Whether you’re a habitual thrill-seeker or looking to jump-start your sense of adventure, Keith Bain suggests a few high-altitude escapades that will give your adrenalin level a boost
Brimful of slightly queasy expectation – plus half a dozen glazed, dopey expressions – the tiny plane climbed steadily up, up and up. Feeling my heart thumping against my chest, my thoughts were a muddle of turbulence and emotional build-up. The engine cranked its overpowering insect-drone as wind shuddered past the gaping doorway – like an infinite abyss waiting to swallow us.
Inside my head: total pandemonium. Voices telling me to bail before it was too late. My mission had seemed so clear on the ground. But now all my tangled imagination could muster was a vision of what might go wrong.
Despite the inner turmoil, everyone was exchanging polite smiles – surely disguises for heart-searing panic. In the end, it would come down to the simple fact that we’d come this far and in our hearts wanted to experience something beyond ordinary.
Then, as we reached altitude, the shuffling and rearranging of bodies. Clock ticking, the instructor prepared us for the inevitable, calling us one by one to the gaping wound, going through the motions of a final gear check, and giving the inevitable thumbs up gesture signalling us to drop out of a perfectly fine aeroplane.
Somehow – like magic – the lessons kicked in; so did the sensation of flying, unaware that I was plummeting towards the ground, caught up in the miracle of hanging in the breeze, surrounded only by air and admiring the still-distant earth far below.
I’m no adrenalin junkie. Thrill-seeking is not in my DNA. I’d somehow talked myself into signing up for a one-day skydiving course culminating in my first static-line jump, despite suffering from quite serious acrophobia. Edges, ledges, drop-offs, cliffs, bridges – pretty much everything involving heights gives me the heebie-jeebies. Yet, the promise of excitement still holds some marvellous enchantment over me.
These high-altitude leaps of faith provide us with intense experiences, both physical and emotional – not to mention the opportunity for matchless views of the landscapes below. Nothing like them is possible when you’re rooted to the Earth. But, flying over it, floating above it, sailing on thermals, or plunging towards the ground, adds a sense of epic adventure that’s heightened by the rush of adrenalin – and awe.
Southern Africa is rich with these kinds of pulse-quickening adventures, I’m guessing because we have a penchant for outdoorsy activities and a wealth of memorable landscapes just asking to be fixed into memory through the rush of falling, floating or gliding. Even when you are not descending to Earth at an unnatural speed – riding through the sky by hot-air balloon or strapped to a paraglider – altitude enables you to absorb the topography in a new and unexpected way, taking it in from a changed perspective.
Animals don’t seem to notice you when you are dangling on the breeze, and trees have different form when seen from above; rivers, towns and beaches, too. Even better, when you’re flying tandem, you can enjoy the view without the worry of managing responsibility for your flight.
Some high-flying escapades require specialised conditions: a breath of wind or just the right thermals to keep you up in the air for prolonged periods. The town of Wilderness, a prime spot along the Garden Route, is considered to be particularly suitable for paragliding. You launch from Map of Africa, a bald mountainside facing the ocean, and are instantly looking down at a sliver of beach stretching as far as Knysna, with toy-sized cars rattling along the highway just beyond the tips of your toes. Up the coast, green-covered cliffs disappear under blankets of mist enveloping the Outeniqua Mountains; while, on clear days, you can see the Knysna Heads. Besides stupendous views throughout, there’s the comedy of having people wave from their garden loungers and nervous sunbathers duck beneath their umbrellas as you pop into view.
In Cape Town, tourists and local enthusiasts alike launch regularly from Signal Hill to hover above Green Point, or float gently down to an awe-inspiring beach landing at Camps Bay.
If an urban rush appeals, Soweto’s Orlando Towers have been repurposed for bungee jumping and various other fast-fall activities. Standing there on the bouncy suspension bridge that dangles between the Soweto’s two tallest man-made structures, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d landed on a sci-fi movie set. This is probably the most unique experience you can have in Johannesburg, and the only place in the world where you can swing between two cooling towers.
Equally unique is Durban’s bungee swing high above the soccer pitch at Moses Mabhida Stadium – the highest of its kind.
My first (and only) bungee-jumping experience happened – as these things tend to do – in Queenstown in New Zealand, the so-called Adventure Capital of the World, where commercial bungees began in 1988. Idle chatter around the possibility of flinging ourselves from a bridge, attached to one end of a giant rubber band, had started up while we were still rushing from the exhilaration of another high-altitude adventure: a helicopter trip up to a glittering glacier.
My heart and imagination had been so full that when we returned to base, I was ready and willing to tackle any daredevil challenge. So I signed up for what I saw as an act of madness – it blew my mind in ways that, 20 years later, still remain vividly etched into my memory. What could possibly compare with effortlessly bouncing above a river, suspended upside-down, after leaping into uncertainty?
Yes, we do some crazy, nonsensical things when we’re far from home. But, equally, doing something outrageous on our own turf has the potential to make us feel like we’re a million miles from the daily grind. It’s travel, amplified.
I’m still absolutely terrified of heights; my acrophobia brings on mildly dizzying head-spin sensations if I even glance at high ledges. But, despite this unwavering psychological quirk, not a day goes by that I don’t stare up at the sky and wish I was floating down to Earth, preparing for that gentle touchdown that brought my first skydive to its conclusion.
It really had been a leap of faith. But, like so few things in life these days, it was something that delivered precisely what it promised: an instantly addictive sensation of freedom pretty much how you’d imagine flying feels.
I guess I’m with Leonardo da Vinci, who centuries ago said, ‘When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’
To put skydiving into perspective, the average recreational jump takes place from around 3 000 ft (914m) above ground level that, in theory, results in just more than a minute of free fall and a belly-to-earth fall rate of 170 to 180 km/h. Hard-core high-altitude jumps can happen from as high as 30 000 ft (9 144m).
When the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner conclusively broke the world record for highest skydive in 2012, he plummeted from a literally death-defying height of 127 852.4 ft (38 969m) – he required a special pressurised space suit to allow him to breathe.
People all around the world were watching, rapt, in the knowledge that they were witnessing something truly phenomenal. Imagine spending more than nine minutes falling through the sky! Baumgartner broke the sound barrier, reaching 1 357.6 km/h, which is precisely what we mean when we use the term ‘supersonic’.
Get your kicks
Soar like an eagle
There aren’t too many cities where you can jump off a mountainside and swoop down on to a beach. Cape Town is one of them, and Barry Pedersen of Birdmen Paragliding is arguably your best option for a smooth, safe, no-nonsense tandem flight above the city – or for training that will earn you your own wings.
Wilderness on the Garden Route is another astonishing paragliding location. Harnessed to a pro-pilot, you launch from a sloping field: one instant you’re running, the next you’re airborne. Flying conditions are particularly favourable from August to May; in September there’s a good chance you’ll be spotting whales and dolphins from the air; plus, there are two dozen alternative launch spots within an hour’s drive.
Birdmen Paragliding, Cape Town
021 557 8144 or 082 658 6710
Cloud Base Paragliding, Wilderness
082 777 8474 or 044 877 1414
Drop from a bridge
At 216m, the Bloukrans River jump, 40 km east of Plettenberg Bay, is the world’s highest bridge bungee. Expect a stomach-churning seven-second free fall that’s been enjoyed by Prince Harry and holds the record for the oldest jumper (96 at the time).
For an even more epic explosion of scenery, peer down just before you leap off the old railway bridge across the no-man’s- land between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Albeit a mere 111m, the location is legendary, with Victoria Falls thundering behind you and the gurgling waters (and crocodiles) just below you. The operators also offer a bridge swing and a zip-line ride across the divide.
Face Adrenalin, Bloukrans Bridge
042 281 1458, www.faceadrenalin.com
Victoria Falls Bungee,
+260 (0)213 324 231, www.victoriafallsbungee.com
Be a city swinger
The first-ever bungee jump between two cooling towers boasts a 100m drop, along with a grand view of the iconic township of Soweto. Inside one of the defunct towers, the country’s only SCAD (suspended catch air device) jump affords you the chance to experience free fall with no strings attached. Jumpers are released from a hoist system, plummeting 70m before being smoothly caught by the SCAD below – a little bit like falling into a trampoline made to feel like a cushion of air. If you’re into seriously scary, high-risk stuff, there’s also base jumping – definitely not for novices.
Another urban novelty is Durban’s Big Rush stadium swing, a 60m drop above the Moses Mabhida Stadium culminating in a pendulum-like swing that Guinness World Records has certified as the tallest on Earth (88m from seat to crossbar). For one brief moment you will have accelerated to over 120 km/h – which makes the 350 steps you have to climb (up and down) worthwhile.
Orlando Towers, Soweto
071 674 4343, www.orlandotowers.co.za
Big Rush, Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban
031 312 9435, www.bigrush.co.za
Fall from the sky
Hurtling towards sugarcane fields and turquoise sea, skydiving brings another dimension to Mauritius. After a short and to-the-point briefing, it’s a 25-minute flight to 10 000 feet (3 000m), then 40 exhilarating seconds of free fall, before your tandem pilot opens the chute for five minutes of easy descent as the lush green island rises to meet you.
On the other side of the continent, the skies above sleepy Swakopmund offer a totally different view. Here, you can land in Namibia’s top drop zone after taking in the sights of the Namib Desert and the Atlantic Ocean. A six-hour training session prepares you for a same-day static-line jump (from 3 000 feet [914m]). A cord attached to the aircraft automatically opens your chute as you pull away from the plane. With far less preparation, you can complete a tandem jump strapped to an instructor.
Skydive Austral Mauritius, near Port Louis, Mauritius
Ground Rush Adventures, Swakopmund, Namibia
+264 (0)64 402 841, www.skydiveswakop.com.na
Jump into the abyss
The sandstone cliffs at Oribi Gorge, near Port Shepstone, are believed to be around 365 million years old. Here, from the top of Lehr’s Falls, rush-seekers can plunge into the gaping void, leaping the equivalent of 55 storeys (165m) in the world’s highest gorge swing, the Wild Swing. If this sounds too dramatic, the crew also operates the arguably less panic-inducing Wild Slide, a gigantic zip line whipping you along a 120m steel cable, while remaining 165m above the valley floor. You can also sign up to abseil down the perilous cliff face.
Wild 5 Adventures, Oribi Gorge
082 566 7424, www.wild5adventures.co.za
Fly like Superman
South Africa has many excellent canopy tours that take you through incredible forests, but the Zip 2000 has the status of being one of the world’s longest zip lines, covering two kilometres at an average speed of 120 km/h. Riders fly ‘Superman-style’ with a fin between the knees for added speed (up to 160 km/h). Rides last two to three minutes, whipping you through the air at varying heights – one moment you’re a few meters off the ground, then suddenly the earth is 100m below.
Zip 2000, Sun City
014 557 1544, www.zip2000.com
Pilot a pint-sized plane
With their open cockpits and tiny, fixed-wing frames, microlights can be in the air within 30 minutes of setting up. From Livingstone, Zambia, you can view the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi in a zippy two-man microlight, with the option of a spot of game-viewing.
Livingstone’s Adventure, Livingstone, Zambia
+260 (0)213 323 589, www.livingstonesadventure.com
Photography Gallo/Gettyimages, Kevin Goss-Ross
(This article was first published in the autumn 2014 issue of AA traveller magazine)