On the Edge of a Storm in South Africa

by Catherine Capon

A traveler goes paragliding just as a powerful storm rolls in over the Atlantic Ocean.

“Run! Don’t look down. Now!” yelled my guide as we stood on a huge tarpaulin on the steep side of an imposing mountain. 

A powerful, incoming storm was visible out to sea. The air being pushed out in front of it was, however, already pulling at our hair and playing with the edges of the heavy tarpaulin. 

The command to run caught me by surprise. I hadn’t run fast for many years, and my usual gentle job around our indoor basketball courts before work most mornings would not suffice as training. However, I had not accounted for the helpful uplift of the strong wind. No sooner had we started to run off the side of the mountain than our parachute was lifted powerfully off the ground and into the immense sky above Seapoint in Cape Town, South Africa.

Seapoint is one of the most affluent areas on Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard, and the mid-morning sun was reflecting aqua shades of blue off full-length glass windows of the apartment buildings that lined the coastal boulevard and pushed up the slopes of the steep mountains we had just run off of.

My guide was Australian but had worked up until Covid-19 in Cape Town in the summer months and then gone north to spend the summer flying people up and down the coasts of the Eastern Seaboard of the US. This year he had been stranded in South Africa by the obligatory lack of international flights and told me he was infinitely grateful for the “good thermals here in Cape Town” that his company had experienced – something uncommon in the southern winter.  

The confidence and passion that oozed through his Aussie voice and deft hand movements as he played with the ‘chute’s stays to elevate us further succeeded in almost eradicating my nervousness. I was handed a Go-Pro and told, “Here, you film as we fly.” 

The flight was soundless – I could even hear seagulls mewing far below us. I was expecting the rush of wind in the parachute fabric itself and perhaps the “singing” of the stays as one does on a yacht. There was nothing.

My husband and his guide could be seen further out to sea, reminding me that he had waited many years to experience this, a single flying adventure standing in for his long-ago dream to buy his own paraglider. I was just glad to be sharing it with him, although “sharing” was a bit of a misnomer. He had taken off before me with his own guide and soared away, now mere specks silhouetted against the sea. 

We had caught a powerful thermal that was now taking us higher and higher and further and further from the coast. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated as a political prisoner for 28 years before his release in 1993, was below us, bright and clear in the morning sun. The storm clouds further out were quickly darkening the sea as it tumbled in quickly from the southwest, approaching the island.   

My guide broke the silence: “I can’t believe these winds! The group just before you got hardly five minutes in the air, and here we are. You and I could be up here forever. I’ll need to guide us down to land in about half an hour. You must be really blessed people.”

The iodine taste of the sea was strong on my tongue and the feel of the air on my face like tiny little pins being hammered into the exposed skin. I realized I was holding onto the handles just above my head so tightly that my knuckles were white and consciously relaxed. Sitting in my harness, hanging in front and below the pilot, my whole view was unencumbered: no stays, no pulleys, and no chute. It was a birdlike experience and reminded me of watching vultures and other birds of prey on the plains of  Zimbabwe. Here, I was mimicking them.

The guide took back the Go-Pro and shifted it so that it took in the mountain behind us, the coastline far below, and our bodies at various angles. Around in big arcs we went, watching the incoming storm, fishing boats making for the harbor through ever-growing swells, the open Atlantic Ocean, aerial views of Seapoint, and Robben Island again. The views changed quickly, a new landscape opening every few seconds.

The storm in its approach had formed a vertical squall line, gunmetal-gray now, completely obscuring the surface of the sea within it. High, angry cumulonimbus clouds frothed above it, turbulent in the morning sky. It looked as though this storm, like many an African storm, would be severe but brief.

I began to turn my ankles around surreptitiously as my legs began to go numb. The pilot noticed and altered our flight to begin a slow, scalloping descent. My husband’s pilot took them down far faster, see-sawing from side to side; ours was more fluid and graceful.

 At the last moment, I heard, “Lift your legs right up. We are going to bumslide our landing.” We landed none too gracefully on the thick Kikuyu lawn alongside the esplanade.  My guide then explained that if my legs were pins and needly, I could have injured myself getting them to run into land. We had been airborne for 27 minutes. 

I was given a big hug from behind; my husband was thrilled we had done it. I was, too.

After such a weightless and exhilarating experience, my body felt like lead once back on terra firma. The contrast between being birdlike and landbound was immense and sudden. I already longed for the former. 

The pilots’ helpers quickly packed up the paragliding paraphernalia.  The view out to sea  had now become obliterated by the storm, and as we stood reflecting on our flying experience, the first big drops of rain were blown diagonally into our faces.

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