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In more than a few ways, helicopter rides are intimate. The limited passenger capacity cuts off unnecessary contact with strangers, allowing for quality interaction with the pilot and guide. The cosy setting also ensures that you’re aware of how small a body the helicopter is, thus heightening your senses.
As soon as the craft lifts off, and the ground beneath you falls away, an aerial view is guaranteed to overwhelm your senses all over again. At height, you feel a sense of closeness to sites, unmatched by that of traversing about at ground level. Perhaps it could be due to your self-awareness being heightened, and realising how small you are in comparison to your surrounding.
Some landscapes simply demand a bird’s eye view, out of bounds to fixed wing aircraft. Where certain areas are off-limits to tourists and tour buses en masse, freedom favours the whirlybird. Within reason, your pilot-guide should be able to accommodate requests to hover, fly closer, or even land on points of interests.
Buckle up, here are six scenic helicopter rides that will be etched in your mind long after the trips are over.
1. Kilauea Volcano
Many visit Hawaii for its island life and its five shield volcanoes that locals both regard affectionately and revere. Though not the biggest, Kilauea is the most active of the lot, erupting continuously since 1983. Legend has it that Pele, the goddess of volcanoes calls the Halemaumau crater at the summit of Kilauea home, and each eruption is a reflection of her longing to be with her lover. Swoop over Kilauea’s iconic lava fountains, which illuminate evening skies, and watch out for ‘skylights’ – cracks on the seemingly barren surface that reveal subsurface lava streams just metres beneath. Where there is life, however, it thrives. Fields of sugar, coffee, macadamia nut and cattle are signs of the island’s precious industry, and more poignantly, of Hawaiian resilience.
Paradise Helicopters offers a doors-off tour for what could be the hottest helicopter ride on earth. After the heat waves roll away, you’ll be taken to Hilo’s lush rain forests and the Rainbow Falls to cool down.
2. Everest Base Camp
Even if you’ve summited Everest (8,848m), or completed the similarly demanding 10-day trek to Everest Base Camp, you will never really see Everest or its surroundings, unless you’re embarking on an aerial tour. Take off from Kathmandu at first light and head east. Flanking the mighty Himalayan ridges, fly over Sherpa villages, residence of local porters and guides who know of Everest as Chomolungma, ‘Goddess Mother of Mountains, and witness her siblings, like Makalu (8,462m), Lhotse (8,513m), and Cho Oyu (8,153m), all bathed in golden light, give way to their exalted elder.
Star Asia Treks’ five-day tour includes four helicopter rides totalling seven hours, endless photo opportunities and even breakfast on high at the aptly named Everest View Hotel.
3. Victoria Falls
Countries: Zambia and Zimbabwe
When Scottish explorer David Livingstone first laid eyes on the falls in 1855, so awe-inspiring was it that he was certain “angels must have gazed down upon it in flight". Snaking along the borders between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the mighty Zambezi empties itself dramatically into a gash in the Earth with such force that its billowing spray can be seen 20 miles away. It is thus hardly any wonder why Victoria Falls is indigenously called Mosi-oa-Tunya – Smoke that Thunders. Flying so close to the falls ought to make Dr. Livingstone green with envy.
The Zambezi Helicopter Company offers chartered flights in both four- and six-seater configurations, and can arrange for flight durations to last for as long as you’d like. Request to fly over national parks too, where you’ll be able to take part in game spotting from above.
4. Laikipia Plateau
Kenya’s northern territory offers a diverse landscape for the intrepid traveller, and is home to one of the few vestiges of unspoiled wildlife sanctuaries on the African continent. Book a week-long helicopter safari and experience it all: cheetah-spotting on the sacred plains of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, sweeping views of the scrublands and semi-deserts of Hoodoo Valley, taking flight with thousands of flamingos over Lake Logipi, and even trout-fishing atop Mt. Kenya. Comfort is not compromised at the luxurious campsites where you retreat for evening; the lodges will often overlook animal watering holes and amber-hued sunsets.
Ker & Downey offers custom journeys to Laikipia. In particular its Classic Kenya Safari allows you to design your own trail across various conservancies across both land and air.
5. Iguazu Falls
Countries: Brazil and Argentina
It is said when she flew over Iguazu Falls, Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed, “Poor Niagara!" And rightfully so. Though lesser known, Iguazu is twice as tall as Niagara and three times as wide. Perhaps most outstanding are the 275 cataracts that make up Iguacu – mini waterfalls that are by no accounts insignificant that comprise the entire gargantua. The largest of them all: the U-shaped chasm, Devil’s Throat comprises 14 falls and plunges more than 100m.
The Falls and its surrounding is also home to many varieties of wildlife, including the opossum and great dusky swift. Thankfully, both Argentina and Brazil, whose borders Iguazu straddles, have sought to minimize developments – good news for the exotic and endangered wildlife in the surrounding rainforests.
Departing from Brazil, Blue Parallel offers a two-night tour where you’ll get to experience the Falls from water, land and air. Eco-adventure and rafting tours can also be arranged.
6. Grand Canyon
To appreciate the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, take to the skies. But to truly do so, tour around during sunset, and observe as the canyon’s multi-hued strata come to life. It is impossible to overstate how vast this iconic landmark is, or how quietly powerful the Colorado River and its tributaries are, cutting through the canyon over thousand millennia. A private chopper tour lands you atop a bluff for a champagne picnic, while you bask in the splendour of the Grand Kingdom.
Serenity Helicopters’ Sky Dancer Sunset Tour flies you over the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Grand Wash Cliffs on the way to the Grand Canyon. You’ll also get to land on a private landing site, where you may enjoy a champagne picnic lunch. Don’t take too long though, you wouldn’t want to miss the picturesque sunset that awaits.