Safari in search of strange circles to mix in

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The Independent Online
Old Africa hands know that, on safari, you've got to be alert if you want to spot that elusive rhino. Likewise, on a corn circle safari in the wilds of Wiltshire, everyone must work as a team if the trophy of an undiscovered circle is to be won. Ben Lees-Smith is not concentrating. "Look mummy - cars! " he cries as we fly over the A303. But Ben is four, an age at which real cars, looking like toys from 1000ft, are more interesting than funny patterns in the wheat which may or may not be coded messages from extra-terrestrials.

Adults, however, cannot get enough of strange phenomena, especially in that triangle of southern England formed by Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain and Avebury, where there are more ley-lines, standing stones and ancient burial mounds than you can shake a dowsing rod at.

For the past two decades crop circles, those strange, flattened patterns in the corn which appear as if by magic overnight, have joined the list of the weird and the unexplained in the area. Their popularity took a knock a few years ago when hoaxers "Doug and Dave" from Southampton boasted how they had fooled the world with a ball of string and a plank of wood, but circles have made a comeback as they have become ever bigger, more complex and beautiful.

This has been a bumper year, and circle-watching has become big business. Every B&B in towns such as Marlborough and Pewsey is booked out with "cereologists", as the more pretentious crop-watchers like to call themselves, while "croppies", the crustier, more dog-on-a-string fraternity, have circular conversations in favourite pubs such as The Barge, by the Kennet and Avon canal at Honey Street.

Crop circles are best seen from the air (which does nothing to diminish their popularity with UFO enthusiasts). Such is the demand for flights that Fast Helicopters Ltd, based at Thruxton, near Andover, has launched Britain's first crop circle safari service, which is why we find ourselves thwocking along the edge of Salisbury Plain at 120 knots early on Friday morning.

A broad valley opens out ahead: the Vale of Pewsey. Its villages are thatched and twee, but the downs to north and south are crowned with the hillforts and burial mounds of the Bronze Age and earlier; very different times, very different people.

Suddenly our pilot, Mike Green, 54, a former Army flier who served in Cyprus and Ulster, announces: "Circle at 11 o'clock!" We veer southwards over the village of Alton Priors.

The circle, or rather pattern of interlinking circles, is spectacular: 100 yards across, in a field at the foot of Woodborough Hill. But it has a worn, frayed-at-the-edge look. Numerous paths weave towards it through the corn. It has been there for weeks. Nevertheless Ben's dad, Tony Lees- Smith, a paramedic from Newbury, Berkshire, out on a birthday treat paid for by his wife Linda, murmurs "fantastic" and aims his camcorder. Ben, meanwhile, is looking out of the other window and pulling at Linda's sleeve: "Mummy! A house!"

At the other side of the hill is a group of smaller, plain circles. "Fakes," says Mike. "Let's try over here." We head towards the 19th century white horse cut in the chalk hillside north of Alton Barnes. "There's something new there," says Mike. We hover 400ft above a beautiful snowflake pattern, perhaps 200ft across, below Milk Hill, one of the hottest crop circle sites in the world. A dozen people on the ground wave. It is clearly very new. We have, in fact, spotted the crop circle safari equivalent of a leopard: a brand new "Koch Fractal" (named after the mathematician who first described such patterns). We find out later that it was first seen at 6am. By 2pm a full description is on the "Crop Circle Central" Internet site.

By the time we get back to Thruxton, having inspected a Koch Fractal close to Silbury Hill, near Avebury, and several minor circles, we are old hands, like tourists on an African safari who use up a roll of film on the first zebra but don't spare the fiftieth a second glance. Everyone agrees that we have seen something special; too intricate and faultless to be done overnight by "Doug and Dave" weaving home from the pub, or even by a secretive, skilled team - especially in a countryside crawling with researchers with infra-red cameras. UFOS? The CIA? Cosmic energy from ley-lines? We just don't know. Ben, too, is eager to tell everyone about his trip: "I saw some cows!"

n Fast Helicopters Ltd: 01264 772508. A 40-minute flight for four, covering 70 miles, costs pounds 85 per head.