In the mountains of remote Basilicata, the world’s highest and fastest zip wire gives fearless travellers the ride of their lives.
Forget lazing by the pool reading novels. And, if nosing around museums, strolling the seafront or relaxing at sunny cafés isn’t your thing, then maybe your adventurous side would like being trussed up and thrown off a mountain.
Well, not thrown exactly. More along the lines of being fired like a shot from the top of that mountain. Hurtled between one jagged peak and another at up to 152 kilometres an hour. The drop you get to slice across is a drop of 914 metres. You are alone. Strapped face-down in a harness with your hands behind your back. What could be more pleasant?
Basilicata, the instep of the Italian boot, is a region with a bit of a Wild West vibe. It is the least-known and least visited part of the country. Elemental and untamed, with a tingling aura of adventure, it seems a fitting place to find the world’s highest and fastest zip wire, the so-called Volo dell’Angelo or Flight of the Angel.
What’s a zip wire? It’s a steel cable strung between two mountain peaks, with one end a little higher than the other. An oiled metal cradle slides along it, propelled only by gravity, with you in a harness dangling beneath it.
It’s the closest you’re ever going to get to bird-like flight. No engines, no artificial wings to steer, no sense of downward falling like in a parachute. Straight ahead all the way. Face-first and horizontal. But you’ll be flying at speeds no bird could ever achieve. More like a bullet than a bird. If this is how angels fly, then they must have jet-packs.
The Volo dell’Angelo zip wire connects two picturesque villages high in the Lucanian Dolomites, a clutch of needle-like stone peaks whose striking shapes vividly recall their namesake
Dolomites up north. Each jagged upthrust of rock here has its own colourful name – “The Owl’s Beak,” “The Lizard’s Toe,” “The Hawk,” “The Anvil,” “The Great Mother.” It’s like finding yourself in a landscape from fantasy fiction.
The fruit-coloured homes of Castelmezzano cling to the lower flanks of some of these forbidding crags. Across the canyon, tiny Pietrapertosa perches serene on its neighbouring mountaintop. You can travel between the two villages in a quarter of an hour on the wriggling mountain roads. Or you can whiz between them by zip wire in just two minutes.
But first, you must reach the launch point, which is really half the fun. The anxiety steadily builds as you toil up pretty paths fringed by greenery, admiring the increasingly awesome views across the landscape. You can’t tell if your heart is pounding from the stiff uphill march or the stark fear of what you are about to do.
When you finally reach the top, there’s just a little wooden hut full of harnesses, helmets and ropes, next to a steel launching deck. The absence of other facilities seems an oversight, as the mind inevitably turns to the lavatory when you get up here and see that drop. There’s likely to be a handful of others ahead of you, and as you all have something in common – namely, blind terror – you quickly become firm friends.
The atmosphere is raucous. There’s a lot of “oh my God what possessed me to do this?!?” Plenty of loud, nervous laughter. You all instinctively understand that you must bolster each other’s courage. Every trembling flier who climbs into his or her harness is whooped, applauded, cheered on with screams of encouragement by the others waiting their turn. Everyone seems oddly comforted by it.
Strapped in and poised to go, each flier talks of being numb with disbelief, of suddenly feeling nothing, feeling unreal. Then, with a polite “buon viaggio” from the attractive Italian youth overseeing the operation, they’re launched into the void, rapidly dwindling to a tiny dot in the distance. A tiny screaming dot. The little voice still just about audible above the hum of the wire and the wind blowing across the valley.
Aghast, your eyes follow them every inch of the way. The person you were laughing with seconds ago is now a barely visible speck. A distant pinpoint in which you know the adrenalin is blazing at top-volume. The flier quickly vanishes from sight, but your empathy travels with them – right until you finally hear the faint rebounded clatter of the cable above you announce their safe arrival on the other side.
Tickets for the Volo dell’Angelo are for the round trip. So when ready, it’s time to climb aboard a different wire and fly back across to Castelmezzano. This time you land nearer the village itself, and can stroll down afterwards for a good stiff drink or a relaxing meal somewhere.
The restaurant ‘Il Becco della Civetta’ is particularly recommended. Not only for its excellent food, but for its giant picture windows. Giving an expansive view across the valley, they also give good views of the fliers traversing it. Every few minutes a distant angel zips past. There aren’t many restaurants in the world where you can casually look up from your pasta to watch someone hurtling past the window at around 150 kilometres an hour. If you listen carefully, there may be the sound of faint exhilarated screaming.