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World's Most Extreme Safari

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© Cameron Davidson

In Ethiopia, Departures climbs aboard an Astar B3 helicopter for what may be the most extreme safari on earth.

Ben Simpson, perhaps Africa’s best helicopter pilot and the man behind Tropic Air, Africa’s most exclusive helicopter safari company, and I are hovering over a lake of molten lava. It’s another day at the office for Simpson, who has already logged 6,500 hours aloft in his 35 years. That’s three quarters of a year airborne. But for me, flying over Ethiopia’s dark peaks, rising up in steep, tormented folds, is a thrill. We peel away in his AStar B3 helicopter and head to the heart of the Danakil Depression in northern Ethiopia, the hottest place on earth. Here the ground is flatter than still water and whiter than bleached bone. At first it seems there is nothing but this salty desert formed a millennia ago when the sea came and then disappeared. But soon we fly over a series of vast pillars of potassium and salt, like elemental melted wax rising from pools of sulphur. Beyond them: lava fields, more volcanoes, cobalt lakes and, in the distance, the rising folds of the Great Rift Valley itself. “When you come over this bit up ahead,” instructs Simpson, “put your hand over your mouth to save your heart from jumping out of it.”

As a child, Simpson always wanted to fly. He lived high above the bustle of Hong Kong in his family’s tower block apartment and got his soaring fix jumping off nearby hills and paragliding down. It was here that he received his private pilot license. At 20, he left for Florida to train as a commercial pilot. “I dreamed of flying in Alaska,” says Simpson, now a grown man with Robert Redford looks and a partner in a booming heli-safari concern, “but I didn’t have a green card.” Instead, after listening to an Irish pilot’s yarns about flying in Kenya, Simpson came to Africa instead—“aged 21, knowing no one and with only $1,400 in my pocket.”

Simpson found work with Willi Roberts, one of East Africa’s greatest fixed-wing bush pilots and a scion of a high-profile Kenyan family that owns some of the country’s best camps. “Shortly after I arrived, I put my head around the door of the city’s Aero Club of East Africa and saw an advertisement,” Simpson recalls. “Instead of writing the number down, I tore the ad and stuffed it into my pocket so no one else would apply.” Soon he was flying a tiny Cessna 206 out of a bush strip in Kenya’s Masai Mara. But with a desire to see more of Africa, Simpson set off for the Sudan, flying for the World Food Programme, followed by a stint for the United Nations in Somalia. “By the end of all that, I’d clocked up 5,500 hours,” he says. “But I wanted something more challenging. So I took myself off to Hawaii to train in helicopters.”

Hawaii, like East Africa, rises quickly from sea level to 14,000 feet. Simpson learned how to land on crater rims and in thick forests; how to skim volcanoes and fly at altitude. He returned to Kenya, and in 2004, together with Willi Roberts’s brother, Jamie, set up a helicopter division for the Roberts’ family’s charter business, Tropic Air. The company has since pioneered extreme helicopter safaris up and down East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, all the way from the cradle of mankind on Kenya’s Lake Turkana to the Danakil, the land of the Afar tribe on Ethiopia’s war-torn border with Eritrea.

To be so far from all that is familiar yet knowing you are in safe hands—that is why Simpson gets the call when Ralph Lauren flies his family through Kenya. Regular clients like London-based financiers Stuart and Teresa Graham are about to book their fifth trip with Simpson. “Ben has become a friend, but it’s about more than that,” says Teresa. “He takes us out of our comfort zone to see places and do things we’d never even think of.” The couple has visited Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and Uganda with Simpson.

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