Facing fear?

So, having struggled with wobbly bridges in Nepal and having my hand held on part-formed (aka broken) bridges in Sudan I somehow decided I could take on adrenlin fuelled activities here in Victoria Falls. There’s lots on offer here, from bungee jumps to zip-lines, helicopter flights, lion encounters and white water rafting. While the water was too high for the latter and for now I’m happy with the lions I had seen in Tanzania, I opted for a microlite flight. One pilot, one passenger, two “cloth” wings, a small engine and bars to steer.

Reports from previous takers were that this was one of the most amazing things they had ever done. How could I possibly say no? How could I let my fear of heights – or indeed broken bridges at just 6 metres high – stop me from taking on this trip of a lifetime? I decided, very rationally, that with a qualified pilot and a gradual ascent and descent that this would be absolutely fine. WRONG!

There were four of us who signed up for this experience together and at 720am we set off for the aerodrome. On arrival we completed forms, were given a ticket and waited our turn. There were around a dozen people in front of us and as each person returned they were overwhelmed with the experience. It was the best thing they had ever done…they nearly cried it was so beautiful etc etc. No-one used the word scared.

Mike was first from our group, shortly followed by Irin and John. I was last in line. I hinted that I would have liked someone to have been here when I went up though it fell on deaf ears. Oh well. I was feeling OK.
Mike came back though as he did his pilot took a different turn. He was taking no more passengers. The wind had increased and so too had the corresponding turbulence. Microlites are particularly susceptable. Well – there’s not much too them afterall.

I felt so disappointed. John had done a bungee yesterday and I had been in line but he didn’t realise and so had booked in first. Fine at the time but now it looked like this may stop my opportunity. He could now be the last passenger to travel and that could have been me. I felt so frustarted and asked the ground crew if I would be able to go. It would depend on the pilot. They made the final decision.

Irin came back. She was beeming. Her pilot came in for the next passenger. That was me. Fantastic. I was so pleased and quickly took a seat. Ground crew fastened the seat belt and put on my goggles and helmet. We set off back up the runway ready for take off. The pilot checked I was safe, tightening the helmet straps (they were not tight enough for his liking) and then we were off.

We were soon airbourne. Eek. Pretty much as soon as we left land I could feel fear rising and my heart rate was increasing. By now John had returned and as we went past I tried to wave. My hands were gripping hard. My legs pushing against the footrest. I was pretty scared but hoped my anxiety would ease. I seriously considered asking if we could land again immediately but I had paid 160 dollars and was determined to see this throgh. We continued. “Smile at the camera” he said…. I turn nervously to my left. Till now I had mostly been looking at the pilots back.

We passed over the water at the top of the falls. While we weren’t too high the fear was increasing. Winds caught. Up higher we went. We turned. My stomach turned. Would this seat belt really hold me in? Really? I was petrified. “Can you see the rainbow?” Well, not really I thought… I’m still just looking at your back… but I couldn’t say that. I glimpsed down. Oh my.

Winds caught. Up higher went. We turned. My stomach turned. Not just petrified. Utterly petrified. We were heading over the falls and gorge. This is the single most terrifying thing I had ever done. The scenery was phenomenal and I was sure the experience could be but I just wanted it to end. I told him I was scared. A religious guy – he quoted scripture… it was soothing but I was still terrified.

We started to head back and as we followed the water he pointed out hippo a number of times. I never looked down. While I could summon up just enough courage to look at the falls and overall landscape I had seen hippo… from a nice calm safari trip. I just wanted to land.

The pilot frequently communicated with the landcrew. Most of the time I was convinced he was just telling them in code that it was too windy and we shoud never have gone up…then I heard we were going in to start the descent. My 15 minutes in the air were nearly over. Yet even this news did not bring immediate relief. I was still feeling absolute fear.

I looked down. We were closer to the ground now and I could see the landing strip. We came in just over the trees. I was ready for a bumpy landing . Thankfully it was not and soon we were on solid ground. You couldn’t get me out of there quick enough. He asked me what I thought. ” I was utterley petrified” I replied. “I’m afarid of heights”. Perhaps I should have told him that sooner!

I think my face told the others that this experience had been very different for me. They were all elated. My expression told a very different story. I felt white.

I don’t exactly remember what happened next. I was just trying to calm down. Eventually I found John in the queue for the photo CD. Despite my experience I wanted a copy of my pics. i would never do this again! However, my legs were all jelly. i jolted. Shaking I held John and tears were welling up but I felt unable to cry. A minute or so later I went back to my order. Our driver was waiting to take us back to the hotel and photos done, we set off. Mike asked me how it was. i just indicated it had been hard and I needed to not talk about it.

We arrived back at the hotel. It was still early and breakfast was still available. I grabbed fruit and yoghurt and sat down, away from the others. I needed space. John came to join me but on saying I needed space he took that to mean him. I said no. He murmoured and sat down – I ran off leaving the table. I was seriously struggling post flight and as I quickly walked around the corner the tears began to flow and I started to hyperventilate. I was on the bridge, out of view. Gasping for breath, tears flowing and my whole body shaking. It felt much like somekind of delated panic attack. This was very scary.

It was not long before one of the others rides came over – apparently the hotel were concerned. I was so pleased someone had come to find me. I hadn’t known what to do. After ten minutes or so Trish walked me back into the resturant and fetched me a cup of tea. As I tried to pour the water over the tea bag I was unable to do so. I was shaking so much and still intermittantly struggling with my breath. Inga sat with me and poured my tea. Surely that should fix me?

It was nearing 10am and breakfast would shortly finish so I went up for more fruit and tea. Again, I was shaking so much another rider carried it back to the table were I now joined John and others. After a few more tears and a bit more hyperventilating I eventually started to calm down. John fetched me baked beans and eggs and I slowly ate away.

I’m glad I did the trip and have philosophy of no regrets I generally like to live by. Only two more people had gone on a flight after me that day then all rides were suspended. It really was too windy. Only my pilot was still taking people and I later found out that despite flying over 4000 times that the pilot whio had taken John had had also stopped just after him!

It seems we are always told to confront our fears. Well I did and I won’t do it again. Just as we have to accept we have positive and negative traits I am happy to accept that heights are not my thing.

Microlite Vic Falls gif

You have to admit the photo is pretty awesome though. That wil definately be on display when my trip is over. I’m pretty proud I stayed airbourne for the whole ride but perhaps the photo is best kept simply as a reminder to never ever try this ever again!

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About bikemind

I have spent the past 16 years working hard and building my way up a career ladder: completing my MBA then getting my first CEO role. After 5 years of that I am now embarking on a dream and a new adventure. I have to date cycled in France, Canada, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Lands End to John O'Groats is my longest trip to date. Now 5 months in I have cycled west coast America, Japan, Nepal and India.