Published: 2nd March 2008
Forget scenic helicopter rides or private jets. This is the way to fly - like a bird, like an angel, swooping through the sky above the Zambezi with nothing between the ground and my dangling feet but air. Icarus didn't have the advantage of technology, but his father had the right idea. Today, I have wings.
There's a huge crocodile basking on a rock - and I can fly down for a closer look. I can also see the outline of a dozen muddy hippos in the water. Peering from the riverbank with binoculars, my view would be of a pair of ears or a buxom bottom going under. But from up here I can watch their underwater movements; catch them unawares. I am invisible, all-seeing. Ah, to be an eagle or a kingfisher, darting down to seize a shape in the river.
My flying machine, my microlight, really does feel no weightier than a cloud. It has a pair of wings, an engine, a pilot in front who wafts us through the air currents, and me, strapped into a seat behind. I am not allowed a camera or any other loose object, because there really is nothing between me and the African earth.
And what a place for my maiden flight. As if becoming Peter Pan, Superwoman or a highflying bumblebee weren't heady enough, we are about to fly over Victoria Falls.
The Zambezi River is mostly an elegant traveller, flowing graciously through the broad, flat-bottomed valley that divides Zambia and Zimbabwe. You can glide for hours between banks utterly devoid of eye-catching activity, save for the occasional hippo or elephant; perhaps a drinking giraffe or a troupe of baboons grooming each other in a tree.
You're seeing more or less what the first European explorers saw in the 1850s, when a cotton-mill worker turned national hero called David Livingstone came here and named the falls after his queen.
On November 17, 1855, Livingstone journeyed along the Zambezi by dugout canoe to discover what the locals called Mosi-oa-Tunya - "the smoke that thunders". The smoke refers to the mist that rises from the waterfall, and if you can see the smoke, you'll know all about the thunder. Now, as then, the river flows placidly among small islands busy with yellow weaver birds. It feels as still as a lake. Then suddenly, without warning but for the rising mist and a vague incendiary rumble, its smooth passage is interrupted by a jagged rip in the riverbed, and the water torrents down, more than 300ft down, into a seething chasm. It zigzags murderously through narrow gorges below, the whole force of a mile-wide body of water compressed into a ravine just 200ft across.
It is down there that - gulp - whitewater rafting takes place when the Zambezi isn't in flood. These rafting rapids, numbered 1 to 23, are among the most challenging and rewarding anywhere in the world.
But proper daredevils avoid contact with the wet stuff altogether, by bungee jumping from the bridge above the gorge.
Before I got to Zambia, I'd decided that both activities were crazy - little more than mindless adrenaline rushes. But perhaps they are attempts to experience the power of a fall, to become part of that element for a moment, instead of merely observing the cascading fury of the cataract, tipping, roaring, foaming and boiling over its precipice.
An early traveller to Victoria Falls remarked on a palpable fear, as he gazed into the chasm, that he might hurl himself over, just to see what it felt like. And as I stood close to the edge, I realised my lurch of terror was nothing to do with the slippery stones, but to do with myself. On the Zimbabwean side there is a spot favoured by suicides.
Islands on the lip of the falls divide its 5,000ft-wide curtain of water into several discrete cascades. Rainbows play at the bottom, sometimes fusing together into double rainbows; their depth and brilliance making the standard, sky-based sort pale by comparison. At full moon, lunar rainbows can be seen in the mist. The effect is like a giant Turner canvas, wild with light and spray.
No wonder this waterfall was for so long a place of worship for local people. They would pray for rain to the river god Nyami-nyami, but they never went down to the gorges below, where Europeans now raft among the rocks, because they believed a huge snake lurked there.
The viewing points on the Zambian side are rickety and dangerous, but also tremendously dramatic because you have a sidelong view of the torrent, of the anger and velocity of the water, very close to where it pitches over the brink at 120m gallons a minute. I certainly wouldn't choose to be there with anyone who didn't wish me well. Far too many precipices without barriers, too much shrouding mist, too much noise from the water.
Until Robert Mugabe devastated his country, tourists tended to view the waterfall from Zimbabwe, often from the colonial splendour of the thoroughly British Victoria Falls Hotel. Built in 1904, a century before Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina, displacing hundreds of thousands of his people, the hotel has full-length portraits of George V and Queen Mary, Pont cartoons satirising the horsey British character, and immaculate lawns sweeping to a grand view of the second gorge. It's an outpost of civilisation in a crumbling country, its dining tables laid with silver on white damask tablecloths, and so few people there.
I was in Zambia, staying in a thatched riverside cabin overlooking grunting hippos at the excellent Tongabezi Lodge, about 30 minutes from the falls. One night, I had dinner on a floating platform, and the waiters paddled each course over in a canoe. Another evening, I took a sunset boat ride, and the silence seemed silver and still, broken only by the gentle call of birds and the occasional splutter from a hippo.
A solitary Tonga fisherman checked his nets for fish. A hippo's eyes peered out then disappeared, then a preposterously large bottom emerged, then a head. Waterberry trees leant across the Zambezi, making dark reflections as a peach sunset soaked into the water. The river changed from instant to instant - one moment slate-grey like the sky above; the next mauve, and the sky a pink canopy over the flat water.
David Livingstone wrote that when he and his retinue first approached Victoria Falls in their dugout canoes, or mokoros, he experienced "a little tremor". They got out at the island on the lip of the falls (where the Tongabezi Lodge now lays on refreshments), and Livingstone lay face downwards, overcome by the majesty of the sight, the roar of the water, the clouds of spray bright with rainbows. He called it "the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa".
He believed no European had seen it before, but that "scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight". As we flew in my microlight towards the mighty and mysterious cataract, I saw a giant shadow on the ground below, like that of an immense bird, and wondered what it was - then with a shock of joy I realised that it was the shadow of my wings. I wouldn't say I was an angel, but for a moment I surely felt like one.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours.
Travel details: Rainbow Tours (020 7226 1004, www.rainbowtours.co.uk) can tailor-make itineraries throughout Zambia. It has an eight-day Zambia trip from £2,486pp, with four nights at Kapamba Camp, in the South Luangwa National Park, and three nights in a cottage for two at Tongabezi Lodge (www.tongabezi.com), including British Airways flights from Heathrow to Lusaka, scheduled internal flights, road transfers, all meals, local drinks, park fees and game-viewing.
Microlight flights over the falls are offered by Batoka Sky and Del Air on the Zambian side, from £92 for a 30-minute flight.
Other specialist tour operators featuring the falls include Expert Africa (020 8232 9777, www.expertafrica.com), Okavango Tours and Safaris (020 8343 3283 www.okavango.com) and Tribes (01728 685 971, www.tribes.co.uk).