Fly over Victoria Falls and walk with cheetahs in Zambia

From flying in a microlight to walking wild animals, it is hard to run out of things to do in Livingstone, Zambia, home to Victoria Falls

In my wildest dreams, I never pictured myself riding a microlight through the mist of Victoria Falls or holding on tightly to slippery rocks and leaning over its lip to stare into the 108m chasm below.

Perhaps I had dreamt of petting a fully grown cheetah and taking it for a walk on a leash like a family pet, but for a variety of practical and moral reasons, I had never thought such a dream would come true.

But in Livingstone, I presume, what one dreams and what is possible are similar things.

Ten kilometres north of the Zambezi river, the town of Livingstone was named after the famed British explorer David Livingstone who, in November 1855, was the first Caucasian to traverse the area and see its famed falls, which he named after Queen Victoria.

It is home to more than 150,000 people and there is still an air of something old and wild about the place.

At an immense 108m high and 1,708m long, it is the world's largest sheet of falling water.

Most people come to Livingstone for one reason, and one reason only, to see where the 2,574km- long Zambezi River becomes Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

At an immense 108m high and 1,708m long, it is the world's largest sheet of falling water.

When it is at its full force at the end of the rainy season in April, the spray from the falls rises more than 400m in the air and can be seen up to 50km away. In the local Tokaleya Tonga dialect, the falls are called Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders.

Yet, as I cruise in a flat-bottomed boat on the way to my hotel, the river is nothing like the rapid and turbulent water I have seen above falls like the Niagara.

  • GETTING THERE

    Singapore Airlines offers daily direct flights from Singapore to Johannesburg which take 10 hours 45 minutes.

    From there, there are two daily flights to Livingstone.

    South African Airways' flight, which takes 1 hour 40 minutes, departs at 10.40am, followed by a British Airways flight at 11am.

The Zambezi is startlingly calm, flat and glossy like marble. It gurgles and ripples happily along until it reaches the falls and suddenly drops over the precipice and becomes a churning wave of white water raging through the canyon below.

I am staying at The Royal Livingstone (www.suninternational.com/royal-livingstone), a 173-room, five- star, colonial-inspired hotel on the banks of the river, just 500m from Victoria Falls, and I have little warning of the turbulence downstream.

Perched above the tranquil water on the hotel's verandah, I cannot hear the falls, but I can see its mist rising in the distance. The hotel has a private entrance to the falls which it shares with its sister hotel, the three-star, family-friendly Avani (www.avanihotels.com/victoria-falls).

Guests can head to the lookout point for free and as many times as they like during their stay, so it is one of the first things I do after dropping off my bags in my room.

I take a 20-minute walk along tree-lined pathways, keeping an eye out for the four giraffes and 10 zebras which roam freely about the 46ha property.

I arrive at a series of wooden bridges and platforms which descend into a gorge about 100m from the falls.

Even from this distance and despite wearing my poncho, I am completely drenched by heavy drops of swirling spray as I make myway from one platform to another.

It is exhilarating and rare to be so close to so much power, but it is not until I get a bird's-eye view that I grasp its magnificent size.

The next morning, I awake at dawn for a microlight flight with Batoka Sky (bit.ly/25OpIbM), a local adventure company which also offers helicopter tours of the area.

The construction of a microlight can vary, but the one I am in is built like a hang glider, with two seats and a propeller suspended from a boomerang-shaped wing.

I am given a helmet and a seat directly behind capable former air force pilot Pascal. Although I do not doubt his abilities, I realise, with some alarm, that there is no harness to keep me in my seat.

A belt is tightened across my lap, my feet simply rest on a bar behind his chair and we are off, heading towards the falls while I hold on for dear life. Should I slip out of my seat, there is nothing between me and the ground.

We climb to 250m in the sky and it is safe to say I am petrified, but also amazed, by what I see.

From up here, I realise how incredibly flat the landscape is. For 360 degrees, there is not a mountain or hill in sight, just the river, the grassland and the gorge, a jagged rift in the earth where the river descends on its zigzagging route towards the horizon.

I have seen pictures of the falls in November, at the end of the dry season when the surrounding bush is parched and brown and the river is a quarter of its full size.

In the driest months, the brave can walk from rock to rock almost all the way across the crest of the falls and take a dip in Devil's Pool, a natural infinity pool at the tip of the falls.

When the water is at low tide, people can swim up to the edge and sit or stand on the rocks without being washed over.

I am here in March, after a couple of months of rain, and the earth is lush and green. The river is flowing at about a third of its full force and Devil's Pool is closed.

Anyone venturing in it now would likely not be seen alive again, so instead, my hotel arranges a trip to Angel's Pool, on Livingstone Island, one of two islands near the falls.

A speedboat ferries me there from my hotel and a guide leads me gingerly over the rocks and into a small, jacuzzi-sized rock pool so deep that I cannot touch the bottom.

I am sitting on a rock at the edge of the falls, the river rushing around me and, at times, I feel the current tugging at my legs, willing me over the side.

It defies reason that I should be able to sit here at all, looking over the edge of this massive torrent of water and not be carried away.

It is hard to say what is more mind-blowing - this view from the rocks or the view from the microlight, angled directly above the chasm so that I fly like a bird, staring hundreds of metres into the abyss.

From the microlight, I can see the expanse and scale of the falls, in a way you cannot experience from the ground.

At US$155 (S$210) a person for a 15-minute flight and US$310 for a 30-minute flight, the price is steep, but it is worth every penny for the once-in-a-lifetime view it provides. After surviving these soul-thrilling experiences, taking a potentially man-eating animal for a walk feels far less death defying.

I head to Mukuni Big 5 Safaris (tinyurl.com/hgxr43w), a sanctuary where one can interact with lions and cheetahs and take elephant rides. I am usually wary of such places, which often poach their animals from the wild or breed them for release in game reserves as targets for Western hunters, but this is not one of those establishments.

Mukuni Big 5 is a small reserve and its primary purpose is to breed lions and cheetahs for release into protected areas and to educate people, particularly Zambians, about the importance of these animals, which often fall prey to poachers.

I watch in awe as spots flash before my eyes and a few of the fastest land animals in the world race around a paddock, chasing a lure designed to exercise them at their top speed. The cheetahs are long, lean and powerful, impressive even as they lay sleepily on the ground when I approach.

I must maintain a steady hand as I pet one of them, Lillian, who is the smallest, but also the fastest of the group. I marvel at her spots, at the stripes and markings on her face and the fact that I am even touching her.

Her fur is thick and wiry under my hand and my heart is racing, but she seems relaxed and mostly unfazed by my presence, which is good because in a few minutes, I am taking her for her daily walk.

Holding a lead attached to her harness, I follow her out of the enclosure. I am on the walk with one other tourist and a handful of guides, with three cheetahs between us as we walk slowly along a dirt path through the bush.

I tread carefully behind her with as much confidence as I can muster, although it is clear that she is the one walking me.

I know that Lillian, or one of the other cheetahs, could at any moment turn its mighty paws and run, or worse, attack, and I would be utterly defenceless.

However, the guides are merrily chatting away, playfully holding on to the cheetahs' tails.

The animals do not seem to mind and I enjoy myself, gleeful dreams of myself owning a sanctuary like this one day flitting through my head. To be in such close contact with these regal creatures feels like magic.

If I wanted to, I could find a different adrenaline-inducing experience like this every day - white water rafting, bungee jumping, zip-lining or riding a giant swing into the gorge.

But I have had plenty of adventure in two days at the falls and I would be remiss not to have a massage at the hotel's Royal Spa.

In one of its five private tented gazebos along the river bank, I relax during a 90-minute Ukuchina, one of Africa's oldest massage techniques and an important Central African medicinal treatment.

Known for its detoxifying and immunity-boosting properties, it is used to stimulate lymphatic drainage, relieve stress, tension and depression as well as treat malaria, to help with post-natal recovery and relax stiff and sore muscles.

I struggle to keep my eyes open as Melody, my massage therapist, pours warm grape seed oil on my skin and steadily kneads my sore muscles.

I do not want to go to sleep because beneath me, angled smartly below my headrest, is a mirror.

Through it, I can see wispy, cotton- like clouds drifting across an orange sky as the sun creeps towards the horizon.

I can see the gently rolling river flow a few metres away, its smooth tawny water turning metallic in the fading light. Birds sing overhead and the low, resonate groans of a hippopotamus echo from somewhere in the distance.

It is perfect, the most hypnotically beautiful sight I have seen.

Watching the river, it crosses my mind that I have never experienced so much heart-pumping adrenaline and yet so much clarity and calm.

By the edge of the falls, on the cusp of what the river was and what it will be, I am in a state of suspended reality.

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine feeling so at peace.

•The writer's trip was sponsored by Singapore Airlines and Sun International.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'Legend of the falls'. Print Edition | Subscribe