‘Do one thing every day that scares you’ (thank you, Eleanor Roosevelt) has always seemed to me one of the more witless bits of life guidance in a self-help lexicon that does not want for witlessness.
After all, I’ve done loads of things that scare me – attempting to learn to ski, teaching my children to drive, and flying Kenya Airways to name but three – that patently haven’t killed me, but haven’t made me obviously stronger either. (There we go again.)
But not long ago I made a trip to Livingstone to see the mighty Victoria Falls. Pre-visit research yielded up an array of life-threatening activities all listed as ‘must dos’ in the ‘adrenalin capital of Africa’. Not wishing to reveal myself as the enfeebled wimp I truly am, and faced with a choice that included a zip wire 300ft above raging rapids (what?) bungee jumping (why?), and a tandem gorge swing (wtf?), I found myself opting for a flight over the Falls in a microlight. This choice, I hoped, said, ‘This woman is courageous and fun and is not afraid to try something new’, while still allowing me to duck out of activities that actually made me tearful to think about.
Of course I instantly regretted it. Even as I handed over the (large) sum of money it necessitated, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake. The sky around the Falls buzzed with the rotor blades of countless helicopters, agile yet reassuring in their sturdiness. But from time to time, a softer and higher-pitched engine sound could be heard, and if you scanned the dazzling sky you could trace it to a tiny, orange-winged moped, dangling improbably above the boiling plunge of the Falls. This was the craft to which I had entrusted my life.
The night before our flight I couldn’t sleep. I was going to die. It would be a terrifying, painful and very public death, and one that had cost me a lot of money. And then there was the worry about which picture of me the media would use when they covered the story. Tragic British Mum in Microlight Death Plunge. I wondered how many times the YouTube footage would be watched, and how many Likes it would get.
So it was in a not altogether positive frame of mind that I climbed next morning – dry mouthed and with as much dignity as my bulky blue flying suit permitted – into the tiny craft. My pilot – a good humoured young white Zambian – told me nearly everyone is scared, and that once he’d had a woman so hysterical that she tried to undo her seatbelt and jump mid-flight. He told me he had built up strong counselling skills as well as thousands of flying hours, and that there was nothing to worry about. Of course I didn’t believe him.
But then something extraordinary happened. After a short and bouncy ride down the grass strip, we were suddenly airborne with nothing but an increasing span of warm, clear air between our feet and Africa below. And I wasn’t scared. Not even a bit. It was all so magical and exhilarating and improbable that I wanted to laugh. And of course there were the Falls, unimaginably powerful and beautiful, freckling my visor with spray thrown hundreds of feet into the air. What must it have been for David Livingstone to come upon such a sight after years of arduous walking, enduring heat, disease and inhospitable tribes and terrain? And actually I think they have never been better described than by his words: ‘scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’.
We crossed to the Zimbabwean side of the river and back, circling over wallowing hippos, basking crocodiles – their menace concealed by their repose – and a group of elephants walking their babies to the mighty Zambezi to drink. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Too soon it was over, and I took off my helmet to reveal an idiotic grin. For the rest of the day I walked on air and had to be forcibly restrained from seizing the shoulders of total strangers and telling them that they must, absolutely must, fly above the Falls in a microlight.
I’m going to do it again, of course. Why wouldn’t I? It was one of the best experiences of my life. It almost made me think Eleanor Roosevelt might have been on to something.