HOBE NATIONAL PARK, Botswana — Crowds of spectators line the banks of the Chobe River.
School groups, recessed for the special occasion, form a gallery of smiling black faces in a sea of blue uniforms. On a raft, soldiers of the Botswana Defense Force, camouflaged and heavily armed, are tucked away in the riparian landscape.
The Catalina flying boat makes two low passes before a final approach for landing. Wing tips rotate to become stabilizing floats and, with the grace of a bird, the craft skims the water, casting fountains of spray to wild applause.
Thirteen passengers scramble through a wide, bubble-shaped hatch into a motorboat and set off to spend the afternoon exploring Chobe National Park, home to Africa's largest elephant population.
It's the Catalina Safari Co.'s trans-Africa flight, an adventure-packed expedition with 13 stops in seven countries between Victoria Falls and Cairo.
En route, the Catalina lands on lakes, rivers and remote airstrips. How about alighting on a clay plateau next to Ngorongoro Crater, or Lake Nasser at the foot of Abu Simbel? In Kenya's desolate northern frontier, the Catalina lands on an isolated dirt strip, with a fleet of Land Rovers standing by for an overnight safari.
At $13,800 per person, this is no budget trip. But even with that hefty price tag, it's selling out.
On a recent journey, I flew to Victoria Falls to join this unusual flight. In three weeks we traveled north to the tombs of the Pharaohs and east to the spice plantations of Zanzibar.
Along the way, we paddled the braided canals of the Okavango Delta and camped in Ngorongoro Crater among one of Africa's greatest concentrations of wildlife. By land, we crossed the sun-scorched deserts of northern Kenya and the Sudan.
We slept in cozy lodges, hotels of rare character and deluxe tented camps pitched exclusively for us, days away from populated settlements.
We were frequently summoned to meals by the roll of drums or the mournful wail of a kudo horn. Once there, we dined on crocodile, antelope and water-lily stew.
Even customs and immigration formalities became exotic experiences--beside a river on a Land Rover fender or in the dining room of a lakeside hotel.
This 5,000-mile flying odyssey is Pierre Jaunet's African dream come true. It may seem an unlikely undertaking for someone who began his working life as an engineer's assistant building monkey cages for the London Zoo.
But a hitchhiking trip through Africa at age 22 led to his lifelong love affair with this special land. For the past 18 years, Jaunet, along with his wife Antoinette, has been outfitting rugged overland safaris to the wildest corners of the continent.
Last fall, Jaunet, at the age of 40, traded wheels for wings.
"The idea came in a flash of inspiration on the Zambezi River," he explained. "Near Victoria Falls I spotted Britain's Imperial Airways floating dock, a vestige of the Empire's Cairo-to-Cape Town service of the '30s. I thought, 'Why not my trip in the '80s traveling the same historic route?' "
Jaunet spent nearly three years securing permits for this complex journey. Meanwhile, he hired a couple of pilots with a passion for aviation as well as for the Catalina. The plane, which he'd bought and refurbished, was a 44-year-old PBY-5A amphibious flying boat, a search-and-rescue plane well remembered by America's allies and flown in every theater of World War II.
It was a Catalina patrolling the Atlantic that spotted the German battleship Bismarck in 1941. And in the South Pacific, Navy Lt. Nathan Gordon, who later received the Medal of Honor for his feat, was flying a Catalina when he rescued 15 downed aviators in one mission, under heavy Japanese fire.
The Catalina was a military star, but it is a beautiful pleasure craft, too. Our safari included 40 flying hours, cruising at 100 m.p.h. between 500 and 2,000 feet above the earth, below the clouds.
The passengers spent much of their time in the aft cabin lounge beneath the wing, watching Africa through two enormous bubble-shaped windows.
The trip gave us marvelous perspectives of the Dark Continent: daredevil views through the swirling mist of Victoria Falls, looking straight down the edge of the mile-wide cataract; rare opportunities above remote watering holes to "hang out" with elephants and giraffes at close range, and, at low altitudes, "flat-hatting" up the Nile with the antiquities of Egypt just beyond our fingertips.
I felt like an airborne Cleopatra as I sipped Bordeaux and nibbled grapes.
During the journey I found myself--as had other passionate aviators--attributing lifelike qualities to the airplane.
Above the Lake Malawi escarpments it seemed an albatross on a slalom course, weaving through storm cells suspended like chandeliers from clouds. On Lake Nasser, below Abu Simbel, it drifted like a proud swan at Ramses' foot. Alone on the desert sands at Marsabit it appeared to be a fish out of water.