Skimming low over the treetops or soaring up and over an escarpment like an eagle on a rising thermal, the best way to absorb the grandeur of Africa’s landscapes is from the air. A helicopter safari is a bucket-list highlight of any visit to Kenya.
After a dawn breakfast at our luxury safari camp, we boarded the chopper and strapped ourselves in. I must admit my nerves were all a jangle. Our pilot, John, gave us a safety briefing … and then we were off on our helicopter safari. Up and up, like an elevator ride on steroids. It was an astounding sensation.
We headed north, cruising over vast game reserves. I spotted a family of elephant beside a waterhole, hoovering the water with their elastic trunks. On we flew, passing herds of giraffe and Thomson’s gazelle, and catching a glimpse of a rare Grévy’s zebra.
We soared over traditional Samburu settlements and spotted goat herders with their charges out grazing. The chopper passed high above the impressive Maralal cedar forest, clinging to the Karisia Hills at the northern reach of Laikipia Plateau.
Next came the awe-inspiring Rift Valley Escarpment, tearing a great wound down the spine of Africa. The wilds of the Suguta Valley unfurled as we descended to cruise through gorges of multicoloured rock. John pointed out a group of skittish lesser kudu, a first for us.
The land grew more parched as we flew over a vast, desert expanse. John put us gently down in the midst of this sandy wilderness, where we enjoyed a welcome cup of coffee on the crest of a golden dune.
On we flew again, continuing up the Suguta. A flock of flamingos appeared on the soda-lake of Logipi. We banked lower to take a look. Thousands of flamingos stretched out like a pink duvet, quite taking my breath away.
A few minutes later, we came to Lake Turkana, whose jade-coloured waters seemed positively unnatural. This corner of Kenya is a wild realm of volcanic beaches, granite outcrops and lava flows. Turkana’s shores have revealed some of the world’s oldest fossils – from dinosaurs to early humans.
This lake is home to the warlike Turkana tribe and we spotted their basic settlements around its shores. A short water-crossing brought us to South Island. This has been declared a national park and, as we swooped closer, I could make out the ominous cigar shapes of gigantic crocodiles basking on its deserted beaches.
Finding a stretch of sand free of crocs, we coasted in to land for a picnic lunch and iced drinks. For keen fishermen, permission can be obtained to cast a line for giant Nile perch. Our group was, however, content with a lazy lunch and a little snooze.
Heading west, we reached the settlement of Loiyangalani and landed at Oasis Lodge. John refuelled the chopper while I had a quick, refreshing plunge in the lodge swimming pool, fed from natural hot springs. There was also enough time for a stroll through Loiyangalani and a visit to the local Turkana market.
Our helicopter safari now took us up the slopes of Mount Kulal, the air getting steadily cooler as we gained altitude. The top of the mountain provided stunning views over the brown-and-yellow patchwork of the Chalbi Desert. Then we turned east to snake down an awesome gorge that splits the mountain range in half. Out of the valley and across a plain of acacia trees, flying fast and low past a herd of startled elephant, then an even bigger herd of buffalo.
The Ndoto range loomed ahead of us, dominated by an enormous outcrop known as Poi, a spiritual site for the Samburu people. This area is a rock-climbing mecca and a breeding ground for thousands of Rüppell’s vultures. As we entered the mountains, the vegetation turned to indigenous forests dotted with massive cycad trees, some of them more than a thousand years old.
Our chopper crossed the muddy waters of the Milgis River which bisects the Ndoto and Mathews ranges. John put us down in an enchanting glade to have a much-needed leg stretch and some refreshments. Then on we flew, intoxicated by the ever-changing vistas that furled before us.
On our last leg, now, we headed south towards Samburu National Reserve, crossing the Ngiro River where we saw dozens of hippo lounging on the banks and crocodile splashing into the stream as we roared overhead.
Finally, Mount Kenya grew out of the plain with its snow-capped peaks lit by the late afternoon sun. This extinct volcano stands more than 5000m tall, with rugged peaks, glacial valleys and forested slopes.
‘If you were into fishing, I’d have brought along a couple of rods and put us down on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya,’ shouted John above the clatter of the rotors. ‘At more than 3600m above sea level, the icy waters of Lake Alice provide one of the best trout-fishing spots in Africa.’ ‘Next time!’ I shouted, having instantly decided to become a trout fisherman.
Landing back at camp just before sunset, there was time for a sundowner drink around the fire before dinner … and the chance reminisce about a luxury helicopter safari that had produced one of the most remarkable days of my life.