5 Travel Destinations That Will Get You High
Falconer Scott Mason pilots a paraglider while his passenger feeds Bob, a Himalayan vulture.
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"It's not a real journey unless we fly," my big sister proclaimed from the lofty wisdom of her teenage years. We were embarking on a family Christmas holiday back to our Italian homeland, and I was just seven or eight years old. Ever since, my idea of real travel has been synonymous with flight.
Traveling takes on a special gravitas when aviation is involved, and it's more than just the jumbo distances that makes flying feel so epic. The departure and destination feel like such distant realms because they are separated by the other-worldliness of being in-flight.
It's often said that travel broadens the mind, but my mind is blown away by the view from an airplane. Four hours on a coast-to-coast flight passes in a heartbeat if I can spend it lost in the thoughts inspired by staring out of the window at the endless wheat fields morphing into the mountains, while the stretching horizon hints at the curving size of the planet we live on.
An aerial scene can be as puzzling as a new language, but is ultimately as perspective-changing as submerging yourself in a foreign culture. The earth seems to have parallel lives when I immerse myself in a distant land, and when I look down on it from a godly angle.
Sadly, the rectilinear airline food and wipe-clean interior of an Airbus do little to encourage the elation this celestial view should provoke. But other, rawer, forms of aviation can lay out heaven and earth before you in a way that can't fail to inspire awe; a high that only the sky can give you.
To reach this aerial enlightenment, it's not enough to travel by flying, as my sister recommended. You have to travel to where you can fly.
Lift Off: Ultralight in Zambia
Most mornings, the still silence of Tafika Camp in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park is briefly interrupted as owner John Coppinger fires up the two-stroke engine of his ultralight trike. Perched in a swoop of the meandering Luangwa river, the camp offers excellent game viewing lookouts, but none better than the passenger seat in Coppinger's aircraft.
Known as "the motorbike of the sky," his ultralight boasts little more than one engine, two seats and three wheels suspended from a hang-glider wing by an aluminum frame. The passenger sits on a raised pillion seat while Coppinger gives a reassuringly well-rehearsed commentary as he taxis to the dirt strip. Then the action begins as he swings the plane into the wind and hits the throttle in a deft practiced move. From the back seat you witness firsthand the battering the compacted earth delivers through the tiny wheels, and just as you think the aluminum frame can take no more, Coppinger pushes the control bar forward and you both lift up effortlessly into a smooth sky.
The climb out is perhaps the highlight of the whole flight. Relief at leaving the bouncing runway is immediately eclipsed by the intoxicating perspective shift as you rise above the low treeline. The flat valley starts to stretch out in front of you bathed in the low sunlight of dawn colors. If this were a movie, violins or a choir would accompany the spellbinding imagery. The unobstructed vantage of the passenger seat of the ultralight reveals the unfolding scale of the savannah with a unique immediacy.
In 18 years of flying Coppinger has developed an eye for locating animals in their morning rituals. The low hum of the engine doesn't seem to disturb them. "We always see hippos, crocodiles, elephants, buffaloes, zebras, giraffe..." his list continues. A few times he has seen lions and leopards stalking and killing their breakfast. From the air, the impenetrable scrubland reveals the secrets of the animals that live their lives out of earthbound sight.
Flights can only be booked on arrival at Tafika Camp and cost around $130. Nights at the camp can be reserved at www.remoteafrica.com.
Birdseye View: Paragliding in Nepal
In the town of Pokhara, pilot Scott Mason has developed a unique way to get his passengers even closer to the local animals.
The falconer runs a rehabilitation center for injured raptors, and after adopting two Himalayan vultures, Kevin and Bob, who couldn't be trained to fend for themselves, the trio taught each other to fly together. At the controls of a paraglider (a parachute that works like a sailplane), Mason trained the birds to fly alongside him and lead him to the thermal updrafts of warm air that paraglider pilots and vultures rely on to stay aloft.
Now Mason offers tandem paraglider flights where passengers can feed raw buffalo meat to the birds in the air, either diving for tossed morsels or landing on the passenger's gloved hand and tearing with beak and talons at the flesh. Seeing the birds' voracious appetites satiated at arm's length is equaled by the sight of their 6-foot wingspan twitching to maneuver in the breeze. For an hour you are granted the freedom that bird flight inspires.
The lack of motor makes paragliders peacefully quiet in the sky, but launching requires both pilot and passenger to take a committed run off the edge of a hill. The leap of faith is repaid by Mason's vivid in-flight explanations of the birds' behaviors and of Himalayan meteorology. The descriptions and the flight will come to mind every time you look at raptors flying thereafter.
Parahawking flights and accommodation can be booked through www.parahawking.com. Proceeds support vulture and wildlife conservation efforts throughout Nepal.
Head in the Clouds: Ballooning in Turkey
The phallic pinnacles of "Love Valley" are guaranteed to bring a schoolboy smile to even the most pious visitor to Cappadocia, Turkey. Any one of the numerous hikes through the eroded basalt landscape leaves you hankering for a view from above. Fortunately, numerous companies vie to spirit you away in a dawn hot-air balloon flight.
The balloon inflates with an inexorable momentum and throughout the flight the pilot controls it with the demeanor of a mahout stoking a dozy elephant. Balloon flight is smooth and the changes in direction and altitude flow with the grace of a lava lamp. Early mornings provide the ideal air for ballooning, but are also conducive to mist outside of the summer months. Nonetheless, momentarily floating through cloud is the perfect complement to the melted Dali-esque landscape below. The wide-open views fade, instantly replaced by the cool immediacy of a claustrophobic white-out that has no tangible walls but encases you completely. This dreamy sensation is amplified by the sleepy pre-dawn start.
The soft ride ends with the landing, which, no matter how well-executed, has all the decorum of falling off a skateboard. It's a rude awakening to your earthly constraints.
Ask for recommendations from the government tourist office in Goreme to ensure you are using a reputable company with new equipment and experienced pilots. There have been cases of injuries and even fatalities in past years.
Flight Time: Light Aircraft in the USA
Viewing the scale of the earth from above can leave you feeling physically dwarfed by its grandeur. And flying over some landscapes can also leave you humbled by the visible scale of time.
The aptly named Scenic Airlines departs daily from Las Vegas for the 45-minute flight over the Grand Canyon to its southern and western rims. Through the oversized windows of their Twin Otter light aircraft, you can see the precipitous rock strata that lead sharply down to the base of the canyon. The view challenges your imagination to conceive the magnitude of geological time required to forge this scene, and by comparison the brevity of a human lifespan.
Despite the airline's impeccable safety record, the lightweight 19-seater twin-prop planes are a flimsy contradiction to the hard mass of stone they fly over, and the flight time is long enough to fully contemplate your own impermanence as well as everything else's; a strangely liberating meditation.
Scenic Airlines air tours range in price from $200-500 and can be booked at www.scenic.com.
Feet on the Ground: Revolving Tower in Austria
Vienna's Donau Tower (Donauturm) was opened in 1964 and by today's standards it ranks a meager 75th in the tallest tower charts, barely more than a third of the height of its Japanese contemporary equivalent. Ambitious architectural projects are the hallmarks of their generation's dreams for the future, and the Donauturm was built to provide a heavenly viewing platform for the flowers of the Viennese International Horticultural Show; mankind's technology in partnership with nature's beauty.
It's perhaps this dated ambition which today makes the ugly concrete tower and revolving restaurant so endearing. The flowers are gone, replaced by a green park, and the relationship between nature and human influence is best represented by the tower's view of the river Danube encased by the urban sprawl of a beautiful city. As the city's night time skyline rotates past your Viennese coffee, you are invited to speculate which man made edifices on the horizon will seem as charmingly naive in 50 years time.
Even though the floor's slow revolutions make you feel like you are going somewhere, my big sister might not have considered Donauturm a real flying journey. Close up aerial views of the city like this are as thought-provoking as vast roaming landscapes, but pleasure flights over urban areas are seldom permitted, so I'm sure she'd accept that it's simply a matter of perspective.
The observation deck is open to the public, but requires you to do your own revolving. Reservations for a rotating brunch (~$35pp) or dinner ($55pp) can be made at www.donauturm.at/en/.