The recent air show event organised by the Kenya Defence Forces and Aero Club of East Africa reminded me of an experience I had at the South Coast years back when I encountered tourists and locals doing an exercise dubbed ‘Safari Park Beach Skydiving Boogie’.
I surprised myself by temporarily losing my sanity and agreeing to jump from a plane, 1,000m up the skies (skydive). Why a reasonably sane person would pay to jump out of a perfectly sound aircraft in fair weather and take the risk of doing a free fall, was a surprise to the 14 media colleagues who were covering this event.
What is skydiving? When I asked the then chairman and organiser of the Kenya Skydivers Club, Harro Trempenau, he did not give me a conclusive answer. Instead, he told me the answer would be experiencing it.
“The best way of experiencing skydiving for someone who has never done it before was through a tandem jump,” said a 68-year-old woman who had just landed from the skies.
Instructor Minjauw gave me a one-hour ground lesson with instructions. During my ground training, I learnt from the licensed professional trainer that in tandem skydiving one teams up with an experienced jumper called a tandem master. Bound together with a harness, you free fall for between 60 seconds to five minutes before the parachute is engaged, for thrilling site- seeing where the instructor allows his student to “manoeuvre” the parachute before he takes back the control for a safe landing.
At 2pm, we drove to Diani airstrip to board our plane, a Twin Otter from Air Kenya. I was in a group of 20 skydivers – 18 professionals, two tandem jumpers – Alex and me. The flight to jumping altitude is scenic with both ocean and coastal landscapes offering incredible views. It took about 25 minutes. A signal comes from the pilot, we have reached our drop zone. The jumpmaster trusses me to a special tandem harness, gives me a pair of diver’s eyeglasses, and tells me to calm my nerves.
He gives me the final instructions – we will leave the plane and free-fall together until we reach an altitude of 5,000 feet. After a free-fall of four to five minutes, he will then pull the parachute cord, the canopy will open, and I should keep my head up and not look down. Communication, he says will be difficult, so he teaches me a few hand signals. I am to keep my hands holding firmly onto my chest harness, my legs spread outward until he signals for me to look down, ready for the parachute. This, he tells me will jerk a bit, but all will be safe. It is then that he will hold my hands, directing me to hold the ropes of the parachute for a smooth dive before he again takes control of our landing.
My first sensation is severe cold and extreme suspension as if I am about to explode. The cold rapidly changes to a burning tingling sensation and I feel like millions of pins are stitching my body. Nervously, I open my eyes and all I see are clouds. The thrill of flying at over 200 kilometres an hour, the rush of adrenaline as my heart goes into overdrive. The jumpmaster urges me to open my eyes just as a cinematographer signals for me to look at the camera. I put on a smile and he flashes a victory sign.
Munjaiuw engages the parachute, there is a terrific jolt. I have this sensation that I have wings. We are now at 4,000 metres above. The instructor reaches out for my hands and puts them on the parachute cables for me to control them. Minutes later, we are close to the ground. The jumpmaster takes over the control of the chute and with one dramatic turn, we swiftly, effortlessly, and safely land, my feet softly touching the ground to the jubilation of many spectators.
The feeling of elation after having defied the laws of nature and conquering the sky overwhelms me. I am unable to explain the thrill and the sensation of this wonderful experience.