Flying on Safari

By Abi 04 August 2016

Generally, the best and quickest way (indeed, sometimes the only way) to reach remote safari camps and lodges, is by flying there in a light aircraft – the distances you need to travel are often vast and the landscape is rough, or even impassable to vehicles.

The typical safari itinerary therefore includes a few of these short aerial ‘hops’. To some, this is not such a pleasant prospect, and in certain locations it is possible to design a safari where these quick flights can be substituted for additional (often rather long) game drives.

However, if you want to add even more adventure to your trip, flying in is the only way to go! For most people, the experience of flying in a tiny plane is something totally new and exhilarating – and, far from being ‘just transport’, it can really add a lot to your safari experience. Below, I've given a few details as to what to expect when you have a small aircraft flight during a safari holiday:

What are the kinds of small planes in operation?

The type of small plane that you will take depends on the location of your safari, the companies that operate there and the specific camps that you are visiting. The options range from the speedy and luxurious Pilatus PC-12, which is generally booked for private use, to Cessna Caravans or Airvans, which seat 8–9 people, right down to 6-seater Cessna 210 or 206s. In South AfricaZambiaKenya and Tanzania the larger vans are generally used and flights are scheduled to stop at a ‘circuit’ of larger airstrips, like a flying bus service. In Botswana many camps are so remote that they have their own airstrips and these can be tiny and relatively rough – in some cases only the smallest Cessnas are able to land on them safely.

What is it like to be in such a small plane?

These are all single-engine turboprop planes and the first thing you notice is how noisy they are! There’s something very exciting about being able to see the propeller going round and feel the slightest movement or bump! You can clearly see the pilot too, as well as the bewildering array of instruments in the cockpit. If you are lucky enough to be sitting right next to them in the co-pilot’s seat, the pilot may offer you some headphones so they can point out things of interest or talk to you above the sound of the engine. On rare occasions they have been known to let passengers take the controls for a few minutes, while in the air and under close supervision, of course.

The very nature of remote bush airstrips means that for the majority of time they are traversed by the local wildlife and this can make for some unique safari encounters. It is important that there is someone on the ground before the plane arrives at the smallest airstrips, to check for newly dug holes or to herd game away. If the airstrip is unfit for purpose or there are animals blocking the landing strip then this could be dangerous for all parties. If a plane is left unattended and standing at the airstrip for too long, it may attract animals looking for shade in an area otherwise clear of trees and bushes – it has been known for pilots to be trapped inside or kept out of their planes by prides of sleeping lions making the most of the cool shelter of a wing!

Where are the most scenic small flights?

Perhaps the greatest added value to your safari from a light aircraft flight is the incredible views. Charter flights heading into or out of Livingstone or Victoria Falls usually try to take a route to give their passengers a clear view of the spectacular falls themselves, as well as the mighty Zambezi River and surrounding gorges. Similarly, flying into the Okavango Delta, you automatically get a bird’s-eye view of the winding blue waterways, interspersed with lush greenery – you can clearly see hippo and elephant and large herds of antelope going about their business, surrounded by wilderness as far as the eye can see – a truly beautiful sight. It is possible to book scenic flights over both of these natural wonders, but why bother when you can just look out of the window on your way there?! There are countless other spectacles in Africa, the vastness of which can be more fully appreciated when viewed from above, and these include the huge herds of the great migration, covering large swathes of the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, the immense white nothingness of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, the majestic peak of Mount Kilimanjaro and the infinite eerie landscapes of Namibia, from the misty Skeleton Coast to the huge red dunes of Sossusvlei.

Are there luggage limits?

The compromise involved in light aircraft flights is the luggage restrictions. There is a limit on the amount of weight the small planes can carry – this, along with the distribution of that weight, is an important safety consideration. If your safari trip includes one or more of these flights it is important to check the restrictions before you pack, as this will determine the maximum weight you can carry (usually 15kg, including hand luggage) and the type of bag you take with you. Bags must be soft-sided and easy to squash and manipulate into the small hold underneath the plane. For more details on luggage limits, check out our blog on flying restrictions based on destinations.

Some companies (but not all!) offer an upgraded seat rate that allows you to carry more weight. But really, the need to pack a little lighter is well worth the incredible opportunity to see the beautiful, vast wilderness landscapes of Africa and its resident wildlife as you soar high above in a very adventurous manner!

If you'd like any more information on a flying in Safari Africa, feel free to contact us on +44 (0)20 8547 2305 or send an email at [email protected]