By Grainne Keegan - Until yesterday, when I had the astonishing good luck to snag a ride in a helicopter, I had no idea that flying could feel so much like…well, like flying. I don’t dislike flying, (the notion of going somewhere new, or returning home, is even enough to make me look forward to the food) but being on a normal flight is still slightly less comfortable and romantic than a bus. But a helicopter? Now, THAT is a different bird!
Photo: By Jay Vavra
I’m heading up above Gorongosa National Park with Justino, a conservation manager, Quentin, an agricultural specialist, and Mike, the chopper pilot. I’ve been offered the front seat beside Mike, since it’s my first (and possibly only) time in a helicopter. We are flying out to Xivulo, west of Chitengo Camp, so that Justino can keep an eye in the sky out for human activity in the Park.
Photo: By Jay Vavra
The chopper lifts up from the airstrip, my stomach falls a little, and the lift feels wonderful. Within a few minutes we are over the forested bush. The chopper has had its doors removed, so I can feel the warm air outside rush past me. We are low, far lower than a commercial aircraft, so the sensation is as if you are IN the landscape, rather than peering at it through a small window.
Photo: Lake Urema (by Piotr Naskrecki)
From above, I can clearly see the patchwork, the rainbow of greens that make up the Park. I love the color, (I’m Irish, and legally obliged to) but even if I wasn’t, I’d be a convert after today. The various hues as we fly over the Park rival Ireland’s 40 shades. Dark scrubby acacia trees, ashy palm trees and straw-like grasses give way to bright green meadows being grazed by impala, and flat green ponds of water lilies as we come to the floodplain. Through the vibrant green of the floodplains I can see long, meandering, tracks of water through the vegetation.
“Hippo?” I ask Mike through the headphones
“Yah, maybe. Or maybe waterbuck – It’s quite shallow down there”
The flood plains are once again filled with activity. Antelope, baboon, and warthog graze and trot beneath the helicopter, and a riot of different birds provide spots of color in the green tapestry.
Photo: Impala (By Piotr Naskrecki)
We fly on, past the floodplain, over a dimpled meadow, pitted with curious shallow depression (Mike tells me that they may be the remnants of fish nests, but no-one’s certain) and continue over several different types of scrubby plains. Each change of shade tells a story of soil health, rainfall, and animal activity. We fly over a number of different ecosystems on the flight (Gorongosa has at least 54 ecosystems) Close to a forest of mopane trees, Mike spots a sable bull, who doesn’t startle, but stares up at the helicopter, its masklike face unreadable.
Photo: Sable Antelope (By Paul Kerrison)
It’s not long before we come to Xivulo, through which runs a shallow river that Justino asks Mike to follow. There’s hardly any water flowing through it, so all you can see from the air is a long snaking trail of pale grass running through the trees. After Justino has followed the green trail for a few minutes, it’s time to return to camp. The heli banks gracefully, and turns to the east.
Photo: By Piotr Naskrecki
“Magic” says Quentin through the headphones, echoing my thoughts. Below us, birds fly through the treetops, and as we fly back over the floodplain, a flock of marabou storks take flight. We spot a solitary oribi, and a huge herd of impala. As we approach the river, I’m thrilled to spot hippos in the water, and crocs sitting on the bank, basking, when;
“Look!” says Mike “Ele!”
Underneath the chopper, close to the river, I spot my first elephant in the wild, with what look like two infants running toward her. Mike pulls up, giving the elephants space, and as we ascend, Quentin calls out “Look, another pod!” My eyes adjust to the grey against the green, and I spot another elephant, and another. I start to count, and get count to forty before I stop and just stare, enjoying the sight of this enormous herd beneath us. Mikes tells me a little later that he’s counted 150 elephants. It’s a moving sight, and a testament to the resilience of this beautiful Eden.
Photo: Elephants (By Paul Kerrison)