A long way down


MÁIRE HEALYwas used to her daughter’s feats. Then, in South Africa, the tables were turned

READERS OF A certain vintage will be au fait with their teenagers or twentysomethings taking a year out down under. Inevitably, they receive a text along the lines of “Guess what I did today,” followed by a horrific description of a skydive, bungee jump or shark dive. Their first thought is that their silly offspring wouldn’t have done that if he or she were at home, and wonder if they lost their brains in transit. Their second thought is the realisation that the youngster had the maturity to text only after the event.

So it was with our daughter, who recently volunteered on a game reserve in South Africa. When we got the text about her skydive I surprised her by replying that she was brilliant and that I would love to have done that at her age.

Unfortunately, the final line of the text went missing, and when we arrived to meet her for a family holiday in South Africa there was much giggling at the airport. A few days later both of our kids announced that I was to get a special present. I looked around for a little jewellery box, as I had hinted for a tanzanite ring. No such luck. My present, you will have guessed, was to be a skydive that afternoon.

I thanked them but rejected the daft notion, saying my physiotherapist would be outraged and my mother apoplectic. My smart son sold it to me by suggesting I write about it. Done!

I didn’t have much time to dwell on the negatives as we travelled from the sunny coast to Mossel Bay airfield. As we headed up the hill a gale blew up, and all flights were cancelled. The gods were sending me a sign.

The initial reprieve was followed by an agonising overnight wait for my rescheduled slot. I awoke at dawn to the sound of waves crashing on the shore. I was relieved, as I thought the storm was still raging. Not so: the tide was rough, but not the wind.

We headed back up the hill to be greeted by Hank, the skydiving master. He had me harnessed and in the tiny aircraft before I could plead my Age Action case. As we gained altitude over the sea, and I relaxed about the aircraft door’s being permanently open, I realised that the views were incredible. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see any southern right whales, as the last migrating cow and calf had already swum through.

When Hank and the pilot checked that we had reached 10,000ft I was told to adjust my goggles and then swing to the door. We were falling in tandem before I had time to blink. The initial couple of backwards somersaults freaked me out, as I didn’t know which way was up.

Then the drogue – a tiny parachute – engaged to slow our fall to 220km/h, and we seemed to steady. We freefell to 4,500ft. I loved this part: I felt like an eagle soaring above Earth. The coast had receded, a large lake looked like a tiny puddle and the fields resembled a patchwork quilt.

Then the parachute released with a jolt, and we spun a few times before getting back on course. Once under canopy our forward speed was 40km/h and our vertical speed only 8km/h. It wasn’t fast enough for me, as the circling had made me quite nauseous, and I just wanted to feel my feet on the ground.

Thanks to Hank we had a perfect landing. My husband and children rushed over to welcome me back. Despite their bravado they were relieved to see me back on terra firma.

I enjoyed watching the DVD of my dive more than the live action. The best bit was calling my mum to say, “Guess what I did today.”

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