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.