• Nigel Bartram

The holiday where leaping 1,150 feet into the abyss was the easy bit

I was brim-full of admiration for Penny Stevens whom I helped to write up her story for this book. It tells how, despite being confined to a wheelchair, she threw off her MS mobility shackles to soar into skies, lashed to a hang glider. She relished every last second of the experience. Although I’ve got very limited mobility I’m not wheelchair bound, yet I couldn’t for a second imagine myself doing any such thing, even though heights don’t worry me (having been a tree surgeon, in my student days). But cometh the hour, cometh the man, as they say.

The hour cameth courtesy of a holiday in South Africa, but not before I encountered a slew of mobility uninspired glitches as we toured the country from north to south. Because of my very limited mobility (and very fiddly diet), the trip was planned in meticulous detail, courtesy of a South African friend and fellow traveller Hesry. Our tour comprised her, my wife Caroline and the very sprightly, nigh on 88 year old Edith. No expense spared, despite Hesry’s 40nolus years of local knowledge we engaged a South African personal travel tour planner to assist and along with sparing no expense, was done to make certain that all the accommodation, safaris, boat trips and other excursions would be hitch-less. Any such dream was dispelled at our very first stop: a game reserve.

We touched down in Johannesburg and drove straight to the reserve. All hint of fatigue from the sleepless 30-hour flight including stopover, and then three-hour drive to the reserve, evaporated as soon as we entered it. I could see, sniff and sense that adventure was really upon us now. Little did I then realise that the biggest challenges were going to be of human rather than wild animal creation. Hesry was shown my accommodation. It looked charming but she was facing five serious sized steps up to the front door and not even a handrail to which I could attach a grappling hook. Words were exchanged during which it emerged there were no rooms with level access. The choice was either to abandon the safari altogether and kick our heels for three days or accept the offer of accommodation with a single step access. I stared at what I thought, naively as it turned out, was the sole obstacle between me and the experience of a lifetime and jubilantly proclaimed it to be game on with this accommodation.

That joyous feeling was soon dispelled when, back in reception, close questioning revealed nothing was truly accessible in this place. Not the accommodation, the restaurant, the bar, the public toilets or even the safari trucks. Nor had the hotel taken the blindest notice of the detailed dietary guidelines. Having checked in it was time for lunch which entailed me, and my mobility scooter, being lifted up the step onto the restaurant terrace -the only place to get a meal. My diet as had by now been clearly spelled out, allows no meat or dairy. What am I presented with? A ricotta cheese salad! To give them credit though, no sooner had I drawn attention to the faux pas than my plate was whisked away and replaced with the most enticing tuna and olive salad, accompanied with a smile capable of melting the most hardened and dispirited of hearts in an instant.

After lunch apprehensively I scootered to the open topped wagon for our first safari. This brought me face to face with the next seemingly unsurmountable obstacle, how to climb aboard, given the seats were a metre above me. The problem was solved in the same way all my difficulties were to be resolved (save the shower which I’ll talk about in a second,) with a do whatever-it-takes attitude. In this case it took the form of a forest of muscular arms appearing out of nowhere to do the necessary, accompanied by beaming, winning smiles. With a few flicks of a few wrists I was gently and safely propelled skywards into my seat. At every unnavigable juncture it was either more of the same, or skilled workmen whistling up makeshift ramps, rails and other contraptions to afford me safe access.

The next morning I discovered to my horror that they’d conspired to construct THE most inaccessible shower imaginable. I managed to mount the step to get in only to be left peering down a totally dark alley. I swear you could have happily accommodated half the South African rugby team in it. The shower itself was a glinting mirage at the far end, far away. Not a single handrail in sight of course. As I gingerly inched forward, pressing my back hard against the wall for support whilst manhandling each leg up and forwards, I was struck by the minute attention to detail with which this conspiracy against me had been planned. The shower walls had a moonscape like finish which was now doing its best to shred my skin to pieces. I beat a decidedly un-hasty retreat, resigned to stand up washes, not too dissimilar I suppose to what I had witnessed elephants doing at a watering hole the previous afternoon, but without the benefit of a trunk!

The one exception to the willing hands coming to the rescue was a B&B high up in the Veldt, where there was nobody could who render such assistance. It was Winter in South Africa and the heating in our cavernous bedroom was woefully inadequate and totally non-existent in the bathroom. To prevent us freezing to death in our bed, there were countless layers of bedding, topped off with a brown furry thing, like a bearskin. The latter, along with the stifling weight pressing down on my body brought to mind how it might feel like to be pinned under an adult brown bear. Desperate for a hot shower to regain sensation in my extremities, next morning I sized up the bathroom. No chance of climbing the half metre directly into the shower, but how about if put that empty wooden box I’d noticed in the bedroom, upturned, onto the footplate of my mobility scooter and pushed on the vehicle’s tiller to give myself lift? Fully clothed, I assembled the wherewithal, manoeuvred the elements into place and did a stability test. Far from rock solid, of course, but it’d have to do. With a couple of heart stopping wobbles I was in. So, after disrobing, ablutions were had and the shower left running long enough to shroud the bathroom in steam, to at least take the edge off the Antarctic chill. The fog made getting down even trickier, but I made it.

Thankfully, the next safari lodge presented fewer access challenges. There was only one step to get in, albeit again with no grab rail. But within the bat of an eyelid one of the maintenance team had knocked up a ramp. As was by now the firmly established custom, eager outstretched arms and faces bearing beaming smiles (invariably black people) were on hand to deal with problems.

Our four-day stop in Johannesburg brought a few interesting mobility twists, not least that in our swanky hotel I had to take a circuitous route along decrepit corridors used for deliveries, in order to get into the goods lift on my scooter. This was to access the one and only restaurant which was located on the 12th floor, but up half a flight of stairs.

During this stop we took a private tour to Soweto. Our guide/chauffeur allowed us out at several safe points, one of which was a memorial to Hector Peterson, a 12-year old school kid gunned down by police in 1976 during Apartheid which sparked off days of violent clashes. Our guide said that to pick me up afterwards, in order to avoid the steps, I’d have to take a different route from the others to get to the rendezvous point. I arrived at where I thought we were due to meet and waited beside a busy road. I waited and waited. My mood of quiet contemplation of the memorial, and the tragic episode and times that it marked gradually gave way to a mounting sense of unease. I was increasingly conscious of the fact that this was Soweto, I was white and beside a busy road. I was a billboard of vulnerability. I began to constantly look around for danger, as if a meercat lookout standing bold upright on hind legs, swivelling its head from side to side. After half an hour or so I espied a couple of young, black, school kids heading determinedly in my direction. How likely are 10 year old girls to be carrying flick knives I asked myself pathetically? My apprehension melted away instantly when one of the girls, pointing at the scooter, chirped excitedly “what’s this please, sir”? Within five minutes the two had become a joyously animated small swarm, as in the photo. Obviously the likes of my scooter had never graced the streets of Soweto before .

On occasion my accessibility problems had a very ’sweet’ element to make up for ‘bitter’, as in bitter-sweet. One such was our visit to Robben Island and tour of the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. Whilst the prison doffed its cap to accessibility, it was patchy at best, with the result I got stuck innumerable times. The silver lining came in the very burly shape of our guide, a former inmate. Becoming separated from the tour group gave me the opportunity to talk one-on-one to him as he helped extricate me. On the tour he had delivered his commentary in a deep, booming monotonic voice, as devoid of emotion and as if he’d been reading out a weekly shopping list. I showered him with questions as we went through locked doors and gates and wended our way along musty, unrenovated corridors.

“When did you know you were going to be released 10 years early?”

“The same morning as it happened”.

“Was that time enough to get your things together?” “I had no possessions”.

“Why do you think you were released early?” “Because of the growing world protests and pressure against Apartheid in the 1990s”. When I sensed that he was comfortable answering my questions:

“Why were you imprisoned?” “Because I dared to protest, peacefully against Apartheid.”

“How were you treated by the guards?” “Most were respectful but some were brutal”.

“How long after you were freed were you able to face coming back here?” “12 years”.

Unlike the deep, booming, almost mechanistic voice I’d heard during the tour he spoke quietly, with more than a hint of emotion. I could only guess his tour timbre was a coping mechanism as he was reminded of the hardship and lost years away from his family and small kids.

So to my leap into the abyss, which was actually only my second choice reckless activity. My preference had been to do a hot air balloon excursion over a game park. Despite my decided lack of mobility I thought that with a bit of help I could hack it. The organisers thought differently and said no. Happily, Hesry was soon asking who fancied a paraglide next to Table Mountain? “YES PLEASE!” 87 ¾ year old travelling companion Edith answered like a shot, YES. I hesitated, wondering how an earth I could get airborne if I couldn’t walk more than a few steps and then only with two sticks. But I remembered Penny Steven’s escapade described in this book. So, when Hesry said the paraglide operators were okay with my lack of mobility, I said why not?

The flight was delayed by three days because of wind and rain (it was Winter) but then the skies cleared, and the wind dropped, so we wended our way up and around the steep hairpin bends to the top of Signal Hill, or Lion’s Rump as it’s also known, just beside Table Mountain. The hill enjoys commanding views over Cape Town, way, way below, with the Indian Ocean to the left and the Atlantic to the right.

We parked as close to the launch area as we could. Hesry got my scooter out of the boot and assembled it. That done I trundled off to size things up. The paraglide team were busy strapping the next victim into their harness, with the pilot lashed in behind and the chute carefully laid out on the ground, trailing behind them. Both then ran hell for leather towards what appeared to be perilously close to the edge until the parachute billowed off the ground, having caught the wind. Suddenly they were jerked upwards ‘till they were hundreds of feet above us, carried aloft by the warm Indian ocean current forced up the sheer hillside. The sight of the paragliders soaring far, far above us, only fuelled my wish to be up there too, not just for the magnificent views they must be enjoying but also the chance to shed and not be constrained by my pitiful mobility. I knew that however short the flight and the feeling of liberty may be in time; the memory would be with me forever and hopefully be a happy haven I could retreat to when the MS was doing its worse. Only one problem, how the hell to get up there?

My name was called and up I trundled on my scooter onto the ‘launch pad’, which was nought but a patch of sodden grass. My appearance immediately sent a group of three of the launch crew into a tightknit huddle. The longer they conflabbed the more anxious I became, lest I was declared mission impossible, especially as by now the wind had begun to get up. They broke from their huddle and two very burly blokes, plus one of an altogether slighter build, brandishing a clipboard. The last turned out to be the pilot who presented me with a disclaimer to sign. Understandable but not exactly reassuring! He explained that unlike the able-bodied they’d put my harness on whilst I was seated on the ground, stand me up so he could strap us together. Then the burly duet would lift me off the ground and run like the clappers toward the edge, with the pilot attached behind me.

How did I feel about being multi-manhandled to be thrust maniacally forward in hope I’d soar skyward rather than fall over the cliff edge to certain obliteration? Quite reassured actually. My reckoning was that those in the gravest danger were my two runners. If I failed to take off before getting to, or too close to the edge, then they risked tumbling over, whereas for me at least there was a chance the chute would catch the updraft and open. So, they must be very confident, I reasoned. For reassurance I asked the pilot how many flights he’d done. “More than 5,000” and “how many with people like me?” “Dozens and dozens”. Clearly his presence meant he hadn‘t come a cropper, but there was always a first (and only) time I supposed!

I was manoeuvred into a position, torso vertical, and legs outstretched horizontally in front and to cap it all, somebody in front of me, filming the whole escapade. I took a quick look around and saw a throng of spectators had amassed to witness this seemingly madcap, nature-defying attempt to get me airborne. Instinctively I shouted, “see you in heaven (pause) hopefully” across to my wife and Hesry, we being churchgoers (sprightly Edith had taken to the skies a while since). The launch team began to trot, then run forward full pelt, me lurching from side to side as they negotiated the less than bowling green flat ground. What a feat of coordination I reflected, four legs propelling me forward, plus the pilot’s, making six working in perfect harmony. Strictly Come Dancing +++ I’d say.

The chute began to lift off the ground, then came a big whoosh, a glimpse of the paraglide chute now above our heads and next a sudden, almighty jerk as we were tugged skywards, rapidly. The applause which had accompanied our successful take off soon faded from earshot as the crowd melted away to become ant-like dots. We were now near on cheek by jowl with birds, riding the thermals like them. The breathtakingly spectacular view got me wondering whether birds are ever capable of appreciating it, and revel in the free, effortless hitchhike the thermals afford them. Or was it just another day at the office for them?

The grassy crest of Signal Hill gave way to Cape Town and the oceans stretching out in front of us way, way below to the right, Table Mountain with its famed flat top shrouded in cloud. No MS constraints for me up here, beyond fending off fatigue, lest I let go of the camera, mounted on a selfie stick, which was filming us, the land and seascapes. If only I could learn how to levitate, I thought. Everyday life would be transformed. No more scooters, walking sticks, able to go upstairs under my own steam. Nowhere would be out of bounds. Perhaps I could go on levitated walks, do levitated jogging and much more besides. Dream on boy, enjoy this experience to the full, and more whilst it lasts. How I did as we criss-crossed the countryside, went over to have a bird’s eye view (how I really get that expression now) of Cape Town, out over the oceans. For extra zest we did some sky-falls.

I can honestly say I never had the slightest apprehension about doing the paraglide, either during the build-up or the flight itself but, as the pilot pointed to an area of grass behind a beach, way below, where he said we’d be landing, I was seized by a moment of panic. How could I possibly manage the landing given my inability to walk, let alone run in order to break the force and physical shock to the legs of straight-on return to earth? My mind flitted back to a friend of yesteryear, who on his first ever parachute jump had confounded both himself and his instructor by hitting the target slap bang centre. Problem was the target was concrete. As he’d never done a landing for real, he hit the concrete with an agonising crunch, both legs broken!

My pilot demonstrably knew what he was about. We gently glided to earth to the point we were near horizontal, a foot or so above the grassy sand, whereupon he tugged on the parachute and with a tiny bump, I bottomed out, so to speak. The flight was an unforgettable experience, one which I can readily conjure up at will and, as needs be, to wipe out the daily dross of an MSer. Likewise, the many vicissitudes of the trip have long since become on tap founts of fond, funny memories.

Nigel Bartram

Primary Progressive MS

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