a hand-glider, and below it, you are suspended in a tricycle-like fuselage together with the pilot. He controls the glider using his weight, pushing against a control rod, or bar, that hangs right in front of him. That’s about all there is to it. It is quite interesting to watch as a passenger, and it’s totally unlike anything we have ever flown before.
When you get high enough, you don’t have time to look at all that anymore. All you can do is enjoy the view. And it is magnificent. During the first few minutes, you pass over the Zambezi River and the surrounding wetlands. We spotted all sorts of animals here, from elephants, giraffes, zebras and buffalo to bathing crocs and hippos. Especially the hippos look cool from above, with their huge submerged bodies completely visible from the air. When you see them from a boat or from land, you only just see their heads peeping up. They really are massive animals!
You fly a few laps around the falls, and all too soon it’s time to head back. In the meantime, Nick has been waiting for Kia’s return. He will swap seats with her, and then it’s his turn to have his mind blown. He’s been waiting a little anxiously though because a large herd of elephants had gathered right next to the runway. He knew Kia would be landing soon and was worried the elephants might get in the way of the tiny microlight aircraft. There was no fence, and they slowly edged closer and closer.
Of course, she landed safely with no problems. Nick was excited to get airborne as well, swapped with Kia and quickly found himself sitting at the end of the runway, with the engine revving, ready for take-off. The pilot releases the brake and the aircraft speeds down the runway. This is precisely the moment when the massive bull elephant of the herd decides to wander out onto the tarmac. The small microlight is never in real danger of hitting it (we think), but Nick sure got a good close-up view of that magnificent beast of an animal!
All in all, a morning to be remembered. The day continued with more glorious adventures in the surrounding area, most notably with an excursion to Livingstone Island, and a swim in Angels Pool right at the very edge of Victoria Falls. Our recommendation? Don’t skimp on activities if you visit Victoria Falls. Go big or go home! The 175 USD we paid for this flight has been paid back over and over again in great memories. We will never forget it, let alone regret the expense. As Mark Twain said: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do”.
Oh, we almost forgot. We did eventually get refunded for the lost cash. Hakuna Matata!
Company: Shockwave Adventures. But consider a different provider, many agents are selling the same flight. The company is very highly rated on TripAdvisor, but we did have a few problems with them. They did eventually pay us our refund though, so can’t complain too much. This might just be down to the general level of African tourist providers. Maybe it won’t help to change the company.
Price: 175 USD per person
Alternative: You can get a similar experience with a heli flight. We highly recommend the microlight, but there are two significant upsides to choosing a helicopter. Firstly, they can be hired on the Zimbabwean side, so if you are staying there, it might be more convenient. Secondly, there are some helicopter companies which are allowed to fly super low through the gorge. We saw one of those right over our heads as we were white water rafting. It looked insanely cool, like something straight out of an old war movie. This won’t give you the free-as-a-bird experience of the microlight though, and you will be seated with 4-5 other passengers. That’s the trade-off, price is similar.
More info: Microlight flights can only take off from Zambia. You have to make your way across the border from Zimbabwe. You can get a visa for a single day, so it’s not too big of a hassle. We did wait for more than an hour when crossing the border on our return though. It’s worth it – especially if you combine your trip to Zambia with more activities. We also visited the falls through regular admission and found the Zambian side very beautiful. Further, we swam in a pool on the edge of the falls, and this can also only be done from Zambia. It was amazing. You can book that experience here.