The home of natural highs

Inspired by her aerial endeavours over Cape Town, Kate Simon rounds up some other adventurous ways to experience Southern Africa

It is cloudy over Cape Town today. Our helicopter pilot is pessimistic. "I want to take you to Cape Point, but I'm not sure you'll see much," he says. Nevertheless, we are strapped in our seats, headsets on, ready for the vertical take off from Civair's base on the city's Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.

It is cloudy over Cape Town today. Our helicopter pilot is pessimistic. "I want to take you to Cape Point, but I'm not sure you'll see much," he says. Nevertheless, we are strapped in our seats, headsets on, ready for the vertical take off from Civair's base on the city's Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.

See Cape Town from the air and you will uncover one of the city's most fascinating aspects: its topography. The city centre sits in a bowl to the north of the iconic flat-topped mountain, the rugged coastline panning out east and west. We dip away to the east, past Signal Hill, and swoop in towards Table Mountain to take a closer look.

Next, we turn our attention to the coastline. Below us ripple Clifton 1, 2, 3, the utilitarian names for the city's most fabulous beaches; we look back at the stone pinnacles known as the Twelve Apostles, a formidable rock formation on Table Mountain's western slopes. Onwards (and upwards) towards Llandudno and Scarborough, reminders of Britain's former days as a colonial power. "There's no point going down to Cape Point," our pilot confirms. "There's too much cloud." So instead we head over to False Bay, tracing the coastline from Simon's Town northwards to Fish Hoek.

Our quest for Cape Point thwarted, we truncate our tour and head inland over the Cape Flats, the ripening vineyards of Constantia to our west. But I am more interested in the regimented formation of an urban sprawl that we are passing over, where there is a singular absence of the familiar blue puddle that signifies a swimming pool. "Is that a township?" I ask. He doesn't answer my question, but points out instead other more tourist-friendly features of the landscape: the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the Kenilworth Race Course and Devil's Peak mountain.

We press on towards Cape Town. The low cloud may have scotched our chance of viewing Cape Point but it's a clear day in the city so we are not treated to a sight of the famous natural tablecloth that often drapes the top of Table Mountain. We head back across the city bowl and home to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. The 19th-century queen's second son tipped the first stones into the sea that initiated the building of this harbour in 1860, a symbol of hope. One hundred years later, the port was stigmatised as the embarkation point for black political prisoners sentenced to jail on Robben Island, just offshore - the scene of Nelson Mandela's incarceration for 24 years.

We are home. The noise from the rotor blades subsides and is replaced by the popping of champagne corks inside the terminal. Life is sweet, for some.

A seven-night break to Cape Town costs £1,732 per person, based on two people sharing, with A&K Escapology (0845 0700 601; www.escapologytravel.com), including return flights from London Heathrow to Cape Town on British Airways and accommodation with breakfast at the Table Bay hotel. A one-hour helicopter tour of the Cape Town area with Civair (00 27 21 934 4488; www.civair.co.za) costs from SAR5,400 (£540) for two passengers to SAR9,600 (£960) for six passengers.

WINDSURFING, MOZAMBIQUE

With its recent history of war and natural disasters, Mozambique needs tourism to help its recovery. Hence it is making the most of its natural assets, offering upmarket holidays to the breathtakingly beautiful islands off its Indian Ocean coast. Windsurfing is just one of the waterborne options on a 12-night break that takes in a safari in the Zambian bush before moving onto Mozambique's Benguerra Island Lodge. There, guests can occasionally eschew the comforts of five-star living to hop on a board and throw caution to the wind.

The Zambian Safari and Mozambique Beach Getaway costs £4,300 per person, based on two sharing, through Pulse Africa (020-8995 5909; www.africansafari.co.za). The price is valid until October 2005 and includes return flights from London to Lusaka and back from Johannesburg, domestic flights, airport transfers, full board in the bush and on the island and b&b in Johannesburg, game activities and some motorised sports.

SHARK CAGE DIVING, SOUTH AFRICA

How's this for a quick thrill: it's now possible to jet off for a long weekend diving with Great White Sharks off the coast of South Africa. Okay, so it's a pricey alternative to a European city break, but it'll impress them at the watercooler back at the office. Of course, even the brave have their limits, and your close encounters with this most feared of fish will be from the safety of a cage - a serious stressbuster.

The Great White Shark Weekend costs from £1,110 per person, based on two sharing, through Dive Worldwide (0845 130 6980; www.diveworldwide.com). The price is valid between 1 August and 9 December 2004 and includes return flights from London to Cape Town, three nights' accommodation with breakfast, a sightseeing tour of Cape Town and two five-hour sessions of shark diving.

WHITEWATER RAFTING, SWAZILAND

Encounter specialises in full-on itineraries that will put your fitness to the test. The company admits it tends to draw travellers in their twenties and thirties - though that doesn't mean those over 40 are excluded from the fun. This 15-night trip visits South Africa and Lesotho, but the whitewater rafting takes place in Swaziland with a day on the Great Usutu River. When you're not running the rapids, safaris, bungee jumps and blackwater tubing are some of the optional extras on offer.

The Southern Africa Explorer costs from £305 per person, plus US$250 (£147) for the kitty, through Encounter (01728 862222; www.encounter.co.uk). The price includes ground transport, accommodation, some meals and the services of a guide, but not flights. The next departure is 6 March 2005 from Cape Town. Rafting costs an extra US$65 (£38). Flights from London to Cape Town start at around £550 return away from the northern winter peak.

HORSERIDING, SOUTH AFRICA

You don't have to head west to ride the range, Africa also offers opportunities for urban cowboys. And at a cattle ranch three hours north of Johannesburg riders of all abilities are invited to get to work rounding up the cattle. There are other activities to test your equestrian skills, including games of polocrosse and a cross-country course. More advanced riders can tack on a horseback safari into neighbouring game reserves.

Horizon Horseback Adventures cost from £128 per person per night, based on two sharing, through Ride World Wide (01837 82544; www.rideworldwide.com). The price includes full-board, riding and other activities. Return flights to Johannesburg cost around £450, with transfers from £70 return.

MULTI-ACTIVITY, SOUTH AFRICA

Surfing, sandboarding, abseiling, canyoning, sea kayaking, cycling, tandem sky diving - most mere mortals would be exhausted just looking at the itinerary for the justly titled Cape Town Adrenalin. And, of course, the locations are stunning: Table Mountain, the Cape Peninsula, the dunes of Atlantis and the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts are your adventure playgrounds for this eight-night holiday.

Cape Town Adrenalin costs from £1,505 per person, based on two sharing, plus a local payment of £160, through Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk). The price includes return flights to Cape Town, transfers, ground transport, accommodation with breakfast and six lunches, the services of a guide and most activities.

HOT-AIR BALLOONING, NAMIBIA

Flying at sunrise, your balloon floats above one of Namibia's most beautiful natural features: Sossusvlei, a clay pan ringed by dunes. Landing is celebrated in style with a champagne breakfast before guests are taken over the dunes in a four-wheel drive to the Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, one of your bases on this roving 10-night self-drive safari, which also explores the Naukluft Mountains, Swakopmund, the central highlands and Windhoek.

Holidays, which include ballooning over the Namib desert, cost from £2,089 per person, based on two sharing, through Sunvil Africa (020-8232 9777; www.sunvil.co.uk). The price is valid until 22 August 2004 and includes return flights to Windhoek via Johannesburg, car hire, accommodation and most meals.

SCUBA DIVING, SOUTH AFRICA AND MOZAMBIQUE

Divers visit Southern Africa's shores primarily to see sharks, but there are many other fabulous fish to observe, too. Oonasdivers runs a 14-night trip to the South African and Mozambique coasts, where you can see manta rays, potato bass and humpback whales among the game and reef fish supported by hard and soft corals.

South Africa and Mozambique costs £1,450 per person, based on two sharing, through Oonasdivers (01323 648924; www.oonasdivers.com). The price includes airport transfers, transport, b&b and dives. Return flights to Johannesburg cost around £500 away from the peak northern midwinter season.

MOUNTAIN BIKING, MALAWI

Take a two-wheel tour of Malawi on a 17-day itinerary that pedals along high ridges, through forests and tea plantations, over dusty plains and into tropical jungle. Riding is on dirt roads, tracks and trails and so long as you're reasonably fit even novice cyclists can join in. A support vehicle accompanies this guided trip and there are occasional days off to explore the countryside and do watersports. The ever-changing terrain of the Rift Valley is guaranteed to stave off boredom and the trip ends with a three-day safari across the border in Zambia.

Malawi - Heart of Africa costs £2,050 per person with Cycle Active (01768 881111; www.cycleactive.co.uk). There is no single supplement, because guests are expected to share rooms. The price includes return flights from London to Lilongwe, airport transfers, ground transport, accommodation, most meals, the services of a guide and support vehicle, and entrance fees to the game reserve. Bike rental is an extra £150. The next departure is 6 October 2004.

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